MONSANTOpoly, Part 2: Corrupt to the Core
by Marc Belisle
“Follow the money.”
– ‘Deep Throat,’ All the President’s Men
Bush Sr. kept his word to help out Monsanto as described in Part 1: Sowing Dependence. In 1992, he deployed Vice President Dan Quayle to announce that the US government’s policy on genetically modified foods is that they are no different from other foods and don’t require any special regulation or even labeling. Americans have been buying foods genetically modified by Monsanto ever since, whether they realize it or not.
Americans also may not realize that they have a government politically modified by Monsanto, through the revolving door. The threshold between Monsanto’s management, legal and communications teams and the federal government, particularly regulatory agencies, is less of a secret passage and more of an industrial cargo bay. Since Reagan, dozens of top Monsanto people have held important positions in every administration, particularly in the FDA, USDA and EPA, but also in Justice, Energy, Commerce, Labor, Defense, Homeland Security, the FBI, international trade negotiation delegations, and White House advisory roles, and many have gone back and forth.
One of the key players who revolves around and around is Michael R. Taylor. According to The Huffington Post, Taylor wrote the policy that Dan Quayle announced in 1992. Anarticle, posted privately whose author claims it was published in The Ecologist but was removed after Monsanto threatened The Ecologist, disclosed the now publically available information that Taylor worked for ten years as a corporate attorney for King & Spalding, a firm advising Monsanto. There, he wrote a report on ways Monsanto could skirt laws to use Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) without having to label the milk. In 1991, he left the law firm to work in the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy. In the documentary Genetic Roulette, Public Interest Attorney Steven M. Druker and author Jeffrey M. Smith claim that after a lawsuit forced the release of 44,000 secret internal FDA memos, it became apparent that while Taylor helmed FDA policy, the FDA hid its own scientific findings on the potential dangers of BGH and other GMOs, overruled its scientists, claimed that “scientific consensus” supported BGH when the opposite was true, and approved BGH to be marketed without labeling, circumventing the FDA’s normal testing regime. Meanwhile, BGH was being banned in Canada, Japan, Australia and all EU countries. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, BGH is linked to colon, prostate and breast cancer.
Taylor wasn’t the only Monsanto hand on the FDA’s deck while BGH was being approved. According to Think Progress, “The hormone was approved in the US after Monsanto employee Margaret Miller oversaw a report on its safety, took a job at the FDA, and promptly approved her own report. Another Monsanto lobbyist, Islam Siddiqui, later wrote the USDA’s organic food standards, allowing irradiated and genetically modified foods to label themselves as organic.”
Taylor continues to switch public and private hats to this day. From 1994 to 1996, Taylor was Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. From 1996 to 2000, Taylor worked as Monsanto’s Vice President for Public Policy. In 2009, President Obama returned him to the FDA as a senior advisor, and in 2010, he wasappointed Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
Monsanto’s response to critics’ charges that it has undue influence on the government is that they “ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests.” This is true enough, but most people applying for a job couldn’t write in their cover letter: “I worked for you a few years back. While I was there, I advocated for an uncritical blanket approval of a biologically unprecedented change to the food chain. In my current job, I implemented that change, which I understand has been quite a boon for your stock shares. I hope you remember me.”
The overall effect of the revolving door has been to intimidate and sideline those within government outside of Monsanto’s fold who favor a methodical approach to biotechnology. In the documentary, “The World According to Monsanto,” Dan Glickman, Bill Clinton’s Agriculture Secretary from 1995-2000, says,
“In the early years that I was involved in the regulation of biotechnology … there was a general feeling in agribusiness and inside our government in the US if you weren’t marching lockstep forward in favor of rapid approvals of biotech products, rapid approvals of GMO crops, then somehow you were anti-science and anti-progress. I think there were a lot of folks in industrial agriculture who didn’t want as much analysis as probably we should have had because they had made a huge amount of investments in the product. … I had a lot of pressure on me not to push the issue too far. But I would say even when I opened my mouth in the Clinton Administration I got slapped around a little bit by not only the industry but also some of the people even in the Administration. In fact, I made a speech once … saying we needed to more thoughtfully think through the regulatory issues on GMOs and I had some people within the Clinton Administration, particularly in the US Trade area that were very upset with me. They said, ‘how could you in Agriculture be questioning our regulatory regime?’”
The huge amount of investments Glickman refers to have certainly paid off. Monsanto is ranked 206th on the Fortune 500 list. Its profits last year were over $2 billion, more than a 14% increase in a year, so it has plenty of money to diversify its investments into things like a big chunk of Congress. In 2012, Monsanto made contributionsranging from $1,000 to $13,000 to 61 House candidates ad 27 Senate candidates. The total contributions were $384,500. However, if donations to and from PACs and other proxies are included, donations may be over $1 million. Eight legislators own stock in Monsanto and two are former Monsanto advisors. Additionally, in the decade from 2002 to 2012, Monsanto spent $52.5 million on lobbying.
