It’s not science fiction anymore: Monsanto seeks to control world’s food

The ultimate monopoly would be control of the world’s food supply. Although not the only multi-national corporation attempting to achieve the ability to dictate what you eat, Monsanto Company appears the most determined.

wheatAlready infamous for toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Agent Orange and dioxin, Monsanto’s march toward control of the world’s food supply is focused on proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms. No corporation or corporate oligarchy possessing a food monopoly would be desirable, but Monsanto is a particularly frightening contender. So powerful is the company that a special law tailored for it was snuck into a congressional appropriations bill funding U.S. government operations.

The Farmer Assurance Provision — better known by its nickname, the “Monsanto Protection Act” — was quietly slipped into an appropriations bill in March by a Missouri senator, Roy Blunt. The appropriations bill had to be passed to avert a government shutdown, providing an opportunity to do a favor for the powerful. Slipping off-topic special measures into bills hundreds of pages long is routine in the U.S. Congress.

Efforts to remove the language from the bill have so far failed. The relevant language is this:

“Directs the Secretary [of Agriculture], if a determination of non-regulated status under the Plant Protection Act has been invalidated, to authorize movement, introduction, continued cultivation, or commercialization for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status.”

In plain language, what the above passage means is the U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to ignore any court order that would halt the planting of genetically engineered crops even if the department is still conducting a safety investigation, and rubber-stamp an okay. The group Food Democracy Now! summarized the implications of that requirement:

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment.”

The Monsanto Protection Act expires at the end of the government’s fiscal year, September 30, with the expiration of the appropriations bill of which it is a part, but the language could easily be included in next year’s appropriations bills. As outrageous as the special provision is, it is consistent with the basic methodology of public safety in the United States — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe.

Sell first, ask questions later

In other words, it’s not up the company selling a product to prove it is safe; it is up to others, after the fact, to prove that it is unsafe. This is the case with, for example, chemicals and pesticides. And it is the case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No corporation has more riding on GMOs than Monsanto. That is not merely because GMOs have steadily taken an increasing share of foods grown for animal and human consumption, but because of genetically engineered seeds. A report by the Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds puts the magnitude of this change in stark terms:

“The vast majority of the four major commodity crops in the U.S. are now genetically engineered. U.S. adoption of transgenic commodity crops has been rapid, in which [genetically engineered] varieties now make up the substantial majority: soybean (93 percent transgenic in 2010), cotton (88 percent), corn (86 percent), and canola (64 percent).” [page 5]

Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to a separate report by Food & Watch Watch. These seeds have been engineered to be resistant to insects or to withstand the application of herbicides. The report, “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile,” states:

“Monsanto not only markets its own patented seeds, but it uses licensing agreements with other companies and distributors to spread its traits throughout the seed supply. … The acreage on which Monsanto’s [genetically engineered] crop traits are grown has increased from a total of 3 million acres in 1996 to 282.3 million acres worldwide and 151.4 million acres in the United States in 2009. … Monsanto’s products constitute approximately 40 percent of all crop acres in the [U.S.]. …

“A lawyer working for DuPont, the next largest competitor in the seed business, said ‘a seed company can’t stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, so if they want to stay in that business, essentially they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do.’ ” [page 8]

DuPont is one of the world’s largest chemical corporations and a major competitor in many fields. If an enterprise as powerful as DuPont finds itself at the mercy of Monsanto, what chance does a family farmer have?

The reference to “Roundup Ready” in the quote above is a reference to a suite of Monsanto agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment.

Patents on life reverses precedent

As with the consolidation of seed companies, the rise of genetically engineered crops and the right to patent living organisms is a recent development. After decades of refusal by the U.S. Congress to allow patents on food-producing plants that re-produce via seeds, it passed a law in 1970 allowing patenting of “novel” varieties produced from seeds.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in 1980 and 2001 allowing living organisms, including plants, to be patented, opening the floodgates to current corporate practices. A frenzy of acquisition of seed companies and a rapid expansion of patents on seeds and plants ensued. The report by Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds summarizes what these changes have wrought:

“As a consequence, what was once a freely exchanged, renewable resource is now privatized and monopolized. Current judicial interpretations have allowed utility patents on products of nature, plants, and seeds, without exceptions for research and seed saving. This revolutionary change is contrary to centuries of traditional seed breeding based on collective community knowledge and established in the public domain and for the public good.” [page 5]

