“…business is business! And business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”– Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
In India, a cotton farmer drinks a liter of pesticide, killing himself to escape the ruinous combination of his debts and a poor yield. In America, a pediatrician observes improvement in the symptoms of autistic children when they stick to a purely organic diet. In France, farmers burn fields of genetically modified crops. In Paraguay, a politician tells the media that Monsanto was behind the ouster of a democratically elected president. On May 25, 2013, the mainstream media generally ignores millions of protesters in hundreds of cities across the globe rallying against Monsanto and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). All of these seemingly disparate events flow from a single source: the business model of one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most aggressive corporations on the planet.
Monsanto is a virtual monopoly that exploits various business, legal, communications and political techniques to control its business environment and to force dependency on its main products, Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs. I will analyze this Monsantopoly over the course of this five part series. In Part 1: Sowing Dependence, I will demonstrate how the company’s strategy is evidenced by its development and history. Part 2: Corrupt to the Core will show that Monsanto shuts down normal oversight, regulation and criticism by cultivating vast influence over every branch of the government, academia and the media. In Part 3: Seeds of Destruction, I will explore the effects of Monsanto’s products on the environment. Part 4: Harvesting Disease, will display scientific evidence of the threats posed by Monsanto’s products to various species up and down the food chain, particularly humans. In Part 5: Rounding Up Globalism, Democracy and You, I will discuss Monsanto’s influence around the world, how various countries have responded to Monsanto and GMOs, and what you can do as a citizen and a consumer.
The story of Monsanto begins in the auto industry. In the early 20th Century, Henry Ford defined contemporary industrialism. In the business model of Fordism, the company automates production, mass-produces a reliable, standardized product and pays its workers a living wage, enough that they can afford to buy the product. Beginning in the 1920s, this model was challenged and eventually eclipsed by a different business model developed by General Motors Corporation (GM). GM President Alfred P. Sloan believed that the corporation’s goal should not be a cycle of production-wage-consumption, as Ford had built. The corporation’s goal should be very simple: profit. The business model of Sloanism relied on planned obsolescence, evolving fashion, and a product line for “every purse and purpose.” GM hooked the consumer to regularly purchasing an ever-changing product.
As documented by Peter Drucker in his 1973 book Management: Tasks,
Responsibilities, Practices, GM built on this strategy by teaming up with Standard Oil of New Jersey to launch a joint venture: Ethyl Corporation, which produced leaded gasoline to cure the ‘knocking sound’ made by GM cars. In this way, although GM was not a chemical company, it made money on both its cars and the gas that consumers poured into them. Drucker notes that “GM, in effect, made money on almost every gallon of gasoline sold anyplace by anyone.”
Here in Washington, D.C., I sat down with business historian Alan Loeb, who told me, “Professor Drucker pointed out that GM’s strategy for marketing tetra ethyl lead – the lead additive GM developed for use in gasoline – set the product up so its consumer would be dependent on it, and that by doing this GM and its partners made money not only on the sale of cars GM built but on the sale of leaded gasoline to every car on the road. In the end, between this strategic innovation and the chemical discovery, it was the strategy that was the more valuable. Charles Thomas and Carroll Hochwalt, two chemists at GM who worked on developing the lead additive, left to set up their own lab and ultimately ended up as President and Vice-President of Monsanto, respectively, where the same strategy then appeared in its agriculture business. In a sense, Monsanto inherited the strategic innovation developed first at GM.”
People who were instrumental in developing the business model of Sloanism, and the strategy of locking the consumer into dependency on products that require each other, migrated from GM to the top of Monsanto. One can easily see similarity between the GM cars and leaded gasoline of nearly a century ago and Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs of today. Throughout its history, Monsanto has developed chemical products which have eventually become controversial or been banned, including DDT, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, and PCBs. DDT was used for decades as an insecticide even though its effect on humans was not well understood. Monsanto insisted it was safe, but it was revealed to be highly toxic and was banned. Agent Orange is a highly destructive defoliant, most famous for being used extensively in Vietnam. Decades later, it continues to cause health problems, birth defects and ongoing soil damage. Bovine Growth Hormone was designed to spur cows’ milk production. It caused painful udder inflammations and infections which got into milk. PCBs are a highly toxic chemical used as a coolant. Documents demonstrate that Monsanto knew of the threat posed by PCBs for many years and sought to cover up the danger it posed, while continuing to expose people and the environment to the chemical. Many people have had serious health problems in the town of Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto dumped PCB waste.
