The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and

Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sat Feb 06, 2016 2:28 am

Part 1 of 2

8: Scientists Suppressed

“The Composition of Glyphosate-Tolerant Soybean Seeds Is Equivalent to That of Conventional Soybeans.”

—Title of a study published by Monsanto in the Journal of Nutrition, April 1996


“When we finished the policy [relating to GMOs], all the scientists agreed with the policy,” James Maryanski told me with sudden assurance.

“You mean there was a consensus on the principle of substantial equivalence?”

“All of the different views were taken into account in the agency’s final decision about how it would proceed.”

No Consensus at the FDA

Maryanski was out of luck. The day before our meeting. I had visited the Web site of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, an NGO based in Fairfield, Iowa.1 Headed by a lawyer named Steven Druker, it had sued the FDA for violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.2 With scientists, clergy members, and consumers as plaintiffs, the complaint was filed in federal court in Washington in May 1998, together with the Center for Food Safety, an NGO established in 1997.3 As one might have expected, the case was dismissed in October 2000, because the judge determined that the plaintiffs had not proved that the FDA regulation constituted a deliberate violation of federal law.4

Despite this legal setback, the complaint led to the declassification of some forty thousand pages of internal FDA documents related to GMOs. The least one can say is that this treasure trove of notes, letters, and memoranda presents a not-very-pretty picture of the way the agency handled this delicate issue, in light of its duty to protect the health of American consumers. In a document dated January 1993, FDA representatives acknowledged in plain language that, in accordance with government policy, their aim was to “promote” the biotechnology industry in the United States.5 But the highlights of this mass of information are the reports written by agency scientists, intended to express their opinions on the draft regulations submitted to them. The Alliance for Bio-Integrity had the excellent idea of putting these documents online.6 Some of them, of course, were addressed to the Biotechnology Coordinator.

For example, on November 1, 1991, Maryanski received a memorandum from the Division of Food Chemistry and Technology. The document pointed to all the “undesirable effects” that might be produced by the technique of genetic manipulation, such as an “increased levels of known naturally occurring toxicants, appearance of new, not previously identified toxicants, increased capability of concentrating toxic substances from the environment (e.g., pesticides or heavy metals), and undesirable alterations in the levels of nutrients.”7

And on January 31, 1992, Samuel Shibko of the Toxicology Section of the FDA, wrote: “We cannot assume that all gene products, particularly those encoded by genes from non-food sources, will be digestible. For example, there is evidence that certain types of proteins . . . are resistant to digestion and can be absorbed in biologically active form.”8

A few days later, it was the turn of Dr. Gerald Guest, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine, to sound the alarm: “In response to your question on how the agency should regulate genetically modified food plants, I and other scientists at CVM have concluded that there is ample scientific justification to support a pre-market review of these products. . . . The FDA will be confronted with new plant constituents that could be of a toxicological or environmental concern.”9

Dr. Louis Pribyl of the FDA’s microbiology division dismissed out of hand the argument commonly put forth by promoters of biotechnology: “There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering, which is just glanced over in this document. . . . Multiple copies inserted at one site could become potential sites for rearrangements, especially if used in future gene transfer experiments, and as such may be more hazardous.”10

I could continue with examples showing that many divisions of the FDA, whatever their specialty, expressed strong concerns about the unknown health effects that might result from the process of genetic manipulation. In contradiction to what Maryanski now claims, there was no consensus on the FDA’s proposed regulation of GMOs even a few months before it was issued. Indeed, the former coordinator himself acknowledged this fact in a letter he sent on October 23, 1991, to Dr. Bill Murray, chairman of the Food Directorate, Canada: “There are a number of specific issues . . . for which a scientific consensus does not exist currently [in the FDA], especially the need for specific toxicology tests. . . . I think the question of the potential for some substances to cause allergenic reactions is particularly difficult to predict.”11

During my meeting with Maryanski, I read to him a memorandum he had been sent on January 8, 1992, by Dr. Linda Kahl, a compliance officer with responsibility for summarizing her colleagues’ views on the proposed regulation: “The document is trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices. This is because of the mandate to regulate the product not the process.” She went on to note that this mandate resembled a “doctrine”: “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks” (emphasis added).12

“What did you answer to Linda Kahl?” I asked Maryanski, who had lost his composure as soon as I began to read the document.

“My job was really to bring together the scientists who would be—provide the expertise to deal with, you know, to identify the issues and understand how to address them. I’m not the decision maker. The decision maker’s ultimately the commissioner, Dr. David Kessler.”

“Yes, but Dr. Kahl asked you a very specific question: ‘Are we asking the scientific experts to generate the basis for this policy statement in the absence of any data?’ (emphasis added). What was your answer?”

“Well, this is part of the early discussions that were going on.”

“Are you sure? Linda Kahl wrote this memorandum to you in January 1992—three months before the FDA published its policy. How could it get scientific data in this very short time?”

“Right, but the policy was designed to provide the guidance to the industry for the kinds of testing they would need to do.”

The Myth of Regulation

We had gotten to the point. Indeed, as Maryanski acknowledged, the document published by the FDA in 1992 was in no way a regulation, since its purpose was primarily to provide justifications for not regulating GMOs. It was only a statement of policy intended to provide direction to the industry and provide guidance in case of need. This was clearly indicated in the final section of the document, which provided for a mechanism for “voluntary consultation,” if companies so desired: “Producers should consult informally with FDA on scientific issues or design of appropriate test protocols when the function of the protein raises concern or is not known, or the protein is reported to be toxic. FDA will determine on a case-by-case basis whether it will review the food additive status of these proteins.”13

This outraged Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. “In fact,” he told me, “the health of American consumers is at the mercy of the goodwill of the biotech companies that are licensed to decide, with no government supervision, whether their GMO products are safe. This is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the United States. The policy was drafted so the biotechnology industry could propagate the myth that GMOs are regulated, which is completely false. In the process, the country has been turned into a huge laboratory where potentially dangerous products have been set loose for the last ten years without the consumer being able to choose, because, in the name of the principle of substantial equivalence, labeling of GMOs is banned, and there is no follow-up.”

In March 2000, relying on various surveys indicating that more than 80 percent of Americans favored the labeling of transgenic foods14 and 60 percent would avoid them if they had the choice,15 the Center for Food Safety filed a citizen petition with the FDA asking it to review its policy on GMOs and that testing be required before they were sold and labeled.16 When the agency failed to respond, the Center for Food Safety filed suit in federal court in the spring of 2006. “We won’t give up,” Mendelson told me, “especially because quite obviously the mechanism for voluntary consultation the FDA had set up wasn’t working.”

He showed me a study by Dr. Douglas Gurian-Sherman, a former FDA scientist who had worked on assessing transgenic plants before joining the Center for Science in the Public Interest.17 He had gotten access to fourteen “voluntary consultation” files submitted to the FDA by biotechnology companies between 1994 and 2001 (out of a total of fifty-three), five of which concerned Monsanto. He found that in six cases, the FDA had asked the producer to provide more data so the agency could completely assess the safety of the products. “In three [50 percent] of those cases FDA’s requests were either ignored by the developer or the developer affirmatively declined to provide the requested information.” Two of these three cases concerned Monsanto’s transgenic corn, notably MON 810, to which I will return. Monsanto had never provided the further information the FDA had requested to be able to determine whether GM corn was in fact substantially equivalent to its conventional counterpart. The agency could do nothing, because, as Dr. Gurian-Sherman noted, the policy document—unlike an actual regulation— gave it “no authority to require the developers to submit the desired additional data unless it decided to evaluate the crop as a food additive.”

This was a decision the FDA made only once, on the Flavr Savr tomato at Calgene’s request. A declassified document shows that that decision had little effect and that, despite the results of toxicological tests, the agency approved the product. On June 16, 1993, Dr. Fred Hines sent a memorandum to Linda Kahl concerning the three toxicological tests conducted on rats fed with transgenic tomatoes for twenty-eight days. “In the second study, gross lesions were described in the stomachs of four out of twenty female rats fed one of the two lines of transgenic tomato. . . . The Sponsor’s . . . report concluded that . . . these lesions were incidental in nature. . . . The criteria for qualifying a lesion as incidental were not provided in the sponsor’s report.”18 But one year later, the FDA gave its approval to the tomato with the long shelf life.

Dr. Gurian-Sherman also examined the data summaries companies provided to the FDA for their “voluntary consultation” and found that in three cases out of fourteen, they contained “obvious errors” that had not been detected by agency scientists during their review. This point is very important, because it underscores the imperfection (to put it mildly) of the process for approving food or chemical products as it is conducted around the world. Very seldom do companies provide the raw data of the tests they have conducted; they generally merely prepare a summary that reviewers sometimes only skim. As Dr. Gurian-Sherman very persuasively puts it: “The more highly summarized and less detailed those data, the greater the role of the developer in determining the safety of the crop, and conversely the more the FDA must rely on the developer’s judgment.”

He also analyzed the quality of the tests conducted by the producers, and his conclusions are troubling. He found that some fundamental health considerations were frequently neglected, such as the toxicity or allergenicity of proteins in the transgenic plants.

Finally, he raised a concluding technical point that is of primary importance because it undermines the validity of practically all the toxicological tests conducted on GMOs, particularly by Monsanto. Generally, to measure the toxicity and allergic potential of the proteins produced in the plant by the inserted gene, the companies did not use the proteins as they were expressed in the manipulated plant, but those present in the original bacterium, that is, before the gene derived from the bacterium was transferred. Officially, they proceeded in this way because it was difficult to remove a sufficient quantity of the pure transgenic protein from the plant but much easier to do so from the bacterium, which could produce as much protein as was needed.

In the view of some scientists, this practice might well represent a manipulation intended to conceal a fact that companies such as Monsanto had always made a point of denying: the inserted genes, and hence the proteins they produced, were not always identical to the original genes and proteins. Indeed, random insertion caused the appearance of unknown proteins. Dr. Gurian-Sherman concluded: “Therefore, bacterially produced protein may not be identical to, and have the same health effects as, the GE protein from the plant.”

The Unshakable Team of Maryanski and Taylor

Even as FDA scientists were expressing their disagreement with the policy document, it was published on May 29, 1992. Two months earlier, on March 20, Commissioner David Kessler wrote a very curious memorandum to the secretary of health and human services, urgently requesting authorization to publish the document in the Federal Register. “The new technologies give producers powerful, precise tools to introduce improved traits in food crops, opening the door to improvements in foods that will benefit food growers, processors, and consumers. Companies are now ready to commercialize some of these improvements. To do so, however, they need to know how their products will be regulated. This is critical not only to provide them with a predictable guide to government oversight but also to help them with public acceptance of these new products. . . . Furthermore, the Biotechnology Working Group of the Council on Competitiveness wants us to issue a policy statement as soon as possible. . . . The approach and provisions of the policy statement . . . respond to the White House interest in assuring the safe, speedy development of the U.S. biotechnology industry.”

The commissioner’s memorandum concluded with the mention of “potential controversy,” fostered by “environmental defense groups,” including Jeremy Rifkin’s: “They may challenge our policy as leaving too much decision making in the hands of industry and not adequately informing consumers.” Attached to the memorandum was a copy of the policy statement with two very interesting notations: “Drafted: J. Maryanski. Cleared: M. Taylor.”

“This document is proof that the FDA policy statement was not written to protect the health of Americans, but to satisfy strictly industrial and commercial aims,” asserts Steven Druker of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity. “To reach its goal, the American government has continually lied to its own citizens and to the rest of the world, claiming that the principle of substantial equivalence was supported by a broad consensus in the scientific community and that a good deal of scientific data substantiated it: these two assertions are blatant lies. Decided on at the highest levels, with the active complicity of Monsanto, this huge enterprise of disinformation was carried out by an unshakable team: James Maryanski and Michael Taylor.”

“What exactly was Maryanski’s role?” I asked, a little shaken by the vehemence of his language.

“His role was to propagate the transgenic gospel inside and outside the agency. I met him several times, and he never deviated from the party line, even when he testified before Congress.”

In fact, the complaint filed by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity had created a stir, and Maryanski was called to testify before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on October 7, 1999. After explaining at length the grounds for the FDA policy statement, he concluded his statement with this: “FDA takes seriously its mandate to protect consumers in the United States and to ensure that the United States’ food supply continues to be one of the safest in the world. . . . We are confident that our approach is appropriate. It allows us to ensure the safety of new food products and . . . it gives manufacturers the ability to produce better products and provide consumers additional choices.”

“Maryanski’s other role was to smooth over differences inside the FDA, if necessary by stifling dissident voices with the support of Michael Taylor,” Druker went on, showing me another declassified document that his organization had put online. This was a letter dated October 7, 1991, from the biotechnology coordinator to the deputy commissioner for policy, which contained the following: “Suggest that you consider discussing your goals for developing our food biotechnology policy by the end of the year with Dr. Guest, CVM. Most crops developed by the new biotechnology that will be used for human foods will also be used as feed for animals. . . . I think CVM would appreciate hearing your thoughts.”19 Maryanski was obviously putting Taylor forward to stifle the rebellion that was brewing in the Center for Veterinary Medicine. The document also shows that Michael Taylor, the former Monsanto lawyer, was the person who determined the purposes of the regulation that was then being drafted.

“Michael Taylor was Monsanto’s man at the FDA, which hired him specifically to supervise the regulation of GMOs and created the position for that purpose,” said Druker. “The declassified documents reveal that he worked to empty the policy statement of any scientific substance, which caused a good deal of discontent on the staff.”

During my lengthy recorded telephone conversation with the former Monsanto vice president, he persistently denied any direct involvement in the preparation of the policy statement: “That’s false. I wasn’t the author of the policy. I was the deputy commissioner for policy who oversaw the process. But the policy was developed by the FDA’s professional career people based on the law and the science.”

When I reported these words to Michael Hansen, he literally jumped out of his chair and pulled out a document published in 1990 by the International Food Biotechnology Council (IFBC). This ephemeral body was set up in 1988 by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), well known to all anti-GMO activists. Established in 1978 by major food industry corporations—the Heinz Foundation, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, General Foods, Kraft (owned by Philip Morris), and Procter and Gamble—ILSI calls itself a “non-governmental organization” and describes itself on its Web site as “a global network of scientists devoted to enhancing the scientific basis for public health decision-making.”20 As the British daily The Guardian revealed in 2003, the organization was well connected in the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, two UN bodies it lobbied in favor of GMOs through a document published in 1990 by the IFBC.21 And it was precisely this document, a statement of principles on the way GMOs should be regulated, entitled “Biotechnologies and Food: Assuring the Safety of Foods Produced by Genetic Modification,” that Hansen had just pulled out.22

“Remember that Michael Taylor came to the FDA in July 1991,” Hansen went on. “Until then he’d been working at the law firm of King and Spalding. His clients included not only Monsanto but also the IFBC, the International Food Biotechnology Council. He wrote this document setting out the way the organization would like GMOs to be regulated. If you compare this proposal Taylor wrote for the IFBC and the policy statement published by the FDA, you can see they are very similar. If he didn’t write the statement, then someone took his proposal and changed it slightly before publishing it.” The anonymous IFBC document, oddly unavailable on the Web, is in fact the first reference cited in the appendix to the FDA policy statement.23

“Again, it’s false,” Taylor insisted. “I could not possibly have anything to do with it because I’m not a scientist. So, again, this is why you need to be talking to Dr. Maryanski and people who were actually involved in developing the FDA policy.” When I subsequently interviewed Maryanski, he found it hard to get rid of this new hot potato. “Mr. Taylor was the deputy commissioner at the time, and he provided leadership for the project and served as the chief, sort of the leader . . . policy person, in terms of making sure the project got done.”

“Did you know that he used to work for Monsanto as an attorney?”

“I think I knew that he had, you know, been at Monsanto, but, you know, we often have people come in and they’re appointed as commissioner or deputy commissioner.”

“What was the role of Monsanto in the FDA?”

“Well, Monsanto was very active, in fact very helpful to FDA in terms of helping us to understand just what does it mean to use genetic engineering in food crops. I remember meetings that we had where the Monsanto scientists met with the FDA scientists and they went through the kinds of modifications that they were making and how those were being done. And basically, what they were also saying to FDA was, ‘How will these products be regulated?’ ”

The Champion of the Revolving Door

“You think it was a plot?” The question I asked Jeffrey Smith when I met him in Fairfield, Iowa in October 2006 made him pause for reflection. He is the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and the author of two very well-informed books on GMOs that I have already referred to.24 The silence is something I have encountered from most of those I have interviewed who have dared to denounce Monsanto’s practices, because the company is so ready to threaten costly litigation. Smith knew this very well: he had been forced to self-publish his books because he could not find a publisher willing to stand up to Monsanto. Monsanto says that it is only trying to protect its patents, but the company has been willing to spend millions of dollars and even lose at trial, as if its real purpose were to bleed its opponents dry. This is why every word had to be weighed before it was launched into the public arena.

“The word ‘plot’ is a little strong,” he finally answered. “But from the company’s point of view, let’s say it took power without a single misstep, thanks to its savoir-faire and its ability to infiltrate all the decision-making machinery in the country.” Among the elements behind its success were financial contributions to the election campaigns of the two major parties. According to figures from the Federal Election Commission, in 1994, Monsanto contributed $268,732, almost equally divided between Democrats (then holding the White House) and Republicans. In 1998, the amount was $198,955, almost two-thirds for the Republicans. Two years later, George W. Bush’s party received $953,660 compared to $221,060 for Al Gore’s Democrats. Finally, in 2002, as the White House was launching its crusade against “international terrorism,” the Republican party collected $1,211,908 compared to $322,028 for the Democrats. At the same time, lobbying expenses for the leading producer of GMOs were officially $21 million between 1998 and 2001, with a record of $7.8 million in 2000, the year of Bush’s election. [i]

Probably more decisive than these political expenses—rather modest in American terms—was the ability to infiltrate, illustrated by a system already glimpsed in the case of bovine growth hormone: the revolving door, at which, according to Smith, “Monsanto is the national champion.” “Take the Bush administration,” he said, showing me a list covering several pages. “Four important departments are headed by people close to Monsanto, either because they’ve received contributions from the company or because they have worked directly for it. Attorney General John Ashcroft was backed by Monsanto when he ran for reelection in Missouri, and the company supported Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services [which oversees the FDA], when he ran for governor in Wisconsin. Ann Venneman, the secretary of agriculture, was on the board of directors of Calgene, owned by Monsanto. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the CEO of Searle, a Monsanto subsidiary. And let’s not forget Clarence Thomas, who was a lawyer for Monsanto before working for Senator Danforth of Missouri and later being appointed to the Supreme Court.”

On Smith’s list, which can in part be found on the Web, one discovers that the revolving door moves people in at least four directions.25 First, consider movements from the White House to Monsanto. For example, Marcia Hale, former assistant to President Bill Clinton for intergovernmental affairs, was appointed director of international government affairs for Monsanto in 1997. Her colleague Josh King, former director of production for White House events, has continued his career as director of global communications in Monsanto’s Washington office. Mickey Kantor, U.S. trade representative from 1992 to 1997 and commerce secretary from 1996 to 1997, immediately thereafter joined the company’s board of directors, and so on.

The second direction is that taken by former members of Congress and their staffs, who have become registered lobbyists for the company, such as former Democratic congressman Toby Moffett, who became a political strategist for Monsanto, and Ellen Boyle and John Orlando, former congressional staffers later hired as lobbyists.

The revolving door also moves people from the regulatory agencies to Monsanto. We have already seen that Linda Fisher was appointed Monsanto vice president for governmental affairs in 1995 after serving as assistant administrator of the EPA, and William Ruckelshaus, who headed the agency from May 1983 to January 1985, later joined the company’s board of directors. Similarly, Michael Friedman, former deputy director of the FDA, was hired by Monsanto’s pharmaceutical subsidiary Searle.

But the flow of people is even stronger in the other direction, from Monsanto to governmental or intergovernmental agencies. Recall that in 1989 Margaret Miller moved from the company’s labs to the FDA. Her colleague Lidia Watrud joined the EPA. Virginia Meldon, former Monsanto public relations director, was hired by the Clinton administration. More recently, Rufus Yerxa, former chief counsel for Monsanto, was appointed U.S. representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2002, and in January 2005, Martha Scott Poindexter was hired by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry after serving as director of governmental affairs for Monsanto’s Washington office. Finally, Robert Fraley, one of the “discoverers” of Roundup Ready soybeans, who became a Monsanto vice president, was named a technical adviser to USDA.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sat Feb 06, 2016 2:28 am

Part 2 of 2

Dan Glickman: “I Had a Lot of Pressure on Me”

“You know, the revolving door is not just in agriculture. It tends to be in many, many areas, finance areas, health care.” These were the words not of an anti-GMO activist but of Dan Glickman, Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture from March 1995 to January 2001, whom I interviewed in Washington on July 17, 2006. Known for having been a strong advocate of biotechnology, he had been familiar with the USDA long before taking charge of it: he had represented Kansas in Congress for eighteen years and chaired the House Agriculture Committee.

When he arrived at this strategic department, which then had an annual budget of $70 billion and more than 100,000 employees throughout the country, it had changed a good deal since being established in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, who called it the “people’s department,” because it was supposed to be at the service of farmers and their families, then 50 percent of the population. One hundred and forty years later, its many detractors call it the “Agribusiness Department” or “USDA, Inc.” because it is accused of serving the interests of the companies that control the production, processing, and distribution of food. “These industry-linked appointees have helped to implement policies that undermine the regulatory mission of USDA in favor of the bottom-line interests of a few economically powerful companies,” writes Philip Matera in a 2004 article titled “USDA, Inc.: “How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the US Department of Agriculture.”26

To illustrate his argument, the former journalist, now working at Good Jobs First in Washington, took the example of biotechnology, for which, he said, the USDA had become one of the most fervent promoters. Begun under the first Bush administration, this direction was followed by the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, whose campaign director was Mickey Kantor, later U.S. trade representative and commerce secretary, and, as I’ve already noted, later a member of the Monsanto board of directors. In 1999, the intransigent American trade representative became famous for the harsh comments and the threats he made against his European counterparts when they announced their intention to label GMO products. In this area, his greatest ally was Dan Glickman.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch once referred to Glickman as “one of biotechnology’s leading boosters, admonishing reluctant Europeans not to stand in the way of progress.”27 Clinton’s agriculture secretary firmly believed in the benefits of genetic manipulation: “I believe that biotechnology has enormous potential for consumers, for farmers, and for the millions of hungry and malnourished people in the developing world” was the language he was still using in April 2000 in a speech to the Council for Biotechnology Information. 28 He had already seen the fervor of people on the opposite side of the issue: at the World Food Summit, held under the auspices of the FAO in Rome in November 1996, governments had just committed themselves to cutting the numbers of the malnourished in half by 2015, and the American representative was holding a press conference. Greenpeace activists who had gotten forged press credentials stood up, took off their clothes, and displayed anti-GMO slogans on their naked bodies as they pelted Glickman with Roundup Ready soybeans.

Appointed Secretary of Agriculture just after Monsanto’s transgenic soybeans had gone on the market, Dan Glickman was the one who authorized all subsequent GMO crops. When I met him in July 2006, he had completely changed hats: in September 2004 he had been appointed CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, which brings together the six majors in Hollywood. I had asked to interview him, of course, because of the position he had held in the Clinton administration, but also because he had expressed some regrets in a Los Angeles Times article published on July 1, 2001: “Regulators even viewed themselves as cheerleaders for biotechnology. It was viewed as science marching forward, and anyone who wasn’t marching forward was a Luddite.”

I read him the quotation and asked him why he had said that.

“When I became secretary of agriculture [in 1995], . . . most of the regulatory climate was basically focused on approvals, approvals of the crops, facilitating the transfer of the technology into agriculture in this country and pushing the export regime for these. I found that there was a general feeling in agribusiness and inside our government in the U.S. that if you weren’t marching lock-step forward in favor of rapid approvals of GMO crops, then somehow you were anti-science and anti-progress.”

“Do you think that the Monsanto soy, for instance, should have received more scrutiny?”

“Well, I think that, frankly, 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. And certainly when I became secretary, given the fact that I was in charge of the department regulating agriculture, I had a lot of pressure on me to push the issue too far, so to speak. 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 where I said we needed to more thoroughly think through the regulatory issues on GMOs. And I had some people within the Clinton administration, particularly in the U.S. trade area, that were very upset with me. They said: ‘How could you, in agriculture, be questioning our regulatory regime?’”

Mickey Kantor was probably involved in that pressure. The speech Glickman mentioned did contain some surprises, breaking as it did with the line he had followed until then. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on July 13, 1999, the secretary of agriculture began with a stirring tribute to the “promise of biotechnology,” speaking of “bananas that may one day deliver vaccines to children in developing countries.” (In this vein, I might mention that eight years later we were still waiting for the appearance of these magical GMOs that had been announced back in the 1980s. Except for plants resistant to herbicides or producing insecticides, we have seen nothing.)

“With all that biotechnology has to offer, it is nothing if it’s not accepted,” Glickman went on in his speech, before speaking the words that so infuriated his colleagues in foreign trade and likely Monsanto. “This boils down to a matter of trust, trust in the science behind the process, but particularly trust in the regulatory process that . . . must stay at arm’s length from any entity that has a vested interest in the outcome. At the end of the day many observers, including me, believe some type of informational labeling is likely to happen.”29

The words were cautious, but they were the ones picked up by the press the next day. His conclusion was a real shot across Monsanto’s bow: “Industry needs to be guided by a broader map and not just a compass pointing toward the bottom line. Companies need to continue to monitor products, after they’ve gone to market, for potential danger to the environment and maintain open and comprehensive disclosure of their findings. . . . We don’t know what biotechnology has in store for us in the future, good and bad, but . . . we’re going to make sure that biotechnology serves society, not the other way around.”

Glickman says today that he would not change a word of his 1999 speech. “The Congress never really got into it too much.”

“Why?”

“Well, first of all, it’s complicated, okay? Any issue that is technical and complicated is very hard for a legislative body to get into. After all, like in Europe, in the United States most members of Congress are not scientists.”

Scientists under the Influence

The point may seem simplistic, but I am convinced that it explains in part politicians’ lack of interest in the issues raised by biotechnology. For my part, it took me months of intense work before I could claim to have come to a reasoned and reasonable opinion about genetic manipulation. I would even say that Monsanto has been able to gain acceptance for its products so easily precisely because it was able to take advantage of the fact that it was a “complicated subject” that only scientists seemed able to master. To guarantee its domination, the company understood that it had to control the scientists who discussed the subject and to make sure that they spoke in the right places, such as international forums sponsored by UN organizations and renowned journals and universities.

Evidence is provided by an internal Monsanto document marked “company confidential” that arrived mysteriously (clearly from a whistle-blower) at the office of GeneWatch, a British association that keeps a close watch on GMO issues.30 This ten-page “Monthly Summary,” made public on September 6, 2000, details the activities of Monsanto’s Regulatory Affairs and Scientific Outreach team during the months of May and June 2000. “The leaked report shows how Monsanto are trying to manipulate the regulation of GM foods across the globe to favour their interests,” said Dr. Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UK’s director, in a press release. “It seems they are trying to buy influence with key individuals, stack committees with experts who support them, and subvert the scientific agenda around the world.”

