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

Are you eating Monsanto’s genetically modified crops?

The cover story of the December 17, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek was titled Monsanto: Winning the Ground War – How the company turned the tide in the battle over genetically modified crops. Writer Brian Hindo has done us all a service by alerting us to the momentum that Monsanto is enjoying.

This is really bad news for those of us who prefer to eat high quality, organically grown food.

Below are some excerpts from the article and my thoughts on key issues.

Link: Monsanto: Winning the Ground War

While a vocal band of opponents is still protesting biotech crops, a growing multitude of farmers around the world is planting them. The reason is no mystery: Monsanto seeds contain genes that kill bugs and tolerate weed-killing pesticides. So they are much easier and cheaper to grow than traditional seeds. More than half the crops grown in the U.S., including nearly all the soybeans and 70% of the corn, are genetically modified. Just five years ago, China, India, and Brazil planted virtually no genetically engineered crops. Now Brazil can barely build roads fast enough to get all of its biotech soybeans from the fertile interior Mato Grosso state out to ports.

Brazil is clear-cutting the rain forests to grow soybeans. Destruction of the rain forests could eliminate the greatest source of medicinal plants and animals in the world.

Farmers in China and India, meanwhile, planted more than 17 million acres of biotech crops last year. These three countries are now three of the six largest GMO-planting nations in the world, as measured by area planted. At a time when organic food is more popular than ever, about 7% of the world’s entire farmland acreage is now planted with genetically modified crops—the ultimate anti-organic food.

We don’t know the long-term effects of eating foods that were genetically modified. We may know in several decades. By that time, the cross pollenation of GMO crops could mean that there are no traditional seeds left.

The battle over genetically modified food is being won not in scientific journals but on the ground. Global demand for food and fuel have made farmers ever eager to squeeze more yield from an acre of dirt. And the undeniable fact is that during the 12 years since the first biotech seeds were planted, the most dire predictions of Monsanto’s opponents have so far failed to come true. That’s prompted some swaggering at company headquarters. In interviews with BusinessWeek, Monsanto executives variously described the safety objections of adversaries as "scare tactics," "Chicken Little theatrics, "mischief," and "misinformation."

What are the effects of GMO stimulated crops on the top soil? What happens when oil-based fertilizers are too expensive to supplement depleted top soil?

Now, Monsanto GMOs still enter the human food supply, but only indirectly, in the form of processed grain products such as cornstarch, corn syrup, or cooking oil. In fact, in the U.S., about 60% to 70% of all "formulated foods"—processed food with more than one ingredient—contain GMOs, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. That means, essentially, if you see it in a box or a can at a U.S. grocery store, there’s a strong likelihood that it has at least a small quantity of biotech ingredients. The lone table-ready GMO food Monsanto sells is virus-resistant squash, a product it inherited in 2005 with its acquisition of vegetable seed company Seminis. The company says it has no plans at the moment to make more GMO veggies. While Monsanto executives don’t believe they are gambling, there are still plenty of doubters.

In August, Kroger (KR) became the latest U.S. grocery chain to stop selling milk with a GMO bovine growth hormone that increases production, which Monsanto first started selling in 1994. All summer, activists in France trampled fields of biotech crops. Hostility toward GMO foods continues to be widespread in Africa and parts of Asia and Western Europe. This type of persistent opposition is one reason why the investment research firm Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, which gives companies a type of credit rating based on their strategic risk profile, assigns Monsanto a "CCC" grade—its lowest possible mark. "Monsanto is basically saying that its products are very well regulated and therefore safe," says Heather Langsner, director of research for Innovest. "It’s a lot more murky than that."

I have reduced my consumption of soy products since I learned about Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean seeds. The seeds are engineered to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, enabling farmers to spray their fields with the herbicide without damaging their soybean crops. I don’t want to eat soy products that were designed to be sprayed with Roundup. (I know that these soybeans are not supposed to be used for human food, but who can be sure?) Also, what is the Roundup runoff doing to the local animals, plants, and streams near the huge fields that are regularly sprayed with Roundup?

More posts about Monsanto:

Monsanto’s Government Ties

Monsanto Backs Off Bio-Wheat

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

Monsanto Files Patent for the Pig