July 24, 2009

The GM Stranglehold

Aliza Fishbein

Aliza Fishbein

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Monsanto brand corn used all over the world; courtesy of Flickr

Monsanto brand corn used all over the world; courtesy of Flickr

In recent weeks some 280 South African corn farmers went to harvest their corn and discovered that although the exterior of the plants looked lush the interior was bare. An article by the Digital Journal reports that millions of dollars were lost to farmers when their three varieties of Monsanto brand corn seeds failed to produce. Monsanto’s “on the record” statement that 75,000 hectares, or 25 percent of the total planted hectares were damaged while other sources choose to emphasize an 80 percent reduction in crop yield for some farmers. Many activists are taking this opportunity to criticize genetically modified (GM) seeds and food in efforts to ban their use in South Africa. Monsanto insists that there was no error in the production technology, rather in the fertilization process and has offered to compensate affected farmers in this instance.

My criticism is focused not at the broad category that is GM but at the single company that has come to control the world’s agricultural production and transitively the fates of many countries. The problem is that Monsanto is a monopoly in global GM seed production and sales. When their seeds prove as unreliable as they have been, the world’s (or at least the countries that depend on Monsanto products, primarily India, Brazil and South Africa) ability to feed itself and all the economic and political complications that follow famine are at the mercy of one company. And that is what it comes down to, Monsanto is a company and its goal is ultimately profit, not the welfare of the people who rely on them.

This is only one instance of reckless business moves. In India there has been a recent wave of suicides due to the shackles placed on the individual farmer by Monsanto. As showcased in the recent documentary Food Inc. Monsanto holds farmers to unrealistically high and unprecedented standards. The goals of our society have always revolved around progress and science, but here we see one company placing a stopper on that goal by coercing farmers to use their product.

I applaud Monsanto’s offer to compensate the farmers who lost their yields for the year. The real question, however, is how they will determine the appropriate amount to compensate. And simply because they have chosen to be merciful in this instance does not mean that they will pay for their mistakes next time. If their “misfertilization” or other oversights continue to occur (which they likely will as there are many complex variables factored into the production of their GM products) then how can we ensure the security of our farmers and our consumers? As far as the company is concerned, there is no authority to hold them accountable for the destruction of life and economy they may cause.

– Aliza Fishbein

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