The document congratulates the team for having been “instrumental in assuring that key internationally recognized scientific experts were nominated to the FAO/WHO expert consultation on food safety which was held in Geneva this past month. The consultation and final report were very supportive of plant biotechnology, including support for the critical role of substantial equivalence in food safety assessments. . . . Information on the benefits and safety of plant biotechnology was provided to key medical experts and students at Harvard. . . . An editorial was drafted by Dr. John Thomas (Emeritus Professor of U. of Texas Medical School in San Antonio) to place in a medical journal as the first in a planned series of outreach efforts to physicians. . . . A meeting was held with Prof. David Khayat, an internationally well known cancer specialist, to collaborate on an article demonstrating the absence of links between GM food and cancers. . . . Monsanto representatives were successful at the recent Codex Food Labeling Committee meeting in maintaining two labeling options for further consideration by the committee.” There is much more of the same.

Among the scientists who generously cooperated with the Monsanto team’s initiatives, the report also refers to Domingo Chamorro from Spain, Gérard Pascal and Claudine Junien from France, and Nobel Prize winner Jean Daucet from France, who participated in the Forum des Biotechnologies launched by the team.

Reading this document makes it easier to understand why the WHO and the FAO organized a “consultation,” like the one described in the report, in Geneva from November 5 to 10, 1990. Titled “Strategies for Assessing the Safety of Foods Produced by Biotechnology,” it brought together representatives from international health authorities as well as “experts,” including James Maryanski as a member of the secretariat. [iii] Oddly, although no GMO had yet seen the light of day, this “consultation” produced the following peremptory diagnosis: “The DNA from all living organisms is structurally similar. For this reason, the presence of transferred DNA in produce in itself poses no health risk to consumers.” The reference cited in the appendix was the article published by Monsanto scientists a short time earlier in Nature on the transgenic growth hormone, which, as I have noted, had been strongly challenged.31

From then on, it is very clear that Monsanto played a major role in imposing, internationally and with no scientific data, the principle of “substantial equivalence.” It appeared, for instance, in 1993, in an OECD document entitled “Safety Evaluation of Foods Derived by Modern Biotechnology: Concepts and Principles.” This seventy-one-page document begins with a long argument designed to establish that “biotechnology” has existed ever since humanity learned how to select plants and hence that the techniques of genetic manipulation are only a modern extension of ancestral knowledge. On that basis, it argues: “For foods and food components from organisms developed by the application of modern biotechnology, the most practical approach to the determination of safety is to consider whether they are substantially similar to analogous conventional food product(s), if such exist.” To back up this new concept, which came out of nowhere, the report relies on the example of GMOs such as Calgene’s long-shelf-life tomato (which was, of course, withdrawn from the market) and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready tomato (which remained at the experimental stage).

Among the authors of this founding document was the ubiquitous James Maryanski as well as a representative of the President’s Council on Competitiveness. In an appendix, the document lists ten publications to consult, including one from the International Life Sciences Institute (established, it will be recalled, by agribusiness companies), the notorious document from the International Food Biotechnology Council drafted in part by Michael Taylor, and the report of the WHO/FAO 1990 “consultation.” Like the other documents cited as references, none of these publications involves scientific studies conducted to assess the safety of GMOs, for a simple reason: there were none.

A year later, it was the turn of the WHO to carry the torch for this vigorously conducted propaganda campaign. From October 31 to November 4, 1994, it sponsored a workshop with an unambiguous title: “Application of the Principle of Substantial Equivalence to the Safety Evaluation of Foods or Food Components from Plants Derived by Modern Biotechnology.” This time the “principle of substantial equivalence” was carved in stone, even though there was still no new scientific evidence. And to prove that their work was indeed serious, the participants in the workshop, including Dr. Roy Fuchs from Monsanto, pointed out that “the comparative approach was first proposed by WHO/FAO, and was further developed by OECD.”

The circle was fully completed two years later when the FAO and the WHO hammered home the point—two UN organizations amount to something— by organizing a second joint consultation, from September 30 to October 4, 1996 (in which both James Maryanski and Roy Fuchs participated). The timing was critical: the first shipments of Roundup Ready soybeans were already on their way to Europe. The final report, which is unavailable online (though I managed to get hold of a copy), is frequently cited as the international document of reference for the principle of substantial equivalence. It includes the following “scientific” information: “When substantial equivalence is established for an organism or food product, the food is regarded to be as safe as its conventional counterpart and no further safety consideration is needed. . . . When substantial equivalence cannot be established, it does not necessarily mean that the food product is unsafe. Not all such products will necessarily require extensive safety testing.”

A Questionable Study

As Sussex University professor of science policy Erik Millstone pointed out in 1999: “The concept of substantial equivalence has never been properly defined; the degree of difference between a natural food and its GM alternative before its ‘substance’ ceases to be acceptably ‘equivalent’ is not defined anywhere, nor has an exact definition been agreed by legislators. It is exactly this vagueness which makes the concept useful to industry but unacceptable to the consumer. Moreover, the reliance by policy makers on the concept of substantial equivalence acts as a barrier to further research into the possible risks of eating GM foods.”32 Monsanto used and abused the concept, and it had no qualms about rewriting its history to vindicate the safety of its GMOs by referring to the imprimatur of UN organizations, precisely the goal of the series of maneuvers I have just recounted. “A basic principle in the regulation of foods and feeds produced from plant biotechnology is a concept called ‘substantial equivalence,’ ” explains an April 1998 promotional document for Roundup Ready soybeans addressed to farmers. “It was established in the early 1990s by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).” This unanswerable argument is frequently set forth in official company documents, usually along with another designed to contribute scientific backing to it: “To establish ‘substantial equivalence,’ the composition of Roundup Ready soybeans was compared to conventional varieties. . . . In total, more than 1,800 independent analyses were conducted and conclusively demonstrated that the composition of RR soybeans is equivalent to other soybeans on the market. . . . In addition, feeding studies performed across the zoological spectrum (broiler chickens, dairy cattle, catfish, and rats) demonstrate the nutritional equivalence of Roundup Ready soybeans.”

Thus began the final phase of the “action plan” developed, as I have noted, in October 1986. Knowing that the launch of Roundup Ready soybeans had to go off without a hitch, because it would blaze a trail for all subsequent GMOs, Monsanto decided to use the mechanism of “voluntary consultation,” provided for in the FDA policy statement. Roy Fuchs, Monsanto’s director of regulatory science and an assiduous attendee of UN workshops, was asked to design two studies intended to provide scientific proof that the principle of substantial equivalence had a solid basis (which confirms that, at this stage, the documents of the FAO, the WHO, and the OECD were purely theoretical and were not based on any scientific data.

The first study was designed to compare the organic composition of Roundup Ready soybeans with that of conventional soybeans, particularly by measuring levels of protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrates, and isoflavones in the two varieties—that is, all the already known components of the plant. In other words, there was no attempt to find out whether transgenic soybeans contained in their molecular structure unknown or (slightly) transformed substances due to the effects of genetic manipulation. Under the supervision of Stephen Padgette, the study was finally published in 1996 in the Journal of Nutrition, a reputable scientific journal, and its conclusions were unsurprising, as can be gathered from the title: “The Composition of Glyphosate- Tolerant Soybean Seeds Is Equivalent to That of Conventional Soybeans.”33

But this study was far from universally accepted, particularly because its authors had “omitted” some data, as Marc Lappé, a noted toxicologist and the founder of CETOS (Center for Ethics and Toxics) in Gualala, California, discovered. “What did the omitted data show?” he asked in the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “Significantly lower levels of protein and one fatty acid in Roundup Ready soybeans. Significantly lower levels of phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that can potentially affect levels of key estrogen-boosting phytoestrogens, for which soy products are often prescribed and consumed. And higher levels of the allergen trypsin inhibitor in toasted Roundup Ready soy meal than in the control group of soy.”34

A neophyte may find these technical details a little daunting, but I have taken the trouble to quote them here to emphasize that when it comes to food safety, one cannot be satisfied with the approximation implicit in the principle of substantial equivalence. In other words, either transgenic soybeans are exactly similar to their conventional counterparts or they are not. And if they are not, in what way are they different, and what are the possible health risks?

Precisely in order to settle the issue, Marc Lappé (who died in 2005) and his colleague Britt Bailey decided to repeat Stephen Padgette’s experiment. “For our study,” Bailey told me when I met her in San Francisco in October 2006, “we planted Roundup Ready soybean seeds and seeds from conventional lines, with the only difference being that the Monsanto seeds had the Roundup Ready gene. We grew the plants in strictly identical soil, with the same climatic conditions for each of the two groups. The transgenic soy plants were sprayed with Roundup following Monsanto’s directions. At the end of the season we harvested the beans from the two groups and we compared their organic composition.”

“What were the results?”

“We offered our study to the Journal of Medicinal Food, which sent it out for review. It was accepted and publication was scheduled for July 1, 1999.35 Oddly, a week before publication, when according to normal practice the article was still under embargo, the American Soybean Association [ASA], known to be tied to Monsanto, issued a press release claiming that our study was not rigorous. We never found out the source of the leak.”

I located the press release from the association (whose vice president I met soon thereafter): “ASA has confidence in the regulatory reviews of Roundup Ready soybeans conducted by U.S. and global regulatory agencies and the underlying scientific studies that found equivalence in isoflavone content between Roundup Ready soybeans and conventional soybeans.”36

“How do you explain the fact that Monsanto found the two soybeans equivalent?” I asked Britt Bailey.

“I think the principal flaw in their study is that they did not spray the plants with Roundup, which completely invalidates the study, because Roundup Ready soybeans are made to be sprayed with the herbicide.”

“How do you know?”

“Because of a blunder by Monsanto’s legal department.”

Britt Bailey showed me a letter from Tom Carrato, one of Monsanto’s attorneys, to Vital Health Publishing, which was then about to publish a book she and Marc Lappé had written on GMOs. This letter, dated March 26, 1998, says a great deal about the company’s practices. After explaining that he had learned of the imminent publication from an article in Winter Coast Magazine, he writes with disconcerting self-confidence: “The authors of the book assert that Roundup is ‘toxic.’ What do they mean by toxic? Every substance that exists, whether synthetic or found in nature, is able to produce toxicity at some dose. . . . Anyone who has consumed several cups of coffee or observed a person drinking alcohol understands the dose-response relationship and the idea of threshold. . . . These errors must be corrected prior to publication . . . because they disparage and potentially libel the product.” Later in the letter, Carrato defends the study conducted by Stephen Padgette, and makes a damaging admission: “Studies of unsprayed [emphasis added] RR soybeans show no difference in estrogen levels. Those studies were reported in a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Nutrition in January 1996.”

“Anyway, the letter was effective,” said Bailey, “because our publisher decided not to publish the book and we had to find another one.”37

“Do you know whether the Roundup residues inevitably found on transgenic soybeans have been assessed from a health perspective?”

“Never. While we were writing our book, we discovered that in 1987 the authorized level of glyphosate residue on soybeans was 6 ppm. Then, strangely, in 1995, a year before Roundup Ready soybeans came on the market, the level permitted by the FDA rose to 20 ppm. I talked to Phil Errico of the toxicology branch of the EPA, and he told me: ‘Monsanto provided us with studies showing that 20 ppm did not pose any health risk and the authorized level was changed.’Welcome to the United States.”

To be fair, Europe hardly does any better. According to information published in Pesticides News in September 1999, in response to the importation of transgenic soybeans from America, the European Commission multiplied the authorized level of glyphosate residue by 200, raising it from 0.1 ppm to 20 ppm (mg/kg).

Bad Science

“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” Phil Angell declared in October 1998. “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”38 The quotation didn’t even bring a smile to the face of James Maryanski, who claimed that he ate transgenic soy every day, “because in the United States, 70 percent of foods in the grocery store contain GMOs. FDA is confident that the soybean, in terms of food safety, is as safe as other varieties of soybean.”

“How is the FDA confident about that?”

“It’s based on all the data that the company provided to the FDA, that was reviewed by FDA scientists. And so it’s not in a company’s interest to try to design a study in some way that would mask results.”

One would like to share Maryanski’s optimism, but it is seriously open to question. At least that is the impression I had after a long conversation with Professor Ian Pryme on November 22, 2006, in his laboratory in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Bergen, Norway. In 2003, this British scientist and a Danish colleague, Professor Rolf Lembcke (since deceased), decided to analyze the few toxicological studies that had been conducted on transgenic foods.39 One of the studies was the second one published in 1996 by Monsanto researchers intended to assess the possible toxicity of Roundup Ready soybeans.40

“We were very surprised to find that there were only ten studies in the scientific literature,” Pryme told me. “That’s really very few, considering what’s at stake.”

“How do you explain it?”

“First you should know that it is very hard to get hold of samples of transgenic materials because companies control access to them. The companies require a detailed description of the research project and they are very reluctant to provide their GMOs to independent scientists for testing. When you insist, they invoke ‘business confidential.’ It’s also very hard to get financing for studies on the long-term effects of transgenic foods. Along with colleagues from six European countries, we requested funds from the European Union, which refused on the pretext that the companies themselves had already conducted that kind of test.”

“What can you say about Monsanto’s study on rats, chickens, catfish, and dairy cattle?” I asked.

Pryme continued, “It’s very important, because it was used as the basis for the principle of substantial equivalence and it explains in part the absence of further studies. But I have to say that it is very disappointing from a scientific point of view. If I had been asked to review it before publication, I would have rejected it, because the data provided are insufficient. I would even say that it is bad science.”

“Did you try to get the raw data from the study?”

“Yes,” Pryme answered, “but unfortunately, Monsanto refused to provide them on the grounds that they were business confidential. That was the first time I had heard that argument used about research data. Normally, as soon as a study is published, any researcher can ask to consult the raw data, to repeat the experiment and contribute to scientific progress. Monsanto’s refusal inevitably gives the impression that the company has something to hide: either that the results were not really convincing, or they were bad, or that the methodology and protocol used were not good enough to stand up to rigorous scientific analysis. To conduct our study we had to be satisfied with the summary provided by the company to the regulatory agencies. And there are some very troubling things.

“For example, about the rat study, the authors write: ‘Except for the brown color, the livers appeared normal at necropsy . . . it was not considered to be related to genetic modification.’ How could they claim that without taking liver sections and examining them under the microscope to be sure that the brown color was normal? They were apparently satisfied with eyeballing the organs, which is not a scientific way of conducting a post mortem study. Likewise, the authors state: ‘Livers, testes, and kidneys were weighed’ and ‘several differences were observed,’ but ‘they were not considered to be related to genetic modification.’ Once again, how could they claim that? They apparently did not analyze the intestines or the stomachs, which is a very serious fault in a toxicological study. They also say that forty tissues were sampled but they don’t say which ones. Besides, I only know of twenty-three tissue types that have been recorded, such as skin, bone, spleen, thyroid. What are the others?

“In addition, the rats used for the experiment were eight weeks old: too old. For a toxicological study you usually use young test animals to see whether the substance tested has an impact on the development of the growing organism. The best way of masking possible harmful effects is to use older test animals, especially because, despite the anomalies observed, the study lasted for only twenty-eight days, which is not long enough. The last paragraph of the study provides a good sense of the general impression: ‘The animal feeding studies provide some reassurance that no major changes occurred in the genetically modified soybeans.’ I don’t want ‘some reassurance,’ but 100 percent reassurance! In fact, when you know that this study justified the introduction of GMOs into the food chain you can only be worried. But what can be done? Look at what happened recently to my colleague Manuela Malatesta,” Pryme concluded.

Fear of Monsanto

I met Manuela Malatesta on November 17, 2006, at the University of Pavia. She was still traumatized by the recent events that had forced her to leave the University of Urbino, where she had worked for more than ten years. “It was all because of a study on the effects of transgenic soybeans,” she told me.41 The young researcher had done something that no one else had: she had repeated Monsanto’s 1996 toxicological study. She and her research team had fed one group of mice a normal diet (control group) and another with same diet to which had been added Roundup Ready soybeans (experimental group). The test animals were followed from the time they were weaned until they died, on average two years later. “We studied the rats’ organs under an electron microscope,” she told me, “and we found statistically significant differences, particularly in the nuclei of the liver cells of mice fed with transgenic soybeans. Everything seemed to show that the livers had had increased physiological activity. We found similar changes in pancreas and testicle cells.”

“How do you explain those differences?”

“Unfortunately, we would have liked to follow up these preliminary studies, but we couldn’t because the financing stopped. So we only have hypotheses: the differences can be due to the composition of the soybeans or to the Roundup residues. Let me specify that the differences we observed were not lesions, but the question is what biological role they may play in the long run, and for that we would need another study.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Well, research on GMOs is now taboo. You can’t find money for it. We tried everything to find more financing, but we were told that because there are no data in the scientific literature proving that GMOs cause problems, there was no point in working on it. People don’t want to find answers to troubling questions. It’s the result of widespread fear of Monsanto and of GMOs in general. Besides, when I discussed the results with some of my colleagues, they strongly advised me against publishing them, and they were right, because I lost everything—my laboratory, my research team. I had to start over from nothing in another university, with the help of a colleague who supported me.”

“Do GMOs worry you?”

“Now they do. Yet at the beginning I was convinced that they didn’t pose any problems, but now the secrets, the pressures, and the fear surrounding them make me doubt.”

_______________

Notes:

i. For 2000, 2001, and 2002, these expenses also include lobbying by Pharmacia, which acquired  Monsanto in 2000 and resold it in 2002. These figures can be consulted on the Web site of Capital  Eye: www.capitaleye.org-monsanto.asp. (Translator’s note: This site is no longer active.)

ii. According to his CV, James Maryanski served as an expert for WHO and FAO, then as a U.S. delegate  to the Codex Alimentarius Committee and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and  Development (OECD).

iii. According to his CV, James Maryanski served as an expert for WHO and FAO, then as a U.S. delegate  to the Codex Alimentarius Committee and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and  Development (OECD).
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sat Feb 06, 2016 2:30 am

9: Monsanto Weaves Its Web, 1995–1999

What you’re seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.

—Robert Fraley, co-president, Monsanto’s Agriculture Sector, quoted in Farm Journal, October 1996


“As a scientist actively working in the field, I find it’s very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.” Broadcast on August 10, 1998, on ITV’s documentary program World in Action, these few words about GMOs ruined the career of Arpad Pusztai, an internationally renowned biochemist who had worked for thirty years, from 1968 to 1998, at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. “I think they’ll never forgive me for saying that,” he told me when I met him at his home on November 21, 2006. A sly grin lit up the face of the nearly eighty-year-old man.

“Who are they?” I asked, suspecting the answer.

“Monsanto, and everyone in Great Britain who blindly supports biotechnology. I would never have thought that I could be a victim of practices that recall what Communist regimes did to their dissidents.”

The Accursed Potatoes

The son of a Hungarian resistance fighter opposing Nazi occupation, Arpad Pusztai was born in Budapest in 1930. When Soviet tanks invaded the Hungarian capital in 1956, he fled to Austria, where he was granted political refugee status. After obtaining a degree in chemistry, he won a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, allowing him to study in the country of his choice. He chose Great Britain, which represented for him the “country of freedom and tolerance.” After earning a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of London, he was hired by the prestigious Rowett Institute, considered the best European nutrition laboratory. He specialized in lectins, proteins naturally found in certain plants that act as insecticides and protect the plants against aphid infestation. While some lectins are toxic, others are harmless for humans and mammals, such as the lectin from snowdrop plants, to which Pusztai devoted six years of his life. His expertise was so renowned that in 1995, the Rowett Institute offered to renew his contract even though he had reached retirement age, so that he could take charge of a research program financed by the Scottish Agriculture, Environment, and Fisheries Ministry.

This large contract, with funding of £1.6 million and employing thirty researchers, had the purpose of assessing the impact of GMOs on human health. “We were all very enthusiastic,” Arpad Pusztai told me, “because at the time, when the first transgenic soybean crop had just been planted in the United States, no scientific studies had been published on the subject. The ministry thought our research would provide support for GMOs as they were about to arrive on the British and European markets. Because, of course, no one thought—least of all me, a strong supporter of biotechnology— that we were going to find problems.” He was so enthusiastic that when Monsanto’s toxicological study on Roundup Ready soybeans was published in the Journal of Nutrition in 1996, he thought that it was “very bad science” and that he and his team could do better. “I thought if we could show, with a scientific study worthy of the name, that GMOs were really harmless, then we would be heroes.”

With the ministry’s agreement, the Rowett Institute decided to work on transgenic potatoes that its researchers had already successfully developed, inserting into them the gene encoding snowdrop lectin (known as GNA). “Preliminary studies had shown that potatoes effectively resisted aphid infestation,” Pusztai told me. “We also knew that in its natural state GNA was not harmful to rats, even when they absorbed a dose eight hundred times that produced by GMOs. What remained to be done was to assess the possible effects of transgenic potatoes on rats.”

The protocol of the experiment provided for following four groups of rats through the period of 110 days from weaning: “In human terms, that would be the equivalent of following a child from the age of one to nine or ten, that is, during the time of rapid growth of the body.” In the control group, rats were fed with conventional potatoes. In the two experimental groups, the test animals were fed with transgenic potatoes from two different lines. Finally, in the fourth group, the menu included conventional potatoes to which a quantity of natural lectin directly extracted from snowdrops had been added. “My first surprise,” he recalled, “came when we analyzed the chemical composition of the transgenic potatoes. First, we found that they were not equivalent to conventional potatoes. Further, they were not equivalent among themselves, because from one line to the next, the quantity of lectin expressed could vary up to 20 percent. This was the first time I expressed doubts about whether genetic manipulation could be considered a technology, because for a classic scientist like me, the very principle of technology means that if a process produces an effect, that effect has to be strictly the same if you repeat the same process under identical conditions. In this case, apparently, the technique was very imprecise, because it did not produce the same effect.”

“How do you explain it?”

“Unfortunately, I only have hypotheses that I never had the means to verify. To clearly understand the imprecision of what is inaccurately called ‘biotechnology,’ generally carried out with a gene gun, think of William Tell, who was blindfolded before he shot an arrow at a target. It is impossible to know where the gene that is shot lands in the target cell. I think the chance location of the gene explains the variability in the expression of the protein, in this case, lectin. Another explanation may have to do with the presence of the promoter 35S, derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus, intended to promote the expression of the protein, but no one has ever examined the side effects it might produce. The fact remains that the transgenic potatoes had unexpected effects on the rats’ organisms.”

“What effects did you observe?”

“First, the rats in the experimental groups had brains, livers, and testes less developed than those in the control group, as well as atrophied tissue, particularly in the pancreas and the intestine. We also found a proliferation of cells in the stomach, and that is troubling, because it can facilitate the development of tumors caused by chemical products. Finally, the immune system of the stomach was overactive, which suggests that the rats’ organisms were treating the potatoes as foreign bodies. We were convinced that the process of genetic manipulation was the source of these malfunctions and not the lectin gene, whose safety in its natural state we had tested. Apparently, contrary to what the FDA claimed, the insertion technique was not a neutral technology, because by itself it produced unexplained effects.”

The Arpad Pusztai Affair: Hounding the Dissident

Deeply troubled, Pusztai spoke of his worries to Professor Philip James, the director of the Rowett Institute, who was also one of the twelve members of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the U.K. body charged with assessing the safety of GMOs before they were marketed. Convinced of the importance of the study’s results, the director authorized Pusztai to participate in an ITV television program recorded in June 1998, seven weeks before broadcast, in the presence of the institute’s public relations director. “In the interview,” Pusztai explained, “I revealed no details about the study we had not yet published, but I answered frankly the questions I was asked, because I thought it was my ethical duty to alert British society to the unknown health effects of GMOs at a time when the first transgenic foods were being imported from the United States.”

The European Community had adopted directive 90/220, regulating the release of GMOs in Europe, on April 23, 1990. It provided for a model procedure that was still in force eight years later (and continues in force today): to obtain authorization for the marketing of transgenic foods or plants, a company must present a technical dossier to a member state, whose national bodies assess the risks of the product for humans and the environment. After examination, the commission sends the dossier to the other member states, who have sixty days to request additional analyses if they think it necessary. Following this procedure, the commission authorized the importation of RR soybeans (as well as a Bt corn produced by Novartis) in December 1996, relying on the 1996 Monsanto study. The stakes were particularly high because, in the framework of the 1993 GATT agreements, Europe had agreed to limit the surface planted in oil-producing crops (soybeans, canola, sunflowers) to permit the sale of American stocks, forcing farmers to buy fodder from the United States.1

The ITV interviewer asked Pusztai: “Does the lack of tests of GMOs worry you?”

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

“Would you eat transgenic potatoes?”

“No. And as a scientist actively working in the field, I find it’s very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.”

At first, the directors of the Rowett Institute saw nothing to criticize in the sentence repeatedly aired in promotional spots for World in Action on August 9, 1998. The next day, the Institute was flooded with interview requests, and Professor James was only too pleased to praise a study that brought such publicity. The night of the broadcast, August 10, the director could not keep himself from calling Pusztai to congratulate him for his performance on television: “He was very enthusiastic,” Pusztai recalled. “Then, suddenly, everything changed.”

On August 12, while a mob of reporters was waiting outside his house, Pusztai was summoned to a meeting where Philip James, accompanied by a lawyer, told him that his contract had been suspended, he would be dismissed, and the research team would be dissolved. The computers and documents connected to the study were confiscated and the telephone lines cut. Pusztai was put under a gag order under threat of prosecution. Then began an appalling disinformation campaign designed to sully his reputation and, by the same token, the validity of his warning. In several interviews, James claimed that Pusztai had made a mistake and, contrary to what he believed, had used not snowdrop lectin but another lectin called concanavalin A (con A), derived from a South American bean and known to be toxic.

In other words, the effects observed in the rats were due not to genetic manipulation but to con A, a “naturally occurring poison,” as Dr. Colin Merritt, British spokesman for Monsanto, hastened to point out.2 “Instead of rodents fed with genetically altered potatoes, Dr. Pusztai had used the results of tests carried out on rats treated with poison,” according to the Scottish Daily Record.3 “If you mix cyanide with vermouth in a cocktail and find that is not good for you, I don’t draw sweeping conclusions that you should ban all mixed drinks,” was the ironic comment of Sir Robert May, a government science advisor.4 In France, Le Monde picked up this “news,” which was especially strange because it involved the world’s greatest specialist on lectin: “Dr. Pusztai confused data from a line of transgenic potatoes, the study of which had barely begun, and other data from experiments consisting of adding insecticidal proteins to rat food. The potatoes implicated therefore had nothing transgenic about them.”5 “It was terrible,” Pusztai told me, still upset. “And I didn’t even have the right to defend myself.”

