Vivek Shah

Sun Edison Corporate Fellow

McKelvey School of Engineering: Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering | PhD


Cohort 2009


Graduated 2014


Career: Process Support Engineer | Applied Materials, Inc. | Santa Clara, California, USA

Scholar Highlights

Monsanto: Boon or Threat to the World?

Today, not many people remember Agent Orange. Although it sounds like a code name for a CIA agent from a James Bond movie, it is not. Agent Orange was used by the American army in the Vietnam War as an herbicide. The chemical worked very well during the war except for the fact that it contained dioxins, which are extremely toxic to humans and have had long-lasting effects on American army veterans and the Vietnamese people. Agent Orange left people with cancer, defects at birth and many other ailments.

If you are wondering why this is important, Monsanto was the company that synthesized Agent Orange. American veterans later sued the company for making the chemical, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to a settlement of $80 million, which meant that each veteran received less than what the U.S. government provided in the form of retirement benefits. This
shows how such measures can still result in losses to citizens who had done nothing wrong.

The 2011 nuclear disaster occurred in Fukushima, Japan, due to an earthquake. In spite of taking precautions for nuclear safety and using technologically advanced methods, the nuclear industry in that country could not avert what happened. When the CEOs of the nuclear corporations involved were asked why this occurred, they said there was no reason to expect an earthquake of that magnitude and hence to think such a disaster could occur. Like me, I suspect you do not believe corporations are justified in coming up with such explanations. We know that calamities of this scale do happen, precedent or not. Everyone is aware of the repercussions of a nuclear disaster of this sort, so it hardly qualifies as an excuse to say nothing of its kind had ever occurred.

The dream of being able to produce twice the amount or food on the same amount of land is what drives Monsanto.

The exponential growth in population, shifting patterns of food consumption in the growing middle class and limited land make up a perfect set of ingredients for an impending problem.

Clearly, with limited expansion of new land for cultivation, a growing population on our planet is going to increase the alarming possibilities of food shortages. There simply will be many more mouths to feed while the land used to produce food will remain much the same as today or can increase only slightly. Some very intelligent individuals see this combination of forces as a business opportunity and are already cashing in on it. The green revolution ushered by Norman Borlaug was a great success and ensured that many developing countries are self-sufficient in food supply. As a result, food production has outpaced the growth of population up to now, but this will come to an end one day and we may have to look for other options.

Over the past several years Monsanto has been involved in genetically modifying seeds to increase crop yields. For example, they have devised ingenious methods for developing seeds for plants that kill any insect when it eats them. These often result in positive outcomes in the short-term, especially in a laboratory environment. However, this may not be the case when these methods are actually used in large-scale agriculture. Of late there have been reports that certain types of insects, including some butterflies, may become extinct because of genetically modified crops, resulting in the loss of biodiversity in general and may not be good even for the local ecology. The risks involved are simply not known. This suggests that, when genetically modified seeds are planted, they can affect the whole ecosystem. What is probably called for is a systems dynamic approach to understand the interaction between such new crops and the environment.

Private companies, which are driven by growth and high profits, do not necessarily focus on long-term effects. As a result, it often is not in the interest of a company to figure out the more general, longer-term risks involved. What this suggests to me is that there should be policies or regulations that force companies to take responsibility. This may not seem like a big issue to some, but consider how a concern with such risks might have helped in cases like the Japanese nuclear disaster, the BP oil disaster or the global financial crisis. It appears to me that major problems are just waiting to happen in the case of genetically modified crops. In case any calamity arises, it will be hard for the world to revert back to low-yield seeds, and this could easily result in a huge shortage of food. With all this in mind, it appears to me that it would be better to take smaller steps and be sure, rather than take a big leap and fall. The latter may be less appealing to private companies, but a better bet for humankind.

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