Monsanto Claims Organic Agriculture Isn’t Sustainable. Is There Any Truth to It?

Last Update: September 28, 2023

Almost all scientists agree: Climate change poses some of the globe’s most serious long-term threats, and humans are largely to blame for causing it. But we can also take significant steps toward slowing the impacts of climate change by reducing our footprint in the world—as individuals, cities and towns, and nations.

If you haven’t heard, one of the leading culprits is agriculture. Yes, global food production is said to be responsible for a full third of all climate change due primarily to “deforestation, the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, and the burning of biomass,” according to the Climate Institute.

Monsanto doesn’t see it that way. Last week in Paris—where 195 nations reached an historic agreement committing to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—the biotech company responsible for many of the commercial pesticides and genetically engineered seeds on the market made it clear that global industrial agriculture is our pathway forward to a greener future. In making his case, Monsanto president and chief operating officer Brett Begemann took a shot at organic agriculture, which he called “low-productivity” and “not the most sustainable solution.”

“High-productivity agriculture is actually the best that we can do for the environment and for sustainability,” said Begemann, who touted the company’s commitment earlier this month to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Begemann couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is this: The massive industrial agriculture system Monsanto and other agribusinesses have built over the last century is doing more harm than good and needs reform. Organic agriculture is one piece of the puzzle, as is a re-localization of our food production.

And while Monsanto’s corporate goal of carbon-neutrality is laudable, the company’s activity around the world is causing acute harm to our planet’s health. Food and Water Watch has reported that the now widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically engineered seeds—many of them created by Monsanto—has resulted in herbicide-resistant “superweeds” and the application of more and more chemicals to fight them. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate—the main ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—was “probably carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing (a claim Monsanto and its scientistsflatly deny).

This doesn’t let us off the hook as consumers, where things can get pretty confusing when you factor the effect our diet has on the planet. For example, a new study out of Carnegie Mellon University looked at the energy and water needed to bring certain foods to American kitchen tables and found that diets high in fruits and vegetables may be worse for the environment than a diet high in foods we are typically told to avoid, like meat. So, in summary, that organic lettuce you’re having shipped in from south of the border may do your body right while putting the hurt on the planet.

What’s the point here? That making meaningful change in mitigating climate change from a food production perspective requires more than press releases and corporate goals—or even feel-good diets—but meaningful systemic transformation. We can’t always rely on corporate or government interests to spark such a transformation, so it may have to start with the choices we make as consumers. Do your part by choosing non-GMO goods, supporting local food producers, and vetting your purchases for their environmental sustainability. Mother Earth will thank you.

Photo credit: Lawren Lu via Stocksy

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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