Last month, more than 2,000 people in Seattle joined protestors in more than 400 cities and 50 countries to collectively speak out against Monsanto, one of the world’s biggest agricultural biotechnology corporations, which specializes in genetically engineered (GE) seeds. But in a sense, those people were also protesting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, since the world’s wealthiest nonprofit supports the biotech giant.
This is an unfortunate connection that perpetuates hunger around the globe.
From its beginning, Monsanto has been responsible for manufacturing and distributing highly toxic and carcinogenic products such as polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, and Agent Orange. In the 1940s Monsanto was one of 15 companies that produced the insecticide DDT, the use of which was criticized in Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental book “Silent Spring.” In 1972, U.S. officials banned the agricultural use of DDT.
Now, the company claims it has left chemical manufacturing behind and is exclusively focused on sustainable solutions to food production promoting the use of GE corn, soy, cotton and other crops. And this is where the Gates Foundation comes in: A financial donor to Monsanto, the Gates Foundation advocates for the use of GE foods to solve hunger in developing countries. However, history has shown that instead of eradicating hunger, GE seeds perpetuate food insecurity.
For instance, Monsanto’s GE corn is modified so that Roundup, the company’s herbicide, can be sprayed on the crop to kill weeds while leaving the corn plants intact. Those crops with poisonous residue are later ingested by humans and animals. Plus, the use of Roundup has resulted in new strains of super weeds that are now resistant to the herbicide. Moreover, the company’s GE seeds require synthetic fertilizer, which must be purchased each year from Monsanto or its subsidiaries. This completely contradicts any claims Monsanto makes about promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
Monsanto’s aggressive tactics also hurt many farmers. Traditionally, farmers have saved seeds and, over generations, developed seeds to fit their local conditions. The corporation’s strict contractual agreements prohibit farmers from saving GE seeds and require them to purchase new seeds every year.
In India, Monsanto’s insect-repellant Bt cotton wreaked havoc on that country’s farmers. Those seeds cost twice as much as conventional ones and require greater inputs of water and costly herbicides and pesticides. Unable to escape the debt treadmill, thousands of Indian farmers committed suicide.
In Haiti, Monsanto donated $4 million worth of hybrid fruits and vegetables to farmers after the destructive 2010 earthquakes. But because hybrid seeds cannot reproduce the same traits year after year, farmers were obligated to continue purchasing the same costly seeds and maintain them with expensive chemicals.
Closer to home, hundreds of North American farmers have been sued for violating the company’s technology licensing agreement. Farmers whose fields had been contaminated with Monsanto’s GE seeds by neighbors’ plots have been taken to court and ordered to pay thousands of dollars for patent infringement. In May, news agencies reported Monsanto’s unapproved, experimental GE wheat had infiltrated an 80-acre field in Oregon; the company called the altered wheat “suspicious.”
These are just a few examples of how Monsanto practices its business. But this seems lost on the Gates Foundation, which has a goal to “reduce hunger and poverty … by increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable way.” The nonprofit’s continued investment and support of Monsanto’s profit-driven, anti-farmer agenda runs counter to increasing global food security.
There are solutions for small farmers here and in poorer countries. Numerous reports from nonprofit, governmental and international organizations have concluded that food can be produced sustainably by bringing ecological principles to agriculture through a practice known as agroecology. The practice supports small-scale, traditional methods of farming and promotes crop diversity over a single-food crop, often referred to as a monoculture. Practicing agroecology also enables farmers to become independent and self-sufficient producers of natural, healthy foods.
Industrial agriculture continues to fall short of feeding the world but provides tremendous financial gains to Monsanto’s shareholders. It’s a shame the Gates Foundation, which many consider a local leading light, can’t see this. Until Monsanto and the Gates Foundation realize that sustainable agriculture, not GE seeds, is the solution to feed the world, many people around the globe will remain hungry.