(Beyond Pesticides, November 6, 2008) Agricultural biotech seed and chemical giant Monsanto will acquire Aly Participacoes Ltda., a Brazilian company involved in breeding sugar cane, and has already begun work to develop genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready (herbicide resistant) sugarcane. The deal for $290 million comes at the same time grain giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is set to invest $375 million in a joint venture with a Brazilian firm to produce sugarcane-based ethanol. Amidst numerous other concerns with the widespread adoption of GE crops and the proliferation of crops grown for biofuels around the world is the threat of increased pesticide use.
Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s best selling herbicide Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate http://www.beyondpesticides.org/gateway/pesticide/glyphosate.htm) have been a boon to Monsanto’s profits, but not without environmental costs. Currently grown Roundup Ready crops include soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets. The crops’ resistance to glyphosate enables the use of the herbicide during the growing season without harming the crop itself. Glyphosate is now the number one herbicide in the United States. This has serious implications for public health and the environment, as glyphosate has been linked to cancer, reproductive effects, kidney and liver damage, and skin irritation; it is neurotoxic and toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. Increased herbicide usage has also led to resistant varieties of “superweeds.”
Although GE crops have encountered resistance from advocates throughout the world with concerns for health, organic farmers’ livelihoods, environmental contamination, and intellectual property, they have been widely adopted in Brazil as in the United States. The long-term environmental effects of GE crops are largely unknown, and this was the premise of a recent successful lawsuit for Beyond Pesticides and other environmental and consumer groups. In September, a federal court upheld a ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Brazil did not legalize GE crops until 2005, but prior to this, a considerable percentage of the country’s soy and cotton acreage was illegally grown GE crops. One of Monsanto’s reasons for investing in Brazil, in addition to what it views as the “untapped acres” available for production, is the country’s “improving support for intellectual property.” Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds have been especially profitable for them because farmers are not legally allowed to save seeds; instead they are required each year to buy the patented seed from Monsanto.
According to Monsanto, over 17 million acres of sugarcane is grown in Brazil, and the company expects this number to jump 75% by 2017. Currently, sugarcane in Brazil is used to make both ethanol and processed sugar. While ethanol from sugarcane takes considerably less energy to produce than ethanol from corn, clearing land for agriculture removes biomass and degrades soils, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The massive growth in production of biofuels in response to the energy crisis therefore contributes to climate change through the reduced carbon-storing capacity of the soil.
Organic agriculture does not permit GE crops or the use of synthetic herbicides, and focuses on building the soil–minimizing its effect on climate change http://www.beyondpesticides.org/organicfood/environment/index.htm.