James attacked on a second front: he asked a committee of scientists to conduct an audit of the study. One wonders why. If the experiment was distorted by a mistake concerning the lectin used, then there was no reason to consider its results any further. And yet, on October 28, 1998, the Rowett Institute published the results of the audit: “The Audit Committee is of the opinion that the existing data do not support any suggestion that the consumption by rats of transgenic potatoes expressing GNA has an effect on growth, organ development, or the immune function. Thus the previous suggestion . . . was unfounded.”6

But the affair had caused such a stir that the House of Commons asked “the dissident” to testify, thereby forcing James to grant him access to the data from his study. Pusztai then decided to send the data to twenty scientists around the world with whom he had worked in the course of his long career and who agreed to prepare a report comparing the data to the audit conducted for the institute. Published on the front page of The Guardian on February 12, 1999, the conclusions of the report were hard on the committee set up by James. After noting that the audit had deliberately ignored some results, the authors of the report specified that they “showed very clearly that the transgenic GNA potato had significant effects on immune function and this alone is sufficient to vindicate entirely Dr. Pusztai’s statements.” 7 They took the occasion to criticize “the harshness of his treatment by the Rowett [Institute] and even more by the impenetrable secrecy surrounding these events,” and they called for a moratorium on the cultivation of transgenic crops.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee began its hearings a few days later. When the committee members pointed out the contradictions, James took refuge behind a new argument, one that had already been used by Monsanto spokesman Colin Merritt in an interview in The Scotsman: “You cannot go around releasing information of this kind unless it has been properly reviewed.”8 In other words, what the head of the Rowett Institute now criticized Pusztai for was having spoken before the study was published according to normal procedures.

The argument clearly did not persuade Dr. Alan Williams, a member of the committee. Speaking of the role of the advisory committee charged with authorizing the marketing of transgenic foods, of which James was a member, Williams addressed him with typical British irony: “There is a real problem for us here, and that is that you say that it is not right to discuss unpublished work; as I understand, all of the evidence taken by the advisory committee in that report comes from the commercial companies, all of that is unpublished. This is not democratic, is it? We cannot discuss the evidence because it is not published; there is no published evidence. So we leave it completely to the advisory committee and its good members to take all of these decisions on our behalf, where all of the evidence comes, simply, in good faith, from the commercial companies? . . . There is a hollow democratic deficit here, is there not?”9

Dr. Williams’s remarks were at the heart of the immense controversy unleashed by the Pusztai affair, producing no fewer than seven hundred articles in the month of February 1999 alone. As the New Statesman observed at the time: “The GM controversy has divided society into two warring blocs. All those who see genetically modified food as a scary prospect— ‘Frankenstein foods’—are pitted against the defenders.”10 “Everybody over here hates us,” complained Dan Verakis, Monsanto’s European spokesman.11

Indeed, a confidential poll carried out in October 1998 at Monsanto’s request, a copy of which was leaked to the press, revealed “an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology. . . . A third of the public is now extremely negative.”12 Seven months later, the trend was confirmed by another survey commissioned by the British government, which found that “1 percent of the public thought that GM was good for society” and that the majority of those surveyed did not trust the authorities to “provide honest and balanced information.”13

And it had to be acknowledged that the skeptics were right. While major food distributors—including Unilever England, Nestlé, Tesco, Sainsbury, Somerfield, and the British subsidiaries of McDonald’s and Burger King— publicly committed themselves to avoiding any transgenic ingredients, it was discovered that the government of Tony Blair was engaged in rather strange maneuvers to regain public confidence. According to a confidential document obtained by the Independent on Sunday, the government had prepared a veritable battle plan “to rubbish research by Dr. Arpad Pusztai” by “compiling a list of eminent scientists to be available for broadcast interviews and to author articles” that “will help us to tell a good story.”14 Among the scientists under consideration, the document mentioned those of the eminent Royal Society, which did indeed actively collaborate in the “rubbishing” campaign.

Monsanto, Clinton, and Blair: Effective Pressures

“The Royal Society was really ferocious,” said Pusztai, and Dr. Stanley Ewen, who was sitting beside him, nodded in agreement. A renowned pathologist at the University of Aberdeen, Ewen had been involved in the study of transgenic potatoes, responsible for assessing their impact on the rats’ gastrointestinal system. In a memorandum to the parliamentary committee, he had pointed out the results of his analysis: “Significant elongation of the crypt in the rats fed raw genetically modified food is the main finding. In addition I have counted the chronic inflammatory cells within the lining cells and found increased numbers of these cells in the rats fed raw genetically modified potatoes.”15

Ewen still finds it hard to talk about the affair, which permanently destroyed his faith in the independence of science. “It felt as though the ground had given way beneath my feet,” he said. “Impossible to understand: Monday, our work was wonderful, and Tuesday it was ready for the garbage heap. I myself was forced to retire, as though I had made a serious error.” With a distressed air, he recounted how the Royal Society deliberately trampled on his reputation for reliability and impartiality in order to denigrate the results of the study.

On February 23, 1999, nineteen members of the Royal Society published an open letter in the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian stigmatizing the researchers who had “triggered the GM food crisis by publicizing findings that had not been subjected to peer review.” This was false, because in his brief television interview Pusztai had not said a word about the results of his study, but merely called for more vigilance about GMOs in general. On March 23, the Royal Society published a critical analysis of the research, concluding that it was “flawed in many aspects of design, execution, and analysis.”

Investigating this strange initiative, The Guardian discovered that the Royal Society had established a “rebuttal unit” whose purpose was “to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro-biotech line and to counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.”16 The Royal Society’s attitude was so unusual that on May 22, 1999, The Lancet decided to speak out. It published an editorial declaring: “Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health.” Deliberately jumping into the controversy, it announced that it would finally publish the study by Pusztai and Ewen. Following normal procedures, it sent a copy of the article to six independent reviewers, who were not supposed to discuss the content before publication, announced for October 1999.17

Unfortunately, violating the established codes of conduct, one of the reviewers, John Pickett, went so far as to vehemently criticize the article in the columns of The Independent five days before publication.18 Worse, he sent the proof of the article to the Royal Society, which went after Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet. “There was intense pressure . . . to suppress publication,” Horton told The Guardian, referring to a “very aggressive phone call” from Professor Peter Lachmann, former vice president and biological secretary of the Royal Society and president of the Academy of Medicine, who led him to understand that publication “would have implications for his personal position as editor” (an allegation Lachmann subsequently denied).19

“It’s not surprising,” said Ewen. “The Royal Society supported the development of GMOs from the beginning, and many of its members, like Professor Lachmann, work as consultants for biotechnology companies.” [i]

“Monsanto among them,” added Pusztai. “Besides, Monsanto was one of the private sponsors of the Rowett Institute as well as of the Scottish Agricultural Research Institute, a connection that was natural because one of its prominent members, Hugh Grant, now CEO of Monsanto, is Scottish.” [ii]

“There is no doubt in my mind that the decision to stop our work was made at the highest level,” said Ewen. “I received confirmation in September 1999. I was at a dinner dance, and a Rowett Institute director was sitting at the next table. At one point, I said to him: ‘Isn’t it terrible, what happened to Arpad?’ He answered: ‘Yes, but don’t you know that Downing Street called the director twice?’ Then I realized there was something inter national in the affair. Tony Blair’s office had been pressured by the Americans, who thought our study would harm their biotechnology industry, and particularly Monsanto.”

This information was indeed confirmed by a former administrator of the Rowett Institute, Professor Robert Orskov, who told the Daily Mail in 2003: “Phone calls went from Monsanto to Clinton. Clinton rang Blair and Blair rang James.”20

Robert Shapiro, the Guru of Monsanto

The affair may seem incredible. And yet we’ve already seen how Monsanto was capable of intervening at the highest levels of government or international organizations to impose what it openly called in its activity report for 1997 “Monsanto’s law.”21 When it made this odd confession, a few months before the Rowett Institute went into an uproar, the company was headed by Robert B. Shapiro, who had succeeded Richard Mahoney in April 1995, and remained CEO until January 2001.

Called “biotechnology’s chief evangelist,”22 the “image-maker,”23 and the “guru of Monsanto,”24 this lawyer from a well-to-do family in Manhattan was an exceptional figure in the history of the company: he was a Democrat and very close to the Clinton administration. That is presumably why the company contributed generously to the president’s reelection campaign in 1996 and Clinton praised Monsanto in his State of the Union address on February 4, 1997. Soon afterward, Shapiro was appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, which worked closely with Mickey Kantor, the trade representative and future Monsanto board member. In December 1998, Bill Clinton in person awarded the National Medal of Technology to Ernest Jaworski, Robert Fraley, Robert Horsch, and Stephen Rogers, the four inventors of Roundup Ready soybeans.

At the time, as former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has testified, the Democratic administration was enthralled by Bob Shapiro’s talk about the “promises of biotechnology” that would produce a “revolution in agriculture, food, and health.”25 The Monsanto CEO painted in glowing terms the benefits of a technique that, according to him, was capable of shifting the world into the post-industrial age for the good of humanity, with a strength of conviction that even his harshest opponents acknowledge. In one of the very few interviews he granted, published in the Harvard Business Review on January 1, 1997, shortly after the reelection of Bill Clinton, he explained with some vigor how GMOs represented the solution for the future of the planet. After pointing out that 1.5 billion people were living in “conditions of abject poverty” and that the population would “double by sometime around 2030,” he launched into an almost messianic diatribe on the consequences facing humanity. “It’s a world of mass migration and environmental degradation at an unimaginable scale. At best, it means the preservation of a few islands of privilege and prosperity in a sea of misery and violence. . . . The whole system has to change. There’s a huge opportunity of reinvention. . . . At Monsanto, we are trying to invent some new businesses around the concept of environmental sustainability. . . . Current agricultural practice isn’t sustainable: we’ve lost something on the order of 15 percent of our topsoil over the last twenty years or so, irrigation is increasing the salinity of the soil, and the petrochemicals we rely on aren’t renewable. Most arable land is already under cultivation. Attempts to open new farm land are causing severe ecological damage. So in the best case, we have the same amount of land to work with and twice as many people to feed. It comes down to resource productivity. . . . The conclusion is that new technology is the only alternative.”26

Then Shapiro entered onto the philosophical portion of his presentation. Biotechnology, in his view, was an “information technology” that made it possible to replace the use of raw materials and energy, harmful to the environment, with a sophisticated use of genetic information. “Using information is one of the ways to increase productivity without abusing nature. A closed system like the Earth’s can’t withstand a systematic increase of material things, but it can support exponential increases of information and knowledge. If economic development means using more stuff, then those who argue that growth and environmental sustainability are incompatible are right. . . . But sustainability and development might be compatible if you could create value and satisfy people’s needs by increasing the information components of what’s produced and diminishing the amount of stuff.”27 To illustrate his argument, Shapiro took the example of pesticides, 90 percent of which are dispersed into the environment at the moment of their application: “If we put the right information in the plant we use less stuff and increase productivity. . . . Information technology will be our most powerful tool.”

“Can we trust the maker of Agent Orange to genetically engineer our food?” was the question posed by Business Ethics, “the magazine of corporate responsibility,” which also interviewed Shapiro at the beginning of 1997.28 Reading what Shapiro was saying at the time, I asked myself precisely the same question: was he sincere, and did he really believe what he said? To make up my mind, I dissected the career of the Harvard graduate, who liked to strum his guitar with Joan Baez in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. From that time he had maintained an open distaste for neckties and an unfailing attachment to the Democrats. After working in the administration of Jimmy Carter (who became an ardent supporter of biotechnology), Shapiro was hired in 1979 as legal director of the pharmaceutical company Searle, headed by none other than Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense for Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977 and for George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006.

Searle was at the time in conflict with the FDA, which had decided to suspend the sale of aspartame, a highly controversial artificial sweetener, because it was suspected of causing brain tumors. Curiously, the product, sold under the name NutraSweet, was reauthorized in 1981, when Rumsfeld joined the newly elected Reagan administration. In the meantime, Shapiro, who had been in charge of handling the aspartame controversy, had been appointed head of the NutraSweet division. He negotiated with Coca-Cola the introduction of the sweetener in the new Diet Coke line of products. The story is that he carried off a major victory: he secured agreement that the name “NutraSweet”—that is, the Searle brand—would be printed on the labels with its logo (a little swirl), which prevented competitors that also made aspartame from selling it to Coca-Cola.

Monsanto bought Searle in 1985, making it the pharmaceutical division of the multinational company at the very time that Monsanto was requesting approval for the sale of bovine growth hormone. Shapiro, who often described himself as a “passionate gardener,” became head of Monsanto’s agricultural division in 1990 and in that position was in charge of handling Posilac, the trade name of bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.

I was troubled by this detail in his career, which cast a veil of suspicion over the ecological and Third World–friendly talk that he took up soon afterward, and I tried to contact the former Monsanto CEO. In 2006, he was head of the Belle Center of Chicago, an NGO established in St. Louis in 1984 to serve children with disabilities. In a New Yorker article, Michael Specter wrote that Shapiro was “one of America’s best paid executives” ($20 million in 1998); nonetheless, “he always replied to mail on the day it was sent, often within minutes.”29 He lived up to his reputation: I sent him a first e-mail on September 29, 2006, which he answered within a half hour, politely declining my request for an interview: “It’s been some years since I was professionally engaged with biotechnology. . . . I no longer feel competent to speak on these subjects.”

After learning that this man in his sixties, the father of two adult sons, had started a second family, on September 30 I asked him the only question that I had really set my heart on: “As the mother of three young girls, I would like to know what kind of milk you give your children: ordinary milk [sold with no distinction between the conventional and the transgenic, because they are blended and cannot be labeled] or organic milk?” The reply was almost immediate: “I have two young boys. My 10 year old is lactose intolerant, my 8 year old drinks lots of 2% milk and ice cream. We’ve never bought organic dairy products.” When I read this, meaning that Shapiro’s sons were not concerned by this affair, I could not help recalling what Business Ethics had written in January 1997: “It was very clear that Shapiro spoke in two voices. When discussing sustainability, he sounded hopeful. It was obvious he spoke from the heart. Yet, when responding to questions about Posilac, he reworded the queries, and provided the well rehearsed answers Wall Street investors would want to hear.”30

The New Monsanto Will Save the World

Right after becoming CEO of Monsanto in April 1995, Shapiro launched the great “cultural revolution” that was intended to move the old chemical company into the era of “life sciences.” This new concept, based on the application of molecular biology to agriculture and health, was officially presented at a Global Forum the “guru” organized in June 1995 in Chicago. Five hundred employees from all company divisions were invited to discover his new policy in a convivial atmosphere that contrasted with the company’s legendary rigidity. Encouraging the participants to call him Bob, the “Renaissance man” in shirtsleeves moved the audience to tears when he spoke of the shame that some employees felt in saying what company they worked for.31 This time was past, because the “new Monsanto” was going to “save the world.” Armed with the new slogan, “Food, Health, Hope,” Shapiro electrified his troops by talking of plants producing biodegradable plastics, corn supplying antibodies against cancer, canola or soybean oil protecting against cardiovascular disease. Witnesses have told of how an employee, Rebecca Tominack, excited by his speech, went up to the CEO and said, “I’m with you,” took her name tag off, and put it on Shapiro in a gesture of allegiance repeated by a hundred other employees.

“I was really very impressed by Robert Shapiro’s visionary speech, which made us want to work to make the world better,” I was told by Kirk Azevedo, a Monsanto employee from 1996 to 1998, whom I met on October 14, 2006, in a small town on the West Coast where he was working as a chiropractor. Trained as a chemist, he had been contacted by a headhunter and resigned from Abbott Laboratories, where he had been in charge of testing new pesticides, to join what he then considered to be the “enterprise of the future.” His job was to promote two varieties of transgenic cotton that Monsanto was about to launch on the market to seed dealers and California farmers: a Roundup Ready cotton and a Bt cotton, genetically manipulated to produce an insecticidal lectin (like Arpad Pusztai’s transgenic potatoes) because of the insertion of a gene taken from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

“I was really very enthusiastic,” Azevedo told me. “I did think that these two GMOs would bring about a reduction in the use of herbicides and insecticides. But the first dissonant note came three months after I was hired. I’d been invited to St. Louis to visit headquarters and participate in a training program for new hires. At one point, when I was speaking fervently in favor of biotechnology that would make it possible to reduce pollution and hunger in the world, a Monsanto vice president took me aside and said to me: ‘What Robert Shapiro says is one thing, but what counts for us is making money. He talks to the public, but we don’t even understand what he’s talking about.’ ”

“Who was it?”

“I’d rather not identify him,” Azevedo said hesitantly. “In any event, at the time I thought that he must be an exception. That lasted until the summer of 1997, when I experienced my second great disillusionment. I was in a field assessing an experimental plot of Roundup Ready cotton, whose cultivation was not yet authorized. With me was a Monsanto scientist, a cotton specialist. We were discussing what we would do with the cotton after it was picked. Since I was very pro-GMO, I said we should be able to sell it at the price of ‘premium California,’ because after all there was only one gene’s difference from the original variety. That’s when he told me: ‘No, there are other differences; transgenic cotton plants produce not only the Roundup resistance protein but also other unknown proteins as a product of the manipulation process.’

“I was flabbergasted. There was a lot of talk at the time about mad cow disease—bovine spongiform encephalitis, and its human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, severe pathologies caused by macroproteins known as prions. I knew that our transgenic cotton seeds would be sold as cattle fodder, and I said to myself that we hadn’t even bothered to find out whether those ‘unknown proteins’ were prions. I told the Monsanto scientist about my concerns, and he answered that they didn’t have time to worry about such things. I later tried to alert my colleagues, and bit by bit I was pushed to the sidelines. I also contacted the University of California and representatives of the state agriculture department, but I met nothing but indifference. I was so disturbed that I finally decided to resign so I wouldn’t be an accomplice to such irresponsible conduct. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I left, I gave up a very good salary and I sacrificed tens of thousands of stock options. In fact, Monsanto buys its employees’ silence.”

“Now what do you think of Shapiro’s speech?”

“It was hot air. When I recall the way we worked at the time, it was a constant race against the clock, and the only goal was to dominate the seed market. If you really want to save the world, you start by carefully verifying the safety of the products you’re making.”

The Race for Seeds

One thing had to be acknowledged about Robert Shapiro: the “visionary” was also a formidable businessman who had managed in record time to transform a chemical giant into a near monopoly operator in the international seed market. But the battle was far from over, because when Stephen Padgette’s team finally had its Roundup Ready soybeans in 1993, no one at Monsanto knew what to do with them. Of course, the first instinct was to file a patent on the precious gene, but then what?

Monsanto was not a seed company, and the only solution was to sell its discovery to people in the business. Dick Mahoney, the CEO at the time, thought immediately of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which controlled 20 percent of the American seed market (40 percent for corn and 10 percent for soybeans). Founded in Des Moines in 1926 by Henry Wallace (vice president of the United States from 1941 to 1945), the company was known primarily for having invented the hybrid corn varieties that made its fortune.

The underlying principle was that instead of allowing corn to be pollinated naturally through the air, they forced plants to inbreed to obtain pure lines with stable genetic characteristics. The results were hybrids that produced higher yields but whose seeds were practically sterile. For seed dealers, this was a godsend because farmers were forced to buy their seeds every year. This hybridization technique worked only for allogamous plants, that is, plants produced by fertilization of the ovum of one plant by pollen from another plant, not for autogamous plants such as wheat or soybeans, where each plant reproduces itself with its internal male and female organs. I will later describe how this detail did not escape Monsanto, which got around it by means of the patent system.

In 2002, Daniel Charles reported in detail the amazing story of Monsanto’s mutation in the 1990s in Lords of the Harvest, which is the basis for what follows. When Robert Shapiro, who was then head of Monsanto’s agricultural division, met Tom Urban, chief executive of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, to give him a sales pitch for his Roundup Ready gene, he was received coolly: “ ‘Congratulations! You’ve got a gene! Guess what? We’ve got fifty thousand genes! . . . You don’t hold the keys to the market. We do! You ought to pay us for the right to put your gene in our varieties!’ ”32 At the time, Shapiro had no choice: after years of costly research, the company’s instructions were that finally it was time to bring in some money. A first agreement was signed with Pioneer, which agreed to introduce the Roundup Ready gene into its soybean varieties. In return, remembering his success with NutraSweet for Diet Coke, Shapiro got an agreement to have “Roundup Ready” printed on the seed bags. But in the end, there was nothing to boast about. As Charles points out: “The Roundup Ready gene had become a vehicle to sell more of Monsanto’s chemicals, but little more.”33

A second set of negotiations then began over the other genetic characteristic that Monsanto had in its arsenal: the Bt gene, which was an urgent matter, because several companies were claiming authorship (leading to an interminable patent battle). In this case, the GMO was not associated with the sale of a pesticide, because the gene itself was the pesticide, designed expressly to kill the corn borer, a very common corn parasite. Robert Shapiro therefore secured payment for this performance from Pioneer Hi-Bred and carried away the sum of $38 million in full payment. In both cases, the amounts paid by the Des Moines seed dealer turned out to be trifling in light of the huge success that both GMOs had immediately, principally with Roundup Ready soybeans. When he became CEO of Monsanto in April 1995, Shapiro tried to renegotiate the two agreements, without success.

“It was the most rapid and enthusiastic adoption of a technical innovation in the history of agriculture,” according to Charles, who reports that Roundup Ready soybeans covered 1 million acres in the United States in 1996, 9 million in 1997, and 25 million in 1998.34 To understand the initial enthusiasm for Roundup Ready crops, you have to put yourself in the shoes of an American farmer such as John Hoffman, vice president of the American Soybean Association, considered close to Monsanto.

I met him at harvest time in 2006 on his huge Iowa farm, whose size he didn’t want to reveal. “Before I used the Roundup Ready technique,” he told me in the middle of a transgenic soybean field of several dozen acres, “I had to plow the earth to prepare a seedbed. Then I had to spray several selective herbicides to get rid of weeds in the course of the season. Before the harvest, I had to inspect my fields and pull up the final weeds by hand. Now, I don’t plow my fields, I spray Roundup once, then I sow directly in the remains of the last harvest. This is what’s called ‘zero tillage,’ which reduces soil erosion. Then halfway through the season, I do a second spraying of Roundup, and that’s usually enough until the harvest. The Roundup Ready system allows me to save time and money.”

In the summer of 1995, demonstrations were organized in the plains of the Midwest, and farmers flocked to them, drawn by these plants with a strange power. “‘We’d actually let farmers run the sprayer,’ says [a seed dealer]. ‘And then they could drive by on the way to the coffee shop and watch the fields. It was a fantastic show. . . . They were just watching it at first. Then they couldn’t believe it. And then they just wanted to buy it.’ ”35 A Minnesota seed dealer says: “It was just a phenomenon, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like it again. Farmers were just crazy to get Roundup Ready soybeans. They bought every bag.”36

So great was the enthusiasm for RR soybeans that the major American seed dealers besieged St. Louis to get hold of the magic gene. But Shapiro had learned from his experience with Pioneer. From now on, he would control the game: to get the right to insert the gene in their varieties, seed companies had to sign a licensing agreement, which meant that Monsanto collected royalties on each transgenic seed sold. In addition, Shapiro insisted on a clause that was later attacked as improper by the antitrust authorities: companies had to sign a contract agreeing that 90 percent of the herbicide-resistant GMOs they sold would contain the Roundup Ready gene. [iiI] This was a way of cutting the ground out from under the feet of Monsanto’s competitors, such as the German company AgrEvo, which was forced to give up marketing GMOs resistant to the herbicide Liberty (known as Basta in Europe) because it could not find a seed company partner.

Monsanto’s CEO changed his strategy in 1996. Realizing that he had to own the seeds to earn the highest profits, he launched an ambitious program for the acquisition of seed companies, which profoundly transformed agricultural practices around the world. Shapiro didn’t skimp to reach his goals: he paid $1 billion for Robert Holden’s Foundation Seeds, which had a strong presence in the American corn market, with annual profits of only a few million dollars: “Overnight, Ron Holden became a very rich man.”37 Then Shapiro bought a whole string of companies: Asgrow Agronomics, the largest soybean dealer in the United States; DeKalb Genetics (for $2.3 billion), the secondlargest American seed company and the ninth-largest in the world, which had many subsidiaries and joint ventures, particularly in Asia; Corn States Hybrid Services; Custom Farm Seed; Firm Line Seeds (Canada); the British companies Plant Breeding International and Unilever; Sementes Agroceres, a leading force in the Brazilian corn market; Ciagro (Argentina); Mahyco, principal supplier of cotton seeds in India, along with Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, Eid Parry, and Rallis, three other Indian companies; the South African Sensako (wheat, corn, cotton); National Seed Company (Malawi); Agro Seed Corp (Philippines); not to mention the international division of Cargill, the largest seed dealer in the world, with branches in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South and Central America, that Monsanto bought for $1.4 billion.

In two years, Shapiro had spent more than $8 billion and made Monsanto the second largest seed company in the world after Pioneer. [iv] To finance this costly program of acquisitions, it had sold its chemical division to Solutia in 1997. But that was not enough: it had had to incur record indebtedness, backed by the stock market, which still believed at the time in the promise of biotechnology. Monsanto’s stock price climbed 74 percent in 1995 and 71 percent in 1996. Investors blindly followed the “guru of St. Louis” until the false move in 1998 that initiated his fall from grace.

The Terminator Patent: One Step Too Far for Monsanto

On March 3, 1998, a brief article in the Wall Street Journal announced that the USDA (then headed by Dan Glickman) and the Delta and Pine Land Company of Mississippi, the largest American cotton seed company, had jointly obtained a patent entitled “Control of Plant Gene Expression.” Behind this mysterious title lay a technique making it possible to genetically modify plants so that they produced sterile seeds. Developed by Melvin Oliver, an Australian scientist working in the USDA research laboratory in Lubbock, Texas, the technique was also called the “Technology Protection System” (understood to be transgenic), because it was designed to prevent farmers from resowing part of their crop, forcing them to buy seeds every year and pay royalties to GMO manufacturers. Concretely, the plant had been manipulated to produce a toxic protein when its growth was complete that made its seeds sterile.

Hope Shand, research director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian NGO since renamed the ETC Group (Erosion, Technology, Concentration), which fights for the protection of biodiversity and against the perverse effects of industrial agriculture, came across the article in the Wall Street Journal by chance. She immediately informed her boss, Pat Mooney, who said, “It’s Terminator!” referring to the legendary robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The expression stuck permanently to designate the sterilization technique and, beyond that, the overall aim of GMO producers. “You understand,” Mooney told me when I met him in Ottawa in September 2004, “this technique was a direct threat to food security, especially in developing countries where more than 1.5 billion people survive by saving seeds. Imagine that Terminator plants crossbreed with neighboring crops and make the seeds gathered by peasants sterile. It would be a catastrophe for them, but also for the biodiversity they maintain precisely because they continue to replant every year local varieties adapted to their climate and their soil.”

