Monsanto, one of the world’s biggest pesticide and seed corporations and leading developer of genetically modified crop varieties, had a stock market value of US$66 billion in 2014. It has gained this position by a combination of deceit, threat, litigation, destruction of evidence, falsified data, bribery, takeovers and cultivation of regulatory bodies.
Its rise and torrid controversies cover a long period starting with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, chemicals used as insulators for electrical transformers) in the 1940s and moving on to dioxin (a contaminant of Agent Orange used to defoliate Vietnam), glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide), recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, a hormone injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production), and genetic modified organisms (GMOs).
Its key aim in dealing with health and environmental issues is to protect sales and profits and the company image. The latter has been a monumental failure, making Monsanto potentially the most hated corporation in the world.
To better sell its GMO technology, Monsanto began acquiring seed companies in 1996 and within 10 years became the largest seed supplier in the world. If the planned merger with German multinational Bayer takes place, the combined corporate giant will control a third of the world’s seed market and a quarter of the pesticide market.
Gaining friends in high places and managing regulatory body policy has been crucial to Monsanto’s power. There is a crossover between Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture, the European Food Safety Authority and some United Nations food regulatory arms.
This crossover works in four ways: retired legislators move to Monsanto; legislators become lobbyists for Monsanto; regulators move on to Monsanto; and Monsanto employees switch to regulatory organisations (and often back again).
Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer, moved to the FDA where he determined FDA policy on genetic modification, before becoming Monsanto vice president. Linda Fisher was assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances in the EPA for 10 years; she moved to Monsanto in 1995 to lobby politicians, then returned to the EPA in 2001 as deputy administrator.
In the George W Bush administration, Monsanto managed to get four of its associates to head departments: the attorney-general and the secretaries for health and human services (of which the EPA is part), agriculture, and defence. Monsanto lobbying expenses for 1998 to 2001 amounted to $21 million. From 2004 to 2014, it was $62.3 million. In 2002, Monsanto gave $1.2 million to the Republican Party and $320,000 to the Democrats.
As a result, the regulators have by and large facilitated Monsanto’s interests. A former EPA manager, William Sanjour, said: “Unfortunately the EPA is more concerned with protecting the interests of companies than with defending the public interest.”
One example of this cosy relationship came with Monsanto’s successful action over labelling of rBGH in milk products.
Because of public concern about rBGH, some milk companies wanted to label their product as “rBGH free”. But Monsanto lobbied the EPA to disallow the practice because labelling would imply non-rBGH milk was safer or of higher quality — which, Monsanto argued, was misleading.
Monsanto threatened to sue dairy companies that specified their milk came from non-treated cows. It forced the companies to add that the EPA had found no difference between treated and non-treated milk.
The FDA sacked a researcher for questioning Monsanto data on rBGH. The US federal government attitude was that biotechnology was so important that they could not allow a few questions about cow or human safety to get in the way.
Monsanto also got the FDA to raise the allowed residues of glyphosate on soybeans from six parts per million to 20 parts per million, and in the European Union from 0.1 parts per million to 20 parts per million. In 2013, this was raised in the US to 40 parts per million for soybean oil — 400 times the amount known to kill gut bacteria.
The regulators determined that GM and non-GM food was “substantially equivalent”, which meant that no safety tests were required. This was a political decision with no scientific basis. Most of the data used by the regulators to determine the safety of products is provided by Monsanto and independent studies are ignored.
In 1998, British researcher Arpad Pusztai announced that he had found adverse effects of GM potatoes on rats. Then-US president Bill Clinton called then-British prime minister Tony Blair, who in turn rang the director of Pusztai’s Rowett Institute in Aberdeen to get Pusztai dismissed from the institute.
A Rowett director said: “Tony Blair’s office had been pressured by the Americans, who thought our study would harm the biotech industry, and particularly Monsanto.”
