Monsanto makes the wrong choice – again

Just what exactly is Monsanto playing at? Apparently not satisfied with its continuing role as the favourite pantomime villain for every anti-GMO activist in the world, the St Louis-based company everyone loves to hate seems to be doing everything possible to make its predicament worse.

I’m a fan of some aspects of its biotech work. Unlike Bill Nye the Science Guy, I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting Monsanto’s HQ or been on a guided tour of the labs and greenhouses, but I occasionally run into Monsanto people at conferences and the like. I had a brief conversation with Robb Fraley at the World Food Prize, and later at the IQ2 debate in New York that he and Alison van Eeenenaam won.

Monsanto doesn’t ask my advice. But I give it anyways – for two years at least I’ve been urging the company to ditch the glyphosate division and focus entirely on seeds. Most anti-GMO people don’t seem to realise it, but glyphosate has been off-patent for a while, and most of it these days is made in generic form in China. Roundup is a cash cow for the company, but nowadays comprises only a third of overall turnover.

I see biotech as a disruptive technology in agriculture, potentially challenging the age of chemistry – meaning chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers – and ushering in an age of biology, where the technology is in seed genetics rather than in added inputs from outside. In principle this should be more sustainable, more targeted and help address public concerns about industrial agriculture.

Because Monsanto is still a maker of Roundup-brand glyphosate, the old idea that all GM crops are a Monsanto plot to sell more weedkiller refuses to die. I often think that herbicide tolerance is the ‘original sin’ of GM crops – people simply can’t get over it, or understand that there are many different traits nowadays. For the antis, all roads lead back to Roundup. Seralini, Benbrook, the Center for Food Safety – they’re all obsessed with Roundup.

My recent New York Times piece on pesticide-reducing Bt eggplant in Bangladesh was tailed by all the usual comments about Roundup, even though the Bt trait has nothing to do with herbicides, and indeed often enables a 100% reduction in insecticides. Things have got even worse recently with the furore about the WHO ‘probable carcinogen’ designation.

So what does Monsanto do? Instead of hiving off Roundup and becoming a non-pesticides seed company, it does the precise opposite. In seeking to take over Syngenta, it looks to double down in agro-chemicals, including many more forms of pesticide and insecticide in Syngenta’s current portfolio, most of them far more toxic than glyphosate.

Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, Monsanto has pledged to regulators that it would sell off Syngenta’s seeds division, keeping the chemicals instead. It combines this with the usual arrogant corporate PR campaign with soft-focus imagery and warm words – all the sort of stuff that just puts thinking peoples’ backs up.

This is to my mind the exact opposite of what the company should be doing. Okay, so I accept its corporate strategy is none of my business, and I’m an ignorant outsider who knows very little about its real-world operations.

But the problem we have today is that Monsanto is in the way – the awful reputation that Monsanto has managed to garner – up there with Chernobyl and Union Carbide – is not just hindering the rollout of large-scale GM crops in Europe and North America, it is potentially affecting such badly-needed innovations as virus-resistant cassava and wilt-resistant banana in East Africa, which are both opposed by anti-Monsanto activists.

Similarly in Bangladesh, where the Bt brinjal project has seen very successful results in pesticide reduction and increased productivity, anti-Monsanto attitudes are probably the biggest single problem: because of the use of the Bt trait, the crop is seen as a Trojan horse for the hated Monsanto. (And I’m apparently the Trojan horseman!)

I believe that biotechnology is too important to the future of world farming, particularly in developing countries, for its future to be curtailed because of this toxic witches’ brew of corporate myopia combined with public hysteria. Yes, the green movement is in the way of GM technology, but so too, judging by its lamentable current performance, is Monsanto.

At this rate I will be joining the March Against Monsanto on May 23 (though I’ll wear my Groucho Marx glasses to be on the safe side!). The corporate bigwigs ensconced in their offices in St Louis still don’t seem to get it. If Monsanto wants to get out of the hole it is in, it needs to change its business positively, not sell more chemicals and pump out more PR. Perhaps this message needs further amplification before it finally hits home.

© Mark Lynas
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