Inside Monsanto … The company is using its biotech muscle to genetically engineer crops — but also beef up traditional cross-breeding. Say the term "genetically modified organism," or GMO, and you're bound to get some strong opinions. But what is it? And should we be afraid? Like it or not, humans have been in the business of genetically changing organisms since we first started domesticating them around 12,000 BC. Simply put, favorable traits were identified in one generation of plants or animals—higher fertility, bigger size, faster maturity—and those individuals were selectively bred to produce the next generation. – Al Jazeera
Dominant Social Theme: Monsanto is making good things.
Free-Market Analysis: This article makes an interesting point regarding Monsanto's evolution from a technological standpoint. It's "food for thought," so to speak.
Instead of mixing different DNA together – which has brought the company much bad publicity and public distrust – Monsanto scientists are now peering into the DNA of specific produce in order to strengthen tendencies for flavor, longevity, etc.
On the surface, this sounds like a great idea; and this article from Al Jazeera provides a positive commentary at a time when most of Monsanto's press is mixed at best, even in the mainstream media.
In fact, the article makes the point emphatically that Monsanto is only speeding up a process that humankind has been involved with for thousands of years.
Breeding dogs, for instance, is similar to what Monsanto is now doing, according to the article, only traits were cultivated in dogs over generations whereas Monsanto can cull and reinforce positive traits much more quickly.
Monsanto is using its biotech muscle to not only genetically engineer crops, but also to beef up its traditional cross-breeding activities. Basically, Monsanto scientists use biotechnology methods to peer into the DNA sequences of plants and identify which ones have the right stuff they are looking for—better flavors, increased nutrition, longer shelf-life.
Once they find those plants—the needles in the haystack—they use them in good old-fashioned breeding efforts. This system can cut years off of what is typically a long process in achieving a reliable new variety with traits of interest.
"Breeding" sounds a lot better than "genetically modifying." But the article makes a stab at demystifying Monsanto's genetic efforts as well.
That doesn't go so well, in our opinion …
Today, we don't have to breed for desired traits over many generations, we can directly insert genes to change genomes in only one generation. Even more intense, we can also transfer genes across species. Take the GloFish, for instance.
Scientists extracted a gene originally from a jellyfish that produces a bright green fluorescent color, inserted into a zebrafish and, voila! The neon-looking GloFish was created—the world's first genetically engineered pet.
The Monsanto corporation has long been at the forefront of genetic engineering when it comes to the plants we eat. They've been both praised and bashed for this. Some think they are leaders in finding new ways to feed a growing global population.
Others have derided them for producing "franken-foods" that wreak havoc on the environment and our bodies … But I also know that we must innovate ways to produce food to feed a swelling human population in the midst of a changing climate.
This is a less successful justification of Monsanto's business model because genetically modified produce (and animals) raises far more serious questions than a speeded-up process of breeding.
Genetically modified plants and animals can presumably be born sterile, thus providing Monsanto with a biological business model that gives the company more and more control over the food chain. Monsanto is already producing artificially sterilized seed that can only be used for a single planting.
Also, just because Monsanto can create a "genetically engineered pet" doesn't mean it ought to be done. Are Monsanto scientists sure such creations won't have unwarranted side effects? Nature produces mutations over time, but speeding up the process may make the results more dangerous – inadvertently or not. (And actually, that goes for breeding, too).
Here's the biggest problem, though: Monopoly central banking and corporate personhood granted by judicial fiat is what has created companies like Monsanto.
Absent these two main market distortions, Western societies would likely look a lot different. They would likely feature smaller businesses and limited partnerships with a slower pace of innovation. Industry would be decentralized, industrial power more localized. The kind of "science" that Monsanto is practicing would be subject to the checks and balances of the marketplace.
Monsanto is so powerful that its top executives can pursue business and science strategies that would not have developed in an environment less awash in monopoly fiat money. Corporate personhood protects top execs from the fallout of bad or unpopular decisions.
People assume that the "marketplace" has evolved naturally but this is far from the case. The West's hyper-stimulated consumerist culture is a direct outgrowth of several important organizing decisions regarding money printing and corporate organization.
Regardless of whether Monsanto is producing "good" or "bad" science, one could argue that its size and the vastness of its resources make pushback to its more controversial strategies difficult.
It's not just Monsanto, though. Foundational decisions – emplaced by force – have created increasingly mammoth corporations working side-by-side with the facilities of regulatory democracy.
It is accountability that Western economic systems lack – and ultimately that's an even bigger problem than some of Monsanto's more questionable business decisions.