Monsanto Will Disappear, But The Issues Won’t

When Bayer closes its huge takeover deal later this week, Monsanto will cease to exist. But the issues that dogged it may not.

Monsanto became the poster child for opposition to genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs.” It’s a complicated issue, since famers have been grafting plants together for thousands of years; broccoli is the product of human intervention, not Nature’s pantry.

But Monsanto attracted attention for its bluntly commercial efforts — it patented a GMO soybean seed rendered dependent on its Roundup brand weed killer — and became the focus of subsequent arguments over the legality and advisability of tinkering with living things.

There are good debates to be had about patenting life; you might not know it, but nearly 20% of the human genome is already covered by patents, which means the owners need to be paid if someone else wants to use them in a medical experiment.

So what happens when a company creates a new variety of plant, and then the owners decide to raise prices? How about when certain foods are imbued with particular benefits — say, memory repair — but are only available to those rich enough to afford them?

But the legal issues aren’t what really bother folks…we’re scared about what we don’t know about how GMOs might impact our health, or that of the planet.

Monsanto, and the institutions on which it relies for third-party validation, could not have done a better job of fueling our fears had they tried.

Though there’s broad scientific consensus that there are no direct links between GMOs and ill health, claiming the case closed appears disingenuous, at best, since people’s concerns include whether or not GMOs are as good for you as natural alternatives, and what those changed foods might do to the metabolism of other foods. Our bodies are complex systems.

Worries aren’t just about what GMOs do/don’t do now, but also look to how they may evolve in the future. Today’s brilliant, patented gene splice could become tomorrow’s Frankengene, and there’s no legitimate way that scientists can guarantee that won’t happen.

The fact that, say, stalks of wheat haven’t learned over the past few thousand years to strangle farmers looks comfortingly reliable by comparison, and it makes it particularly odd that the US government gave Monsanto and others immunity from any unintended damages that might occur down the road (it gave the nascent nuclear power industry the same get-out-of-jail-free card in the 1950s).

People have other concerns, including worries about what happens when that patented seed beats out natural ones for water and nutrients, so farmers become dependent on them, or require use of chemicals and/or practices that are harmful to the environment in the long-term (but wildly profitable in the short-term).

Monsanto’s answer has been to insist there’s nothing to worry about, which is about as convincing as raising your voice when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand your language…

Read the entire essay at Medium