Mark Bittman: What’s Wrong With What We Eat

November 27, 2008



Fertilizer Shortages

April 30, 2008

* Today’s NYT has an interesting article, filled with pictures, charts and video describing the global fertilizer shortage.

* For help understanding “scarcity economics”, read Jim Jubak’s latest article: Why we’re stuck with insane prices

As with every market bubble, we’re all looking back with 20/20 hindsight and thinking: “this agriculture boom was just so obvious!” In this case, I feel pretty good because I’ve owned Potash and John Deere for about a year, catching huge gains in both stocks. Even so, of course I wish I had been a couple years earlier!

Setting aside moral concerns for now (and I certainly have some), the recent sell-off in the sector could be a good time to initiate or add to positions. The demand for agricultural products — especially fertilizer — is white hot and not likely to decrease anytime soon.

Is Monsanto Evil?

April 30, 2008

Vanity Fair ran an incendiary article about Monsanto in its May issue: Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear. The article has rekindled the debate over whether Monsanto is “evil” and “immoral”. It is particularly timely given the global food crisis.

Monsanto is a major agriculture/biotech company that dominates the US – and increasingly, the World’s – market for genetically engineered seeds. The company is controversial because of its heavy-handed tactics in enforcing patents on its genetically modified seeds (G.M.) and bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Monsanto is also notorious for its aggressive political lobbying in countries across the world.

Here’s an excerpt from the article describing how Monsanto controls the market for seeds:

For centuries—millennia—farmers have saved seeds from season to season: they planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then reclaimed and cleaned the seeds over the winter for re-planting the next spring. Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.

Monsanto developed G.M. seeds that would resist its own herbicide, Roundup, offering farmers a convenient way to spray fields with weed killer without affecting crops. Monsanto then patented the seeds. For nearly all of its history the United States Patent and Trademark Office had refused to grant patents on seeds, viewing them as life-forms with too many variables to be patented.

But in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world’s food supply. In its decision, the court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” In this case, the organism wasn’t even a seed. Rather, it was a Pseudomonas bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills. But the precedent was set, and Monsanto took advantage of it. Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won 674 biotechnology patents, more than any other company, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.

This radical departure from age-old practice has created turmoil in farm country. Some farmers don’t fully understand that they aren’t supposed to save Monsanto’s seeds for next year’s planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product. Still others say that they don’t use Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, but seeds have been blown into their fields by wind or deposited by birds. It’s certainly easy for G.M. seeds to get mixed in with traditional varieties when seeds are cleaned by commercial dealers for re-planting. The seeds look identical; only a laboratory analysis can show the difference. Even if a farmer doesn’t buy G.M. seeds and doesn’t want them on his land, it’s a safe bet he’ll get a visit from Monsanto’s seed police if crops grown from G.M. seeds are discovered in his fields.


The practice of prohibiting customers from doing what they want with the product you sell them is actually quite common. It falls under the realm of intellectual property law.

I blogged about this here, where I complained that software I had purchased expired before I could use it. I made the distinction between a product and a service. Once you purchased Microsoft Office, for example, you could use it forever on that computer — it never expired. For a service delivered over the internet though, it makes sense that it would stop working once I stopped paying for it.

When farmers buy patented seeds from Monsanto (or other agribusinesses such as Syngenta, ADM or Cargill), they sign contracts prohibiting them from selling, saving or reusing the seeds. Monsanto is dictating what people do with the seeds, even after they become property of the customer…

This is a subject that really makes me question my capitalist beliefs; I believe in private property, the rule of law, enforcement of contracts, and strong intellectual property protection. And though I haven’t made up my mind on whether or not Monsanto is evil, there’s something about it that seems shady.