On March 11, 1998, RAFI published a communiqué titled “Terminator Technology: A Global Threat to Farmers, Biodiversity, and Food Security.” But it went practically unnoticed. “In fact,” Mooney said with a smile, “it was thanks to Monsanto that our campaign had worldwide success.” Two months later, Shapiro announced that he was in negotiations to acquire Delta and Pine for $1.9 billion. The news caused an international uproar, because Monsanto would be taking over the Terminator patent. NGOs concerned with ecology or development were not the only ones to react; disapproval was also expressed by the Rockefeller Foundation (which had sponsored the green revolution in the 1960s and generally supported biotechnology) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which publicly promised never to use Terminator in its seed programs. Feelings ran so high that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity voted for a moratorium—still in force ten years later—on field tests and the commercial use of Terminator. The crowning touch was that the antitrust division of the U.S. Justice Department challenged the acquisition. [v]

For Monsanto, the timing could not have been worse. Since the fall of 1997, all indicators in Europe had turned red. The first shipments of transgenic soybeans had been blocked in European ports on the initiative of Greenpeace, which was conducting a very effective campaign against “Frankenfood.” Fresh from its success in North America, where it had been able to avoid the labeling and segregation of GMOs, the company did not expect that Greenpeace would bring the machine to a halt. On May 26, 1998, the EU adopted Regulation 1139/98, ratifying the establishment of a labeling procedure for transgenic products. Even earlier in the year, Monsanto had convened emergency committees in St. Louis, Chicago, London, and Brussels. The decision was made to launch a massive advertising campaign in early June 1998 in Germany, France (costing 25 million francs), and Great Britain (at a cost of £1 million).

Designed by the English advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the campaign used the same basic slogan in all three countries: “Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions. Monsanto believes you should hear all of them.” Then came the addresses and phone numbers of the company’s principal opponents, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In France, the first ad adopted a condescending tone: “69 percent of the French are suspicious of biotechnology, 63 percent say they don’t know what it is. Fortunately, 91 percent know how to read.” Other messages adopted the messianic vision of Robert Shapiro, with his trademark moralizing tone: “As we stand on the edge of a new millennium, we dream of a tomorrow without hunger. To achieve that dream, we must welcome the science that promises hope. Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.” In an interview with the magazine Chemistry and Industry, Jonathan Ramsay, a Monsanto executive, summed up well the spirit of the campaign, which many considered very arrogant: “We will have succeeded if biotechnology becomes less the subject of Luddite superstition and more the subject of serious and informed public debate.”38

The campaign in Great Britain flopped immediately thanks to the intervention of the Prince of Wales, a champion of organic farming. As soon as the campaign was launched, he published an article in the Daily Telegraph titled “The Seeds of Disaster”: “I have always believed that agriculture should proceed in harmony with nature, recognising that there are natural limits to our ambitions. . . . We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the wider environment of releasing plants bred in this way. We are assured that these new plants are vigorously tested and regulated, but the evaluation procedure seems to presume that unless a GM crop can be shown to be unsafe, there is no reason to stop its use. . . . I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic modification, nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests.”39 The prince’s words were reported in all British newspapers, forcing Monsanto to acknowledge its mistakes, proof that the matter was serious. “We barged in,” Toby Moffett, vice president for international government affairs, admitted, “like someone barging in on someone’s private party. We weren’t European enough.”40

It was in this context that the Arpad Pusztai affair exploded. To crown Monsanto’s bad luck, the day after the broadcast of the Pusztai interview in August, the British Advertising Standards Authority received four complaints against Monsanto for deceptive advertising: in one of the campaign ads, the company claimed that its GMOs had received regulatory approval in twenty countries, including the United Kingdom.41 Piling on the mishaps, in September, the British magazine The Ecologist published a special sixty-five-page feature recounting the entire history of the company from its founding in 1905.42 The fourteen thousand copies of the first printing were pulped by Penwells, the printer who had worked for the magazine for twenty-five years, because of “pressures” whose source they never publicly identified. Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, had to find another printer, but two major British newsagents refused to distribute the new copies.43

CEO Musical Chairs

In any event, Robert Shapiro’s days of glory were at an end. Starting in the fall of 1998, Monsanto went into decline on Wall Street: “Monsanto stock has lost more than a third of its value in the last 14 months, and analysts believe that company executives could be forced into radical changes, possibly including breaking Monsanto into pieces.”44 Around the same time, Le Monde wrote: “Monsanto is now nothing but a kind of giant start-up in plant biotechnology, with revenues of $8.6 billion and losses of $250 million in 1998. Its recent numerous acquisitions in seed companies, sometimes paid for at premium prices, have cut into its profits. Investors are beginning to shun the company . . . and yesterday’s friends are turning away for fear of being discredited in turn.”45

The rout was so complete that Shapiro was forced to declare a cease-fire with his worst enemies: on October 6, 1999, he agreed to participate in a business conference organized by Greenpeace in London. Unable (or not daring) to appear in person, his presentation was recorded in St. Louis and transmitted by satellite onto a giant screen, where his face appeared “drawn and ashen,” according to the Washington Post.46 Making amends in front of a stunned audience, the CEO, who would resign some months later, said: “We have probably irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in this technology and our enthusiasm for it has, I think, been widely seen—and understandably so—as condescension or indeed arrogance.” Then, addressing Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK and a former agriculture minister, he promised “not to commercialize the technologies popularly known as terminator or sterile seed technologies,” and continued: “As we work to help develop constructive answers to all the questions that people around the world have at the dawning of this new technology, we are committed to engage openly, honestly and non-defensively in the kind of discussion that can produce good answers for all of us. . . . To me, that means, among other things, listening carefully and respectfully to all points of view.”

As he spoke those words, Shapiro was desperately seeking a partner to save the company. First, he held discussions with American Home Products, then with DuPont, but the deals fell through. Finally, on December 19, 1999, Monsanto announced its merger with Pharmacia and Upjohn, originally a Swedish pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey. “The terms of the merger signaled the failure of Monsanto’s guiding vision and of its creator, Robert Shapiro,” according to Michael Watkins, a researcher at Harvard Business School.47 Renamed Pharmacia, the new corporation was interested primarily in Searle, Monsanto’s pharmaceutical division, whose value was then estimated at $23 billion (it manufactured Celebrex, a leading medicine for arthritis). But it soon sought to separate from the agrichemical division of Monsanto, known as “the new Monsanto,” which it finally did in the summer of 2002 (at the same time that Pharmacia was absorbed by Pfizer).

The messianic vision of Robert Shapiro, who had dreamed of a company dedicated to the life sciences, was well and truly buried. When he left the company after the merger with Pharmacia in late 1999, the firm displayed its true face: it was indeed the largest supplier in the world of transgenic seeds, but it got 45 percent of its revenues from Roundup, which was threatened by the arrival of generics. Shapiro was replaced by the Belgian Hendrik Verfaillie, who was in turn forced to resign in December 2002 because of “poor financial performance.”48 He was succeeded by the Scotsman Hugh Grant (still CEO in early 2008), who had the delicate task of getting things back on an even keel, while GMOs enjoyed anything but universal support in North America, not even in farmers’ fields.

_______________

Notes:

i. According to The Guardian, Lachmann was a consultant for such companies as Geron Biomed, Adprotech, and SmithKline Beecham.

ii. In a February 16, 1999, press release, the Rowett Institute confirmed that it had signed a contract with Monsanto for a figure amounting to 1 percent of its annual budget.

iii. The percentage was later reduced to 70 percent after the intervention of regulatory authorities.

iv. Monsanto continued its acquisitions in the early 2000s. With the purchase of Seminis (vegetable seeds) in 2005, the company became the largest seed company in the world.

v. Monsanto did not actually acquire Delta and Pine, and the patent, until 2006
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

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10: The Iron Law of the Patenting of Life

Monsanto Company activities and the use of its products positively affect agricultural sustainability.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2005


“One of my biggest concerns is what biotechnology has in store for family farmers,” Dan Glickman declared in the July 13, 1999, speech that so irritated his government colleagues involved with foreign trade. “We’re already seeing a heated argument over who owns what. Companies are suing companies over patent rights even as they merge. Farmers have been pitted against their neighbors in efforts to protect corporate intellectual property rights. . . . Contracts with farmers need to be fair and not result in a system that reduces farmers to mere serfs on the land or create an atmosphere of mistrust among farmers or between farmers and companies.”

The Weapon of Patents

When he spoke these iconoclastic words, Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture was touching on one of the subjects at the heart of opposition to GMOs: the subject of patents. “We have always criticized the doubletalk of biotechnology companies,” Michael Hansen of Consumers Union told me. “On one hand, they say there is no need to test transgenic plants because they are exactly the same as their conventional counterparts; on the other, they file for patents, on the grounds that GMOs are unique creations. You have to make up your mind: either Roundup Ready soybeans are identical to conventional soybeans, or else they’re not. They can’t be both depending on Monsanto’s interests.”

Before the late 1970s it would have been inconceivable to file a patent application for a plant variety, even in the United States, where the 1951 patent law clearly provided that patents applied exclusively to machines and industrial processes, but in no case to living organisms, hence not to plants. The patent system was at its origin a tool of public policy intended to stimulate technical innovations by granting the inventor a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of a product for a period of twenty years. “The criteria for granting patents are usually very strict,” according to Paul Gepts, a researcher in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Davis, whom I interviewed in July 2004. “They are three in number: the novelty of the product, that is, the fact that the product did not exist before the inventor created it; the fact that it is not obvious; and its usefulness for industry. Before 1980, the legislature had excluded living organisms from the field of patents, because it thought they could under no circumstances satisfy the first criterion: even if humans intervened in their development, living organisms exist before human action and, moreover, they can reproduce on their own.”

With the advent of genetic manipulation, the question of plant varieties “improved” by the technique of genetic selection described in Chapter Seven arose. Concerned with recovering their investments, seed companies won legislation which granted to their varieties what was called “plant variety protection,” enabling them to sell user licenses to dealers or to include a kind of “tax” in the price of their seeds. [i] But a certificate of plant variety protection was only a distant cousin of a patent, because it did not prohibit farmers from keeping part of their harvest to sow their fields the next year, nor researchers such as Paul Gepts or breeders from using the variety concerned to create new ones. This was known as the breeder’s and research exemption.

Everything changed in 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision with serious consequences declaring a transgenic microorganism patentable. The case had begun eight years earlier when Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a geneticist working for General Electric, had filed a patent application for a bacterium that he had been altered to enable it to consume hydrocarbons. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had logically rejected the application according to the terms of the 1951 law. Chakrabarty appealed and won in the Supreme Court, which stated: “Anything under the sun that is made by man can be patented.”

This startling decision had opened the way to what has been called the “patenting of life”: based on U.S. precedents, the European Patent Office in Munich granted patents on microorganisms in 1982, on plants in 1985, on animals in 1988, and on human embryos in 2000. Theoretically, these patents were granted only if the living organism had been altered by genetic engineering, but in reality the process has gone beyond GMOs alone. Patents have now been granted for non-transgenic plants, particularly if they have medicinal properties, in total violation of existing laws. “Ever since biotechnology came on the scene, the common-law system of patents has been abused,” Christoph Then, the Greenpeace representative in Munich, told me in February 2005. “To get a patent, it is no longer necessary to present a real invention; often all you need is a simple discovery. Someone discovers a therapeutic use for a plant, the Indian neem tree, for instance, describes it, isolates it from its natural context, and files a patent application for it. The deciding factor is that the description be done in a laboratory, and no attention is paid to the fact that the plant and its virtues have been known by others for thousands of years.”1

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants more than seventy thousand patents a year, about 20 percent of which involve living organisms. It took a long struggle for me to get an interview with a representative of this huge institution, which is under the authority of the Commerce Department and employs seven thousand agents. A citadel in the Washington suburbs, the Patent Office is a strategic location for a company like Monsanto, which secured 647 patents associated with plants between 1983 and 2005.

“The Chakrabarty case opened the door to a very exciting period,” said John Doll of the biotechnology department when I met him in September 2004. “We now grant patents on genes and transgenic plants and animals, any product of genetic engineering.”

“But a gene is not a product,” I said, a little taken aback by his triumphant tone.

“Sure,” he agreed, “but once a company has been able to isolate the gene and describe its function, it can get a patent.”

The New Agricultural Order

I have already described how, as soon as Monsanto researchers had managed to cobble together the genetic cassette allowing the creation of Roundup-resistant soybeans, the company filed a patent application and received the patent without difficulty. The patent ran until 2004 in the United States. In June 1996, the European Patent Office in turn granted a patent to RR soybeans, which applies by extension to any plant variety into which the cassette can be inserted: “maize, wheat, rice, soybean, cotton, sugar beet rapeseed, canola, flax, sunflower, potato, tobacco, tomato, lucerne, poplar, pine, apple, and grape,” which tells a lot about the company’s plans. [ii]

Monsanto then had to find the means to enforce its intellectual property rights. One might think that the strategy of first selling user licenses to seed dealers and then acquiring the principal seed companies would amply secure its return on investment, but this was not the case. Monsanto’s real problem was farmers themselves, who around the world still had the annoying habit of saving part of their crop to replant it (except for hybrids, which do not include autogamous plants such as soybeans and wheat). “In some countries, farmers commonly save seed for planting the following year,” cautiously noted Monsanto’s 2005 Pledge Report, which the company has published periodically since the creation of the “new Monsanto.” “When the seed contains a patented trait, such as the Roundup Ready trait, this traditional practice creates a dilemma for the seed company that developed the variety.”2 In the 10-K form that has to be sent to shareholders and filed with the SEC every year, the language was more direct. Under the heading “Competition,” the company stated in 2005: “The global markets for our products are highly competitive. . . . In certain countries, we also compete with government-owned seed companies. Farmers who save seed from one year to the next also affect competitive conditions.”

The company’s language seems to suggest that the practice of saving seeds exists only in distant and backward countries. This was so far from being the case that when Robert Shapiro came up with the brilliant idea of having all farmers who bought RR soybean seeds sign a “technology use agreement,” he encountered a good deal of resistance. The agreement, which dealers were required to present, provided for payment of a technology fee, set first at $5 and then at $6.50 per acre of soybeans, and, most important, a commitment not to replant any harvested seeds the following year. Another clause required growers to use only Monsanto’s Roundup, not any of the many generics on the market, after the expiration of the patent in 2000.

The terms of the contract that must be signed are still draconian: farmers who violate it risk having to pay a heavy penalty or being sued in state or federal court in St. Louis (which has certain advantages for the company). Monsanto also assumes the right to review customers’ accounts going back three years and to inspect their fields at the slightest suspicion: “If Monsanto reasonably believes that a grower has planted saved seed containing a Monsanto genetic trait, Monsanto will request invoices or otherwise confirm that the fields in question have been planted with newly purchased seed. If this information is not provided within 30 days, Monsanto may inspect and test all of the grower’s fields to determine if saved seed has been planted.”3

The provision also covered seed dealers, one of whose activities used to be to clean the seeds farmers had harvested before they could replant them, by removing the chaff. In Lords of the Harvest, Daniel Charles tells of an Ohio seed dealer who was forced against his will to post a notice in his barn that was supposed to protect him from growers Monsanto called “pirates”: “important information for individuals saving seed and replanting . . . Seed from Roundup Ready soybeans cannot be replanted. It is protected under U.S. patents 4,535,060; 4,940,835; 5,633,435 and 5,530,196. A grower who asks to have Roundup Ready seed cleaned is putting the seed cleaner and himself at risk.”4 “In the end,” Charles remarks, “most farmers went along. They signed, grumbled, and joined the new agricultural order.”5 According to Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the practice instituted by Monsanto effected a “dual revolution.” “First,” he told me when I met him in October 2006, “it had the right to patent seeds, which was absolutely prohibited before the advent of biotechnology; second, it extended the rights of the manufacturer granted by patents. For that I would adopt the image that Monsanto likes to use. It compares a transgenic seed to a rental car: when you’ve finished using it, you return it to the owner. In other words, the company doesn’t sell seeds, it just rents them, for one season, and it remains the permanent owner of the genetic information contained in the seed, which is divested of its status as a living organism and becomes a mere commodity. Finally, farmers became users of Monsanto’s intellectual property. When you realize that seeds are the basis for feeding the world, I think there are reasons to be worried.”

“But what means does Monsanto have to enforce its contract?”

“They’re huge. I was stunned when I found out that they’d hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency. [iii] Monsanto pays its agents to comb the countryside looking for cheaters, and if necessary it seeks out informants. The company set up a toll-free number where anyone can denounce his neighbor. It spends a lot of money to enforce its rule in the fields.”

Of course, all this could have been avoided if Robert Shapiro had been able to use the Terminator technique, which would have allowed him to resolve the company’s “dilemma” without spending a penny and above all without having to set up a very unpopular war machine.

The Gene Police

“Biotech crops are protected by U.S. patent law,” John Hoffman, vice president of the American Soybean Association, told me with his perpetual smile. “And so I may not in any way save seed to replant the following year. It’s something that is a protection for Monsanto, for biotech companies. Because they literally invest millions and millions of dollars to produce this new technology we are very happy to use.” Listening to this Iowa farmer brought to mind Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, who said the same thing in an interview with Daniel Charles: “We are interested in protecting our intellectual property, and we make no apologies for that. . . . It’s as hard as that. There’s a gene in there that’s the property of Monsanto, and it’s illegal for a farmer to take that gene and create it in a second crop. It’s necessary from the point of view of return on investment, and it’s against the law.”6

“And how can Monsanto know that someone, for instance, replanted harvested seeds?” I asked Hoffman.

“I’m not sure how to answer that, no. That’s a good question for Monsanto.”

Unfortunately, as I said earlier, Monsanto executives refused to see me, as I was told by the company’s public relations director, Christopher Horner. I would have been interested in interviewing Horner because, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, he was the one who had to come to the defense of his employer when the Center for Food Safety in Washington published a very disturbing report in November 2004. Titled Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, this very detailed eighty-four-page document confirmed the existence of what is known in North America as the “gene police,” operated by Pinkerton in the United States and Robinson in Canada.7 It also reported that the company had been conducting a veritable witch hunt in the American prairies since 1998, leading to “thousands of investigations, nearly 100 lawsuits, and numerous bankruptcies.”8

“The number of farmers sued represents a minuscule number of the 300,000 or so who use the company’s technology,” Horner retorted. “Lawsuits are the company’s last resort.”9 But Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, criticized the company’s “dictatorial methods.” He claimed it was capable of anything to “impose its control over all phases of agriculture.” The report he supervised does chill the blood. After noting that 85 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States in 2005 were transgenic, along with 84 percent of canola, 76 percent of cotton, and 45 percent of corn, it goes on to say: “No farmer is safe from Monsanto’s heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions. Farmers have been sued after their field was contaminated by pollen or seed from someone else’s genetically engineered crop; when genetically engineered seed from a previous year’s crop has sprouted, or ‘volunteered,’ in fields planted with non–genetically engineered varieties the following year; and when they never signed Monsanto’s technology agreement but still planted the patented crop seed. In all of these cases, because of the way patent law has been applied, farmers are technically liable.”

To conduct its study, the CFS consulted data supplied by the company itself, which frequently publicizes the cases of “seed piracy” it has detected in the country—an unusual degree of transparency designed to dissuade anyone tempted to violate its iron law. In 1998, for example, the company investigated 475 cases of “piracy,” and up to 2004, the annual average was more than 500. The CFS compared these data with a list of lawsuits filed against American farmers by Monsanto, compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which by 2005 had recorded ninety suits.10 The average damage amount won by the company was $412,259, with a high of $3,052,800, for a total of $15,253,602 (in a few exceptional cases growers were exonerated). The suits led to the bankruptcy of eight farmers. Mendelson told me, “These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, because they cover only the rare cases that went to court. The vast majority of farmers who were sued, very often unjustly, decided to negotiate a settlement because they were afraid of the costs of a trial against Monsanto. And none of these settlements show up because they all contained a confidentiality clause. That’s why we were able to analyze only the cases that ended with a verdict.”

The CFS report discloses that Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million and a staff of seventy-five to conduct its “investigations.” Its primary source of information is the toll-free number 1-800-ROUNDUP, which the company officially inaugurated on September 29, 1998, in a formal press release: “Dial 1-800-ROUNDUP; tell the rep that you want to report some potential seed law violations or other information. It is important to use ‘land lines’ rather than cellular phones due to the number of people who scan cellular calls. You may call the information in anonymously but please leave your name and number if possible for any needed follow up.”11 According to Daniel Charles, the tip line received fifteen hundred calls in 1999, five hundred of which triggered an investigation.12 Questioned about the line, criticized for “fraying the social fabric that holds farming communities together,” in the measured words of the Washington Post, Karen Marshall, a spokesperson for Monsanto, replied simply: “This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any revolution is painful. But the technology is good technology.”13

“We Own Anybody That Buys Our Products”

Most farmers who had lost cases contacted by the CFS told the same story: one day an agent, usually a Pinkerton man, knocked on their door, sometimes accompanied by the police. He asked to see their invoices for seeds and herbicides and demanded that he be allowed to go into their fields, where he took plant samples and photographs. The tone was often threatening, even brutal. Sometimes no agent ever appeared, but the grower was sent a summons on the basis of a “dossier” made up of aerial views and analyses of plants taken from the farmer’s property without his or her knowledge. Not infrequently, farmers who were sued denied that they could be bound by a technology agreement (twenty-five out of ninety), because the dealer who sold them the seed had never talked about it, because they signed without really reading it, or because the practice was so out of the ordinary. This was the case for Homan McFarling, a Missouri farmer sued in 2000 for having “saved RR soybean seed,” something he never denied. The trial verdict required him to pay 120 times the cost of the saved seed, or $780,000, according to the terms of the agreement, which he didn’t even remember signing and of which he didn’t have a copy. He appealed and, unusually, won a reduction in damages: the court questioned “the constitutionality of a contract asking for enormous damages for what was a very small actual loss.”14 The amount he finally paid is unknown.

Others were penalized even though they didn’t know they were growing GM crops. For example, Hendrik Hartkamp, a native of the Netherlands, bought a ranch in Oklahoma in 1998. On the property he found a store of soybean seeds, which he planted. On April 3, 2000, he was sued by Monsanto for “patent law violation,” because some of his seeds were transgenic. After ruining himself in conducting his defense, he sold his ranch at a loss and left the United States for good. “The terrible thing,” Joseph Mendelson told me, “is that courts don’t distinguish between those who knowingly reuse their seeds and those who did not plant GMOs intentionally. The only thing that counts is that the gene was found in a field: whatever the reason, the owner of the field is held liable.” When a farmer claimed that he had never signed a contract but settled for $100,000 (hence remaining anonymous), a Monsanto representative retorted with remarkable frankness: “We own you—we own anybody that buys our Roundup Ready products.”15

The CFS report also reveals that for at least six of the ninety suits filed by Monsanto the agreement presented by the company had a forged signature, “a practice documented as common among seed dealers.” This happened, for example, to Eugene Stratemeyer, an Illinois farmer who fell into a trap set by an “inspector”: in July 1998, a man appeared at his farm and asked to buy a small quantity of seeds. Since the planting season was over, he explained that he wanted to do an erosion test. Stratemeyer agreed to help him out. Ordered to pay damages of $16,874.28 for patent infringement, Stratemeyer countersued Monsanto for use of forgery.

When farmers decide to defend themselves by publicly challenging the prohibition of replanting part of their crop, they leave themselves open to harassment or even a carefully orchestrated campaign of slander in the media and in the eyes of all agricultural intermediaries. This is what happened to Mitchell Scruggs, a Mississippi farmer who had always admitted saving RR soybean and Bt cotton seeds. He saw this as an inalienable right that he defended on principle, but also because of the financial implications of Monsanto’s requirement. His calculation was simple: In 2000 he grew soybeans on 13,000 acres, 75 percent of them transgenic. To sow one acre with RR soybean seed, he had to pay $24.50 for a fifty-pound bag, compared to $7.50 for conventional soybean seed. To illustrate the “huge profits earned by Monsanto,” he pointed out that if he decided to sell legally the surplus of his conventional crop as seeds, he would get $4 a bag.16 For Bt cotton, he said, the ratio was one to four between conventional and transgenic seeds.

Ordered to pay damages of $65,000 in 2003, Scruggs initiated a class action suit accusing Monsanto of antitrust violations and asking that GMOs be subject to the usual plant variety protection system. Because he had openly resisted “Monsanto’s law,” his life became infernal: company agents had gone so far as to buy an empty lot across the street from his farm supply store where they set up a surveillance camera, and helicopters frequently flew over his property.17

Matters sometimes turned tragic, ending in prison terms. In January 2000, for example, Ken Ralph, a Tennessee farmer, was sued for saving forty-one tons of transgenic soybean and cotton seed. Judge Rodney Sippel of the U.S. District Court in St. Louis ordered Ralph to pay preliminary damages of $100,000 and required that he keep the seed in question so that the exact harm suffered by Monsanto could be assessed. At the end of his rope, even though he maintained that the signature on the agreement presented by the company was a forgery, Ralph decided to burn the stock. “We’re tired of being pushed around by Monsanto. We are being . . . drug down a road like a bunch of dogs,” he told the Associated Press.18 Sippel finally ordered him to pay $1.7 million in civil damages, and, following a guilty plea, another judge sentenced him to eight months in prison and further damages of $165,469 for “obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence.”

The case caused a stir, because it brought to light another of the company’s abusive practices: the technology agreements contained a clause providing that in case of a dispute, proceedings were exclusively to be brought before state or federal court in St. Louis. For victims around the country this meant extra expenses in the conduct of their defense. Most important, it gave Monsanto what the Chicago Tribune called in 2005 a considerable “hometown advantage.”19 Established in its domain for more than a century, the company was used to working with the same law firms, including Husch and Eppenberger.20 It turns out that Judge Sippel, known for his hard line against “pirates,” had begun his legal career at Husch and Eppenberger.21

It should also be pointed out that in 2001, when discontent was spreading in American prairie farms against the patenting of seeds, John Ashcroft, then George W. Bush’s attorney general, who had also been governor of Missouri from 1983 to 1994, asked the Supreme Court for a ruling on the question. On December 10, in an opinion written by Clarence Thomas (formerly, it will be recalled, an attorney for Monsanto) the court decided 6–2 in favor of the patenting of seeds.22

Everyone Is Afraid

“Patents have changed everything,” said Troy Roush, an Indiana farmer who was a victim of the gene police, when I met him on his Van Buren farm in October 2006. “I really advise European farmers to think very hard before they get into transgenic crops. Afterward, nothing will be the same.” Hearing this six-foot-tall rugged man say these words while holding back both tears and anger was deeply moving.

His nightmare began in the fall of 1999 with a visit from a “private detective from Monsanto,” who told him he was “doing an investigation of farmers who save their seed.” That year, Roush, who ran a family farm with his brother and his father, had planted five hundred acres of RR soybeans for a seed company with which he had signed a contract. [iv] He had also planted twelve hundred acres of conventional soybeans with seeds that he had saved from his preceding harvest.

“It was very easy to tell which fields were under contract, as the contract clearly stipulated,” he told me. “I offered to let the detective consult the documents and my herbicide invoices, but he refused.” In May 2000, he was sued; supporting Monsanto’s claim was a topographical map and analyses of samples taken from his property without his permission. “There were several glaring mistakes. For example, one of the suspected fields was in reality planted with conventional corn for the Weaver Popcorn Company, which I was easily able to prove.”

“Why did you negotiate a settlement with Monsanto?” I asked.

