How to Really March Against Monsanto

Today was the March Against Monsanto. There was an event in Seattle. I didn’t go. I think the entire thing is misguided. There are real problems in our food system and the sustainability of our civilization. There is a lack of transparency. There is a lack of fairness. But Monsanto, as far as it does “bad” things, is a symptom, not a cause. Monsanto is a cartoon villain we’ve created to give us a sense of control, a real target to direct our anger at. Unfortunately the problems we have are diffuse and we’re all1 part of the problem.

Monsanto sells seeds, licenses seed traits to other companies and sells some pesticides (mostly glyphosate in various Roundup formulations). While the transgenic (“GMO”) corn and soy get most of the press, Monsanto also sells many varieties of non-transgenic seeds, including “commodity” crops (grains, oils, etc.) and even vegetables. They license their seed traits to other companies to include in their seed products. And, yes, they do sell Roundup. After all, one of their best-selling products are corn and soy that do not die when treated with glyphosate, allowing farmers to control weeds more efficiently than previous conventional methods. Their most notorious products are used in corn and soy so this post is about them. This leaves out a lot of interesting stuff, but this is about marching against Monsanto, right?

So who uses those Monsanto corn and soy seeds? To state the obvious, farmers use those seeds. The overwhelming majority of farmers in the United States that grow corn or soy find it useful to, at least part of the time, grow “GMO” varieties. Despite the usual rhetoric, farmers choose GMO varieties, at least part of the time. You can read it from farmers themselves. You can look for yourself in a seed catalog. Actually, please look at a seed catalog2. Yes, the local seed store isn’t going to carry too many varieties but the non-GMO ones (or specialty ones) can be ordered. After all, if everyone is buying a particular product line, you won’t find the “niche” version in stock — it’s not worth the “shelf” space. My co-op grocery store doesn’t sell Oscar-Meyer hot dogs, just like most seed stores in Illinois aren’t going to stock bags and bags of heirloom, open-pollinated corn seed.

So who buys all that corn and soy from farmers? We, as individuals, don’t. No one buys commodity corn or soy at the grocery store3.

‘USDA Data on Corn Use, May 2013’

We consume corn primarily as animal products and ethanol (in fuel). The rest is processed food uses: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn starches and oil, alcohol (macro-brew lagers use a lot of corn), cereals, corn meal and so on. Soy is a pretty similar story, although soy has more protein and oil than corn so is used more for oil and protein additions (“textured vegetable protein” is often soy).

Monsanto is a symptom in this market. It would not be economically feasible for Monsanto to develop all these corn and soy varieties if there wasn’t a HUGE market for corn and soy. Monsanto is successful because they have provided ways for farmers to maintain huge yields of corn and soy to meet that market while decreasing costs and work. The farmers I’ve talked to online extol virtues like reduced pesticide inputs (e.g. fewer glyphosate applications versus many different herbicides to control different weeds), ability to reduce fuel use (glyphosate-tolerance makes no-till agriculture easier, which means less use of gasoline), more consistent quality at harvest (plant protection, such as from Bt in corn, means the seed has less damage from pests) and so on. Many farmers like these products: GMO corn and soy make their job easier. I personally think there are some undesirable externalities of our dependence on corn and soy, but I’m not going to demonize a farmer for meeting market demand.

So what about that market? How would you go about boycotting Monsanto, a real march against Monsanto? First up, you should give up any meat, dairy or eggs unless you are certain the animals were not fed corn or soy (or only non-GMO feed 4). Next up, you need to stop driving. Ten percent ethanol is mandated across the country and most of that comes from corn. You could also avoid all processed foods (to avoid additives like HFCS, citric acid, soy protein, soybean oil, etc.) but once you stop eating animal products and stop driving you’ve made the most impact.

If you really want to “March Against Monsanto” NOW, then stop being part of the market that has shaped what farmers need to grow to be successful. The irony to all of this is of course that Monsanto is really a small part of supporting that market. For all their success, innovations like tractors, hybrid varieties, decades of intensive breeding, soil testing and careful fertilization are far more important in supporting massive corn and soy production. But no one would “March Against John Deere” even though the tractor is probably one of the most important innovations in agriculture in all of history — and John Deere the company controls at least 60 percent of the farm equipment market. The tractor is far more important to maintain modern American corn and soy agriculture than GMO seeds. Strange to think with all the concern about GMOs.

