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.

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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.


Michael Pollan Interview

April 21, 2008

Here is a great interview with Michael Pollan, author of the recent bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dillema. He is one of my favorite writers and I can’t wait to read the book.

Related Post:
How Sustainable Are Current Food Production Methods?


How Sustainable Are Current Food Production Methods?

December 20, 2007

Check out this excellent article by Michael Pollan in Sunday’s New York Times: Our Decrepit Food Factories

Pollan discredits the popular cliché of agricultural sustainability:

The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

He goes on to describe two stories from this year which serve as examples of why mass production of food using artificial means is not sustainable.

The first story is about pig farms and the outbreak of MRSA. The only way these farms can raise “vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement” is by pumping them full of antibiotics. Not surprisingly, the dreaded MRSA virus is highly prevalent on these farms and could be responsible for spreading the virus to humans.

The second story is about the disappearance of bees from bee farms (60 Minutes had a fascinating piece on this subject a couple of months ago). More so than ever, farmers rely on bees to pollinate crops. For unknown reasons, millions of bees are disappearing from bee farms. Nobody knows why but it’s not a stretch to hypothesize that heavy reliance and over-work of the bees is killing them:

As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up.

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The subject of agricultural sustainability is absolutely fascinating to me. To produce enough food to feed the fast-growing world population, farmers are turning to increasingly “aggressive” methods of producing food.

I haven’t read any conclusive evidence proving that consuming meat and dairy produced this way is harmful to health. Nevertheless, I feel like it just can’t be a good thing. And since my obsession du-jour is inflation, I can’t help but to draw the connection between these practices and the boom in global aggregate demand.

Consider how the Fed measures CPI by way of hedonically adjusting prices. This method takes into account the change in quality of items in the index. For example, if a computer gets better and better each year while its price stays the same, the number crunchers might decide its real price is actually declining — you get more computer for your money.

What if we applied this same reasoning to the cost of food: does producing milk from cows pumped full of antibiotics and hormones reduce its quality? I can’t objectively answer this but I believe it does. Just check out the dairy section at Whole Foods – hormone free milk is considerably more expensive than the regular kind. To buy the same quality food as we had 50 years ago, you have to spend WAY more!


Chipotle’s Shameless Lies

December 19, 2007

Mike left an excellent comment about Chipotle as a response to my New Year’s resolution post. We dug deeper this afternoon and what we found is truly horrifying…

The last time I went to Chipotle (about a year ago), I got a chicken burrito with rice, black beans, salsa, lettuce, cheese and sour cream. Using the nutrition info posted on the Chipotle website, we put together the following chart:

chipotle-nutrition.jpg

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, one burrito has 69% of your daily fat allowance, 75% of your total daily calories and a whopping 108% of your allowable sodium!!! Keep in mind that these are the numbers fed to us by Chipotle, my guess is that their serving size estimates are low — I’m positive I got more than 1 oz of cheese the last time I was there.

What makes this whole thing even more shameless and bald-faced is the blurb on the “Nutrition Cheat Sheet“:

Warning: Contains Only Real Food

That’s a label we haven’t seen yet. But if the call comes down, we’re ready. Because that’sall we serve. Real, high-quality food carefully prepared using time-honored cooking methods. We’ve chosen this route for one simple reason. Real food tastes good.

But there’s more than that. The building blocks of a sensible, well-balanced diet a rereal, simple foods—rice and other whole grains, fruits and vegetables, pure dairy products including real cheese, proteins from meat, poultry and dry beans. That’s what you’ll find in our restaurants.

Eating should be an occasion, a celebration of high-quality raw ingredients meticulously prepared to create extraordinary tastes. Not a science experiment aimed at manufacturing flavors using chemicals and food substitutes.

While that’s our commitment, we also recognize that dietary preferences and requirements differ from person to person. And that some people just want a little help figuring out what foods make the most sense for them. That’s why we’ve compiled this information.

Use this as a guide to help make informed decisions about what you eat. Then pick and choose what’s right for you. But remember, the numbers tell only part of the story. There’s no substitute for real, quality ingredients.

Mix. Match. Enjoy.

I think they actually have people convinced that this is health food.  Shameless!


New Year’s Resolution Part I: Nutrition

December 18, 2007

My diet has gotten a lot worse in 2007. I used to be a health food fanatic but my busy schedule has caused me to lose focus this year. Here are some things I’ve done wrong and my resolutions to fix them in 2008:

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Quick Observations:

  • I rarely cook anymore – most of my food is packaged and prepared. Don’t get me wrong, I would never think of eating at McDonalds or Chipotle, but I’m sure I’m still eating way too much salt and unhealthy fats
  • I’m not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables
  • I’m drinking way too much coffee. Each day I drink AT LEAST a Venti Starbucks drip coffee. Some days I have a lot more.
  • I am getting paranoid about the quality of the food supply (this is related to inflation, by the way). When it comes to food, you get what you pay for… “cheap” food is probably not anything you want to put in your body.

Resolutions for 2008:

  • No more daily Starbucks: instead I will make coffee at work in the small coffee pot I bought last year from Amazon. It makes 4 cups and this is all I will drink (except on Friday when I’ll have a 4pm grande drip). I will drink green tea in the afternoons.
  • Eat at least three servings of fruit per day. For example, banana for mid-morning snack, orange for afternoon snack & bowl of frozen blueberries & strawberries for dessert
  • Keep mixed nuts and dried fruit around my desk at work to avoid the temptation of the candy bin my colleagues keep stuffed with KitKats & Snickers
  • I will try to cook more meals at home – go back to to my old habit of making healthly “stews” in massive quantities. I can eat it a few nights a week with a salad and brown rice
  • I will try to avoid meat and fish products unless I purchase them at WholeFoods