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Big Seed, Bigger Problems

Replace the farming idyll before we replace Monsanto

By Shubhankar Chhokra, Crimson Staff Writer

Around the time Harvard students return to campus in the fall and start browsing the course catalog, our nation’s two million farmers pore over a catalog of their own. They choose, of course, not between classes but between seeds, which are distributed by enough suppliers in enough variety to take up three or four Q guides.

Masked beneath this illusion of choice, however, lies the workings of big seed—the corporate enclosure of 67 percent of the proprietary seed market by 10 companies which in turn own or are affiliated with thousands of others. They are the proverbial Expos of the commercial seed catalog—patronizingly marketed under the pretense of free choice and variety, yet hard if not impossible to avoid.

The kingpin of this seed cartel, Monsanto, has become commonly cited as the “most evil corporation" in the world, an epithet earned no doubt because of the popularity of documentaries like "Food, Inc." and "GMO OMG" and the power of the art of storytelling. We've heard compelling anecdotes from flannel-clad farmers, with little authority beyond their all-Americanism and the blueness of their collar, of Monsanto’s henchmen testing their crops in the middle of the night for traces of their product and filing a lawsuit the following morning.

Monsanto is perhaps the last company on the planet that deserves anything that can be remotely interpreted as slack. But it is important to note that in the process of denigrating Monsanto, we have lost sight of a comprehensive and rational dialogue on agricultural innovations needed to meet a higher—and categorically different—demand for food than we’ve ever seen before. To that end, we should absolve Monsanto from some blame.

Monsanto owns patents on many of its genetically modified seeds, most notably its Roundup Ready series, which has been engineered to be resistant to Roundup herbicide (also owned by Monsanto). Farmers who plant Roundup Ready seeds or other GMOs therefore have had to use less herbicide and insecticide and gain greater crop yields. To protect its business interests and allegedly the spirit of innovation that comes in tandem, Monsanto contractually obliges farmers to buy new seed every year instead of letting them save seed from the previous crop. Monsanto’s business model effectively treats seeds like music or software—making those who refuse to buy Monsanto’s products from the source pirates, who should have legal action brought against them.

But farming isn’t a software industry as much as it’s an American institution. Farmers are the lifeblood of this nation, toiling amber fields of grain from dawn to dusk to literally, and far more importantly, symbolically feed the country. This makes it infinitely easier for anti-GMO activists to use storytelling as a tool to skew public opinion against Monsanto and, far more unfortunately, against innovation in agriculture.

Monsanto does not, for example, sue farmers with accidental traces of Monsanto seeds blown over from neighboring plots, despite the popularity of the story of ultimately dishonest canola grower Percy Schmeiser. The corporation furthermore has never released the so-called “Terminator seed” that only propagates once and cannot be saved, yet this continues to be a popular sound byte in anti-GMO rhetoric. Environmentalists who forge sentimentalist narratives to fight GMOs are as counterproductive as their adversaries. In shifting all the blame for the food-industrial complex on corporate greed, they glorify farmers who douse their crops with chemicals in the name of greater yields, and those who are using well-established and GMO-free—but perhaps equally unsustainable—methods to meet a higher demand for food.

Farming is a field that has thrived on innovation. Those who support Monsanto and those against it share the responsibility of feeding the seven billion people on this planet and feeding them well—a task that is probably impossible without patently unconventional agricultural techniques.

In his aptly named book “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than you Can Imagine”, activist John Jeavon claims that every person on the planet can feed themselves with just 100 square feet of well-managed land. He introduces hydroponics and integrated pest management as alternatives to GMOs, not alternatives to an updated agricultural system altogether.

Monsanto’s PR-sensitivity is a good reminder that big companies have their own interests in mind first. It’s also a good reminder that GMO technology is only one and a grossly under tested solution to food shortage and food insecurity. Food is guilty until proven innocent, and farmers have the responsibility and option to go post-GMO by returning to conventional seed grown with unconventional methods. But by disparaging Monsanto and pitying the farmer, we implicitly perpetuate the frame of mind that farming is this unchanging, idyllic institution that should be left the way it is. On the contrary, farming needs to be disrupted—by manifold agents who should be checked, but not stifled, by public opinion. Reason should prevail over emotion as we approach a new agricultural frontier, one that is limited not by the extent of American land but by the extent of American ingenuity.

Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Apley Court. His column appears on alternate Fridays. 

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