Monsanto’s investment in Congress matured this March when, without any hearings, Congress passed a bill to prevent a government shutdown that included an unrelated rider. The NY Daily News explains that the rider
“would seem to place the commercial concerns of Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified crops and seeds, above the authority of U.S. judicial system.
In effect, the provision, which opponents call the Monsanto Protection Act, would limit the ability of judges to stop Monsanto or the farmers it sells genetically modified seeds from growing or harvesting those crops even if courts find evidence of potential health risks.”
Imagine if Congress passed an “Auto Protection Act” stipulating that courts couldn’t stop manufacturers from selling cars even if they were shown to have faulty brakes. According to Mother Jones, the bill was written by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), who happens to be one of the largest recipients of Monsanto donations. A 2006 report by Public Citizen says Blunt is “a legislative leader who not only has surrendered his office to the imperative of moneyed interests, but who has also done so with disturbing zeal and efficiency.”
SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas
Since you can’t rely on Congress or the White House, if you have a problem with Monsanto, you’ll have to take them all the way to the Supreme Court. There, your case will likely be decided by former Monsanto lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, who, in 2010, penned the majority opinion inMonsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, a key case that allowed Monsanto to prevent its individual farmers from saving their own seeds. In the same case, future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan inexplicably advocated on behalf of Monsanto in her capacity as Solicitor General, even though the government was not a defendant in the case. Thomas has joined the majority in finding for Monsanto in at least two other cases.
Through contributions, lobbying and aggressive staffing rotations in both parties and all three branches, Monsanto keeps the federal government in check and holds it in balance. But that’s not the limit of Monsanto’s power. Monsanto has also cultivated a great deal of influence over universities. A report published in Salon shows that in universities with agriculture departments around the country, Monsanto funds research, funds professorships, donates to schools, and also has revolving door influence in university hierarchy, just as it does in the federal government. For example, the report states that South Dakota State’s president is on Monsanto’s board of directors. Professors and students outside of the Monsanto sphere are sidelined just as Secretary Glickman was in the Clinton Administration. In the report, one anonymous PhD student at a land-grant university was told more than once that she should study something Monsanto would fund. She wanted to research organic agriculture in farmers markets. Her academic adviser told her that her “best bet was to write a grant for Monsanto or the Department of Homeland Security to fund my research on why farmer’s markets were stocked with ‘black market vegetables’ that ‘are a bioterrorism threat waiting to happen.’”
The Salon report describes a peer-reviewed study that found that corporate-funded nutrition research is 4-8 times more likely to reach conclusions favorable to the funder. And the Salon report cites evidence that any scientist who reaches conclusions Monsanto doesn’t like can expect to be told to find new funding. In Genetic Roulette, authorEric Holt-Giminez argues that Monsanto uses its influence to deny tenure to professors critical of GMOs, and scientist Elaine Ingham describes how after speaking to the UN about dangers posed by GMOs, she was told that if she wasn’t “heart and soul into this technology” then she “didn’t belong at Oregon State University.” She claims that Monsanto seeks to shred the credibility and reputation of any scientist who criticizes GMOs.
But research on GMOs is extremely difficult to even begin in the first place. According to Jeremy Bloom, Monsanto systematically blocks funding for research on its crops and denies the use of any of its seeds for research purposes. The government doesn’t do much research on the risks of GMO crops either. According to Dean DellaPenna in National Geographic, “only one percent of USDA biotech research money goes to risk assessment.”
Monsanto also allegedly has critical news reports removed from mainstream media. According to a report,corroborated by Jeffrey Smith in the Huffington Post, a team of investigative journalists, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, working for a Fox News station in Florida had just completed filming an expose on the dangers posed by BGH. Just before the report was to air, a Monsanto lawyer in New York faxed a letter warning of “dire consequences for Fox News” if the report aired. Akre claims that Fox was worried about getting sued and losing advertising. Wilson claims that his manager asked him if he’d ever tell anyone if the story was pulled. He says management told them to make certain changes to the report in accordance with the way the lawyers wanted it written, regardless of what their research showed. Wilson says he refused to make the changes. The management threatened to fire him, and he threatened to report them to the FCC. Wilson says that management then offered him hush money. Akre says, “He was going to offer us the rest of our year’s salary if we agreed not to talk about what Monsanto had done, to not talk about the Fox corporate response in suppressing the story, and to not talk about the story, not talk about BGH, again, anywhere.” They refused the money and were told to rewrite the story with the lawyers present. Akre says the lawyers replaced words like “cancer” with phrases like “human health implications.” Akre says anything critical of Monsanto was either removed or minimized. The reporters claim they were made to rewrite the piece 83 times. They believed the lawyers were stalling for a window in their contracts. Then Fox announced the journalists were fired. The journalists took Fox to court and were initially granted whistleblower status, but on appeal they lost this status and ultimately lost their legal case on the grounds that falsifying news reports is not against the law.