The ETC Group, in its report, “Who Owns Nature?,” also highlights the privatization of a commons:

“In the first half of the 20th century, seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. In the decades since, [biotechnology companies] have used intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply — a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating farmers’ rights. … In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.” [page 11]

Proprietary seeds now account for 82 percent of the world’s commercial seed market. Monsanto, according to the ETC Group, directly accounts 23 percent of the world’s seed sales by itself. Monsanto and the next two biggest seed companies, DuPont and Syngenta, sell almost half.

Once a farmer contracts with a giant seed company, the farmer is trapped. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Monsanto aggressively litigates against farmers to enforce this provision, dictates farming practices and requires its inspectors to be given access to all records and fields. The company has even sued neighboring farmers whose fields unwillingly became contaminated with Monsanto’s seeds.

Doubts raised on ‘benefits’ of GMOs

Nobody knows the full effects on the environment or human health of these chemicals and GMOs. A recent study published in the journal Entropy found that residues of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, are found in a variety of foods in the Western diet and in turn can cause cellular damage leading to several diseases, including gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. More than 800 scientists have signed a letter calling for a moratorium on all field trials of GMOs for at least five years, a ban on patents on life forms and declaring that genetically modified crops “offer no benefits to consumers for farmers.”

Genetically modified crops, of course, are carried along by winds and don’t stop at property boundaries. Last month, genetically modified wheat was discovered in the fields of a farmer in Oregon. The Guardian reports that the wheat has never been approved for human consumption and is a variety developed by Monsanto in an experiment that ended a decade ago. Several Asian countries responded to this news by banning imports of U.S. wheat and the European Union advised wheat shipped from the U.S. be tested.

Hoping to expand its reach, Monsanto (and three other corporations) are attempting to corner the market in maize in Mexico, the staple crop’s birthplace. The companies have applied to plant genetically modified maize on more than two million hectares in two Mexican states. Already, according to a report in Truthout, farmers near Mexico City have found their crops contaminated with genetically modified maize.

Sixty-four countries currently require GMO labeling, but such labeling in the United States is bitterly fought by Monsanto and other giant agribusinesses. The companies argue that GMOs are safe, but if they are so proud of their products, why do they resist them being put on a label for consumers to see? Nor does the revolving door between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto inspire confidence.

Corporate lawyers and others who have done work for Monsanto, for instance, subsequently moved to the FDA, where they gave approval for Monsanto products. Although corporate executives going to work for the U.S. government agencies that regulate them, then going back to their companies, is a common practice, Monsanto has sent an extraordinary number of executives to government posts.

Nonetheless, this specter shouldn’t be looked at overly simplistically as Monsanto being an evil company. It and its competitors are acting in the way that capitalist competition mandates they act — grow or die is the ever present imperative. All industries move toward monopolization (a handful of companies dominating an industry, not necessarily a “pure” monopoly of one); corporations grow to such massive size that they can dominate their societies; and the surviving corporations convert ever more human activity or traditionally public spheres into their private profit centers. This is the natural result of market competition and allowing “markets” to determine social outcomes.

Monsanto happens to be the company that is most ruthless at navigating and further developing these ongoing systemic trends, just as Wal-Mart is the company that is the leader among retailers forcing the moving of production to the lowest-wage countries, squeezing suppliers and exploiting workforces. That does not mean that we should be content to allow Monsanto to grab control of the world’s food supply or make life itself a commodity. Quite the contrary. The specter of any enterprise gaining a monopoly over food is too frightening to contemplate, never mind an enterprise so dedicated to squashing anybody who gets in its way.

The idea of Monsanto (or any other corporation or bloc of corporations) wresting control of the world’s food supply sounds like a bad science fiction movie or a crazy nightmare. But modern capitalism is heading toward that previously unthinkable place. The time is to organize is now, for we never have as much time as we think we do.

