[These sample student papers are provided only as examples of successful student research: they are not meant to prescribe any standard paper format and the content of each paper represents purely the author’s view.]
There have been numerous public controversies regarding the impact of genetic engineering on the safety of genetically modified (GM) food and the ethics. Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds, has been at the center of the criticisms on agribusiness and GM crops. This paper focuses on one of these controversies: Monsanto’s GMO practices and its effect on farmers. In particular, the high suicide rate among GM crop farmers in India due to its production has attracted a great deal of attention in the press. Is there in fact a negative effect of Monsanto on farmers? When genetic engineering is mentioned, many people have immediate negative reactions. However, we must address the point of view that holds that genetic engineering actually improves the nutrition, facilitates efficient production and helps the Third World countries to develop. Today, genetic engineering is advantageous in various fields such as medicine, manufacturing, and agriculture. While it is surrounded by controversy, many scientific studies have found various results and the evidence of beneficial effect of Monsanto on farmers worldwide.
The first time media reported on the issue of farmer suicides in India was in 1995.1 Several years later, anti-GM activists started making claims about the harmful effect of GM seeds on farmers. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist turned environmental activist, blamed transgenic seeds for the suicides more than 200,000 Indian farmers over the past decade.2 However, it was in 2002, seven years after the Indian farmer suicide report, that Monsanto began selling GM cotton seeds in India.3 In addition, the dispute between Monsanto and farmers in the United States has sometimes raised lawsuits, with 145 court cases filed since 1997. The issue is that Monsanto imposes a patent agreement on farmers, requiring them to purchase new seed varieties for every season, but some farmers do not honor this agreement.4 However, Monsanto has to be paid for its inventions and its continuous research and development. The research is done for its customers, who are farmers.
Technically, genetic engineering modifies the genetic structure of cells and moves genes across species boundaries to produce new organisms. These techniques involve the highly sophisticated manipulation of genetic material and other biologically important chemicals. Because genes determine an organism’s traits, moving genes from one organism to another transfers those traits. Genetic engineering can create new combinations of genes, in other words, new combinations of traits. This technology is impossible in nature and, therefore, such an artificial technology is fundamentally different from traditional plant and animal breeding. While natural reproductive mechanisms limit the number of new combinations, genetic engineering does not have restrictions, and it is possible to produce purple cows if purple genes are available in nature, such as from a sea urchin or an iris. Therefore, genetic engineering enables scientists to create gene combinations that would never be found in nature.5
Another point to note is that the controversy over the link between the possible risk of cancer and GM food remains to be addressed, and researchers at France’s University of Caen uncovered that rats fed on Monsanto’s NK603 maize and/or exposed to its gylphosate were more likely to grow tumors and multiple bodily deformities. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that the researchers’ study has “insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment.”6 Despite many critics and researchers attempting to reveal the harm of genetic engineering, including the blame on Monsanto’s harm to farmers, not all studies are accountable. Such reports embed people with fears and negative thoughts on genetic engineering, but the truth may be different.
Agriculture and GM Crops
Genetically engineered crops first came on the market in 1996 as modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate (HT crops) or to produce their own insecticide (Bt crops).7 In the agriculture industry, genetically modified seeds are widely used for crops such as cotton, maize, soybeans, and rice. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), there are more than 14 million farmers in 25 countries cultivating GM crops.8 And the production is significantly increasing as two billion acres of transgenic crops were planted in the same year. Monsanto introduced a new biotech crop, gyphosate-resistant sugar beets, and variety of GM crops continues to be adopted in China and India. Even in Europe, which is strongly against GMOs, 7 of 27 countries cultivated the only transgenic crop approved there. Also, the area planted with transgenic crops rose by 10 percent during the year, and the estimated value is about $750 million.9 Small farmers can substantially benefit since the gain from GM seeds is usually much more than the cost of the seeds. Also, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton has become a major GM seed in India because it disrupts the life cycle of the bollworm and thereby highly increases the productivity.10 Today, India is one of the largest manufacturers of the apparel and textile industry, and Bt cotton has largely contributed on the country’s significant economic development in the last decade.
