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Monsanto Rules: Science, Government, and Seed Monopoly

iknez[at]yorku.ca

Keywords: Monsanto, regulation, seed monopoly, genetic modification

THE CATALOGUE OF DOCUMENTARY FILMS exploring the ethics of global capital and corporate control has received a noteworthy addition from France.  Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto was co-produced by the European Arte Network and the Canadian National Film Board. While the information presented in the film is thoroughly researched, the filmmaker’s approach makes is accessible to a wide audience. Throughout the film, Robin searches Google, keying in phrases such as “Monsanto PCB [polychlorinated biphenyls],” “Roundup biodegradable,” and “Monsanto farmers patent infringement,” and then follows these digital leads. In other words, she sets out to learn about Monsanto as an average citizen would, but then investigates the company further by unearthing documents and talking to scientists, farmers, and citizens in several countries including the United States, UK, Scotland, Paraguay, France, India, and Mexico.

Robin explores a number of controversies that have plagued Monsanto for decades and hones in on the current debate surrounding the company’s genetically modified (GM) crops. While independent research has consistently suggested risks to human and environmental health associated with GM agriculture, Monsanto’s science continues to deny them. The film details how government agencies approve the crops based on the company’s (sometimes falsified) studies. In Canada, many GM crops including several varieties of corn, soy, canola and sugar beet have been approved.  This, in spite of a 2003 poll that indicated a staggering 88% of Canadians wanted to see mandatory labels on foods containing GM organisms (Moore). Yet, as Anita Lahey writes, “Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have conducted no independent assessments of the GM crops approved for growth and sale in Canada since their introduction here in 1995” (23). Similarly, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does no GM testing but rather approves the products based on companies like Monsanto’s own test results. Robin suggests that the reason for such weak government regulation in North America is the incredible amount of influence Monsanto has over government bodies through lobbying and political insiders. One of her interviewees, Dan Glickman, who served as the US Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2000, admits that not all the scientific checks were made prior to introducing GM crops in the US and that he felt pressured not to prevent approvals, as other government officials and lobbyists would have looked at such interference as anti-science and anti-progress. James Maryanski, a former Biotechnology Coordinator for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also acknowledges that bitoech regulation in the US is shaped by politics and not science. Part of the reason is the infamous “revolving door” of government officials and company executives who swap positions between Monsanto and government agencies many times in their careers. Technology commentator Jeremy Rifkin, also interviewed, states that he has never seen one company have “so much overwhelming influence at the highest levels of regulatory decision-making” as Monsanto.

This influence over governmental regulation feeds into what is perhaps the most important issue that Robin tackles, that of Monsato’s effort to effectively control the world’s food supply. Aside from regulation, Monsanto has the upper hand over the legal framework that oversees patenting allowing the multinational conglomerate a great deal of control over farmers: both those who purchase the seed and those who are found with patented seed in their fields without a licence, as often happens as a result of crosspollination. In 1999, Arthur Anderson Consulting Group (best known for their involvement with the Enron scandal) developed a promotion plan for Monsanto that outlined a strategy for flooding the market with GM seeds and ensuring that within five years “95 percent of all seeds would be genetically modified” (Smith 2). While this scenario did not come to pass, in 2008 125 million hectares of GM crops were planted worldwide (James, 2008). 90% of those crops are Monsanto-licensed representing control over 41 percent of the global market in commercial corn seed and 25 percent of global soybean seed (Murphy). Additionally, in the decade ending in 2005 Monsanto acquired over 50 seed companies around the globe. In the words of one US farmer Robin interviewed, Monsanto is on the road to “owning food, all food.” Vandana Shiva concurs. As one of the world’s most prominent food activists and GM seed opponents, Shiva calls the process “the Second Green Revolution” in reference to the post-World War II agricultural transformation that laid the foundation for industrial agriculture around the world. But Shiva tells Robin that unlike the first revolution, which was driven by the public-sector, this second Revolution is “Monsanto-driven.” She highlights the dangers of this, arguing that the first Green Revolution “did have a hidden objective of selling more chemicals, but its first objective was providing food, it was food security…The Second Green Revolution has nothing to do with food security…If they [Monsanto] control seed they control food. They know it, it’s strategic… this is the best way to control the populations of the world.”

