Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother Nature (and Monsanto): Thriving on The Law of Unintened Consequences

I loved this article: U.S. Farmers Cope with Roundup-Resistant Weeds. Here's an excerpt:

Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact.

Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.

Now, Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned.

My first reaction on reading this was that Monsanto obviously screwed up. I mean, what idiot couldn't see this coming? But on second thought I'll bet they did see it coming. The later portion of the article discusses how Monsanto and other chemical companies are developing genetically-modified food plants (wheat, corn, soy) to be resistant to other herbicides as well (including one using a component of Agent Orange - mmmmm, Agent Orangey tofu). So of course, farmers will not have to buy additional pesticides, and probably pony up more cash for the next generation of resistant seeds. And you can see that going indefinitely, with the cash register ringing the whole time for Monsanto etc.

And to be clear: I don't think that companies like Monsanto are doing something evil. They're behaving exactly the way we ask them to in a (more or less) free market economy. They are taking a strategy that maximizes their value (or at least their assessment of it). That strategy may or may not have anything to do with maximizing your health or minimizing environmental impact. If there's any evil here, it's that of complacency on the part of the consumers, who (as a group) hold the ultimate power to change how corporations value their strategy. Corporations are notoriously short-sighted, as demonstrated by how readily many major financial institutions drove their respective buses off of a cliff recently. The start-up I used to work for developed a whole set off mathematical and software tools with the idea of allowing public corporations to value long-term strategy in the face of uncertainty. We spent some time studying how corporations actually make decisions vs. how they should given a way of optimizing value given whatever they knew (and knew they didn't know). The gap is typically quite large. Corporations, like people, are shortsighted, and much better at rationalizing why they did something after the fact than making a rational decision in the first place.

The good news is that corporate myopia gives consumers a fairly large lever. If you want corporations to "care" about your long-term health and well-being, be an informed consumer, and make your buying choices to reflect your own goals. It's the "informed" part that's important here.

I wonder how the course chosen by chemical/seed companies will play out. Maybe something like this:

  • Continued increase in spectrum of pesticides, resistance of weeds, and genetic engineering of food crops. At some point, the weeds are basically resistant to anything that won't outright kill humans.
  • Companies introduce a genetically modified bug to eat the weeds. New food crops are engineered to produce chemicals that repel the bugs. The insects eventually kill off most of the weeds, but evolve to be resistant to the food crop insect toxins, and start eating our food.
  • Cycle continues, introducing ever-more genetically engineered species introduced from higher in the food web.
  • Eventually the genetically-engineered humans are produced to act as workers to contain all of the new pest species. These "humans" are built to thrive on weeds, and as such prove to have considerably greater reproductive fitness of the old-school "natural" humans, whose fate as a species is basically sealed.

No comments: