Seeds of Damage
Environmental Studies – PHS 100A
Warner Pacific College
October 24, 2011
As you walk through the produce aisle and see varieties of fruits and vegetables you may marvel at amazing selection that we have in foods today. Although we do have the availability of many different varieties of food the actual variety of species continues to decline. Biodiversity in agriculture makes excellent sense ecologically; however it might not translate into the economy of farming. Seed companies work to genetically engineer the strongest and highest yielding crops possible. This often comes at the cost of species variety. It seems that it isn’t easy for these companies to see past the bottom line. In spite of the power of the American consumer, there is obviously little input that can be made as to what varieties of food are available. The only way we can protect our ecological and agricultural interests is to introduce subsidy or regulation to grow biodiversity in American farms.
Economic diversity cannot be the primary motivation the government should consider in the regulation of seed monopolies. Seed monopolies create a tremendous ecological threat as well as a risk to our food sources. This can be exemplified by the single variety of potato that was grown in Ireland in 1840. Due to the lack of genetic diversity a fungus was able to wipe out the entire crop, finally resulting in the Irish potato famine. More recently, a 1970 corn disease wiped out $1 billion in American corn crops. (http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/biodiversity, 2011) Today, we are losing biodiversity by developing genetically engineered seeds that are able to withstand strong herbicides that would otherwise kill them. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, 2010) This continues to escalate the amount of homogenization of available seeds in American farms.
A strong case in which a possible seed monopoly may be forming would be the Monsanto Company. Monsanto distributes both seed and pesticide to the agricultural industry. They boasted that their Roundup Ready Corn 2 accounted for 40% of the corn acreage for the 2006 U.S. crop. (http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx, 2011) As far as their Roundup Ready soybean seed is concerned, when it was developed in 1993 it only took five years for it to account for 38% of the total U.S. soybean acreage. (Carpenter Gianessi, 1999). In addition to this, Monsanto claims that there is an environmental advantage to these seed varieties because they are able to survive with less pesticide than other varieties of seed. The problem is that Monsanto not only distributes the seed, they also distribute the glyophosate herbicide that is used to protect these plants. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, 2010)
It is clear that Monsanto has very shrewdly begun to develop both a horizontal and vertical monopoly in the agricultural industry. It is horizontal because of the vast percentage of acreage that is being planted is Monsanto’s, proprietary, genetically modified seed. It is vertical because farmers are limited by what kind of seed and herbicide they can use. Because glyophosate Round Up creates less damage than other herbicides such as atrazine, farmers are now left with very little choice as far as what is available to protect their crops. 40% of Monsanto’s revenue comes from the sale of Round Up, making it clear that distributing seeds that work well with the herbicide is essential to the health of their company. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, 2010)
The solution for the pervasive growth of Monsanto isn’t clear to me. Unlike the antitrust lawsuit levied against Microsoft, the government will not solve the problem by attempting to break up the company. The creation of several mini Monsanto type companies won’t create more seed diversity and as much as the problem may be seen as economic the real problem is a lack of biodiversity. It is also clear that a green tax would end up damaging farmers as seed companies like Monsanto would pass the tax on to them. What would be most appealing to me would be a subsidization of farmers that avoided using herbicides altogether. By embracing newer tillage methods, multi-year crop rotations, and allowing their fields to have a few more weeds than Round Up sprayed fields farmers will protect both the environment as well as their businesses. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, 2010) If the government even created further subsidization for heritage and heirloom varieties of crops it is possible that it would be regulation by incentive that will create healthier biodiversity.
In the end, we need to do something to embrace biodiversity. 96% of vegetable varieties that were available one hundred years ago are now extinct. (http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/biodiversity, 2011) Additionally, as we continue to genetically engineer seeds to become tolerant of herbicides, nature is also adapting. Today weeds and pests are also becoming more and more tolerant. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, 2010) It seems that we have embraced genetic engineering and homogenizing seeds and the result could have tremendous ecological consequences. Without the implementation of some regulation we may continue to compromise our food sources and damage our environment.
Carpenter, J Gianessi, L (1999) Herbicide Tolerant Soybeans: Why Growers are Adopting Round Up Ready Varieties retrieved from http://www.agbioforum.org/v2n2/v2n2a02-carpenter.htm, October 23, 2011
(2011) The Issues Biodiversity retrieved from http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/biodiversity, October 22, 2011
(2010) Round Up Ready Soybeans retrieved from http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/roundup-ready-soybeans.html, October 22, 2011