Monsanto associates on the UN Joint Expert Committee of Food Safety succeeded in getting the body to declare that rBGH was safe, despite the evidence.
Monsanto was also instrumental in getting Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) inserted into World Trade Organisation rules. This meant that any patent gained in the US automatically applied anywhere in the world, netting hundreds of millions of dollars extra in royalties for Monsanto.
The wording in the EPA toxicity report on PCBs was also changed on Monsanto’s request from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic”.
Monsanto spends millions of dollars fighting proposed GM labelling laws for food. A 2014 Oregon referendum on whether to impose GM labelling cost the company $6 million to fight. The referendum was narrowly lost after Monsanto successfully convinced enough people that labelling would lead to higher food costs.
Surveys show that more than 90% of US citizens want GM labelling. The GMO lobby is trying to get a law passed in Congress to prevent government agencies from ever introducing GMO labelling laws.
African governments are now being targeted to accept GM seeds — South Africa is one of the few that does. Bill Gates’ Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is one of the pushers.
Monsanto is part of AGRA management and Gates has $23 million worth of shares in Monsanto. The Clinton Global Initiative and US Aid for International Development also partner with Monsanto.
Along with the glowing advertising that promises higher yields for lower costs, which Monsanto uses around the world to entice farmers to buy its products, less open tactics are also used to grow its market.
For instance, vets in the US were paid $300 for each of their clients that adopted rBGH.
In the case of South America, the penetration of GM soy has been extraordinarily successful. Argentina was an early approver of GM products, but neighbouring Brazil and Paraguay initially refused to allow it.
However, GM soy seeds were smuggled in from Argentina in unmarked bags in huge quantities. These seeds were used by large farmers illegally to such an extent that the governments of Brazil and Paraguay were forced to change the law to make it legal.
It is suspected, but not proven, that Monsanto was involved in this introduction — it was certainly a huge beneficiary.
The extent to which Monsanto uses bribery is not known. One example that was revealed was the $700,000 paid to Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002 to facilitate the introduction of GM cotton to that country. The US Department of Justice fined Monsanto $1.5 million for this bribery.
Data falsification and concealment
Regulators do very little testing of pesticides and GMO products, instead relying on the data provided by the companies requesting approval.
Monsanto has been caught falsifying studies on PCB; 2,4,5-T; and dioxin. It also concealed dioxin levels in Agent Orange (the defoliant used in the Vietnam War) to maintain that lucrative market. Adverse data were destroyed or withheld.
Monsanto’s own adverse findings on rGBH were kept secret until leaked by an employee.
Independent studies on Roundup found that the full formulation was much more toxic than glyphosate, the active ingredient, itself. Monsanto’s tests were only conducted on glyphosate, not Roundup.
Public laboratories are reluctant to conduct research on Roundup and other product toxicity because most biotechnology research is only funded by the biotechnology companies. Researchers know their careers will suffer if they do this type of research. Monsanto refuses to supply GM seeds for independent research.
Buyers of GM seeds must sign an agreement not to use the seeds or crop for research. In the few cases where permission is granted, Monsanto retains the right to block publication of the results.
Scientists who identify problems with Monsanto technologies are vilified. These have included the University of California, Berkeley researchers David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, who found GM contamination in indigenous corn in Mexico where GM corn is not authorised.
Chapela was dismissed from the university and their report in the journal Nature was repudiated by the editors. Much of Nature’s advertising revenue comes from biotech companies. Monsanto also ridiculed studies that found GM corn was killing the monarch butterfly.
Threats and litigation
Whistleblowers in the EPA have been harassed, marginalised, defamed and often sacked.
Vietnam veterans claiming compensation from Monsanto because of chemical poisoning by Agent Orange were fought bitterly by Monsanto to exhaust the litigants’ reserves. The final settlement in 1984 amounted to $12,000 for each claimant, spread over 10 years. It came with a proviso that made them ineligible for pensions, state assistance and food stamps — meaning most veterans got nothing.