“We had already spent $400,000 to establish our innocence,” he answered. “And after two and a half years, the family was totally wiped out. I no longer had the strength to face a trial with an uncertain outcome, because precedent unfortunately favors Monsanto, which has unlimited resources for this kind of case and has everything under control. If the company had won, we would have lost everything, because it would have taken everything. Everything. Also, when I asked my lawyer what I would gain from going to trial, he told me: ‘Just the glory of being found innocent.’ ”

In the middle of this conversation David Runyon, another Indiana farmer who had been visited by “detectives” in 2003, came into the room. The detectives had left a business card with the name “McDowell and Associates” and a startling logo: a large M superimposed on a row of men wearing capes and black hats. According to him, these were Monsanto agents claiming to have an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture authorizing them to inspect the fields of farmers suspected of “piracy.” David Runyon wrote immediately to Senator Evan Bayh, who checked the claim and confirmed that it was a lie, in a letter that I have a copy of.

“Patents ruined the life of rural communities,” David Runyon told me, obviously very upset. “They destroyed trust between neighbors. Personally, I talk to only two farmers these days. And before I agreed to meet with you or even talk to you on the phone, I checked on Google [to see] who you were.”

“Farmers are really afraid?”

“Of course they’re afraid,” Roush answered. “It’s impossible to defend yourself against that company. You know, in the Midwest, the only way to survive with the profit margins of farming constantly going down is to increase the size of your land. For that to happen, a neighbor has to leave. So, a phone call to the snitch line, and you never know.”

“You don’t feel safe from another charge?”

“Certainly not,” Runyon answered. “First of all, because in Indiana we’re like the last of the Mohicans, since we still grow conventional soybeans in the middle of a transgenic empire. And also because our fields may be contaminated by nearby GMOs. That’s what happened to my neighbor.”

He took out some photographs showing a field of yellowed and stunted soybean plants, dotted with green plants. “This plot of conventional soybeans was mistakenly sprayed with Roundup by my neighbor’s son, who mixed up different plots. All the green plants are Monsanto soybeans. I calculated that the contamination amounted to 15 percent.”

“How is that possible?”

“In the United States, the distribution channels for the two kinds of soybeans are not separate,” said Runyon. “My neighbor’s conventional seeds could have been contaminated by transgenic grains left in the combine that had previously worked in a Roundup Ready field, or at the dealer during seed cleaning. It’s also possible that GM pollen was spread by insects or by the wind. My neighbor has just realized that Monsanto can sue him for patent infringement.”

“That’s right,” Roush agreed. “That’s what happened to our Canadian colleague Percy Schmeiser.”

Percy Schmeiser: A Rebel in Big Sky Country

Born in 1932 in Bruno, a little town of seven hundred in the heart of Saskatchewan, Canada, Percy Schmeiser is “Monsanto’s nightmare, the pebble in its shoe,” according to a reporter for Le Monde, Hervé Kempf.23 A descendant of European pioneers who had settled in the North American prairies in the late nineteenth century, the man is a fighter—a “survivor,” as he likes to say—who more than once has come close to having his energy sapped by his experience. He survived, for example, a severe work accident that disabled him for years, as well as virulent hepatitis contracted in Africa. For, along with his activities as a farmer, the prairie rebel is a man of action and a practicing Catholic: he was mayor of his town for a quarter century, then a representative in the provincial assembly, and he went on numerous humanitarian missions; he and his wife did not hesitate to entrust their five children to their grandparents, so that they could spend time helping people in Africa and Asia. Schmeiser is also a sportsman who, during the long winter cold, has climbed Kilimanjaro, and attempted Everest three times without success.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet him, because when I went to Saskatchewan in September 2004, he was, I believe, in Bangkok, in response to one of the many invitations from around the world he has been receiving since he became the “man who rebelled against Monsanto.”24

The case of this farmer, who had been working a fifteen-hundred-acre family farm for fifty years, began in the summer of 1997. He had just sprayed the ditches bordering his canola fields with Roundup, and he realized that his work had done practically no good: many plants that had germinated outside his area of cultivation resisted the spraying. Intrigued, he contacted a Monsanto representative, who told him that this was Roundup Ready canola, put on the market two years earlier. The months went by, and in the spring of 1998, Schmeiser, who was known throughout the region as an expert breeder of canola seeds, replanted seeds from his previous crop. When he was preparing to harvest the crop in August, he was contacted by a representative of Monsanto Canada who informed him that inspectors had detected transgenic canola in his fields and proposed that he enter into a settlement to avoid being sued.

But Schmeiser refused to give in. He turned over documents to his lawyer proving that he had bought a field in 1997 that had been planted with Roundup Ready canola. He also explained that the plant had the strength of a weed, the very light seed was able to invade the surrounding prairies at the speed of the wind and be carried for miles by birds, and seeds could lie dormant in the soil for more than five years. Observing that the transgenic canola was mostly found on the edges of his fields, he concluded that they must have been contaminated by his neighbors’ GM plantings or by grain trucks passing by on the road. Schmeiser’s resistance was, of course, stimulated by the revelation of Monsanto’s harsh practices, including the spraying of Roundup by helicopter of fields of farmers suspected of “piracy,” according to what Ed and Elizabeth Kram, a farming couple in the province, said in August 1998. This was an action that was at least “strange,” and one that Monsanto has never denied, as Hervé Kempf reports, “also acknowledging in a statement to the police that its agents had taken samples of canola from Ed Kram for laboratory analysis.”25

Monsanto Canada, in any case, was adamant. Displaying to the press the analyses of the samples it claimed to have taken (without his knowledge) from Schmeiser’s farm, which contained a level of contamination greater than 90 percent, the company decided to file suit while continuing to pressure Schmeiser to settle.26 “During 1999, Schmeiser told Kempf “we were often watched by men in a car, who said nothing, did nothing, but were just there, looking. Once they stayed three days in a row. When you walked toward them, they sped away. We also got anonymous phone calls, people who said: ‘We’re going to get you.’ We were so afraid I bought a rifle that I kept in the tractor when I was working in the fields.”27

The case finally came to trial in the provincial capital, Saskatoon, in June 2000. Judge Andrew McKay issued his decision on March 29, 2001, provoking stupefaction among all Schmeiser’s supporters. The judge determined that in sowing his fields with seeds harvested in 1997, which he “knew or ought to have known are Roundup tolerant,” Percy Schmeiser had infringed Monsanto’s patent. He stated that “the source of the Roundup-resistant canola in the defendant’s 1997 crop is really not significant for the resolution of the issue,” and that “a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbor’s land, or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell.” This is so because “growth of the seed, reproducing the patented gene and cell, and sale of the harvested crop constitutes taking the essence of the plaintiff ’s invention and using it without permission.”28

The judge thereby rejected out of hand the defense argument that Monsanto’s interest in using the “essence” of GMOs was to be able to apply Roundup to crops, which Schmeiser had not done, as his herbicide invoices showed. He did not consider the fact that to take its samples, Monsanto had had to enter the farmer’s property illegally, nor that the tests conducted by experts that Schmeiser had consulted showed a significantly lower level of contamination. As Kempf rightly pointed out, “the decision is extraordinary: it means that a farmer infringes the patent of any company producing GM seeds whenever his land is contaminated by transgenic plants.” The decision obviously pleased Monsanto: “This is very good news for us,” said Trish Jordan, a representative of Monsanto Canada. “What the judge found was that Mr. Schmeiser had infringed on our patent, and awarded us damages.”29 They amounted to $15,450 Canadian, or $15 per acre harvested in 1998, though only part of the harvest was contaminated. Monsanto was also awarded legal costs.

Schmeiser appealed, but Judge McKay’s decision was upheld on September 4, 2002. But Schmeiser, who had already sacrificed his pension and some of his land to carry on his defense (which cost $200,000 Canadian), did not give up. “This is no longer the Schmeiser case,” he said, “it’s the case of all the farmers in the world.”30 He appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which on May 21, 2004, issued a decision eagerly awaited by everyone worried by the progression of GMOs: by a 5–4 ruling, the court upheld the two previous decisions but, oddly, found that Schmeiser had to pay neither damages nor Monsanto’s legal costs. The substantive finding was dramatic, because it confirmed that farmers were responsible for transgenic contamination of their fields, but the decision also suggested that the justices were troubled at the outcome. “With one hand they give and with the other hand they take away,” said Richard Gold, an intellectual property specialist at McGill University in Montreal.31 But Monsanto saw it as a victory that it would not fail to exploit in the future. “The ruling affirms the way that we do business,” said Jordan.32

When GMO Contamination Produces Superweeds

I have been constantly impressed by Monsanto’s capacity to say one thing and do the exact opposite. At the very time it was harassing Percy Schmeiser, its public relations department wrote in its Pledge Report: “In cases of unintended appearance of our proprietary varieties in a farmer’s fields, we will surely work with the farmer to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of both the farmer and Monsanto.”33 So much for the window dressing designed to reassure shareholders and possible customers. On the ground, the reality was entirely different, for GMO contamination had become a major problem on the North American prairies.

“GM canola has, in fact, spread much more rapidly than we thought it would. It’s absolutely impossible to control,” said Professor Martin Entz of the University of Manitoba in 2001. “It’s been a great wake-up call about the side effects of these GM technologies.”34 The same year, Professor Martin Phillipson observed: “Farmers in this province are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to get rid of this canola that they didn’t plant. They have to use more and more powerful pesticides to get rid of this technology.” 35 These two statements were quoted in Seeds of Doubt, a report published in September 2002 by the Soil Association (a British association for the promotion of organic farming founded in 1946), which presented a very detailed description of transgenic crops in North America: “Widespread GM contamination has severely disrupted GM-free production including organic farming, destroyed trade, and undermined the competitiveness of North American agriculture overall. GM crops have also increased the reliance of farmers on herbicides and led to many legal problems.”36

A study commissioned by the Saskatchewan Agriculture Department, for example, found in 2001 that pollen from Roundup Ready canola could travel a distance of at least eight hundred yards, eight times the distance recommended by authorities between GM and conventional crops.37 The result was that the U.S. body certifying organic food acknowledged in the Western Producer in 2001 that it was practically impossible to find canola, corn, or soybean seed that had not been contaminated by GMOs. In the same article, the Canadian Seed Trade Association admitted that all conventional varieties had been contaminated to a level of at least 1 percent by GMOs.38 One wonders what the situation is eight years later.

In any event, anticipating the uncontrollable effects of transgenic contamination, the principal agricultural insurance companies in the United Kingdom announced in 2003 that they would refuse to insure producers of GM crops against this risk, which they compared to the problems of asbestos and terrorist acts, because of the unforeseeable costs it might bring about. In a survey published in The Guardian, insurance companies such as National Farm Union Mutual, Rural Insurance Group (Lloyd’s), and BIB Underwriters Ltd (Axa) said they “felt that too little was known about the long-term effects of these crops on human health and the environment to be able to offer any form of cover.”39

But one thing was certain: in North America, GMO contamination had caused “a morass of litigation,” in the words of the Soil Association, “embracing all levels of the industry: farmers, processors, retailers, consumers, and the biotechnology companies,” with disputes among them all arising whenever an unwanted GMO appeared anywhere.40 To illustrate the insoluble absurdity of the situation, Seeds of Doubt gave the example of the contamination of a shipment of conventional Canadian canola, inspected in Europe in May 2000 because a Monsanto transgene had been detected in it. The Advanta seed company in Canada had to destroy thousands of acres, indemnify its growers, and then shift its seed production from west to east in Canada, where it judged it could better protect itself from cross-pollination, and all of this was followed by a wave of lawsuits.41

The problems posed by transgenic contamination are not only legal but also environmental. When a transgenic canola seed is blown by the wind, for example, into a wheat field, the farmer considers it a weed that he finds it very hard to get rid of: “as this canola is resistant to Roundup, a total herbicide, the only way to get rid of it is to pull it up by hand or use 2-4D, an extremely toxic herbicide.”42 Likewise, a GMO producer who wants to rotate his crops by alternating, for example, Roundup Ready canola with Roundup Ready corn, can also confront this problem, intensified by the specificity of canola: because its pods ripen at uneven rates, producers have adopted the habit of cutting the plants and drying them in the fields before harvesting the seeds. Unfailingly, thousands of seeds stay in the ground and germinate the following year, or even as much as five years later. This has been dubbed “volunteer” or “rebel” canola, which is in fact a “superweed.”

GMOs Mean Ever More Herbicides

The irony of the story is that Monsanto understood very early on the financial interest these “rebel” plants might represent. On May 29, 2001, the company was awarded patent 6,239,072 covering a “tank mixture” that would “allow control of glyphosate-susceptible weeds and glyphosate-tolerant volunteer individuals.”43 As the Soil Association report points out, “the patent will enable the company to profit from a problem that its products had created in the first place.”44

Considering developments in the North American prairies, one might expect that this “tank mixture” will become the company’s next cash cow. The development of superweeds has in fact become one of the major headaches of North American agronomists, who have observed that they may emerge in one of three ways. In the first case, which has just been described, they are Roundup-resistant “volunteers” whose destruction requires the use of more potent herbicides. In the second case, GMOs cross with “adventitious” plants (the technical term for weeds) that are genetically close, transferring to the weeds the gene for Roundup resistance. This happens particularly with canola, a natural hybrid of turnip and cabbage, able to exchange genes with related wild species, such as wild radish, mustard, and arugula, that farmers consider weeds. A study conducted by Mike Wilkinson of the University of Reading confirmed in 2003 that the flow of genes between canola and wild turnip (Brassica rapa), one of the most widespread adventitious plants, was very common, which indicated that “cross-pollination between GM plants and their wild relatives is inevitable and could create hybrid superweeds resistant to the most powerful weedkillers,” as the Independent pointed out.45

The third case in which superweeds appear is simply because, having been sprayed exclusively by Roundup several times a year, year after year, weeds develop resistance to the herbicide. Oddly, even though the company has had long experience with herbicides, it has always denied this phenomenon: “After 20 years of use, there are no reports of any weedy species developing resistance to Roundup herbicide,” claims an advertisement extolling the virtues of RR soybeans.46 Similarly, in its 2005 Pledge Report, the company continues to assert that transgenic crops “allow growers to use less herbicide.”47

“Untrue,” says the American agronomist Charles Benbrook in a study published in 2004 titled “Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years.”48 According to him, the claim of reduction in the use of herbicides was valid for the first three years following the introduction of GM crops in 1995, but not after 1999. “The increased herbicide use . . . should come as no surprise,” he explains. “Weed scientists have warned for about a decade that heavy reliance on HT [herbicide-tolerant] crops would trigger changes in weed communities and resistance, in turn forcing farmers to apply additional herbicides and/or increase herbicide rates of application. . . . Farmers across the American Midwest look back fondly on the initial efficacy and simplicity of the Roundup Ready system and many miss the ‘good old days.’ ”

Charles Benbrook knows his subject: after working as an agriculture expert in the Carter White House and then on Capitol Hill, he was head of the agriculture division of the National Academy of Sciences for seven years before setting up his own independent consulting firm in Sandpoint, Idaho. Since 1996 he has been carefully studying the data on herbicide use recorded by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), a division of USDA, comparing them with the data supplied by Monsanto, which he considers “misleading and dishonest.”49 In a 2001 article, he had already noted that “total herbicide use on RR soybeans in 1998 was 30 percent or more greater on average than on conventional varieties in six states, including Iowa where about one-sixth of the nation’s soybeans are grown.”50

In his 2004 study, he observed that the quantity of herbicides sprayed on the three principal crops in the United States (soybeans, corn, and cotton) had grown by 5 percent between 1996 and 2004, amounting to 138 million additional pounds. Whereas the quantity of herbicides used for conventional crops had continually decreased, the quantity of Roundup had gone in the opposite direction, as Monsanto in fact congratulated itself for on its 2006 10-K form: after noting that glyphosate sales accounted for $2.20 billion in revenues in 2006, compared to $2.05 billion in 2005, the company stated that “any further expansion of crops with our Roundup Ready traits should also incrementally increase sales of our Roundup products.”

These results were the fruit of a strategy that had long been planned. The company’s annual report for 1998 stated: “A key factor in volume growth for Roundup is a strategy based on price elasticity, with selective price reductions followed by larger percentage volume increases.” When it was pointed out that this development was proof that GMOs do not reduce herbicide use, the company replied that it was to be expected that Roundup sales would increase because the surface planted in Roundup Ready crops was continually growing. Nine years after first being marketed, transgenic crops did cover nearly 125 million acres in the United States, 73 percent of which were Roundup Ready (another 23 percent was Bt), but these areas had already been cultivated before the advent of GMOs, and hence sprayed with pesticides.51

In addition, according to Charles Benbrook, the end of Monsanto’s monopoly on glyphosate in 2000 produced a price war that brought the price of Roundup down by at least 40 percent, although the company’s revenues were not adversely affected. Finally, he writes, “reliance on a single herbicide, glyphosate, as the primary method for managing weeds on millions of acres planted to HT varieties remains the primary factor that has led to the need to apply more herbicides per acre to achieve the same level of weed control.”52 He noted that before the introduction of GMOs, scientists had identified only two glyphosate-resistant weeds—rigid ryegrass in Australia, South Africa, and the United States, and goosegrass in Malaysia—but that there were now six on American territory alone, led by horsetail, which had become a veritable plague on the prairie, and Palmer pigweed varieties such as waterhemp and ragweed. For example, a University of Delaware study showed that horsetail plants taken from RR soybean fields survived ten times the recommended dose of Roundup.53 In addition to those weeds already identified as Roundup-resistant, there is a whole list of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, that is, not yet resistant but for which doses have to be multiplied by three or four to get rid of them.

The Dark Side of Biotechnology

“Specific weed resistance can reduce a farm’s rentable value by 17 percent.” This was one of the conclusions of a 2002 report from Syngenta, a Swiss company that was one of Monsanto’s principal competitors, sent to all its agricultural customers.54 Relying on a survey of American farmers, the chemical and biotech giant reported that 47 percent of them favored a return to “crop and chemical rotation.” As Charles Benbrook noted in early 2002, the decline in profitability was not the only “bad news” about what he called the “dark side” of biotechnology, which “scientists are now unraveling and farmers are just learning about.”55

First, contrary to what Monsanto has always claimed in its advertising, it is not true that “under comparable growing conditions, the yields for these new lines are expected to be equivalent to other top-yielding varieties.”56 “Unfortunately, we proved the opposite,” Roger Elmore, an agronomist, told me. In 2001, he and colleagues at the University of Nebraska published a study on the subject.57 Now at the University of Iowa, near where I met him at his home in October 2006, he told me: “We conducted this study, for two years and in four different locations, because we had received information from various states indicating that transgenic soybeans had lower yields than related conventional varieties. Our results prove that yields decline by at least 5 percent.”

“How do you explain it?” I asked, scrutinizing his chart.

“It’s what we call ‘yield drag.’ We had two hypotheses that might explain the drag affecting the yield of transgenic plants: either it was due to the effect of Roundup on plant metabolism, or it was the result of genetic manipulation. To test the first hypothesis, we grew three groups of RR soybeans from the same strain, one of which was sprayed with Roundup, a second with ammonium sulfate, a product that stimulates the action of herbicides, and the third with water. The yield in all three cases was exactly the same, fifty-five bushels an acre. So it’s genetic manipulation that explains yield drag. Apparently, the violent insertion of the gene disturbs the productive capacity of the plant.”

“So transgenic soybeans are not the same as the conventional variety?”

“That’s what our study shows.”

“How did Monsanto react?”

“Let’s say the company wasn’t really eager to have us publish it,” he answered with the necessary caution.

“But hadn’t they done a study of the yield of their own soybeans?”

“The data they supplied were very weak from the scientific point of view and answered more to needs that were, let’s say, commercial.”

The results of Elmore’s study thus confirmed the meta-analysis carried out by Charles Benbrook in which he had gone through 8,200 yield measurements made by U.S. university agriculture departments in 1998. They showed that yield drag on average was 6.7 percent, with peaks of 10 percent, particularly in the Midwest, which amounted to a loss of 80 million to 100 million bushels of soybeans for the year 1999 alone.58

As Benbrook pointed out, yield drag turned into a genuine catastrophe because of another phenomenon brought to light by researchers from the University of Arkansas in 2001.59 They found that Roundup affects the rhizobium bacteria present in the soybean roots, which assist in growth by the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. The sensitivity of the bacteria to the herbicide would explain the decline in yield of RR soybeans, which might reach 25 percent in a dry spell. “Unfortunately,” according to Benbrook, “it now appears that RR crops are more vulnerable to certain diseases, especially when plants are battling other sources of stress caused by, for example, excessive cold or high pest pressure, or a mineral or microbial imbalance in the soil. These plant health problems arise because the genetic material moved into RR crops to make them tolerant of Roundup modifies the normal functioning of a key biochemical pathway that also happens to trigger and regulate a plant’s immune response.” He went on to say: “Unfortunately this information was only available after 100 million acres of RR soybeans had already been planted in America.”60

A careful review of scientific and agricultural journals reveals that problems with Roundup Ready crops have been common around the country (similar problems with Bt plants will be discussed later). In 1999, for example, scientists in Georgia were contacted by soybean producers complaining that the stems of their plants were splitting for unknown reasons, leading to extremely low yields. Their study revealed that transgenic soybeans produce 20 percent more lignin than conventional soybeans, which, at higher than normal temperatures, made the stems exceptionally fragile.61

An Economic Disaster

“There’s profit in your fields. Unleash it with Asgrow Roundup Ready soybeans.” This ad published by a Monsanto subsidiary in a farm magazine in January 2002 did not convince the Soil Association, which wrote in Seeds of Doubt: “The evidence we have gathered demonstrates that GM food crops are far from a success story. In complete contrast to the impression given by the biotechnology industry, it is clear that they have not realised most of the claimed benefits and have been a practical and economic disaster.”

Monsanto was quick to reply to this stinging indictment that one could expect nothing less from one of the principal European organizations for the promotion of organic farming. But this assessment was also that of researchers who had taken the trouble to consider all aspects of transgenic agriculture to determine whether, from a strictly economic point of view, the effort paid off. Michael Duffy, a University of Iowa economist, for example, conducted a study in cooperation with the National Agricultural Statistical Service of USDA. He went through the accounts of the state’s farmers item by item, comparing production costs and revenues for RR soybeans (108 fields) and conventional soybeans (64 fields) in the 2000 harvest. The result was beyond question: if all factors of production were taken into account (cost of seeds, herbicide use, yield, fuel costs, fertilizer, and so on), producers of transgenic soybeans lost $8.87 per acre compared to $0.02 for producers of conventional soybeans.62 It should be noted that this study was conducted in the midst of a price war on herbicides that had lowered costs and at a time when weeds were not Roundup resistant. Michael Duffy also compared earnings from Bt corn and conventional corn and came to a similar conclusion: $28.28 loss per acre for the former and $25.02 loss for the latter.

One might be surprised that farmers lost money in producing in all cases. This was precisely another drawback of GMOs, which had produced a collapse of American exports to Europe and a resulting price decline. Under consumer pressure, the European Commission, which had at first unhesitatingly authorized the importation of transgenic soybeans, corn, and canola from the United States and Canada, had had to backtrack and declare a five-year moratorium on GM crops on June 25, 1999, followed by required labeling of GM products on October 21.63 These two decisions, which were vigorously challenged on the other side of the Atlantic, created confusion in the American prairies, where grain dealers asked farmers to deliver their transgenic and conventional crops separately, with a bonus for the conventional crops.

According to the Washington Post, there was growing anger, especially in exporting states such as Iowa and Illinois, where farmers had a persistent sense of having been bamboozled: “American farmers planted [gene-altered crops] in good faith, with the belief that the product is safe and that they would be rewarded for their efforts. Instead they find themselves misled by multinational seed and chemical companies and other commodities associations who only encouraged them to plant increased acres of [these crops] without any warning to farmers of the dangers associated with a crop that didn’t have consumer acceptance.”64

In the meantime, the harm had already been done: according to the Department of Agriculture, corn exports to Europe fell by 99.4 percent between 1996 and 2001, amounting to an annual loss of $300 million. Likewise, while Europe had absorbed 27 percent of soybean exports in 1998, the figure fell to 7 percent in 1999. And Canada, the world’s largest exporter of canola, lost its entire European market, not only for canola, but also for honey.65

As a consequence, to save its farmers’ earnings, the American government had to provide special subsidies, estimated at $12 billion between 1999 and 2002.66 In May 2002, the Senate passed a new farm bill providing $180 billion in subsidies for the following ten years, a way “to mask the economic failure of GM crops from farmers,” in the killing words of the Soil Association.

This context lay behind the conflict early in the new century between Canadian and U.S. farmers and Monsanto, which for once suffered a serious setback in its strategy to spread GMOs when it had to give up its transgenic wheat.

_______________

Notes:

i. The system is guaranteed by the UPOV agreements (Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), signed by thirty-seven countries in 1973.

ii. Patent EP 546090, titled “Glyphosate tolerant 5-Enolpyruvylshikimate-3-Phosphate Synthases.”

iii. Notorious for its violent methods, like those of a private militia, particularly when it was hired to break strikes in the late nineteenth century. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded in 1850 by Alan Pinkerton, who had his moment of glory when he foiled an assassination attempt against President Abraham Lincoln, who hired his agents to ensure his security during the Civil War. Helped by its logo—an eye with the slogan “We never sleep”—the agency was hired by companies to infiltrate unions and factories with methods summed up in the expression “bloody Pinkerton,” designating a strike-breaking cop.

iv. The company, which had inserted the gene into one of its varieties, paid him for multiplying the seeds the company would sell to other farmers.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sun Feb 07, 2016 4:56 am

11: Transgenic Wheat: Monsanto’s Lost Battle in North America

We will listen carefully to diverse points of view and engage in thoughtful dialogue to broaden our understanding of issues in order to better address the needs and concerns of society and each other.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2001–2002


The story goes that the champagne corks popped in the Greenpeace office in Ottawa on May 10, 2004, and elsewhere among its allies in North America. That day, Monsanto announced in a laconic press release: “The company is deferring all further efforts to introduce Roundup Ready wheat” after “extensive consultation with customers and leaders in the wheat industry.”1 “Dialogue leads to wheat decision,” it claimed in the 2004 Pledge Report.2

Monsanto Flops with Wheat

This evasive language masked an extraordinary struggle that had led to the greatest defeat ever suffered by Monsanto. For the first time in its history, the company had been forced to give up the marketing of a product for which it had invested several hundred million dollars in research and development. When I met him in October 2004, Dennis Olson, an economist with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, who had been a very active participant in the American campaign against Roundup Ready wheat, told me: “For us, it was an unexpected victory that confirmed the economic failure of transgenic crops. It was especially symbolic because it had been won in North America, where GMOs were born, and thanks to the decisive support of the people who grew them.”

