Biotech opponents claim Monsanto ‘controls’ the world food supply? What are the facts?

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A common anti-GMO narrative is that large international companies seek to “control the food supply” through patents and the ownership of seed companies. Ironically, the opponents of plant biotechnology have exercised a far more significant degree of “control”. Very few of the possible “GMO” crop options have ever been commercialized in either the developed or developing world. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but over the last 20 years I’ve watched as anti-GMO activists have successfully employed three, potent control strategies: political over-ride of the regulatory system, manipulation through brand protectionism, and pressure exerted via importers.

The farmers who have been granted the opportunity to grow biotech crops have adopted them enthusiastically. The traits have provided growers with logistical advantages, reductions in risk, and/or economic benefits. This has been true in both the developed and developing world.

Adoption rates of biotech varieties in various crops and geographies (data from The Context Network, USDA-APHIS, FAO-Stats)

Adoption rates of biotech varieties in various crops and geographies (data from The Context Network, USDA-APHIS, FAO-Stats)

However, very few of the world’s fruit or vegetable growers have had a biotech option, nor have the farmers who grow wheat, barley, rice, potatoes or pulse crops.  This is true in spite of the fact that genetic engineering could address important and even critical needs in those crops.

Political over-ride

The first success of the anti-GMO movement was the politically driven decision by most of Europe not to allow biotech crops to be cultivated and to require GMO labeling of foods. The response of those food companies was to avoid GMO ingredients so they would not have the stigma of a label. The EU subsequently funded a huge amount of safety testing, and their scientific bodies have concluded that there is no special risk associated with these foods. But for Europepolitics still trumps science and that phenomenon has been exported through European influence on governments throughout the developing world. Groups like Greenpeace have also aggressively opposed any efforts to allow poor farmers around the world to ever try out the technology. The food supply for the poor is certainly being “controlled,” but by the activists, not by the seed companies.

Manipulation through brand protectionism

A strategy of the anti-GMO movement for control of the rich world food supply has been to exploit brand protectionism. The first example was with the potato industry. An insect resistant potato was launched in 1996 at the same time as biotech traits were first commercialized in soybeans, cotton and Canola. I interviewed many potato growers in the first few years the trait was available and they were extremely happy to have a solution to their most damaging insect pest, the Colorado Potato Beetle.

Colorado Potato Beetle Damage (photo by Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension)

Colorado Potato Beetle Damage (photo by Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension)

Potato growers were also excited about virus resistance and improved storage traits that were in the product development pipeline. Frito-Lay was sponsoring biotech trait development in universities for the potatoes used to make chips. The activists recognized that in the North American potato industry, McDonald’s and Frito-Lay have enormous economic leverage as the biggest customers for frozen fries and chipping potatoes. They threatened those company’s brands with the prospect of unwanted press attention through targeted protests.

At McDonald’s, the decision was taken at the CEO level to avoid the brand risk, and so, in three phone calls to frozen fry producers, biotech potatoes were finished (I know this from three people who participated in that meeting). A similar marketing-driven decision at Frito-Lay led to termination of their development programs. There was nothing the potato growers, the major processors, or Monsanto could do about it because of the market power of those huge food companies – companies who effectively yielded that leverage to the control of the activists. Meanwhile, potatoes still require extensive and costly pest control measures.

The success of the activists in exploiting brand protectionism had a major chilling effect on other crops with high profile, consumer brands. In the mid 1990s there was a great deal of interest in biotechnology solutions. I was personally aware of projects that had been started or which were planned for bananas, coffee, grapes, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and apples. When McDonald’s and Frito-Lay acquiesced to the activist pressures around 1999, all the planning and work was halted in those and other brand-sensitive crops.

The ag biotech companies like Monsanto or Syngenta or DuPont essentially gave up on biotech efforts in “specialty crops” and focused only on the big row crops. Fifteen years later that pattern of effective activist control remains largely in place.

Pressure exerted via importers

At the turn of the century there were two biotech traits poised for commercialization in wheat in the US and Canada (wheat being one of the largest and most extensively traded crops in the world).  There was to be a herbicide resistance trait from Monsanto, and also a disease resistance trait from Syngenta. Once again, I had the opportunity to interview many wheat growers to assess their

Fusarium head blight of wheat (right) reduces yield and leads to rejected loads because of the DON mycotoxin (Wikimedia image)

Fusarium head blight of wheat (right) reduces
yield and leads to rejected loads because of the
DON mycotoxin (Wikimedia image)

interest in these options.  Most already had positive experiences growing biotech soy, corn or Canola, and they were keen to try the new wheat options. 

They never got that chance. Major wheat importers from Europe threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial biotech varieties were planted in the US or Canada.  Europeans grow a great deal of wheat, but they need the high quality Hard Red Spring Wheat and Durum pasta wheat grown in the Northern Plains and Prairie provinces. European bread and pasta makers did not want to have to label their products as containing GMOs, knowing that this would make them the subject of activist pressure.  So they used their considerable economic leverage as importing customers and made the boycott threat (not in a public way, but quite clearly). The wheat grower organizations in the US and Canada could not resist and reluctantly asked Monsanto and Syngenta to stop their programs. Both companies complied. This was a clear example of food supply control – control based on the activist’s ability to create marketing issues for the sort of companies that really do have leverage.

So who controls the food supply? The anti-GMO movement continues to use the threat of brand damage to get food companies and food retailers to use their market power to inhibit the introduction of new biotech traits and crop options. These same strategies may well block second generation traits in applespotatoescitrus, and tomatoes. The GMO labeling efforts and non-GMO projects are transparently being pursued with the goal of eliminating even the few existing biotech crops.

