When most of us think of Monsanto, we think of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as they are most often called. It’s an understandable connection. After all, Monsanto dominates the genetically engineered crop space and as a result, when scientific debates over the safety of such crops in our food chain inevitably erupt, it is Monsanto that usually gets painted as the mad scientist behind the creation of these so-called frankenfoods.
But what if the potential health risks of GMOs were actually not the biggest concern when it comes to Monsanto and the handful of other mega-corporations that now dominate the seed industry? What if every day that we spend arguing over the environmental impact of GMO crops — not to say such discussions are not incredibly important — is actually playing into Monsanto’s larger plans for the food system? What if the patented technology behind GMOs has less to do with feeding the world and improving crop yields, and more to do with a predatory business model that is rapidly taking over our food supply, and what if this control will continue to exist regardless of whether or not we eventually turn away from GMOs in the marketplace?
Unfortunately, these questions are not part of some crazed, anti-corporate conspiracy theory. They are the questions that we should be asking based on the current realities on the ground in farm country. And it’s important that we answer them quickly if we are to have any chance to avert the potential disaster that is looming on the horizon, a disaster perhaps best described as Monsanto’s point of no return.
Boulder Weekly has previously reported on California’s GMO labeling ballot initiative that will be going before voters this November (see http://tinyurl.com/8twms8a and http://tinyurl.com/d6tk7tp). The following is a quick recap of the initiative’s purpose and potential short-term impacts on the marketplace.
Should the initiative pass as expected, it will require all foods containing ingredients that have been genetically engineered to be labeled as containing GMOs. Because California consumes such a large percentage of the U.S. food supply, approximately 12 percent, it is quite possible that it would be cost prohibitive for the nation’s larger food companies to produce labeled products for California while still producing non-labeled products for the other 49 states. And if history is any indicator, it’s also likely that the passage of the ballot measure would quickly result in other states following California’s lead by passing their own GMO labeling requirements.
For these reasons, many observers have speculated that come November, provided the ballot measure passes, GMO labeling may well become a reality for the entire nation, finally bringing the U.S. in line with Europe, Russia, China and much of the rest of the world, where, for the most part, such information is already made available to consumers by way of labeling requirements.
The labeling of products containing genetically engineered ingredients is also important because, eventually, such information should steer the U.S. system of agriculture toward a more sustainable model by way of marketplace pressures. But it is on this point of sustainability that the real showdown over the U.S. food supply will likely be fought in the coming days.
If GMO labeling and its subsequent consumer reactions in the U.S. were to play out as they have in Europe and elsewhere, then we should expect to see American consumers shying away from purchasing products with GMOs in favor of their non-GMO counterparts, even if the non-GMO products are priced at a premium. And once this occurs, it will be only a matter of time before grocery outlets, for the most part, stop stocking products containing GMOs because of lower sales.
The near refusal to buy GMO products in Europe has been traced to the fact that today’s food consumers are more health-conscious and also more skeptical of promises by corporate and government sources who claim they can be trusted to ensure that food safety will always be more important than profits in the marketplace. The poor government/corporate handling of the outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe during the 1990s was the final straw for many European consumers, and the memory of that debacle continues to affect the EU’s food-system decisions to this day.
This same corporate and government skepticism also appears to be alive and well in the U.S. and helps account for the results of recent polls that found that more than 90 percent of U.S. citizens, regardless of political affiliation, claim they want GMOs to be labeled. It is one of the few things we all seem to agree on these days.
The implications of labeling GMOs in the U.S. are far-reaching and could actually expose a number of very serious problems within our food system.
Consider what has happened in Europe, for example. European farmers have made it clear that they want to plant GMO crops because they have been led to believe that the yields, and therefore profits, from such crops are higher. Yet despite this desire, they instead are being more or less forced by consumer preference to grow traditional crops because there simply isn’t a market for GMO crops should they produce them.
As a result, farmers in the European Union can still save their own seed each year to replant for the following season, something that, as will be discussed shortly, is not possible with GMO seeds. This ability to save and replant seeds means that European farmers, though begrudgingly in some instances, are still operating under a mostly sustainable model.
This is not the case in the U.S., thanks largely to Monsanto’s business model, which exploits the idea of technological innovation as a mechanism for obtaining massive and dangerous levels of market penetration, which then creates an unsustainable system requiring seeds be repurchased each year from one of the companies that have monopolistic control over the industry.