And yet, when the company announced right before Christmas in 2002 that it had filed simultaneous requests in Ottawa and Washington for authorization to market a Roundup-resistant spring wheat variety, it seemed like a done deal, because it was operating in conquered territory. When Monsanto filed the requests it forgot a detail that would be fatal: until then, all its GMOs involved crops used primarily as fodder or for the manufacture of oils and clothing (soybeans, canola, cotton), less frequently for direct human consumption (corn). But with wheat, a mythic plant if there ever was one, it was another story: in altering the golden grain that covers nearly 20 percent of the cultivated land on the planet and is the basic nourishment for one person in three, it was touching on a symbol—cultural, religious, and economic—that was born with agriculture ten thousand years ago somewhere in Mesopotamia.3

And this symbol was also the daily bread—literally and figuratively—of the powerful grain farmers of North America, who cultivated the red spring wheat into which Monsanto had inserted its Roundup Ready gene. Known as the “king of wheats” because of its exceptional protein and gluten content, it is grown in four northern U.S. states—North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota—and across the border in the plains of Saskatchewan in western Canada, where 15 million of Canada’s 25 million acres of wheat are grown, and which is also the home of Percy Schmeiser, the herald of resistance to GMOs. Obviously, these great wheat growers also produced transgenic soybeans, corn, and canola, but when they opposed the latest manifestation from the tinkerers in Missouri, they did so primarily for economic reasons. “Canada exports 75 percent of its annual wheat production, which on average amounts to 20 million tons,” I was told by Ian McCreary, vice president of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), run by producers, which controls the marketing of all grain produced in the prairies, by authority of a 1935 federal law. “That represents around g2 billion in revenues every year. And all our foreign customers, led by Japan and Europe, have clearly stated they did not want transgenic wheat. If Monsanto’s wheat had been marketed, the 85,000 grain framers in western Canada could have gone out of business.”

Ian McCreary, who is forty-two, runs a seventeen-hundred-acre farm near Bladworth, in the heart of the vast, flat, dreary province known as the breadbasket. When I met him in September 2004, he and his wife, Mary, were making final adjustments to their combine. It looked like the end of the world, with thousands of acres of wheat stretching to the horizon glittering under a steel-blue sky toward which were raised huge grain elevators dotting the prairie like Lego pieces.

“We’re far away from everything here,” McCreary said with a smile, after saying grace before the family lunch. “Transport costs are astronomical, and to make a living we have to concentrate on the quality of our wheat, which is highly valued by millers around the world; they blend it with varieties of lower baking quality. As they did with canola and corn, GMOs would have created price declines and we can’t let ourselves sell wheat for fodder.”

“But Monsanto says its wheat would have taken care of the weed problem,” I said.

“Unlike soybeans, weeds are not really a problem for wheat. I think it was Monsanto that had a problem: its Roundup patent had just expired and the company wanted to make up for it by selling herbicide and seeds for one of the largest food crops in the world. As for wheat growers, they were afraid that Roundup Ready wheat would increase herbicide costs because ‘volunteers’ would show up, not to mention the exorbitant cost of patented seeds: in the plains we usually keep our wheat seeds for at least ten years before buying new ones.”

And so the powerful CWB ended up campaigning alongside Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians (the country’s largest citizens’ organization), “two organizations it has clashed with in the past,” as the Toronto Star remarked, “to present a united front opposing GM wheat.”4 The article quotes a letter from Rank Hovis, the leading British flour miller, to the CWB: “If you do grow genetically modified wheat, we will not be able to buy any of your wheat, neither the GM nor the conventional. . . . We just cannot sell it.” At the same time, Grandi Molini Italiani, the leading Italian miller, sent a similar message to North American wheat growers.5 They were soon joined by the powerful association of Japanese millers, whose executive director, Tsutomu Shigeta, predicted a “collapse of the market” if Monsanto’s wheat were to invade the plains, because the majority of consumers didn’t want it.6 (In May 2003, a survey conducted by the Western Organization of Resource Councils had found that 100 percent of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean importers contacted would refuse to buy transgenic wheat.)

In the United States, half of whose wheat is exported, for an annual revenue of approximately $5 billion, the message was heard loud and clear by all grain growers, including those who did not grow spring wheat. “The impact on the market concerns all producers,” explained Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, who had been shaken by a study published in October 2003 by Robert Wisner, a University of Iowa economist.7 Wisner had examined the impact the marketing of the new GMO would have on the wheat economy, and his conclusions were very dark: a decline of 30 to 50 percent in red spring wheat exportations and even more for other hard wheat varieties, a two-thirds fall in prices, loss of jobs throughout the sector, and a wave of repercussions throughout rural life. “A large majority of foreign consumers and buyers do not want transgenic wheat,” Wisner said. “Whether they are right or wrong, consumers are the driving force in counties where labeling permits choice.”8

Hundreds of farmers, who had applauded the arrival of GMOs less than ten years earlier, were seen traveling around the northern Great Plains to “fight against biotechnology.” In North Dakota and Montana, the resistance had “solidified into a political movement,” which demanded a moratorium on Monsanto wheat.9 The company moved heaven and earth to block these initiatives. To bring the wandering sheep back into the fold, it went so far as to charter a plane to bring a delegation of North Dakota rebels to its Missouri headquarters, where they were received by Robert Fraley, one of the inventors of RR soybeans, who had been promoted to a position as vice president. He “seemed to imply that farmers opposing Monsanto might be advancing the agenda of radical environmental groups.” “At that point,” said Louis Kuster, one of the farmers who had been at the meeting, “I . . . was a little bit angry and I looked right straight at him . . . and I said, ‘You’re not talking to the Greens here today. . . . We need to make money, too.’ ”10

The Attack on Bt Plants: The Misfortunes of the Monarch Butterfly

To fully understand the 2003 revolt of North American farmers, it has to be set in the context of the time, which was not very favorable for Monsanto. As the French sociologists of science Pierre-Benoît Joly and Claire Marris pointed out in that year, resistance to GMOs was built up around “trials” and “themes” that had specific characteristics on either side of the Atlantic and that converged at the beginning of the new century, leading to a shared rejection of Roundup Ready wheat.11

In Europe, the first issue that spawned the anti-GMO movement was the mad cow crisis, which broke out in 1996, at the time when the first shipment of RR soybeans were arriving from the United States. The campaign Greenpeace organized against GMOs won support particularly because it was rooted in the cataclysm of the fatal prion, which had revealed the inability of government institutions to measure the risks of intensive agriculture and the system of industrial production of food. As Joly and Marris note, “On November 1, 1996, Libération printed the headline ‘Warning: Mad Soybeans,’ which clearly points to the importance of the mad cow crisis as a precedent strongly influencing the way in which GMOs were represented.”12

Combined with the rising power of the anti-globalization movement that denounced the control of multinationals such as Monsanto over world agriculture (consider, for example, the events surrounding the WTO summit in Seattle in December 1999), the theme of junk food underlay the sympathy felt by the French for the people who, alongside the peasant leader José Bové, tore down the McDonald’s in Millau in August 1999 and tore up transgenic test plots.

In the United States, where junk food was a way of life, what was on the consumer’s plate was not a mobilizing theme during the entire “calm period” that accompanied the “large-scale spread of GMOs.” But when Terminator, and more broadly the patent issue, caused the first stirrings in the countryside, two other sets of events shifted public opinion, which suddenly began to question the reliability and impartiality of regulatory agencies in their management of the risks associated with products derived from biotechnology. The first of these involved the monarch butterfly, a migratory insect with orange wings that became the most effective symbol for the anti-GMO cause in the United States.

On May 20, 1999, Nature published a study conducted by John Losey, a Cornell University entomologist.13 Along with two colleagues, he had studied the effects on butterfly larvae of a Bt corn variety produced by Novartis (now Syngenta) that was supposed to fight the corn borer, a plant parasite. Recall that Bt plants—of which Monsanto was the largest producer—took their name from a bacterium found naturally in the soil, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a substance that works like an insecticide. Isolated in 1901 by a Japanese bacteriologist who had observed that it infected and killed silkworms, this bacillus is used in spray form by organic farmers, because the toxin the bacteria produce has the property of rapidly decaying in sunlight, allowing for selective use with no consequences for the environment or for untargeted insect populations. But biotechnology had completely changed things. Insertion of the gene that coded for the toxin meant that the toxin was expressed permanently throughout the plant, creating the risk of affecting all insect populations, the useful as well as the harmful, as for example the chrysopa, a predator of the corn borer that Bt was supposed to combat. When Losey conducted his research on the monarch butterfly, various studies had already showed that Bt crops could be fatal for beneficial insects such as ladybugs, as well as microorganisms in the soil and insect-eating plants.14

In its lab the Cornell team had fed monarch butterfly larvae with milkweed leaves, their favorite diet, dusted with Bt corn pollen. “Four days later, 44 percent of the larvae had died, and the survivors had lost their appetite. But none of the larvae exposed to leaves dusted with natural pollen had died.”15 The study caused a stir in North America, and the very day on which it was published, the European Commission announced the suspension of requests for authorization for the marketing of several Bt varieties, including Monsanto’s. Christian Morin, the Novartis spokesman, defended the company: “These were laboratory observations, in conditions that placed the monarch in extreme circumstances,” and he asked that the experiment be repeated in the field.16 But nothing was to be done; the misfortunes of Americans’ beloved butterfly delivered the first blow against corn exports to Europe, which collapsed. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists was indignant: “Why is it that this study was not done before the approval of Bt corn? This is 20 million acres of Bt corn too late. This should serve as a warning that there are more unpleasant surprises ahead.”17

GMO producers led by Monsanto organized a response by conducting a campaign “downplaying and, in some instances, ridiculing the study,” and if necessary making statements that “were misleading, fanciful, and betrayed an ignorance of the monarch’s natural history,” as Lincoln Brower, who had been working on the butterfly since 1954, wrote in a 2001 article.18 This very well-informed article shows how a scientific debate can be completely perverted by private interests with the complicity of government institutions and elements of the scientific community: “In the ongoing debate over the Cornell findings, the scientific process has been spun, massaged, and manipulated by the agricultural industry . . . losing sight of a larger, more serious issue: the real danger that genetically engineered crops will accelerate . . . the impoverishment of biological diversity.” Along the way, he notes that the intensive use of Roundup has caused the disappearance of wildflowers such as milkweed, on which the monarch depends for survival.

He then recounts the process of manipulation that he witnessed. In the days following the publication of the Cornell study, the leaders of the biotechnology industry decided to create a consortium, which they named the Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Working Group (ABSWG), whose mission was to sponsor university research similar to that conducted by John Losey. On November 2, 1999, when these studies were still in their preliminary stages, the ABSWG organized a conference in Chicago that was supposed to present an open debate on the delicate question. Participants included a number of researchers financed by the consortium, but also independent figures such as Lincoln Brower and Carol Yoon, a science reporter for the New York Times. Although the discussions had barely begun, Yoon was informed that a press release from the Biotechnology Industry Organization had been received by the Times that morning, with an unequivocal title: “Scientific Symposium to Show No Harm to Monarch Butterfly.”19 Flabbergasted, Yoon asked the participants if they had received word of this press release, and they uniformly replied no. She reported the rather revealing anecdote,20 but all other newspapers blindly reproduced the false claims of the press release.21

However, the Cornell team’s results were confirmed by a University of Iowa study published on August 19, 2000, in the journal Oecologia.22 John Obrycki, who directed the research, conducted in the field with milkweed leaves gathered in proximity to transgenic crops, commented: “We found that after five days exposure to Bt pollen, 70 percent of monarch butterfly larvae died.”23 The debate was relaunched at the time, but it was soon overwhelmed by the greatest health and environmental scandal that GMOs had provoked so far.

The StarLink Debacle

On September 18, 2000, Friends of the Earth issued a press release that triggered a veritable cataclysm. The American ecological association announced that it had analyzed samples of products containing corn (chips, tacos, cereals, cornmeal, soups, pancakes) bought in supermarkets and that the tests had detected traces of StarLink, a Bt corn variety produced by Aventis that was banned for human consumption. [i] In order to increase the insecticidal function of its GMO, the company had introduced a Bt protein (Cry9C) that was particularly heavy and stable, but which was “suspected of causing allergies because it has a heightened ability to resist heat and gastric juices, giving more time for the body to overreact,” as the Washington Post reported. 24 The EPA had limited the sale of this Bt corn variety to animal feed and ethanol production. But grain dealers who were not aware of the regulatory subtlety had mixed StarLink with other yellow varieties of the grain.

Before discussing the consequences of this appalling affair, I would like to point out how revealing it is of what Joly and Marris call the “inadequacy of the American regulatory framework.”25 It will be recalled that after publishing its “coordinated framework for the regulation of biotechnology,” the Republican administration had distributed responsibilities among the three principal regulatory agencies: the FDA was responsible for transgenic food, the EPA for GMOs that functioned as pesticides, and the USDA for transgenic crops. The result of this arbitrary division was that Bt plants, some of which ended up on consumers’ plates, were under the jurisdiction not of the FDA but of the EPA, because they were considered pesticides.

This paradox, which explains the StarLink catastrophe, was brilliantly demonstrated by Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 1998.26 He tells how he “planted something new in [his] vegetable garden,” a Bt potato recently put on the market by Monsanto, called “New Leaf,” which was supposed to “produce its own insecticide.” In the instructions for use he found that the potato had been registered as a pesticide by the EPA, and was surprised that the label provided information on its organic composition, the nutrients, and “even the trace amounts of copper” it contained, but did not say a word about the fact that it was a product of genetic engineering nor even that it “contain[ed] an insecticide.” He then decided to call James Maryanski, the biotechnology coordinator at the FDA, who told him: “Bt is a pesticide, so it’s exempt” from FDA regulation and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA. Since Pollan was going to eat his potatoes, he wanted to know if the EPA had tested their food safety. “Not exactly,” Maryanski replied. As the name indicates, “pesticides are toxic to something,” so the EPA instead establishes human “tolerances.” Pollan then called the EPA, where he was told that since “a New Leaf is nothing more than the sum of a safe potato and a safe pesticide,” the agency thought it posed no human health risks. Pollan goes on: “Let us assume that my potatoes are a pesticide—a very safe pesticide. Every pesticide in my garden shed—including the Bt sprays—carries a lengthy warning label. The label on my bottle of Bt says, among other things, that I should avoid inhaling the spray or getting it in an open wound. So if my New Leaf potatoes contain an EPA-registered pesticide, why don’t they carry some such label?”

It would be hard to find a better illustration of the aberrant nature of the American regulatory system: the EPA, after being alerted to the possible allergenic effects of StarLink corn, decided to restrict its use to animal feed instead of simply banning it. It is worth noting the complete indifference of the FDA to this question; a letter sent by Alan Rulis on May 29, 1998, to AgrEvo, the Aventis subsidiary that was marketing StarLink, did not mention the issue at all, instead merely explaining: “As you are aware, it is AgrEvo’s continued responsibility to assure that foods the firm markets are safe, wholesome, and in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.”27

The FDA official didn’t know how right he was. By September 2000, the agency had been overwhelmed by frightened calls from around the United States. One of them came from Grace Booth, who said that at a business lunch where she ate enchiladas, she suddenly experienced hot flashes and violent diarrhea, her lips swelled, and she lost her voice. “I felt like I was going to die,” she told CBS.28 Immediately transported to a California hospital, she survived thanks to the quick administration of an anti-allergy medication. All the reports reaching the FDA spoke of violent reactions associated with the consumption of corn-based products. Interviewed by CBS, Dr. Marc Rosenberg, an allergist advising the government in this sorry affair, confirmed that the symptoms “varied from just abdominal pain and diarrhea [and] skin rashes to a very small group having very severe life-threatening reactions.”

As a very detailed report from Friends of the Earth pointed out in July 2001, “The StarLink debacle is a case study in the near total dependence of our regulatory agencies on the ‘regulated’ biotech and food industries, and . . . in [their] regulatory incompetence.”29 The group reported that the FDA took a week to confirm the presence of StarLink in the food chain, for a reason that it never would have suspected: “We later learned that this delay was due to the simple fact that after two years of StarLink cultivation on hundreds of thousands of acres across the country, [ii] the FDA still did not have the expertise to even test for this potentially allergenic protein.”30 To be able to conduct laboratory tests, the FDA had had to ask for help from Aventis. Likewise, when the EPA was forced to establish a test to measure the allergenicity of the Bt protein, it had to turn to the manufacturer to supply it with a sample of the molecule. Finally, claiming that it could not isolate enough of the protein expressed in the plant, the company supplied a synthetic substitute from the E. coli bacterium. Experts pointed out that the test would be biased because “the same protein is not necessarily identical in different species.”31 After months of procrastination, the EPA cautiously concluded that there was “a medium likelihood that StarLink [was] an allergen.” 32 The health authorities then buried the file, losing a perfect opportunity to understand why the consumption of corn products had made hundreds of Americans gravely ill and almost killed some of them.

No to GM Wheat

In the interim, the debacle had cost Aventis $1 billion. First, the company had to indemnify the food distributors that had withdrawn from their shelves 10 million corn-based products. Then it had to repurchase stocks of StarLink seeds from all the dealers, farmers, and millers. But the magnitude of the catastrophe exceeded the darkest predictions: tests conducted by USDA found that 22 percent of American corn was contaminated by the incriminated protein.33 This gave a fatal blow to exports that the monarch butterfly affair had already severely reduced. Nature reported that, according to a USDA representative, StarLink was found in bakery products in Taiwan and even Japan.34 An irritated John Wichtrich, an Aventis executive, told a meeting of the North American Millers’ Association in San Antonio: “I know you are wondering: Will there ever be an end to this? Unfortunately, as of now, the answer is ‘No’—there will never be an ‘end’ as long as there is zero tolerance for Cry9C in food.”35

It is therefore easy to understand why resistance was organized in the North American plains when, in the midst of the StarLink debacle, Monsanto announced its intention to market its Roundup Ready wheat. It should be noted that the company was in very bad shape. As previously reported, in late 2002 the CEO, Hendrik Verfaillie, had been forced to resign for “poor financial performance,” namely, $1.7 billion in losses for the year. But this was not the problem for the Canadian Wheat Board, which, on June 27, 2003, declared war not only on Monsanto but on its loyal government ally. Adrian Measner, president of the CWB, declared: “We will do everything in our power to ensure that GM wheat is not introduced in Canada.”36

A short time before, the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food had met to discuss the question. Excluded from the deliberations, Greenpeace Canada had circulated a letter it had sent to Paul Steckle, the committee chairperson, in which it criticized the “conflict of interest created by the partnership between Monsanto and the Canadian government.”37 The letter notes that Agriculture and Agri- Food Canada (AAC, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Food) “provided top quality genetic material that was public property to Monsanto so that it could develop its RR wheat,” and that it was AAC that had “carried out under contract the field tests of Monsanto GM wheat so that it could be granted plant variety protection status.” Finally, the same ministry “provided Monsanto with at least $800,000 of funding under the Matching Investment Fund Initiative.”38 Under these circumstances, it is indeed hard to see how the Ministry of Agriculture and its partner, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which had functioned as co-developers of RR wheat, could independently exercise their regulatory authority in assessing “as required the safety of agricultural biotechnology for human health, agriculture, and the environment.”39

In its letter, Greenpeace also discussed at length the problem of genetic contamination that might arise from the marketing of RR wheat. Its experts suggested that the committee ask Monsanto representatives three questions at the hearing:

Is Monsanto prepared to issue a public and legally binding declaration that would hold it responsible in the event of the genetic contamination of conventional and organic wheat . . . by its RR wheat?

If so, how much money is Monsanto prepared to set aside to compensate the victims of such damages?

If not, according to Monsanto who should pay for those damages?


Ian McCreary, vice president of the Canadian Wheat Board, told me: “It’s true that the question of genetic contamination weighed heavily in our decision to reject RR wheat. The specter of StarLink was haunting us, and besides, we already had the example of transgenic canola, which had practically eliminated conventional canola in Canada.”

When Transgenic Canola Eliminates Organic Canola: Inevitable Contamination

The first victims of genetic contamination were organic farmers, who had to give up their canola crops because they could not guarantee their integrity. To confirm this, I met Marc Loiselle, one of the leading figures in the resistance to Monsanto’s wheat, who has been an organic farmer for twenty-two years.40 He and his wife, Anita, work the farm established by his grandparents, who emigrated from Aquitaine a century earlier and settled in Vonda, about 30 miles from Saskatoon, the territory of Percy Schmeiser, the man who stood up to Monsanto.

On the day in September 2004 that I met him, Loiselle was worried: an unusual cold spell with temperatures at well below freezing had hit the plains, threatening the wheat harvest. Wheat was his entire life—it was his livelihood, of course, but also it connected him to the family saga and to the human adventure beyond. This practicing Catholic did not grow just any wheat: every year he planted more than 100 acres with an old variety threatened with extinction: Red Fife, highly valued by traditional bakers. As we drove down a straight road running to the horizon over the flat landscape, he told me that when European settlers had come to Canada they’d brought wheat seeds that were not adapted to the extremely harsh climatic conditions of the prairies. Then in 1842, David Fife, a Scottish farmer who had settled in Ontario, began to plant seeds that a friend from Glasgow had gotten from a cargo of Ukrainian wheat shipped from Danzig. That variety of red wheat, known as Red Fife in honor of its discoverer, soon spread through the plains like wildfire, because it had strong rust resistance and ripened early enough to escape autumn frosts. Later a breeder decided to cross it with Hard Red Calcutta, a variety from India, to increase yields and flour quality. Thus was born Marquis, which in the early twentieth century conquered a vast territory stretching from southern Nebraska to northern Saskatchewan, considered today one of the world’s breadbaskets.

“This history,” Loiselle told me, “is a very good illustration of the great saga of wheat, which humanity was able to develop in the four corners of the world because the exchange of seeds was not yet blocked by patents and Terminator.”

We were now in a huge field of Red Fife wheat, surrounded by plots of Roundup Ready canola drying on the ground. “Before,” he told me, “I rotated crops of wheat and canola or mustard. But I had to stop because my field was contaminated by my neighbor’s transgenic canola, probably transported by the wind. My organic certification agency asked me not to grow canola or any related plant for at least five years, because it is known that canola seeds can lie dormant in the soil for that length of time. In any case, I don’t think I will go back to growing organic canola, because it’s impossible to protect against contamination.”

“You can’t plant hedges or buffer zones, as agricultural authorities recommend?” I asked.

“It wouldn’t do any good. You can’t prevent all natural events: birds, bees, wind. Agriculture works with living things, which are not collections of genes set down on a piece of paper. Contrary to what Monsanto claims, I can tell you that once a GMO is introduced, the farmer loses the capacity to choose what sorts of crops he wants to grow, because GMOs colonize everything. They infringe my freedom as a farmer to plant what I want where I want. That’s why we were prepared to do anything to preserve wheat from that calamity.”

In January 2002, Loiselle joined a class action suit that included most of the organic farmers in Saskatchewan, requesting damages from Monsanto and Aventis for the loss of their canola crops.41 On December 13, 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada finally rejected the claim on technical grounds, determining that the complaint, whose basis it did not challenge, could not be treated in a class action but only through individual cases.

In the interim, what Loiselle and his colleagues criticized had been confirmed by a scientific study conducted by René Van Acker, an agronomist from the University of Manitoba, at the request of the Canadian Wheat Board.42 “We conducted tests in twenty-seven grain elevators of certified non-transgenic canola seeds and we found that 80 percent were contaminated by the Roundup Ready gene,” Van Acker told me when I met him in Ottawa in September 2004. “That means that now almost all Canadian canola fields include Roundup Ready plants. As for organic canola, it has already disappeared in Canada, where it’s hard to find three square miles with no GMOs.”

“How were you able to use the experience with canola for wheat?”

“The Canadian Wheat Board asked us to determine whether the Roundup Ready gene was likely to move from one wheat crop to another. To answer that question, we constructed a model of the flow of genes, which in canola operates from what we call ‘gene bridges.’ We compared all the elements of the model, one by one, and we determined that the situation would be similar for wheat and that a flow of genes was also possible.”

“Couldn’t two separate channels be organized based on the segregation of seeds?” I asked, adopting the argument frequently put forth by the promoters of biotechnology.

“It’s impossible. Contamination in the field is inevitable and it makes any attempt at segregation before planting ineffective.”

This conviction is shared by the owners of grain elevators, confirmed by a survey conducted in 2003 by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.43 It showed that 82 percent of the owners contacted were “very concerned” by the possible marketing of RR wheat, because “it’s impossible to have a segregation system with zero tolerance.” Two years earlier, an internal memorandum (obtained by Greenpeace) from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to the Minister of Agriculture, Lyle Vanclief, revealed that the segregation argument didn’t convince government officials themselves: “If transgenic wheat is registered, it will be difficult and costly to keep it segregated from non-transgenic wheat through the production, handling and transport chain,” the memo says.44

It should be noted that this is also the opinion of European officials, who officially, however, speak an entirely different language, designed to reassure recalcitrant populations. For example, a secret report submitted to the European Union in January 2002, which Greenpeace also obtained, confirmed that the introduction of transgenic crops into Europe would be a fatal blow to “organic and small farming of oilseed rape as well as for intensive production of conventional maize,” and that the “cultivation of GE and non-GE crops on the same farm might be an unrealistic scenario, even for larger farms.” Aware of the “sensitivity” of these conclusions, Barry McSweeney, director of the research center of the European Union, saw fit to attach a letter to the report in which he wrote: “Given the sensitivity of the issue, I would suggest that the report be kept for internal use within the Commission only.”45

“Is transgenic contamination reversible?” I asked Van Acker, a bit horrified by all this information.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think so. There is no backtracking possible. Once a GMO has been released in nature, you can no longer call it back. If you wanted to eliminate transgenic canola in western Canada, you would have to ask all farmers to stop growing the plant for at least ten years. Which is impossible because canola is our second-largest national crop, with 11 million acres in cultivation.”

“What are the consequences for biodiversity?”

“That’s a very important question, particularly for Mexico, which is the original source of corn, or for the countries in the Fertile Crescent, where wheat comes from. Canada and the United States export to those regions of the world. If transgenes are introduced into wild and traditional species of corn or wheat, it would lead to a dramatic impoverishment of biodiversity. There is also the problem of intellectual property rights. The Percy Schmeiser case shows that Monsanto thinks any plant belongs to it whenever it contains a patented gene: if this principle is not challenged, it will mean in the end that the company could control the genetic resources of the world, which are common property. Look at what’s happening in Mexico; we’re already at a crossroads.”

_______________

Notes:

i. At the time, Aventis was a European pharmaceutical group created in 1999 by the merger of the German company Hoechst, the French companies Rhone-Poulenc and Rousselclaf, the American companies Rorer and Mario, and the British company Fisons. In 2004, it was acquired by Sanofi-Synthélabo, which became Sanofi-Aventis.

ii. It is estimated that StarLink at the time accounted for 1 percent of the corn crop in the United States, approximately 370,000 acres.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sun Feb 07, 2016 5:11 am

PART III: Monsanto’s GMOs Storm the South

12: Mexico: Seizing Control of Biodiversity


Adventitious presence is part of the natural order.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2001–2002


“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.”1 So said Don Westfall, vice president of Promar International, a Washington consulting firm working for biotech companies, in early 2001. This statement was echoing in my head when I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico, in October 2006. Nestled in the heart of a lush landscape of green mountains, the city, considered one of the jewels of the country’s tourist industry, was in the throes of a violent social conflict.