Monsanto’s influence is astounding. The corporation wields political, financial, legal and communications power, along with donations, creative staffing, alleged threats, intimidation and bribery, and alleged censorship to great effect. The evidence shows that, ultimately, Monsanto’s business interests were not simply deregulated. Since the Reagan Administration, Monsanto has built its own regime of strict regulation over government, academia and media, to ensure that they serve its corporate interests, or are neutralized. In every relevant sphere of society, critics allege that Monsanto infiltrates institutions, sidelines those outside of its circle, rams through its agenda, blocks research and undermines critical inquiry of its products and actions, threatens its critics and silences dissent. One reason the Monsantopoly must stack the deck in its favor so thoroughly is because of what would happen if well-funded large-scale research informed the public of what Monsanto’s products do to the environment, farms and farmers.
Next up, Part 3: Seeds of Destruction will look at what Monsanto has done to America’s amber waves of grain.
Monsanto is a Ticking Time Bomb for U.S. Agriculture: Japan halts Imports of U.S. Wheat after USDA’s Finding of Genetic Pollution from GMOs
It has already begun: Japan has just cancelled a large contract to purchase U.S. wheat. “We will refrain from buying western white and feed wheat effective today,” Toru Hisadome, a Japanese farm ministry official in charge of wheat trading, told Reuters.
As many readers well know, I predicted precisely this scenario just yesterday in a Natural News article warning about the consequences of genetic pollution. There, I wrote, “All wheat produced in the United States will now be heavily scrutinized — and possibly even rejected — by other nations that traditionally import U.S. wheat. This obviously has enormous economic implications for U.S. farmers and agriculture.”
Now we’re already seeing the result: the ditching of U.S. wheat by world nations that want nothing to do with GMOs.
Monsanto is a ticking time bomb for U.S. agriculture
This proves, without any question, that Monsanto’s genetic experiments which “escaped” into commercial wheat fields are now going to devastate U.S. wheat farmers. Expect the floor to drop out on wheat prices, and watch for a huge backlash against the USDA by U.S. farmers who stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on this.
As the USDA has now admitted, Monsanto’s GMO experiments from 1998 – 2005 were held in open wheat fields. The genetically engineered wheat escaped and found its way into commercial wheat fields in Oregon (and possibly 15 other states), causing self-replicating genetic pollution that now taints the entire U.S. wheat industry.
“Asian consumers are keenly sensitive to gene-altered food, with few countries allowing imports of such cereals for human consumption,” writes Reuters. It continues:
Asia imports more than 40 million tonnes of wheat annually, almost a third of the global trade of 140-150 million tonnes. The bulk of the region’s supplies come from the United States, the world’s biggest exporter, and Australia, the No. 2 supplier. Another incredible Monsanto achievement: the genetic contamination of the U.S. wheat supply
Nice job, Monsanto. You’ve managed to spew your genetic pollution across the fields of innocent U.S. farmers who are now going to lose huge sums of money due to the reject of U.S. wheat by all the other world nations that refuse to feed their populations GMO.
And a big thumbs up to the USDA, too, for screwing U.S. farmers by green-lighting open-field GMO experiments that we all warned were going to result in runaway genetic pollution. The USDA, of course, is the official cheerleading squad for Monsanto’s criminal “science” that we all know is a total fraud. How do these scientists now suggest this self-replicating genetic pollution be put back into the black box from which it emerged?
It can’t be done, of course. So now the entire future of the U.S. wheat supply is at risk thanks to Monsanto and the USDA. Nice one, folks. Score another victory for the scumbag destroyers in Washington D.C. and the greed-driven executives at our favorite corporation, Monsanto.
And remember: Genetically modified wheat is only the beginning. Monsanto has no doubt unleashed genetic pollution across many other crops as well. We’re now living in an age where Monsanto is essentially ejaculating its patented seed across all the farms of America, then claiming to “own” the contaminated crops. What a wonderful image of corporate responsibility and service to humankind. I can’t wait to see what other U.S. crops will be rejected by world nations due to Monsanto’s genetic pollution.
Sources for this story include:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been taken over by an outside organization. RootsAction has launched a campaign demanding a Congressional investigation.
The organization is called Monsanto.
Monsanto is, of course, the world’s largest biotech corporation. These are the people who brought us Roundup weed killer and the resulting superweeds and superbugs, along with growth hormones for cows, genetically engineered and patented seeds, PCBs, and Agent Orange — which Monsanto now wants us to use as herbicide on genetically engineered corn and soybeans.
This chemical company — responsible for environmental disasters that have destroyed entire towns, and a driving force behind the international waves of suicides among farmers whose lives it has helped ruin — has monopolized our food system largely by taking over regulatory agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A recent study links Roundup to autism, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
While Hungary has just destroyed all Monsanto genetically engineered corn fields, the USDA takes a slightly different approach toward the chemical giant. The USDA has, in fact, never denied a single application from Monsanto for new genetically engineered crops. Not one. Not ever.
