Agricultural technology has a long history of upsetting consumers. From poisonous insecticides and dead birds to fertilizer runoff, and now genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the companies responsible for advancing farm technology have been at the core of citizen discontent for decades. While it may be difficult to find somebody willing to stand up in support of tree-killing chemicals, maybe it's time to recognize the companies willing to take on the financial risks associated with developing beneficial farm technologies.
As the saying goes, every cloud has its silver lining. Unfortunately for agricultural technology companies like Monsanto (NYSE:MON) and DuPont (NYSE:DD), the silver lining, which shines brightly at first has often been quickly overshadowed by the rest of the cloud. Americans have an uncanny ability to praise technology one moment, and shun it the very next. So has been the story of nearly every great advance in agriculture over the past century.
If America wants to retain its ability to bring innovative products and technologies to the market, there will be an inevitable trade-off between required research into product safety and the amount of time it takes to commercialize the product or technology. The case against DDT seems clear in hindsight, but at the time protecting soldiers in WWII from malaria and typhus took precedence over the environmental impacts of the pesticide that were later realized. At the time, the technology was the most suitable solution to an urgent problem, with human lives taking precedence over animal health. What was worthy of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948 was banned for agricultural use in 1972.
GMOs are caught in a somewhat similar situation right now, albeit without valid scientific studies that show the technology to be especially dangerous. There are several problems, like growing populations and the desire for greater crop productivity, for which GMOs can be argued as a viable solution (or at least part of the solution). Will GMOs cause some long-term detrimental effects on the environment or human health? The answer is yet to be determined based on the definition of 'long-term.' The technology has been scientifically investigated for agricultural use in field tests since the 1980s with only unsubstantiated claims of harm to the environment and far overreaching correlations of health disorder increases with the introduction of GMOs to the market. Over a timeframe beyond the three decades during which GMOs have been developed and tested for agricultural use, environmental and health effects are unknown.
Investors in particular should be aware of the balance between risk and reward. Years of documented increasing crop yields and research and development into seed enhancements that may enable higher field productivity in more susceptible regions of the world, which help ward off starvation, will have risk involved. People have come to accept the fact of financial risks involved with emerging technologies, particularly because they are clearly measurable and understandable. Broader impacting risks that are less quantifiable are received with more trepidation.
What should be paired with the environmental and human health risks of continued development and deployment of genetically modified (GM) seeds are the environmental and human health risks of inaction. A lack of investment into farm technology would ensure yields would not increase, which would have massive implications in food-poor regions of the world.
As climate change increases the frequency of droughts, floods, and other severe weather conditions, a drop in crop yields is a more likely result of inaction. GMOs are the most prominent 'bad guys' currently in the world of farm technology, but fertilizer runoff, biofuel inefficiency, and non-organic farming could just as easily be argued as farm technologies resulting in detrimental environmental and human health effects, and would inevitably take the place of GMOs as the next great evils if GMOs were to be banned.
Since the invention of the automobile, there have been over 3.5 million motor vehicles deaths in the United States. These are human deaths, not bird deaths. Here enters the risk-reward argument that Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and other GMO producers are unjustifiably losing. Until long-term, scientifically valid studies indicate otherwise, these companies are providing a solution to a global problem, and maybe it's time that the financial risks associated with their efforts are recognized.
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Shamus Funk has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.