  • Does that control entail any respect for the opinions and needs of farmers?
  • Do those that exercise the control contribute in any way to solutions to real world challenges and threats to the food supply?
  • Do those that exercise the control help to develop useful tools for the resource-poor farmers in the developing world?
  • Are any of the big food industry players with critical leverage willing to resist the control that is being achieved via their market power? 
  • Are consumers happy with the reality of a food supply controlled by those who reject sound science? 
  • Are they happy with a food supply controlled with the aid of food companies who profit from the fears that they and their allies have planted?

This article originally appeared in Forbes under the title: Who Controls The Food Supply?

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

  • Kathleen Hefferon

    You have a point…

  • Good4U

    Excellent synopsis of the pervasiveness of “food control” by the anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-just-about-everything-made-by-humans bullies. You are correct about the NewLeaf(R) potato; not many people know the history of that project and how it was shut down by the activists. Keep up your good work, Steve.

    • Jonan T Mugisha

      You have the best description of the anti- groups. Thanks.

  • whip it

    You must understand one thing, the economic success of any business is ultimately determined by the consumer. Although egotistical articles like will hinder it.

    • Success with consumers is unfortunately a poor indicator of good. Look at the huge consumer success of low fat, no fat, no saturated fat … It got us 20 years of exposure to trans-fats. It got us sugar to make the products palatable. That enhanced the obesity epidemic. What sells is not the same as what is good

      • agscienceliterate

        Exactly! As evidenced recently by the FDA warning letters to Whole Foods about filth, Chipotle’s contamination last year poisoning dozens, and the recent recall of organic Clif Bars.

  • Poyzinsting

    Good I hope they continue to give GMO companies fits. Tell you what Pro-GMO activists and CEO’s. Feed nothing but Genetically modified foods to your family for a few generations. See what diseases or abnormalities they and their offspring develop if any, and then come back with a little more proof that GMO’s are harmless. They used to tell Americans that cigarettes were good for them back in the day, turns out they aren’t. So anything the FDA approves should be approached cautiously.

    • gmoeater

      Been eating it for 20 years. How many generations do you suggest?
      How many generations would you suggest for eating foods produced through gene irradiation? (mutagenesis, which has zero oversight or testing — look it up)
      But obviously, you think GE crops are harmful. Great! Eat organic. How about starting at Chipotle?

      • Poyzinsting

        glad you haven’t as of yet manifested any negative effects from GMO foods but not everyone catches cancer from smoking. On another note you make valid points concerning our non-gmo food supply.

        • gmoeater

          The only allegations of GE foods causing cancer are in that much-debunked “study” by Seralini, who used cancer-prone rats, didn’t do adequate double-blind controls, and didn’t even account for dose.
          I would rather eat GE (particularly corn, to avoid the mycotoxins left behind by the corn borer when inadequately controlled, as is often the case with organic sweet corn even tho they use the same insecticide, bacillus thuriengensis, as Bt corn). And I will never ever eat at Chipotle, both for their lousy health record of people getting sick on their “healthy non-gmo food” (yeah, I have a bridge to sell anyone who believes that), and also to avoid their sanctimonious preaching about their “natural and healthy” food.
          The anti-Monsanto rants are about one thing only: to demonize approved GE foods, so that organic food can have some kind of marketplace advantage, despite their poor track record of sustainability and of healthy foods in terms of frequent food recalls.

    • kurzweilfreak

      What evidence do you have to support your hypothesis, or what causal mechanism(s) do you propose by which this might be the case? You could likely win a Nobel prize for your answer. You do have evidence right?

      • Poyzinsting

        that’s why I said feed that shit to their families for a few generations so we can see proof it’s harmless. Where is the proof that the effects will not eventually start showing themselves? Maybe you should write that and get a Nobel but of course you’d need a time machine that will allow you to go forward in time to record any evidence. I never once stated I had proof of anything, if you had read the comment a lil more closely instead of waving your pro GMO flag so vigorously that it prevented you from seeing the context of my comment, you would have seen I was asking for more proof not giving it.

        • JP

          “Where is the proof that the effects will not eventually start showing themselves?”

          Hate to break it to you, but that proof doesn’t exist for anything in the entire world. Better stop using… well, anything at all.

          • Poyzinsting

            The issue is GMO’s not any random thing in the world

          • agscienceliterate

            Yup. You want to see safety studies?
            http://www.genera.biofortified.org
            Don’t come back till you have read all 1800 studies. Then, by all means, come back and kvetch.

        • agscienceliterate

          I’ve been eating it for decades. So?
          Perhaps you should be talking to the people who have eaten Whole Foods’ filth, where the FDA is investigating their unsanitary practices.
          Perhaps you should be talking to the many people poisoned last year at Chipotle, which prides itself on “healthy organic” food.
          Perhaps you should be talking to the many people who have eaten organic Clif Bars, recently recalled for listeria.
          You can put down your organic flag now.

  • Peter Olins

    This is a great article, and is still topical, but does GLP really need to bump its material by slapping a fresh date on it? The date that an article was written can provide context to the material.

  • ThinIce

    Another excellent article by Steve Savage, who correctly points out that the only people “controlling” what gets used are the anti-GMO activist organizations that exert undue influence on the EU and are partially responsible for denying the benefits these technologies to many consumers.

  • Todd Richardson

    So, if it is so safe then label it. That is all most of us are asking. Let the consumers make their own choices. If GMO’s are as great as advertised they will win out in the market place, based upon a customer base who chose to subject their bodies as guinea pigs over a period of time. Others, who are more conservative in their gambles with their own bodies will be the counter-group to a GMO population test. We all should have a choice in which group we fall into. Why the opposition to labeling?