Made by Monsanto: the Corporate Shaping of GM Crops as a Technology for the Poor
- By Dominic Glover
GM Watch, STEPS, via GM Watch
Straight to the Source
Extracts plus commentary from GMWatch:
Almost every day articles appear in the world's media claiming we must embrace GM foods if we're to feed the world, with the emphasis of late often on solving the food and climate crises via hardier, cheaper, more sustainable and more abundant GM crops.
But claims that GM crops are some sort of panacea are hardly new. A decade ago Monsanto ran an advertising campaign in Europe claiming: "Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will."
Yet after two decades of GM research and 13 years of commercialization, what has the GM miracle actually delivered?
Hunger's still increasing and there are no commercialized GM crops that inherently increase yield, resist drought, or do anything else that might be thought critical to feeding the poor and hungry.
This is why Professor Robert Watson, the UK Governemnt's Defra Chief Scientist, has stated, "The absence of GM crops is not the driver of hunger today." It's also why the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, approved by over 400 scientists from around the world, and co-chaired by Prof Watson, pretty much sidelined GM crops. http://www.bangmfood.org/feed-the-world/17-feeding-the-wo...
Even at the time of the Monsanto ads, though, the company knew perfectly well that the only GM crops it had developed were designed to meet the needs of large-scale commercial farmers, primarily in the industrialized world.
So how did this extravagant pro-poor rhetoric around GM crops actually arise?
That's the question that development specialist, Dominic Glover, has set out to answer. His new paper investigates the "simultaneous production of a technology widely recognised as having limited relevance to poverty alleviation alongside a narrative that strongly implied it was intended and designed to achieve that goal".
One key source of this storyline was Monsanto. Glover shows that the feed-the-world rhetoric emerged early on in Monsanto's development of its biotech sector.
He notes that during the 1960s and '70s, Monsanto senior executives recognised that they needed to radically transform a company increasingly threatened by the emergence of the environmental movement and by tougher environmental regulation:
"Monsanto had acquired a particularly unenviable reputation in this regard, as a major producer of both dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - both persistent environmental pollutants posing serious risks to the environment and human health. Law suits and environmental clean-up costs began to cut into Monsanto's bottom line, but more seriously there was a real fear that a serious lapse could potentially bankrupt the company (Hertz et al. 2001)."
This fear was not misplaced because that's exactly what eventually happened. But by that point, Monsanto had managed to hive off the old core of the business into a new company called Solutia which took the hit, in place of the agricultural giant that Monsanto had by then become.
At the very time that senior executives were becoming convinced that Monsanto's long-term viability required it to take a new direction, Monsanto launched a new herbicide called Roundup (glyphosate) which rapidly became a runaway commercial success.
Within a few years of its launch in 1976, Roundup was being marketed in 115 countries:
"Sales grew by 20 per cent in 1981 and as the company increased production it was soon Monsanto's most profitable product (Monsanto 1981, 1983)... It soon became the single most important product of Monsanto's agriculture division, which contributed about 20 per cent of sales and around 45 per cent of operating income to the company's balance sheet each year during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, glyphosate remains the world's biggest herbicide by volume of sales."
By 1990 with the help of Roundup, the agriculture division of Monsanto was significantly outperforming the chemicals division in terms of operating income, and the gap was increasing. But as Glover notes, while "such a blockbuster product uncorks a fountain of revenue", it:
".also creates an uncomfortable dependency on the commercial fortunes of a single brand. Monsanto's management knew that the last of the patents protecting Roundup in the United States, its biggest market, would expire in the year 2000, opening the field to potential competitors. The company urgently needed a strategy to negotiate this hurdle and prolong the useful life of its 'cash cow'."
Biotechnology was increasingly seen not just as a valuable complement to Monsanto's chemical technology but as a way of enabling it to further expand into agriculture and secure its "cash cow". This lead eventually to the chemicals division being sold off altogether in September 1997:
"The spin-off indicated a major departure for Monsanto, since the chemicals division could be regarded as the historical core of the company, contributing almost US $3.7bn out of nearly US $9bn in annual sales in 1995 (Monsanto 1995). But the swelling importance of agriculture was clear."