Monsanto: Enemy of the Earth

On Earth Day 2008, I nominate Monsanto as the leading enemy of the earth. (Please leave comments with your nominations for the organizations causing the most damage to Planet Earth.)

Monsanto’s vision of the future are huge fields of crops with no weeds. There are no weeds because the chemical weedkiller Roundup has been sprayed on the fields. My question is: What will years of applying Roundup to the soil do to that land and the surrounding streams?

I have been tracking Monsanto for several years. Their products for agriculture are very damaging to soil, water, and critters large and small, and their bullying tactics against farmers are despicable. Their success has been growing as they round up more farmers who want to produce more crops now without regard for the implications for the future of their land and crops.

Monsanto has been buying seed companies. My wife Ann used to buy the seeds for our organic garden from the Territorial Seed Company until she found out that they sell seeds from Monsanto. Monsanto wants to control food production at all levels!

With a number of key alumni working in the FDA and a surpreme court justice, they have stacked the deck to make sure their tactics are not surpressed. In the past, Monsanto is responsible for contaminating land and streams with thousands of tons of dioxin and PCBs, two of the most toxic chemicals ever produced. Now they encourage farmers to plant their genetically-modified seeds and dump the chemical weedkiller Roundup on their fields.

Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele at Vanity Fair have described the ongoing efforts of Monsanto to monopolize farming and its legacy of contamination of land and rivers. Excerpts below.

Link: Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear: Politics & Power: vanityfair.com.

Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics–ruthless legal battles against small farmers–is its decades-long history of toxic contamination.

Monsanto goes after farmers, farmers’ co-ops, seed dealers—anyone it suspects may have infringed its patents of genetically modified seeds. As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities. Farmers say that some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records. Farmers call them the “seed police” and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics.

For centuries—millennia—farmers have saved seeds from season to season: they planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then reclaimed and cleaned the seeds over the winter for re-planting the next spring. Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.

Monsanto developed G.M. seeds that would resist its own herbicide, Roundup, offering farmers a convenient way to spray fields with weed killer without affecting crops. Monsanto then patented the seeds. For nearly all of its history the United States Patent and Trademark Office had refused to grant patents on seeds, viewing them as life-forms with too many variables to be patented.

Indeed not. But in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world’s food supply. In its decision, the court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” In this case, the organism wasn’t even a seed. Rather, it was a Pseudomonas bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills. But the precedent was set, and Monsanto took advantage of it. Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won 674 biotechnology patents, more than any other company, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.

This radical departure from age-old practice has created turmoil in farm country. Some farmers don’t fully understand that they aren’t supposed to save Monsanto’s seeds for next year’s planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product. Still others say that they don’t use Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, but seeds have been blown into their fields by wind or deposited by birds. It’s certainly easy for G.M. seeds to get mixed in with traditional varieties when seeds are cleaned by commercial dealers for re-planting. The seeds look identical; only a laboratory analysis can show the difference. Even if a farmer doesn’t buy G.M. seeds and doesn’t want them on his land, it’s a safe bet he’ll get a visit from Monsanto’s seed police if crops grown from G.M. seeds are discovered in his fields.

Most Americans know Monsanto because of what it sells to put on our lawns— the ubiquitous weed killer Roundup. What they may not know is that the company now profoundly influences—and one day may virtually control—what we put on our tables. For most of its history Monsanto was a chemical giant, producing some of the most toxic substances ever created, residues from which have left us with some of the most polluted sites on earth. Yet in a little more than a decade, the company has sought to shed its polluted past and morph into something much different and more far-reaching—an “agricultural company” dedicated to making the world “a better place for future generations.” Still, more than one Web log claims to see similarities between Monsanto and the fictional company “U-North” in the movie Michael Clayton, an agribusiness giant accused in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit of selling an herbicide that causes cancer.

Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds have transformed the company and are radically altering global agriculture. So far, the company has produced G.M. seeds for soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. Many more products have been developed or are in the pipeline, including seeds for sugar beets and alfalfa. The company is also seeking to extend its reach into milk production by marketing an artificial growth hormone for cows that increases their output, and it is taking aggressive steps to put those who don’t want to use growth hormone at a commercial disadvantage.

By the late 1990s, Monsanto, having rebranded itself into a “life sciences” company, had spun off its chemical and fibers operations into a new company called Solutia. After an additional reorganization, Monsanto re-incorporated in 2002 and officially declared itself an “agricultural company.”

In its company literature, Monsanto now refers to itself disingenuously as a “relatively new company” whose primary goal is helping “farmers around the world in their mission to feed, clothe, and fuel” a growing planet. In its list of corporate milestones, all but a handful are from the recent era. As for the company’s early history, the decades when it grew into an industrial powerhouse now held potentially responsible for more than 50 Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites—none of that is mentioned. It’s as though the original Monsanto, the company that long had the word “chemical” as part of its name, never existed. One of the benefits of doing this, as the company does not point out, was to channel the bulk of the growing backlog of chemical lawsuits and liabilities onto Solutia, keeping the Monsanto brand pure.

But Monsanto’s past, especially its environmental legacy, is very much with us. For many years Monsanto produced two of the most toxic substances ever known— polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, and dioxin. Monsanto no longer produces either, but the places where it did are still struggling with the aftermath, and probably always will be.

Monsanto has long been wired into Washington…. William D. Ruckelshaus, former E.P.A. administrator, and Mickey Kantor, former U.S. trade representative, each served on Monsanto’s board after leaving government. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney in Monsanto’s corporate-law department in the 1970s. He wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a crucial G.M.-seed patent-rights case in 2001 that benefited Monsanto and all G.M.-seed companies. Donald Rumsfeld never served on the board or held any office at Monsanto, but Monsanto must occupy a soft spot in the heart of the former defense secretary. Rumsfeld was chairman and C.E.O. of the pharmaceutical maker G. D. Searle & Co. when Monsanto acquired Searle in 1985, after Searle had experienced difficulty in finding a buyer. Rumsfeld’s stock and options in Searle were valued at $12 million at the time of the sale.

More posts about Monsanto:

Are you eating Monsanto’s genetically modified crops?

Monsanto’s Government Ties

Monsanto Backs Off Bio-Wheat

Shining a Light on Agribusiness and It’s Poster Child Monsanto

Ignorance Is Bliss — and Cancerous

The Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper describes how the state of Georgia will spend settlement money from a company that dumped PCBs into a stream for 20 years.

Link: Lake Hartwell: Anglers’ paradise or peril? | ajc.com

The state [Georgia] plans to spend millions of dollars to make Lake Hartwell more fishing-friendly, but state officials won’t spend another dime telling anglers at the northeast Georgia reservoir that eating their catch could lead to cancer.

Toxic chemicals from a plant that once operated nearby still rest on the bottom of Lake Hartwell. They move up the food chain to the bass and catfish, posing a cancer risk to those who eat them on a regular basis.

Lake Hartwell’s changes will be funded by a $3.7 million settlement the state reached with Schlumberger Technology Corp., owner of the Pickens, S.C., manufacturing plant that for more than 20 years dumped carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into a stream that flowed into the lake.

The state plans to use the money to build boat ramps and fishing piers to entice even more visitors to Hartwell, already one of the most popular federal lakes in the country. Georgia also is spending other state funds to add more hybrid and striped bass to the lake — fatty-fleshed game fish that absorb and retain the most PCBs.

That might give anglers pause if they knew about it. But the state no longer posts warning signs around Lake Hartwell, although officials in neighboring South Carolina have signs on their side of the water.