The takeover has been thorough. Monsanto’s growth hormones for cows have been approved by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist turned USDA administrator and FDA deputy commissioner. This was after Margaret Miller, a former Monsanto employee, oversaw a report on the hormones’ safety and then took a job at the FDA where she approved her own report.
Islam Siddiqui, a former Monsanto lobbyist, wrote the USDA’s food standards, allowing corporations to label irradiated and genetically engineered foods as “organic.”
The recently passed and signed law nicknamed the Monsanto Protection Act strips federal courts of the power to halt the sale and planting of genetically engineered crops during a legal appeals process. The origin of this act can be found in the USDA’s deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets in violation of a court order. The USDA argued that any delay would have caused a sugar shortage, since Monsanto holds 95% of the market.
The revolving door keeps revolving. Monsanto’s board members have worked for the EPA, advised the USDA, and served on President Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.
Clearly, an investigation of large-scale government corruption by this singularly destructive corporation is long overdue. RootsAction is asking everyone concerned, wherever you are in the world, to join in demanding the opening of that investigation right now.
And then get ready to join Nation of Change and organizations and individuals around the world in a March Against Monsanto on May 25.
An international protest planned for later this month against biotechnology company Monsanto is slated to span six continents and include demonstrations in dozens of countries around the globe.
Amid growing concerns over St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto and the impact the company is having on agriculture, activists have planned rallies for later this month in 36 countries.
Monsanto, a titan of the emerging biotech industry, has come under attack from environmentalists, agriculturalists and average consumers over the company’s conduct in the realm of genetically-modified organisms and genetically-engineered foods. Despite research on the effects of GMO crops being largely considered inconclusive, Monsanto has lobbied hard in Washington and around the globe to be able to continue manufacturing lab-made foods without the oversight that many have demanded.
In March, Congress passed a biotech rider dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by its critics that essentially allows that company and others that use GMOs to plant and sell genetically-altered products without gaining federal permission.
“The provision would strip federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of an illegal, potentially hazardous GE crop while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses those potential hazards,” dozens of food businesses and retailers wrote Congress before the bill was passed.
In the weeks since the rider was approved within an annual agriculture spending bill, anti-Monsanto sentiment has only increased. The international day of protest scheduled for May 25 is now looking at becoming one for the record books, and even a number of celebrities have lent their star power to help raise awareness of the movement.
“Here in America you don’t get the right to know whether you’re eating genetically modified organisms,” award-winning music performer Dave Matthews says in a video for the march that has been uploaded to the Web. Comedian Bill Maher and actor Danny DeVito also appeared in the clip to plead with people around the world to rally against GMO companies.
But even as the anti-Monsanto movement increases in intensity, the company itself continues to generate record-setting profits. In April the company announced a 22 percent increase in net profits, and representatives for the companies said they expect to see that trend continue.
“So our bottom line business outlook today means the momentum that we anticipated in our first quarter has clearly carried through into even stronger business results for the second quarter,” CEO Hugh Grant told analysts and reporters during a phone call last month.
Earlier this year, Grant told the Wall Street Journal that despite an international backlash, venues around the world have been unable to link to his company with any concrete health risks caused by their products.
“They’re the most-tested food product that the world has ever seen. Europe set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has now spent €300 million ($403.7 million), and has concluded that these technologies are safe,” Grant said in January. “France determined there’s no safety issue on a corn line we submitted there. So there’s always a great deal of political noise and turmoil. If you strip that back and you get to the science, the science is very strong around these technologies.”
But despite those claims, anti-Monsanto actions are expected to continue as planned around the world — and in those very countries. Four demonstrations are scheduled for Britain, including events in London and Bristol, and two separate events are scheduled for May 25 in Paris. In the US, demos are planned in 48 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.
By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
We have repeatedly warned against using food crops to produce gene drugs and industrial chemicals since 1998. The inevitable contamination of our food supply has now come to light. But the more insidious pollution of our soil, water and air has yet to be assessed. Poisons can seep through the plant roots and dissolve in ground water. Pollen carrying the offending drugs and chemicals could be inhaled. Wild and domestic animals of all kinds are likely to feed on the crops.
On November 11, the US government ordered the biotech company, ProdiGene, to destroy 500,000 bushels of soybeans contaminated with GM maize, engineered to produce a drug not approved for human consumption. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) refused to give details on the protein involved because it is deemed ‘confidentual business information’.
It could be one of the following: the HIV glycoprotein gp120, a blood-clotting agent (aprotinin), a digestive enzyme (trypsin), an industrial adhesive (a fungal enzyme, laccase), vaccines for hepatitis B, vaccine for a pig disease, transmissible gastroenteritis.
USDA records show that ProdiGene has received 85 test permits for experimental open-air trials of pharm crops and chemical crops in at least 96 locations.
