Like many Americans, I hear all sorts of interesting attitudes and misconceptions about genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. Unlike most Americans, I am a corn and soybean farmer. I have also been a Monsanto brands seed dealer. Given my occupation, I have had to learn about the genetically modified crop issues because all of this is irrevocably linked to my job. All of that said, I am no fan of Monsanto and I'll try to explain why while I clear up some misconceptions that I have encountered.
The soybean seeds that we farmers plant are almost always GMO, so that they will have the Roundup Ready gene, which is patented by Monsanto. There may or may not be other GMO traits inserted into the genetics for other herbicide resistances or disease resistance. Those genes may be from Monsanto or some other seed company like Pioneer. Farmers want this seed because it boosts yield and simplifies weed control. My average soybean yields have gone up by more than 30% since the advent of GMO seeds. Instead of up to three herbicide applications, using three or more different herbicides, I now usually use one application of one or two herbicides. We definitely use less herbicide now -- a lot less.
Farmers sign a technology agreement promising not to retain seed after harvest for replanting the following year. This agreement exists because soybean seeds are not sterile. If I grow a field of a particular variety of soybeans, what I harvest will be that same seed with the same traits, just a lot more of it than I bought to plant that field. Not only are these plants and their seeds not sterile, they also can't cause sterility via cross pollenation with unrelated plants nearby. Perhaps in the future that will change, but for the time being, forced sterility is a fiction.
Corn is a different matter. Firstly, the corn I'm going to be talking about here is field corn which has various industrial uses, not the sweet corn that you'd buy at the grocery store. Corn seed is the result of hybridization, with male plants and female plants in a field that is grown to produce seed for the following year. This has been the way corn seed has been grown and sold to farmers for many decades. Why? Regardless of GMO traits, hybridized corn has a huge yield advantage. Corn yields have gone up by more than 300% in the last century as a direct result of hybridized breeding programs.
Adding GMO traits is just another set of tools that seed companies have used to boost the yields even more. As with GMO soybeans, my corn yields have gone up in the last few years as I've switched over to GMO corn seed. Again, Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene is omnipresent and for the same reasons I wrote above. Corn has also been modified to insert many different kinds of disease and insect resistance, which reduces the total amount of chemicals that must be sprayed onto a field of corn. For example, this coming season I will only apply insecticide on about 10% of my corn acres, instead of every acre just 6 years ago.
The problem with all of this as far as I'm concerned isn't the use of genetic engineering. It is a selective breeding tool and we are going to need every trick we can come up with to push yields even higher, with many more crops, if we have any hope of being able to feed 10 billion people from the same (or fewer) acres of arable land in the not distant future. If we discover a trait with an unintended health consequence, change it or drop it -- either of which is easier to do now than it would be with traditional breeding techniques.
My problem isn't with the applied science, it is with the business practices of the big player in this industry, Monsanto. That company has a virtual monopoly on corn and soybean seed production in North America and therefore the world. Because the Roundup Ready gene is patented, highly desired by farmers, and has no competition -- Monsanto licenses it's use to their competition. I don't have a problem with that. However, Monsanto doesn't just lease the trait, they force package deals of many patented traits on their competition. Also Monsanto won't allow their traits to be mixed with certain competitor traits in the competitor's own seed! This makes it nearly impossible to buy a corn or soybean seed that doesn't have Monsanto genetics and it severely hurts competitor brands from developing completely separate genetic lines to compete with Monsanto in the marketplace.
So even though Monsanto isn't a true monopoly, they are able to leverage their competition to such a degree that Monsanto is able to act like a monopoly in some respects. Such as influencing the price of seed. When Monsanto raises their prices for seed, so does everyone else, because Monsanto raises the fees these other companies have to pay to get Monsanto's genetic traits. And Monsanto sure has been raising the prices! In the last three years, the price of a particular Monsanto corn seed has jumped by close to 40% -- despite being genetically unchanged/unimproved in that period.
[EDIT -- As of September 2010, I have given up the seed sales aspect of my operation. My only link to Monsanto is as a customer.]