Theoretically, it would require less pesticide than conventional crops to use such GM seeds. But a recent study found that, although GE crops worked this way in the first few years, farmers eventually increased the use of pesticide due to the emergence of new weeds.11Small farmers can substantially benefit since the gain from GM seeds is usually much more than the cost of the seeds. Also, Bt Cotton has become a major GM seed in India because disrupting bollworm insects highly increases the productivity. (The Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Seeds)
Furthermore, research done by the Swiss National Research Programme investigated the environmental, economic, and social impacts of GM crops. According to Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the aim of this program was to investigate the potential of genetically engineering plants for Swiss agriculture; only a few people buy GM products and only a few farmers grow today. In this European country with a large anti-GM group, the industry’s economic benefits are very small and the coexistence costs too high. However, the researchers expect an increase of acceptance of GM crops when new GM crops with such herbicide and disease resistance traits become commercially available. Notably, the report asserts, “risk assessments should be based on the specific characteristics of the plant variety, rather than on the breeding method used to produce it. The environmental, social and economic impacts of a GM plant can only be determined through a direct comparison with conventionally bred plants.”12
Genetically modified foods are a very effective solution to one of the most concerning issues—world hunger—and they enable farmers in Third World countries to grow more crops more quickly and for less cost. In addition, there is a correlation with global warming since climate change is a threat to food supply and limits growing crops.13 But subtle positive effects are that the use of pesticides can keep the plants healthy and prevent damage to the environment, and less fertilizer can be used, and thereby keeping farming cost low.
Monsanto is a leading company of genetically engineered seeds. This public company’s headquarters are in St. Louis, Missouri, and it was founded in 1901, more than 100 years ago. The company holds 404 operating facilities in 66 countries, and there are 20,767 employees worldwide. In 2011, its net income was $1.6 trillion and its net sales were $11.8 trillion, which are a 13 percent and 47 percent increase from 2010, respectively. Their mission is to produce more, conserve more, and improve lives, and they are committed to sustainable agriculture. The company states that it is their purpose to work alongside farmers to grow as much food as they have in the past by selling seeds with traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals. It was ranked in the top 10 of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Forbes magazine, as well as honored with various other awards.
The company addresses its corporate social responsibility activities by fighting hunger, supporting human rights and education, and so on. In terms of commitment to sustainable agriculture, it states, “Looking forward, we are exploring opportunities to support continuous improvement in crop yields through our efforts in breeding, agronomics, and biotechnology. We are also exploring better health and nutrition through our vegetable business.”14 The report also notes that, as the population continues to increase, so does the demand for valuable resources; therefore, Monsanto works on providing better seeds, protecting natural resources, fighting hunger, improving nutrition, and providing economic benefits to everyone involved. 15 Based on the data compiled by ISAAA and PG Economics, Monsanto is one of the contributors to having 2.1 million resource-poor farmers adopting biotech crops for the first time in the 2008–2010 seasons, and these farmers achieved US$3 billion in additional net income thanks to this technology adoption. In addition, there were three to seven times the level of economic benefits across rural communities. 16
GM Seeds and Farmer Suicide in India
Many Indian farmers commit suicide by drinking fatal amount of pesticides. After the media report of tragic phenomenon of Indian farmers’ suicides in 1995, the story began when anti-GM activists like Vandana Shiva blamed GM crop for this phenomenon. The media has put the blame mostly on corporate agriculture and Monsanto, and outrageous GM seed prices made small farmers suffer from debts.17 Shiva says, “On paper, genetic engineering is made to look very good, but on the ground it’s a tragedy. . . . Otherwise, we wouldn’t have farmer suicides concentrated in the Bt cotton belt.” The fact is that 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade. However, since the arrival of Bt seeds in 2002, the price of cotton seeds raised from 7 to 1,700 rupees a bag. So Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, disagrees as the suicide trend began well