07 April 2010

Monsanto, Monoculture, and Consumer-Driven Monopolies

I'm not about to write a blog about mean old Monsanto; that is not my point tonight. For a solid month now, I've been thinking about this topic.

So why haven't I blogged for two months? I've been hibernating. And watching documentaries.

Back to the topic at hand: if you haven't heard of Monsanto, then you've been missing out on an interesting debate. When I started typing "monsa" into my Google toolbar, the first two results were "monsanto" and "monsanto evil," followed then by "monsanto jobs." To me this means that as many people believe Monsanto is evil as want to work there. Monsanto calls itself simply "an agricultural company" when, in fact, its influence over crops reaches worldwide, and its genetic modification of seeds lies at the heart of a global miraculous-or-maleficent debate. In a nutshell: Monsanto designed Roundup resistant crops that can be doused with Roundup to kill the weeds in the crop without killing the crop itself. Their scientists also developed insect-resistant, drought-resistant, more nutritious, better-colored, all-around more appealing crops. They claim to have increased crop yields and reduced the need for excessive weed killers and pesticides, which is supposed to be better for the environment. They are considered by some to be evil, though, for several reasons:
  • Some people hate all genetically modified foods, as we don't know the long-term effects of eating them, but we see the effects of growing them.
  • Their crops are leading the evolution of tougher insects, tougher diseases, and tougher weeds, which lead to the need for more pesticides, more herbicides, and more genetic modification.
  • The most popular criticism is against the monopoly they have on seed sales: their seeds are expensive, and they are patented and therefore cannot be crossed with other strains without spurring legal action. While farmers say they spend less on pesticides and fertilizers with these seeds, the company's crops have edged out smaller seed companies because farmers must buy Monsanto seeds to compete.
  • The company has been involved in many lawsuits highlighting dubious corporate ethics.
  • An urban legend about a "terminator gene" that prevented farmers from gathering and reusing seeds the next year by removing a plant's ability to produce fertile seeds hasn't helped the company's image.
I am not about to make a case for or against Monsanto here. What interests me is one of the factors that led to both the success and vilification of the company: monoculture. I first heard the word while watching the documentary "The Botany of Desire," which is based on the book of the same name by Michael Pollan. The film covered four agricultural products which have so captured human interest that they transformed history: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. The segment about the potatoes, which came last and barely held my interest at first, revealed that every McDonald's restaurant around the world--every one--uses the same breed of potato for its french fries. They want every experience of a McDonald's fry to be the same no matter where in the world you buy it. From a business standpoint, I completely appreciate the desire to maintain consistency of quality and taste in a product that so deliciously epitomizes the McDonald's brand. From an agricultural standpoint, though, the demand of the global public for this one breed of potatoes creates problems in industrial farming that we may not be prepared to handle.

As with the Monsanto super-seeds that lead to the evolution of super-bugs and super-blights, the monocultures of popular produce like McDonald's favorite potatoes kills the bio-diversity that supports natural defenses against disease and pests. The more breeds of potatoes grown in an area, the more difficult it becomes for any one blight to have devastating effects. One breed of potato feeding the world means one successful mutation of a pest or disease could wipe out crops, farmers, industries . . . the Botany of Desire web site on PBS.com quickly spells out the implications of monoculture. Farmers "are forced by modern-day tastes to grow just one type of spud," which means they must spend more to protect those crops from their quickly mutating enemies, and of course, Monsanto attempted to step up to the challenge.

The market then killed the Monsanto potato. The people didn't want genetically modified potatoes. The people chose chemically doused potatoes.

So suddenly I realized that we, the people of the developed world, have reached a point in our demands where we recognize some sort of desired quality or trait and can capitalize on that, mass-produce it, and market it in such a way that people want that quality or trait merely because others want it. We prefer that the means of producing or distributing it not have too negative an effect on us or the environment, but if the price is right, we will gamble with the future. The world population has developed some pervasive and sometimes incompatible demands over the past century, and what that might mean for the global market and the human race is what I've been thinking about for the past month.

So many variables clutter my head. I support Etsy because I support the endeavors of individual entrepreneurs and artisans, and therefore I endorse the value of diversity in the marketplace. On the other hand, the most successful businesses have grown to what they are by satisfying the whims of the public, and we can't blame a company for succeeding. How can we question the ethics of catering to our whims when we have a responsibility to sensibly refrain from some of our cravings? The problem lies in our desires, and that means we would have to sacrifice satiation of some of those desires in the interest of sustainability. We would have to give up the comfort of the taste of a McDonald's french fry from one franchise to another. We would have to accept that from one location to another, food would take on a local flavor and be unique to that area, like the vegetarian patties in McDonald's restaurants in India. Perhaps we could learn to appreciate subtle variations in products, even from a well-established brand, like we appreciate cigars or wine or even just a tiny diner. It seems like such a trend is growing, but our survival depends upon it, and we are persistent in our recognition of and desire for inexpensive consistent joys. Independent rarely means inexpensive.

I realized recently that one way to get to know a person better is by listening to their choice of indie music, if they've been exposed to any. Pop music caters to our most basic levels of music appreciation, which isn't a bad thing, but it mostly reflects cultural tastes because people are so influenced by the culture around them. It's in choosing from amongst the lesser-known artists and maybe experimental styles that we more articulately define ourselves. After learning about monoculture, though, I realize the implications of our tastes on the global market, the global food supply, and global peace. A month ago, I was beginning to conclude that the root of humanity's problems is a lack of access to quality education for all, but can education affect our tastes enough to dull the comfort of consistency? Will our willingness to create and patronize businesses that satisfy our cravings on a global scale result in catastrophic crop failures and deadly battles over raw materials, or will it merely leave us with a bland but universally appreciated palate of products and a few communes of hippies in handmade hemp clothes? Our survival as a species could depend on our ability to embrace the diversity of small-scale production over the popularity, profitability, and accountability of global market penetration.

Do you see why I've been so pensive lately? 

    3 comments:

    The Wilsons said...

    As always, very thought out! I've been investigating some of this too. I'm reading the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and have watched Food Inc. and the Future of Food. I'll have to add in the movie you mentioned. We've been trying to buy more local meat/produce/dairy where we can. IT is crazy the change in agriculture over more recent years. I'm also trying not to kill all my vegetables in my garden so we don't have to rely fully on other for food! I keep meaning to finish my blog post on how you can find local food, maybe I will get to that today! I've missed your posts and facebooking!

    Carla

    Anonymous said...

    Interesting post. Another interesting documentary focusing on some of these same issues reagrding flavor consistency is Mondovino, which is about the globalization of the wine industry. One of the central points of the film is that a combination of certain overly influential wine critics and international wine manufacturers have caused a trend amongst wineries all over the world to strive for the same taste.

    -- Steven

    Rose Fanta said...

    Great consumer article. I Rose Fanta am a CPG Recruiter for the consumer packaged goods industry. We are a food and CPG recruiting firm that recruits food manufacturing and consumer packaged goods applicants for CPG jobs and food manufacturing jobs.