The GMO Debate: A Farmer Vs. Monsanto

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) for more.

To many foes of GMOs, most definitely including a good number of small farmers, the multinational Monsanto Company, heaquartered in Creve Coeur, Missouri, is the Great Satan — a pioneer of genetically engineered seed and perceived enemy of biodiveristy around the world. Its defenders see it as a forward-looking agricultural biotechnology company whose innovations help to feed a hungry world.

To help clarify some of the issues involved, we asked spokesmen of both points of view — an activist farmer, author, and lecturer who is outspoken (to put it mildly) in his opposition to much of what Monsanto represents, and a high-ranking official at Monsanto itself — to answer a series of related questions about GMOs and agriculture.

Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer." 

Please tell us a little bit about how you feel GMO seeds are affecting farmers.

GMOs do not respect property lines. The GMO issue is primarily a property rights issue and a personal identity issue. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person shall be secure in their persons — that's why law enforcement officers must get a warrant under probable cause in order to penetrate that personal property and space barrier. GMOs do not respect any of this and therefore can fundamentally alter a farmer's landscape without the owner's consent. That is egregious trespass, similar to a neighbor's bull trampling my flower bed. In our convoluted cultural thinking; however, we have decided that not only is the owner of the trampling bull not liable for damages, the flower bed owner must pay a royalty to the bull owner for the privilege of having his flowers trampled. To not be able to guarantee the fidelity of my crops or production due to promiscuous GMO trespass not only destroys my market, it destroys my personal identifying distinctive.

How do you feel about animal GMO seed consumption and the effects it could have on the quality of meat?

The research is pouring in now from all over the world linking GMOs to social, physical, and cognitive dysfunction. Behavioral abnormalities, inhibited organ growth, and other problems are surfacing as a direct effect of GMOs. Ancillary issues may even be bigger: abortions and fertility issues from the extra herbicides are now possible with GMO tolerance. Most people concerned about GMOs view animals fed GMO grains as similar to the direct GMO crop. That said, chlorophyll in plants can remediate a host of ills. It would not surprise me if future research revealed significant offsetting remediation of GMO harms in livestock if those animals were also eating large amounts of fresh pasture. Pastured livestock can cure a multitude of ills. That's why factory organic livestock is not nearly as good as pastured GMO-grain-augmented livestock.

Do you feel that there is enough educational, factual information available to farmers and food purveyors regarding genetically modified foods?

Absolutely. That's like asking if you really think people have enough information to know that exercise is important to maintain health. Of course they do. We could ask that question on a host of different items, from McDonald's to Coca-Cola. People become knowledgeable about what they value. The average person is far more interested and informed about the latest dysfunction in the Kardashian household than about what is going to become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone at 6 p.m. Whose fault is that? If the purveyor of all the information necessary to know is the government, then we will become subservient to the government's ideas. The government is synonymous with the biggest players; it's not a balanced entity. The responsibility lies on each individual to decide how to live, what to eat, who to believe. If you embrace ecological honesty and scientific integrity, the evidence as to the evils of GMOs is overwhelming. If you don't, nothing in the world will change your mind. Ultimately, all of our decisions are emotional because our hearts screen what our eyes and ears see and how our brain interprets them. That's why paradigms and ethical frameworks are so important.

What problems/benefits do companies like Monsanto present to you?

Monsanto presents no benefit to me. I don't agree with much of anything they say or do. By the same token, they don't present any problem to me either as long as their fist does not hit my nose — that means their owned, patented beings do not trespass on my property and adulterate my beings into strange life forms alien to my property — and as long as they don't create prejudice in the marketplace. To be sure, both of those caveats are being abridged big time. In theory, I really don't have any problem with Monsanto and their GMOs. I have a problem with trespass and I have a problem when Monsanto parks their recruitment bus at land grant universities, plugged into taxpayer-supported utilities for a week, to offer jobs to graduating seniors. The problem is that Monsanto purchases tax, liability, and marketplace concessions that create a prejudicial playing field for my production. U.S. ambassadors around the world, paid for by my taxes and representing my citizenship, are strong-arming countries to buy Monsanto products. This is immoral, unethical, and evil. Monsanto and the government are one. As soon as the government gets out of the empire-building business, marketplace meddling business, education business, agriculture business, environmental business, and the investment business, we'll have a level playing field, protection of private property, and nothing for which to lobby. Giving the government more power to regulate only enhances Monsanto's concessionary standing. The government is supposed to protect me from Monsanto, and the government that does that best is the government that's so small it has nothing to sell Monsanto. Or me, except liberty.

