International tribunal seeks to build case against Monsanto

Monsanto is going on trial! Not, alas, in an official legal proceeding but instead a “civil society initiative” that will provide moral judgment only.

The International Monsanto Tribunal will conduct hearings in The Hague this weekend, October 15 and 16, and although not having legal force, its organizers believe the opinions its international panel of judges will issue will provide victims and their legal counsel with arguments and legal grounds for further lawsuits in courts of law. The organizers also see the tribunal as raising awareness of Monsanto Company’s practices and the dangers of industrial and chemical agriculture. The tribunal web site’s “Practical Info” page summarizes:

“The aim of the Tribunal is to give a legal opinion on the environmental and health damage caused by the multinational Monsanto. This will add to the international debate to include the crime of Ecocide into international criminal law. It will also give people all over the world a well documented legal file to be used in lawsuits against Monsanto and similar chemical companies.”

There certainly is much material on Monsanto, a multi-national corporation that has long sought to control the world’s food and which is able to routinely bend governments to its will.

March Against Monsanto in Chile (photo by Mapuexpress Informativo Mapuche)

March Against Monsanto in Chile (photo by Mapuexpress Informativo Mapuche)

For example, there was the “Monsanto Protection Act,” quietly slipped into an appropriations bill in 2013 that had to be passed to avoid a U.S. government shutdown, requiring the Department of Agriculture to ignore any court order that would halt the planting of genetically engineered crops even if the department were still conducting a safety investigation, and rubber-stamp an okay. This past July, a piece of legislation known as the “DARK Act” was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama that, under the guise of setting national standards, nullified state laws that mandate labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and substituted a standard that makes it almost impossible for any GMO food to be so labeled.

Its reach by no means limited to its home country, Monsanto has pushed to overturn safety standards across Europe, and among the goals of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to reverse EU laws mandating GMO labeling and eliminate laws banning GMOs in food.

A long-term goal of ending corporate impunity

Because it is not possible to bring criminal charges against Monsanto, tribunal organizers say, it is necessary to initiate civil actions. They write:

“Critics of Monsanto claim that the company has been able to ignore the human and environmental damage caused by its products and pursue its devastating activities through a systematic concealment strategy through lobbying regulators and government authorities, lying, corruption, commissioning bogus scientific studies, putting pressure on independent scientists, and manipulating the press. Our endeavor is based on the observation that only through civic action will we be able to achieve compensation for victims of the American multinational.”

The tribunal organizers also recognize that a company like Monsanto does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is part of a larger system that is imperiling the world’s environment:

“Monsanto’s history is a paradigm for the impunity of transnational corporations and their management, who contribute to climate change and the depletion of the biosphere and threaten the security of the planet.

Monsanto is not the only focus of our efforts. Monsanto will serve as an example for the entire agro-industrial system whereby putting on trial all multinationals and companies that employ entrepreneurial behavior that ignore the damage wrecked on health and the environment by their actions.”

Tribunal will follow customary international law

Lawyers and judges from five continents will be involved in hearing evidence; they expect to hand down their legal findings in April 2017. Customary international law will be followed in all proceedings, tribunal organizers say:

“The Tribunal will employ as its legal guidelines: the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted by the Council of the UN Human Rights June 2011; the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) giving it jurisdiction to try alleged perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is the international authority on the responsibilities of business with regard to human rights. The guidelines state that companies must respect all human rights, including the right to life, the right to health and the right to a healthy environment. They define society’s expectations vis-à-vis businesses. They will serve as the basis on which plaintiffs will build their case for demanding compensation from Monsanto for damage caused by the company’s activities. The Court will consider whether Monsanto’s conduct could be considered criminal pursuant to existing international criminal law, or under the law of ecocide, which is gaining support for consideration as an offence.”

Using international treaties as a basis for adjudicating these questions, the tribunal will focus on six topics:

  • The right to a healthy environment.
  • The right to health.
  • The right to food.
  • Freedom of expression and academic research.
  • Complicity in war crimes.
  • The crime of ecocide.

Monsanto has been invited to present a defense and supporting documents against any evidence presented against it. The company has declined to participate, calling the tribunal a “publicity stunt” by people “not interested in dialogue,” and saying it is “is not against organic agriculture” in a statement issued last December. In announcing its latest financial results earlier this month, it predicted “continued strong penetration of key soybean traits, global corn germplasm upgrades and spend discipline” for 2017. So no change in its behavior should be expected.

