Lisa Safarian seems a caring kind of person.
‘As a mom and member of the team at Monsanto, I’m focused on food pretty much 24/7, whether I’m thinking about meals with my family or working with farmers to help us produce better harvests,’ she writes in a blog on the company’s Facebook page.1
She is one of the ‘passionate people’ working at Monsanto to ‘help feed our growing population’. Because as the seed giant says: ‘We are dedicated to helping feed nine billion more sustainably by 2050.’
And more. Did you know, for example, that Monsanto is funding girls’ education in rural Vietnam? There’s a picture of the grateful recipients, beaming in their crisp white blouses and red ties.
Or that the company is named in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 index as one of the ‘Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality’?
Yet this is the company that was recently voted ‘world’s most evil corporation’ in a digital poll organized by SumOfUs. That is accused by Friends of the Earth International of plotting to ‘force-feed’ GM crops to African nations.2 And that has for the past two years brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets in over 50 countries to ‘March Against Monsanto’, brandishing placards that accuse the biotech giant of a multitude of crimes.
After a period in the doldrums, genetic modification is back on the activist agenda. The industry has upped its game – and its ambitions.
In the US, levels of glyphosate found in urine are 10x higher than in Europe. High levels also found in breastmilk.
‘We’re seeing a truly unprecedented promotion of GM,’ says Liz O’Neill of the British campaign group GM-Freeze. ‘The companies have rebranded themselves and they are much cleverer about it.’
They also have tremendous economic firepower, as a multimillion-dollar campaign to oppose mandatory GMO (genetically modified organism) food labelling in the US shows.
Political lobbying, on an international scale, has intensified. There is much to play for. Other biotech giants are involved – Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF – but Monsanto is at the head of the pack, pushing hard into Europe and Asia and, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, into Africa too.
The stakes are high – control over the world’s food chain, no less.
Safe or not?
It is almost two decades since genetically modified crops started being grown on a commercial scale. A tenth of the world’s cropland is now covered by them. But still the question remains: are they safe to eat?
‘Yes,’ says Monsanto. ‘Plants and crops with GM traits have been tested more than any other crops – with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals.’3
Scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society agree. In the words of British environmentalist and biotech convert Mark Lynas, ‘you are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GM food.’4
The biotech industry’s safety tests have been accepted by the key US regulatory bodies: the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But critics of GM – notably health and environmental organizations, including many scientists – are not convinced.
They point out that most of the safety tests are conducted or commissioned by the industry itself; that some independent peer-reviewed studies have found that genetically modified crops can have unintended toxic and allergenic effects. Several specific animal-feeding studies show evidence of DNA disruption and liver and kidney damage.5, 6
One study tracks the rapid commercialization of GM agriculture since 1996 (and the increased use of Monsanto’s Roundup glyphosate pesticide that entails) with the dramatic increase in cases of coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, autism, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, ADHD and other ‘modern’ health disorders.7
‘Based on available evidence... at present no GM crop or food can be categorically stated as safe to consume’
People who live in areas of intensive GM soy cultivation in Argentina are twice as likely to die of cancer.8 Brazilian soy growers suffer from DNA disruption and liver and kidney damage, another recent study reveals.9
Leading molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou of Kings College, London University, says more independent and in-depth molecular research is needed to find out exactly what is causing the damage.
He concludes: ‘Based on available evidence and inadequacy of the tests requested by regulators, at present no GM crop and food can be categorically stated as safe to consume, especially on a long-term, life-long basis.’10 The 300 scientists who signed a statement saying there was no scientific consensus on GMO safety seem to agree.11
Later this year a Russian-led team of European scientists will embark on a major three-year, $25-million study of the effects of Monsanto GM maize on around 6,000 rats. Asked to comment, Monsanto declined.12
Feed the world – or poison it?
Meanwhile, global population is growing; climate change is upon us; and environmental degradation continues apace. Anyone who can provide an easy solution is likely to be welcomed with open arms.
In a recent advertisement, Monsanto seemed to be offering just the answer. The ad claimed that GM crops ‘enable us to produce more food sustainably whilst using fewer resources; provide a healthier environment by saving on pesticides; decrease greenhouse-gas emissions and increase crop yields substantially.’
That was until the company was forced to pull the advertisement, unable to provide sufficient evidence to support its claims.13
The two major and most-repeated claims made for GM agriculture are that it delivers bigger yields and reduces the need for pesticides. Neither has proved to be true.
‘Commercial GE [genetically engineered] crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic real or potential yield of any crop,’ says Doug Gurian-Sherman, former biotech adviser with the US Environmental Protection Agency.14 A 2014 USDA report confirms this. With some crops – soy, for example – yields have actually been lower.15 Traditional breeding, on the other hand, has been spectacularly successful, adds Gurian-Sherman.15
Even if genetic engineering were consistently to produce bumper yields, it would not deal with the problem of world hunger. That is caused primarily by political issues such as unequal access to food, distribution problems and wastage. We already grow more than enough to feed the nine billion of us expected by 2050.16
The second claim, that GM crops require less pesticide (a term covering both insect- and weedkillers), is even more questionable.