What do you feel people do not realize about genetically modified crops?

How dangerous they are.

What can farmers possibly do to prevent cross contamination?

Not much. But if all the effort that's been invested in labeling laws was directed instead at enforcing ancient trespass law, we would be much further down the GMO-elimination road than we are and it would have done so within a context of personal protection rather than centralized tyranny through regulation.

What do you feel are the most detrimental/beneficial effects to the farming ecosystem?

Detrimental: a Conquistador mentality, the USDA (started by the country's worst president, Abraham Lincoln), loss of domestic culinary arts from the culture (food preparation, preservation, packaging, and processing being done outside the home rather than inside), cheap food policy, food safety laws (eliminate innovation), the nearly universal feeling that integrity requires someone else besides me to change, faith that humans are clever enough to outsmart nature, people who believe they have a right to food, clothing, and shelter, even if it means taking someone else's property violently to get it (try not paying your taxes and see who comes to take your property — so much for violence), progressives.

Beneficial:  a nurturing mentality, entrepreneurial farmers, people jazzed up about domestic culinary arts, people who think it's more important to know their farmer than Bambi and Thumper, people who would rather spend their money on food than pharmaceuticals, people who believe they are responsible for themselves, believing nature's template is best, realizing nothing changes until I change, libertarians.

How could genetically modified seeds economically affect farmers?

Tainted crops are a huge problem. Asking this question is like asking how would cyanide affect water drinkers. Making something that is supposed to be pure into something impure makes it suspect in the marketplace and makes it perform differently under use. Adulterating and tainting a product is as wrong as getting into your classmate's book bag and marking up her homework with a Sharpie. This is really a very simple issue — one we should have come to terms with in first grade. What adults have not learned about staying out of each others book bags indicates a society hurtling toward barbarianism.[pullquote:left]

What can farmers do to help take control of their crops in terms of incorporating or avoiding GM seeds?

We need to be joining property rights groups. Perhaps an alliance with the National Rifle Association would be good. They seem to have a lot of clout. Look, if my stuff is not sacred to my person, then I have no identity. If I have no stuff, then stealing no longer exists. Protecting personal liberty starts with protecting personal stuff. That's simple. Farmers should not plant GMO crops. Just don't use them. Don't buy them, don't eat them, don't use them, and explain to your customers and friends why. Give them bulletins or books or link them to websites to explain the problems.

In addition, I'd be remiss if I didn't also say that if we quit feeding grain to herbivores — and this includes organic folks — we'd so change the economics of grain that it would send the industrial agri-fraternity into chaos. If all the omnivores were integrated into the landscape — chickens next to each kitchen we'd drop grain requirements another many percent.

Bottom line: if our agriculture went to a nature-template protocol, we wouldn't need 80 percent of the grain currently being produced. That would quit funding the cartel and move the entire foodscape to a perennially-based, integrated, localized, carbon-centric, soil-building, hydrating, and transparent system. Take that, Monsanto.



Thomas Helscher, Executive Director, Commercial Acceptance, The Monsanto Company

Please tell us a little bit about how you feel GMO seeds are affecting farmers.

We're focused on helping farmers grow more and better crops. We sell both conventional and GM seed. We work hard to earn farmer business by developing seed products that increase productivity and meet farmer needs. Every year we get a report card on how we're doing because every year farmers decide anew what seed to buy and who to buy it from. They have many choices — other national, regional, and local seed companies. Competition in the seed industry is robust.

