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Fortunes May be Changing for Monsanto

(Beyond Pesticides, October 18, 2010) Despite condemnation from environmentalists and human rights advocates, the business practices employed by biotech giant Monsanto seemed to be serving the St. Louis-based company well, until this year where disappointing sales, increased competition and even a federal investigation have sent stock prices into a downward spiral.

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn, soy, and other crops have been engineered to resist the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup. Monsanto holds the patent for its Roundup Ready seeds, meaning farmers must sign a contract with the company in order to purchase seeds, and are not allowed to save seeds to plant the following season. As seen in the recent documentary Food Inc., Monsanto has been ruthless in collecting royalties from growers.

Despite Monsanto’s safety claims, glyphosate is actually very dangerous to human health and the environment. Glyphosate has been linked to cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Acute exposure can lead to swelling of the eyes, face and joints; burning or itching, blisters rapid heart rate, chest pains and other symptoms. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has found glyphosate to be the most common cause of pesticide-induced illness or injury. Glyphosate is also dangerous to wildlife, especially beneficial insects and earthworms.

Monsanto’s cut throat business practices had garnered the company a large share of the market for genetically engineered (GE) seeds. In the 2009 fiscal year, Monsanto’s revenue from seeds and seed genes was $7.3 billion; nearly double that of second place DuPont. Over the previous five years sales for Monsanto had increased 18% annually.

This year, however, Monsanto’s stock has fallen about 42%. According to Stock market commentator Jim Cramer, “This may be the worst stock of 2010.” The company’s newest product developed with Dow Chemical, SmartStax corn, which contains eight inserted genes and is resistant to two different broad spectrum herbicides, has not been shown to yield more than the company’s less expensive varieties. Monsanto’s newest soybean variety Roundup Ready 2 Yield also showed disappointing sales. This. in addition to increased competition from DuPont, has forced the company to cut prices on both products.

The largest threat to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products may not be economic but environmental. The overuse of the broad spectrum herbicide has lead to widespread resistance among weeds. As environmentalists and human health advocates have fought to stop the use of the known carcinogen, neurotoxin, and irritant, the indiscriminant use of glyphosate is quickly making the herbicide, and in turn any crops engineered to resist it, obsolete. After being on the market for less than 20 years, glyphosate resistance genes will most likely soon be useless. However, unlike most obsolete technology that is thrown on the scrap heap, glyphosate-resistant genes have been introduced into the ecosystem, and cannot be removed. There is no way to know what long-term effects these genes will have on our environment.

Genetic engineering is a short-sighted and possibly dangerous method of pest control. Studies show that genetically engineered crops have significantly increased the amount of chemical pesticides used in US agriculture. However they have not delivered any notable increase in yield.

The recent economic troubles for Monsanto could indicate that the future of food production does not lie with a few Biotech giants promoting genetically engineered monocultures, but with biodiverse organic farms.

Sources: Forbes and The New York Times


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