This is important because there is now mounting evidence that should the majority of farmers in the U.S. suddenly need to plant non-GMO seeds due to swing in marketplace pressure brought on by GMO labeling and its resulting consumer choice, it would not be possible. Those who control the seed supply in the U.S. have made sure that such a rapid transition back to traditional, non-GMO seeds would be diffisee cult to impossible to achieve. This is the point of no return.
To say that the U.S. seed industry has become dangerously and quite possibly illegally consolidated is an understatement. The latter, of course, depends upon the court system’s interpretation of existing antitrust laws, which have lately been seen as nonexistent for any company that knows how and who to lobby, but that’s another story.
As the seed monopoly map here illustrates, control over the seed industry rests primarily with Monsanto. Dupont and Syngenta are also major players, while corporations like Dow Chemical, Land O’Lakes and Bayer represent a second, yet still significant, tier of consolidated control.
According to U.S. House Committee on Agriculture testimony, most economists share the belief that when 40 percent or more of any given industry is controlled by fewer than four players, that industry is no longer considered competitive. In the seed industry, according to a report issued by the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, the largest 10 players control more than 65 percent of the market for the world’s proprietary seed (seed subject to intellectual property protections such as patents). Even more disturbing, from an anti-competitive standpoint, is that the largest four corporations in the seed industry control more than 50 percent of the proprietary seed market and also 43 percent of the commercial global seed supply, which includes both genetically modified seeds as well as traditional, non-patented public seed varieties.
But even these alarming consolidation figures do not reflect the actual concentration levels when you consider that all of these companies have joint ventures with some or all of their supposed competitors (see chart here).
Likewise, these numbers and charts do not reflect the true extent of Monsanto’s control over the food industry, where its patented seed traits are licensed to the other competitors in the sector and often represent influence over 80 to 90 percent of all seed sold in the U.S. in major crop categories such as corn, soy, sugar beets and cotton — and increasingly fruits, vegetables and alfalfa. GMO wheat is a reality but has yet to take off due to the refusal by China, Russia and Europe to allow such wheat to be imported into their countries.
It is accurate to say that nearly every food product in the grocery store has Monsanto’s fingerprints on it in one way or another, and this becomes more true with each passing day. Monsanto’s business model is not only built for attaining full control of the market, it is built to do so with previously unimagined speed.
Paving the way for monopolies, your tax dollars at work
There would be no monopolistic Monsanto business model if not for a couple of controversial decisions made by U.S. government officials in the 1980s. Prior to that time, no actual patent had ever been issued for a living organism. As a result, most advances in crop research were conducted in the public realm by universities, and so knowledge gained and improvements in areas such as seed quality and crop yields were readily shared and benefited everyone.
But the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which was created as a means to generate new revenue streams to fund public universities, changed the equation. The act made it possible for the first time for universities to receive patents on publicly funded research projects. Once a patent was issued, the university could then sell the patent or license it to the highest bidder.
Corporations were quick to figure out how to exploit this new law. Corporate funding for university research projects took off in exchange for exclusive access to the resulting patents and licenses. Obviously, the larger corporations that could afford to pay out billions to universities for research and development were the winners in this new world. Monsanto and the other chemical and pharmaceutical giants were some of the early adopters of the new system created by Bayh-Dole and have benefited most from its creation.
As a result of the act, many of the smaller seed companies were either absorbed by the industry giants through acquisition, which gave the larger companies control over even more of the nation’s seed stock, or simply shut down because they could no longer compete, lacking their own research divisions or means to fund university projects.
In the end, the well-intentioned act created an explosion in corporate funding for public research, while causing public R&D funding to all but disappear. This shift in funding sources has led to secrecy in the university system, along with an unwillingness to share findings and results with both the public and other institutions, a lack of peer review for supposed discoveries and even an aversion to allowing non-funding entities the right to study and test new, patented products for public safety, including Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. Today’s higher education mantra is that if you fund it, you own it, and Monsanto certainly funds it.
But the Monsanto model still needed another element to achieve its ultimate goal of market domination, and it got that missing ingredient by way of yet another sudden, and some would argue suspiciously convenient, change of heart on the part of the U.S. government.
In 1980, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reversed its 190-year-old position that a living organism capable of reproducing is not something that can be patented. The door to this radical departure in policy had been cracked open a decade earlier when Congress passed the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA). Prior to 1970, Congress had held numerous debates concerning the ability of plant and animal breeders to patent their advancements. The problem was that Congress realized that allowing a patent on something that reproduced naturally would eventually create market concentration and throttle the ability of farmers and researchers to share genetic resources.
