Regardless of whether we are comfortable admitting it, we live in a world of stupendously cheap food. Globally, in 2007-8 there was a spike in food prices which, although has now receded, acted to demonstrate that food is not as secure and as cheap as our lifestyles implicitly assume. In developed countries many of us don’t see the urgency, as a 20% increase in food prices simply means we’ll buy less meat and more pulses and ultimately just foot the increased bill; we can afford it. Such a luxury is not afforded in the developing world.
During the 2007-8 food crisis event, Thailand put a cap on its food exports to ensure they improved their self-sufficiency. This is ‘economic marginalism’ in action. To word that differently, the comparatively luxurious uses of food―in this case as an economic commodity―was squeezed out by the more urgent physiological uses of food, keeping the Thai population alive. As much of Thailand’s economy is based food exports, the impacts of this decision are clear (however, the choice was an easy one). In Tanzania, access to food was exacerbated in 2007-8 by another country leasing vast areas of farmland to feed itself: Saudi Arabia, a net importer of food, leased productive land in Tanzania to help secure their own access to food, with an obvious detriment to the food security within Tanzania.
Food security and insecurity is almost euphemistic language for what we’re really talking about: malnourishment, undernourishment and starvation. The risk of starvation, globally, is increasing. (That is a much more immediate way of saying food security is at risk.) This global trend is tied to many factors, including economic speculation, extreme weather events, crops for non-food uses (like biofuel) and food insecurity becomes its own feedback as that diminishes global stockpiles and encourages export bans. Farming is also a massively energy-intensive process, which means food prices are linked to energy prices (which often means it’s related to oil prices).
Food security, then, relies on making food prices as impervious to these variables as possible. Monsanto is one of the giant forces that could promise very real security to at least some of these issues. Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are an extraordinarily powerful tool: it has improved the nutrient profile of food, giving us Golden Rice and helped to decrease malnourishment; drought-resistant crops are limiting the relationship between severe weather events and food supply; pest-resistant crops reduce dependence on pesticides, thus reducing the relationship between food prices and volatile energy prices; increased Nitrogen uptake and metabolism reduce the need for fertilisers, which similarly starts to couple food and energy prices.
GM crops are not the one-stop, magic bullet answer; progress has been made in developing some conventional breeding techniques and farming practices globally need to be improved. Water management is severely lacking in many places, and that has implications for food security too. Eco-efficiency is a topic the world’s farmers need to take seriously. However, GM crops are a very real tool in the arsenal for combatting food security globally.
GM technology is a tool. It can be abused: it can be used to make pesticide-tolerant crops instead of pesticide less-dependent crops, it can be used to promote ecologically destructive farming practices. However, these would be very poor uses for GM technology and would rightly be denigrated as squandering very real opportunities. Monsanto does not appear to be in the business of such practices. In fact, Monsanto does a considerable amount of work that simply appears charitable and positively collaborative.
Cynicism isn’t always bad, and believing that Monsanto offers charitable work and collaborative work on sustainable agriculture for no reason other that marketing and self-image may be a justified stance. But that doesn’t undo the fact the work actually happens. You could be increasingly cynical and claim that Monsanto’s scholarship programs, education and tools are all tailored to increase use of their products; that their good works are inherent to their business model to drive up demand. That may preclude them from winning the Nobel Peace prize, but it doesn’t, again, actually deal with the simple fact that the work happens. (As a brief counter to that cynicism, developing a business model that has sustainability as an inherent part of what a companies does is difficult to call a bad thing.)
Monsanto is not only the leader provider of GM technology and crops, but also works closely with a variety of organisations to ensure biodiversity and agricultural sustainability. As a result, they are a significant player in the battle to increase global food security.