Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Monsanto, friend or foe?

The debate on bio-tech foods and seeds wears on. Food production must double by 2050, and the only way to do that is with genetically modified foods. However, many critics say the foods only poison us and the earth.

Reuters has this exhaustive profile on Monsanto that we found at the Independent On-line. Monsanto is a leading agriculture company that is spending lots of money on improving seeds and yields in hopes that the farmers will turn to their products.

Writer Carey Gillam began the story by talking of a visit from Monsanto's Vice President of research Rob Fraley, with his friend Dr Norman Borlaug.

The topic of Fraley's final conversation with his friend that day underscored the unfolding of a modern era of global agriculture. In this new paradigm, traditional plant breeding is giving way to the high-tech tools of rich corporations like Monsanto, which are playing an increasingly powerful role in determining how and what the world eats. It is also generating controversy, as critics continue to question the safety of biotech crops, and fear increasing control of the global food supply by giant corporations.

Still, few dispute that something needs to be done. The United Nations has said that food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the world's growing population and that innovative strategies are needed to combat hunger and malnutrition that already afflict more than 1 billion people.

Amid this dire outlook, St Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto - along with its biggest corporate rivals, charitable foundations, public researchers and others - is forming a loose coalition of interests instigating a second Green Revolution.

"What we do builds on what he started," Fraley said of Borlaug, who died in September at the age of 95.

Founded in 1901 as a maker of saccharine, Monsanto has undergone several evolutions of its own.

The company spends an estimated $2-million a day on agriculture research and development - more than any other company.

It employs about 400 scientists in four St Louis-area research facilities, applying an array of new technologies to plant genetics, with a goal of doubling yields in major crops, such as corn and soybeans, between now and 2030.

"If we do that successfully, it won't just be good for Monsanto, it will be good for the world," Fraley said.

As it positions itself to be a leader in advancing a global fight against hunger, Monsanto has started working with nonprofit organisations in poor nations, donating research and genetics to help needy farmers.

The moves run parallel to Monsanto's commercial sales of high-priced seeds and agricultural chemicals to farmers in wealthy nations, which has made the company a darling of Wall Street and helped it post record net sales of $11,7-billion and net income of $2,1-billion for fiscal 2009.

The US Department of Agriculture and governments around the world are encouraging Monsanto - as well as rivals DuPont, Dow Chemical, BASF and other corporate interests - to work with academics, foundations and public institutions on how to increase food production globally.

Drought-tolerant crops, particularly corn, are high on the agenda amid concerns about a changing climate. Improved wheat is also a major goal.

Corn and wheat account for about 40 percent of the world's food and 25 percent of calories consumed in developing countries, and millions of people get more than half of their daily calories from corn and wheat alone, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.

"We want to encourage the private sector to help shape research. These are important issues for all Americans and the world," said Roger Beachy, President Barack Obama's newly appointed director of the US National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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