Congress finally passed the PVPA as a compromise to corporate interests that had become increasingly frustrated by the political roadblocks to full patents for biotechnological innovations. The PVPA gave a form of temporary intellectual property protection to companies doing plant research, but exempted farmers and other researchers from the act. It was an unenforceable, toothless patent of sorts, but that changed in 1980 when the first utility patent, the same type of patent issued for inventions, was issued for a genetically engineered bacterium that was created to aid in the cleanup of oil spills.
Once the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the bacterium patent, the door was flung fully open, and within a few years Monsanto was getting patents on its genetically engineered innovations, starting with a glyphosate-resistant gene for the canola plant that could be genetically engineered into a seed to produce a canola plant that was resistant to Monsanto’s branded Roundup pesticide. In other words, buying Monsanto’s patented seeds meant you could spray Roundup poison all over your crops, and only the weeds would die. It was quite a boon for a company that made money on the seeds as well as on the pesticide.
The Monsanto model was now ready for launch. And thanks to the federal government having knocked down the barriers that had been in place for nearly two centuries, barriers that existed in part to prevent market consolidation in the food supply, Monsanto’s business model consumed its competition at an astonishing speed and pushed the company to market leader in the global seed industry in less than a decade. It was an unheard-of feat in the corporate world, considering that the seed industry had been established for a long time and was already stacked with major players.
And now, only a few years later, it’s fair to say that Monsanto is the market, particularly in the U.S., where the company’s sizable political influence — Monsanto is often referred to as the retirement home for Washington’s power brokers — has thus far allowed it to fend off the GMO labeling requirements that have stunted its growth in other parts of the world. And while GMO labeling in the U.S. may be changing come November, it may be too little too late to reverse course in this country.
The Monsanto model
Remember the earlier question: What if the patented technology behind GMOs has less to do with feeding the world and improving crop yields, and more to do with a predatory business model that is rapidly seizing control over our food supply? Well, look no further than Monsanto to see that the latter is the more likely motivation behind recent biotech innovations. To understand Monsanto’s rapid rise to market domination we must examine its use of patented traits as a means to its end.
A trait is simply that, a particular quality that is genetically engineered (GE) into a seed to create an adult plant that exhibits a certain characteristic. For instance, Monsanto’s most successful GE traits to date are the BT trait, which causes the plant to be resistant to certain insects, and the Roundup Ready trait, which makes plants able to tolerate doses of Monsanto’s branded Roundup pesticide. Other traits include things like creating adult plants with extra long stalks, which makes them more effectively harvested by machine and, more recently, such things as supposedly drought-resistant traits said to increase a plant’s ability to endure longer stretches without water. It is only the traits that can be patented, not the underlying germplasm (seeds), but any seeds containing the traits are by default controlled by Monsanto by way of its government-issued intellectual property protections.
Monsanto is both a seed supplier and trait provider, but it is the traits that account for the majority of the company’s profits, which are often then used to make further acquisitions of competing seed companies, allowing Monsanto to continuously increase its control over more and more of the world’s seeds. This continuous acquisition element is an important component of Monsanto’s business model, because such purchases allow the company to either add its traits to the newly acquired seeds or phase the seed strands out of the marketplace, eliminating them as potential competition to seeds with patented traits.
It is the selling and licensing of its patented traits that has given Monsanto near total control over certain sectors of the food market. For instance, even though the company may only account for 30 percent or less of the seeds sold, 88 percent of all the corn acres in the U.S. are planted with one or more of Monsanto’s patented traits, because it either sold the seed directly through one of its subsidiaries or licensed its traits to another company such as Dupont that sold the seed with Monsanto’s patent attached. Similarly, more than 90 percent of all soy acres in the U.S are planted with seeds containing Monsanto-patented traits, as are nearly 95 percent of sugar beet acres and most of the U.S. cotton crop as well. Due to recent acquisitions, Monsanto is also the largest owner and reseller of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.
It is the way that Monsanto uses its patented technology (traits) to enter and then gain control of market sectors that is most alarming to critics, even those who support the idea of genetically engineered food crops.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, U.S. farmers adopted Monsanto’s GE traits without hesitation, even though this mass acceptance of patented traits guaranteed that farmers had to repurchase new seed every growing season or face lawsuits and even criminal prosecution if they held back seed with patented traits to replant. They saw the new seeds as relatively inexpensive and convenient and were often led to believe, though some recent studies contradict the claim, that yields and therefore profit would be increased by the traits as well.
