You may not think you’re familiar with Monsanto, but you probably eat genetically modified organisms (GMOs) created by it every day. Monsanto 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 a specific type of all-purpose poison. It sells both the genetically modified seed as well as the poison. The engineering allows the farmer to blanket their crops in pesticides; while the GMO is unaffected, everything else is killed. There are GMOs for a wide variety of crops, but Monsanto has focused its attention on several strategic markets, for example 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn are now GMO and these numbers continue to rise.
Monsanto and its supporters claim that its 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: “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues)… or the environmental impacts…”
Meanwhile, researchers have claimed that the GMO giant has thwarted attempts to pursue research that may show ill effects. Studies have shown links between GMO food and coeliac disease. There are also significant indirect consequences to the widespread adoption of Monsanto’s products such as a dramatic increase in nitrogen run-off that 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 its own findings, the active ingredient in Monsanto pesticides is “probably carcinogenic”. (Even more studies.)
The world’s population is growing quickly and hundreds of millions of people 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 cannot afford market prices and it is more profitable to let food go to waste than make it affordable for everyone.
There are other biotech companies profiting from GMOs but Monsanto has been the lightning rod of criticism. Part of that is its own ugly history. Before Monsanto created its first GMO, it 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. It also pours huge amounts of money into defeating any effort to legislate GMO food labelling and has been accused of using tactics pioneered by big tobacco to influence the public’s perception about its products’ safety.
There is a growing global resistance against Monsanto. Farmers and activists have been burning fields of GMO crops, but increasingly activists are pushing for labelling laws that would allow consumers to decide if they want to buy GMO products. Currently 64 nations require GMO labelling and the list continues to grow. But it is still an uphill battle. Monsanto has become particularly entrenched in the US, where it has its headquarters, but even there progress is being made. Whole Foods and Chipotle have announced plans to phase out all GMO ingredients. Vermont also became the first state to require GMO labels on food,, although Monsanto and others are suing the state and trying to stop the law from taking effect.
These are just the basics. There is an enormous amount of information out there and a growing number of organizations working to educate and create new policy. Read some of the links here, do some research and form your own opinion.