Will You March Against Monsanto? Read This First.

People around the world will participate in the March Against Monsanto on May 23. Before you join in the protests, it helps to educate yourself on the merits of the arguments serving as the rallying cry.

Maxx Chatsko
Maxx Chatsko
May 21, 2015 at 1:00PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Image source: waywuwei/Flickr.

This Saturday, May 23, more than 600 cities will hold protests against agricultural technology company Monsanto (NYSE:MON). The global March Against Monsanto is positioned as a way to protest all that is seemingly wrong with modern agriculture, namely, the use of modern technology tools such as genetic modification and herbicides. While the conversation about food is now dominated by the extreme positions arguing for or against GMOs, there's a more sensible middle ground that may appeal to a larger audience (like you).

Here are some of the rallying cries published for the March Against Monsanto, and a more level-headed approach to the issues. Read this list before you consider marching.

"Monsanto controls the food supply."
Considering that Monsanto has become the face of anti-corporation angst, you would think it's an unstoppable food behemoth that towers over every other food company. But that's simply not the case.

Monsanto has a market valuation of $57 billion. That's a big number, for sure, but it's dwarfed by the valuation of Starbucks ($77 billion), McDonald's ($95 billion), and Coca-Cola ($180 billion). If you're opposed to large food companies, you may want to think twice before hitting Starbucks on your way to the rally this weekend.

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In fact, the company is hardly controlling even within the markets in which it competes. Roughly 5% of all global seed sales originate from Monsanto, 30% of corn sales are sold under Monsanto brands, and perhaps 90% of corn seeds contain a Monsanto trait, but are sold from independent seed manufacturers. It's important to point out two things: (1) the company has no control over peers that license its genetic traits; and (2) less than 12% of American corn production becomes human food.

"Monsanto profits wildly from irresponsible use of herbicides."
Here's a breakdown of how Monsanto generated sales and profits in 2014. All herbicide results -- including the infamous Roundup -- are included in agricultural productivity:


Category Total, 2014

% of Companywide Total, 2014

Seeds and Genomics Sales

$10.7 billion


Seeds and Genomics Profit

$6.6 billion


Agricultural Productivity Sales

$5.1 billion


Agricultural Productivity Profit

$1.98 billion


Source: SEC filings.

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By comparison, Whole Foods Market generated more than $5 billion in profits from selling food in 2014. That's 155% more than Monsanto's herbicide profits, yet few single out Whole Foods for being a large, profit-driven food company. 

We may be led to believe that American farms are soaking in glyphosate, but that simply isn't the case. Consider the economics of irresponsibly using herbicides. Farmers would need to purchase more products, resulting in higher costs for their operations, and lower income for their families, so it's in their best financial interests to get the maximum benefit from the lowest amount. And because Monsanto isn't the only company manufacturing glyphosate -- a fact lost on many -- the value isn't in chasing high volumes, but in formulating premium products with higher selling prices.

"March Against Monsanto to support local farms and bees."

  1. Local farms can use any number of farming methods and technological tools to produce safe and affordable food.
  2. Beeologics is "dedicated to restoring bee health and protecting the future of honey bee pollination. Beeologics' mission is to become the guardian of bee health worldwide." Beeologics uses biotech tools to fulfill its mission -- and it's owned by Monsanto. If the products, part of the company's BioDirect portfolio, are successfully developed investors could gain an important new revenue stream

"March Against Monsanto to promote organic solutions."
No company may be more important to the future of organic farming than Monsanto -- and not just by positioning organic as the anti-Monsanto way. Ben Paynter of Wired gave a level-headed analysis of just such a future after meeting with the vegetable and seeds division:

The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels.

Monsanto's vegetable seed division registered sales of $867 million in 2014. While that only accounted for 8% of total seeds and genomics revenue, the company has big plans for vegetables.

There is no such thing as organic seeds. The only requirement is that seeds used in organic farming cannot be genetically modified. Of course, farmers can still use non-GMO seeds with conventional farming methods that utilize synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

But if Monsanto can lean on alternative technology to create seeds that result in higher-yielding, better-tasting, and visually superior vegetables, then organic farmers could end up leaning on the seeds to gain an edge in the marketplace. Depending on the success of the new varieties, those who don't could end up at a significant disadvantage. It's a stark reminder that organic farming relies on novel technology, too, and Monsanto will likely play a significant role.

What does it mean for March Against Monsanto?
The positions held up to support March Against Monsanto are largely ideological ones. Monsanto doesn't control the food supply anymore than Starbucks controls your daily injection of caffeine, nor does it rely on profits from rampant and irresponsible use of herbicides to support its existence. Monsanto runs a for-profit business -- and one that happens to be very profitable -- from providing technologies that farmers demand and need. Investors capable of seeing that have been handsomely rewarded over the long-run.

A more efficient agricultural sector that is optimized for creating human progress while minimizing the impact on the environment is an admirable goal, but it would be a mistake to turn our backs on modern agricultural technology and think that we can still arrive at that goal in a timely manner. If you March Against Monsanto, please consider exactly what you're marching against.