In addition to forcing farmers using its patented traits to buy seed annually, Monsanto’s business model places a separate royalty or fee on every bag of seed for each patented trait contained in the seed. That’s to say that if a bag of seed contains two or three or eight traits, a process known as stacking, then two or three or eight separate royalty payments are assessed on each bag of that seed.
More than one critic of this system has noted that when Monsanto enters a market sector, its royalty fees are generally pretty low at first, and this affordable pricing and promises of higher profits entice most of those farming a particular crop to switch to seed with one or more of Monsanto’s traits.
However, once the market has been effectively conquered to the tune of 80 percent to 90 percent penetration, the royalty charge for traits starts going up quickly and seemingly without justification on a technology already fully developed.
For instance, according to the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Generic Engineering report, the royalty for the Roundup Ready trait on a bag of soybeans cost about $6.50 when it was introduced. But just a few years later, after more than 90 percent of soybean farmers were using the patented trait, the royalty started increasing until it had nearly tripled to more than $17 on the same bag. That’s a difference of about $11,000 every time a 1,000-acre farm is replanted.
Considering that popular traits such as Roundup Ready and BT don’t actually improve yield — it is the underlying quality of the unpatented germplasm, or seed, that ultimately determines yield — these unprecedented price increases, along with higher prices in the commodity markets being paid for non-GMO soybeans, sent many soybean farmers scrambling to try to return to planting cheaper, traditional non-GMO seed, which would also allow them the option of keeping back seed to replant the next season. Just one problem. In many instances, farmers quickly discovered that they could no longer purchase non-GMO seed to plant. It simply wasn’t available.
As early as 2008, finding non-GMO seed was already becoming a serious problem. In an article that ran that year in The Organic & Non-GMO Report, U.S. Soy President Jim Skiff said, “We heard from other growers who said they couldn’t get non-GMO seed. There is getting to be less seed available.”
Also in the article, Klaas Martens, owner of Lakeview Organic Grain, stated his belief that “the high adoption rates of genetically modified soybeans by farmers are ‘artificially engineered’ because seed companies are shelving non-GMO varieties so farmers have no choice but to grow GM.” Skiff went so far as to claim that he “heard reports that Monsanto is telling its seed suppliers that they would not get Roundup Ready2 varieties when they become available if they continue selling non-GMO soybean seed.”
This was the market condition five years ago. It has only gotten worse since.
This is what happens under the Monsanto model, which has become something akin to a technological treadmill. The company continuously makes technological advances in the form of patented traits, which it then stacks onto seeds to be sold by its subsidiaries and partners while simultaneously cutting back on the available supply of less profitable seeds, which are those containing fewer or no traits. In fact, eight-trait seeds are becoming the new norm.
As one-trait seeds gave way to twotrait seeds that gave way to even more expensive three-stacked traits that have now given way to eight, seed companies directly owned by Monsanto or influenced by the company through its secretive trait licensing agreements have for years been eliminating the less profitable seeds from their inventories.
As a result of this culling of inventory based on what seeds are most profitable, it’s becoming increasingly hard for farmers to find and purchase an affordable seed with just one patented trait instead of three or eight, most of which the farmer may not need, let alone want to pay for.
But far more disturbing, considering what may soon occur in the retail food market as a result of GMO labeling, it has become quite difficult to find non-GMO seeds that can be grown in a sustainable fashion year after year without having to continually repurchase new seeds from the likes of Monsanto. And if it’s difficult to find such seeds now, what will happen if and when there is a sudden and massive rush for non-GMO seed as a result of GMO labeling’s impact on consumer choice? The short answer is that consumers and farmers will likely pay a staggering economic price, while Monsanto may well see its profits further increased.
Faster than a speeding bullet or government oversight
Monsanto has a history of capitalizing on market upheaval. For instance, Bloomberg recently reported on Monsanto earnings under the headline, “Monsanto Sees Advantage In U.S. Drought Testing Corn Output.” The article goes on to say that “the world’s biggest seed company said it stands to gain from the worst U.S. Midwest drought in a decade because the difficult conditions may demonstrate its superior yields and create seed shortages for competitors. Drought may cut seed output at smaller U.S. competitors, while Monsanto has the option of shipping more seed from Latin America.”
This is, in fact, what has happened. Several of the last remaining independent seed companies, companies that provide the only real competition, albeit minor, to Monsanto and its multinational friends, have stated their concern that the drought may well drive them out of business, further consolidating the already monopolized seed industry.
