Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Investigating the human costs of contemporary GM corporations

An essay on ethical questions raised by the science fiction film Soylent Green, by PhD researcher Alexandra Sadler.

The classic ecological dystopian film, Soylent Green (1973), introduces us to a world that is overpopulated, polluted, and threatened by climate change and food insecurity. The year is 2022.

The Soylent Corporation controls half of the global food supply, producing nutrient-dense wafers, supposedly made from animals and ocean plankton, which most of the urban population depends upon as their primary source of food. The corporation frames their products as essential to ensuring food security in the face of ecological collapse. In the course of the film, we discover that their most recent product, ‘Soylent Green,’ has ethically dubious origins, being produced from human bodies, both willingly given (through euthanasia) and ‘scooped’ from the streets during police raids.

Soylent Green thus presents us with a conundrum: are the ethically questionable origins of the wafer an unfortunate but necessary by-product of the corporation’s efforts to solve global food insecurity? As viewers, we feel instinctively that the corporation’s actions are unacceptable, and that the human costs of the product outweigh the benefits. And yet, we must ask ourselves whether we recognise and hold accountable similar trade-offs being made in our own world – in the real 2022.

Market forces

Currently, four companies control 60 per cent of the global seed supply: Bayer (merged with Monsanto), Corteva, ChemChina and Limagrain. These companies engage in the development and patenting of genetically modified (GM) seeds, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GM seeds are developed to achieve specific characteristics, such as high yields, resistance to herbicides (to enable farmers to kill weeds without killing the crops themselves), and resistance to pests. Some of these seeds, such as the herbicide-resistant ones, are sold with accompanying chemicals; for example, Monsanto’s ‘Roundup-resistant’ GM seeds are sold alongside ‘Roundup,’ a glyphosate-based herbicide. These seeds and agrochemicals are championed by these companies and their advocates as powerful innovations with the capacity to solve the complex challenge of achieving global food security in the face of land and resource constraints.

Monsanto, for example, stated that their mission was to “deliver high-quality products that are beneficial to our customers and for the environment, through sound and innovative science, [and] thoughtful and effective stewardship.” And yet, like the ‘Soylent Green’ wafers produced by the fictional Soylent Corporation in the film, the products developed by these real-world corporations have profound human costs.

The first, more direct, cost incurred by these innovations is a health one. Products such as Monsanto’s glyphosate-based ‘Roundup’ have been embroiled in numerous court cases over the reputed carcinogenic impacts of these chemicals, particularly for farmers who are exposed to high concentrations of them while spraying their crops. The genetically modified crops themselves have also been under investigation for their potential health impacts for consumers, with various studies finding that they may have toxic effects on key organs and bodily systems.

Product use

Beyond these potential health implications, however, the way GMOs are controlled, patented and sold by oligopolistic corporations is having a profound, detrimental impact on farmers worldwide. In the US alone, genetically engineered crop varieties have come to dominate agricultural production, rising from 25 per cent in 2000 to 92 per cent in 2020 for corn production, and from 54 per cent to 94 per cent over the same time period for soybean production.

These GM seeds and chemicals are protected by patents, which are a type of intellectual property that gives the owners the exclusive right to make, use, and sell a product for a period of time. In practice, this means that patent-holders can initially sell their products at a high price, without competitors being able to produce the same products and sell them at a lower rate. These companies argue that patents are essential for incentivising innovation, allowing the inventor to recoup the costs of the research and development (R&D) that goes into the product. A key aspect of agricultural patenting, as it is currently practised, is that it permits aggressive prosecution by the innovating company of farmers who (often unwittingly) violate the terms of their seed contract with the company.

The agreements that farmers currently enter into with GM seed providers such as Monsanto (now Bayer) include stipulations that the corporation effectively controls the seeds even after the farmer has bought, planted and harvested them. This means that farmers are unable to save seeds from a harvest to replant the following season (as has historically been practised); instead, farmers must repurchase seeds annually, necessitating ongoing dependency on the corporation. Additionally, farmers whose crops have been unintentionally contaminated by patented GM seeds (for example, if they are blown over from a neighbouring plot of land under GM cultivation), can be financially penalised by the seed company. These dynamics introduced by the patenting of GM seeds have profoundly shifted the power dynamic between farmers and input providers, with power increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few dominant corporations.

Moreover, both herbicide-resistant and pest-resistant varieties of GM crops have been shown to require increased application of herbicides and pesticides over time, as weeds and pests develop tolerance to the chemicals. Consequently, farmers are drawn into a ‘chemical treadmill’ that incurs higher input costs over time. In India, where GM crops such as Monsanto’s ‘Bt cotton’ have grown increasingly prevalent, a farmer debt crisis of unparalleled magnitude has unfolded; in the south of India, over 83 per cent of farmers are estimated to be in debt. This debt crisis has been accompanied by an unprecedented farmer suicide epidemic, with an estimated 134,799 farmers dying by suicide in the year 2013 alone. Indebtedness from the rising costs of seeds and chemical inputs has been attributed as a primary cause of this epidemic, and the most frequent method of suicide is, somewhat symbolically, the ingestion of pesticides produced by the very same companies supplying these costly inputs.

