Picking seedling for planting into bigger pots. Photo by: Syngenta

CANBERRA — Smack at the center of the debate over genetically modified organisms and their role in developing countries are large corporations. Bayer, BASF, Dow AgroScience, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta all sell GMO seed and associated products, including herbicides, as well as a range of non-GMO seed and products supporting agricultural production. They lobby and advise governments on GMO regulation, and they work with farmers on GMO cropping.

The GMO Debate

What happens when we remove multinationals and corporate profit from the GMO debate?

In this five-part series, Devex looks at how perspectives of doing good through science versus corporate interests changes the outcome of the polarized GMO issue.

Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security?

Part two: Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

Part three: Who are the donors taking on GMOs?

Part four: What are the political drivers for GMOs in developing countries?

With the impending $63 billion merger between Bayer and Monsanto, approved by the European Union, Australia, and in advanced approval stages in the United States, the financial power these corporations wield is in the public eye.

For decades, these corporations and their role in the development and use of GMOs have faced criticism, with campaigns attacking them for their impact on public health and the environment. But they have continued to grow and expand — as has their presence in developing countries.

In our five-part series on GMOs in global food security, Devex has been investigating the role of GMOs in developing countries through the lens of governments, donors, scientists, and campaigners.

In our final article, we speak with the multinationals themselves and ask about their work in developing countries and their motives — with Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta acknowledging that profit is a key, but insisting that social responsibility and the ability to improve nutrition, food security, and income is just as important.

Working with governments and farmers

A major aim of these corporations is to improve the profitability of farmers in developing countries, say Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. And working with governments and farmers to improve opportunities in this space is key to their work.

“Our aim is to help farmers, including the many smallholders in emerging nations, be productive and profitable,” Paul Minehart, head of North American corporate communications for Syngenta, told Devex. “We have a variety of approaches beyond products including unique efforts through the Syngenta Foundation. Our experience tells us that there are many factors impacting the challenges to food security in developing countries. These include education, training, agriculture, and information technologies, storage for fresh products, transportation infrastructure and workers, and more.”

Operating in approximately 90 countries, Syngenta applies unique strategies to work within the government regulations, requirements, and environmental and social conditions of each country. Yet smallholder farmers remain the critical element in developing nations.

“The amount of arable land available per capita will continue to shrink in the future. The challenge is therefore to produce more from the existing farmland in a sustainable manner.”

—  Holger Elfes, a spokesperson for Bayer

For Bayer, which currently operates in a number of developing economies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, economic development and environmental sustainability is a key focus. Smallholder farmers are an important partner they aim to empower “to reach their farming potential,” according to Holger Elfes, a spokesperson for Bayer.

Although genetically modified seed from Bayer is currently grown in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, India, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the United States, both GMO and non-GMO seeds are promoted as part of their work in developing countries.

“We see it as our task to support farmers in their efforts to increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment and improving the quality of life for farmers and their families,” Elfes explained to Devex. “In concrete terms, we want to drive forward and implement innovations in the areas of seeds — conventional and GMO — as well as crop protection, services, and solutions. The amount of arable land available per capita will continue to shrink in the future. The challenge is therefore to produce more from the existing farmland in a sustainable manner.”

Monsanto’s operations in developing countries include Guatemala, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, China, India, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Pakistan — with economic development of smallholder farmers their key focus.

“Our goal is to improve the lives of 5 million resource-poor farm families in developing countries, measured through increase in net income,” Carissa Buckland, director of Australian and New Zealand corporate affairs with Monsanto, told Devex. “In 2017, we trained 2.5 million smallholder farmers in developing countries on sustainable farming practices — helping them produce more and increase yield while using less inputs.”

According to Dr. James Neilsen, technology and development lead with Monsanto, it is the knowledge that their technology is able to make a difference in the agricultural production and economic development of developing nations that drives their work in this space.

“We know that farmers are able to achieve more with access to good technologies, so that’s a really important driver,” he told Devex. “It is about helping countries and helping farmers become self-sufficient and also improving the lives of people involved in smallholder agriculture across the world. That is a really big driver for what we do.”

The sentiment was echoed by Bayer’s Elfes, who said areas with lower agricultural production, including Africa and some parts of Asia and Latin America, have the highest potential for increased yields “provided that farmers get access to modern tools and agricultural know-how,” he said. Customized agronomic solutions, Elfes believes, adapted to the needs of the individual farmer can be a more effective way to fight hunger and poverty than any other form of support.

“These solutions range from chemical and biological plant protection via improved seeds to direct advice on the farm and qualification measures for farmers,” he said. “All these solutions are aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of the harvests and grow the farmer’s profit. Higher incomes, in turn, enable farmers to improve their standard of living and to invest more in their children’s education and their own businesses.”

Engaging with developing countries is a constant process for Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta, requiring support from seed businesses, industry organizations, civil society, and governments, as well as academics and researchers, to improve access for farmers to advanced agriculture tools to enable climate smart agriculture. And this involves working with local stakeholders in countries to obtain licenses and approvals for products on an individual, country-by-country basis.