Since GM seeds were introduced in the mid-1990s, farmers have opted for these products. A recent report from the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, "The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States," offers an insight as to why. The report concludes that U.S. farmers growing biotech crops "..are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits — such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields — compared with conventional crops."

How do you feel about animal GMO seed consumption and the effects it could have on the quality of meat?

The source of the following is the Federation of Animal Science Societies: "Are Biotech Feeds Safe for Livestock?" Yes, biotech feeds are safe for livestock. Livestock digest and absorb nutrients from biotech feeds in the same way they do conventional feeds. The digestive process in all livestock breaks down the nutritional components in feeds and uses these nutrients for the growth and development of the animal. In addition, livestock growth, milk production, milk composition and health are not different, whether fed conventional or biotech feeds. Over 30 different animal feed performance studies have been conducted. All of these studies have shown that corn grain or soybean meal from biotech plants performs similarly to the grain or meal from conventional plant varieties.

Do you feel that there is enough educational, factual information available to farmers and food purveyors regarding genetically modified foods?

There is certainly a large amount of high quality information, yet at the same time there is a great deal of misinformation circulating about genetically modified foods. Two recent new sources of information are Gmo Answers, a website developed by the seed technology companies to support dialogue and a public Q&A on GMOs. A second website, from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, offers a comprehensive source of information for consumers on safety, prevalence, and benefits of GM food ingredients.

What benefits come from using modified seeds?

The following is from the ISAAA, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a not-for-profit sponsored by public and private sector organizations that is a very credible source of information about crop biotechnology. "From 1996 to 2011, biotech crops contributed to food security, sustainability, and climate change by: increasing crop production valued at US$98.2 billion, providing a better environment by saving 473 million kg a.i. [active ingredient] of pesticides, in 2011 alone reducing CO2 emissions by 23 billion kg; equivalent to taking 10.2 million cars off the road, conserving biodiversity by saving 108.7 million hectares of land, and helped alleviate poverty by helping >15.0 million small farmers and their families totaling >50 million people who are some of the poorest people in the world."

What do you feel people do not realize about genetically modified crops?

The years of research, how much science and how many studies support the safety of GMOs. A study to understand the scientific consensus in GM was published last year. The authors reviewed 1700 peer-reviewed papers on GMO safety and concluded, “We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years..., and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops."

What can farmers possibly do to prevent cross contamination? Do you think it is a pertinent issue?

Proper stewardship of GM crops is a very important matter. It is also important for conventional crops — people don't expect field corn kernels in their bag of microwave popcorn! We provide quite a bit of information about this topic — coexistence — in our Technology Use Guide, which is updated every year and posted on our website. Pages eight and nine; in particular, cover coexistence of different agricultural production methods and identity preserved production practices.

We believe all farmers should have the opportunity to select the production method of their choice — whether organic, conventional, or GM seeds developed using biotechnology. All three production systems contribute to meeting the needs of consumers. Since the advent of biotech crops 15 years ago, both biotech and organic crop production have flourished. We have no reason to think that will not continue to be the case.

What do you feel are the most beneficial effects to the farming ecosystem?

Monsanto's vision for sustainable agriculture is improving the productivity and environmental footprint of food production. As a seed company, we believe there is an important contribution we can make and we've committed to doing that. In 2008, we set a series of goals to make agriculture more sustainable. By 2030, we have committed to develop improved seeds that will double yields from 2000 levels for corn, soybeans, cotton, and spring-planted canola, and seeds that use one-third fewer key resources (land, water, energy) per unit of output.

How could genetically modified seeds economically affect farmers?

I believe I touched on this above — see the ISAAA information. Another insight is provided by Graham Brookes, who is co-author of a widely respected assessment of the socio-economic and environmental impacts of GMOs. Quoting from the report, "The net economic benefit at the farm level in 2011 was $19.8 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $133/hectare. For the 16-year period (1996-2011), the global farm income gain has been $98.2 billion."

Colman Andrews contributed reporting to this article.