Made by Monsanto
by K.P. Prabhakaran Nair on 02 Jul 2011 3 Comments

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. 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 commercialisation, what has the GM miracle actually delivered? Let us have a look.

Hunger is still increasing and there are no commercialised GM crops that inherently increase yield, resist drought, or do anything else that might be thought critical to feeding the poor and hungry. Even at the time of the Monsanto ads, 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 industrialised world.


So how did this extravagant pro-poor rhetoric around GM crops actually arise? 


This is the question development specialist Dominic Glover set out to answer. His latest 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 1970s, 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. 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. But the swelling importance of agriculture was clear.


However, as Glover also notes: “Monsanto’s transformation into a ‘life science’ company, with an agriculture strategy increasingly centred around biotechnology, was by no means smooth or seamless. Disagreements within the company, between the formerly unchallenged chemicals camp and the supporters of the emerging biotechnology, were a source of significant tension and conflict over a number of years (Charles 2001; Resetar et al. 1999; Sastry et al. 2002:286).” Although the biotech advocates came to include most of the key senior executives in the company, they still needed a rhetorical posture that would galvanise support for their chosen strategic direction, both internally amongst the company’s management and externally amongst the investors it needed to drive the strategy forward.


This is how “biotechnology came to be depicted, by many actors within the company as well as by the company as a whole to actors outside it, as a technology that had something to do with attaining agricultural sustainability and feeding the world.” This can be seen as early as Monsanto’s 1981 annual report. This not only talks about using biotechnology as a valuable complement to Monsanto’s chemical technology - “Biotechnology offers novel ways for Monsanto to manipulate molecules. And, manipulating molecules has been and continues to be the basis of Monsanto’s chemical businesses” – but also talks about using biotechnology to insert valuable new traits into crops, and discusses using this technology to “feed a hungry world”. Glover also notes that even at this early date, Monsanto was “committed to becoming a world leader in this field.”


Still, many people inside the company questioned the merits of the biotechnology research programme. Tangible results were slow to emerge, and those involved with the programme came under increasing pressure to justify their work. They often tried to do so by emphasising the long-term strategic potential of GM technology, even though the exact dimensions of this potential were uncertain. Robb Fraley, for instance, as head of the plant molecular biology research team, is said to have hyped the potential of GM crops as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Monsanto to dominate a whole new industry, invoking Microsoft and the market for personal computers and software as a powerful analogy (Charles 2001). But the nebulousness of such grandiose prospects did not have sufficient traction on its own.


The more down-to-earth argument that really convinced most colleagues was that genetic engineering offered the best prospect of preserving the commercial life of Monsanto’s most important product, Roundup. One former Monsanto researcher and manager told a revealing story which illustrates this point, showing at the same time how people within the company were telling one another stories designed to make strategic sense out of their activities in the context of an uncertain future.


The Monsanto manager recounted how the company’s former CEO, Dick Mahoney, once dropped into his laboratory during the 1980s. As the two men discussed the ongoing research taking place in the lab, Mahoney asked ‘Why are we doing this?’ Looking back, my informant recalled how he had cast around for plausible and convincing justifications for the company’s continued investment in his work, and of course, when the patent for Roundup expired, his own continued employment. His first line of argument related to the challenges Monsanto would face once the patent expired on Roundup. 


In the early 1980s, Monsanto scientists had noticed that certain bacteria inhabiting the waste outflows from the company’s glyphosate manufacturing plants were impervious to the chemical. Ernie Jaworski and some of his colleagues reasoned that they could dramatically enhance Roundup’s commercial value if they could introduce the genes responsible for this resistance to glyphosate into crop plants. Farmers would then be able to spray Roundup onto their fields even during the growing season, killing unwanted weeds without harming the crop. This would significantly expand the market for Roundup and, more importantly, help Monsanto to negotiate the expiry of its glyphosate patents, on which such a large slice of the company’s income depended. With glyphosate-tolerant GM crops, Monsanto would be able to preserve its dominant share of the glyphosate market through a marketing strategy that would couple proprietary ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds, priced at a level high enough to recoup the company’s substantial investment in R&D, with continued sales of Roundup, priced low enough to undercut potential competition from manufacturers of generic glyphosate (Charles 2001; McDonald 2001).


Monsanto’s heritage of agricultural chemicals thus had a profound impact on the first generation of products that emerged from its biotechnology research programme. Monsanto’s particular institutional features also helped to ensure that insect resistance would be the other type of GM crop appearing in the first generation. Apart from the fact that the introduction of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene proved to be technically straightforward, with the prospect of delivering a significant commercial product using a single gene, the fact that Monsanto’s strength lay primarily in herbicides rather than insecticides meant that GM insect-resistance technology opened up a new market segment without conflicting with or undermining any significant ‘pesticide interest’ within the company.


