Friday, February 25, 2011

Sustainability and the GMO Myth

Almost everybody agrees that we should be wiser with our resources. Most of us also agree that a worthy measure of this goal is sustainability. To this end, people with very different personal and political commitments are working together in local communities to recycle trash, conserve water and save energy, etc.

Studies regularly show that consumers prefer buying certified lumber and pesticide-free food if the price is right. And with the price of gas continuously rising, fuel efficient vehicles are clear favorites on the market.

It’s no wonder that agricultural companies have an interest in promoting a corporate image of sustainability as well. It pays, after all. And such an image is desperately needed in an industry that struggles to keep intact an aura of environmental integrity.

I joined the agriculture industry in 1991 working for a small environmentally conscious company named AgriDyne Technologies. We developed a natural insecticide from the seeds of the Asian neem tree. Our competitors were a handful of like-minded enthusiasts focused on making money by a safer use of natural resources - of being sustainable. These efforts, all combined, have made only a limited impact in the Ag industry. And it wasn’t until the major Ag businesses took up the torch of sustainability that the message became more visible.

One of the first real corporate statements of this kind came in 1997 in a Harvard Business Review interview with Robert Shapiro (then CEO of Monsanto). Entitled Growth Through Global Sustainability, Shapiro outlined the need for agribusiness to develop in a sustainable way if it hoped to avoid disaster and at the same time feed an ever growing world population. Since Shapiro’s interview other major agricultural companies began promoting their own brands of sustainability too.

Monsanto had a lot to gain from this message. With a history replete with environmental negligence (including the disaster of Agent Orange in Vietnam, corruption during the dioxin “catastrophe” at Seveso, and the misuse of data in the Bovine Growth Hormone Affair, etc.) it had recently discovered a promising new direction: genetically modified organisms (or GMO’s).

What made these GMO’s so nice was the appearance of sustainability that they created. They promised to reduce the rate of toxic chemicals in the environment (by containing them within the crop itself). They also promised to reduce soil erosion (by allowing no-till farming with their premier herbicide Roundup).

Of course there are many other components needed in a truly sustainable environment: renewable energy, biodiversity, water conservation, etc. But the two pieces Monsanto promoted were a good place to start, and the company has been successful in promoting them, or at least in part.

Now over a decade later, enough time has passed to see how truly sustainable the GMO revolution has been. Sad to say, it hasn’t been. I don’t mean it hasn’t made Monsanto a lot of money - it has. I do mean that the industry is no closer to creating sustainable growth than it was in the 90’s.

The most obvious cause of GMO failure has been insect and weed resistance. The cotton bollworm, for example, can no longer be controlled consistently with GMO cotton, especially in the Southeastern US. Resistance has also been detected in India.

More importantly, there are now a number of weeds (such as pigweed, horseweed, and giant ragweed) that can’t be controlled with Roundup - Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide and driver of many GMO varieties (that were made so that Roundup could be sprayed over the top of them without harm). Because of resistance, an increasing amount of chemical inputs are required. There is no evidence that the GMO promise has reduced chemical use in the least. In fact, chemical use has actually increased.

In the meantime, millions of acres of GMO corn, soybeans, wheat, etc. are planted worldwide with claims that their use will revolutionize the landscape of global food production and overcome hunger. Sadly, these claims have been seriously misleading - not only because of resistant weeds and increasing chemical use but also because of the loss of crop diversity that the GMO revolution is causing – a loss that strikes at the heart of sustainability.

A classic example of how this happens is in Mexico where GMO corn has disrupted the centuries-old agricultural practices in the heartland of corn diversity.

In the Oaxaca region over 150 local varieties of corn are grown. These have been developed through traditional methods of crop selection and cross-fertilization. Individual families have generations of knowledge invested in these crops and they can be counted on to breed true – or at least true enough to sustain the communities growing the corn and to perpetuate the local varieties.

Unfortunately an increasing number of these varieties are being contaminated by the genes of GMO corn that have been transferred by wind-blown pollen from far away. This threatens the traditional agriculture in a couple of ways. The most immediate is that the genetic contaminants are patented and recognized internationally as somebody’s property - somebody’s, that is, except the local farmers.

But perhaps more serious is the unpredictability of the GMO’s themselves, which are made in a very random process. The manipulated genes that provide “advantages” to a plant can, and do, show up in all sorts of places in the host DNA. Some arrangements seem to show no significant changes to a plant’s appearance. Other arrangements, however, produce truly monstrous phenotypes. What sort of effect might this contamination have on these local communities? Nobody knows.