before its cotton seeds were introduced to the market. Shiva also argues that because of the self-regulatory system of labeling in India, Monsanto sells GM seeds on fraudulent claims of 1,500 kilograms a year when farmers harvest 300 to 400 kilograms a year on average. Additionally, although Bt cotton was promoted as resistant to the bollworm, it actually created new pests, and farmers were using 13 times more pesticides than they were using prior to introduction of Bt cotton. “Bio-piracy . . . where you take stuff from the Third World, claim it to be an invention of a US company, and then sell it back for a profit, and forbid the original contributors from having free access,” and Multinational Corporations are taking control of the Indian market.18 Moreover, a 2011 report published by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) claimed the sale of expensive genetically modified seeds to rural Indian farmers was a key factor contributing to the growing suicide crisis.19
Monsanto and other producers of GM crops insist that their crops require fewer chemicals, as plants are engineered to prevent crop pests. Nevertheless, the study done by Washington State University Professor Charles Benbrook found that the usage of herbicides in GM crops—cotton, soybeans, and maize—has increased over the last decade in the United States. His study found that the herbicide-tolerant crops did not have problems but recently, so-called superweeds have become resistant to glyphosate weed killer, Roundup, produced by Monsanto. Therefore, farmers started to use increasing amount of Roundup and some more additional herbicides to fend off the tough weeds. Benbrook adds that many farmers reliant on GM crops are raising the volume of herbicide needed each year by about twenty-five percent. Estimations are that production of herbicides was increased by 239 million kilograms between 1996 and 2011 for the use of GM crops. This study undermined the claims of GM crop producers that fewer chemicals are needed in production.20
Nevertheless, according to Raju Das, a developmental studies professor at York University, “the issue of farmer suicides is not just entirely a farmer issue, or rural issue, or a village issue—it is a much more broader political-economic problem”21 In 2008, the study focusing on this issue was reported by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The report also writes, “Most reports tend to reflect the polarized views on Bt cotton itself, without providing a comprehensive understanding of the actual situation that led to the observed resurgence of farmer suicides in India and therefore the potential role (or absence thereof) of Bt cotton in this picture.”22
In the data found, it is evident that the high number of suicides occurred much before the introduction of Bt cotton23 and the suicides appear to have slowed down since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002.24 Moreover, farmer suicides have been reported in developed countries such as Australia, the United States, and Great Britain and involve diverse crops, most of which are not Bt cotton. The report says:
It is not only inaccurate but simply wrong to blame the use of Bt cotton as the primary cause of farmer suicides in India…The reality is much more complex, when one considers the conditions surrounding the use of Bt cotton, the resulting effects, and the socioeconomic constraints that have likely pushed farmers in particular regions to commit suicide during some years. There is no single explanation or even consistent explanations across reported cases. However, one leading factor seems to connect several causes particularly related to agriculture: the heavy indebtedness of farm households, particularly in the suicide-prone states. 25
Patent Law and Farmer Lawsuits
Monsanto enforces patents on the seeds they researched and developed, and gives requirements and guidelines to farmers for use of their products. But some farmers are not happy about this agreement. 26 The farmer’s position is understandable for the reasons that seeds naturally grow and increase in amount, but the seeds are the products of the company and business has to be paid for its product to survive. Nonetheless, patent law gives companies a right to exclude others from using the invention that sometimes requires a high cost for the research and development, and the rights encourage further invention and promote development. According to Monsanto, about 145 lawsuits were filed between 1997 and 2000 in the United States, an average of approximately 11 per year for 13 years among more than 250,000 American farmers using Monsanto seeds. The company invests more than $2.6 million per day in research and development and claims that it would not be possible without the protection of the patent. Furthermore, Monsanto says it would be unfair to the farmers that honor their agreements, and most of the cases are filed from the reports from one farmer seeing another farmer’s infringement, saving patented seeds. 