Political Ecology of GMOs

A Middlebury blog

The Evolution of Monsanto

Annie Taylor

 Positionality Statement:

Annie Taylor is a freshman Biology major at Middlebury College. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has been exposed to many competing views on GMOs that range from her mom’s research on GM corn to strong community support for labeling GM products. She has a strong interest in the technology of GMOs, but has attempted to explore a different area and study them within the context of Monsanto, a leader in the biotech industry. Throughout this project and the class overall, her perspective on GMOs has widened to include ecological, socioeconomic, political and social factors.

 

Much of the dialogue surrounding GMOs inevitably involves the chief provider of agricultural biotechnology, Monsanto. This life sciences industry leader primarily develops and sells hybrid and genetically modified seeds, in addition to herbicides (predominantly Roundup) (Bartlett and Steele, 2008). Despite (and perhaps because of) its resounding economic success in these markets, the company faces strong criticism from farmers, environmental advocates, and consumers alike (Langreth & Herper, 2010). Public perception of Monsanto is largely polarized, which has led to partial and emotionally charged debate (Hindo, 2007). In an effort to capture a larger perspective of the company and visualize a sizeable portion of the industry’s progression as a whole, I compiled a timeline that focuses on two aspects of the Monsanto’s evolution: the seed products released and the firm’s acquisitions and spin-offs. The attached figure shows the former above the timeline and the latter below, including colors that distinguish the characteristics of these actions.

Using this resource, I aimed to analyze the larger trends represented throughout the recent evolution of the company and use a political ecology lens to contextualize them within the progression of activism, criticism, economic factors, and scientific findings regarding GMOs. I argue that Monsanto’s evolution is revealed in the intents and purposes of the products developed, as well as the motivations behind each acquisition or spin-off. Given the limited space of this project, the history studied begins in 1995, when the company officially released its first GM seed product – the NewLeaf Potato. However, the company’s rich prior history is inevitably linked to its present, and deserves further research (Marie-Monique, 2010).

Monsanto has become one of the core targets for anti-GMO advocates who argue that it is monopolizing the seed supply and therefore threatening traditional farming practices and the food sovereignty of farmers (Navdanya, 2008). Some of these criticisms are well grounded in fact; Monsanto has a long history of company acquisitions and mergers that has persisted if not accelerated, allowing it to expand economically and geographically (“Company History”). Specifically, recent estimates of the firm’s market share of genetically modified seeds in the US have landed between 70% and 90% (Langreth & Herper, 2010 and Hindo, 2007). This consolidation of the agricultural biotechnology industry is propelled by the high costs of research and development for genetically modified seeds; Monsanto reports expenditures of roughly 2.6 million a day on these efforts alone, while one of its competitors, Syngenta, reports to having spent over 1 billion in 2011 (Monsanto1 and Syngenta1). In a market that requires high research and development expenditures, firms benefit enormously from economies of scale (Keyzer, Merbis, & Overbosch, 2000). Therefore, the consolidation of the agricultural industry should not be considered a hostile takeover. However, Monsanto’s growing control of the market is troublesome to critics who believe the company to be influencing regulatory laws, or to have surpassed the reach of consumer pressure. Concerns regarding Monsanto’s liberty from regulatory oversight are especially true in the company’s largest market, the US.

Over time, Monsanto has primarily purchased seed companies that increase its control in the US. This is revealed by one of its subsidiaries, American Seeds Inc. (ASI), which has focused on regional control of corn and soybean seeds within the US. ASI acquired 12 regional agriculture businesses within 2 years of its formation, which incited anger that Monsanto was buying out smaller businesses, effectively depleting its competition in some areas (Monsanto2)**other source. This domestic growth may be the result of lenient regulations within the US relative to other countries, which many credit to a “revolving door” of employment between Monsanto and the agencies that regulate its products – the USDA, FDA, and EPA (Robin, 2010). Furthermore, projects reported to be in the “pipeline” include corn that is resistant to Goss’s Wilt, a disease found exclusively in the US (Butzen, 2011). Just as significant are the areas in which Monsanto has withdrawn, specifically its rbST and chemical businesses. Both of these sectors were large targets of criticism by the media, showing the company’s desire to develop in ways that will improve its public image (Barlett and Steele, 2008). Lastly, the acquisitions and sales shown on the timeline do not wholly reflect Monsanto’s entire network of ownership; licensing agreements between Monsanto and other industry leaders such as Dow and Bayer have incited further claims of monopolization and even the existence of a “Seed Cartel” (Roseboro, 2013). However, the controversy surrounding the company needs to be contextualized within its history and the trajectory of the biotechnology debate. While some critics argue that the company has become an untouchable monolith, the historical evolution of the company reveals it to be responsive and reactive to both consumer and activist pressures.