The Transgenic Conquest of Mexican Corn

Hundreds of strikers and their families occupied a tent camp flying the banners of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) in the zócalo, the magnificent colonial plaza bordered by arcades. The streets in the historic center were blocked by barricades, while the governor’s palace, the courthouse, the regional assembly, and all the schools in the state of Oaxaca, considered one of the poorest in the country, had been closed for weeks. Starting with a teachers’ strike, the conflict had spread to all sectors of society, and people were demanding the resignation of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the state governor. This political boss of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), corrupt and a devotee of repressive measures, had finally been disowned by his own party.

“You’ve come to cover the events?” asked the receptionist in my hotel, who had seen a procession of reporters from around the world.

“No, I’ve come because of the contamination of corn.” He obviously found this unexpected answer surprising.

On November 29, 2001, Nature had published a study that created a stir and drew heavy fire from Monsanto in St. Louis. Signed by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, two biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, it found that criollo (traditional) corn in Oaxaca had been contaminated by Roundup Ready and Bt genes.2 The news was particularly surprising because in 1998 Mexico had declared a moratorium on transgenic corn crops in order to preserve the extraordinary biodiversity of the plant, whose genetic cradle was Mexico. Grown since at least 5000 bc, corn was the basic food for the Maya and Aztec peoples, who worshiped it as a sacred plant. An Indian legend says that the gods created man from an ear of yellow and white corn.

As a European for whom corn is always golden yellow, I was fascinated by the unsuspected diversity of the numerous Mexican varieties. Traveling around the indigenous communities of Oaxaca, four or five hours over potholed roads from the capital, I encountered everywhere women in colorful skirts drying, in front of their hovels, magnificent ears of corn colored pale yellow, white, red, violet, black, or an astonishing midnight blue, some mixing together several colors because of cross-pollination.

“In the Oaxaca region alone, we have more than 150 local varieties,” said Secundino, a Zapotec Indian who was harvesting white corn by hand. “This variety, for example, is excellent for making tortillas. Look at this ear: it has a very good size and fine kernels, so I’ll save it to plant next year.”

“You never buy seeds from outside?”

“No. When I have a problem, I exchange with a neighbor: I give him ears for him to eat and he gives me seeds. It’s old-fashioned barter.”

“Do you always make tortillas with local corn?”

“Yes, always,” he said with a smile. “It’s more nourishing, because it’s of much better quality than industrial corn. Besides, it’s healthier, because we farm without chemical products.”

“Industrial corn” means the 6 million tons of corn that flood in every year from the United States, 40 percent of which is transgenic. Because of NAFTA, the 1992 free trade agreement with Canada and the United States, Mexico has been unable to prevent the massive importation of corn; heavily subsidized by the American administration, it threatens local production because it is sold at half the price. [I] It is estimated that between 1994 and 2002, the price of Mexican corn fell by 44 percent, forcing many small farmers to head for city slums.

“Look,” said Secundino, holding out in his hand like a gift a magnificent violet ear. “This corn was my ancestors’ favorite.”

“It existed before the Spanish conquest?”

“Yes, and now there is another conquest.”

“What’s the new conquest?”

“The transgenic conquest, which wants to destroy our traditional corn so industrial corn can dominate. If that happens, we will become dependent on multinational corporations for our seeds. And we will be forced to buy their fertilizers and their insecticides, because otherwise their corn won’t grow. Unlike ours, which grows very well without chemical products.”

The Media Lynching of Ignacio Chapela

“Small Mexican farmers are very conscious of the stakes raised by transgenic contamination, because corn is not just their basic food but a cultural symbol,” said Ignacio Chapela, one of the authors of the Nature study, who had agreed to meet me at Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. This is where the anti–Vietnam War movement took off in 1964, which denounced among other things the spraying of Agent Orange and the “merchants of death,” among which was Monsanto.

It was an October Sunday in 2006, and the huge campus, where more than thirty thousand students and nearly two thousand teachers usually bustle about, was deserted. Only a police car drifted by like a damned soul. “That’s for me,” said Chapela. “I’ve been closely watched since this affair started, especially when there’s a camera.” When I looked incredulous, he went on: “You want proof? Come with me.” We drove to the top of a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. As we walked toward the lookout point, we saw the same police car, which parked conspicuously at the side of the road and stayed there throughout our conversation.

“How did you find out that Mexican corn was contaminated?” I asked, rather disturbed.

“I worked for fifteen years with the Indian communities in Oaxaca teaching them to analyze their environment,” answered the Mexican-born biologist, who had worked for the Swiss company Sandoz (which became Novartis, and then Syngenta) for several years. “David Quist, one of my students, went there to run a workshop on GMOs. To explain the principles of biotechnology, he suggested that they compare the DNA of transgenic corn, from a can of corn he brought from the United States, with that of a criollo variety meant to serve as a control, because we thought it was the purest in the world. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the samples of traditional corn contained transgenic DNA. We then decided to conduct a study, which confirmed the contamination of criollo corn.”

To conduct their research, the two scientists took ears of corn from two localities in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca. They found that four samples had traces of 35S promoter, derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus; two samples revealed the presence of a fragment from the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens; and another the trace of a Bt gene.3 “As soon as we got the results, we alerted the Mexican government, which conducted its own study that confirmed the contamination.”

On September 18, 2001, the Mexican environment minister announced that his experts had done tests in twenty-two farming communities and found contaminated corn in thirteen of them, with a level of contamination between 3 and 10 percent.4 Oddly, this announcement went practically unnoticed, but a few months later Ignacio Chapela and David Quist became a focus of attention, probably because of the reputation of Nature, which published their article in late November. When they’d submitted the article to the journal eight months earlier, the two scientists had received compliments on the quality of their study, and the peer review process followed its normal course: the article was sent to four reviewers, who approved it. But as a local paper, the East Bay Express, pointed out in May 2002: “No one could have predicted the magnitude of the controversy to come.”5 The result was a veritable media lynching, largely organized from St. Louis.

“First,” Chapela told me, “you have to understand why the study provoked the wrath of the unconditional promoters of biotechnology. It contained two revelations: the first concerned genetic contamination, which really surprised no one, because everyone knew it was bound to happen, including Monsanto, which always merely confined itself to minimizing the impact.” Indeed, in its Pledge Report, the company approaches the thorny subject with infinite delicacy, not mentioning “contamination” but stating; “Adventitious presence is part of the natural order.”6 “But,” Chapela went on, “the second point of our study was much more serious for Monsanto and similar companies. In investigating where the fragments of transgenic DNA were located, we found that they had been inserted into different places in the plant genome in a completely random way. That means that, contrary to what GMO producers claim, the technique of genetic engineering is not stable, because once the GMO cross-pollinates with another plant, the transgene splits up and is inserted in an uncontrolled way. The most virulent criticisms were particularly focused on that part of the study, denouncing our technical incompetence and our lack of expertise to evaluate this type of phenomenon.”

The fact that “the transgenes were unstable” had “profound” implications, according to an article in Science in February 2002: “Because a gene’s behavior depends on its place in the genome, the displaced DNA could be creating utterly unpredictable effects.”7 Three months later, the East Bay Express went further: “ It undercut the very premise that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science.”8 “The study was nothing more than mysticism masquerading as science,” retorted Matthew Metz, a former student of Chapela’s at Berkeley.9 Metz, who had become a microbiologist at the University of Washington, denigrated Chapela and Quist to the point of claiming that they had been taken in by “false positives” due to “laboratory contaminants.”10

“Where did the attacks come from?” I asked Chapela.

“From two places. First from colleagues at Berkeley whom I had confronted in the past over a $25 million contract the biology department had signed with Novartis-Syngenta, my former employer, in 1998. This five-year contract gave the company the right to file patents on a third of our discoveries. The affair had created two camps in Berkeley representing two conflicting conceptions of science: on one side, those who, like me, wanted it to remain independent, and on the other, those who were prepared to sell their souls to obtain funding.”

In June 2002, New Scientist identified these colleagues, who wrote an inflammatory letter to Nature in December 2001 asking the journal to retract the article, an unusual step. They were Mathew Metz, Nick Kaplinsky, Mike Freeling, and Johannes Futterer, a Swiss researcher whose boss was Wilhelm Gruissem, who worked at Berkeley, where he “was widely regarded as the man who brought Novartis to Berkeley.”11

“But the worst campaign came from Monsanto,” Chapela said. He concluded that it “had quite obviously received a copy of our article before it was published.”

Monsanto’s Dirty Tricks

Monsanto really did carry things to an extreme in this case, and the story I am about to tell is hard to believe. The very day Quist and Chapela’s article was published in Nature, November 29, 2001, an obviously well-informed woman named Mary Murphy sent an e-mail to the pro-GMO science Web site AgBio World in which she wrote: “The activists will certainly run wild with news that Mexican corn has been ‘contaminated’ by genes from GM corn. . . . It should also be noted that the author of the Nature article, Ignacio H. Chapela, is on the Board of Directors of the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), an activist group. . . . Not exactly what you’d call an unbiased writer.”12

The same day, a person named Andura Smetacek posted on the same Web site a comment titled ”Ignatio [sic] Chapela—activists FIRST, scientist second,” in which she had no qualms about spreading lies: “Sadly the recent publication by Nature Magazine of a letter (not a peer-reviewed research article subject to independent scientific analysis) by Berkeley Ecologist Ignatio Chapela are being manipulated by anti-technology activists (such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Organic Consumers Association) with the mainstream media to falsely suggest some heretofore undisclosed ill associated with agricultural biotechnology. . . . Research into Chapela’s history with these groups of [eco-radicals] demonstrates his willingness to collude with them to attack biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights, and other politically motivated agenda items.”13

At the time the “smear campaign” that derailed Chapela’s career was getting under way, Jonathan Matthews came upon these strange posts by chance.14 Matthews was the head of GMWatch, an information service on GMOs based in Norwich in southern England. “At the time I was looking into AgBio World,” he told me when I met him in November 2006, sitting in front of his computer. “It was breathtaking: the two e-mails from Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek were distributed to the 3,400 scientists on AgBio World’s distribution list. The campaign spread from there. Some scientists, such as Professor Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh, called on Nature to retract the article or to have Ignacio Chapela fired.”

“Who is behind AgBio World?”

“Officially it’s a nonprofit foundation that claims ‘to provide science-based information on agricultural biotechnology issues to various stakeholders across the world,’ as its Web site declares,” he answered, showing me the site.15 “It’s run by Professor Chanapatna S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Originally from India, he is an adviser to USAID, and in that capacity, he has intervened frequently in India and Africa to promote biotechnology. He became famous in 2000, when he launched a ‘Declaration of Support for Agricultural Biotechnology,’ for which he secured the signatures of 3,400 scientists, including twenty-five Nobel Prize winners.16 AgBio World had no qualms about accusing environmentalists on its Web site of ‘fascism, communism, and terrorism, including genocide.’ One day, when I was consulting the AgBio World archives, I received an error message giving me the name of the server that hosts the site: apollo.bivings.com. The Bivings Group, based in Washington, is a communications firm, one of whose clients is Monsanto, and it specializes in Internet lobbying.”17

Matthews showed me a 2002 article by George Monbiot in The Guardian revealing that the firm had presented its expertise in an article on its Web site entitled “Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World.” “There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved . . . it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first ‘listen’ to what is being said online. . . . Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party. . . . Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously.” A senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site, thanking the PR firm for its “outstanding work.”18

“Do you know who Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek are?” I asked, feeling as though I were in the midst of a detective novel.

“Well,” the director of GMWatch said with a smile, “The Guardian, to which I sent my findings, summed it up well: they are ‘phantoms’ or ‘fake citizens.’ 19 I spent a lot of time trying to find out who these two ‘scientists’ who had launched the campaign against Ignacio Chapela were. As for Mary Murphy, she has posted at least a thousand e-mails on the AgBio World site. For example, she put online a forged Associated Press article criticizing ‘anti- GMO activists.’ When you trace back to find the address of the server hosting her e-mail address, you find: bw6.bivwood.com. So ‘Mary Murphy’ seems to be a Bivings employee. When it came to ‘Andura Smetacek,’ I thought it should be easy to find a scientist with such an unusual name, especially since she claimed to be writing from London. She was the one who had initiated a petition demanding that José Bové be incarcerated. I went through the electronic phone directory, the electoral registry, and the list of credit card holders, but it was impossible to find any trace of her. I hired a private detective in the United States, but he didn’t find anything either. Finally, I examined the technical details at the bottom of her e-mails indicating the Internet protocol address: 199.89.234.124. When you type it onto a directory of Web sites, you come upon ‘gatekeeper2.monsanto.com,’ with the owner’s name, ‘Monsanto Corporation, St. Louis.’ ”

“Who do you think is hiding behind ‘Mary Murphy’?”

Matthews responds, “George Monbiot of The Guardian and I think it’s Jay Byrne, who was in charge of Monsanto’s Internet strategy. At an industry meeting in late 2001, he stated that it was necessary to ‘think of the Internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ ”20

“Fake scientists and fake articles—it’s incredible!”

“Yes, they’re really dirty tricks that represent the exact opposite of the qualities Monsanto claims it stands for in its Pledge: ‘dialogue, transparency, sharing.’21 These methods reveal a firm that has no desire to persuade with arguments and is prepared to do anything to impose its products everywhere in the world, including destroying the reputation of anyone who might stand in its way.”

An Absolute Power

Meanwhile, the “conspiracy,” as The Ecologist called it, had borne fruit.22 On April 4, 2002, after failing to persuade Quist and Chapela to retract their article, Nature published an “unusual editorial note,”23 constituting an “unprecedented disavowal” in the 133-year history of the celebrated journal.24 “The evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” the journal wrote. “A unique event in the history of technical publishing,” this rebuff created a stir in the international scientific microcosm. 25 In a letter to the journal, Andrew Suarez of Berkeley expressed his surprise, commenting that the statement “reflects poorly on Nature’s editorial policy and review process . . . Why has Nature refrained from releasing similar editorial retractions of earlier publications later found to be incorrect or open to alternative interpretations?”26 The answer to this question was suggested by Miguel Altieri, another Berkeley researcher: “Nature depends on its funding from big corporations. Look at the last page of the journal and see who funds the ads for jobs. Eighty percent are technology corporations, paying anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per ad.”27

Nature’s “backpedal[ing]”28 was particularly surprising because a month earlier Science had reported that “two teams of Mexican researchers had confirmed biologist Ignacio Chapela’s explosive findings.”29 Directed by Exequiel Ezcurra, the highly respected director of the Mexican National Institute of Ecology, one of the studies had analyzed samples of corn taken from twenty-two communities in Puebla and Oaxaca. Genetic contamination ranging from 3 to 13 percent had been found in eleven of them, and with contamination levels of 20 to 60 percent in four others. Ezcurra submitted an article to Nature, which rejected it in October 2002. “This rejection is due to ideological reasons,” he stated, pointing to the “contradictory explanations” of the reviewers, one of whom said that the results were “obvious,” and the other that they were “incredible.”30

Meanwhile, Chapela had paid a heavy price: in December 2003, the Berkeley administration informed him that it had denied him tenure despite the 32–1 vote in favor by his department; he would have to leave the university at the end of his contract six months later. In other words, he was fired. He filed suit and won in May 2005: “Since then,” he told me, “I bear the burden of being known as a whistle-blower. I have no funding to conduct the research that interests me, because in the United States now you can’t work in biology if you don’t accept funding from biotechnology firms. There was a time when science and the university loudly proclaimed their independence from governmental, military, and industrial institutions. That’s over, not only because scientists depend on industry to survive, but because they themselves are part of industry. That’s why I say that we’re living in a totalitarian world, ruled by the interests of multinational corporations who recognize their responsibility only to their shareholders. It is hard to resist this absolute power. Look at what happened to Exequiel Ezcurra.”

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet the former director of the Mexican National Institute of Ecology, who, a few years after denouncing Nature’s rejection of his study of the contamination of criollo corn, was in 2005 appointed director of scientific research at the San Diego Natural History Museum, where he had headed the Biodiversity Research Center from 1998 to 2001. I was surprised to find that in August 2005 he had co-signed a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a publication of the National Academy of Sciences. Conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, [II] the study found an “absence of detectable transgenes in local landraces of maize in Oaxaca.”31 But in October 2006 I did meet one of his colleagues, Dr. Elena Alvarez-Buylla, in her laboratory at the Mexican National Institute of Ecology.

“How do you explain the fact that Dr. Ezcurra signed a study that contradicts his previous work to such an extent?” I asked.

“Only he knows,” the biologist answered cautiously. “What I can say is that we began that work together and that I was pushed out. I was replaced by an American, Allison Snow from the University of Ohio, who picked up the study in progress. They decided to publish preliminary results, which I don’t consider scientifically very rigorous.” She is not the only one who thinks so: five international researchers—including Paul Gepts, whom I had met in July 2004 at the University of California, Davis, to discuss the patenting of life—also found that the “conclusions [of the study] are not scientifically justified.”32 Nonetheless, the study was reported in many international newspapers, including Le Monde.33

“Since then,” Alvarez-Buylla told me, “my laboratory has carried out another study throughout the country that found that the national level of contamination is on average from 2 to 3 percent, depending on the type of transgene, with some much higher peaks.”

“What do you think about this dispute?”

“I think it has nothing to do with scientific rigor and that it is masking other interests. What’s important to me now is to find out the medium-term effects of the contamination on criollo corn. That’s why my research team did an experiment on a very simple flower, Arabidopsis thaliana, which has the smallest genome in the plant world, into which we introduced a gene by genetic engineering.34 We then planted the transgenic seeds and observed their growth. We found that two genetically completely identical plants— they had the same genome, the same chromosomes, and the same transgene— could produce very different phenotypes [floral forms]: some had flowers identical to the natural variety, with four petals and four sepals, but others had aberrant flowers with abnormal bristles or bizarre petals. And some were plainly monstrous. In fact, the only difference among all these plants was the location of the transgene, which was inserted completely at random, by modifying the plant’s metabolism.”

“What does that have to do with corn?” I asked, contemplating one of the “monstrous” flowers that the scientist was displaying on her computer.

“From this experimental model we can extrapolate what risks happening when transgenic corn cross-pollinates with local varieties. It’s very worrying, because there is a fear that the random insertion of a transgene may affect the genetic inheritance of criollo corn in a totally uncontrolled way.”

The Monsters of Oaxaca

“The monsters are already in our mountains,” said Aldo González, one of the leaders of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, to whom I had just recounted my conversation with Alvarez-Buylla. It was a morning in October 2006, and we were on our way from Oaxaca to a Zapotec community in a remote mountain area. González had put a portable computer on the backseat of his car. “It contains my war chest,” he said with a smile, “the fruit of three years’ work.” In 2003, peasants had contacted his organization because they were worried when they saw corn plants growing in their fields that “looked sick and deformed.” Some were abnormally high; others had deformed ears or unusual leaves. González came and took photographs and plant samples that he had tested by a laboratory that used the kits that enable European customs agents to detect transgenes in soybeans or corn imported from North America. “Every test turned out positive. I now have about three hundred photographs that I’ve taken all over the Sierra Juarez.”

We had reached the little village of Gelatao. After the required introduction to the head of the community, González picked up a loudspeaker that echoed loudly in the steep-walled basin in which the village was set. “We invite you to participate in a meeting about the new diseases attacking our corn because of transgenic contamination,” he explained as a screen was set up on the village square. With machetes at their waists, the men streamed in, sometimes accompanied by their wives carrying brightly colored cloths in which they would soon wrap the ears of the harvest.

“I am going to show you photographs of corn plants taken in our region,” González told the audience. “I would like to know if you’ve already come across this type of plant in your community. You see, some very strange things are happening. This plant, for example, has one stalk here and another one there. Normally, a corn plant is not like that: there is always one leaf out of which an ear grows, but look at this, there are three ears coming out of the same leaf. They’re really monsters. In general, we’ve come across these plants on roadsides or in gardens. It’s possible that someone bought corn in a grocery store and he lost a few kernels on the way. The kernels germinated and that’s how traditional corn was contaminated.”

“I had a plant that looked like that last year,” a young peasant said. “I showed it to the old people and they told me they’d never seen that. It’s a new disease?”

“Yes,” González answered. “But the problem is that there is no treatment.”

“If I understand,” another Indian said, “if this proliferation isn’t stopped in our fields we’ll soon be forced to buy corn, because ours will not produce anything anymore. That’s very worrying: what can we do?”

“The first recommendation is if you find a bizarre plant, you should immediately pull up the seedling to prevent it from emitting pollen and contaminating the rest of your field. Generally speaking, you have to be very vigilant and keep close watch on your corn.”

“If contamination spreads, what might be the consequences?” I asked.

“That will be the end of criollo corn and of the whole rural economy. But the more I think about it, the more I tell myself that it’s all intentional, because finally contamination benefits only multinational corporations like Monsanto. Once everything is contaminated, the company will be able to take control of the most widely grown grain in the world and collect royalties, as in Argentina and Brazil.”

Indeed, the ravages of GMOs are not limited to North America and Mexico. They have also affected South America, Argentina in particular, where over the course of just a few years transgenic soybeans have become both the country’s primary economic resource and, probably, its primary curse.

_______________

Notes:

i. In 2007, the United States exported 11 percent of its corn to Mexico, which was worth $500 million; 30 percent of the corn consumed in Mexico came from the United States.

ii. It should be noted in passing that Monsanto has deposited its archives at Washington University in Saint Louis, but they are unfortunately not accessible for journalists.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

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13: In Argentina: The Soybeans of Hunger

The consistent rise in global acreage is evidence of the benefits of herbicide tolerant crops, including positive environmental impacts.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2005


It was April 13, 2005, in Buenos Aires, and Miguel Campos was having trouble hiding his anger. For several weeks, Argentina’s secretary of agriculture, livestock, fishing, and food had been involved in a dangerous struggle with Monsanto. Not that this agricultural engineer was opposed to biotechnology. On the contrary, he was appointed to his position, like all his predecessors for the previous ten years, precisely because he was an unconditional supporter of GMOs. Throughout the two hours of our conversation he constantly extolled the agricultural and financial benefits of RR soybeans while attempting to persuade me that Monsanto’s conduct was as vile as it was inexplicable.

“Monsanto was never able to patent its RR gene in Argentina because our laws do not permit it,” he explained, speaking forcefully. “So the company agreed to give up seed royalties and promised not to sue farmers who replanted part of their harvest, as they have always done, completely legally. Now Monsanto is going back on its promises, demanding $3 per ton of soybeans or soy flour leaving Argentine ports, or $15 when the cargo reaches European ports. That’s unacceptable.”

Taking Over Argentina

Miguel Campos looked crestfallen, like a good student unjustly accused by a teacher he adores. For if there was a country where Monsanto could do whatever it wanted without the slightest obstacle, that country was certainly Argentina. At the time Campos was talking to me, half the cultivated land in the country was planted with transgenic soybeans—35 million acres and 37 million tons harvested, 90 percent of which was exported, primarily to Europe and China. If Monsanto were to reach its goals, the company would take in $160 million annually for exports to Europe alone—a jackpot.

“You don’t think it was a trap?” I asked.

It seemed to me that Campos pretended not to understand. “A trap?”

“Well, Monsanto first created conditions favoring the spread of RR soybeans throughout the country, then the company asked you to pay the bill.”

“If that was the strategy, it was a mistake. You don’t change the rules of the game ten years later.”

“Will you pay?”

“The conflict is serious, because Monsanto is threatening to attack all Argentine exports.” In a statement reported by the Dow Jones Newswire on March 17, 2005, Campos had been blunter, denouncing Monsanto’s “hoodlum-like attitude.”

Ten years earlier, however, the transgenic adventure had begun like a fairy tale in the country of cattle and gauchos. When the FDA authorized the sale of RR soybeans on the North American market in 1994, Monsanto had already had its eyes on the Southern Cone for some time. Its target was, of course, Brazil, the world’s second-largest producer of soybeans. But the deal was hardly in the bag because the Brazilian constitution required that transgenic crops go through preliminary tests of their environmental impact before their release was authorized. So Monsanto turned to Argentina, where the government of Carlos Menem, following the lead of the first Bush administration, constantly spoke of deregulation. During his ten-year rule (1989–99), Menem, who went on trial in October 2008 for illegal weapons sales, did his utmost to complete the work begun under the military dictatorship (1976–83): he dismantled what remained of the Argentine welfare state, privatizing whatever he could and opening the country’s gates wide to foreign capital. This policy had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector, whose protective barriers were annihilated in order to hand production over entirely to the laws of the market.

Monsanto was prepared and entered the breach in the early 1990s, becoming the privileged interlocutor of Conabia, the National Advisory Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology, established by Menem in 1991 to provide Argentina with the appearance of GMO regulation. The commission, under the jurisdiction of the Secretariat of Agriculture, had only advisory status and was made up exclusively of representatives from public bodies, such as the National Seed Institute (INASE) or the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), and private players in the biotechnology industry, such as Syngenta, Novartis, and, of course, Monsanto, whose persistent interventionism is not hard to imagine. The opinions expressed by Conabia were indeed based directly on North American models; from the outset it adopted the principle of substantial equivalence, as its Web site indicated: “The Argentine standard is based on the identified characteristics and risks of the biotechnological product and not on the process that made the product possible.” Concretely, the commission did nothing but analyze the data supplied by the multinational corporations; if tests were conducted, their only purpose was to test the adaptability of transgenic seeds to Argentine agricultural conditions.

Beginning in 1994, Monsanto sold licenses to the principal seed companies in the country, such as Nidera and Don Mario, who took care of introducing the Roundup Ready gene into the varieties in their catalogue. By a lucky coincidence, the two major newspapers in the country, La Nación and especially Clarín (which had the largest national circulation), plunged into the promotion—some called it propaganda—of biotechnology, labeling all opponents, even the most moderate, anti-progress fanatics or Luddites, to adopt the expression of Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman. [i] Countless editorials praised the biotechnological revolution with arguments oddly reminiscent of those presented by a certain company in Missouri: “With GMOs, science has made a decisive contribution to the war against hunger,” Carlos Menem, for example, declared in an agricultural journal.1 William Kosinski, Monsanto’s “biotechnology educator,” asserted: “Biotechnologies make possible harvests of better quality, higher productivity, and sustainable agriculture protecting the environment.”2

“The introduction of GMOs into Argentina came about with no public or even parliamentary debate,” according to Walter Pengue, an agricultural engineer at the University of Buenos Aires who specializes in the improvement of plant genetics and whom I met in Buenos Aires in April 2005.3 “There is still no law regulating their marketing, and civil society, which is not even represented on the Conabia, is kept out of any decisions. After they were authorized in 1996, RR soybeans spread through Argentina at an absolutely unprecedented speed in the history of agriculture: an average of more than two million acres a year. We now have a veritable green desert devouring one of the world’s breadbaskets.”