Corporations and food security

GMO may be a key part of Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta’s product portfolios and an important element in their conversation on food security. But in developing countries, they consider GMO to be one of many tools needed to reduce agricultural waste and improve yield.

Limited access to land, food waste, insufficient education, and poor infrastructure are among the factors leading to food insecurity in developing nations, said Elfes.

“Providing enough food, feed, and biofuels for the growing world population is an immense political and societal challenge when it comes to fair distribution of food and new solutions against food losses and waste,” Elfes said. “But it is also a daunting task for agriculture, from which we expect the production of sufficient, high-quality food in a sustainable manner.”

Agritech startups aim to lift Nigerian smallholder farmers out of poverty

Nigeria imports $20 billion in food each year, even as its farmers struggle to get by. To address the gap, a number of agritech startups have appeared in Nigeria of late, hoping to use a range of tools to improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers and the viability of local agriculture.

In developing countries, both Bayer and Monsanto say that new technology needs to be coupled with better agricultural education to improve the approaches and practices used by smallholder farmers to increase yield and reduce food waste. And corporations such as theirs provide an important link in this education gap through their engagement with farmers.

“People have always known there is a gap between what farmers achieve and the genetic potential of a product,” Neilsen said. “We did work in the Philippines where we actually looked at the yield of farmers and the yield of some of our internal trials. We looked at about 600 sites. And the yield between what farmers were achieving and what we were achieving with the same products varied by anywhere up to 40 percent. That’s really key. The important thing there was what was driving that yield difference wasn’t really new information, it was stuff that farmers should have already heard about — early season fertilization, early season weed control. Really basic agronomy were the things driving the differences.”

For Buckland, economic viability is important for the sustainability of agriculture.

“Seed systems that generate profits for all participants — buyers, distributors and sellers — are part of what is needed for sustainability,” she said. “Reaping a profit from a crop in a developing economy can be life changing for farming families.”

Facing perceptions of corporate greed

Corporations such as Bayer and Monsanto say they are engaging in open conversations on the topic of GMOs. But the distrust of corporations and belief they put profitability above public health and the environment can sway public perception.

Big tobacco is a prime example, having spent decades deceiving the public on health risks of the product they sold. And in the GMO debate, comparisons to big tobacco are often made. From the standpoint of the corporations, however, profitability and public good are not mutually exclusive.

“It is true that we generate profits with the sales of our seeds, but farmers would not buy them if the seed did not offer higher earning opportunities for them, too,” Elfes said. “The public sector has traditionally complemented seeds-related research and development activities by the private sector and has helped to amplify the scope of crops and geographies. However, the area of genetically modified crops is challenging for most public institutions, due to the extensive regulatory requirements, extended approval delays, and unpredictability for their freedom to operate.”

It is in the area of public-private partnerships that both Bayer and Monsanto believe they can create a more positive conversation on the potential of GMO.

“Public-private partnerships such as the Golden Rice project or the African Biofortified Sorghum project have allowed public institutions to participate more broadly in the development and commercialization of GM crops, and hopefully serve to counter some of the reservations held against GM seed and the companies that sell them,” Elfes said.

Working with nonprofits and development actors

Within developing countries, Bayer has been partnering with a range of organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Rice Research Institute. With the Gates Foundation, they are supporting investment in agricultural startups, while with IRRI they are improving access to direct seeded rice. And Bayer contributes to the Access to Seeds Index, which ranks seed companies on their actions and their efforts to enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers.

“Bayer currently ranks third [in the Access to Seeds Index] for both Field Crop and Vegetable Seeds, and was recognized for its multistakeholder initiatives such as Food Chain Partnerships and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the Much More Rice programs in Vietnam, India, and Ghana, and important contributions to local gene banks,” Elfes said.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and United States Agency for International Development are among the collaborating partners for Monsanto.

“One project that we are proud to be a part of is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa [WEMA],” Buckland said. “WEMA is a public-private partnership working to improve food security and rural livelihood among smallholder farmers and their families in sub-Saharan Africa by developing and deploying new drought-tolerant and insect pest-protected maize varieties. Monsanto contributions include providing maize germplasm to enable the breeding efforts, offering technical expertise to develop and deploy locally adapted maize hybrids. We donated our commercial drought-tolerance and insect-protection traits royalty free to all seed companies in Africa and the project is now working to get regulatory approvals in each country partnering in WEMA.”

Adapting to local needs

For years, large corporations have also focused on localized issues associated with agricultural industries that may be less profitable globally.

Buckland from Monsanto said the company often works “with local organizations and research bodies to understand the fit for products in unique markets and how they need to be tailored to meet local challenges such as pests, weeds, and diseases.

“For example, we work to develop maize seed that is adapted to environmental conditions in East Africa. This means we develop white maize for human consumption, adapted to tropical conditions, and with tolerance to a disease new to East Africa called maize lethal necrosis. Our products must fit the local needs of our farmer customers or they won’t buy from us.”

Bayer, too, customizes its products to meet the unique needs of its developing markets.