Farmers using rGBH have to sign a confidentiality agreement to not talk about any problems they find with cow health. Some farmers have been sued for doing so.
Farmers buying GM seed have to sign a “technology use agreement” not to re-sow seed, and to use only Roundup herbicide, not any other brand, on Roundup Ready crops (crops engineered to be unaffected by Roundup). They also have to agree to the right of inspection by Monsanto, which uses the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the US and Robinsons in Canada to enforce this agreement.
Farmers found to have GM crops that they have not paid royalties for are sued — even if the plants have regenerated naturally or are the result of cross pollination by neighbouring GM crops. A total of $23 million in patent infringement law suits had been collected by Monsanto by 2014. In 2005, the average suing per farmer amounted to $412,000, but many farmers settle out of court to avoid court costs, even if they are innocent. They are not permitted to disclose the settlement figures.
Media organisations have been threatened with litigation and withdrawal of Monsanto advertising for reporting adverse findings relating to rGBH.
A report by Gilles-Eric Seralini in 2012 on his trials of Roundup Ready maize that showed liver and kidney damage was withdrawn from the Food and Chemical Toxicity journal after a year of pressure and the appointment of a former Monsanto scientist to the editorial board.
In an April 2015 article titled “Is Monsanto on the side of science?”, New Internationalist listed several examples of scientists reporting findings adverse to Monsanto who have found themselves under attack. One of them, Italian Manuela Malatesta, said she was forced out of her university job as a researcher after publishing her studies on GM soy that found malfunctioning of testes, pancreas and liver in mice.
Malatesta said: “Research on GMOs is now taboo. You can’t find money for it…
“People don’t want to find answers to troubling questions. It’s the result of widespread fear of Monsanto and GMOs in general.”
A trade group including Monsanto also backed a proposed federal law that would nullify the state of Vermont's law enforcing GMO labelling and any other mandatory labelling of GMOs in the United States.
Promise versus reality
In its advertising, Monsanto promises higher returns for farmers if they plant GM crops. Initially this does happen, but within a few years the costs multiply because pests become immune to toxins inserted into corn, soy and cotton, and weeds became resistant to Roundup used on Roundup Ready corn, soy, canola and cotton.
Damage to soil biology by the heightened use of Roundup cause outbreaks of root rotting diseases (Fusarium and Rhizoctonia) and restricted the Rhizobium bacteria that create nitrogen on soy roots, so that more fertiliser is needed.
Yields decrease. Soon GM crops become less profitable than non-GM; the difference in the US is made up by increased government subsidies to farmers. GM seeds cost three-to-four times more than non-GM. Even the US Department of Agriculture acknowledged in 2014 that yields are lower for GM crops, particularly soy.
Monsanto promises lower pesticide use. In the US, pesticide use (including herbicides) increased 7% between 1996 and 2001, while in Western Europe, using non-GM crops, pesticide use dramatically fell in that period with increased yields.
Monsanto insists that GM technology and Roundup are safe, yet the independent studies that have been done point to the opposite.
The widespread use of Roundup Ready GM crops since 1996 has corresponded with a dramatic rise in illnesses such as coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. Cause is hard to prove, but the damage that Roundup does to intestinal microbiology has significantly decreased bodily and immune system function, according to Dr Don Huber, making it a likely factor in the disorders.
Glyphosate is also patented as an antibiotic, not just a herbicide. In the US, almost all processed foods contain GM soy and/or corn products (80%). People living in areas of intensively cultivated GM soy in Argentina are twice as likely to die of cancer. Levels of glyphosate in urine in the US are 10 times the levels of people in Europe.
The glowing promises of GM Bollgard cotton in India have had disastrous results. The crops did not perform well in the monsoon conditions of wet and dry, the fibre was shorter and brought a lower price, the seeds cost four times as much as non-GM, and pests proliferated. Non-GM seeds became unavailable as local suppliers only stocked Bollgard, with the support of state governments.
