What does it take to be the most hated corporation on earth? How many global corporations have had an entire day of global protest declared to draw attention to their nastiness? Well, the worlds leading producer of genetically modified seed, Monsanto, has just managed this feat, with millions having participated in over 450 actions across 52 countries on the 25th of May. It is worth examining how and why Monsanto has become so uniformly hated around the planet.
It is difficult to assume the bottom slot amongst a panoply of corporate villains that pollute and destroy the environment, exploit the poor, corrupt governments, lie about their products, sue their customers and do their best to avoid taxation by every legal and other means possible.
Monsanto regularly takes the honours as the most abhorred corporation, in amongst some noxious competitors. In 2012 Monsanto won the “Greenwash Award” for misinforming the public about its environmental credentials. It won the worst company of 2011 award. In 2009 it won the Angry Mermaid Award during the run-up to the failed Copenhagen climate change talks for misleadingly claiming its GM crops reduced CO2 emissions.
This long list of negative awards should be incredibly damaging to the company. However the investor community embraces rogue corporations and Monsanto’s shareholders have been richly rewarded for its bad behaviour. Were Monsanto an individual and not a corporation it would certainly have been sentenced to jail, probably indefinitely, for repeatedly breaking laws around the world. Yet corporations manage to evade responsibility for the sort of behaviour you or I cannot.
None of this is new. In 2002 Monsanto was found guilty of not only contaminating the town and surrounds of Anniston, Alabama with carcinogenic polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCBs), but of covering up this pollution for decades. Beside being ordered to pay a paltry $800 000 settlement, it was found guilty of the crime of “outrage.” Outrage is legally defined as conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.” It really is difficult to beat that.
Monsanto not only opposed the Anniston case, it attempted to avoid prosecution through its sale of its chemical business to Solutia, insisting it was the problem of the new owner. It took exactly the same tack with its pollution of its ‘home town’ of Sauget, which originally was incorporated under the name of Monsanto in 1926.
In the US Monsanto is linked to nearly 100 superfund sites, two in Sauget alone, where its historical pollution is being remediated, mainly through taxpayer funds. It has managed to avoid similar responsibility in the UK as well. The infamous Vietnam War defoliant, Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and others, was routinely contaminated with PCBs.
When Rachel Carson wrote her carefully researched book “Silent Spring,” outlining the dangers of agricultural chemicals and heralding the a emergence of the environmental movement, she was aggressively targeted by Monsanto, responsible for production of chemicals like DDT that she questioned. Monsanto parodied Carson’s book while viciously attempting to undermine her reputation and vilifying her as a “hysterical woman.” Tactics have changed very little with opponents of GM crops denigrated as luddites or unscientific.
Today Monsanto is better known for its GM crops than its chemicals. It is the world’s single biggest producer of genetically modified (GM) crops, responsible for around 95% of global GM plantings. The most widely grown GM crop, GM soy, is specifically engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s herbicide “Roundup”. The chemicals in Roundup have been linked to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and gut disease, as well as having serious documented impacts on amphibians, fish, soil biota and other ecological processes. Needless to say herbicide resistant crops have sharply increased the use of chemicals. As weeds develop resistance more potent chemicals are needed and further GM crops are being introduced to resist these chemicals in turn.
The pursuit of GM crops has led Monsanto to morph from a chemical corporation into the worlds largest seed company. Through purchase of seed companies around the world it has acquired an unimaginable wealth seed germplasm. Yet it has sharply reduced the number of seed varieties sold by its subsidiaries, instead concentrating on its core business of pushing GM crops.
Monsanto is fully aware of its inherent unpopularity, which continues despite its every attempt to reform its reputation through extensive public relations campaigns. Its strategy to sidestep this is to form and fund groups and alliances that promote its interests. Organisations like BIO, the US biotechnology association, as well as Africa- and Europa-Bio, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and Crop Life each support Monsanto’s interests as supposedly independent voices. Additionally, Monsanto spends millions of dollars directly lobbying governments around the world.
Monsanto then negates these massive PR campaigns by its aggressive legal prosecution of farmers it alleges are re-using its seed containing its patented GM genes. While there are constant high profile cases in the USA, Monsanto insists it will not prosecute African farmers for saving or possessing seed contaminated by their genes. In South America Monsanto has gone directly to the governments of Argentina, Brazil and other nations in order to try to leverage royalties on farmer saved GM seed.
Monsanto has also ensured its continued domination of the chemical herbicide industry by contractually linking the sale of Roundup to herbicide resistant “Roundup Ready” and “Yieldguard” soy, maize and cottonseed. Pushing this technology into developing markets has exposed farmers to increased debt through the purchase of seed and chemicals. When crops fail, as they repeatedly have, farmers lose their land or, as happens in India, choose to take their lives to escape debt bondage.
The model of industrial agriculture Monsanto promotes exacerbates problems of chemical pollution, water extraction and indebtedness, while also aggravating social upheaval. Small farmers whose lands and crops are contaminated not only by chemicals, but by patented GM crops are forced into burgeoning urban slums where they are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.
Monsanto has shifted focus toward developing nations in Africa and Asia, after saturating the Americas and rejection from within the EU. It dominates the GM seed market in South Africa, Brazil and India. There is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Monsanto’s business model, as much as it is supported and promoted within the dominant capital market.