Social implications

While the ‘Big 4’ corporations currently controlling the global seed and agrichemical supply may not have stooped to the level of the fictional Soylent Corporation in producing their products directly from the bodies of people, these corporations certainly have a lot to answer for with respect to the profound human costs incurred by their line of business. There are clear parallels between the ways that the Soylent Corporation framed their work as a service to humanity in the face of an ecological and food crisis, and the way the ‘Big 4’ champions their GMO products as an innovative solution to global food insecurity and threats to agriculture from climate change. And yet, knowing the evident human (not to mention ecological) costs of this ostensible GMO ‘solution’ to global food security, we must ask ourselves: is this really the best solution? Are GMOs actually essential to ensuring global food security in the face of resource constraints and climate change? And, if they are an essential component of the solution, is corporate consolidation and patenting really the best approach to the development and dissemination of these GM inputs?

The response to the first question, as to whether GMOs are essential to ensuring global food security, depends entirely on one’s worldview and vision for rural futures.

On the one side is a vision of high-input, technological, and intensive farming, where there is a key role for crops that have been genetically modified to present certain traits, such as high yields or drought resistance. In this capital-intensive vision of agriculture, structural transformation is typically considered essential, whereby former rural workers migrate to urban centres, enabling consolidation of agricultural land and production. On the other side of the debate are those who would advocate for a more agroecological approach to food systems, whereby farmers remain in rural areas and ‘work with nature’ using methods such as intercropping (for pest management and nutrient sharing), ‘natural’ alternatives to chemical-based inputs, and practising seed-saving (rather than annual purchasing of patented seeds). GMOs are typically excluded from this worldview, in favour of cultivating local crop varieties, which have been developed historically through traditional selective breeding and which are considered by some to be naturally more adapted to the climatological conditions of a specific region. Under this vision, food production is often embedded in broader food system transformation. Food sovereignty is a common objective amongst agroecologists, who call for the right for people to imagine, determine and control their own food systems. Whether GMOs are essential to food security thus depends entirely upon who you ask. Certainly, though, the answer should be that people have the choice over whether or not to include GMOs in their agricultural visions, which in the current oligopolistic environment, does not appear to be the case.

The second question asks us whether the development and dissemination of GMOs (if they are indeed to be included as part of the solution) requires corporate domination and patenting to be successful. The argument in favour of patenting is that without them, inventors are incentivised to closely protect their inventions rather than widely sharing them, for fear of competitors reproducing them and undercutting their pricing. By obtaining the exclusive right to produce and sell the patented product, companies are able to price their invention at a high rate for a period of time, in order to recover their R&D costs. While this makes sense for inventions of nonessential goods (e.g. ever smarter phones, non-essential cosmetics, etc.), for a good as essential to our existence as food (and which is recognised as a fundamental human right), the patented high-pricing model is evidently unethical.

Push and pull

In the field of pharmaceuticals, alternative means of incentivising innovation beyond patenting are being explored, with potential applications for food production. ‘Push’ incentives, such as public grants, subsidies and tax credits provided to innovators for basic research, offer one potential pathway forward. These programs seek to compensate the innovators for their R&D costs, without them passing that cost onto the buyers (in this case, the farmers purchasing the seeds). ‘Pull’ measures are another option; for example, innovators can be offered a financial reward for valuable innovations, such as producing a crop variety that better withstands droughts. Another ‘pull’ method would involve requiring generic firms to pay royalties to the original inventor of a product. In the case of food, this could take the form of other companies producing generic versions of GM crops and paying the inventing firm royalties. Again, the inventor is being compensated for the R&D costs of innovation, without the farmer being the primary person paying that cost (of course, some of the royalty costs may be passed from the generic firm to the farmers, but presumably to a lesser extent than the costs currently paid by farmers for these patented seeds). Taking this idea even further: given that access to food is an internationally recognised human right, should food-related innovation (at least that pertaining to food staples, as opposed to luxury food items) be solely a public sector or non-profit venture, rather than a profit-making corporate initiative?

Clearly, there are a variety of options that could foster innovation for the purposes of achieving food security, without incurring the substantial human costs that are currently accruing under the present corporate domination and patenting regime. In fact, alternatives to this regime are already evident in the agroecological movement, through practices such as seed-saving and seed-sharing, a stark contrast to the debt-inducing, prosecution-oriented ‘Big 4’ approach to innovation.

In the final scene of Soylent Green, a despondent Detective Thorn is carried from the scene, shouting to everyone: “You’ve gotta tell them! Solyent Green is people! We’ve gotta stop them somehow!” Thorn believes that if people know the truth about the food they are eating, everything will change, and the Soylent Corporation will be held accountable for their actions. Thorn’s words are both a sober warning and a call to action for those of us in the real 2022, who know the bitter truth about how our food is produced and the human cost it is incurring. Will we heed the call, and do something about it?

This essay was awarded second prize in a contest for PhD researchers who undertook a science and ethics programme, entitled ‘What Science for the Future and What Future for Science?’ It was originally published in Genetics Society News, and may be read in full with references on their website.

Image credit: Matt Seymour/Unsplash