Probably no one was more shocked than I when it was reported this week that Monsanto is now focusing on becoming a leader in …. drumroll, please …. organics!
The multinational chemical company that is notorious for turning open pollinated seeds into genetically engineered varieties is not known for its …. um… sensitivity for natural growing methods.
Nonetheless there it was in Wired magazine, with the headline: Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie.
The article (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/01/new-monsanto-vegetables/) points out that in addition to its global dominance in buying up seed companies and genetically engineering their seeds to withstand its pesticides and herbicides, etc., Monsanto also has a huge reservoir of traditionally developed seed varieties through its Borg-like acquisition of those rival seed companies.
In addition, it has been ongoing in its clinical genetic research of these seeds and developing new strains.
As the article states, these varieties “may be born in a lab, but technically they’re every bit as natural as what you’d get at a farmers’ market. Keep them away from pesticides and transport them less than 100 miles and you could call them organic and locavore too.”
Credit Monsanto to also come up with a way to speed up the process of cross breeding, using a “seed chipper” to identify genetic traits that make a lettuce crisper or more flavorful, for example, then only cross breed plants with those traits in a traditional manner.
The result is “super veggies” that can be sold as nonGMO, or even certified organic, if one takes the time to isolate and develop them (which Monsanto, of course, has the resources to do).
With this news, I’m perplexed, to say the least, and I’m sure others who have long labored in the sustainable and organics field are, too.
I wish Monsanto had gone this way earlier and developed a strong organic presence that would support sustainability; if it had, it would not be facing such opposition – and would see that it’s a more profitable avenue in the long run, developing partners instead of creating division.
I’m one of the few people, I guess, who remembers Delta and Pine Land Co. at Stoneville, MS, when it developed new seed varieties the old fashioned way — back when investors in Memphis owned it, and before Monsanto bought the company.
Back in the 1970s, when I was covering the Mississippi Delta for the old Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, I was a supporter of this research; after all, who could fault “science” and developing agriculture as a modern, international business where farmers were CEOs directly tied to their fortunes on international markets?
It was an exciting concept and heady times! As a journalist, I eagerly wrote about this emerging role for farmers as “agri-businessmen” and women, who were riding the wave of this promising scientific progress.
Sadly, like The New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin now, I “bought” the line that “science” would “save” agriculture. And, like Revkin now, even if he doesn’t see it yet, I was wrong. It took me about a decade to see that something was seriously wrong with modern agriculture as it was going that no amount of new chemicals, genetic engineering or expanding markets could fix. It was inherently unsustainable — and toxic — multidirectionally.
Of course, as with GMOs, now we know that big corporate interests can fund enough science labs and control the publication of their results so that even bad science can be passed off as positive. The Big Ag corporate PR machine has “spin” for every criticism. And opponents are simply dismissed as Luddites who don’t want to “feed the world” (e.g. capture world markets through monopolies, patents and forced government treaties).
Of course, back then, few could see how this would turn out — except visionaries like Wendell Berry with books like The Unsettling of America (1977).
Sure enough, farmers started going bust, as the “get big or get out” mentality took hold, and now we have 40 years worth of cheerleaders for Big Ag and Frankenfood telling us bad is good and up is down. The naked Emperor’s clothes look good! Food-related illness – obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and food allergies – be damned!
So now, too, the Monsanto leopard wants to change its spots?
I’m not sure how this will go. Certainly, Monsanto can produce lots and lots of seeds at a cheaper cost than the somewhat boutique brands that are slowly developing certified organic seeds from heirloom and other varieties. The company can almost be assured, also, of cornering the market on industrial organic agriculture, particularly in the international market.
Be prepared for the onslaught of new Monsanto veggies at grocery stores, some, eventually, with the certified organic label.
It’s a smart move on Monsanto’s part: If you can’t beat ’em, join em… sort of… and outproduce them and underprice ’em. We’ll see if its corporate philosophy changes, as well. (I doubt it.)
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.