The intentions and motivations of the company’s focus over the last 2 decades reveal a network of connections and actors that impact the industry, and therefore the company. Given that the majority of Monsanto’s revenue is due to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) and seeds which have been genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready” (resistant to the herbicide’s active ingredient), it is not surprising that the development of Roundup Ready seeds has been constant since the company’s switch towards agricultural biotechnology. In fact, the company released at least one new Roundup Ready crop for 7 straight years after the technology was first developed in 1996. The company has continued this trend, demonstrated by the introduction of two new Roundup Ready crops in 2011 (alfalfa and sugar beet). However, while their GM commodity products have continued to expand into these more specialized areas, a decided shift towards hybrid (rather than GM) vegetable and fruit seeds is apparent over the past decade. That is to say that the fruit and vegetable seeds sold by Monsanto are exclusively conventionally bred, such as the broccoli, onions, and reduced fat soybeans shown on the figure, as opposed to their other products in which a gene is actively inserted through recombination. This trend is also reflected in the company’s relatively recent acquisitions of Seminis and DeRuiter, both leaders in the hybrid vegetable and fruit seed industry. Hugh Grant, who became CEO of Monsanto in 2003, implemented this as a strategy to improve the company at a time when it was facing financial losses in its GM sector, which were due in part to strong criticism from activists and the agricultural community, among other forms of pressure (Hindo, 2007).

The pressure away from GM seeds and towards hybrid ones during this period was exhibited in multiple forms. First, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety had been ratified three years earlier by over 50 countries, excluding the US and Canada (CBD, 2012). In requiring participating countries to label GM exports and empowering them to deny the approval of GMOs using the precautionary principle, the protocol exerted political and economic pressure against GMOs as a whole. In addition, a Pew survey revealed that American consumer’s awareness of, and opposition to, GM food in grocery stores was at its peak in 2001, revealing economic and social strain (Pew Initiative, 2006). The increasing presence of protests worldwide – fueled partially by a claim that farmer suicides in India were caused by Monsanto’s Bt cotton and the discovery of GM contamination in Oaxaca – also contributed to the push away from GM vegetables and fruits (***add suicides** OCA, 2004 and Quist & Chapela, 2001). In addition, this avoidance can also be justified by the failure of the Flavr Savr tomato developed by Calgene. While this tomato was unsuccessful for technical reasons such as low shipping tolerance, consumers also received it poorly; not only were shoppers wholly unimpressed by its promise of improved flavor, the tomato became the target of very negative press (Goldstein & Goldstein, 2002). For that reason, the Flavr Savr tomato remains one of the few GM fruits to have ever been produced, along with papaya (GMO Compass, 2010). Given this case and the pressures discussed above, it is logical that Monsanto has steered clear of the field of GM vegetables and fruit. The significance of this shift lies in the active role of protesters and consumers, who voted with money and media during a crucial period in the company’s history.

While Monsanto does not acknowledge the effects of these actors, they are especially evident in the case of the NewLeaf (or Bt) Potato. Approved for introduction in the US and Canada in 1995, the company suspended development of the product entirely in 2001. With regard to future development of the GM potato, Monsanto’s website simply states, “market demand will be one factor in that decision” (Monsanto3). The shift away from potatoes (and towards commodity crops more prone to processing) was claimed to be motivated solely by the company’s expectations on profit, but these expectations were undoubtedly based on consumers’ desires and the threat of negative press from anti-GMO activists and organizations. Given the company’s strategic avoidance of GM seeds for crops less prone to processing (fruits and vegetables), and specifically the case of the Bt potato, it would be erroneous to argue that the company is so large and influential as to be immune to consumer or activist pressure (Hindo, 2007).

In this way, a political ecology approach reveals how the relationships between the company, farmers, and consumers are not entirely dominated by the company; these actors form a network that is much more responsive than is frequently implied by the phrases “Biotech Giant” and “the Monsanto Monopoly” (Shand, 2007). In addition, products in development appear to address key criticisms of farmers and environmentalists, including corn that is resistant to three different herbicides in an effort to diminish the threat of herbicide-resistant weeds (or super weeds). This implies that the company’s overall responsiveness to public and consumer opinion will continue into the future (Barlett and Steele, 2008 and Hindo, 2007).

While Monsanto’s public image is that of a domineering monopoly, the hidden trends revealed in the timeline portray an alternative view. Despite its huge share of the GM seed market, the firm has historically reacted to social, political, and economic factors created by activists, consumers, farmers and organizations. Grant claims that the company will allow some of its first patents on GM seeds to expire in 2014 without dispute, exhibiting the company’s own desire to improve its public image as a competitive firm (Kaskey, 2010). While the company’s dominance within the industry is undisputable, the political ecology approach taken here reveals a more subtle push-pull relationship between Monsanto and the larger network of actors involved in the controversy of GMOs that has been often overlooked.

1995-2003 2004-2012

Key

Bibliography

Barlett, Donald L. and James B. Steele. “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.” Vanity Fair Magazine. May 2008.

Butzen, Steve. “Crop Insights: Goss’s Wilt Management in Corn.” Pioneer Agronomy Sciences 21.13 (2011): 1-4.

EU Register of Authorised GMOs. European Commission. http://ec.europa.eu/food/dyna/gm_register/index_en.cfm

“Global Anti-GMO Protests Accelerate.” Organic Consumers Association (OCA). May 17, 2004.

