Confused About Monsanto and GMOs? A Simple Explanation...

December 21st 2014

Mike Vainisi

What exactly is Monsanto and why does everybody talk about it?

Monsanto is a major global corporation that produces biotechnology and agricultural chemicals. While some of those products are sold to consumers, such as Roundup weed killer, the company is best known for its patented seeds and chemicals that help farmers increase crop yields and lower pesticide use. 

What makes Monsanto particularly controversial is that these techniques genetically modify crops. This is where we get the term "genetically modified organisms" or "GMOs." In fact, for most of the general public, Monsanto = GMO. (If you can think of an acronym more closely associated with a corporation than Monsanto and GMO, we'll give you a retweet.)

What exactly is a GMO?

To genetically modify a plant or animal means you're manipulating its DNA to include some desirable trait.

Technically, we've been genetically modifying plants and animals practically forever. Our dogs, our red apples, and our cows are examples of genetic modification. We've done this by breeding these organisms over generations to include certain traits that suit some purpose. In apples, for example, it's their sweet taste.

The difference between those non-controversial, natural GMOs and today's GMOs is that scientists can alter the DNA of a plant or animal in a lab through biotechnology. This process no longer requires waiting for the next generation of a plant or animal -- scientists today can simply transfer DNA from one organism to another.

What's so bad about GMOs?

Fear of the unknown. While natural genetic modification took place over thousands of years, biotech-created GMOs have emerged only over the last couple decades. So we can't really say for sure what they're doing to us over the long-term. Various studies have tried to link GMOs to anything from cancer to sterility to making us all resistant to antibiotic medication. The Institute for Responsible Technology says studies show GMOs harm humans as a result of material they leave behind.

None of this is accepted as good science, though. Many in the scientific community, moreover, think GMOs pose no danger to humans. "Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe," the American Association for the Advancement of Science said last year. You can see this sentiment in a recent viral video where Neil deGrasse Tyson told GMO critics to "chill out":

There are prominent scientists, however, who disagree with their colleagues on the safety of GMOs. They point to the undeniable truth that we simply do not know for sure that GMOs are safe. Further, they think there might be some evidence that the use of the herbicide Roundup will prove to be dangerous. Finally, there are possible dangers not directly related to health effects, such as super weeds and biodiversity. (Both described below.)

What do health stats say so far?

We are not seeing increases in disease since laboratory-produced GMOs entered our diets. Except for allergies, which do seem to be on a rise. Correlation does not, however, prove causation. There's no evidence that GMOs are really leading to allergies. 

Overall, the sample size is too small to make any meaningful conclusions about GMOs and public health.

But what about that study of rats that linked GMOs to cancer?

You may have heard of a study where tumors developed in rats exposed to GMOs and Roundup. 

It's been discredited by the scientific community, particularly because of problems with its process. Scientists have said that the control groups and test groups were not balanced, creating a situation where the data could have been "cherrypicked."

What's GMO labeling?

The best argument against GMOs, then, is this: "Hey, we have no idea what this is doing to us long-term. Can I at least avoid them if I so choose?" 

Anti-GMO activists ask for transparency through labeling which foods on your grocery store shelf contain GMOs. "If you want to avoid sugar, aspartame, trans fats, MSG, or just about anything else, you read the label," Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times. We don't have labeling laws in the United States (although Vermont passed one and will try to implement it next year, pending legal questions over whether Vermont has the authority to pass that type of regulation). Worldwide, sixty-one countries have passed labeling laws, including China and the European Union.

Many celebrities, such as Neil Young (see below), Bill Maher, and Danny DeVito, have become advocates for GMO labeling. Maher and DeVito participated in the March Against Monsanto last year:

What could be wrong with labeling? Just let people know if they are consuming GMOs, right?

Those against labeling claim it's not that simple. Many scientists argue that a general GMO label does not make sense scientifically because one GMO might be entirely different from the next GMO. "Adding Bt toxin to corn is different than adding Vitamin A to rice or vaccines to potatoes or heart-protective peptides to tomatoes, " wrote Christie Wilcox, a scientific researcher. 

Further, those against labeling say that a broad GMO label will only scare consumers about perfectly safe foods. (Broadness is blamed for the failure of a 2012 labeling ballot initiative in California. See below.)

Have any states or the federal government passed labeling laws? What about other countries?

+ The federal Food and Drug Administration has declined to label GMOs because they "have not seen evidence of safety risks associated with" GMOs. 

+ Vermont, however, is the first success for pro-labelers. Its GMO labeling law will go into effect in July, pending a lawsuit.

GMO-labeling referendums have failed in a few states, notably in California where Prop 37 failed in 2012, Analysts agree that anti-labeling groups successfully convinced voters that the broadness of the proposed rule would bring about unintended consequences and raise the cost of food. (Labeling, largely seen as a liberal priority, failed to pass in the same year that California also voted for President Obama by a 60%-37% margin.) 

+ The jury is still out In Oregon. A labeling initiative that was on the ballot last month is now in a recount after labeling lost by only 812 votes out of more than 1.5 million votes cast.

+ The European Union has some of the most stringent rules about GMOs. You can read more about them here. (And if you can understand that, let me know. I have an easier time understanding the last half hour of Interstellar than I do the making sense of E.U. regulations.)

+ China mandates labeling -- although some argue the law is not enforced well and compliance is low.

What was that thing about Neil Young boycotting Starbucks over Monsanto and GMOs?

