By Alan Broughton
Monsanto is one of the world’s biggest pesticide and seed corporations and the leading developer and seller of genetically modified crop varieties. The stock market value in 2014 was US$66 billion. It has gained this position by a combination of deceit, threat, litigation, destruction of evidence, falsified data, bribery, takeover and cultivation of regulatory organisations.
The rise and its torrid controversy covers a long period starting with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, 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 in dairy cows to increase their milk production), and genetic modification. Its key aim in dealing with health and environmental issues of concern is to protect sales and profits and the company image. The latter though has been a monumental failure, making Monsanto the most hated corporation in the world.
In order to better sell its GM 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 Bayer takes place they will have 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 of great importance. There is a crossover between Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Authority, the US Food and Drug Administration, 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 moving to Monsanto, legislators becoming lobbyists for Monsanto, regulators moving on to Monsanto and Monsanto employees switching to regulatory organisations (and often back again). Here are a couple of examples. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer, moved to the FDA where he determined FDA policy on genetic modification, then became Monsanto vice president. Linda Fisher was assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances in the EPA for ten years; she moved to Monsanto in 1995 to lobby politicians then returned to the EPA in 2001 as deputy administrator.
In the 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, and from 2004 to 2014 $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, stated: “Unfortunately the EPA is more concerned with protecting the interests of companies than with defending the public interest”. Here are some examples of this cosy relationship.
Because of public concern about recombinant bovine growth hormone some milk companies wanted to label their product as rBGH free, but on Monsanto lobbying he EPA disallowed the practice because labelling would imply non-rBGH milk was safer or of higher quality, which would be false or misleading, they said. Monsanto threatened to sue dairy companies that specified their milk came from non-treated cows and forced the companies to add that the EPA had found no difference between treated and non-treated milk. The FDA fired a researcher for questioning Monsanto data on rBGH. The US federal government attitude was that biotechnology was so important that they couldn’t allow a few questions about cow safety or human safety to get in the way.
Monsanto got the FDA to increase the allowed residues of glyphosate on soybeans from 6 ppm to 20 ppm, and in the European Union from 0.1 ppm to 20 ppm. In May 2013 this was raised in the US to 40 ppm 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.
After the British researcher Arpad Pusztai announced he had found adverse effects of GM potatoes on rats, Bill Clinton telephoned Tony Blair who rang the director of Pusztai’s Rowett Institute in Aberdeen and Pusztai was dismissed from the institute. A Rowett director stated: “Tony Blair’s office had been pressured by the Americans, who thought our study would harm the biotech industry, and particularly Monsanto”. Hilary Clinton has been legal counsel for Monsanto, and is a strong GM supporter.
Monsanto was instrumental in getting TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) inserted into the World Trade Organisation rules, which 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.
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.
The wording in the EPA toxicity report on PCB was 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. The Oregon referendum on the issue cost the company $6 million to fight and was successful, convincing people that it would increase food prices. Surveys show that over 90% of US citizens want GM labelling. The GM lobby is trying to get a law passed in Congress to prevent government agencies from ever introducing GM labelling laws.
African governments are being targeted to accept GM seeds (South Africa is one of the few that does). Bill Gates’ Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is one of the pushers. Monsanto is part of AGRA management and Bill Gates has $23 million of shares in Monsanto. The Clinton Global Initiative and the US Aid for International Development also partner with Monsanto.
Market access techniques
Apart from glowing advertising that promises increased yield for reduced cost that Monsanto uses around the world to entice farmers to buy Monsanto products, less open tactics are also used to increase the market.
Vets in the US were paid $300 for each of their clients that adopted rBGH.
The penetration of GM soy into South America has been extraordinary successful. Argentina was an early approver of GM but neighbouring Brazil and Paraguay did not allow it. However GM soy seeds were smuggled in from Argentina in unmarked bags in huge quantities and adopted 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; Monsanto was a huge beneficiary.
The extent to which bribery is used is not known. One revealed example was the $700,000 paid to Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002 to facilitate the introduction of Bt 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 GM products, instead relying on the data provided by the companies requesting approval.
Monsanto has been caught out falsifying studies on PCB, 2,4,5-T and dioxin, and concealing dioxin levels in Agent Orange (the defoliant used in the Vietnam War) in order to maintain that lucrative market. Adverse data were destroyed or withheld.