Another example of how Monsanto’s business model can adapt to, and even thrive on, market obstacles is found in the company’s successful takeover of the sugar beet industry. You may recall the long debate over whether or not Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets should have been allowed to be grown on Boulder County open space. The debate, which went on for month after month while our county commissioners kicked the can down the road, repeatedly claiming that more study on the issue was needed, finally concluded last year that Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets could be grown on our public lands.
By letting so much time pass while supposedly studying the science and safety of GMO sugar beets, the commissioners played right into Monsanto’s plan. They had been played to perfection by the company that understood what the commissioners did not, namely that while Boulder studied the science, Monsanto so thoroughly took over the sugar beet market as to make planting anything other than GMO sugar beets virtually impossible. Here’s how it worked.
When Monsanto introduced sugar beet seeds with its patented Roundup Ready trait, the market embraced the technology. Sugar-beet farmers had long been plagued by weeds that had grown resistant to the pesticides they were using. Farmers knew that the Roundup Ready trait would offer at least a temporary fix to their weed problem, at least until the weeds developed a resistance to Roundup. But what happened next caught even the GMO-happy beet farmers by surprise.
Within 24 months of its launch and without any environmental impact study having been conducted, Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets comprised more than 95 percent of the total U.S. sugar beet market. At that point, The Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit claiming that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had violated the law by licensing Monsanto’s genetically engineered sugar beets without performing the required study.
A federal judge found in favor of the center and ordered that Monsanto’s sugar beet license be revoked until the study was completed. That’s when the true power of Monsanto’s business model reared its head.
In an article for Grist, journalist Tom Laskawy describes what happened next. “The problem with the judge’s order, however, was that Monsanto had so successfully crowded out sugar beet seed competitors that once he ruled the beets ‘illegal,’ it quickly became clear that there were no conventional sugar beet seeds to be found. So America faced the prospect of a 20 percent reduction in that year’s sugar crop. In response — and in defiance of the federal judge’s order — the USDA allowed farmers to plant GM sugar beets anyway.”
In June of this year, the environmental impact study by the USDA was finally completed. All the while Monsanto has been selling its sugar beet seeds with impunity to help stave off a threatened sugar shortage that the company largely created. The study found that Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets do have the ability to contaminate, by pollen drift, not only non-GMO sugar beets — should any such plant still exist — but also table beets, Swiss chard and wild beet varieties. The environmental study also predicts that the Roundup Ready sugar beets may also contribute to the growing problem of both superweeds and superbugs, which are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup.
Yet despite these concerns, the study recommended full deregulation of GMO sugar beets. This means that the GMO beets qualify for unrestricted planting. The study says that it gave great weight to the fact that there is not enough conventional non-GMO seed left in the marketplace to prevent a sugar crisis, should the Roundup Ready beets have been restricted.
Victory Monsanto. By distributing its patented trait seed while removing much, if not most, of the non-patented competition from the marketplace, Monsanto was actually able to win for no other reason than it backed the USDA into a corner. The agency had to either allow Monsanto to continue to sell its patented sugar beet trait with absolutely no restrictions, or cause a sugar shortage that would have revealed USDA’s completely impotent oversight of the food industry. Brilliantly played. Our poor county commissioners never had a chance against that kind of firepower.
It’s unclear exactly what Monsanto will do if GMO labeling becomes the law of the land, thereby destroying much of the market for the company’s GMO seeds. Monsanto has said that if California passes its labeling initiative, food prices will spiral higher out of control. Considering that Monsanto also has a near monopoly ownership on most traditional, non-GMO seeds as well as those containing its traits, it can probably make that prediction come true.
If the USDA was too afraid of a 20 percent sugar shortage to take action to restrict Monsanto’s business practices, how will it deal with the possibility of major shortages in the corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, fruit and vegetable sectors?
And what else could Monsanto have up its sleeve to ensure that farmers are forced to buy seeds from the company every year, as opposed to saving and planting their own seed? One answer that has activists trembling is the knowledge that when Monsanto purchased a genetically engineered cotton seed company called Delta Pine and Land a few years back, it acquired what is commonly called the “terminator” trait. While Monsanto insists that such a technology is simply too controversial to be used at this point, it hasn’t said that it has abandoned the technology. A seed stacked with the terminator trait would produce a plant that would only grow one time. Even if seeds were saved back from a crop of terminator plants, they would be useless because they would not grow.
For obvious reasons, there are many myths surrounding the terminator technology that are more science fiction than reality. But who can say what Monsanto, the world’s largest and most influential provider of the basic ingredient for the global food supply, will do if come November it is faced with the potential rapid decline in the use of its most valuable patented products? I suspect the company will not go quietly into the traditional seed business.