Robin also examines GM contamination of traditional corn varieties in Mexico, where corn has been cultivated for 10,000 years. The local food economy was already undermined when free trade agreements allowed for the heavily subsidised US corn to compete on the market. Now the GM contamination threatens to damage a crucial part of economic, scientific and cultural life in this part of the world. One farmer in Oaxaca calls it “the new kind of conquest, the transgenic conquest that threatens to destroy local landraces.”

These critiques of Monsanto are in essence critiques of the global food system where the decision-making power has been concentrating in the hands of few corporate suppliers and distributors. This concentration has been identified as a significant economic and cultural threat to farmers around the globe (Kneen, Lang & Heasman, Patel). The current food regime has been described as an hourglass where multiple producers and consumers are connected through a handful of “middlemen” who wield great influence over food economy and food governance. Robin maps how a farm economy crisis is affecting farmers from India, where many escape mounting debts by committing suicide, to Canada, where farm incomes are now lower than they were during the great depression (Qualman). By contrast, in the first quarter of 2009 alone, Monsanto posted over $2.6 billion in sales, and a gross profit of over $1.5 billion.

As global concerns over food and food justice mount, food movements are flourishing. Food security, food sovereignty, and food democracy are concepts that are bringing greater numbers of people together in order to resist the concentration of economic power, make alternative production and consumption choices and pressure governments to revisit existing food policies. In the industrialized world organic food is taking over a growing share of the market and the local food movement is emphasising factors beyond just locality. These and other alternative food choices are sending a message that consumers are claiming more power in shaping their food system. On the producer end (as Robin shows) farmers are starting to opt out of the regime that has consistently benefited only the likes of Monsanto. La Via Campesina, the largest peasant movement on the planet representing literally millions of producers from over 50 countries, works on objectives including sustainability and food sovereignty, neither of which brings Monsanto to mind. The company is known to have hidden for years their knowledge of how harmful  PCBs were and has for years sold their Roundup herbicide as biodegradable (for which they were found guilty of false advertising in 1996 in the US and 2007 in France). Why they would be trusted with their claims about GM seed seems to escape virtually all of Robin’s interviewees. Granted, Monsanto representatives refused to take part in the filming, so the film may strike some as somewhat slanted. Monsanto is no stranger to public criticism, but Robin’s film may just be a sign of a new wave of criticism Monsanto. A comprehensive look at one of the most important players in the contemporary food regime (and perhaps the greatest foe of the food democracy movement), The World According to Monsanto is an important addition to any documentary collection and a great resource for educators, food activist and those who simply want to better understand the global food system.

Works cited

James, Clive. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008. ISAAA Brief No. 39. Ithaca, NY: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, 2008.

Kneen, Brewster. From Land to Mouth: Understanding the Food System. 2nd edition. Toronto: NC Press, 1995.

Lang, Tim and Michael Heasman. Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets. London: Earthscan, 2004.

Lahey, Anita. “Do You Know What You’re Eating?” The Walrus. January/February 2009: 22-25.

Monsanto First Quarter 2009 Financial Results. January 2009. Monsanto. February 4, 2009 [http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/investors/2009/01_07_09.pdf].

Moore, Oliver. “Poll shows huge support for GMO labelling.” Globe and Mail online edition. December 3, 2003. Retrieved on February 5, 2009 [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/].

Murphy, Sophia. Concentrated Market Power and Agricultural Trade. Berlin: Henirich Boll Foundation, 2006.

Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2007.

Robin, Marie-Monique, dir. The World According to Monsanto. Arte/NFB Canada, 2008.

Qualman, Darrin. “The Farm Crisis & Corporate Profits.” Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Food Studies. Ed. Mustafa Koc, Rod MacRae and Kelly Bronson. Toronto: McGraw- Hill Ryerson, 2007. 95-110.

Smith, Jeffrey. Seeds of deception: Exposing industry and government lies about safety of the genetically modified foods. Fairfield, Iowa: Yes! Books, 2003.

Author Biography: Irena Knezevic is a doctoral candidate in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities in Toronto. Her research interests include food and discourse, food policy, political economy of communication, and commercial discourses. She is one of the founding members of the Canadian Association for Food Studies.

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