Of course, this sort of thing might never get out of hand. Perhaps local plant breeders could eliminate the harmful genes over generations. In the meantime, however, it is not wise to pursue a poorly understood technology when so much is at stake. This is just one example of the conflicting sustainability claims of GMO’s.

This may all seem like a science fiction fantasy with its cutting edge technology and impending global disaster. In fact literary entrepreneurs have not been blind to this opportunity. James Rollins’s recent thriller The Doomsday Key is an excellent example. The story centers on a cryptic guild of early Europeans and a fictional corporate giant called Viatus that are tied up in the use of GMO’s to reduce the world’s human population. US secret service agents end up discovering the threat that was taken from an ancient secret surrounding the medieval Doomsday Book. Of course many parts of this story are clearly unrealistic. Some however are not far fetched. The reality is that we don’t know how much of such a scenario is fantastic and how much might actually occur.

One thing we do know, however – or at least we should know – involves the biggest error in all of the GMO sustainability claims: the justification that a larger population needs more food.

At first blush this might seem obvious. The human population is growing at an alarming rate. Certainly the ever-increasing number of people will need to have something to eat. Claiming otherwise seems like an outright admission of misanthropy.

Robert Shapiro went so far as to suggest that a failure to embrace this vision of sustainability would relegate the world to starvation - or to use his own sarcasm: “letting the Malthusian process work its magic on the population”.

The mistake that Shapiro makes here is a big one. Sadly it is a mistake that far too many people make - even people that should know better. Population growth rises to the level of available resources. It is not an independent factor. Malthus was clear on this.

The truth of the matter is that agricultural technology is the primary cause of population growth, not an ancillary science struggling to keep up with it. Shapiro’s claim that Monsanto’s vision is required to feed a hungry world is exactly backwards. It is causing population growth.

Now I am not arguing that we should go back to the dark ages - giving up all our technology - in order to starve the world into a level of fewer people. I am arguing that a blind acceptance of industrial solutions is misguided. Making more and more food is not the answer. Helping more and more people make their own food, is.

Several years ago Barry Commoner pointed out the counter-intuitive relationship between population growth on the one hand and education and health care on the other. Places with higher education and better health care have lower levels of population growth. It has also been shown that open markets contribute to this same trend and improve living conditions for the greater good. But there is a big danger when we presume to take global responsibility. It’s all too easy to move from the ethics of democratic capitalism (sensu Michael Novak) to a presumed virtue of global industry (sensu Monsanto et al.). And it is in this failed transition that we make serious mistakes that make us less sustainable, not more so.

The current state of affairs will only bring more and more technology to developing countries that enrich the major global industries, making poorer peoples more and more dependent, and driving them away from the land and their best hope for true sustainability. More people will migrate to urban areas creating even larger cities with larger slums and greater hunger. It doesn’t take an Old Testament prophet to see all this happening.

If, however, we stop dragging local farmers into our version of the global economy, they will adopt those technologies that make sense to them. Local businesses will succeed, local people will live more dignified lives. Food may be relatively more expensive, but this is not the major problem that it seems. Simple clean housing in developing countries has never been the 30-year burden that it is to us in the developed world. Through the entire history of the planet people have lived fulfilled lives by farming - by spending more resources than we do on food. What may be surprising is that these “higher” priced foods tend to be less processed, and arguably healthier than the cheap diets foisted upon us by industrial society. The fact is that rising food prices becomes a serious problem primarily for those that don’t raise their own food. Those who do somehow manage to get by.

We can create a better world - a more sustainable world. But it won’t happen with an industrial mindset or with industrial tools. It will happen when we stop imposing ourselves on to our poorer neighbors and start focusing our efforts at home. If industry wants to be a true contributor to the problems facing us, let it help local communities become sustainable (without strings attached to global markets). Let it help motivate more people to take up farming, even to the point of empowering small farmers. We need to build soil, save energy, conserve water, and care for our own biotas locally. But claiming that we can save the world using self-serving technologies and economies that we don’t even understand is a recipe for disaster.


Commoner, Barry. 1988 Ecology and Social Action; In, The Conservators of Hope. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho.

Magretta, Joan. 1997. Growth Through Global Sustainability: An Interview with Monsanto’s CEO, Robert B. Shapiro. Harvard Business Review, January-February.

Novak, Michael. 1982. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Touchstone, New York.

Robin, M.-M. 2008. The World According to Monsanto. The New Press, New York.

Rollins, James. 2009. The Doomsday Key. Harper, New York, New York.

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