These are just some of the reasons why millions of people protest against Monsanto’s destructive proposals to create profit through the privatisation of our food. That this model perversely masquerades as something beneficial, purporting to offer a hope of feeding a burgeoning planet is even more grotesque. The deeper one looks, the more outrageous is the behaviour of this rogue corporation.
In reality Monsanto epitomises so much that is wrong with the world and how corporations conduct themselves. Were it a living person it would be languishing in jail. The time has come to consider instituting a global criminal court for corporations, where their charters are withdrawn and they are put out of business. That is probably wishful thinking in a world where too big to fail has become a corporate mantra embraced by the very governments these psychopathic corporations support and maintain in power. In the meantime it is up to us, the 99%, to direct our ire toward curbing the misbehaviour of this particular corporate misanthrope.
Activists from 55 countries will participate in a global protest this month against biotechnology giant Monsanto. According to mother-turned-protest organizer, Tami Monroe Canal, the idea was born of frustration.
“The first few months after moving to Utah I didn’t have access to farmer’s markets and the fresh produce that I had out in California,” said Canal. “I became increasingly angry every time I would go to the grocery store and spend a small fortune to ensure I wasn’t feeding my family poison.”
Canal began the project as a Facebook page on Feb. 28, and says her anger was sparked by California’s Proposition 37 campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The measure failed, but the fight gave her a clearer picture of GMOs, Monsanto, and the food manufacturers who spent $45 million to defeat the initiative.
“Prop 37 really opened my eyes to what GMOs truly are and how damaging they can be to human health,” Canal said. “I just couldn’t in good conscience feed my family that anymore.”
Consumers don’t buy products directly from Monsanto, but the company’s biotech corn and soy dominate the American market. The protest encourages people to join a growing boycott of companies likely to use GMOs—including Kellogg’s and General Mills—as a way to change the system.
Anonymous endorsed the upcoming event, but organizers say most of the people involved in the march have never been to a protest before. According to Canal, people from all walks of life share her frustration.
“Food affects everyone,” she said.
Monsanto has a legacy of controversial and poisonous products—such as PCBs, Agent Orange, DDT, bovine growth hormone (rBGH), Roundup, and aspartame to name a few. For the past two decades, however, Monsanto’s main focus has been GMOs, and many are concerned that the new food technology threatens human health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that GMOs are safe, but many farmers, doctors, and researchers disagree. Estimates suggest that roughly 80 percent of U.S. food products contain GMO ingredients. With no labels to identify GMOs, Canal says that Americans still need to know that there is cause for concern.
“We’re trying to raise consumer awareness,” she said, “because who in their right mind is going to give their kids something that’s going to give them all these adverse health issues.”
Soon after Canal developed the march and boycott idea, she enlisted the help of seasoned Seattle activist and journalist, Emilie Rensink.
While critics have been speaking out against Monsanto for years, Rensink says that a combination of unpopular policy decisions and social media created just the right conditions for a big demonstration.
“This was kind of the perfect storm,” she said.
Attention for the march picked up speed soon after President Obama signed a budget bill including a measure dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act. However, critics say the recent legislation is only one example of the blurry line between industry and government.
“I think the whole recipe for [Monsanto’s] success is due in large part to the political favoritism that they receive in the United States,” said Rensink. “The FDA is headed by ex-Monsanto executives, and they give them special subsidies over smaller farmers and other farming operations. They are given an unfair advantage in my view.”
Canal points to Michael Taylor, who for the past two decades has bounced back and forth between his job as Monsanto attorney and head of U.S. food regulation.
“It’s a huge conflict of interest for him to be holding the position of power that he holds,” Canal said. “I honestly think going through the government is futile at this point, because the FDA is so embedded with Monsanto.”
While U.S. regulators have shown little concern for GMOs, outside the United States the push back has been much more significant. According to the Non-GMO Project, most developed nations label, restrict, or ban GMOs.
In an email, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said the company had no statement regarding the upcoming protest. However, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant recently characterized GMO critics as social media elitists who overlook the pressing food problems of the less fortunate.
“There is this strange kind of reverse elitism: If I’m going to do this, then everything else shouldn’t exist,” Grant told Bloomberg in a May 14 interview. “There is space in the supermarket shelf for all of us.”
Monsanto supporters point to the company’s promise to address world hunger with increased crop yields and lower food prices, but critics dispute this claim as well.
In Seattle, protesters will march in front of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to highlight what they consider to be an institution helping to further the GMO agenda.
“Bill Gates has been a large proponent of GMOs as a solution for world hunger,” Rensink said, but studies have shown that GMOs don’t produce higher yields. So the notion that GMOs are somehow able to feed the world is really just an empty assertion.”
The march and rally in Salt Lake City will feature a local Vietnam vet discussing how he lost friends to Agent Orange, a beekeeper speaking about the danger Monsanto pesticides pose to the bee population, and a presentation by Grow Food Not Lawns about self-sustainability, and supporting organic co-ops.
Like other venues around the world, Salt Lake will also feature bands playing protest songs against Monsanto and GMOs.
“We’re trying to keep it a little lighthearted,” Canal said. “But I want people to understand the severity of the issue and realize that it is our time in this nation to stand up to something that is so wrong.”