Monsanto wants to tell you what to eat

Monsanto’s march toward control of the world’s food supply is focused on proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms. 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-government-pipelineThe U.S. environmental group Food & Water Watch, in its report “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile,” summarizes the corporation’s power:

“Monsanto is a global agricultural biotechnology company that specializes in genetically engineered (GE) seeds and herbicides, most notably Roundup herbicide and GE Roundup Ready seed. GE seeds have been altered with inserted genetic material to exhibit traits that repel pests or withstand the application of herbicides. In 2009, in the United States alone, nearly all (93 percent) of soybeans and four-fifths (80 percent) of corn were grown with seeds containing Monsanto-patented genetics. The company’s power and influence affects not only the U.S. agricultural industry, but also political campaigns, regulatory processes and the structure of agriculture systems all over the world. …

Because of Monsanto’s market dominance, its products are changing the face of farming, from the use of Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, to the genetic makeup of the food we eat. … Monsanto has a close relationship with the U.S. government, which helps it to find loopholes or simply create regulations that benefit its bottom line. Monsanto and other corporations have increasingly funded academic research from public universities, which they use to justify their latest products. Monsanto’s international power has grown at an alarming rate, much to the dismay of developing countries that have inadvertently been exposed to its relentless business strategy. For all of these reasons, Monsanto has become a company that farmers and consumers around the world should fear.”

India has no laws Monsanto is bound to respect

Vandana Shiva, a member of the International Monsanto Tribunal’s steering committee, last year provided a case study in Monsanto’s practices with an examination of how it forced its way into India. The introduction of corporate agriculture has been so catastrophic in India that more than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, with Dr. Shiva reporting that 84 percent of farmer suicides have been attributed to Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton.

Baskets of many different kind of Brinjal (aka "Eggplant") put out by protesters during the listening tour of India's environment minister relating to the introduction of BT Brinjal. Spring 2010 in Bangalore, India. (photo by Infoeco)

Baskets of many different kind of Brinjal (aka “Eggplant”) put out by protesters during the listening tour of India’s environment minister relating to the introduction of BT Brinjal. Spring 2010 in Bangalore, India. (photo by Infoeco)

She explains what she calls Monsanto’s “outright illegality” in India as based on Monsanto claiming patent rights to its products even though patents on life forms are illegal in India; that its collections of royalties on unpatenable products have led to a wave of bankruptcies by farmers who struggle to survive in the best of times; and its “smuggling” of unapproved genetically modified organisms into India that “pose grave risks” to health. Dr. Shiva writes:

“India’s laws do not permit patents on seeds and in agriculture. But that hasn’t stopped Monsanto from collecting close to USD 900 million from small farmers in India, pushing them into crushing debt. This is roughly the same amount of money Monsanto spent buying The Climate Corporation — a weather big data company — in a bid to control climate data access in the future. … [L]ocal seeds used to cost [a tiny fraction of the cost of Monsanto’s seeds] before Monsanto destroyed alternatives, including local hybrid seed supply, through licensing arrangements and acquisitions.”

Local pests developed resistance to Monsanto’s GMO cotton, which releases toxins, forcing farmers to use more pesticides — an extra expense and environmentally destructive. Although this is bad for farmers, consumers and the environment, it is highly profitable for Monsanto. Dr. Shiva writes:

“Genetic engineering has not been able to deliver on its promises – it is just a tool of ownership. [Monsanto’s genetically modified] Bt Cotton is not resistant to Bollworm, RoundUp Resistant varieties have only given rise to super weeds, and the new promises being made by biotech corporations of bio-fortification are laughable. There is no benefit to things like Golden Rice. By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds, which were now their property. Monsanto does not care if your cotton field has Bollworm infestations, just so long as the crop can be identified as theirs and royalty payments keep flowing in. This is why the failure of Bt Cotton as a reflection of bad science does not bother them — the cash is still coming into St Louis. At its core, genetic modification is about ownership.”

Farmers become Monsanto’s hired hands

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 Food & Watch Watch. 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. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

Worse, Monsanto has agreed to sell itself to Bayer A.G., the German chemical conglomerate with its own history of abuse. Should regulators allow these two corporations to merge, it would create the world’s largest supplier of seeds and pesticides. Bayer’s chief executive officer, Werner Baumann, enthused that the proposed deal would “deliver substantial value to shareholders, our customers, employees and society at large.” That “value” for “shareholders” was mentioned first is all you need to know that profits and control are what this deal is really about.

