Organic Farming, Monsanto, and Biotech Battles

9780700621330Agribusiness colossus Monsanto announced this week that it is cutting 2,600 jobs. Monsanto reported a net loss of $495 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015. For sustainable food activists, this may augur a decline in biotechnology’s profitability, popularity, or viability. Monsanto has historically been cast as a scoundrel by organic farmers. The corporation is a global leader in patented plant traits, crop protection chemicals (e.g. Roundup), and genetically engineered seeds (e.g. Roundup Ready soybeans). Ad interim, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are precluded from USDA-certified organic food production methods. Organicists tend to view GMOs as abhorrent and have tried repeatedly to pass national GMO labeling bills—unsuccessfully, so far. To witness the torrent of hatred directed at Monsanto, try searching for the #MonsantoEvil hashtag on Twitter.

I contacted Monsanto and received a call back within one hour from Christi Dixon, Monsanto spokesperson. Since Monsanto’s name is universally linked with agrichemicals and genetically altered seeds, I asked if Monsanto’s work was incongruous with the organic movement. “No. It all works together. We do a lot of research of traditional plant breeding,” Dixon said. “We serve growers of all types, including organic farmers. We have a vegetable business that is robust. We do a lot of traditional plant breeding.” I asked if Monsanto would consider funding organic agriculture research. “Yes, if farmers asked for it.” It was farmers, she said, who first demanded Roundup-ready crops.

Organic growing and genetic engineering have been held up as antithetical food production methods. Keeping GMOs out of organic crops is sacrosanct for the organic movement. There has long been a consensus that organic standards should exclude GMOs, since their inherent safety is still unknown. Monsanto has responded by pointing to thousands of studies, none of which have revealed concrete health problems from genetically modified foods. “We are committed to sustainable agriculture. We are trying to preserve the soil and preserve the planet and use resources more efficiently,” Dixon said. Monsanto is a multinational enterprise with prodigious—and sometimes ominous—power. Layoffs do not mean Monsanto will rescind its support of GMOs. The organic movement, meanwhile, will not abandon its ardent opposition.

-Written by Robin O’Sullivan, author of American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating. O’Sullivan teaches history at Troy University and tweets @historynibbles.