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Drought is good – for Monsanto's profits, that is

The drive to put the chemical industry totally in control of agriculture is resulting in record profits for agri-chemical giant Monsanto and record droughts last year for the United States, Brazil and other parts of South America.

Hang on – isn’t it a bit tenuous to directly connect the one to the other, the profits to the drought? Well, the global corporations and their servile governments would say so, but if you unpick the relationship it is clear enough.

Monsanto’s earnings in the three months to November 2012 were $339 billion, up from $126 billion the previous year, that’s two and a half times greater. This resulted from a 27% increase in sales of genetically modified corn seeds, mainly to farmers in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, and of pesticides, particularly the weed killer Roundup.

It is axiomatic that if Monsanto sells more GM corn seed it will sell more Roundup, because the main characteristic of GM corn is that it “Roundup ready” and can tolerate repeated applications. It’s a deadly symbiotic relationship that is polluting land and water supply throughout the world.

Of course, all this intensive cropping needs more fertiliser. Since 1990, consumption of fertiliser in Brazil has increased by 7% every single year and in China and India by 5%.

This intensive style of agriculture abuses the soil by forcing it to produce more than it is organically able to. As the soil become impoverished, more and more fertiliser and pesticides are applied. As the markets for grain increase, more and more land is drawn into this cycle of degradation.

Over the past five decades, global arable land increased by 67 million hectares, much of it from cleared forests or scrub, transforming carbon sinks into carbon emitters.

Why do we need these vast quantities of grain and oil crops? It is not for food, but to service the expansion of the highly profitable (deeply unhealthy) meat diet from the developed capitalist economies to the rest of the world. And it is also to expand into the highly profitable (and subsidised by us) bioethanol market.

The global industrialised food system is responsible for one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a partnership of 15 research centres around the world. And agriculture is responsible for 86% of that, closely followed by fertiliser manufacture and refrigeration.

Last year was the hottest in US history (as far back as the records go) with more than 62% of the land mass suffering some level of drought. The drought has continued into winter and next year’s early wheat may not germinate. There have been wildfires in December.

In north-eastern Brazil, cattle are dying in thousands and farmers are reduced to feeding them cactus. The drought threatens power cuts in big cities like Salvador and Recife, as the water falls below the levels where hydro-electric power stations can function.

But Monsanto’s US order book is reported to be extremely healthy. The drought has made American farmers fear a seed shortage so they are getting their orders in early. Monsanto’s scientists are working flat out on “drought-resistant” seed – so they can profit further from the climate crisis they helped create.

This is entirely in line with the logic of a system that:

Penny Cole
Environment editor
10 January 2013

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