Blame Monsanto, not GMO Technology

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

By now, it’s commonplace to hear diehard Oberlin food justice activists, and even mainstream Americans, talk about the agricultural company Monsanto with anger and hatred. Its name has become synonymous with “genetically modified organisms,” and the term GMO has come to signify “harmful” in the minds of many because the produce is believed to be nutritionally inferior or even dangerous to organic varieties. Unfortunately, Monsanto’s corporate malevolence has tainted a form of technology that is not inherently harmful — like anything else, it’s how you use it that matters.

Genetically modified foods have the potential to be grown sustainably and to vastly improve people’s lives, but not if they are grown under the Monsanto model of monoculture and fossil fuel-dependent additives. The problem isn’t the science, it’s the corporate power Monsanto uses to take advantage of federal policies that give it subsidies and undue power in the market over certain crops.

Companies that produce their own varieties of GMO seeds can determine how those seeds must be grown to give the farmers using their product a minuscule profit. If you buy Monsanto’s seeds, you also need to buy its herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, and to be successful, you need to grow and harvest a massive amount of the crop. Monsanto profits by forcing farmers to adhere to a monoculture system that it knows will eventually decrease the nutrients in the soil. This forces the farmer to buy more fertilizer and pesticides to remedy unhealthy soil.

Genetic modification is not the most unethical part of Monsanto’s system. Though it does allow the company to patent a seed’s genes and claim ownership of that variety.

Despite “genetic modification” sounding like the tool of an evil scientist, it is not a horrible thing. Evolution is just genetic modification over time, influenced by a variety of factors. Change is natural. But now, humans are dictating how this genetic modification is playing out in an abridged timeline. But genetic modification still isn’t new. Animal domestication for consumption and even dog breeding are forms of genetic modification by humans, and these animals therefore fit the definition of “genetically modified organisms.”

The technology of modification, especially for crops, has the potential to improve quality of life if it can be decoupled from Monsanto’s constraints. Due to climate change, many plants and foods will be grown in areas unsuited to them, and in places where droughts are common, this could be devastating. When other species of pests become dominant in different ecological niches and pose a threat to staple crops, the ability to quickly engineer resistant seeds could save whole communities.

Many people still rely on subsistence farming, and if their food is threatened, so are their livelihoods. It is worthwhile to use technology to counteract an overuse of fossil fuels, but subsistence farmers have not been the drivers and creators of this environmental devastation.

The Monsanto model of food consumption is no way to react to our changing climate, but developing ways to make genetically modified organisms viable for everyone just might be.