The resulting indebtedness has caused many farmer suicides — 296,400 cotton farmers took their lives in 20 years (often by drinking Roundup).
Flooding the market
Monsanto promised that GM and non-GM crops could co-exist. The reality is that GM genes spread far and wide through cross pollination by bees and wind. All canola seeds in Canada, including non-GM seeds, have GM genes, which has eliminated organic canola growing.
Indeed, this was the goal of Monsanto, as Don Westfall, a consultant to biotech companies, said in 2001: “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.”
GMO advocates say that the technology is essential to feed the world. Yet the world already produces enough food for the expected population of the world in 2050. Hunger is not a production issue but one of social justice.
Even the wealthiest countries with abundant food have significant percentages of food insecure people (10% in Australia).
Almost all GM crops so far developed have been for herbicide tolerance (85%, so the whole crop can be sprayed to kill the weeds) or contain the toxin of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Golden Rice, engineered to increase vitamin A levels, failed because the increase was marginal, and has been abandoned.
Other promised miracles including drought and salt tolerant wheat have not materialised, though might in the future. On the other hand, conventional plant breeding has been far more successful at achieving sustainability goals.
Monsanto has not had everything go its own way. On occasions its arrogance and deceit has backfired.
In the criminal trial in 2002 over the poisoning of residents in Anniston, Mississippi, by the Monsanto PCB factory, a US judge said Monsanto’s conduct was “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”.
Craven Laboratories, acting for Monsanto, was heavily fined for falsifying test data and its owner was sentenced to five years’ jail.
Monsanto claimed in its promotional material that glyphosate was less toxic than table salt, was 100% biodegradable, and left no residue in soil. In 1996, this was challenged in court by the New York State attorney-general as false and misleading advertising. Monsanto lost.
In France’s north-west, the Brittany Water and Rivers association also sued Monsanto for misleading advertising, as residues in rivers were found to be well above the legal threshold for glyphosate. Although the case was successful, Monsanto’s penalty was merely €15,000 after a seven-year court battle.
In 2005, to avoid the costly investigating and suing of farmers suspected of saving the seed of patented varieties, Monsanto acquired a company that had developed the Terminator gene.
The aim was to insert this gene into all patented varieties, GM and non-GM, so that the next generation would not germinate. A worldwide outcry led to the international community deciding to ban this technology.
However, some countries, including Australia and the US, want this ban overturned.
Monsanto’s dream of Roundup Ready wheat was defeated in 2004 because farmers in North America fought it successfully. Farmers were concerned that they would lose markets, because Europe, Japan and some other countries said they would not import any wheat from North America because of inevitable contamination.
Canadian canola growers have lost much of their market already. Monsanto withdrew its application for approval.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld a ruling fining Monsanto $93 million for poisoning the town of Nitro with Agent Orange chemicals.
Monsanto’s strategy in getting control of the world’s food system has so far been successful, relying on government support, effective advertising, intimidation and litigation.
But public opposition is mounting. Huge numbers of people around the world took part in the March Against Monsanto in 2015. The organic industry in the US is booming because this is the only way consumers can choose non-GM foods. Farmers are starting to reject GM seeds. However, there is a long way to go before Monsanto falls.
It was public action that led to the ban on PCBs and the hormonal herbicide 2,4,5-T.
In Australia we must continue to support the South Australian and Tasmanian GMO moratoria and pressure other governments to withdraw approval for GM canola and cotton and continue to block GM soy and corn.
We must support ecological farming systems that do not need the inputs provided by Monsanto or any of the other pesticide, seed and GMO conglomerates.
[Alan Broughton is a member of the Socialist Alliance and involved with the Organic Agriculture Association. Along with Elena Garcia, he is a co-author of the recently released Sustainable Agriculture Versus Corporate Greed, Resistance Books, 2017.]