Monsanto Starbucks Meme

The Grocery Manufacturers Association is suing Vermont over their GMO labeling law, alleging that Vermont lacks the authority to pass a food regulation like that. This is possibly why you heard about Neil Young's boycott of Starbucks. Both Monsanto and Starbucks are members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and anti-GMO groups have tried to tie Starbucks to Monsanto as dual parties in this lawsuit. They're aren't parties, though. They are only members in an organization that is suing. For its part, Starbucks says it does not support the lawsuit. I would agree that grouping Starbucks and Monsanto is a bit of a stretch, but if the grocery group wins the lawsuit, Starbucks -- and the rest of the trade association members -- will benefit. So, Starbucks sort of tries having it both ways here. 

Tell me something we know is bad about GMOs

Superweeds. This is a thing. When farmers use herbicides to kill weeds, those weeds can naturally select themselves into resistance to those chemicals. For example, in the late 1990s, U.S. farmers began using a herbicide produced by Monsanto called glyphosate in combination with genetically modified cotton that was engineered to resist glyphosate. The idea is simple -- you can spray your crops with this chemical and kill the weeds without risking your cotton As predicted by some anti-GMO groups and scientists, this led to gylphosate-resistant weeds. Which just led to use of another herbicide, which will undoubtedly run into the same problem. This pattern will not end until farmers find a sustainable solution, scientists say. What's worse is that the Department of Agriculture says this cycle permanently damages our best farm soil.

Similarly, there is a concern about genetically modified animals. A GMO version of salmon, for instance, could escape into the wild and breed with run-of-the-mill, natural salmon. In that scenario, the modified salmon's DNA would be part of our ecosystem. No one knows what would happen in that scenario.

Overall, biodiversity is a huge issue. GMOs are taking over our farms, and some say this is unsafe for our food supply. According to the Center for Food Safety, 86% of corn, 88% of cotton, and 93% of soybeans farmed in the U.S. are now genetically engineered crops. Genetic diversity is a good thing for food security because it allows plants to develop new adaptations in their genes that make them uniquely resilient. The worry is that if patented GMO seeds make up the entirety of our crops, we'll no longer see new genetic adaptations. If all crops have the same weakness due to similar DNA, one major catastrophe, such as a drought, could wipe out our food supply. "If we jeopardize this biodiversity for the sake of a possible wonder trait for tomorrow, then we won't have any wonder traits for the day after tomorrow," said Professor Jack Heinemann to The Atlantic.

Other than increasing output and efficiency in agriculture, is there something we know that GMOs are good for?

We better can feed the hungry. Take a place like Indonesia where some regions are harsh environments for farming. With GMOs, we can engineer rice to survive there. Imagine that on a global scale, where scientists and farmers can produce fertile crops in places where right now we don't have enough food. That's a pretty big deal.

GMOs can also create foods with high volumes of nutrients. One example is golden rice, which is a GMO that contains 60% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A. Golden rice is a powerful, efficient tool for poor populations fighting childhood blindness, which is caused by Vitamin A deficiency.

Ok so I don't get it. If the danger of GMOs is seriously debatable, why does everyone hate Monsanto so much?

Suffice to say, Monsanto has its hands in a few pies -- not all strictly related to the safety of human consumption of GMOs. Here are a few of the particularly notable concerns:


Many people think Monsanto's patenting of seeds contributes to poverty among farmers by forcing them to pay expensive fees to Monsanto in order to acquire seeds. Monsanto also attaches additional caveats restricting the use of these patented seeds. Generally, farmers who plant GMO seeds agree they will only use the seeds once and will not save them for a second planting, thus having to pay for them each time. When these rules are broken, Monsanto is known sue farmers. The company recently won a major Supreme Court case over this "second planting" issue. In that case, a farmer broke the agreement, planted a second crop with Monsanto seeds, and, when he was sued, argued that Monsanto had no right to stop him under patent law. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling for Monsanto.

The issue here is control. Activists, such as Vandana Shiva, argue that patenting seeds and placing restrictions on their use effectively gives corporations a monopoly on food. As of 2011, Monsanto and nine other major corporations control nearly two-thirds of global seed sales. The problem, some say, is that this destroys the free market in agriculture and puts our food security at the mercy of a handful of people.


Monsanto spends a lot of money on lobbying, which is legal, but not always popular. The company has consistently spent millions each year looking to protect its interests. It also hired former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln to represent the company on Capitol Hill. Probably the most famous (or infamous) result of Monsanto lobbying was what was dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act," a law that was drawn up by Monsanto lobbyists to limit federal regulation of GMOs. The law was passed by Congress when its text was appended to a large continuing resolution. It was signed by President Obama. The Monsanto Protection Act, however, is no more, as it was not renewed last year.

Still, it shows the company has clout. It also raises concerns about GMO safety. No, there's no science that says GMOs are dangerous. Yes, most scientists say they are safe. But, if that's the case, why is Monsanto trying to tie the hands of federal regulators?

Agent Orange and Vietnam

Agent Orange was an herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to clear dense jungle foliage to make guerilla operations more difficult. Not surprisingly, it turned out that breathing in a chemical that kills plant life en masse is not good for your health. The result was birth defects in children whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange. In 1984, Monsanto paid 45% of a $180 million settlement with U.S. veterans over Agent Orange. But, as late as 2004, Monsanto was still denying some of the the negative health effects.


Monsanto helped Argentina become the world's third-largest soybean producer. There are reports, however, that the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate has been linked to cancer and birth defects in that country.

What's the summary here?

There's no definitive evidence that GMOs are dangerous to your health, and most scientists think they are safe. But being worried about GMOs or Monsanto does not make you a paranoid Truther. For one, GMOs have not been around that long, so it's impossible to rule out anything. Further, there are plenty of other valid concerns to have about Monsanto's business practices and the effect of GMOs on biodiversity.