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13 comments on “It’s not science fiction anymore: Monsanto seeks to control world’s food

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    My beef with Monsanto started once upon a time in a land far, far away, when and where a certain company, along with Dow Chemical, decided to defoliate large swaths of Southeast Asia. I agree with your premise that resistance to this overarching control of the food supply and seeds, for goodness sakes, is a moral imperative. My misgivings are not with your well-reasoned arguments but with the corporate squid’s proven ability to reassemble its tentacles, i.e., Ma Bell aka AT&T. How do we avoid the trap of cutting off the head only to have another one take its place? As you’ve alluded to in past pieces, I think that we’re beyond reforming the system and any movement that claims reform as its objective should be subject to critical analysis. If the fruit of the tree is rotten then pruning it isn’t going to help. Dig it up by the roots and plant a new tree.

    If I misinterpreted your essay, my apologies. I’m currently traveling in the climate change challenged Southwest and my brain feels slightly fried. Take care and stay safe.

    • I agree with you completely. As I wrote, the actions of Monsanto and other giant agribusinesses is an imperative and the logical outcome of advanced capitalism; one of these companies would prove to be the most ruthless and Monsanto so happens to be the one. Indeed, the “corporate squid” would simply reassemble itself in a new form, with a different company at the head of the pack, were we to somehow eliminate this or that corporation but leave the system intact.

      I do think we can make a start on the problem by eating only organic and refusing to buy any food that isn’t certified GMO-free. But that would only be a beginning; a movement for food safety needs to develop much further and such a movement must be linked to a broader social movement. What more basic right can there be than the right to safe food and clean water? Yet capitalism does not recognize these as rights, only as commodities for sale by the enterprises that can lay claim to them. That, ultimately, is the root that humanity must pull out.

      Enjoy your trip in to the Southwest United States. I’ve been there many times and can never have too much of the desert scenery.

      • tubularsock says:

        Systemic Disorder ……. great information you have provided but you may want to incorporate this into your your future insights about Monsanto.

        “A report by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation revealed that the largest mercenary army in the world, Blackwater (later called Xe Services and more recently “Academi”) clandestine intelligence services was sold to the multinational Monsanto.”

        Now Monsanto has its own fucking army! How scary is that!

        • Pretty scary, indeed. Although I imagine that Blackwater/Academi contracts its services to many corporations at this point since their business with the U.S. government isn’t as big as it once was. Jeremy Scahill is doing outstanding work — I will read his report in the The Nation. Thanks for the tip.

    • tubularsock says:

      Jeff. You may want to check out a recent deal between Monsanto and the current Vietnamese government. Rather scary.

  2. mic jordan says:

    Screen the original movie of The Omen trilogy, “The Omen”. The entire Monsanto conspiracy was laid out in full relief!

  3. Cerridwen says:

    Perhaps this is too long for a blog comment, but here is my “poem” on the topic:

    GMO Research Notes and Headlines Cerridwen July 2013

    Genetically Modified Organisms are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food. 94% of all soy, 90% canola, and 88% corn in the United States is genetically modified.

    We have the right to know what is in the food we’re eating.

    Findings on GM crops include: toxic effects on the small intestine, liver, kidney, spleen, and pancreas disturbances in the functioning of the digestive system immune system disturbances.
    50 countries, including France, Germany and Italy have banned or restricted GMOs, while the US doesn’t even require labeling.

    Open Letter from World Scientists Concerning Genetically Modified Organisms:
    scientists are extremely concerned about the hazards of GMO’s to biodiversity food safety human and animal health…
    Roundup, used with Roundup Ready GMOs, causes birth defects, reproductive problems, DNA damage, and cancer in test animals.
    Human epidemiological studies find an association between Roundup exposure and miscarriage, birth defects, neurological development, DNA damage and cancer.

    A… survey of 8200 field trials of the most widely grown GM crops
    PRODUCED 6.7% LESS YIELD, and REQUIRED two to five times MORE HERBICIDE than non-GM varieties.

    Female sheep fed GM maize over three generations showed disturbances in the functioning of the digestive system while their lambs showed cellular changes in the liver and pancreas.
    Offspring from mother rats fed genetically modified soy showed 56% mortality rate. Rats fed GM tomatoes developed stomach lesions. One-in-five Americans have an allergic condition.
    In order to detect health effects over time in humans long term animal feeding trials are needed…

    Genetically engineered foods have not been adequately tested.

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety assessments of GMO foods.
    FDA guidelines are entirely voluntary. Patent holders themselves determine whether their products “warrant analytical or toxicological tests.”