The ‘edible’ AIDS vaccine with the HIV glycoprotein gp120 gene has been condemned as dangerous by a number of AIDS virologists because the gp120 gene and gene product can undermine our immune system and generate new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases.
A day later, the US government disclosed that ProdiGene did the same thing in Iowa back in September. The USDA ordered 155 acres of nearby corn to be incinerated for fear of contamination.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The true extent of the contamination remains unknown owing to the secrecy surrounding more than 300 field trials of such crops across the country since 1991. Still others sites are in Canada. The chemicals these plants produce include vaccines, growth hormones, clotting agents, industrial enzymes, human antibodies, contraceptives, immune suppressive cytokines and abortion-inducing drugs.
The majority of engineered biopharmaceuticals are being incorporated into maize. ProdiGene, the company at the centre of the current scandal has the greatest number of pharm crops and projects that 10 percent of the US maize will be devoted to biopharm products by 2010.
Far from supporting even weak containment strategies such as buffer zones, ProdiGene has told its shareholders it is hoping to “gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether”.
Trials in other countries have also come to light. According to a recent report by Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a US-based coalition of environmental and consumer advocacy groups, Puerto Rico is one of four main centres in the US for these tests. The other three are the states of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Hawaii.
Another report by the same group reveals that these plants are by no means the only experimental GM crops grown in Puerto Rico. This Caribbean island has been host to 2,296 USDA-approved GM open-air field tests as of January 2001, making Puerto Rico host to more GM food experiments per square mile than any US state, except Hawaii.
Puerto Rico is not a state. Its residents are US citizens but have no voice or vote in the US Congress or in the UN.
Puerto Rico Farmers Association president Ramon Gonzalez revealed that he plants GM crops in his farm in the town of Salinas. He said that genetically modified crops in Puerto Rico are commercial and include a herbicide-resistant soya made by Monsanto (Roundup-ready) and a variety of corn that produces its own bio-pesticide, or Bt corn.
According to Gonzalez, the harvested GM crops planted there are sold as seed to be planted elsewhere. “Puerto Rico is the preferred place to make seed because our weather permits us to have up to four harvests a year.”
Local regulatory agencies seem to be unaware of the issue. A spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board said that as Puerto Rico has no laws or regulations for GM crops, it has no mandate to intervene or investigate.
USDA spokesman Jim Rogers is reported to have said, “Nobody’s going to know all the possible risks”, and “We mitigate these risks to what we feel is appropriate”.
On the contrary, we do know enough of the risks for such crops to be banned immediately. The USDA and other government regulators have been warned, and they should be held liable for all damages along with the companies involved.
Flies, Maggots, Rats, and Lots of Poop: What Big Ag Doesn’t Want You To See |
What’s it like inside a factory farm? If the livestock and meat industries have their way, what little view we have inside the walls of these animal-reviewing facilities may soon be obscured. For the second year in a row, the industry is backing bills in various statehouses that would criminalize undercover investigations of livestock farms. The Humane Society of the US, one of the animal-welfare groups most adept at conducting such hidden-camera operations, counts active “ag gag” bills in no fewer than nine states. Many of them are based on a model conjured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that generates industry-friendly legislation language for state legislatures, Associated Press reports.
To understand the stakes of this battle, consider this 2010 Food and Drug Administration report on conditions in several vast egg-producing facilities in Iowa owned by a man named Jack Decoster. I teased out some highlights at the time of its release; in short, it involves flies, maggots, rats, wild birds, tainted feed, workers ignoring sanitary rules, and lots and lots of chickenshit. The report portrays the facilities as a kind of fecal nightmare, with manure mounding up in eight-foot piles—providing perches for escaped hens to peck feed from teeming cages—overflowing in pits, and seeping through concrete foundations.
It was, in short, a blunt and damning portrayal, an example of a federal watchdog agency training the public gaze on the misdeeds of a powerful industry. The investigation led the FDA to ban the offending operations from selling fresh eggs for several months.
USDA inspectors repeatedly witnessed dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production.
Trouble is, the FDA’s exposé came after those factory-like operations had been forced to recall nearly half a billion eggs potentially tainted with salmonella, and an outbreak that sickened nearly 2,000 people. It later turned out that the company’s own tests had detected salmonella in the facilities, including egg-carrying conveyor belts, no fewer than 73 times in the two years before the outbreak; and that inspectors from the US Agriculture Department had repeatedly witnessed unsanitary conditions like dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production, because they were only there to “grade” the size of eggs, not monitor the potential for disease outbreaks (which falls to the FDA).
Given that the egg company itself (which turned out to be part of the nation’s largest egg empire at the time) and federal watchdogs both failed to prevent the outbreak despite so many troubling signs, you have to wonder what would have happened if an animal-welfare group like Mercy For Animals or the Humane Society of the US had managed to sneak in cameras and record conditions before those half-billion suspect eggs made it onto supermarket shelves.
