A “Roundup” of Monsanto

You may have recently seen a petition making the rounds calling out President Obama’s re-appointment of Michael Taylor to the FDA.  Taylor is one of many former-Monsanto employees or consultants to conveniently end up working for the FDA or USDA, and has has been jockeying between government and Monsanto since the early ’90s.

Monsanto is the brains – and brawn – behind genetically modified soybean crops, bovine growth hormone, and the ubiquitous herbicide Roundup (for which many of their seeds are engineered for compatibility).  If you visit their website, you’d be dazzled by images of rolling green fields and probably leave fairly convinced that Monsanto is committed to the utmost environmental and human rights while saving the planet with it’s technological innovation. But that’s unfortunately the mask of a corporation that has undermined nature, human health, and environmental stewardship for over a century.

From Agent Orange to Alfalfa

Monsanto is not historically an agricultural company. It was founded in the early 20th century as a chemical company, and has produced such gems as DDT, Agent Orange, and saccharin.  Today it’s heralded by many as one of the most evil companies on the planet, and yet by others as a company with the key to ending starvation through GMO technology.

In its efforts to transform from a chemical company to an “agricultural” monolith, Monsanto has bought up seed companies that were already controlling huge portions of the seed industry, making it the world’s largest seed company. It’s said that 90 percent of soybeans in the US belong to the giant, and if they have their way, that reach will expand even further.  To date, Monsanto has claimed reign over soy, corn, canola, rice, alfalfa, and other major crops.

I don’t think many people today  need convincing that the extremely toxic chemicals like Agent Orange should be kept as far away from living things as possible,  but the widely-used Roundup herbicide that everyone from big-ag to “Joe Homeowner” uses is finally making headlines itself.  See, the jury is still out on GMO products, with many working hard to convince the public that they are the wave of the food-future.  But with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops, acre upon acre is being doused with this chemical. The herbicide itself has been demonstrated as a toxic, endocrine-distrupting, genetically-damaging substance, and a recent study in Germany (referenced in this article), proves that what we put in the air and our crops does end up in our drinking water and food sources when they found every single urine sample tested to have traces of the primary chemical found in Roundup.

Forcing out Traditions

Since the beginning of vegetative growth, plants have thrived and multiplied by dropping their seeds to be borne into new trees, flowers, and vegetables.  And for thousands of years, farmers have used this biological concept to turn this year’s crop into next year’s harvest by washing and saving their seeds from season to season.  It’s practical, economical, and seemingly harmless. Unless you are a giant bio-tech-chem-agri-business that can at once turn a pretty penny and take over the world acre by acre.

What Monsanto has managed to do in the last 30 years is to patent genetically modified seeds and crops, which has in turn led to many… you guessed it… lawsuits… against hard-working people in small towns carrying on the farming traditions of generations. Okay, sorry to get sappy here, but really, some of these stories are truly heartbreaking.  In a great 2008 article in Vanity Fair, one such story was introduced with this paragraph:

“Pilot Grove, Missouri, population 750, sits in rolling farmland 150 miles west of St. Louis. The town has a grocery store, a bank, a bar, a nursing home, a funeral parlor, and a few other small businesses. There are no stoplights, but the town doesn’t need any. The little traffic it has comes from trucks on their way to and from the grain elevator on the edge of town. The elevator is owned by a local co-op, the Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator, which buys soybeans and corn from farmers in the fall, then ships out the grain over the winter. The co-op has seven full-time employees and four computers.”

The story goes on to illustrate this little 7-person co-op being accosted by Monsanto, turning over all records of it’s partnering farmers, and thrusting this small town into a massive legal battle.  According to Monsanto itself, they have “only filed suit against farmers 145 times in the United States” and actually admit/claim that many of their suits come from farmers tattling on others in their community. What they fail to mention is the cohort of investigators who pressure those farmers into turning in their friends and neighbors.

To Label or to Label Not

Now that “genetically modified organism” (GMO) and “bovine growth hormone” (rBGH/rBST) are pretty well ingrained in the English language, people are calling for the labeling of these terms on the food products that we consume and feed to our children and pets everyday.  But thanks in part to Monsanto’s huge lobbying force and it’s history of strong ties to the very government agencies that make such labeling and regulation decisions, consumer concerns are being fought and squelched at every turn.  The best we’ve managed so far is to – barely – have non-GMO and non-rBST products labeled, and even that came with a fight.  Again, to the Vanity Fair article:

“Critics of the artificial hormone have pushed for mandatory labeling on all milk products, but the F.D.A. has resisted and even taken action against some dairies that labeled their milk “BST-free.” Since BST is a natural hormone found in all cows, including those not injected with Monsanto’s artificial version, the F.D.A. argued that no dairy could claim that its milk is BST-free. The F.D.A. later issued guidelines allowing dairies to use labels saying their milk comes from “non-supplemented cows,” as long as the carton has a disclaimer saying that the artificial supplement does not in any way change the milk. So the milk cartons from Kleinpeter Dairy, for example, carry a label on the front stating that the milk is from cows not treated with rBGH, and the rear panel says, “Government studies have shown no significant difference between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-rBGH-treated cows.” That’s not good enough for Monsanto.”

So far, we’ve failed to convince government that we deserve to know when our food contains potentially harmful artificial genes and hormones, which just may be able to be traced to this public-private partnership that’s been cultivated over the years.

What we eat, what we know, and how we even understand the use of GMOs in our food and products has all been greatly influenced by the company behind it all.  This is not news; all industries lobby government, spin the media, and PR the heck out of all of us.  But to me, Monsanto is a perfect illustration of this tug of war between the public, the corporations, and our government.  In the last few months alone, a handful of large organizations have been swayed by consumers to reverse decisions, but for some reason the issue of GMOs, growth hormones, herbicide, and the seemingly exponential trend of our food systems being captured under a handful of multinationals is slower to gain traction.   Though it may be at a lower pitch and a slower evolution than the media blasts that swayed Bank of America, Verizon, and Komen, what I do find hopeful is that this conversation about where our food comes from and how it affects us does seem to be reaching a steady tempo.  

So while ties between corporations and government won’t be severed tomorrow or next year or even anytime in the next several decades, the public’s knowledge of these connections is vital to understanding and evaluating our access to information and choice.  You may not pick up a box of cereal or a block of cheese and see a bright red Monsanto sticker on it, but letting the powers-to-be know that you’re aware and that you’re not okay with it is a small step in what could be a big change for taking control over our consumer choices.

For more information… 

Read the Vanity Fair article. It’s worth the 6 pages.

Watch The Future of Food, free on Netflix and also here.

Check out this OrganicConsumers page.

Wikipedia, obviously.

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