Jason Barton

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Monsanto: The parable of the sower

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Merely mentioning the name “Monsanto” in certain circles will illicit a range of responses, from admiration and gratitude, to unadulterated acrimony. Having had the pleasure of knowing some of their executives in the U.S. and Brazil, I can say that they are decent, intelligent people who truly believe that they are making great strides towards feeding an ever-growing global population. Many around the world will agree. Others, especially small farmers, will say that their pursuit of intellectual property rights, combined with their substantial market power, is making it very difficult for those who lack capital for investments to survive in an increasingly industrialized agricultural system. This fence is really digging into my backside.

Monsanto has recently pledged to increase corn yields to as much as 300 bushels per acre by the year 2030 (read about it here).  This would mark an increase of about 100% from present yields. While this may be a noble pursuit on its surface, there are two points of contention that merit discussion: 1. The negative environmental externalities in this effort may outweigh the benefits; and 2. I still hold to the notion that we do not face a food production problem, but a food distribution problem.

Having that much biomass sprout from the soil may deplete it in ways that vastly decrease yields in a mere generation, possibly two. The fertilizers required for such an effort have already had devastating effects[1]. Doubling yields will mean much more nitrogen runoff into the the Mississippi Basin, the Gulf of Mexico, and other places where such production methods are employed. And since, as Donner and others[2] make clear, most of the corn grown in the U.S. goes either to cattle feed or ethanol, it is difficult to see how this can help to feed a growing population. Yes, I like my cheeseburgers, but there is a vast difference, ecologically and in terms of human health, between eating meat once or twice a week, versus every day. Eating lower on the food chain, especially in the developed North, can go at least as far towards helping more equitable distribution of the global food supply as increasing yields, and without the negative side effects.

Between those externalities and the costs of research and development of the sort Monsanto proposes, this is not an efficient way to provide the food our population needs.

The parable of the sower

Nov 19th 2009 | ST LOUIS
From The Economist print edition

The debate over whether Monsanto is a corporate sinner or saint

FEW companies excite such extreme emotions as Monsanto. To its critics, the agricultural giant is a corporate hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Ebenezer Scrooge, using science to create foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet, and intellectual-property laws to squeeze every last penny out of the world’s poor. The list of Monsanto’s sins dates back to when (with other firms) it produced Agent Orange, a herbicide notorious for its use by American forces in Vietnam. Recently “Food Inc”, a documentary film, lambasted the company.

To its admirers, the innovations in seeds pioneered by Monsanto are the world’s best hope of tackling a looming global food crisis. Hugh Grant, the firm’s boss since 2003, says that without the sort of technological breakthroughs Monsanto has achieved the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water, as many believe it must. Mr Grant, of course, would say that. But he is not alone. Bill Gates sees Monsanto’s innovations as essential to the agricultural revolution in Africa to which his charitable foundation is committed. Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is also a fan.

Monsanto has come a long way from its roots in pharmaceuticals and chemicals (in which capacity it made Agent Orange). The original company was formed in 1901 to make saccharine. In 2000 it merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a drugmaker. Two years later the group’s agricultural activities were spun off into a new Monsanto. At that time the company was best known for Roundup, a herbicide popular with farmers. Roundup is still a leading brand, but margins have been eroded by competition from Chinese producers of other forms of glyphosate weedkiller. Roundup’s share of Monsanto’s revenue is shrinking towards 10%. There is talk that it might be sold. “It is no sacred cow. We look at it every year,” says Mr Grant.

Read the entire article here.

[1] Donner, S. (2007). “Surf or Turf.” Global Environmental Change. 17:105–113

[2] Such as Smil, V. (2002). Nitrogen and food production: proteins for human diets. Ambio. 31:126– 131.

Written by Jason

November 19th, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Algae May Be the Future of Biofuels, but it’s a Distant Future

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This is promising. Whatever we may say about Monsanto (read more here), there are some smart people working there, and their investment in technology to use algae for biofuels shows there is some real promise in those efforts. The innovation needed to make this technology energy efficient and cost effective, however, is a long way off.

Cellulosic biofuels from crops with which we have great experience, such as corn and grasses, continues to face considerable barriers. First, while we have known for millennia how to ferment 6 carbon sugars such as glucose,we lack the experience and an efficient method to ferment the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars in cellulose. To complicate matters further, unlike the sugars in cane or in the carbohydrates in corn, the sugars in cellulose are mixed in with lignin, the stiff, woody parts of plants that give them their structure.

Sapphire energy, the company discussed in the article below, will not likely ferment the sugars for fuels like ethanol, but will extract the oil to make diesel fuel. This process still faces barriers as formidable as those I discuss above, plus the added disadvantage that we don’t have proven methods to grow, harvest, and process algae efficiently.

You might be thinking, ‘the pond near our backyard grows tons of algae and we don’t even want it, how hard can it be?’ When we’re trying to grow enough to be used to power cars and planes, and in a small space with limited inputs of water and other form energy, it gets trickier.

It will take time to develop the methods to do all of this. It can be done, but let’s not figure that developments such as this give us license to continue using fossil fuels with our present, reckless abandon.

Innovation, yes, efficiency always.

Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy

content by earth2tech

By Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech

Tue Mar 8, 2011 11:07am EST

Agriculture and genetics giant Monsanto has made its bet on algae. On Tuesday Monsanto announced that it has made an equity investment in, and developed a partnership with, algae startup Sapphire Energy.

Founded in 2007, Sapphire Energy uses synthetic biology to make a green crude out of algae that can be turned into gas, diesel or jet fuel. Monsanto wants access to Sapphire’s genetic research technology to use it for its own agricultural development. Using Sapphire’s genetic technology, Monsanto can isolate traits in algae (like high yields and stress traits) that could be used to tweak other crops. Monsanto’s CTO Robb Fraley said in a release that algae is an “excellent discovery tool,” for agricultural genetic research.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

March 20th, 2011 at 10:52 am