The GMO Debate: A Farmer vs. Monsanto

Learn where farmers and Monsanto stand on GM seeds

The ongoing GMO debate is a contentious one.


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.