You may not think you’re familiar with Monsanto, but you probably eat Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) created by them every day. They created the first GMO in 1985 but only in the past few years has their use become widespread in our food supply. (How are GMOs created?)
The most common way Monsanto uses GMOs is to artificially manipulate a crop so that it can withstand an all-purpose poison. They sell both the genetically modified seed as well as the poison—and work hard to monopolize the distribution of both. The engineering allows the farmer to blanket the crops in pesticides, killing everything but the GMO. While there are GMOs for a wide variety of crops Monsanto has focused its attention on several strategic markets, for example 94% of soybeans and 89% of corn are now GMO—and these numbers continue to rise.
Monsanto and its supporters claim that their products are not only safe but necessary to feed a world that may run out of food otherwise, but critics contend both points.
Human and Environmental Health
The company website states: “[T]he overwhelming scientific evidence shows there are no significant differences between ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’ crops in terms of taste, nutrition and safety.” The 2010 study that is cited focuses on nutritional content being roughly equal between GMO and natural foods. The logic is that if a GMO orange has roughly the same vitamin C content as a non-GMO orange then there is nothing to worry about. However, the same study specifically states that “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues)… or the environmental impacts…”
Meanwhile, Monsanto has aggressively recruited academics to lobby on their behalf. The company has been caught making secret payments to researchers as well as suggesting topics and providing a summary of what the suggested papers may say.
Independent studies have shown links between GMO food and Celiac disease. There are also significant indirect consequences to the widespread adoption of Monsanto’s products such as a dramatic increase in nitrogen run-off which is creating dead zones in the oceans, the rise of “super weeds,” and an alarming mass die off of bees. In the most serious dissension from the official company line yet, in March 2015, the World Health Organization announced that according to it’s own findings the active ingredient in Monsanto pesticides is a “probable carcinogenic.”
The world’s population is growing quickly and there are hundreds of millions of people that go to bed hungry each night. GMO crops are designed to increase yield and while some studies suggest it may not be as significant as once claimed, it is generally accepted that GMOs are successful here. It is an easy leap to assume that because people are hungry the problem is a lack of food, but the reality is a bit more complex. We currently grow 50% more food than we need to feed every man woman and child on earth and food production is already outpacing population growth. Hunger is caused by inequality and poverty rather than scarcity–meaning the problem is not a lack of food but the fact that many people can not afford market prices and it is more profitable to let food waste than make it affordable for everyone.
There are other bio-tech companies profiting from GMOs but Monsanto has been the lightening rod of criticism. Part of that is their own ugly history. Before Monsanto created their first GMO they created other controversial products that have since been proven to have unintended long term health and environmental consequences, such as DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange. They also pour huge amounts of money to defeat any effort to legislate GMO food labeling and have been accused of using tactics pioneered by big tobacco to influence the public’s perception about their products safety.
There is a growing global resistance against Monsanto. Farmers and activists have been destroying fields of GMO crops, but increasingly activists are pushing for labeling laws that would allow consumers to decide if they want to buy GMO products. Currently 64 nations require GMO labeling and the list continues to grow. But it is still an uphill battle. Monsanto has become particularly entrenched in the United States, where it has its headquarters, but even there progress is being made. A recent survey of likely U.S. voters found 89% support labeling and Vermont has become the first state to require GMO labels on food, set to go into effect on July 1, 2016. The state has become a battle ground, as Monsanto and it’s supporters have tried to prevent the legislation from taking effect. Though as the deadline approaches and it seems increasingly likely that the GMO lobby will not be able to stop the voter’s initiative many food manufactures are beginning to label their products nationwide. Some have even announced that are are phasing out GMO ingredients all together due to increasing consumer demand.
These are just the basics. There is an enormous amount of information out there and a growing number of organizations working to create change. Read the links here, share this story, do your own research and get involved.
John Dennehy grew up in New York and currently lives in Nepal. He has been published in places such as The Guardian, Vice and Truthout. You can read a sample chapter and pre-order his first book, a memoir about illegally crossing borders in Ecuador, here.