May 25th, 2017


Senior Scientist, Director Grassroots Science Program, Pesticide Action Network

Filmmaker, Food Evolution

VP and Global R&D Lead, Monsanto Company

Environmental Health Program Manager, As You Sow


Are GMOs the answer to our planet’s food shortage? Or are they jeopardizing our health, crops and climate by creating a destructive cycle of Roundup resistance? Like many issues these days, it depends on who you believe. Supporters of genetically modified organisms say that altering the DNA of corn and other crops is just another tool in the farmers’ toolbox - an innovation that will help feed a world whose food production has been disrupted by climate change

John Purcell, who heads up Monsanto’s vegetable division, brushes characterizations of his company as the “most hated” in the world. Twenty years in, he remains excited about their vision of changing agriculture for the better.

“That's what got me and a lot of the biologists that came to Monsanto excited,” he tells the Climate One audience. “Because we wanted to find new ways to help farmers, and we wanted to do it in a sustainable fashion, and we want to make sure all the tools of modern biology are being used.”

As an example, he cites major improvements made in corn production. “You can produce more corn with less land, less water, less energy and with a more positive carbon footprint than you could 30 years ago.”

But GMO opponents maintain that modified plants are dangerous to our health because of their resistance to pesticides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which has been linked to cancer and is frequently used to battle bugs that could destroy crops.

Roundup contains glysophate, which was classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen two years ago – a finding that they later reversed. Austin Wilson of the advocacy group As You Sow recently released a report on Roundup. He agrees that sustainability is a major priority for the food industry.

“Their customers want sustainable food, their investors want them to be ready for climate change and have resilient long-term sustainable systems,” he says. “GMOs have been a barrier to that sustainability because they’ve been driving pesticide use.”

A major part of the problem, says Marsha Ishii-Eiteman of the Pesticide Action Network, is that major seed producers like Monsanto have made their product all but ubiquitous, forcing farmers into a cycle of dependency that is fueling an unhealthy monoculture – which in turn contributes to climate change.

“Agriculture, including the use of GMOs in industrialized pesticide energy intensive farming, has been a key contributor to the problem of global warming, contributing one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions,” Ishii-Eiteman says. “The data show that much of this is coming from chemical intensive, monocultural industrial agriculture, the use of chemical fertilizers and so on.”

Purcell points out that it’s up to growers to decide how to get the most out of their land. “There's lots of choices out there,” he says. “Whether they go GMO, whether they go organic, whether they go conventional, whether they go biotech. Farmers are making choices every day on seed.”

The problem, Ishii-Eiteman counters, is that, thanks to companies like Monsanto, many farmers no longer have choices. “They are stuck,” she says, “caught up in this…glyphosate dependent system of corn and soybeans.

“They tell me if I want to buy non-GMO seeds, I can't find them because Monsanto has cornered the market. I go into my seed store and all I can find are Roundup-resistant seeds.”

Related Links:

Pesticide Action Network
As You Sow: Roundup Revealed
Food Evolution
AAAS Statement on GMO’s
WHO/IARC – International Agency for Research on Cancer
Roundup ‘probably’ causes cancer, says WHO study (The Guardian)
Glysophate unlikely to pose cancer risk, WHO study says (The Guardian)
Monsanto/The Climate Corporation

– Anny Celsi
Photos by Rikki Ward