In fact, months before the outbreak, HSUS did get operatives to pose as a worker at several giant egg factories in Iowa, operated by Decoster rivals Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises. Here’s some of what they found:
From the report:
• Trapped birds unable to reach food and water: Battery cages can trap hens by their wings, necks, legs, and feet in the wire, causing other birds to trample the weakened animals, usually resulting in a slow, painful death.
• High mortality in layer and pullet sheds: The HSUS investigator pulled dead young hens, some of them mummified (meaning they’d been rotting in the cages for weeks), from cages every day.
Failure to maintain manure pits: According to one worker, the manure pit under a pullet shed had not been cleaned in two years. Rose Acre workers claimed that some hens are blinded because of excessive ammonia levels.
• Abandoned hens: Some hens manage to escape from their cages and fall into the manure pits below.
The exposure prompted Rose Acre Farms to undergo “third-party audit” of the facilities in question, while Rembrandt publicly declared it would investigate its facilities, adding to a farm trade journal that “it would have been beneficial had the Humane Society come directly to us right after the alleged violations occurred.” We’ll never know if the HSUS investigation caused changes that saved consumers from exposure to salmonella or other pathogens.
Federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker.
And in 2011, a Mercy For Animals employee got inside yet another Iowa egg company called Sparboe Farms and released a video depicting dead birds being left to rot in tight cages also occupied by live birds and flies, among other sordid scenes. In a web posting after the release, the company’s president wrote that the video had documented acts are “totally unacceptable and completely at odds with our values as egg farmers,” adding that the employees responsible had been fired. Just before the MFA release, FDA came out with the results of its own investigation of the facility, which found several violations—again potentially saving the public from a pathogen outbreak.
Last year, of course, Iowa and its famously agribiz-aligned governor, Terry Branstad, passed the nation’s first ag-gag law—meaning that any undercover investigator who exposes such abuses on one of the state’s hundreds of factory-scale hog and egg facilities will now be subject to criminal prosecution. The triumph in Iowa marks a significant victory in Big Ag’s push to keep its practices behind closed doors, because Iowa is the nation’s number-one state in both hog and egg-laying hen production.
In a time of fiscal austerity, federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker. If the meat industry wins these ag-gag battles playing out in farm states nationwide, who will serve as the public’s eyes on the factory farm floor? Answer: essentially, no one.
The US House of Representatives quietly passed a last-minute addition to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for 2013 last week – including a provision protecting genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks.
The rider, which is officially known as the Farmer Assurance Provision, has been derided by opponents of biotech lobbying as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” as it would strip federal courts of the authority to immediately halt the planting and sale of genetically modified (GMO) seed crop regardless of any consumer health concerns.
The provision, also decried as a “biotech rider,” should have gone through the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees for review. Instead, no hearings were held, and the piece was evidently unknown to most Democrats (who hold the majority in the Senate) prior to its approval as part of HR 993, the short-term funding bill that was approved to avoid a federal government shutdown.
Senator John Tester (D-MT) proved to be the lone dissenter to the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, though his proposed amendment to strip the rider from the bill was never put to a vote.
As the US legal system functions today, and largely as a result of prior lawsuits, the USDA is required to complete environmental impact statements (EIS) prior to both the planting and sale of GMO crops. The extent and effectiveness to which the USDA exercises this rule is in itself a source of serious dispute.
The reviews have been the focus of heated debate between food safety advocacy groups and the biotech industry in the past. In December of 2009, for example, Food Democracy Now collected signatures during the EIS commenting period in a bid to prevent the approval of Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa, which many feared would contaminate organic feed used by dairy farmers; it was approved regardless.
Previously discovered pathogens in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soy are suspected of causing infertility in livestock and to impact the health of plants.
So, just how much of a victory is this for biotech companies like Monsanto? Critics are thus far alarmed by the very way in which the provision made it through Congress — the rider was introduced anonymously as the larger bill progressed through the Senate Appropriations Committee. Now, groups like the Center for Food Safety are holding Senator Mikulski (D-MD), chairman of that committee, to task and lobbing accusations of a “backroom deal” with the biotech industry.
As the Washington Times points out, the provision’s success is viewed by many as a victory by companies like Syngenta Corp, Cargill, Monsanto and affiliated PACs that have donated $7.5 million to members of Congress since 2009, and $372,000 to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
It remains unclear whether the bill’s six-month expiration means that the provision will be short-lived. Regardless, Food Democracy Now has begun a campaign calling on US President Barack Obama to veto the Continuing Resolution spending bill, which seems unlikely as HR 933 includes a sweeping amount of government funding.
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.
A not so Green story for St. Patricks day
The US House of Representatives is expected to weigh in on the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for Fiscal year 2013 this week, and included within the act lies the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” a small subsection that has so far earned opposition from hundreds of thousands family farmers, environmental interest groups and other advocates. Those hoping to defeat the bill have gone so far as to dub the provision the “Monsanto Protection Act.”
