Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have caused increasing controversy in recent years with various experts and non-experts alike weighing in on whether they're safe and whether labels should disclose their presence. Monsanto (NYSE:MON), a company that has made and is making billions from GMOs, is often linked to such discussions and has many foes. And according to recent Harris Polls, it's one of the most hated companies out there.
It's easy to see certain companies as villainous and to assume that tinkering with nature can be dangerous, but let's explore whether GMOs and Monsanto deserve their sour reputation.
A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA, or genetic makeup, altered by genetic engineering in order to create a new organism with more desirable traits. What's the problem with that? Well, let's review what some of the anti-GMO arguments are. For starters, many worry that crops designed to resist herbicides may transfer some of that superpower to neighboring plants, such as weeds, which would strengthen those crop foes. Others worry about new allergens being created, and antibiotic-resistant genes and "superbugs" emerging, too. Basically, many people see genetic modification as interfering with and changing nature, which might lead to unexpected and undesirable results in our overall ecosystem, along with some desired ones.
When it comes to Monsanto, it's very easy to find critics. The Organic Consumers Association's website has a "Millions Against Monsanto" campaign, and the InfoWars.com website sports an article titled, "Monsanto's GMO Creations Caused 291,000 Suicides in India," noting high suicide rates due to low yields, high debts, and companies such as Monsanto suing farmers for improperly using patented seeds.
So, what's to like, about GMOs? Well, a lot, actually.
The case for GMOs
Genetically modified seeds can increase crop yields significantly by having the crops more able to resist diseases and pests. Some can even withstand a few more degrees of frost or can better resist droughts, making them heartier, and again increasing yields. Some crops grow faster, too, and some have longer shelf lives, which can reduce waste.
Increased yields can benefit the environment by requiring less land use for farming and less use of pesticides. The reduced use of pesticides and herbicides, in turn, can benefit consumers' health. And some GMOs designed to contain more nutrients, such as "golden" rice that is extra rich in beta-carotene and soybeans (produced by Monsanto) rich in omega-3 fatty acids, are good for the heart.
If nutrient-rich GMOs continue to proliferate in the future, it's possible we could reap the benefits of a healthier diet. In addition, greater crop yields will benefit our rising global population. GMOs are even being developed that can produce genes to be used in vaccine and drug development, among other things.
Those concerned that GMOs represent humans dangerously altering nature might remember that people have been fiddling with nature for a very long time, such as via cross-breeding, hybridization, selective breeding, and so on. (The Russet potato and the labradoodle (part Labrador retriever, part poodle) dog are both results of hybridization.)
It's also worth noting that GMOs have also been subject to extensive testing and regulations, though some argue that much of the testing has come from within the industry, not from independent sources. On the other hand, as a 2013 article in Scientific American noted, "The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops."
Monsanto, bad and good
Meanwhile, when it comes to Monsanto being branded as an evil company, it may not quite deserve all of its bad reputation. It does have a history that features Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT, among other things, and it is indeed active in pesticides and suing farmers for violating terms of seed contracts, among other things. But it seems to get the lion's share of the bad press when there are other big companies -- such as DuPont -- that sport similarly sordid pasts and/or significant current participation in the GMO business.
Monsanto isn't entirely controversial, either. It's also involved in old-fashioned cross-breeding and is producing non-GMO vegetables with more nutritious value. And even watchdog magazine Mother Jones has suggested that its move into Big Data might help farmers deal with climate change by providing weather and farming alerts.
This article isn't meant to change anti-GMOers into supporters, or vice versa. But perhaps it can remind us that innovation often yields both good and bad consequences. And perhaps Monsanto and GMOs are not as bad as some of us might have thought.
Controversial issues often have much bigger grey areas than we'd like to think -- and many of us would be well served to read and learn more about these topics so we can refine our opinions. What do you think about GMOs? I invite you to share your thoughts on the matter by leaving a comment below.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, 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.