While Monsanto’s biotech strategy evolved around the company’s existing customer base - that is to say, primarily large-scale, commercial farmers in the industrialised world - and crop–trait combinations that were both technically feasible and commercially viable, it was strategically useful to underplay this continuity with the company’s history in the chemicals sector and existing markets, by energetically promoting the GM route as a radical break with its past - “a clean, green and environmentally friendly alternative to, rather than continuation of, the chemical-dependent paradigm in farming”.


Glover notes that “a company does not win new customers and investors by claiming to be doing the same old things. In order to justify its heavy spending on R&D, Monsanto’s managers needed to stress the remarkable, revolutionary possibilities opened up by genetic engineering, emphasising the decline of the old chemicals paradigm and sketching the potential advantages of founding a new industrial sector.”


Thus, although the company’s technological strategy had been shaped by basic technical and commercial considerations, Monsanto’s managers actually embarked on a concerted campaign to depict GM crops - and Monsanto as their chief provider - as an essential tool for addressing critically important future challenges in hunger, environmental sustainability and international development.


It is important to note that these altruistic goals were not Monsanto’s own. Instead, they served as vital human goals, challenges that humanity would necessarily have to address in order to survive. Monsanto’s leaders’ target was to ensure that their company, and its technologies, would be perceived as indispensable stepping stones on the path towards meeting those challenges. In this way, they aimed to convince both employees and investors that the company would be a vital player in future markets for agricultural technology, and so mobilise their support for the emerging corporate strategy.


This is the background in which the “Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture” (KIA) MOU was signed when Manmohan Singh and George Bush sat to together on November 5, 2005 in Washington to sign the MOU. Monsanto representatives sat in this meeting as well and millions of Indians are unaware of this. It is no surprise that India Incorporated in toeing this line, with the blessings of the Government of India, and, needless to add, the blessings of those very same agricultural messiahs who ushered into the country a chemically propelled agriculture, for which we are now paying a very heavy price in terms of environmental degradation, more than four decades after its introduction. This is how the “green revolution” in India is metamorphosing into a “gene revolution”. 


In PR terms this framing of GM crops as a technology for the poor proved a highly alluring one. It also helped Monsanto, once it became clear that European markets were largely closed to GM crops, to target developing-country markets which had been given an unexpected commercial importance for Monsanto. In addition, developing-country farmers became key symbolic stakeholders in debates about GM crops, and in assisting the branding of the technology.


This is how Monsanto laid it’s stranglehold on Indian agriculture starting 2002, when the first commercial variant cotton (Bollgard) was commercially introduced into the country. It speaks volumes for the company’s predatory impulses when the first generation Bt cotton seeds were sold to Indian farmers, including lakhs in the cotton belt of Vidarbha district in Maharashtra for an unheard of price of Rs 1950 for a seed packet of 500 grams.


This author, while on a visit to China in 2002, to participate in an international conference, noted that the same Bt seeds were being sold for just US $2 for a packet of 500 grams. In Indian Rupee equivalent then, it worked out to be about Rs 100. In other words, what was sold in China for Rs 100, was sold in India for Rs 1950 – a 2000 per cent increase! Do the readers need further proof for this mind-boggling cheating? Nearly a decade later, we know what was the human cost to this “GM invasion”. Go to Vidharba, you will get the answer.


The gap remains between the storyline of GM crops as a pro-poor technology and the types of crops and traits that have actually been commercialised, i.e. the crops that Monsanto has marketed to developing-world farmers have been those that it developed for its existing customer base - large-scale commercial farmers primarily in the industrialised world. Bt cotton is the most classic example.


Although there was and remains a logical disconnection between the types of GM crops that have actually been commercialised by Monsanto, on one hand, and the company’s rhetoric surrounding GM crops as a technology for the poor, on the other, the production of both the technology and the rhetoric can be seen to have been produced in tandem, driven and shaped by the mixture of commercial, institutional and technical considerations that were influencing the development of the company’s strategy over many years. Tragically for India, this has the blessings of those very same agricultural messiahs who invoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi on the podium and back stage are hand-in-glove with Monsanto and its subsidiaries!


This is how the hyping of GM crops as a solution to world hunger and poverty was “Made by Monsanto”.


The author is a former international agricultural scientist currently based in Kerala, and a columnist involved in much charitable work for the poor 

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