What better monopoly could a corporation achieve than a monopoly in food? That has long been Monsanto’s goal, and a merger with Bayer would only tighten its grip. This is not reducible, however, to simple greed or evilness. Grow or die is the ever-present mandate of capitalism and one result of that tendency is the drive toward monopolization — a small number of enterprises controlling an industry. Just because food is a necessity does not mean it is exempt from capitalism’s relentless competitive pressures.

When “markets” are allowed to dictate social outcomes, actions like those of Monsanto are inevitable. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. And they have no interest in you knowing what is in your food, or even that it is safe.

Marching on Monsanto and its government protectors

Controlling and knowing what we eat should be a fundamental human right beyond questioning. That it is not sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of cities around the world on May 23, the third annual March on Monsanto.

People on every continent save Antarctica participated in a March on Monsanto — demonstrations took place in 452 cites in 48 countries in opposition to Monsanto Company’s attempt to gain control over the world’s food. More than 200 U.S. cities, 47 Canadian cities, 22 French cities and 13 Argentine cities were among the places hosting organized marches.

One of the earliest rallies was in Sydney, where an organizer told the RT television network:

“This company has repeatedly committed, I would say, crimes against the Earth and what we are trying to show is accountability for corporations. Also we want to promote clean food. Food that’s free of pesticides, which our grandparents just called food.”

RT, in an online roundup of events around the world, also noted that protestors in Berlin, one of 10 German demonstrations, made connections among health concerns even though there is no commercial cultivation of food containing genetically engineered organisms in the country, and GMO bans exist in nine of Germany’s 16 states and in hundreds of municipalities. RT reported:

“Germany’s capital Berlin saw a big turnout even though Germany does not use Monsanto’s seeds. However, activists say local farmers still use Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, which end up leaving traces in breast milk of feeding mothers, the water supply and even urine of people who have not eaten GMO products.”

March Against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto

The struggle against dangerous pesticides received a boost earlier in the month in Germany when the country’s state consumer protection ministers called for a ban on glyphosate throughout the European Union. According to the online news publication EurActiv, E.U. approval of glyphosate expires at the end of 2015 and the E.U. bureaucratic arm, the European Commission, is conducting a safety review. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a business worth an estimated $10 billion to Monsanto. The company not only sells lots of the herbicide but also 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. The use of  glyphosate on U.S. farms increased from 11 million pounds in 1987 to almost 300 million pounds in 2013.

What you don’t know might hurt you

There is plenty of reason for concern. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a study, published in The Lancet, that found glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen. Other studies, including a 2013 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology, have also reported health concerns. Further, a 2011 Earth Open Source paper, titled “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” says that the European Union and the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety cites “unpublished industry studies to back its claim that glyphosate was safe,” while ignoring or dismissing independent studies that indicate glyphosate causes endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer and birth defects.

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

Then there are the dangers of GMO foods, an area unfortunately quite under-studied. GMO labeling is required by 64 countries, including Australia, Japan and all 28 E.U. countries. Such laws are fiercely opposed by Monsanto and other multi-national agribusinesses, and they thus far have succeeded in keeping labeling laws from being enacted in the U.S. These corporate efforts to undermine food safety are part of the agenda behind the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Marchers against Monsanto took to calling the TPP and TTIP the “Global Monsanto Protection Acts.” One of the goals of those two so-called “free trade” deals is to eliminate the ability of governments to ban or even effectively regulate GMOs, and to ban any labeling of them. Monsanto and other agribusinesses repeatedly claim that GMOs are safe and healthy, but if that is so, why do they put so much effort into hiding them? Biotechnology companies spent $27 million lobbying for GMOs in the U.S. in just the first six months of 2014.

Should the TPP and TTIP come into force, nobody in the 40 countries that encompass these two agreements will be able to know what is in the food they eat or to have effective protection against food that may not be safe to eat.

Already we being used as laboratory experiments, and this will accelerate if Monsanto gets its way.

Water down laws, then dilute some more

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade, and much to do with eliminating regulations, lowering standards and eliminating health, safety and environmental laws in favor of maximizing corporate profits. The “harmonization” that is promoted in these agreements has meant reducing standards to the lowest possible level. Thus, European regulations on GMOs and food labeling will be targeted as “barriers” to trade under the TTIP because those standards are higher than U.S. rules.

Pesticide Action Network Europe notes that the process of European harmonization has already watered down regulations. In its position paper on the TTIP negotiations, PAN Europe says:

“Health standards already now do not sufficiently protect people and the environment and costs are already externalised massively to society in terms of health care (pesticide residues in food/water, contamination of rural citizens), soil deterioration (fertilizers), biodiversity decline (monocultures, pesticides), climate change (fertilizers and deforestation for soy/palm cultivation) and subsidies (taxpayers’ money). … Let’s take the example of pesticide residue food standards. They were harmonised at European level already in 2009 and indeed the least strictest food standards anywhere in Europe were chosen for harmonisation. Soon it was shown that this was a wrong approach. … Cumulative effects of residues are not calculated and the unscientific single-exposure approach maintained.”