Small time agriculturists have increasingly spoken out against biotech companies in recent years, as giants like Monsanto have made millions off of genetically engineering crops that traditional plants simply can’t match up with. Additionally, Monsanto has taken a slew of farmers to court over questionable patent infringement suits, almost always winning the help of high-powered attorneys. Now if the Farmer Assurance Provision is approved by Congress, GMO companies will once again be allowed an advantage from their friends in Washington.
If the provision is approved this week, biotech companies won’t have to wait for federal approval to test and plant laboratory-made crops, instead being allowed to carry on with even selling such crops until the government elects to tell them otherwise.
“The provision would strip federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of an illegal, potentially hazardous GE crop while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses those potential hazards,” explains a letter to the House that has been signed by dozens of food businesses and retailers, as well as interest groups and agencies representing family farmers. “Further, it would compel USDA to allow continued planting of that same crop upon request, even if in the course of its assessment the Department finds that it poses previously unrecognized risks.”
The group Food Democracy Now has started a campaign on their own and is asking opponents of the bill to sign on with an amendment to the appropriations bill, the DeFazio Amendment, which would ensure that judicial oversight will continue to apply to GMOS.
The Farmer Assurance Provision, says the group, “strips the rights of federal courts to halt the sale and planting of genetically engineered crops during the legal appeals process.”
“The judicial review process is an essential element of US law and serves as a vital check on any Federal Agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods. Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds, even if a court may find them to have been wrongfully approved.”
In the letter undersigned by the ACLU, National Organic Coalition and others, the signees say,
“Far from safeguarding farmers, the only parties whose interests are ‘assured’ by this rider are those of GE crop developers.”
Monsanto has already proven it has friends in Washington, as a landmark patent case currently before the Supreme Court is expected to go in favor of the biotech giants. Now opponents of the pro-GMO provision in the appropriations bill are calling the amendment the “Monsanto Protection Act” and hope that a grassroots campaign will keep the industry leaders from having one more unfair advantage over small time farmers.
Meanwhile, the market value for Monsanto Company hit a 52-week high on March 11, and is expected to continue with that kind of momentum throughout 2013, predicts Zacks Consensus Estimates.
According to the biotech industry, genetically modified (GM) crops are a boon to humanity because they allow farmers to “generate higher crop yields with fewer inputs,” as the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) puts it on its web page.
uoyed by such rhetoric, genetically modified seed giant Monsanto and its peers have managed to flood the corn, soybean, and cotton seed markets with two major traits: herbicide resistance and pesticide expression—giving plants the ability to, respectively, withstand regular lashings of particular herbicides and kill bugs with the toxic trait of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.
Turns out, though, that both assertions in BIO’s statement are highly questionable. Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook has demonstrated that the net effect of GMOs in the United States has been an increase in use of toxic chemical inputs. Benbrook found that while the Bt trait has indeed allowed farmers to spray dramatically lower levels of insecticides, that effect has been more than outweighed the gusher of herbicides uncorked by Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology, as weeds have rapidly adapted resistance to regular doses of Monsanto’s Rounup herbicide.
And in a new paper (PDF) funded by the US Department of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin researchers have essentially negated the “more food” argument as well. The researchers looked at data from U-Wisconsin test plots that compared crop yields from various varieties of hybrid corn, some genetically modified and some not, between 1990 and 2010. While some GM varieties delivered small yield gains, others did not. Several even showed lower yields than non-GM counterparts. With the exception of one commonly used trait—a Bt type dessigned to kill the European corn borer—the authors conclude, “we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects.” Both the glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) and the Bt trait for corn rootworm caused yields to drop.
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Then there’s the question of so-called “stacked-trait” crops—that is, say, corn engineered to contain multiple added genes—for example, Monsanto’s “Smart Stax” product, which contains both herbicide-tolerant and pesticide-expressing genes. The authors detected what they call “gene interaction” in these crops—genes inserted into them interact with each other in ways that affect yield, often negatively. If multiple genes added to a variety didn’t interact, “the [yield] effect of stacked genes would be equal to the sum of the corresponding single gene effects,” the authors write. Instead, the stacked-trait crops were all over the map. “We found strong evidence of gene interactions among transgenic traits when they are stacked,” they write. Most of those effects were negative—i.e., yield was reduced.
Overall, the report uncovers evidence of what is known as “yield drag”—the idea that manipulating the genome of a plant variety causes unintended changes in the way it grows, causing it to be less productive.
More encouragingly, the authors found that crop yields for GMO varieties are more stable year-to-year—that is, their yields fluctuate less than those of conventional varieties. As a result of this stabilizing effect, the authors conclude that “our results show how transgenic technology can improve farmers’ ability to deal with a risky environment,” especially given “current concerns about the effects of climate change on production uncertainty in agriculture.” Simply by planting Roundup Ready or Bt crops, they claim, farmers face less risk from yield fluctuations.