“Our customized agronomic solutions and research and development programs address the challenges of local farmers in the markets where we are active,” Elfes said. “Again, this may or may not involve genetically modified seeds. In India, for example, we recently launched a new non-GM hybrid rice variety with strong inbuilt resistance to Brown Plant Hopper [BPH] and Bacterial Leaf Blight. BPH is the most destructive pest in important rice growing areas of India. Unlike other pests, BPH strikes very late, when the rice crop is already 80-90 days towards the final grain-filling stage. This has a detrimental impact on overall yields and the grain quality of the final produce as infested rice grains tend to be partly filled, lightweight, and chaffy. The new hybrid offers 20 to 30 percent yield advantage over commercial open-pollinated varieties.”

But while solutions involving maize and rice can target local agricultural challenges, these are also important agricultural commodities for these companies due to global demand. With rice, for example, 50.9 million tons of rice were produced globally in 2017 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The markets for both of these products are global, not local.

Not all of these localized efforts involve GMO. A smallholder farming initiative launched by Bayer in 2016 is focusing on pilot projects in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and South East Asia to improve crop quality and yield.

“We started with pilots in India with green chili and Kenya with potato in 2016, expanded to South East Asia and to Ghana and Zambia in 2017,” Elfes said “And we will start with an additional project in Ivory Coast this year. These initiatives currently do not involve any genetically modified seed.”

In Indonesia, Bayer is working with Plant Breeders Without Borders and Bogor Agricultural University to improve the varieties of Bambara Groundnut and other Indonesian indigenous vegetables such as eggplant and peanut — without GMO.

To be clear, though, GMO remains the priority for corporations.

“From our perspective, at Monsanto, we are predominantly a corn-based company in these [global] markets,” Neilsen said. “We don’t sell other options — we are mainly thinking about corn. But we do work with people in local countries within the university sector or government sector, depending on the country, around things in relation to insect pest, disease and those sort of things.”

Engaging with the opposition

The opposition to GMOs and the role of corporations such as Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta in food security is very vocal.

Are GMOs the key to global food security?

In part one of our five-part series on the role of genetically modified organisms, we investigate the scientific argument — which favors GMOs for the purpose of creating a food-secure future.

“Lobbying groups attract a high level of attention by focusing on health and environmental hazards that according to all scientific findings — as well as the responsible regulatory authorities — do not exist,” Elfes said. “We think it is absolutely vital that we engage in an open dialogue with stakeholders to address persisting concerns and communicate the benefits of plant breeding innovation, including GM technology.”

The strategy for Monsanto, until recently, has been to focus on engagement with governments and farmers as their stakeholders.

“Until recently, we haven’t engaged as much with the public about who we are and what we do,” Buckland said. “As more and more people are joining the conversation about food and agriculture around the world, we need to join this conversation and share more information about our company and our business.”

““There is a lot of misinformation about GMOs, but we are committed to having the tough conversations with government and society to provide more scientific resources for those interested.”

— Carissa Buckland, director of Australian and New Zealand corporate affairs with Monsanto

Becoming more open and transparent is part of the public engagement strategy to change the GMO conversation for Bayer as well. Both companies are collaborating with BASF, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta to answer questions and concerns about GMO use through the website GMO Answers — also offering multimedia to share via social media.

“There is a lot of misinformation about GMOs, but we are committed to having the tough conversations with government and society to provide more scientific resources for those interested,” Buckland said. “We recognize that people have different viewpoints on food and agriculture, and it’s important that they can express and share them. We hope to earn more trust among the public with our commitment to being in these discussions about agriculture and food more often.”

The corporations point out that they provide options for seed in developing countries, and are enabling choice — not pushing GMO.

“And as much as we are convinced of the benefits that GM crops bring, we support farmers’ and consumers’ free choice on what to grow and what to eat,” Elfes said. “We supply conventional and untreated seeds to organic and conventional farmers as well as biotech seeds to the farmers who want and are allowed to plant them. At the consumer level, we support uniform food labelling to provide reliable and understandable information on the health, safety, and nutritional value of foodstuffs. In this way, we advocate for informed consumer choice.”

The future of the engagement and conversations with anti-GMO campaigners will continue to be open, according to Buckland, with the focus on improving food security and economic opportunities globally.

“We want to do a better job of answering the questions society has about our products, the way they are developed and the role we play in global food system,” she said. “This includes having conversations with those that don’t agree with our business and having an open mind to constructive ideas from others.”

Looking to the future

As long as food insecurity exists and private sector investment is required to support investment in agricultural research and development, corporations such as Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta will continue to play an important role in the conversation surrounding GMO and food security.

Profitability aside, they have tremendous resources which can make an impact in developing nations. And their corporate models, sustainability strategies, and foundations bring them in direct contact with farmers, governments, and other partners in developing countries.

As they continue to grow, these corporations will continue to look at how they communicate their GMO message and engage with new sections of the markets.

“When you look at the farmers across Southeast Asia and in Africa, a large proportion of farmers, but also the retail providers, are women,” Neilsen said. “And it is something we have definitely recognized here at Monsanto. As part of a project looking at how we think about smallholder farmers, thinking about our engagement specifically with female farmers and women in the production and market channel is something that we’re looking at. It’s really important to think about how you engage with that demographic of growers — and perhaps you need to do it differently to how you have traditionally reached out and talked to farmers.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.