Farmers and citizens may find themselves tied to a pesticides treadmill but it’s a merry-go-round for Monsanto and Co
Since 1996 there has been a small reduction in the use of chemical insecticide as a result of GM insecticidal crops (such as Monsanto’s Bt cotton). But this has been swamped by a far larger increase in the use of weedkiller, especially the glyphosate herbicide used with GM crops.5
In the US, for example, pesticide use overall increased by an estimated 183 million kilograms (or seven per cent, if the same areas had been planted with non-GM crops) between 1996 and 2011.17
By comparison, most western European countries dramatically reduced pesticide use while increasing yields, using non-GM farming.5
It gets worse. GM agriculture has actually created the need for ever more pesticides. Today an estimated 28 million hectares of US farmland are infested with pigweed, marestail and ryegrass – just a few of the superweeds that have mutated and become resistant to glyphosate.
They have appeared in at least 18 countries – predominantly big GM growers like Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Pigweed, or palmer amaranth, is especially aggressive. Competing for water and light, it grows more than two metres tall, at a rate of five centimetres a day, and has stems that ruin agricultural machinery.18
Farmers in the southern US states have ploughed under thousands of hectares of crops in an effort to control pigweed – and spent millions of dollars hand-weeding it. But the weeds are winning, says University of Illinois crop science professor Aaron Hager. ‘They’re evolving faster, better to survive in the environment, than we’re coming up with solutions, at least chemical solutions, to control them.’18
970 million monarch butterflies (90% of the total population) have disappeared across the US thanks to Monsanto’s Roundup.(Center for Food Safety)
Monsanto responded to the crisis by paying farmers to spray additional herbicides to supplement Roundup. Monsanto’s main rival, Dow, created a new herbicide, Enlist Duo – a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D, alarmingly the two main chemical ingredients of Agent Orange.
In January this year Monsanto obtained the first stage of approval for its new Roundup Ready Xtend trait and crop system, specially designed to tackle superweeds. This system will work with Monsanto’s new and even more potent pesticide mix of glyphosate and dicamba.19 , 20 , 21
Superbugs – such as corn rootworm – resistant to insecticide exuded from Bt corn, soy or cotton are now also appearing. It does not bode well.22
Is Monsanto damaged by any of this? Maybe. Or maybe not. After all, it is a company that sells both seeds and pesticides. Farmers and citizens may find themselves tied to a pesticides treadmill, but it’s a merry-go-round for Monsanto and Co.
Monsanto is a canny operator. Its business model is highly profitable and ingeniously controlling.
Genetic engineering accounts for about half of its business, but it is the key to its power. By modifying the genes of seeds, Monsanto can create new products which it can then patent as ‘inventions’. When it sells its GM seeds to farmers, they have to sign an agreement to pay royalties on any re-use of the seed, or they will face legal action.
Having bought up much of the competition, Monsanto is today the world’s largest seed corporation. It has such market domination that farmers are often stuck for alternatives, making them especially vulnerable to dramatic price hikes.
As well as creating a dependency, Monsanto’s virtual seed monopoly seriously reduces biodiversity, as Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva has been warning for years. It looks like a recipe for total control.23,24 A US Department of Justice investigation into Monsanto’s possibly illegal domination of the seed market, started in 2010, was quietly dropped in 2012.24
Monsanto’s executive vice-president Robert Fraley recently wrote that organic and GM are both part of food’s future.25 It is hard to see how. GM farming effectively excludes other options.
Organic farmers are put out of business when their fields become contaminated by GM material blown over from neighbouring farms.
Monsanto is no slouch when it comes to levering political influence. It is one of the biggest spenders in Washington and has an impressive list of people with ties to the company who work for the government.26 Potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was legal counsel for Monsanto, remains an ardent GMO supporter.
The company’s political clout extends abroad, too. According to Tomás Palau, a Paraguayan sociologist specializing in agrarian issues, Monsanto effectively controls the agricultural and trade policy of several South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
He told Marie-Monique Robin: ‘It’s the company that decides what seeds and what chemical products will be used.’23 Current efforts to win over the political class in Africa appear to be following a similar winning formula.
Anti-GM activists lament the weak regulatory regime that exists in most countries when it comes to genetic engineering. State regulatory authorities follow the example of the US and take the biotech industry’s word for the safety of its products.
But the food-labelling row that is currently gripping the US could be something of a political game changer. Even for a US public fed a daily diet of GM in around 80 per cent of processed food, the pro-GM lobby may be going too far in its determination to blindfold citizens.
Monsanto says that it opposes food labelling because it believes that GM food is ‘equivalent’ to non-GM food and so ‘mandatory labelling of food products could mislead shoppers into believing there are dietary or nutritional differences between labelled or non-labelled products’. It would also be ‘unfair to farmers’.27
But according to Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, 90-95 per cent of US citizens surveyed want mandatory labelling. So does the National Farmers Union.
Pro-GM interests, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are throwing a huge amount of money – over $100 million so far – at trying to stop citizens knowing what they are putting in their mouths.