Recently, Monsanto has formed a partnership with a pharmaceutical company. If Monsanto’s history and the GM model are any indication, could it be that Monsanto’s business strategy going forward is to profit from creating reliance on products that make people sick and reliance on the drugs used to treat their illnesses?
Apart from aggressive marketing of shady chemicals, its government relations have played an enormous role in its development. Monsanto President Charles Thomas was tapped to run the Dayton Project, part of the Manhattan Project, which designed the triggering mechanism for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This project, along with Monsanto’s marketing of DDT during WWII and Agent Orange during Vietnam, reveal another facet of Monsanto’s business strategy: develop government dependency on Monsanto in wartime. This also creates the norm that the government clears red tape for Monsanto’s business. Even during peacetime, this norm sticks.
Monsanto has demonstrated an interest in avoiding regulation since its founding, when, in 1926, it incorporated its own town, Monsanto, Illinois. Monsanto set up shop in its eponymous town at a time when businesses were largely regulated locally.
And it was through deregulation that Monsanto entered a new phase of its history in the 1980s. The Reagan Administration sought to clear away regulations like health and environmental safety testing that they claimed hindered big business’ growth. In one telling vignette, Vice President George H. W. Bush visited a Monsanto laboratory in 1987. Footage of the visit shows someone from Monsanto pointing at a GMO crop and saying the USDA was testing the crop. He said he wasn’t complaining about the USDA, but he then joked that if they had to wait until September for approval, he might say something different. He then laughs with Bush Sr., who replies, “call me, we’re in the ‘de-reg’ business.”
Part 2 tomorrow
Why are stories about GM “miracles” lapped up so uncritically by the media and why does non-GM research into solving exactly the same kind of problems seem to get minimal if any reporting, even though it is far more successful? We look at some classic examples of how GM’s often exaggerated crisis narratives and hyped silver bullet solutions successfully grab media attention. We also look at how even when these claims turn out to be completely bogus, it attracts little if any attention, and how some failed GM projects, or successful crop developments that have nothing to do with GM, even get passed off as big GM successes!
“Millions served” – the GM sweet potato
The virus-resistant sweet potato has been the ultimate GM showcase project for Africa, generating a vast amount of global media coverage. The Monsanto-trained scientist fronting the project has been proclaimed an African heroine and the saviour of millions, based on her claims about the GM sweet potato doubling output in Kenya. Forbes magazine even declared her one of a tiny handful of people around the globe who would “reinvent the future”. It eventually emerged, however, that the claims being made for the GM sweet potato were bogus, with field trial results showing the GM crop to be a dud.
“Saving lives and limbs with a (GM) weed”
There’s been a lot of publicity about how GM plants are going to solve the problem of landmine detection. News items around the globe – from the New York Times to the BBC, from TIME Magazine to Reuters – trumpeted their life-saving potential, after a biotech firm claimed to have genetically modified plants so that they would change from green to red when grown near to landmines. But the fact that the project failed attracted no coverage in the mainstream media.
“Only GM can save the banana”
“Only GM can save the banana” is a story that first surfaced in 2001, made a comeback in 2003, and has done the rounds ever since, gaining massive media coverage. Each time this story (re)emerges, it gets expertly debunked… untill the next time comes around.
GM cassava “our only hope”
The potential of genetic engineering to massively boost the production of cassava – one of Africa’s most important foods – by defeating a devastating virus has been heavily promoted since the mid-1990s. There has even been talk of GM solving hunger in Africa by increasing cassava yields as much as tenfold. To date almost nothing appears to have been achieved, and even after it became clear that the GM cassava had suffered a major technical failure, the hype about its curing hunger in Africa continued regardless. Meanwhile, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has quietly been producing virus resistant cassavas that are already making a remarkable difference in farmers’ fields even under drought conditions.
Golden Rice “could save a million kids a year”
Golden Rice has been hyped for almost a decade as a life saver for millions suffering from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Although it still appears to be several years away from being deployed, its inventor blames this on the unnecessary regulation of GM crops, which he calls a crime against humanity. However, the evidence does not support this claim. In addition, the World Health Organisation states that there are already tried-and-tested programmes for treating Vitamin A deficiency involving cheap, traditional, and readily available solutions. Although under-resourced, these programmes make Golden Rice completely unnecessary.
