GM Crops Benefit Rich Corporations, Not the Poor Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (March 22,2009)

On Monday, 18 May 2009, Matin Qaim will lecture on Benefits of GM crops for the poor at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study Week on “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development” in Rome. In his abstract he writes: “Among these benefits are insecticide savings, higher effective yields through reduced crop losses, and net revenue gains, in spite of higher seed prices.”

Almost all of these claims are contested in the Friends of the Earth study: Food Sovereignty: who benefits from gm crops? Feeding the biotech giants, not the world’s poor.  The Friends of the Earth study refutes the claim that GM crops lead to major reductions in pesticide use.  In  Argentina overall glyphosate use more than tripled from 65.5 million litres in 1999/2000 to over 200 million litres in 2005/6.  In 2007, a glyphosate-resistant version of Johnsongrass (Sorghum halapense) one of the most damaging weeds in the world had infested 120,000 hectares of the prime cropland in the country.  Farmers are now using more toxic weedkillers such as paraquat, diquat and triazine to control weeds.  It is estimated that 25 million litres of herbicides will be needed each year to control resistant weeds which, in turn, will increase overall production costs dramatically. [1]

The claims for higher yield from GM crops are also disputed.  The Friends of the Earth study states that “none of the GM crops on the market are modified for increased yield potential.” Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture admits that “genetic engineering has not increased the yield potential of any commercialized GM crop.”  They point to a University of Nebraska study which attributes a 6% yield drag directly to unintended effects of the genetic modification process used to create Roundup Ready soybeans.[2]

The one certainty about GM crops is that they are making massive profits for biotech corporations such as Monsanto.  The silence on this crucial matter from all who will speak at the Pontifical Academy event is staggering. Monsanto is the largest seed firm in the world. It now has almost a monopoly on biotech “traits” incorporated into GM seeds such as herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (IR).  It also markets the Roundup pesticides.  Because of this extraordinary control Monsanto’s revenue is expected to increase by 74% between 2007 and 2010.  In money terms that involves a jump from $8.6 billion to $14.9 billion.

Despite these profits, seed prices have risen dramatically. The average price of soybean seed has increased by 50% in the past two years in the U.S. The company is expected to roll out a more costly version of their patented Roundup Ready soybeans (called RoundUp Ready 2) in 2009. This will further increase costs for farmers.  Monsanto is also raising the GM corn seeds by $90 to $100 a bag in 2009.  The Friends of the Earth Report claims that “the company (Monsanto) has also raised its trait prices for its less expensive single and double-stack corn seed more sharply than for triple-stack corn in order to move as many customers to triple stacks as possible, creating a captive customer base for the 2010 launch of its SmartStax octo-stack product. “[3]

The retail price of Monsanto’s glyphosate, Roundup has increased by 134% in less than two years. The revenue from Roundup in 2006 was $2.3 billion dollars so the further increase has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into Monsanto’s coffers.  A similar pattern has emerged from Argentina.  At the end of 2007, the increased demand from agrochemicals coincided with a substantial rise in the price of Roundup when compared to the price of herbicides which are used on conventional crops.

The virtual monopoly position enjoyed by Monsanto has further negative consequences for U.S. farmers.  Monsanto are now incorporating Roundup Ready traits into maize which until now had only been modified to be resistant to insect pests (Bt crops).  Now the farmers find these crops have herbicide resistant traits as well.  This “trait penetration” strategy means higher profits from selling the seeds and the herbicide.  It also copper-fastens the farmers’ dependence on GM traits and Roundup.

GM has made a fortune for biotech companies. Monsanto’s monopoly position has meant that it can increase both the price of its GM seeds and herbicide even when food prices are increasing rapidly, thus pushing more and more people into poverty.  They are also stacking traits in order to make more money. How this technology which is owned by corporations can help the poor is beyond me.

[1] Food sovereignty. Who benefits from gm crops? Feeding the biotech giants, not the world’s poor, Friends of the Earth International, Issue 116, February 2009, PO Box 19199, 1000GD Amsterdam, The Netherlands.>  page 7.

[2] Ibid page 7.

[3] Ibid page 6.


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