Monsanto and the World Food Crisis

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Monsanto, ever on the lookout for a new financial opportunity, especially one which, on the surface at least, appears to be benevolent found one in biofuels. The growing of corn, in Monsanto's case, genetically engineered corn, for the production of ethanol purportedly to reduce the use of fossil fuels [1][2][3][4]. Unfortunately though, as is often the case with Monsanto, this silver lining has a rather large and ominous cloud, and in the massive diversion of land once used to grow food to growing crops for the fueling of automobiles yet another crisis has ensued.

The crisis was not unforseen. It was in fact, some would say, rather obvious. As far back as 2001 David Pimentel, Cornell professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, stated "Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning" [5]. In 2004 George Monbiot warned (and has been warning all along [6]) that "The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster". "Surely," Monbiot continued, "if there was unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people’s demand for food, the car-owners win every time" [7]. It's no surprise, therefore, that is precisely what happened. And while the world pays more to eat due to the engineered shortage of land for food crops thus driving up prices, or not eat, Monsanto et al. have been making out like bandits.

"The World Bank says that 100 million more people are facing severe hunger. Yet some of the world's richest food companies are making record profits. Monsanto last month reported that its net income for the three months up to the end of February this year had more than doubled over the same period in 2007, from $543m (£275m) to $1.12bn. Its profits increased from $1.44bn to $2.22bn.... The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 37 developing countries are in urgent need of food. And food riots are breaking out across the globe from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso, from China to Cameroon, and from Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates. Benedict Southworth, director of the World Development Movement, called the escalating earnings and profits "immoral" late last week. He said that the benefits of the food price increases were being kept by the big companies, and were not finding their way down to farmers in the developing world." Multinationals make billions in profit out of growing global food crisis" In fact, "Monsanto ... has gotten farmers to accept seed prices twice the level of a decade ago" [8].

H. E. M. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the United Nations General Assembly stated, "The essential purpose of food, which is to nourish people, has been subordinated to the economic aims of a handful of multinational corporations that monopolize all aspects of food production, from seeds to major distribution chains, and they have been the prime beneficiaries of the world crisis. A look at the figures for 2007, when the world food crisis began, shows that corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, which control the cereals market, saw their profits increase by 45 and 60 per cent, respectively; the leading chemical fertilizer companies such as Mosaic Corporation, a subsidiary of Cargill, doubled their profits in a single year" [9].

In fact, "Hugh Grant, Monsanto Chairman, CEO, and President probably won’t notice the increased price of a loaf of bread. And if he does it will be with a smile. Grant is $13,000,000 and some change wealthier today than he was on Monday, as he chose to exercise stock options - 116,000 shares worth – that netted him a profit of over $114 PER SHARE. Like many of us, I wouldn’t mind paying the extra dollar per loaf of bread if I knew the majority of that dollar was going back into the hands of farmers. Instead, the higher prices at the checkout line are funneled to the agri-giants like Monsanto and Cargill, companies making record profits. Remind you of gas prices and oil companies? Reminds me that these agri-giants spent $100 million on getting their way in the Farm Bill, an investment with huge dividends – for Monsanto’s Hugh Grant anyway" [10].

The market being what it is, biofuels also became a convenient way to stick it to organics as well. "But farmers and grain buyers say the growth of new organic acreage has slowed, falling short of rising demand and causing organic grain prices to soar. That is partly because prices for conventional corn, soybeans and wheat are at or near records, so there is less incentive for farmers to switch to organic crops; making the switch requires a three-year transition and piles of paperwork. 'There has been no new surge of land going into organic,' said Lynn Clarkson, who buys organic grain as president of Clarkson Grain in central Illinois. 'We are having to compete with this ethanol juggernaut,' he added, referring to the growing use of field corn for fuel" [11]. Also convenient, the food shortage has become a way to overcome objections to GMOs In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo.

Ironically however, rather than helping to solve global warming, biofuels will, according to experts, actually contribute to it [12][13][14][15][16]. See also The Unraveling of the Ethanol Scam.

Not enough? According to a report by Friends of the Earth, thanks to federal subsidies (paid for with taxpayer dollars) to the biofuel industry "In total, between 2008 and 2022, taxpayers will have paid out over $400 billion to the biofuels industry. Were Obama proposals for 60 billion gallons per year to be realized, subsidies would top $120 billion per year by the end of the period, for a cumulative subsidy during the 2008-30 period of more than $1 trillion. For this investment, we accelerate land conversion and exacerbate a wide range of environmental problems. Already, the ecological impact of increased biofuels production is evident, both in the U.S. and abroad, including deforestation, water pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions" [17].

Also see The World Food Crisis, Grain Companies' Profits Soar As Global Food Crisis Mounts, The EU's agrofuel folly: policy capture by corporate interests

Monsanto and drought-tolerant maize in Africa

From Matt Brown, "New hope to end scourge of drought," The National Newspaper, March 1, 2010

In 2010, Monsanto became involved in an ongoing project designed to develop new African drought-tolerant maize varieties. When a particular piece of DNA in bacillus subtilis (cspB) was injected into an ordinary maize seed, the leaves of the fully grown maize plant curled up in dry conditions thus losing less water to evaporation and making the crop virtually resistant to crippling droughts that have plagued Africa for centuries.

Researchers with the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project are currently testing drought-resistant GM maize seeds in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa. According to its website, WEMA is a public-private partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to address the devastating effects of drought by developing drought-tolerant maize.

According to AATF, more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa depends on maize as their main food source. Across much of Africa, subsistence farmers and their maize crops are vulnerable to changing weather patterns. The GM seeds are expected to increase yields by 20 to 35 percent, translating into two million metric tons of maize during drought years, or enough to feed 14-21 million people.

Genetic engineers, biotechnology companies (including Monsanto), philanthropists (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), and policy makers are working to make the new technology widely available to small-scale African farmers.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation are financing the project, essentially underwriting the research and development of GM seeds so that they will be as cheap as conventional seeds.

For Monsanto, the project translates into opening markets in Africa: "This technology will be given royalty-free to small scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa," stated a spokesman for Monsanto's Africa division. "We're not here because of charity. If you help small farmers, today they may not be good customers. But in 10 years, they may be good customers."

However, Monsanto's involvement is not without controversy. Miriam Mayet, director of the Johannesburg-based African Center of Biosafety, believes that "Monsanto's prominent role in the a disingenuous attempt to paint a pretty picture of benevolence when really what it has also set its sights on is a potential market in Africa to peddle its GM seeds."

As for the project in general, Mayet stated: "WEMA is a strategic way of making the acceptance of GM [seeds] more palatable on a continent that sees little value in the current two-trait GM technology. The field trials pose the most immediate biosafety threats including the risk of gene flow via cross pollination."

The GM seeds are currently being developed in labs in South Africa. Drought-tolerant seeds, which are created using conventional breeding and are not as efficient as the GM seeds, are now being field-tested. The GM seeds could be tested during the 2010 dry season, once government regulations are in place and could be on the market within five years.

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