That may be true, but it’s a long way from “generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs.” And it’s not clear at all that GMOs’ marginal advantages over conventional seeds when it comes to risk mitigation trump the benefits offered by organic ag in that department. Here’s how the authors of a major paper published in Nature last year put it:
Soils managed with organic methods have shown better water-holding capacity and water infiltration rates and have produced higher yields than conventional systems under drought conditions and excessive rainfall.
Last year’s drought took a big bite out of the two most prodigious US crops, corn and soy. But it apparently didn’t slow down the spread of weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto‘s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), used on crops engineered by Monsanto to resist it. More than 70 percent of all the the corn, soy, and cotton grown in the US is now genetically modified to withstand glyphosate.
Back in 2011, such weeds were already spreading fast. “Monsanto’s ‘Superweeds‘ Gallop Through Midwest,” declared the headline of a post I wrote then. What’s the word you use when an already-galloping horse speeds up? Because that’s what’s happening. Let’s try this: “Monsanto’s ‘Superweeds’ Stampede Through Midwest.”
That pretty much describes the situation last year, according to a new report from the agribusiness research consultancy Stratus. Since the 2010 growing season, the group has been polling “thousands of US farmers” across 31 states about herbicide resistance. Here’s what they found in the 2012 season:
• Nearly half (49 percent) of all US farmers surveyed said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.
• Resistance is still worst in the South. For example, 92 percent of growers in Georgia said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds.
• But the mid-South and Midwest states are catching up. From 2011 to 2012 the acres with resistance almost doubled in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana.
• It’s spreading at a faster pace each year: Total resistant acres increased by 25 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012.
• And the problem is getting more complicated. More and more farms have at least two resistant species on their farm. In 2010 that was just 12 percent of farms, but two short years later 27 percent had more than one.
So where do farmers go from here? Well, Monsanto and its peers would like them to try out “next generation” herbicide-resistant seeds—that is, crops engineered to resist not just Roundup, but also other, more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D and Dicamba. Trouble is, such an escalation in the chemical war on weeds will likely only lead to more prolific, and more super, superweeds, along with a sharp increase in herbicide use. That’s the message of a peer-reviewed 2011 paper by a team of Penn State University researchers led by David A. Mortensen. (I discussed their paper in a post last year.)
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And such novel seeds won’t be available in the 2013 growing season anyway. None have made it through the US Department of Agriculture‘s registration process. The USDA was widely expected to award final approval on Dow’s 2,4-D/Roundup-resistant corn during the Christmas break, but didn’t. The agency hasn’t stated the reason it hasn’t decided on the product, known as Enlist, but the nondecision effectively delays its introduction until 2014 at the earliest, as Dow acknowledged last month. Reuters reporter Carey Gillam noted that the USDA’ delay comes amid “opposition from farmers, consumers and public health officials” to the new product, and that these opponents have “bombarded Dow and US regulators with an array of concerns” about it.
So industrial-scale corn and soy farmers will likely have to muddle along, responding in the same way that they have been for years, which is by upping their herbicide use in hopes of controlling the rogue weeds, as Washington State University‘s Charles Benbrook showed in a recent paper (my post on it here). That means significant economic losses for farmers—according to Penn State’s Mortensen, grappling with glyphosate resistance was already costing farmers nearly $1 billion per year in 2011. It will also likely mean a jump in toxic herbicides entering streams, messing with frogs and polluting people’s drinking water.
For a good idea of what’s in store, check out this piece in the trade mag Corn & Soy Digest on “Managing Herbicide-Resistant weeds.” Here’s the key bit—note that “burndown” means a complete flattening of all vegetation in a field with a broad-spectrum herbicide such as paraquat, an infamously toxic weed killer that’s been banned in 32 countries, including those of the European Union:
For those with a known resistance problem, it’s not uncommon to see them use a fall burndown plus a residual herbicide, a spring burndown before planting, another at planting including another residual herbicide, and two or more in-season herbicide applications. “If you can catch the resistant weeds early enough, paraquat does a good job of controlling them. But once Palmer amaranth [a common glyphosate-tolerant weed] gets 6 ft. tall, you can’t put on enough paraquat to kill it,” [one weed-control expert] says.
But of course there’s another way. In a 2012 study I’ll never tire of citing, Iowa State University researchers found that if farmers simply diversified their crop rotations, which typically consist of corn one year and soy the next, year after year, to include a “small grain” crop (e.g. oats) as well as offseason cover crops, weeds (including Roundup-resistant ones) can be suppressed with dramatically less fertilizer use—a factor of between 6 and 10 less. And much less herbicide means much less poison entering streams—”potential aquatic toxicity was 200 times less in the longer rotations” than in the regular corn-soy regime, the study authors note. So, despite what the seed giants and the conventional weed specialists insist, there are other ways to respond to the accelerating scourge of “superweeds” than throwing more—and ever-more toxic—chemicals at them.