“Purple tomato can beat cancer”
A GM tomato has been portrayed in the world’s media as a major cancer fighter, as well as having other important health-enhancing properties. And some media commentators suggest that this is the “breakthrough” that will convince people of the benefits of GM foods. But the health claims are based on a small-scale study of mice, and experts say the results may have occurred by chance, or may simply not be applicable to humans. They also say that there could be problems with toxicity and that these have not been investigated. In any case, a range of existing fruit and vegetables offer the same potential benefits without any need to resort to genetic engineering.
Super-sized cassava “could help alleviate hunger”
GM cassava plants with unusually big roots were promoted as a super-sizing breakthrough that “could help alleviate hunger in developing countries”, but it turned out that plant breeders had already produced cassava roots that were many times larger than the GM ones, at very low cost and without genetic engineering.
Large biotech agribusinesses like Monsanto control much of the global seed market with genetically modified (GM) crops. This centralization of GM seeds threatens food safety, food security, biodiversity, and democratic ideals.
Question: Would you want a small handful of government officials controlling America’s entire food supply, all its seeds and harvests?I suspect most would scream, “No way!”
Yet, while America seems allergic to public servants – with no profit motive in mind – controlling anything these days, a knee-jerk faith in the “free market” has led to overwhelming centralized control of nearly all our food stuffs, from farm to fork.
The Obama administration’s recent decision to radically expand genetically modified (GM) food – approving unrestricted production of agribusiness biotech company Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and sugar beets – marks a profound deepening of this centralization of food production in the hands of just a few corporations, with little but the profit motive to guide them.
Even as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials enable a tighter corporate grip on the food chain, there is compelling evidence of GM foods’ ecological and human health risks, suggesting we should at very least learn more before allowing their spread.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies suggest these crops – the result of reformulating plant and animal genes, with minimal oversight and no food labeling disclosures – increase allergens in the food supply. And according to the World Health Organization, “The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops…may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America.”
Corporate-controlled seeds are undemocratic
But these corporate-controlled seeds pose an even graver threat: Both the technology and economy of GM crops are intrinsically anti-democratic.
What’s wrong with having a few corporations control virtually every aspect of our sustenance? Far from abstract, the genetic and proprietary control of our diets by a handful of companies (Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta combined own an astounding 47 percent of the global seed market) directly robs consumers and farmers of the most basic right to choose what they will eat and grow.
The entire concept of creating and selling patented GM seeds is based on proprietary corporate control: The seeds are non-replenishing and must be purchased anew each season, eliminating the time-honored farmer tradition of saving and re-using seeds.
Anyone doubting Monsanto’s obsession with control can just ask just ask the thousands of farmers who have been sued and spied upon for alleged “seed piracy” – at least 2,391 farmers in 19 states through 2006, according to Monsanto website documents obtained by the Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS). A report by CFS, using company records, found that “Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.”
Or ask Monsanto. Under the headline, “Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmers Who Save Seeds?” on its website, the firm states: “When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us. More than 275,000 farmers a year buy seed under these agreements in the United States.”
Threats to food safety, biodiversity
The USDA, and even some leaders of the organics business such as Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farms, endorse the notion of “coexistence” between GM and organic crops – a comforting yet flawed claim. Numerous organic farmers have reported the unwanted arrival of GM seeds contaminating their fields, rendering organic crops unmarketable.
Even more troubling, “Roundup Ready” and other herbicide-resistant seeds by their nature promote the use of toxic herbicides – the use of which, contrary to industry claims, has risen as GM crops have proliferated, according to USDA data.
Even with buffer zones to segregate GM and organic fields, “Some degree of cross-pollination will occur regardless of what mechanism is going to be put in place,” agronomist Jeff Wolt, of Iowa State University’s Seed Science Center, told the Associated Press.
The GM threats to biodiversity and democracy are closely related. When you pair proprietary technology that’s designed to retain company control of seeds (the very lifeblood of our food supply) along with highly concentrated market control, you get a hazardous blend of ecological, economic, and political centralization.
According to research of industry statistics by the non-profit ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), “the top 3 seed companies control 65% of the proprietary maize seed market worldwide, and over half of the proprietary soybean seed market…Monsanto’s biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for 87% of the total world area devoted to genetically engineered seeds in 2007.”
Of course, few of us think about market control when we’re hustling through supermarket aisles getting our shopping done. But when our elected leaders (from both parties) approve the expansion of risky seeds that endanger biodiversity as well as farmer and consumer choice, there should be more than a little outcry.