Already, an E.U. paper that could have led to the banning of as many as 31 pesticides was not acted on because of heavy pressure from chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A delegation of U.S. chemical-industry lobbyists and U.S. trade officials insisted that the E.U. drop proposals to ban the use of the pesticides despite health concerns.

Just as it is asked why Monsanto and other agribusinesses don’t want you to know what is in your food, we must ask why they don’t want us to know what is in the “free trade” agreements being negotiated on their behalf.

Legislators provide a backup plan

Perhaps as a backup in case the mounting public opposition to the TPP and TTIP succeeds in scuttling them, a Kansas Republican, Mike Pompeo, has cooked up a bill with the Orwellian name of “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (Bill H.R. 1599) in the House of Representatives. H.R. 1599 was introduced on March 25 and is a re-introduction of the previous Congress’ H.R. 4432, which failed to become law. The bill’s stated purpose is: “To amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.” Well, yes, but in what way?

The devil is indeed in the details here. Activists at Food Democracy Now sound the alarm this way:

“This plan is so devious that it radically speeds up the approval process for new GMO crops, limits the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and [Department of Agriculture]’s ability to extend premarket safety reviews, declares GMO foods ‘safe’ and redefines genetically engineered foods as ‘bioengineered’ in order to sanitize this deeply flawed technology to the American public.”

A Daily Kos analysis notes that the bill would create a federal law banning any state or locality from enacting a GMO labeling law. The bill would also prohibit organic natural foods from being marketed as safer or better than GMO counterparts. It would also make it nearly impossible for a farmer to achieve organic certification:

“But most sinister is what I will call the bill’s virtual protection racket. It works like this. As a small organic farmer, if I want to market my product as GMO-free, I must ensure that the entire path to market — from seed to harvest to processing to transportation to distribution — is certifiably GMO-free. If my product shares any infrastructure with known GMO foods, I cannot claim being a GMO-free. … The burden of proof therefore is prohibitively expensive for a typical small farmer, which is what Monsanto, Dow et al are counting on.”

Taking on Monsanto is already difficult. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a suit against Monsanto, challenging the company’s patents on genetically engineered seeds, a suit that eventually represented 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms. The organic plaintiffs sought a pre-emptive judgment against potentially being accused of patent infringement should their fields become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. Such suits are not unknown. Nonetheless, the courts ruled for Monsanto at the trial and appellate levels.

Sell first, ask questions later

A part of the problem is that, under the U.S. regulatory system — what it wishes to impose on Europe and elsewhere — 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. That can occur years after it began to be sold. But, charges Steven Druker in a new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, not even scientific concerns necessarily stop approval in the U.S.:

“[T]he [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had ushered these controversial products onto the market by evading standards of science, deliberately breaking the law, and seriously misrepresenting the facts — and that the American people were being regularly (and unknowingly) subjected to novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.

This fraud has been the pivotal event in the commercialization of genetically engineered foods. Not only did it enable their marketing and acceptance in the United States, it set the stage for their sale in numerous other nations as well. If the FDA had not evaded the food safety laws, every GE food would have been required to undergo rigorous long-term testing; and if it had not covered up the concerns of its scientists and falsely reported the facts, the public would have been alerted to the risks. Consequently, the introduction of GE foods would at minimum have been delayed many years — and most likely would not have happened.”

Mr. Druker is a public-interest attorney who successfully sued to gain access to FDA files. So confident is he in his findings that he has publicly challenged Monsanto to refute anything in his book and said he will change anything that is proven to be incorrect. Speaking at the New York March on Monsanto, he reported that he had not received a response.

Monsanto is perhaps the corporation most determined to control the world’s food. The vast majority of U.S. soybean, cotton, corn and canola are now genetically engineered. 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 Food & Watch Watch. 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. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

We live under an economic system that reduces human interactions to nothing more than transactions, where an ever larger sphere of social decisions are made by “the market” and the quest for profits is promoted as the highest ideal. “The market” is not some neutral entity sitting high in the clouds, as pervasive propaganda would have us believe, but rather nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. A monopoly is the goal of capitalists, and the logical outcome of the relentless competition of capitalism. Just because food is among the most basic human necessities does not mean it is exempt. Don’t starve, organize!

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.