Thursday, August 13, 2015

Monsanto and Monoculture

I'd like to address a couple of themes I've seen in discussions among non-farmers about agriculture. I am an Midwestern American corn and soybean farmer. Although I was not an early adopter, all of the seed I have been purchasing and planting in the last 10 years contains engineered traits. Most of the seed I buy comes from Monsanto subsidiaries like Dekalb or Asgrow, although some comes from Pioneer which is owned by DuPont, a very large company.

The company Monsanto as it is today might be better named Dekalb, since the company has been overwhelmingly a seed company since its aquisition of Dekalb and sale of its non-ag divisions in the late 90s. I do remember Monsanto making a very big deal out of its full specialization as an ag technology and research company in its farmer focused literature in that past 15 years or so.

As a company focused on agriculture seed, technology, and research -- Monsanto is big. By which I mean that compared to the divisions of other companies that do such things, Monsanto is bigger, even if Monsanto is smaller than the parent companies of their competitors. This is one of the reasons that Monsanto is ahead and stays ahead of their competitors in terms of traits in their seed.

As to monoculture, that is a concern and has been for close to 100 years. Contrary to what intuition might tell us, there isn't less genetic diversity in modern corn or soybeans that there was 100 or 50 or 30 years ago. Monsanto and other ag seed companies have huge libraries of genetic lineages that are constantly getting larger as more and more lineages are bred. Most don't make it to market or have been surpassed by more recent developments, but they do exist and can be further expanded via genetic engineering or combined with newer lineages in breeding programs.

I don't have my Dekalb seed catalogue in front of me, but I can assure you that it contains many hybrids of corn seed and varieties of soybean seed for me to buy. Far more than I have any use for, with a dizzying array of maturity dates and trait combinations. New hybrids and varieties are added every year, poor performers are abandoned, and staying on top of my options and making good seed purchases for my particular fields and agronomic practices is a major part of my job. In this, Monsanto isn't forcing reduced options on me -- quite the opposite.

Sometimes I think when people refer to genetic diversity and monoculture what they are objecting to isn't the lack of genetic diversity of within corn or soybeans, but rather the dominance of corn as a crop. So, I'd like to address that a bit.

Corn has been the dominant crop in America for a long time -- long before genetic engineering, RoundUp, Bt corn, or the rise of Monsanto's perception as an evil ag company. The reasons for that are complex and have played out in American agriculture for most of the last century. But at the risk of oversimplifying I'm going to concentrate on just a few.

Corn grows exceptionally well in the American Midwest -- partly climate and partly seed development. Once hybridized seed became available to farmers nearly 100 years ago, corn rapidly began to overtake other grains in planted acres. Corn was then and remains easier to grow, hardier, more reliable, and more profitable than its competitor crops in much of the region of America known as the corn belt.

Most crops require specialized equipment and practices. Throughout the middle part of the last century, American farms began to specialize into various production practices. The age of all individual American farms growing 5 or more crops per year and raising 3 or more livestock species per farm ended a long time ago, before I was born. Instead farms and the farmers running them became expert specialists and agricultural productivity has marched upwards.

Farmers don't farm in a proverbial vacuum though. There is a lot of regional momentum at play. Different crops require different equipment, yes, but they also require markets where farmers can deliver and sell their harvests. There is a vast and tremendously expensive agricultural infrastructure in the American Midwest that is set up to handle corn and to a lesser extent soybeans and wheat. Growing something else, even another grain, is not really feasible to many farmers since where are they going to find a buyer for their 20,000 or 100,000 bushels of specialty grain? How far is that grain going to have to be hauled from the farm, a simple 20 miles, a burdensome 200 miles or more? When can it be delivered, anytime in the year or only on a certain day at a certain far off facility? Is there any market at all for large quantities of that not-corn-grain?

That isn't to say a specialty crops aren't grown, they are. Sunflowers, pumpkins, barley, sweet corn, alfalfa, green beans -- are all examples of crops grown in small (insignificant) quantities compared to corn or soybeans in the region where I farm. But there simply isn't a sizeable enough market for any but a tiny fraction of farmers to jump into those crops, nor is the infrastructure in place to deal with more than it already does.

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