‘Why are companies like Monsanto spending so much to oppose labelling? What have they got to hide? That’s what people are thinking,’ says O’Neil. Monsanto has a reputation for cover-ups, stretching back to the days of Agent Orange and PCB poisoning. ‘The public has not forgotten,’ O’Neil remarks.
Not satisfied with suing the state of Vermont, which voted in favour of mandatory labelling, the pro-GM lobby is trying to push a measure through Congress that would prevent government agencies from ever imposing mandatory labelling in future.
The labelling issue has impacts that reach beyond the US. It is an important element in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations taking place between the US and European Union.
‘US negotiators at the talks have been clear that one of their main aims is to increase market access for US agribusiness. They claim that Europe’s GM labelling requirements are a barrier to trade,’ says a report from Friends of the Earth Europe.28
It continues: ‘European safety standards for GM food are seen as much tougher than those in the US and the agriculture and biotech lobbies want to see those standards weakened.’
Up until recently, the EU banned most commercial growing of GM crops. But from January this year, member states can decide whether to maintain the ban or to opt out.29
Britain’s Conservative-led government is likely to want to opt out; it had already expressed a desire to fast-track cultivation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM crops in Britain. Scotland and Wales have voted to remain GM free, but if the pro-lobby on both sides of the Atlantic has its way, GM crops could be grown in England and Northern Ireland by next year.
Saying no, saying yes
Across the world, resistance is growing. Hawaii, Ghana, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Brazil have in the past few months seen farmers, environmentalists, health organizations, women’s groups and even some politicians standing up to the biotech giants and their supporters. (See ‘The People vs Monsanto’ and ‘The farmer’s friend’.)
Fed up with superweeds, declining yields and public concerns about GMOs, some US farmers are retreating from GM and returning to conventional methods.30
The biggest area for potential growth for transgenic crops is now the Global South, especially Africa. Monsanto and the Gates Foundation (Bill Gates has $23-million worth of shares in Monsanto) are trying to get African nations to accept GM foods and crops under the guise of aid.
They may encounter more problems than they anticipate as African farmers and campaigners mobilize resistance, using authoritative international research that shows that agro-ecology and food sovereignty are the best way to alleviate rural poverty and the impacts of climate change.2
Meanwhile, geopolitics may not favour US biotech imperialism. China has taken a tough stance on US crop imports since they were found to contain corn with unapproved genetic modifications. Russia is no doubt suspicious of Monsanto’s $140-million non-GM corn seed factory project in Ukraine, stepped up since the conflict in that country started.31
When, in a few weeks’ time, citizens take to the streets in hundreds of the world’s towns to March Against Monsanto, or when they decide to buy organic food or clothing, they are not just saying ‘no’ to a powerful and hated transnational corporation.
They are saying ‘yes’ to freedom, to the right to choose, to life in all its splendid natural diversity. And ‘yes’ to a food chain that belongs to humanity.
In the name of the wife
The story of Monsanto begins in 1901, in Saint Louis, Missouri. Founder John Francis Queeny gave the company his wife’s family name. First products were food additives, including the artificial sweetener, saccharin, used by the booming soft-drink industry.
The company’s CV then gets a lot more complicated – and sounds more like a charge sheet for crimes against humanity than a list of proud achievements.
During the 1940s it helped develop the atom bomb; in the 1960s it manufactured Agent Orange (used to such devastating effect during the Vietnam War). Monsanto was also responsible for the highly toxic pesticide DDT (banned in the US in 1972); PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl industrial lubricants, banned in the US in 1979); and rBST, the controversial bovine growth hormone to boost milk-production in cows.
On numerous occasions Monsanto has faced legal claims relating to health and environmental damage caused by its products or practices and has had to make substantial payouts.
In the 1980s, Monsanto scientists were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell. Field tests took place in 1988. By the late-1990s the company was successfully marketing its Roundup farming system, consisting of weedkiller and crop seeds genetically engineered to tolerate it.
In 2000, the company split into two: Pharmacia, and the agricultural business we now know as Monsanto, producing mainly seeds and pesticides. After several shopping sprees to buy up the competition, in 2005 Monsanto became the world’s biggest seed company and its range of GM products grew to include insecticidal Bt seeds (such as Bt cotton).
The company’s fortunes soared as GM farming systems expanded across the world and the company extracted royalties from farmers reusing its patented seed. In 2010 Monsanto was listed ‘company of the year’ by Forbes. It came bottom for ethics.
In 2012 it ventured into IT and data information, purchasing Precision Planting (providing computer hardware and software) and, in 2013, Climate Corp – which gives Monsanto access to detailed information about the land and buying habits of farmers.
Friends of the Earth International/African Centre for Biosafety, ‘Who benefits from GM crops?’ 23 February 2015. ↩
GM-Freeze, Thin Ice, Issue 34 July 2014. ↩
Michael Antoniou, lecture to Oxford Real Farming Conference, 6 January 2015. ↩
M-M Robin, The World According to Monsanto, The New Press, 2013. ↩