The Planet Versus Monsanto

Here is another interesting story about Monsanto, in Forbes magazine. The article manages to avoid calling Monsanto all good or all bad and instead looks at what Monsanto means for the future productivity of the global food supply.


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I wouldn't say the article avoids calling Monsanto good or bad: It's pretty much apologetics all the way down.

In particular the way dealt with criticism of Monsanto speaks volumes. They're all generalized into PoV's that are easy to ridicule.

Only the problem with biodiversity isn't tackled, but it isn't mentioned very strongly either, while it is one of the more important problems with Monsanto and GGO's in general.

By Missing_Head (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

I've gotta agree that the article is slanted pretty heavily in favor of Monsanto. Right at the start, I found this statement highly questionable:

Witness the vast numbers of farmers who prefer [Monsanto's] seeds to competing products...

Eh, that's kind of the problem right there, is that their virtual monopoly, and aggressive protection of what they consider their intellectual property, makes it difficult to tell just how many farmers really prefer Monsanto, and how many feel it is their only viable option.

When you hear Microsoft has a 90-something percent market share in the OS business, do you really think all of those people prefer Windows per se?

The article gets better near the end, but the first half pretty much just ridicules critics. It doesn't help that the first two opposing voices they quote are UCS and Greenpeace, two organizations I wouldn't trust to tell me the truth about 2 + 2.

The best quote in the article is from the antitrust attorney:

"Any time you have a firm with 90% to 95% market share and you have concerns about supercompetitive pricing, you're going to get on the doj's radar," says Brian A. Weinberger, an antitrust attorney at Buchalter Nemer. "If Monsanto clamps down too hard on the licensees, it puts itself front and center."

And rightly so. Most of us non-ideologues realize that capitalism, for all its benefits, falls down pretty hard when you have a virtual monopoly without regulations in place to prevent anticompetitive practices.

Actually, I'm realizing the analogy to Microsoft is more apt than I thought... Both companies got where they are by focusing on business savvy and delivering on the criteria that were important to their customers, while competitors failed to read the tea leaves with such precision. And both of them kept on aggressively playing hardball even after they had basically won the game, leading to widespread public condemnation and a DOJ investigation. Both of them have developed a reputation for bullying their customers into accepting highly restrictive and unfavorable licensing agreements, and both have been downright vindictive against those they feel are impinging on their intellectual property. Both have leveraged their position to make it nigh impossible for customers to switch to a competitor's products.

Despite this, both continue to deliver a product that is highly appealing to the majority of their customers -- but which also manifests startling technical problems with the potential for massive deleterious effects on society at large (whether it be lost productivity from too many BSODs, or environmental damage from monocultures and overuse of pesticides and artificial fertilizers).

Also, both start with an M. ;)

James - does monsanto however have a virtual monopoly? I'd argue against this, in terms of roundup resistant crops, then possibly, although RR is licensed to all of Monsanto's competitors (not sure how this would work in terms of a microsoft comparison... I guess the closest I can perosnally think of now is the whole media player thing that played out a while back, only in reverse - ie if microsoft were to allow different companies to sell windows bundled with their apps rather than microsoft specific apps - kinda the reverse of gene licensing, if you consider the germplasm to be the operating system and the apps to be genetic modifications) - if you look at the market shares for seeds sold rather than for %age plants containing monsanto traits then the virtual monopoly completely falls apart (I believe monsanto seed sales are in the 30-40% range?) This would be akin to a market in which only 40% of computers actually ran using microsoft windows, but 90% of them utilized a new app by microsoft which was currently under copyright (or whatever it is protects IP in computer code world)

Farmers choose on a yearly basis who is the best supplier for their seeds. They may decide that they want to utilize one of the GM techs currently on offer, however this is only part of the choice - entirely because monsanto does license its genes - if it did not then farmer choice, if Roundup was the only 'viable' (or most profitable) system available, would be exclusively monsanto germplasm - as things stand there remains a vast choice of germplasm. I dont see this as a monopoly at all, and am somewhat confused as to why anyone would (unless of course you support absolute removal of IP law for products which are a vast improvement and will be widely adopted, which seems somewhat counter to the point of having IP laws at all)

