In the 1980s, Monsanto pioneered agricultural genetically modified organism (GMO) technology, and developed some of the first herbicide-resistant crops on the market.
Today, the agro-giant holds roughly 1,700 patents, and their patented seeds make up more than 90% of the U.S. soybean market, and around 80% of U.S. corn. Monsanto’s seeds are marketed as “Roundup Ready,” meaning they can survive being doused in Monsanto’s own name-brand weed-killer Roundup.
Roundup’s active ingredient is glyphosate, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is “safe” in small amounts for short periods of time, but may cause lung congestion and an increase in breathing rate. Chronic exposure, though, may result in kidney damage and unspecified reproductive effects.
In 1984, the Supreme Court upheld a $10.5 million antitrust settlement against Monsanto, and in 2004 the company was once again accused of price-fixing.
Many studies that have evaluated the health risks of glyphosate itself determined that it is safe for general use. However, more recent analyses suggest that some of the “inert” ingredients, in combination with glyphosate, may pose some very serious health risks, including damage to human cells and DNA (which can lead to cancer), and abnormal fetal development.
Despite the controversy, many farmers continue to use Monsanto’s glyphosate-heavy herbicides, and plant their glyphosate-resistant crops, all while following the company’s strict licensing agreement that requires them to purchase new seeds each year. Meanwhile, farmers who do not use Monsanto’s seeds risk legal action if their crops are even unintentionally cross-contaminated with “Roundup Ready” seeds.
Last year, Monsanto spent $4.12 million lobbying the U.S. Congress.
While Monsanto products are widely used in the U.S., Europe has taken a stricter stance against the company. The European Union determined that glyphosate should be classified as environmentally dangerous, while watchdog groups and European courts have determined that Monsanto advertised with misleading and inaccurate claims — something the company is becoming increasingly known for.
A meta-analysis of GMO studies showed that genetically altered crops are not inherently bad, and that insect-resistant crops especially appear to improve crop yields and pesticide reduction. Benefits were lower for herbicide-resistant crops, which have been shown to accelerate herbicide tolerance for weed species. When weeds develop a tolerance to herbicides, Monsanto creates new GMO seeds with an even greater resistance to Roundup products, thus perpetuating their business model.
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