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OK, so Monsanto isn’t actually a UK based company, and doesn’t appear in the FTSE100. However, biotechnology issues – particularly GM – are likely to be more and more important as time goes on. At the moment there is a moratorium on growing GM crops in the UK…whether this is right or not is a matter for debate, but it may not continue forever, and the ethical standing of companies like Monsanto is definitely something we need to face.

Whatever your opinion on whether the potential benefits of GM (which *could* be enormous) will be realised when the technology is in the hands of corporations, the story of Monsanto is a pretty cautionary tale.

Firstly, BST. BST stands for bovine somatotrophin. This genetically modified hormone is intended to induce cows to produce more milk…which it does do. It also compromises the cow’s immune system - making the life of an intensively farmed dairy cow even more painful. But this is not why it’s been banned in the EU – BST has also been linked to human cancers. But Monsanto is doing its utmost to overturn the EU ban and be allowed to market BST in Europe.

Secondly, ‘terminator technology’. This is a really contentious issue. Terminator technology is basically when a genetically modified crop is deliberately engineered to be sterile, so seeds cannot be harvested one year and used to re plant the crop the following year. The technology was originally devised as a way to make GM more appealing to those who feared the escape of GM plants into natural ecosystems – since the plants would be unable to propagate themselves naturally. However, viewed in conjunction with the near monopoly of companies like Monsanto over the seed markets in certain parts of the world ‘terminator technology’ looks like a very handy way to make sure that farmers are forced back year after year to buy new seed stock, at whatever price the biotechnology company sees fit to charge. Monsanto has actually said that it will not use ‘terminator technology’, but it holds the patent…so only time shall tell…

Finally, ‘roundup ready crops’. RoundUp weedkiller is possibly one of Monsanto’s most famous products (second only, perhaps, to Agent Orange). This weedkiller contains the active ingredient glycophosphate, exposure to which has been shown by a study in the Journal of the American Cancer Society to increase the risk of contracting Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In light of this, increasing the amount of RoundUp likely to be sprayed directly onto the food crops we consume might seem like a bad idea. Not to Monsanto. Monsanto has been busy genetically engineering ‘roundup ready’ crops (particularly soya) which can resist the weedkiller themselves, and so can be completely doused during mass spraying of pesticides to eliminate the non crop plants from the area. Aside from the risk to human health, this sort of practice is bad news for eco systems, and for agriculture in the long run. The more indiscriminate and intense the use of pesticides, the higher the impact on local non pest speices, and the greater the knock on effect on the ecological balance of the area as a whole. Similarly, there is a high selection pressure on weed species to develop resistance to the pesticide, which spells bad news for food production in the long term. Finally, apart from all that, Monsanto is basically getting a stranglehold on the farmers involved – if they want to use RoundUp then they must also buy Monsanto’s RoundUp ready seeds.

So, a brief overview of some of the ethical issues to come out of GM in the context of big business. It is indisputable that genetic modification has the power to do enormous good, but only if used responsibly…and from what we’re finding out about companies in general, social responsibility seems to be the exception rather than the rule. For more information, the new scientist website is always good. (I think Oxford University is a subscriber, so it should be possible to view the archived articles from the Oxford network).


Also, George Monbiot is a pretty vocal opposer of GM technology in the hands of companies like Monsanto…


Posted on 09/05/05 by admin

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