Indeed, the Canada-based Centre for Research on Globalization has labeled the agribusiness juggernaut “the world’s most evil corporation.”
It’s cozy with the federal government, as the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, outspending “all other agribusinesses on efforts to persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo.”
It’s the major force behind genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, or engineered “Frankenfood.” And that stuff boosts corporate control of our food, doesn’t actually lead to improved yields, increases use of chemicals in farming, contaminates neighboring “organic” farms, and is rooted in biased research.
It’s also to blame for our obesity epidemic, and its products have been linked by researchers to cancer.
According to a 2009 paper published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences,GMOs increased body weight in rats.
Another paper — later retracted by the journal that published it but republished by another after corrections — detailed research that revealed an increased rate of cancer in rats that were fed on Roundup-treated genetically modified corn.
And let’s not forget that Monsanto, which was founded in 1901, was among the group of companies that produced Agent Orange and its main poison, dioxin.
It also sold DDT, PCBs, the controversial dairy cow hormone rBGH, and the cancer-linked aspartame sweetener.
It’s no longer a chemicals-and-plastics company, although, ironically, that’s not even how it earned its bad reputation.
Beginning in the 1980s, Monsanto shed those assets and began acquiring seed companies, investing in biogenetic research and recasting itself as an agriculture company.
And then, in the aftermath of the 1996 mad cow outbreak in the United Kingdom, Monsanto tried to market its patented glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds in Europe.
Those seeds had been approved the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1994. And the European Union OK’d them, too.
But consumers hated the concept. Even Prince Charles weighed in, writing in a Daily Telegraph editorial on June 8, 1998, that this type of genetic engineering “takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”
Monsanto’s push-back campaign was a miserable failure, dismissed as insincere by consumers.
Its attempt to acquire a company that pioneered “terminator seed” technology – second-generation seeds are sterile, thus limiting the spread of genetically modified plants to other farms – only worsened the situation, as farmers would be forced to buy new seed every year.
It hasn’t gotten any better for Monsanto.
Environmental groups continue to play on what the public doesn’t know, plucking the emotional strings of “personal health” and “safety” with great effect.
But what if we have it wrong about big, bad Monsanto and the whole concept of engineered food?
Here’s Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, responding to Prince Charles in a May 21, 2000, open letter in TheObserver:
Next, Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of “traditional” or “organic” agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago – too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.
Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified – admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a Pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing God for centuries!
It’s easy to blame Monsanto for a lot of things. But obesity actually boils down to the overall diet and physical activity, at least according to the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University.
And as Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, recently told Forbes: “The short answer is no, there is absolutely zero reputable evidence that GMO foods cause cancer.”
Alas, we all love a bogeyman. And science is hard.
So let’s just work on the assumption that Monsanto is evil. Can it rehabilitate itself and become a force for good?
It’s actually a major player in the drive to redesign the food industry’s systems and processes – the major focus of what we now call the “Internet of Food.”
Take, for example, Monsanto’s $930 million all-cash acquisition of Climate Corp. in October 2013.
Climate Corp., as The New Yorker noted in a November 4, 2013, story about the deal, “is trying to deploy a vast and growing trove of data to help farmers cope with the increasingly severe fluctuations in weather caused by climate change, in much the way that Google organizes and presents the world’s information.”
Of course, Climate Corp.’s founders – a couple of former Google employees – had to defend themselves against a serious backlash.
CEO David Friedberg told The New Yorker that his dad’s first reaction was, “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a better place.”
But that billion-dollar investment by Monsanto is going to help Climate Corp. scale up so much that small farms and the farmers’ markets where their products are sold will be able to maximize efficiencies.
They’ll be able to take advantage of detailed weather prediction, monitoring, and analysis services. And it will involve zero engineering of any food at all.
Climate Corp. was the first major cash-out by an “Internet of Food” startup. But funding continues to flow into the space.
A problem like our messed-up food system is a given for the information aggregating and dispersing capabilities of the internet. And we’re just getting started.
This is where the application of information technology will help solve a real need rather than simply lead to another “must-want” product.
Cheap and abundant food is important. Climate Corp. will help us satisfy that need.
But so will Monsanto.
“I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” –Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Outliers: The Story of Success, and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.
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