I'd also argue that the 'massive deleterious effects on society at large' is a somewhat overblown and unsupported statement of what Monsanto is currently doing - high intensity farming with the utilization of monoculture (although given germplasm diversity, particularly in corn, I'd argue that terming most farms as monoculture is pushing a tad too hard, particularly as year on year germplasms change and advance), pesticide use, and fertilizer use would all occur with or without Monsanto or the Monsanto business model - and in fact within the high intensity farming world Monsanto have done a great deal to reduce pesticide use and are currently investing millions in trying to reduce fertilizer use (or at least to reduce fertilizer use per unit yield, although argueably this is what any plant breeder persuing yield is trying to do also)

Equally I'd disagree with the statement that Monsanto make it nigh impossible for customers to switch to a competitor's products - how so exactly? There are non-transgenic corn,soy and cotton lines available, and these are widely used, there are alternative herbicides, there still exists the ability to spray insecticide rather than utilize Bt toxins - Monsanto has to fight, alongside all the other seed giants (and smaller seed producers), a yearly battle to persuade farmers that their product is the best to use - in ~1/3 of cases it appears they manage to do just this (obviously this varies from crop to crop) it is as easy as talking to a different (or even the same) seed dealer to purchase a competitors product.

The only monopoly I see is that granted by law to patented products. Of the two avenues open to Monsanto I'd say they picked the least anti-competitive - they licensed an awesome gamechanging technology broadly to the competition - how different would the seed sales landscape look if only seeds actually produced by Monsanto could legally contain RR traits and Bt traits? Assuming the same level of adoption across all crops then yes, Monsanto would have a massive, massive monopoly. If you fundamentally disagree with patent law as it stands then I'd be interested to see what avenues you believe should be utilized to see a return on investment for research into a given product, or if perhaps the belief is that all research done should be available to absolutely everyone without restriction - a stance which would very effectively kill all major advances in plant transgenics at a commercial level for quite some time (why invest $100M to bring a product to market if some other schmuck can do it first and you can just use their idea without waiting ~10 years)

It is in Forbes.

It isn't apologetics it's money.

It is a company profile and status report for potential investors.

They don't care about fighting eeeeevil.

They care about the chart.

BTW considering the present investment climate, that is a very sexy chart.

If it makes you feel better read the article while this plays:

By Prometheus (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

"The only thing we can do is produce products with real benefits and hope that people eventually become comfortable what we are doing is good." - David Stark <-- from the linked article

This is the approach of many in the research community, and while I do understand the thinking, we really do need to be more active. If no one is available to counter misinformation, researchers can do good for decades, and most people (who have no direct contact with agriculture, or whatever field is impacted by the research) will never know it.

Prometheus, I think that song is going to be stuck in my head from now until the weekend!

Ewan, R,
"although given germplasm diversity, particularly in corn, I'd argue that terming most farms as monoculture is pushing a tad too hard, particularly as year on year germplasms change and advance"

This is very interesting to me. Would you be able to post any literature supporting this. I am a novice in studying hybridity in plants and from my limited understanding I had a different picture of hybrid corn genetic variability. Based on the knowledge I have gathered so far, the way hybrids are developed is by crossing two pure bread homozygous parents to produce a heterozygous offspring. The homozygous parents usually display inferior qualities due to inbreeding. Crossing the two strains is done to produce hybrid vigor - larger yields, disease resistance, etc. A very simplified genetic cross would look like this assuming, that one homozygous genetic parent is NN while the second is nn
NN x nn = Nn
This is in my mind a very simplified map of an F1 (first generation) hybrid. The idea in hybrid plants is to reduce genetic variability and to produce as genetically identical plants as possible (so plants have the predictable characteristics the breeder is looking for - the increased yield and disease resistance I mentioned earlier).

Now if we look at the off spring of the Nn corn we can see that the undesirable traits of its homozygous parent generation return (this is the reason for why it is difficult to save seeds from hybrids - most of them will not grow true to type, ie like the hybrid, Nn, parent generation).

So if we have two Nn parents this is what we will get:
1 NN offsrping, 1 nn and 2 Nn. So the corn again displays genetic diversity that includes the undesirable homozygous traits. This is obviously very simplified and based on statistics. I will avoid discussing the expression of dominant and recessive alleles as I don't think it applies for now.

