[permaculture] Fwd: Re: [SANET-MG] News from the other side (good news for us, bad news for monsanto & hopefully other ag biotech firms)
Lawrence F. London, Jr.
lflj at bellsouth.net
Mon Oct 25 05:54:21 EDT 2010
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [SANET-MG] News from the other side
Date: Sun, 24 Oct 2010 21:41:27 -0500
From: Douglas Hinds <cedecor at GMX.NET>
Reply-To: Douglas Hinds <cedecor at gmx.net>
Organization: CeDeCoR, A.C.
To: SANET-MG at LISTS.IFAS.UFL.EDU
I just noticed a note sent by saneter Thomas Wittman referring to a
Grist article that cited a NY Times article on this theme:
What Monsanto’s fall from grace reveals about the GMO seed industry
by Tom Philpott
12 Oct 2010 3:39 PM
I got caught up in a cyclone of travel, meetings, and speechifying
the last two weeks, so I'm a bit behind on the latest news in the
food world. But I did take note of Andrew Pollack's Oct. 4 New York
Times story on the recent plight of genetically modified (GM) seed
giant Monsanto, long-time Wall Street darling and bête noire of the
sustainable food movement.
Pollack summed up Monsanto's woes like this:
As recently as late December, Monsanto was named "company of the
year" by Forbes magazine. Last week, the company earned a different
accolade from Jim Cramer, the television stock market commentator.
"This may be the worst stock of 2010," he proclaimed. On Tuesday,
Forbes publicly lamented its decision to deem Monsanto "company of
the year." The headline was cutting: "Forbes was wrong about
Monsanto. Really wrong." How did Monsanto go from Wall Street hero
to Wall Street doormat?
According to The Times' Pollack, Monsanto's troubles are two-fold:
1) the patent on Roundup, Monsanto's market-dominating herbicide,
has run out, exposing the company to competition from cheap Chinese
imports; and 2) its target audience -- large-scale commodity farmers
in the south and Midwest -- are turning against its core offerings
in genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton seed traits.
I agree with Pollack's diagnosis, but I want to add a third and even
more fundamental problem to the mix: Monsanto's once-celebrated
product pipeline is looking empty. As I'll show below, its current
whiz-bang seeds offer just tarted-up versions of the same old traits
it has been peddling for more than a decade: herbicide tolerance and
pest resistance. Meanwhile, judging from the company's recent report
on its latest quarterly earnings, the "blockbuster" traits it has
been promising for years -- drought resistance and nitrogen-use
efficiency -- don't seem to be coming along very well.
Why do I say that? In my days as a reporter covering the stock
market, I read a lot of company financial reports. When a high-tech
company like Monsanto disappointed Wall Street analysts with its
financial performance, it would strain to draw attention to
"next-generation" products that promised huge future returns to
investors. But in its report on its disappointing quarter last week,
Monsanto did no such thing. It gave zero details about
next-generation seeds, and instead focused on its "revamped pricing
approach." Translated, that means that after years of constantly
jacking up prices, the company is being forced to slash them to keep
farmers interested. The loss of pricing clout is devastating for a
high-tech company like Monsanto.
What gives? Why is the company that once ruled the Big Ag universe
like Darth Vader now whimpering like a mouse?
Stuck in the mud
As Pollack delicately puts it, Monsanto "has been buffeted by
setbacks this year." The most famous one is the rise of
Roundup-resistant "superweeds," first in the south and then in the
Corn Belt, that has forced thousands of farmers to reconsider the
merits of Monsanto's flagship Roundup Ready crop varieties.
Monsanto's response has been to roll out its much-ballyhooed
SmartStax corn seed, "stacked" with a mind-boggling eight foreign
genes. Colluding with its arch-rival Dow AgroSciences -- whatever
happened to antitrust, again? -- Monsanto loaded the new wonder-seed
with multiple varieties of the toxic gene from Bt, a naturally
occurring bacteria that had been used as a pesticide for years
before Monsanto came along. Each of the Bt varieties in SmartStax
targets a specific insect. To address the problem of
Roundup-resistant "superweeds," the SmartStax seed combines
Monsanto's Roundup Ready trait with Dow's trait for resistance to
its own proprietary herbicide, Liberty. Now corn farmers can douse
their fields freely with not one but two broad-spectrum herbicides!
