In doing some research for December’s news-roundup, I was very struck by a blog post from a Canadian organic farmer, Rob Wallbridge. He was given a guided tour of Monsanto which he approached with trepidation but with an open mind.
He said: “visiting Monsanto dispelled much of my trepidation about the technology of genetic engineering.”
I say: an organic farmer and Monsanto having an open discussion, that sounds like progress.
Bt and pest resistance
The visit clearly led to some open discussions. Rob was asked why organic farmers hate Bt crops so much, when they use Bt themselves. It’s the same compound, originating from bacteria, which organic farmers spray onto their crops and which is produced by Bt crops. Rob’s answer was the rational one rather than the ‘it’s evil’ alternative: organic farmers apply Bt only when necessary to affected crop areas. Genetically-modified Bt crops, on the other hand, are expressing the toxin constantly. This increases the risk of resistance to a valuable pest-control option for organic farmers.
Monsanto’s solution is to continue to find new proteins, or combinations of proteins, that will counter resistance and protect against a wider range of pests. Apparently they are confident they will be successful (though perhaps not with a solution which is agreeable to organic farmers).
As an environmentally-conscious teenager in the 1990s, Monsanto might as well have replaced the word evil in the dictionary (I wish someone would remove ‘evil’ altogether, it’s an unhelpful word). Whilst I don’t think sins of past decades mean that they can’t be producing worthwhile products now, I still question its moral fiber. Rob was told that Monsanto took a new direction in 2000, and his visit did reveal a company focused on crop improvement rather than chemicals.
Rob grows blight-resistant tomatoes developed through conventional breeding, and said: “These varieties (as well as many others I grow) are protected by patents which stipulate that I can’t save and sell seeds from the plants I grow. In my mind this is fair; I want the people who breed these plants to be fairly compensated for the work they do so that they can keep developing new varieties for me to grow!”
I think these may actually be Plant Breeders’ Rights rather than patents, but the point still stands – conventional breeding, genetic modification and design of children’s toys are only worth investing in if you can protect your product.
Positives and negatives
Rob did have some positive things to report, for example technology used for plant breeding which is only economically viable to develop for a major crop has been used on smaller crops, with wider benefits.
He also questioned a focus on crop improvement, whatever the mechanism. Crops grown in healthy, living soils will be more resistant to pests and disease. Soil research is, however, much less likely to produce a lucrative product and so is less attractive for commercial research.
Not only did Rob write with the same desire to see all sides of the story that I feel, but so did most of the commenters underneath. Having read them I was left with more food for thought rather than a feeling of extreme irritation. There were sentiments which reflected Rob’s point about soils – you don’t need to be anti-GM to question whether we are just continuing to work on an agricultural system which actually needs to be rethought.
Somebody in the comments said: “to this day not one Monsanto executive has ever been tried & put in jail for what they did.”
I knew that Monsanto had done some ethically unsound and illegal acts, and only this week did I have a conversation about why no bankers whose greed contributed to our financial crisis have been brought to justice. So this seemed something worth investigating.
In fact there seem to have been many successful court cases against Monsanto
It is interesting that the cases are against Monsanto and led to large fines, rather than against individuals (again, similarities to the banks). What did these cases mean for personal responsibility? Do we need to rethink some laws?
Although many of the cases still talked about are old, they don’t all pre-date the 2000 ‘new direction’. Monsanto has admitted to paying bribes to a number of high-ranking Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002, for example.