27 In a recent Supreme Court case, a 75-year-old farmer, Mr. Bowman, got into trouble when he planted a second crop of soybeans in the same year. What he wanted was a cheap source of seed, and in 1999, he bought some ordinary soybeans from a small grain elevator where local farmers drop off their harvest. He was aware of the probability that these beans had Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene in them, but he also thought that Monsanto was not controlling these soybeans anymore, and got a different varieties of seeds, which hardly pose a threat to Monsanto’s seed business.28 Another defense is the concept that once a patented object is sold, the patent holder loses control over how it is used, and he was merely using the seed from the elevator and was not making seeds, as the nature of a seed is that it creates more copies. The previous courts awarded the company more than $84,000 in 2007, and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said that Bowman had created newly infringing articles.29 In May 2013, the case came to an end with the decision ordering Bowman to pay Monsanto $84,000 for infringing on the company’s patent. The justices ruled that “patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission.”30 Accordingly, the public has been critical of this giant company for making a poor 75-year-old farmer pay $84,000. As a human being, people may feel sympathy for this man. However, any person who abuses patent laws will be charged a penalty, and this consequence is genuinely a rational decision. Regrettably, Bowman made a mistake.
It would be difficult to conclude that the farmer suicide phenomenon in India is due to GM seeds, not only because of all the data shown in the study done by the International Food Policy Research Institute, but also because of the overall conditions in India, such as the culture, economy, and political system. Although the country has achieved a higher standard of living from its economic development, many people still remain poor and live in difficult conditions with a lack of infrastructure. Also, some suicidal farmers drink pesticide to kill themselves, but this has nothing to do with Monsanto and GM seeds. They have access to pesticide only because they are farmers, not because they are specifically GM crop farmers. Moreover, Monsanto sets seed prices that correspond with the market. Thus, critics should not blame Monsanto for the issue of the small percentage of farmers who have difficulty paying the company for the seeds. The reason for the suicides could be personal problems or economic problems, but perhaps Monsanto could adjust their prices if an increasing number of people suffer.
In regard to lawsuits against farmers, Monsanto could give better and clearer guidance about its patent rights, for example through the media, to increase the farmers’ understanding. About eleven lawsuits against farmers per year is not a large number. This is only 0.058 percent of the total number of Monsanto’s customer farmers. Compared to Walmart, which has 500,000 lawsuits per year for issues such as wage law violations, inadequate health care, exploitation of workers, and the retailer’s antiunion stance, Monsanto’s suits seem small in number.31 I think companies have to care for the customers, which in Monsanto’s case are the farmers, and be good to the customers so that they can continue running the business most of the time. It is unlikely that the company keeps enforcing its agribusiness which has negative effects, if there are any. For this reason, however, it will be essential for Monsanto to invent a new seed that is effective against superweeds so that farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides, since the use of pesticide on these weeds is not as effective as it is on conventional weeds.
Monsanto and genetic engineering have been the targets of numerous criticisms, but they have more benefits than some opponents may recognize. It would cause significant damage to people around the world, including farmers and people who are fed by GM crops, if biotechnology and Monsanto were denied, and the company stopped its incredible and hopeful research and inventions for the future. GM crops have better nutrition and help farmers to a great extent because they are economical and efficient to produce. Moreover, it is a solution to the food supply shortage caused by climate change and population increase. The facts about Monsanto involvement in farmer suicides and patent lawsuits against farmers seem overexaggerated, and a lot of incorrect information has spread to the public. However, any possible risks or issues should definitely be monitored by Monsanto because it is their responsibility to care for customers. However, these criticisms and controversies have probably been helpful to alert the company to constantly improve the technology and products. Investments and funds are necessary for further research, and logically Monsanto deserves to receive payment from farmers for the products, research, and development, which ultimately benefit the farmers.