I’m not suggesting you actually try to remove yourself from the market — or start a protest of green tractors. I obviously don’t think condemnation of any particular agricultural technology is necessary or reasonable. The problems in agriculture aren’t related to particular technology. They are related to what we, as a society, have valued. What we value (either in making law or making purchases) drives what farmers grow and thus why Monsanto is so successful. Throughout human history, the problem has been producing enough food, mostly grains (no one dies if the tomato crop fails, but they do if wheat fails). So our subsidies have been setup to support that. Now we are in an era of plenty. Food is cheap, nutritious, safe and plentiful. Historically, we haven’t worried as much about local or global pollution (whether it’s carbon emissions or pesticide and fertilizer runoff). We don’t, at a societal level, reward farmers who produce high yields with the least impact. Farmers will do their best, I believe, but if we don’t pay for it (and subsidize it through government so the poor are not harmed), then how can we expect farmers and companies to pay for it? Farms are not non-profits.

We have big problems. We need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions and agriculture is a big source of them — a farmer who can reduce their use of gasoline and produce the same amount of food should be rewarded, even if she uses “Monsanto GMO seeds”. We need farms that support living wages for all their workers — if that means food production is more expensive, how will we make sure poor kids still eat nutritious and balanced diets? We need better regulations of fertilizer and pesticide runoffs — and farmers need a way to make more money when they do better than a competitor at reducing those impacts. We need more research on how to achieve all these goals sustainably and fairly and we don’t achieve that by demonizing scientists at agriculture universities because (unsurprisingly) they are funded occasionally by Monsanto.

Monsanto isn’t out to poison us or the environment. They are just one part of a system that is meeting demand for plentiful, cheap food. If Monsanto went away tomorrow, our food system would look almost the same, including all the problems. I believe that most people who went to marches today are actually concerned about the same thing I am: how do we produce enough food, fairly, for all with minimal impact on the environment? How do we achieve that? Setting up cartoon villains isn’t the way to do it. Writing your Congress person and demanding improved regulation is a way to do that. Buying food that supports your values is another way to do it. Being against something seems satisfying, but being FOR something actually changes the world.

  1. I’m going to leave out people living on a farm, off the grid, using no resources they don’t gather with their own labor and somehow doing this all without having been educated by the rest of society.
  2. One of the most interesting things I “realized” when I started getting into this topic — though it’s fairly obvious if you think about it — is that there is no single “GMO corn”. Not only are there multiple GMO traits that go into corn (different Bt toxin genes, for example, that are active against different pests) but each farmer needs a corn that is appropriate to her growing conditions and intended use. A corn that is intended to feed dairy cows is different than one that will be sold as grain for ethanol production or food or by-products. A farmer in Minnesota won’t find that a corn that thrives in Missouri useful. Most corn these days are also hybrids so they require distinct parent lines to maintain the seed corn farmers actually want to buy. The transgenic traits are only added to one parent and provide almost none of the traits a farmer wants in the corn — the transgenes don’t provide traits like reliable maturity time, consistent ear size, even kernels, particular protein or starch levels and so on. So those parent lines have to be maintained. And there are a lot of them: ones for every region where farmers want to buy corn seed, ones for each type of use farmers might want to sell the product for, etc. And more are created every year as researchers and farmers find new useful traits (usually not transgenic) that they want to breed into preferred varieties. The industry of maintaining all those corn varieties is immense and very little of it is directly related to the “GMO-ness” of them.
  3. Okay, technically there are field corn varieties that humans eat. For example, pozole is made from grain, rather than sweet, corn. Soy milk and tofu are made from dried soybeans and of course soybean oil is a common ingredient. But generally we don’t buy corn and soy seed in the supermarket.
  4. Technically, even non-GMO corn and soy feed might come from seed lines indirectly owned by Monsanto or sold by a company that makes money selling Monsanto-traited seeds. Even if you bought only organic animal products, those animals are fed organic feed that is grown using manure that often comes from conventionally raised animals.

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