An Afternoon at Monsanto (dun dun dun)

For most of this trip I have opted to visit small public research institutions because their work can reveal how local perceptions, challenges, and priorities differ around the world. However, to circumnavigate the world researching GMOs without talking about the dominant global force in transgenic seed production would be to leave out a huge part of the story. So today I’m going to talk about Monsanto.

Last week I visited with researchers and executives at Monsanto’s offices in Johannesburg, South Africa. Today I’ll discuss their for-profit work and next time I’ll talk about some of their not-for-profit projects here in Africa.

Before beginning my trip I conducted a focus group about Northwestern students’ perceptions on GMOs. The most memorable quote of the conversation: “when I hear the word Monsanto, I just think ughhh…. but I don’t really know why.” Even one of the Monsanto executives that I met in South Africa acknowledged the public’s Pavlov-like aversion to their brand. So why are people so turned off by this seed company? Well, for the strongly anti-GMO crowd, Monsanto is an easy scapegoat for all evils. They are also one of the largest seed companies in the world, so if you’re not into big corporations on principle then maybe that causes you unease (though they’re certainly not the largest company that touched your last meal – see Cargill, Walmart, Costco, Berkshire Hathaway, any oil company). They also enforce their patents, which I will discuss shortly. I don’t necessarily want to declare Monsanto good or bad, but I do want to discuss how my experiences meeting with them in Johannesburg differed from my experiences at other research institutes.

The most important way that Monsanto differed from the other institutes was how they view regulations. The scientists at INDEAR in Argentina, Embrapa in Brazil, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa each expressed how expensive GMO regulatory processes change or hinder their research. At Monsanto, the people I spoke with explicitly and implicitly described how heavy regulations can be to their benefit.

One Monsanto executive described how the Mad Cow Disease outbreak caused Europeans to lose faith in their food regulators. On the other hand, Americans generally have faith in their regulators, which means they are more comfortable consuming GMOs because they have been independently tested by a trusted government agency. Thus, applying for external regulatory approval can be expensive for Monsanto but it’s worth it if it helps gain public trust.

Another benefit has to do with patents. I didn’t completely understand how seed royalties and patents worked before someone at Monsanto explained them to me last week. Essentially Monsanto licences their transgenic traits to other seed companies, who incorporate the traits into their own seeds. Then Monsanto receives royalties for every bag of seed that company sells. When the transgenic patents expire, the seed company could use the trait without paying royalties, but someone has to maintain the regulatory approval in that country. This leaves the seed company with two options: go through the regulatory process themselves (a considerable expense), or continue paying royalties and allow Monsanto to deal with regulatory upkeep. Most of the time the seed company goes with the latter scenario, and come to a deal with Monsanto that involves lower royalties than before and is mutually beneficial from a business standpoint. In the end the expense of regulation is one factor that protects Monsanto’s royalties even after patents have expired.

While Monsanto’s work is on a much larger scale, it was similar to the other institutes in some ways. For one, it’s an enterprise that exists to serve farmers, who will only plant a transgenic seed if they find it beneficial. Second, the employees of Monsanto had the same goal as any Brazilian scientist, Argentine anti-GMO filmmaker, or Ghanaian farmer: put food on the table of their families. Naturally this goal will affect how each of these individuals view GMOs and prevent any group to be completely free of political or economic influence.

Monsanto focuses on commodity crops and traits that improve efficiency and are highly profitable. Scientists there pointed out that they have developed plenty of traits for added nutrition or for smaller-scale crops, but they don’t make it to the field because they don’t earn the company enough money. This was actually a common theme across all types of institutions – without philanthropic investment it’s impossible to develop GMOs or any crop for the sole purpose of benefiting society. It doesn’t mean that a profitable crop can’t be beneficial, but it means that a beneficial crop has to be profitable.

Of course that last statement seems obvious, but as a progressive 21-year-old with a lot of optimism for science, faith in humanity and a life goal of saving the world, it’s a good reality check to type it out. Here in Ghana I’m learning about a transgenic project funded by philanthropy. In my next post I’ll discuss my findings, as well as a bit on the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in South/East Africa.
Thanks for reading and as always feel free to comment. Bye for now!

(Also sorry for the lack of pictures – I have limited wifi now but will upload some next week!)