In a press release heralding the advent of SmartStax when it was
still in development back in 2007, a Monsanto exec expressed the
company's hopes and dreams for the new product:
"By bringing together the two companies that have developed and
commercialized the trait technologies widely used in agriculture
today, we can provide farmers an 'all-in-one' answer to demands for
comprehensive yield protection from weed and insect threats," said
Carl Casale, executive vice president of strategy and operations for
Monsanto. "Farmers will have more product choices to optimize
performance and protection, and that translates into a
higher-yielding opportunity and a new growth proposition for their
businesses and ours." But as I say above, SmartStax is just a mashup
of various forms of the only two traits Monsanto has ever brought to
market: herbicide tolerance and Bt toxicity.
And unfortunately for Monsanto and its once fat-and-happy
shareholders, SmartStax corn is starting to look, well, not so
smart. According to The Times' Pollack, early data from this year's
corn harvest suggest that SmartStax is "providing yields no higher
than the company's less expensive corn, which contains only three
foreign genes." As a result, the company is having to slash prices
on both SmartStax and its new soybean seed, cleverly called Roundup
Ready 2 Yield. Oops.
The evident failure of SmartStax to deliver yield gains may be the
straw that crushes Monsanto's long-time claim that its products
offer farmers dramatically higher yields than do conventional seeds.
In a 2009 paper called "Failure to Yield," Doug Gurian-Sherman, a
senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, showed that
since their public debut in 1996, GM traits have actually provided,
at best, marginal yield gains -- and in fact in some cases have
caused yields to decrease.
So why is Monsanto merely rearranging and stacking up last year's
traits, and not rolling out new ones?
Tough row to hoe
Here's what I think, from years of listening to industry critics
like Gurian-Sherman and the Center for Food Safety's Andrew
Kimbrell: It is one thing to splice a particular trait like
herbicide or pesticide resistance into the corn genome. You isolate
the gene in an organism like Bt that kills insects, splice it into
the corn genome, and watch it express itself.
But transforming a crop's way of taking up water and fertilizer --
the goal of engineering crops that can withstand drought and use
nitrogen more efficiently -- is infinitely more complex. These
intricate processes developed through millions of years of
evolution. They don't involve a single gene, but rather groups of
genes interacting in ways that are little understood. And as the
Union of Concerned Scientists' Gurian-Sherman told me in an
interview, in the process of achieving a complex trait like drought
resistance, breeders often generate unintended traits, such as
susceptibility to disease. These are known as "pleiotropic effects"
-- simply the idea that changing one aspect of a thing can create
multiple, unpredictable effects. Pleiotropy is the scourge of GMO
breeders looking to create the next generation of miracle transgenic
In his 2009 paper No Sure Fix [PDF], Gurian-Sherman shows that
attempts to create nitrogen-efficient GM seeds that actually work
well in the field have so far failed -- and that conventional
breeders have actually managed to generate significant gains in
nitrogen-use efficiency in the field without resorting to transgenic
In his Times piece, Andrew Pollack reports that Monsanto "hopes" to
introduce another complex trait, drought-tolerance in corn, sometime
in 2012. My experience as a business reporter tells me that if
Monsanto execs were confident in their ability to do so, they would
have trumpeted it in their dismal recent quarterly report.
From my perspective, what we're seeing is signs that GMO technology
is much cruder and less effective than its champions have let on.
After decades of hype and billions of dollars worth of research,
much of it publicly funded, the industry has managed to market
exactly two traits. More devastating still, it has failed on its own
terms: it has not delivered the promised dazzling yield gains.
As Monsanto execs scramble to win back their mojo with Wall Street
investors -- the lot that brought us the dot-com and housing busts
in the past decade alone -- the rest of us would do well to remember
that the surest path to a bountiful future lies in supporting
biodiversity, not in narrowing it away by handing the globe's seed
heritage to a few bumbling companies.
Tom Philpott is Grist’s senior food and agriculture writer.
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