1. Chris Bennett, “Indian Farmer Suicides a Case of Misplaced GM Blame,” Delta Farm Press. February 11, 2013. Agriculture Collection, http://deltafarmpress.com/blog/indian-farmer-suicides-case-misplaced-gm-blame
2. “The Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Seeds,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126862629333762259.html.
3. Chris Bennett, “Indian Farmer Suicides a Case of Misplaced GM Blame,” Delta Farm Press. February 11, 2013, Agriculture Collection, http://deltafarmpress.com/blog/indian-farmer-suicides-case-misplaced-gm-blame
4. Monsanto, E. Freeman, “Why does Monsanto Patent Seeds?”, September, 30, 2008, Accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-patent-seeds.aspx.
5. “What Is Genetic Engineering?” Union of Concerned Scientists, last updated July 18, 2003, http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/what-is-genetic-engineering.html.
6. Philip Case, “Monsanto Cancer Study Not Scientifically Valid,” Farmers Weekly, October 12, 2012. Agriculture Collection. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA306296699&v=2.1&u=fitsuny&it=r&p=PPAG&sw=w.
7. Charles M. Benbrook, “Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United State: The First Nine Years,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 2004, http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/genetically-engineered-crops.html.
8. “Pros and Cons of GM Seeds.”
9. Andrew Marshall. “13.3 Million Farmers Cultivate GM Crops.” Nature Biotechnology 27, no. 3 (03, 2009): 221. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nbt0309-221.
10. “Pros and Cons of GM Seeds.”
11. Benbrook, “Genetically Engineered Crops.”
12. “No health or environmental risks from plant biotechnology,” Swiss National Research Program, http://www.gmo-safety.eu/news/1424.plant-biotechnology-swiss.html
13. Mack LeMouse, “Genetically Altered Food: The Pros and Cons,” Health Guidance, accessed March 13, 2013, http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/11748/1/Genetically-Altered-Food-The-Pros-and-Cons.html.
14. 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Report, 3. http://www.monsanto.com/sitecollectiondocuments/csr_reports/2011-csr.pdf
15. Ibid, 2
16. Ibid, 63
17. Bennett, “Indian Farmer Suicides.”
18. “Pros and Cons of GM Seeds.”
19. Rubab Abid, “The Myth of India’s ‘GM Genocide’: Genetically Modified Cotton Blamed for Wave of Farmer Suicides,” National Post, January 26, 2013, http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/26/the-myth-of-indias-gm-genocide-genetically-modified-cotton-blamed-for-wave-of-farmer-suicides/.
20. Philip Case, “US Farmers Using More Pesticides with GM Crops.” Farmers Weekly, October 26, 2012, Agriculture Collection. http://www.fwi.co.uk/arable/us-farmers-using-more-pesticides-with-gm-crops.htm
21. Quoted in Abid, “The Myth of India’s ‘GM Genocide.’”
22. Guillaume P. Gruère, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, and Debdatta Sengupta, “Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India.” Working Paper no. 00808, International Food Policy Research Institute, October 2008, http://www.ifpri.org/publication/bt-cotton-and-farmer-suicides-india, 1.
23. Ibid., 29
24. Ibid., 38
26. Monsanto, E. Freeman, “Farmers Reporting Farmers- Part 2”, October 10, 2008, http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/farmers-reporting-farmers-part-2.aspx
28. Mark Memmott, “Supreme Court Rules for Monsanto in Case against Farmer,” NPR, May 13, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/13/183603368/supreme-court-rules-for-monsanto-in-case-against-farmer.
29. Andrew Pollack, “Farmer’s Supreme Court Challenge Puts Monsanto Patents at Risk,” The New York Times, February 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/business/supreme-court-to-hear-monsanto-seed-patent-case.html?pagewanted=all.
30. Mark Memmot, “Supreme Court Rules for Monsanto.”
31. “The Good, the Bad, and Wal-Mart,” Workplace Fairness, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.workplacefairness.org/regreatports/good-bad-wal-mart/wal-mart.php.