    Biotech companies have used patent claims and intellectual property protection laws to restrict access to GM crops for research. Scientists who have raised concerns about GMO safety have been attacked and discredited.

    The Toxic Substances Control Act has failed to uphold chemical safety because its legal structure is self defeating…. EPA must have toxicity date before it can require toxicity data.

    Despite these limitations on research, studies nevertheless show that GMOs fail to live up to their claimed benefits. Instead, genetically modified crops • can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts • can disrupt ecosystems, damage vulnerable plant and animal populations, and harm biodiversity • increase the use of pesticides and herbicides over the long term • deliver yields no better, and often worse than conventional crops • cause or exacerbate a range of social and economic problems • are laboratory-made and once released, cannot be recalled from the environment.

    The Precautionary Principle means:
    take action in the face of uncertainty shift burdens onto those who create risks consider alternatives to potentially harmful activities use democratic decision-making processes that include those who might be affected.
    …and demand a moratorium on environmental releases in accordance with the precautionary principle.
    signed by 828 scientists from 84 countries
    …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
    Please consult these sources directly.
    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/list.php
    http://earthopensource.org/files/pdfs/GMO_Myths_and_Truths/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.3b.pdf
    http://www.healthytomorrow.org/attachments/ppp_toxic_ig_nov_00.pdf http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/

    • Cerridwen, thank you for providing the information. Your comment was long, but there is so much we need to know that long is necessary – information we need, especially in countries like the U.S. where information is ordinarily withheld from us. GM foods are less healthy, unstudied and yield poorer results. All for the sake of private profit. Insanity.

  4. Danielle Ha says:

    Death and destruction were in Monsanto’s DNA from the very start (Agent Orange). That this type of business were uphold by SANE? Supreme Court Justices, Lawmakers, Lobbyist/lawyers, shareholders… without questions? The arrogance: What about their kids’ future? If money can buy these wealthy people then how can some poor 3rd countries resist this (or be informed enough)?

    • People in the developing world tend to be more aware of the abuses of capitalism than elsewhere because the exploitation comes down so heavily on them. It is people in the advanced capitalist countries who tend to be misinformed because they receive some benefits from imperialism and the exploitation for them is often wrapped in a nice consumerist bow. But at the end of the day, very few people want to lose their right to fresh food and clean water. What do we do? Organize!

      • Danielle Ha says:

        Actually, that is the only way for now. ENCOURAGING the ones that we can hold accountable – to do the right thing. Such as one consistent focus: Supreme Court Justices, for example.

        • Rotha Jago says:

          Monsanto has silenced countless scientists all over the world…like this. When young scientists graduate they need to get a job. Not so easy now that so many governments and large organisations no longer employ and train young people. However the new graduate will discover that there are many “Not for Profit” private companies which operate using government grants (usually Foreign Aid).
          If he/she applies a wonderful future unfolds. Jobs in projects all over the world, teaching Indonesians how to plant rice or observing some endangered fish in The Philippines, etc etc. After 5 years the graduate has an impressive CV, has paid off education debts if any and could get a good job in any organisation they choose.
          The catch is that first they needed to sign a “Conditions of Employment” document. They must agree not to work on any Monsanto products without permission FOR THEIR WHOLE LIFE.
          Renegades are sued in Boston USA. Monsanto, alone or with others is doing this.

          So if you innocently signed up, you will find that you are in danger of being sued if you make any statements or write any papers which criticise Monsanto’s Glyphosate or any of their false reassurances about the “safety” of their disastrous products and systems.
          Solution? If our governments knew that their employees were bound to Monsanto, they could
          assure their employees that they would be defended against law suits so long as they told the truth. Monsanto’s bullying tactics could be exposed. But that means that the very anxious scientific community would have to admit that there is a problem.
          No one wants to know. Have you noticed the number of alarming events like the deaths of five horses in a paddock in southern Queensland, or the death of all the fish in a pond also in Queensland, which had been sprayed around with herbicide, or the terrible state of the Gladstone Harbour after the wet season a couple of years ago? All these events could not be explained by even the best qualified scientists. Why? They won’t test for Glyphosate. They would rather appear incompetent.
          They are terrified of scandal and of being sued.

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