Food Safety Act: five food recalls that rattled the industry
Genetically centralized control over seeds and the future of our food supply isn’t inevitable. Over 80 towns across the state of Vermont, and numerous counties across the country have approved moratoria on GM crops. Monsanto has encountered mass farmer and political resistance in India and throughout much of Africa and Europe.
The Obama administration’s effective rubber stamp on Monsanto’s latest GM products is out of step with international thinking about food democracy and biodiversity, and an affront to that very American notion of consumer and producer choice – and voice – in the marketplace.
Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.” He has written for The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and elsewhere. He can be reached at http://www.christopherdcook.com.
Pope Francis is not just the spiritual leader of one of the world’s major religions: He’s also the head of what’s probably the wealthiest institution in the entire world.
The Catholic Church’s global spending matches the annual revenues of the planet’s largest firms, and its assets—huge amounts of real estate, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Vatican City, some of the world’s greatest art—surely exceed those of any corporation by an order of magnitude.
But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to understand exactly how rich the church is. That’s in part because church finances are complicated.
But it’s also because, in the United States at least, churches in general are exempted from the financial reporting and disclosure requirements that otherwise apply to nonprofit groups. And it turns out, that exemption may have undesirable consequences.
The main thing we know about Catholic Church finance is that in cash flow terms, the United States is by far the most important branch. America is a rich country with a large population of Catholics. What’s more, America’s Catholic population is a religious minority.
That’s meant that, rather than using political clout to influence the shape of mainstream government institutions, as in an overwhelmingly Catholic country such as Brazil, the Catholic Church in the United States has created a parallel state: a vast web of schools, hospitals, universities, and charities that serve millions of clients.
Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still.
Apple and General Motors, by way of comparison, each had revenue of about $150 billion worldwide in Fiscal Year 2012. Legally speaking, there is no such thing as “the Catholic Church,” which is why these finances get so complicated.
As far as the law is concerned, each diocese is a separate legal entity, incorporated in the states where it operates. Generally speaking, they are organized as what’s known as a corporation sole—a legal corporation wholly controlled by the individual bishop rather than a board of directors—and not officially part of any larger transnational spiritual organization. This has led to conflicts during the sex abuse scandals. Lawsuits have caused disputes about how deep the church’s pockets go and who should pay.
On several occasions, abuse-related litigation has inspired dioceses to declare bankruptcy, which offers a rare window into the internal financial organization of the institution. Individual parishes, though operating under the umbrella of the relevant bishop, have a fair degree of financial autonomy.
They conduct separate fundraising and maintain separate expenses. That way, parish donors can feel they’re bolstering their particular community and not an impersonal bureaucracy.
But it’s common for parish investment funds within a single diocese to be pooled. When a diocese declares bankruptcy, this raises the question of whether pooled parish investment funds are available to be seized by the bishop’s creditors or whether they exist separately.
As a fascinating article in this month’s American Bankruptcy Institute Journal explains, the status of parish investment funds depends on some very subtle details.
Both the Diocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Wilmington ran pooled investment funds in which a single account simply noted how much each parish had contributed. The difference is that in Wilmington, Del., operating funds were also mingled into the pooled account, whereas in Milwaukee they were kept separate. That small difference ended up costing Wilmington parishes $74 million in exposure to Episcopal creditors.
At the same time, as a matter of Canon Law individual parishes can be wholly “suppressed,” merged into other parishes, or otherwise divided up, essentially at the discretion of the bishop—notwithstanding the existence of separate bank accounts.
This authority suggests that the diocese does indeed wholly own and control its parishes, but church officials take advantage of the ambiguity, sometimes claiming to fully control its parishes, sometimes—for legal reasons—arguing that the parishes are wholly independent entities.
Given America’s diverse religious landscape, the Catholic Church is hardly unique in taking advantage of the First Amendment to engage in some opaque accounting. It’s simply the largest player in this game.
Lawrence Wright’s recent Scientology exposé, Going Clear, reveals egregious exploitation of religious privileges for the personal financial benefit of church leaders. Or consider the case of the Tennessee pastor arrested on money laundering and drug charges only because a local TV news investigation revealed that he was using donations to pay off what amounted to personal debts.
The legal framework that allows for this funny business has been constructed in the name of religious freedom but hardly seems required by that important principle. America has a robust ecology of secular nonprofit groups that manage to abide by fairly stringent accounting and disclosure standards.
These help donors know where their money is going and reassure residual claimants that there’s some consistent theory of whose assets are whose. Religion is big business—the Catholic Church the biggest of all—and it deserves to be treated as such in the relevant ways.