Monsanto’s own adverse findings on rGBH were kept secret till they were 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 funded only by the biotechnology companies, and researchers know they 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 Quist and 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 Bt corn was killing the monarch butterfly.
Threats and litigation
Whistle blowers in the EPA have been harassed, marginalised, defamed and often fired.
Vietnam veterans claiming compensation from Monsanto because of chemical poisoning by Agent Orange were fought bitterly by Monsanto in order to exhaust the litigants’ reserves. The final settlement amounted to $12,000 for each claimant, spread over 10 years, with a proviso that made them ineligible for pensions, state assistance and food stamps, which meant most veterans got nothing.
Farmers using rGBH have to sign a confidentiality agreement to not talk about any problems they find with cow health, and 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 haven’t paid royalties on, even if the plants have regenerated naturally or are the result of cross pollination by neighbouring GM crops, are sued. 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 for reporting adverse findings of rGBH and withdrawal of Monsanto advertising.
The report by Gilles-Eric Séralini in 2012 on his trials of Roundup Ready maize that showed liver and kidney damage was withdrawn from the journal Food and Chemical Toxicity after a year of pressure and the appointment of a former Monsanto scientist to the editorial board.
Manuela Malatesta was forced out of her university job as researcher after publishing her studies on GM soy that found malfunctioning of mice testes, pancreas and liver. She stated: “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”.
The state of Vermont was sued by Monsanto for passing GM labelling laws.
The promise and the reality
Monsanto in its advertising promises higher returns for farmers if they plant GM crops. Initially this did happen, but within a few years the costs multiplied because pests became immune to the Bt toxin 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 caused outbreaks of root rotting diseases (Fusarium and Rhizoctonia) and restricted the Rhizobium bacteria that create nitrogen on soy roots, so that more fertiliser was needed. Yields decreased. Soon GM crops became less profitable than non-GM; the difference in the US was made up by increased government subsidies to farmers. GM seeds cost 3-4 times non-GM. Even the USDA 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 pesticide use dramatically reduced in that period with increased yields, using non-GM crops.
Monsanto insists that GM technology and Roundup are totally safe yet the independent studies that have been done point to the opposite. The widespread use of Roundup Ready GM cropping since 1996 has corresponded with a dramatic increase in coeliac disease, gluten intolerance, Alzeimer’s disease, ADHD, autism and diabetes. While cause is hard to prove, the damage that Roundup does to intestinal microbiology has significantly decreased bodily and immune system function, according to Dr Don Huber, and is likely to be a major factor in the disorders. Glyphosate is actually also patented as an antibiotic, not just a herbicide. Almost all processed foods contain GM soy and/or corn products (80% in the US). 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 Bolgard 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 in 20 years (often by drinking Roundup).
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”.
GM 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 the 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 bacterial based caterpillar toxin Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Golden Rice, engineered to increase the vitamin A levels, failed because the increase was marginal, and has been abandoned. Other promised miracles including drought and salinity 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.
Some Monsanto defeats
Monsanto has not had everything going 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, the judge stated that 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 imprisonment.
Monsanto claimed in its promotion material that glyphosate was less toxic than table salt, was 100% biodegradable, and left no residue in soil. This was challenged by the New York State attorney general as false and misleading advertising and Monsanto lost. Brittany in France also sued Monsanto for misleading advertising, as residues in rivers were found to be well above the legal threshold for glyphosate, but the penalty was only $15,000 after a 7 year court battle.
In order to avoid the costly investigating and suing of farmers for saving, or suspected of saving, their own seed of patented varieties, Monsanto acquired in 2005 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 world-wide 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 and farmer organisations 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 it, and would not import any wheat from North America because of inevitable contamination. Canadian canola growers had lost much of their market already. Monsanto withdrew its application for approval.
The Supreme Court of Virginia fined 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. There were huge numbers of people around the world taking 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 (one of the Agent Orange ingredients). In Australia we must continue to support the South Australian and Tasmanian GM moratoria and pressure the 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 GM conglomerates.
Alan Broughton, February 2017.
Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Politics and Power, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2010 (first published 2008).
New Internationalist No 481, April 2015, “Total control: Is Monsanto stoppable?” (several articles).
Dr Mercola, “Toxicology expert speaks out about Roundup and GMOs”, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/10/06/dr-huber-gmo-foods.aspx .