As I understand most corn has been grown as hybrid corn for decades. Based on my understanding that means that it is genetically as identical as can be and this is my definition of a monoculture. How does the germplasm change then? Perhaps I am missing some crucial pieces in my understanding of genetics. For genetic buffs out there here is another question (as I am really trying to understand this) - do hybrids stop/suspend evolution (since natural selection has been suspended)? Is this where the germplasm change comes in? How are any changes passed on genetically speaking (especially if we consider the fact that any new corn that is planted is not from saved seeds but from bought hybrid seeds)?

I will keep my GE questions for another post as I do more research into the subject.

By Rock Star (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

"do hybrids stop/suspend evolution (since natural selection has been suspended)?"
I have just realized that the phrasing of that question is really wrong. Let me rephrase that question as I do understand that farming does not follow natural selection, but rather selective breeding or in case of biotechnology genetic recombination. What I am trying to understand is how germplasm would change within a plant (like corn) where to my understanding (see post above) genetic diversity has been minimized?

By Rock Star (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

Rock Star - you're mostly right about the specifics of corn hybrids, but get the big picture somewhat wrong.

Hybrids are a combination of two inbred lines generally showing hybrid vigor in comparison and being genetically uniform - for pretty much the reasons stated.

However - not all hybrids are the same. There are a large number of hybrids available, each suited to different field conditions (water, nutrients, amount of light, insect pressure, parasite pressure, all kinds of doodads) - with more being developed every year. Monsanto has numerous different hybrids, as do other big ag seed providers, as do numerous smaller seed producers.

Now, in any given field you may well just have a single hybrid, and therefore a monoculture in that particular field (and potentially in overlapping fields) - but generally (based on rather limited experience and hearsay for the most part) an individual farm will have enough variation in field conditions that it will make sense to plant different hybrids - if field A is historically awesome at production then it makes sense to stick a high yielding, newer, high input hybrid in that field - field B however may have a history of poor performance, and lets say, flooding - in this instance you probably want to go with something with a more mediocre performance but that doesnt require quite the same level of input (flooding may wash out fertilizer and kill off half your field - better to lose half a field of cheap seeds than half a field of the most expensive seeds you can buy) etc etc - and generally a farmer will want to test out new hybrids/traits in small plots to plan for next year - will field A be better off with Monsanto smartstax corn DKNDKD310 or Pioneer corn P8102 (Pulled these names out of the air... bizarrely they probably arent too far from actual corn nomenclature) - so any given farm (rather than single field) will in effect be a mosaic of genetically distinct corn types - diversity may still be lower than fields of open pollinated corn that have sat there for generations, but this isn't necessarily the case - big ag seed manufacturers utilize diverse germplasm resources in hybrid production - meaning the farm with Big Ag seeds could well have genes from North American lines, South American lines, Asian lines and European lines - whereas your open pollinated variety could well have genes that have never been out of Iowa (at least in the past 40 years)

How do genetic changes come in? Breeders are constantly developing new hybrids - which involves either crossing different inbred lines, or developing new inbred lines for utilization. If I remember right breeding results in an approximate 1% increase in average yield per year - this years hybrids on average are not the same as last years hybrids and will not be the same as next years hybrids either (although generally upon release a hybrid will be tested for a few years before adopted on a wider scale - so the replacement isn't automatic - not all hybrids will work in all conditions and farmers will prefer to stick with what they know works until they can prove they have a better replacement)

Hybrids are a combination of two inbred lines generally showing hybrid vigor in comparison and being genetically uniform - for pretty much the reasons stated.

Six months later, Forbes did a follow-up under the headline "Forbes Was Wrong On Monsanto. Really Wrong."
"Forbes made Monsanto the company of the year last year in The Planet Versus Monsanto. I know because I wrote the article. Since then everything that could have gone wrong for the genetically engineered seed companyâ¦.has gone wrong. Super-weeds that are resistant to its RoundUp weed killer are emerging, even as weed killer sales are being hit by cheap Chinese generics. An expensive new bioengineered corn seed with eight new genes does not look impressive in its first harvest. And the Justice Department is invesigating over antitrust issues. All this has led to massive share declines. Other publications are making fun of our cover story."
See more at Be Nice to Monsanto, They're Having a Very Bad Year