GM Crop Database. Center for Environmental Risk Assessment. http://cera-gmc.org/

Hindo, Brian. “Monsanto: Winning the Ground War.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine. December 5, 2007.

Jack Kaskey. “Monsanto Will Let Bio-Crop Patents Expire.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine. January 21, 2010.

Keyzer, Michiel, Max Merbis, and Geert Overbosch. WTO, Agriculture, and Developing Countries: The Case of Ethiopia. Food & Agriculture Org., 2000.

Langreth, Robert, and Matthew Herper. “The Planet versus Monsanto.” Forbes Magazine (January 18, 2010).

Monsanto1: “Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmers Who Save Seeds?” Monsanto Company. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx

Monsanto2: “Company History.” Monsanto Company. http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx

Monsanto3: “The NewLeaf Potato.” Monsanto Company. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/new-leaf-potato.aspx

Myrna C., and Mark A. Goldstein. Controversies in Food and Nutrition. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

“Parties to the Protocol and Signature and Ratification of the Supplementary Protocol.” Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). September 10, 2012. http://bch.cbd.int/protocol/parties/

“Papaya.” GMO Compass. September 2, 2010. http://www.gmo-compass.org

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology: 2006 summary. The Mellman Group Inc. November 16, 2006.

Quist, David, and Ignacio H. Chapela. “Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico.” Nature 414.6863 (2001): 541-543.

“Relationships Among Monsanto Company, Pharmacia Corporation, Pfizer Inc., and Solutia Inc.” Monsanto Company.

Robin, Marie-Monique. The World According to Monsanto: pollution, corruption, and the control of the world’s food supply. The New Press, 2010.

Roseboro, Ken. “GMO Seed Cartel.” Institute for Responsible Technology. February 12, 2013. http://www.responsibletechnology.org/posts/the-gmo-seed-cartel/

“Seed Freedom: Who Owns the Seed?” Navdanya. 2008. http://seedfreedom.in/learn/who-owns-the-seed/

Shand, Hope. “Challenging Monsanto’s Monopoly.” Z Magazine. July 2007. http://www.zcommunications.org/

Syngenta1: “R&D Review.” Syngenta Corporation. http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/en/products-and-innovation/research-development/Pages/rd-overview.aspx

“TSCA Biotechnology Notifications, FY 1998 to Present.” Toxic Substances Control Act. April 2013.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Butzen, Steve. “Crop Insights: Goss’s Wilt Management in Corn.” Pioneer Agronomy Sciences 21.13 (2011): 1-4.

I used this article to interpret Monsanto’s current research and development focus in order to discuss where the company might be headed in the future. It revealed this disease to afflict exclusively US corn, which is extremely significant given the relatively lenient restrictions on GMOs in the US. Lastly, this article was written and released by a competing biotech firm, Pioneer, which foreshadows increasing competition within the industry.

“Company History.” Monsanto Company. http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx

This website was a crucial resource in constructing the timeline. However, given that it is a self-reported history of the company, I was wary of the partiality of its claims; I found a few examples in which certain company acquisitions were lumped together, and one case in which a product was left out altogether. In order to create a complete timeline, I supplemented this source with Wikipedia articles and entries in GMO databases in both the US and the EU. For that reason, this source served its purpose as a rough outline of the timeline, which I was able to subsequently build upon using a variety of alternative sources.

“GMO Seed Cartel.” Institute for Responsible Technology. http://www.responsibletechnology.org/posts/the-gmo-seed-cartel/

In an effort to qualitatively capture public sentiment towards GMOs and the agricultural biotech industry, I explored a few sources that represented extremes on the spectrum. This article employed dramatic language and imagery but lacked an author or cited sources. While clearly partial against GMOs, it accurately portrayed the discourse and sentiment of those strongly opposed to GMOs. It was also a top hit in the search, revealing just how widespread this type of information is. For that reason, it helped to supplement other sources in my assessment of public opinion towards Monsanto and GMOs as a whole.

Hindo, Brian. “Monsanto: Winning the Ground War.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine. December 5, 2007.

This article was a crucial source in directing me towards an analysis of the effects of activist and consumer pressure. It revealed a more personal side of the company through Hugh Grant’s success story, and gave an astute interpretation of the company’s economic strategies. However, given that the magazine is essentially economically focused, it was only a launching point for later analysis of other factors. Interestingly, responses to this article were highly contentious and even mocking, given a crash in Monsanto’s profits shortly following its publication. From the standpoint of the present, however, its conclusions are highly accurate.

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology: 2006 summary. The Mellman Group Inc. November 16, 2006.

This source was perfect for placing a period of Monsanto’s history within the context of public opinion towards GMOs in general. The survey was completed by an outside group, which supported its perceived neutrality. It completed statistical analysis on the data it collected, which helped to supplement my more qualitative reports of public sentiment towards GMOs or Monsanto in general. While it does not directly survey sentiment towards the company, it captured a picture of the social context in a time period that my analysis focused on.

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