Anti-GMO activists are horrified at the prospect of German pharmaceutical giant Bayer purchasing American agrochemical company Monsanto, a proposed consolidation the activists said would magnify corporate power over the world's food supply.
"The corporate power, the sheer force that Monsanto-Bayer would be able to exert in capitals across the United States and Europe — that power to advance its regulatory aims and efforts to defeat transparency and defeat a path for agriculture that is less chemical, less poison-dependent, is bad for consumers," said Gary Ruskin, co-founder of US Right to Know, an advocacy group that supports labelling on genetically modified food. "It's bad for farmers in the long run, and it's bad for the environment."
Ruskin spoke on Thursday after Bayer issued a press release saying it had approached Monsanto with an unsolicited purchase offer. The companies didn't disclose a price, but reports estimated that Bayer could fork over as much as $73 billion for the St. Louis-based company.
"The proposed combination would reinforce Bayer as a global innovation-driven Life Science company with leadership positions in its core segments, and would create a leading integrated agriculture business," Bayer's statement said.
'If there are just a few seed strains, then consumer choice is lost, the biodiversity may be lost.'
Monsanto is one of the world's biggest suppliers of genetically modified seeds. It's also famous for its popular Roundup brand of herbicide. Founded in 1863, Bayer is one of world's most venerable companies. Its scientists invented aspirin and a host other well-known and important drugs.
It's not clear if Monsanto is going to accept Bayer's proposal or if American and European regulators would ok the deal.
But the potential sale, which would create the world's largest supplier of seeds and agricultural chemicals, is part of a trend in agribusiness. Including Bayer and Monsanto, the six companies that dominate the industry are seeking to merge into a total of three entities to shave costs in their increasingly global competition against one other. DuPont and Dow Chemical have proposed a merger. The China National Chemical Corporation is also trying to purchase Syngenta, a Swiss producer of GMO seeds and crop chemicals. Last year, Monsanto tried, but failed, to purchase Syngenta for $46 billion.
Ruskin and other critics of Monsanto, Bayer, and other companies that produce GMOs charge that they sell seeds that grow monocultures — one type of cotton, for instance — that fly in the face of the diversity of nature. The seeds, in turn, produce plants that are immune to the herbicides and pesticides that the same companies produce, encouraging farmers to use toxins that kill off beneficial plants and bugs and pollute the earth.
"If there are just a few seed strains, then consumer choice is lost, the biodiversity may be lost," Ruskin said. "These are companies that are hell bent towards developing a highly chemical dependent, pesticide and herbicide-dependent agriculture."
Controversies over GMOs have led half the members of the European Union, including France and Germany, to ban their farmers from growing them.
"There's virtually no market for genetically modified seeds in Europe because they're so unpopular," Dirk Zimmermann, a Germany-based GMO expert at Greenpeace, told Bloomberg, adding that a Bayer-Monsanto combination would "hurt the future of sustainable agriculture."
Many scientists have rebuffed the naysayers, however. On Tuesday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) released a 388-page report that found no ill-health effects from GMO foods, which are common in the United States. For example, most of the soybeans and corn eaten by people and livestock in America is genetically modified.
"While recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops," the Academies said in a statement.
The report had GMO critics and the agribusiness community buzzing.
It didn't recommend that the United States label GMO foods, for example, but it acknowledged that the issue was controversial and wasn't simply a scientific decision, giving ammunition to advocates of GMO labelling in a heated battle that's currently underway in Washington state. Vermont has enacted a law that would require labels on GMO foods starting on July 1. But Democrats and Republicans in Congress are now debating a bill that would block the Green Mountain State's law.
"When it comes to GMO labels, the NAS report points out that there are value choices that consumers want to make when they shop for food," said Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the Consumers Union. "We're pleased to see that the report cites the wealth of polling data showing consumers want GMO labeling."
But the NAS report also pointed out that weeds and pests are growing resistant to the herbicides and pesticides that farmers are using on GMO crops that can also tolerate the poisons, a potentially serious problem for farmers.
Biochemist Bruce Chassy, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the synergy between a united Bayer and Monsanto could help tackle those challenges. Chassy has received funding from Monsanto.
"Bayer Crop Science is primarily a chemical company with some significant interest in GMOs," said Chassy, referring to Bayer's agribusiness division. "Monsanto by deliberate choice many years go stopped being a chemical company and become a biology company. You can do things with chemistry married to biology that you can't do with biology alone."
But Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, cited that threat in his criticism of Bayer and Monsanto merging. Bayer wants to own Monsanto's business and make it more efficient and profitable, not spend money on altering it, he said. But the business model is the problem, he contended.
It's less expensive and scientifically easier to modify a single gene to make plants tolerant of herbicides and pesticides than it is to make them withstand drought or less dependent on fertilizers full of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, said Gurian-Sherman. Seeds for those single-gene GMOs can then be sold and planted anywhere and kept alive with the help of weed and bug killers.
"If you really want to optimize agriculture, if you really want to make it most resistant to climate change, most responsive to local markets, most resistant to drought, you need to optimize those crops for those local conditions that vary from place to place," Gurian-Sherman said. "That's exactly the opposite of what these companies are doing."
But the process is unsustainable, Gurian-Sherman argued. Weeds and bugs grow resistant to the toxins and the companies double-down on creating new GMOs and new herbicides and pesticides — it's a vicious circle he said that would speed up if Bayer, Monsanto, and other agrichemical corporations combine, he said.
"We've painted ourselves into a really bad corner in terms of the genetics of our crops and our ability to make agriculture more sustainable and to respond to climate change," he said. "We're digging a hole by working against nature instead of with it."
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