The Magic Seeds

As soon as you head north out of Buenos Aires you encounter a stunning sight: as far as the eye can see are soybeans and more soybeans, sometimes interrupted by pastures with large herds of grazing cows. In the southern autumn month I was there, the harvest was already well along and Ruta Nacional 9 was jammed with trucks shuttling between the silos of soybeans and the ports on the Río Parana. This is the heart of the pampas, the vast legendary plain of Argentina that covers 20 percent of the national territory, 250,000 square miles bordered on the north by the Chaco region, the east by the Río Parana, the south by the Río Colorado, and the west by the Andes. As fertile as the U.S. corn belt, the llanura pampeana is one of the best pasturelands in the world and since the nineteenth century has been an area of intense agricultural development where, until the arrival of GMOs, the crops were grains (corn, wheat, sorghum), oil-producing plants (sunflowers, peanuts, soybeans), and fruits and vegetables, not to mention milk production, which was so well developed that the area was known as the “milk basin.” In the national imagery, the pampas were the country’s pride, able to produce food for ten times its population and therefore for export. “Cultivating the soil is serving the country,” says a poster at the entrance to the headquarters of the Argentine Rural Society.

The man who met me after I had driven for five hours was from a true peasant family filled with that nourishing vision of agriculture. About forty, Héctor Barchetta farmed 315 acres about thirty-five miles from Rosario, the capital of the transgenic empire. A member of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, an association of seventy thousand small and medium-sized farms, he confessed that he was “at a complete loss.” As he walked through the fields of RR soybeans that now cover 70 percent of his farm, he told me the story of a miracle that was in the process of becoming a nightmare.

In the 1990s, he confronted a problem that affected all the farmers of the pampas: the erosion of the soil because of excessively intensive exploitation. According to INTA, yields had fallen by 30 percent. “We didn’t know which way to turn,” he told me, “and that’s when RR soybeans arrived. At first, they were really magic seeds, because we returned to high yields, with reduced costs and less work.” In fact, as in the United States, transgenic agriculture was developed with the technique of “direct sowing” (siembra directa), which permits direct planting, with no prior plowing, in the residue of the previous crop. Promotion and technical advice were provided by Aapresid, the Argentine Association of No-Till Farmers, which bears a strong resemblance to its North American counterpart, the American Soybean Association (ASA).

Grouping together fifteen hundred large producers, Aapresid is the principal promoter of RR soybeans and Monsanto’s most loyal ally in Argentina. “The technique of siembra directa is an integral part of the model of transgenic farming,” according to the agronomist Walter Pengue. “At first it did lead to the restoration of soil fertility through an increase in organic matter supplied by the surface residues, which retained water. The technique cannot be dissociated from what Monsanto calls the ‘technological package,’ transgenic seeds and Roundup sold together, and there the company demonstrated its great skill by launching its ‘package’ at one third the price it charged in the United States.” The price was so low, in fact, that North American producers, even though they were heavily subsidized, howled in protest against this “unfair competition.”

Barchetta, for one, took the bait enthusiastically. “Before,” he told me, “to destroy weeds I had to apply four or five different herbicides, but with RR soybeans, two applications of Roundup were enough. And then, to top it off, the mad cow crisis made the price of soybeans take off, and I stopped producing corn, wheat, sunflowers, and lentils, like all my neighbors.” The European prohibition on animal-based feeds did bring about increased demand for vegetable proteins, including soy cakes. The price of soybeans reached historic highs, bringing about a rush on the new green gold in the pampas. “Thanks to the soybean boom I was able to survive the crisis,” he went on. “Everything was done to spare the producers. While interest rates were skyrocketing, we could get Monsanto’s package and not pay for it until after the harvest.”

In 2001, Argentina was at the brink of bankruptcy. The government of Fernando de la Rúa was forced to resign under popular pressure. While piqueteros—strikers in revolt—ruled the streets, poverty took hold all over the country, where 45 percent of the population was living below the poverty line. Strangled by a colossal external debt, the governments of Eduardo Duhalde and then Néstor Kirchner used soybeans as a life preserver. “It’s the engine of our economy,” according to Campos. “The state collects a 20 percent tax on the oil and 23 percent on the seeds, which amounts to $10 billion [annually], 30 percent of the national currency. Without soybeans, the country would simply have gone under.”

Soybeans Take Over the Country

The Argentine crisis was a boon for Monsanto that exceeded its wildest dreams. RR soybeans spread from the pampas like wildfire, steadily heading north into the provinces of Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Salta, and Formosa. Covering only 90,000 acres in 1971, soybeans spread over 20 million acres in 2000, 24 million in 2001, 29 million in 2002, and reached more than 39 million acres in 2007, accounting for 60 percent of the cultivated land. The phenomenon was so striking that there was talk of the sojisación of the country, a neologism designating a profound reordering of the agricultural world whose disastrous effects soon became apparent.

At first, although the crisis had crippled the national economy, the price of land skyrocketed, because it had become a safe investment providing significant quick profits. “In my area,” Héctor Barchetta told me, “the price of an acre went from $800 to $3,000. The weakest producers ended up selling out, which brought about a concentration of landholdings.” In the course of a decade, the average size of farms on the pampas increased from 617 to 1,328 acres and the number of farms was reduced by 30 percent. According to an agricultural census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC), 150,000 farms went out of business between 1991 and 2001, 103,000 of them after the advent of transgenic soybeans. By the end of that period, 6,000 owners held half the cultivated land in the country, while 39 million acres were already in foreign hands, a process that has accelerated since then.

According to Eduardo Buzzi, president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, “We have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of agribusiness, industrial agriculture directed toward exports, to the detriment of family farming, which is disappearing. Farmers who leave are replaced by people who do not come from the agricultural world: pension funds or investors placing their money in ‘seed pools,’ who plunge into the monoculture of RR soybeans, in cooperation with multinational corporations like Cargill and Monsanto, all at the expense of food crops.”

As RR soybeans continued their irresistible advance, transforming what was once the breadbasket of the world into a producer of cattle feed for the European market, food producers shrank at a rapid rate. According to official figures, from 1996–97 to 2001–2, the number of tambos (dairy farms) decreased by 27 percent and, for the first time in its history, Argentina had to import milk from Uruguay. Similarly, the production of rice fell by 44 percent, corn by 26 percent, sunflowers by 34 percent, and pork by 36 percent. In tandem with this movement came a staggering rise in the prices of basic consumer products: in 2003, for example, the price of flour went up 162 percent, lentils—a major element in the national diet—by 272 percent, and rice by 130 percent. According to Pengue, “The average Argentine is eating much less well than he did thirty years ago. And the irony is that we are being encouraged to replace cow’s milk and beef, which have always been part of the national diet, with soy milk and soy steaks.”

Pengue’s comment is not a joke but a simple description of reality. In a country where dulce de leche (milk caramel) and carne de vaca (beef) are essential ingredients of the cultural heritage, Secretary of Agriculture Miguel Campos himself is quick to give you the address of a good sojero restaurant in Buenos Aires. He goes on to praise the generosity of the Soja Solidaria program launched in 2002 by Aapresid, which decided to “help,” in its way, the 10 million people suffering from malnutrition, including one of every six children. The idea was simple: “Give away a kilo of soybeans for every ton exported.” The campaign was backed by the major media, quick to present Soja Solidaria as a “brilliant idea which is going to change history.”4 As for the unavoidable Héctor Huergo, the editor of Clarín Rural, he encouraged the government to “replace current social welfare programs with a chain of solidarity with no cost thanks to a soybean distribution network, one of the most complete foods, which just has to be introduced into our culture.”5

GMO promoters participated generously in the program: thanks to free diesel provided by Chevron-Texaco, soybean shipments were delivered to hundreds of food banks and school cafeterias in poor and slum neighborhoods, to hospices, hospitals, and every variety of charitable institution in Argentina. Throughout the country, workshops were set up where volunteers—the Catholic University of Córdoba called them “soybean soldiers”— taught cooks how to make milk, hamburgers, and other meat substitutes out of soybeans. On the Web site nutri.com, one learns, for example, that in Chimbas, in the remote province of San Juan, a municipal program educated six thousand people in “soybean consumption,” and that a thousand volunteers had been mobilized to distribute soy milk to twelve thousand children.

When Soja Solidaria celebrated its first anniversary, Victor Trucco, the president of Aapresid, did not hide his satisfaction. “In time,” he wrote in Clarín, “we will look back on the year 2002 as the year when soybeans were incorporated into the Argentine diet.”6 He drew up a balance sheet: “We have contributed 700,000 tons of soybeans, representing more than 600,000 pounds of high-value protein, 8 million quarts of milk, 5 million pounds of eggs, or 3 million pounds of meat.” The statistics were likely designed to conceal a purpose that the Soja Solidaria Web site summed up in a sentence: “The plan helped the spread of soybeans” in the country.7

Rebel Soybeans: Toward the Sterilization of the Soil

One day, Walter Pengue arranged a visit to Jésus Bello, a farmer in the pampas who had started planting RR soybeans in 1997. For seven years, Pengue had been following several farms in the region and carefully examining their farming records. “At the beginning,” he said, “I was rather in favor of transgenic soybeans, because I thought that with crop rotation and a reasonable use of glyphosate, it could be good for the environment and for the producers’ pocketbooks, since weed control amounted to 40 percent of production costs. But now I’m very worried, because every element is in the red.”

Bello nodded in agreement: “We’re headed into a wall. We’re spending more and more and the soil is exhausted.” Bello, like Héctor Barchetta two hundred miles away, was confronted with a problem that was growing worse every year: the resistance of weeds to glyphosate. “From an agronomic perspective, that was known beforehand,” said Pengue. “Before the advent of transgenic soybeans, producers used four or five different herbicides, some of which were very toxic, like 2,4-D, atrazine, and paraquat. [ii] But the alternation between the different products prevented weeds from developing resistance to any single one of them. Now, the exclusive use of Roundup at any time of year has led to the appearance of biotypes that were first tolerant of glyphosate; to get rid of those weeds, it was necessary to increase the herbicide dose. [iii] After tolerance came resistance, which can already be observed in some areas of the pampas.”

“So Monsanto’s commercial argument that Roundup Ready technology reduces herbicide use is mistaken?”

“Completely,” said Bello. “I apply glyphosate twice, once after planting, the other time two months before the harvest. At first, I used less than a liter of herbicide per acre; now I need twice as much.”

Pengue added: “Before the advent of RR soybeans, Argentina used an average of 1 million liters of glyphosate annually. In 2005, we reached 150 million liters. Monsanto does not deny that there is a resistance problem and has announced a new, more powerful herbicide with a new generation of GMOs, but that’s not a way out of the vicious circle.”

The cost for producers has been heavy. The time has passed when, to prime the pump, Monsanto offered a two-thirds discount on the price of its herbicide. The price very soon returned to normal, which led producers to turn to generics (principally Chinese) as soon as the company’s patent expired in 2000. But at the same time a new problem arose that further increased costs: what was known as “rebel soybeans” in Argentina (“volunteers” in Canada), indicating that, in South America as in North America, the same causes produced the same effects. And as in the United States, Syngenta, Monsanto’s Swiss competitor, which manufactures atrazine and paraquat, seized the opportunity: in 2003, one of its major ads proclaimed, “Soybeans are weeds.”

In addition, the intensive use of Roundup tends to make the earth sterile. “I use constantly increasing amounts of fertilizer,” Bello acknowledged. “Otherwise yields would collapse.” It is hard to see how a total herbicide able to eliminate every kind of plant would spare the microbial flora essential for soil fertility. According to Pengue, “The disappearance of certain bacteria makes the earth inert, which blocks the process of decomposition and attracts slugs and fungi such as fusarium.”

To top everything, in 2004 the price of soybeans began a downward tendency, which continued in 2005, to the point of causing producers like Bello and Barchetta lasting anxiety. [iv] “What are we in the process of doing?” Barchetta asked, his eyes fixed on the plot he was about to harvest. “Before, I produced fifteen different food crops; now I only do transgenic soybeans. Maybe we’ve fallen into a trap. Maybe we’re in the process of sacrificing the Earth and our children’s future.”

A Public Health Disaster

Dr. Darío Gianfelici was annoyed as he drove down the road: “Look at that. They plant soybeans even in the ditches at the side of the road. When they apply pesticides, you can be completely doused in spray. This country’s public health authorities are completely irresponsible.” When I met him in April 2005, Gianfelici was a doctor in Cerrito, a small town of five thousand about thirty miles from Paraná, in the province of Entre Ríos, in the heart of the empire of soybeans. In this region of the pampas once noted for its agricultural diversity, soybean cultivation grew from 1.5 million acres in 2000 to nearly 3 million acres three years later. During the same period, rice production fell from 370,000 to 128,000 acres.8 At least twice a year, cropdusting planes or mosquitos (farm equipment towed by tractors that spray herbicides using long mechanical arms in the shape of wings) inundate the region with Roundup, often reaching as far as house doors, since RR soybeans have invaded the whole area.

“It’s like a fever, an epidemic,” Gianfelici said, pointing to the notorious chorizos, the sausage-shaped silos that are now scattered along the roadsides because there is no other place to store the enormous quantities of soybeans. The doctor became an anti-GMO activist not out of ideology but because he was worried by the evolution of the illnesses he was encountering in his practice. “I don’t know whether biotechnology is a danger for public health,” he explains, “but I denounce the damages to health caused by the massive spraying of Roundup, as well as the excessive consumption of RR soybeans.” He mentioned the toxicity of glyphosate and especially of the surfactants, the inert substances that enable glyphosate to penetrate into the plant, such as polyethoxylated tallowamine. In Argentina more than elsewhere, Monsanto’s advertising assuring that Roundup is “biodegradable” and “good for the environment” resulted in many people failing to take any precautions during spraying, which means that the substance has contaminated the entire environment: air, soil, and water table. All the while the representative of the state, Miguel Campos, has claimed with complete confidence that “Roundup is the least toxic herbicide there is.”

Gianfelici was certain: “Several colleagues in the region and I have observed a very significant increase in reproductive anomalies such as miscarriages and premature fetal death; malfunctions of the thyroid, the respiratory system—such as pulmonary edemas—the kidneys, and the endocrine system; liver and skin diseases; and severe eye problems. We are also worried by the effects that might be caused by Roundup residues ingested by consumers of soybeans, because we know that some surfactants are endocrine disruptors. We have observed in the region a significant number of cases of cryptorchism and hypospadias [v] in boys, and hormonal malfunctions in girls, some of whom have their periods as young as three.”

There are few like Gianfelici who dare to raise their voices against the devastating effects of the all-soybean policy. Of course, organizations such as Greenpeace and the radical ecologists of the Grupo de Reflexión Rural had denounced the marketing of GMOs and pointed out the dangers of biotechnology, but they were preaching in the wilderness. “With the crisis, there were thousands of other problems,” according to Horacio Verbitsky, a columnist for the left-wing daily Página 12, who never wrote a thorough article on transgenic soybeans. “I admit that even I know nothing about it.”

Oddly, it was the Soja Solidaria program that provoked the first institutional warnings—not about GMOs as such, but about the risks posed to children by the excessive consumption of soy products. For example, in July 2002, the Consejo Nacional de Coordinación de Políticas Sociales organized a forum on the subject where it was pointed out that “soy juice should not be called ‘milk’ and it can in no case replace milk.” Health professionals pointed out that soy is much less rich in calcium than cow’s milk and its heavy concentration of phytates blocks the body’s absorption of metals such as iron and zinc, increasing the risk of anemia. [vi] Above all, they strongly advised against the consumption of soy products by children younger than five, for a commonsense reason: it is known that soy is very rich in isoflavones, which act as hormone substitutes for premenopausal women and can therefore cause significant hormonal imbalances in growing bodies. [vii]

“We are sowing the seeds of a veritable public health disaster,” according to Gianfelici, “but unfortunately the authorities haven’t recognized what’s at stake and anyone who dares to talk about it is considered a crazy person opposed to the country’s welfare.”

That day, the doctor had an appointment in a Catholic school run by German nuns. The imposing colonial-style building emerged in the midst of a vast spread of soybeans. “Last week,” the headmistress explained, “they sprayed Roundup just before it rained. Then there was bright sunshine, which caused evaporation. Many students started to vomit and complained of headaches.” She had asked the provincial health services to investigate, and they determined it was a “virus.” “Still, they did analyze the water, but they didn’t find anything.”

“Did they consider the possibility of poisoning due to chemical products?” the doctor asked.

“No,” answered Angela, one of the teachers. “When we mentioned that hypothesis, they rejected it out of hand.”

Angela knew what she was talking about. She lived in a little house surrounded by soybean fields. Every time they were sprayed, she had violent migraines, nausea, eye irritation, and joint pains. “I have talked to the technicians,” she said. “The only thing I got from them was that they warn me when they’re going to spray herbicide and I leave my house, with my family, for two days. They suggested that I sell my house, but where would I go? Soybeans are worth more than our lives.”

Banging One’s Head Against the Wall

When I saw how Campos flew off the handle when I questioned him about the environmental and health consequences of Roundup spraying, I understood that the subject was not a government priority. “Coming from a European reporter, that question takes the cake,” he said emphatically. “Our herbicide use is much lower than that of France. The truth is that we are the least polluted country in the world.”

The secretary of agriculture had obviously not been reading his country’s newspapers. When you go through them, you find, for example, that a judge has opened an investigation in Rosario, following a complaint filed by a couple whose house is surrounded by soybean fields. Their son Axel was born with no toes on his left foot and with severe testicular and kidney problems.9 Similarly, in Córdoba, mothers in the Ituzaingó neighborhood conducted a community protest to stop spraying in the nearby fields after they observed abnormal rates of cancer, particularly among children and young women. The affair caused some stir in parliament before getting lost in the maze of the justice system. “It’s always like that,” said Luis Castellán, an agronomist working for an agricultural development organization in Formosa, in northern Argentina. “Whenever there is a serious environmental problem, you cannot find a single expert who dares to stand up to the powerful soy lobby.”

Castellán knew what he was talking about: in February 2003, he had been contacted by farmers from Colonia Loma Senés, a rural community in the province of Formosa near the border with Paraguay. They were desperately looking for an expert to certify the damage done to their food crops by the spraying of Roundup and 2,4-D on a seventy-five-acre plot that had been invaded by “rebel soybeans.” They belonged to a neighbor living in Paraná who leased his land to a company from the province of Salta, which subcontracted with another company for seeds and spraying.

Welcome to the kingdom of GMOs! “Technicians”—often day laborers without protective gear who poison themselves for miserable wages—turned up one Saturday morning and sprayed until Sunday morning. “It was very hot that day and there was a strong wind in the region,” recalled Felipe Franco, who farmed about twenty-five acres. “The product is very volatile and it drifted for about 400 yards.” Twenty-three families who had taken refuge in their cinder-block houses were contaminated. “When I got there,” Castellán told me, “their eyes were red and they had large spots on their faces and torsos. Many of them had violent headaches and nausea and complained of hot flashes and dry throats.” Some of them never recovered, such as an old woman who was treated for eight months in Buenos Aires and still complains of unbearable bone and joint pain. The community asked the provincial government health services to write a report, but they concluded that lack of hygiene was the cause of all the problems. The families filed suit in the court in El Colorado, but the case bogged down because there was no health report. Only Castellán agreed to prepare a scientific description of the damage caused to the crops.

“We lost everything,” said Franco. “The manioc, sweet potatoes, and cotton were devastated. The chickens and ducks died; some sows aborted, and the others produced scrawny piglets. The day of the spraying the plow horses had diarrhea and threw themselves on the ground; some of them died.”

Castellán took photographs and samples of the affected plants, which he had analyzed by a laboratory at the University of the Littoral in Santa Fé. “I thought about it a lot before taking on this work,” he admitted, “because I knew that I was taking risks.”

“All the agronomists in the Ministry of Economy and Production refused,” Franco confirmed. “We had to confront the police and the politicians who wanted to keep us quiet. Some neighbors gave up filing a complaint and decided to leave and go to the slums of Formosa.”

“Monsanto says that transgenic soybeans can coexist with food crops. What do you think?” I inquired.

“It’s impossible,” answered Castellán, “especially in areas like this one, where small producers are surrounded by large spreads of GMOs. If something like this were to happen again, I don’t know how many small producers would stay on the land.”

Franco went on: “The problem is also the purpose of this production model. People who grow transgenic soybeans have a purely commercial aim; they don’t live where they farm, so they don’t have to suffer the collateral damages. But we produce in order to live. We pay attention to the environment and the quality of what we produce, because we consume it or sell it in the market. This transgenic technology does not serve the farmer but an economic enterprise whose promoters are prepared to do anything to get rich.”

Expulsion and Deforestation

Milli is a small rural community of ninety-eight families living in an area of seven thousand semi-arid acres located about thirty-five miles from Santiago del Estero in northern Argentina. You get there over a red dirt potholed road that winds through a brush-covered plain from which spring a few quebrachos, trees whose wood is so valuable that they are threatened with disappearance. This landscape is typical of the Gran Chaco region, which stretches to the Bolivian border.

“Here it’s simply called el monte,” said Luis Santucho, the lawyer for the peasant organization Mocase, when I met him in April 2005. “Before GMOs came, no one coveted this poor land, where thousands of small farmers have led a self-sufficient life for several generations.” Santucho was eager to have me meet the community leaders of Milli, whose survival was threatened by the appetite of soybean producers, who had constantly been extending the agricultural frontier further north. A year before my visit, a provincial judge had turned up with armed men and bulldozers. “This is community land, with no property deeds,” Santucho explained, “but with soybean money all kinds of skulduggery is possible.” That day the population of Milli was able to drive off the assailants by blocking the roads. The sojeros then changed tactics. They tried to divide the community by offering to pay cash for twenty-five acres to some families, who hesitated because they’d never imagined having so much money.

“That stirred up a lot of trouble,” said Luis, “but we didn’t accept, because this is community land, it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. And where would we have gone? Life is hard here, but we have enough to eat every day.” Chickens, ducks, and a litter of black pigs were running around the beaten-earth farmyard. Near the creek behind the little hut a cow and a horse were grazing. Every family was growing manioc, potatoes, and a little rice or corn. “El monte is a way of life,” said Santucho, “but it’s also great vegetable and animal biodiversity that is now threatened.”

Indeed, the province of Santiago del Estero has the sad distinction of having one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Every year on average 0.81 percent of the forest is cut down, compared to a worldwide average of 0.23 percent. For instance, between 1998 and 2002, 540,000 acres simply went up in smoke and were replanted with RR soybeans. [viii] “Between 1998 and 2004, nearly 2 million acres were cut down in Argentina,” explained Jorge Menéndez, director of forests in the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. “The situation is so worrying that it keeps me from sleeping. All the bosques nativos [native woodlands] are threatened: they are forests of great biodiversity whose flora and fauna antedate the discovery of America. Some animal species, such as pumas, jaguars, Andean cats, and tapirs, cannot live outside this particular ecosystem. If we do not impose rules on soybean farming, the damage will be irreparable.” “Isn’t it the function of your ministry to define those rules?”

“Yes, but we don’t carry much weight.”

To recognize the magnitude of the catastrophe, all one needs to do is travel down Ruta Nacional 16 toward Salta or Chaco. Tree trunks are frequently piled at the roadside. Sometimes black smoke reveals the activity of carboneros, or charcoal makers, usually small farmers who have given up their land and are selling their labor to survive.

The cynicism is absolute: driven off by the beast, they are reduced to feeding it. A guard controlled access to the site. I bargained with him, and he let me through. The four-wheel drive went down the desolate road. As far as the eye could see were unspeakable heaps of crushed shrubs, torn up trees, and disemboweled bushes. “The bulldozers,” murmured Guido Lorenz. Lorenz is a German geographer at the University of Santiago del Estero. Along with Pedro Colonel, a forest engineer, he frequently travels around the region to measure the extent of the plague. We were approaching the charcoal ovens. Men blackened with soot were unloading carts of wood. There was the sound of a tango. The boss explained that he had been out of work and he found this job, which would last for two years. It was to clear a four-thousand-acre plot belonging to the son of the governor of the neighboring province of Tucumán. The governor himself owns several thousand acres not far from here. “We cut down, we burn, then we plant soybeans,” the man said.

We went on. Lorenz and Colonel had heard rumors of a huge operation of illegal deforestation about a hundred miles away. It involved a sixty-thousand- acre parcel recently acquired by an investor. On paper, Argentine law is very strict: in order to be able to cut down trees, owners have to get a permit setting the percentage of deforestation authorized, depending on the type of soil. In this sector, classified “fragile,” that figure could not exceed 15 percent. “But once again,” said Colonel, “soybean money took care of making the arrangements.” Corruption and the lack of sanctions gave free rein to the bulldozers spreading desolation as far as the eye could see.

“They say they’re extending the frontiers of agriculture, but they’re really leaving a desert behind,” Colonel went on. “They’ll grow soybeans for a year or two and then they’ll be forced to leave. The fertility of this soil is tied to vegetation that is a thousand years old; when it disappears, the soil is soon impoverished.”

“This is a fragile environment, because we are in an arid or semi-arid climate zone,” Lorenz explained. “Deforestation leads to a decline in the reserves of organic matter, causing erosion of the soil, which loses its ability to hold water. At the level of an entire watershed, water from gullies causes flooding in other areas. Deforestation is the source of the unusual floods we experienced recently in the province of Santa Fé. In addition, with the technique of direct planting, the Roundup sprayed stays on the surface; when it rains the herbicide residue is washed away by the flow of water and pollutes other areas in the watershed. The water mammals drink contaminates them and therefore the cows’ milk, and so on.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the sojeros’ problem,” Colonel said. “They are large companies or businessmen who come from Santa Fé or Córdoba and treat soybeans like a raw material. A subcontractor sends a man with a machine that plants, another sends a man with a plane to spray, and a third one comes with a combine that harvests the beans and takes them away. They don’t use any local labor, except when they cut down the trees.”

“We’re really in an emergency situation, but no one in an official position has understood that yet,” Lorenz concluded. “It’s very serious, because the damage is irreversible.”

_______________

Notes:

i. The most determined defender of GMOs in Argentina is Héctor Huergo, who edits the supplement Clarín Rural.

ii. It will be recalled that 2,4-D is one of the components of Agent Orange; it is now (theoretically) banned in Europe and the United States. Atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2003. As for paraquat, which was, like Roundup, one of the most widely sold herbicides in the world, it was banned in the European Union on July 10, 2007.

iii. They are Parietaria debilis, Petunia axilaris, Verbena litoralis, Verbena bonariensis, Hybanthus parviiflorus, Iresine diffusa, Commelina erecta, and Ipomoea sp.

iv. After reaching $230 a ton in 2003, the price fell to $200 in 2004, then to $150 in mid-2005. But in 2006, there was a spectacular recovery, and it reached a peak in 2007, particularly because of the fad for biofuels.

v. Cryptorchism is a birth defect characterized by undescended testicles; hypospadias is a malformation of the urethra (it does not reach the tip of the penis).

vi. Phytates are phosphorus compounds that bind with certain metals, for example iron, and prevent their absorption by the intestine.

vii. Often called “phyto-estrogens,” isoflavones are similar to female estrogens.

viii. During the same period, 290,000 acres were cut down in the neighboring province of Chaco and 420,000 in Salta.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sun Feb 07, 2016 6:04 am

14: Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina: The “United Soy Republic”

The good news is that practical experience clearly demonstrates that the coexistence of biotech, conventional and organic systems is not only possible, but is peacefully occurring around the world.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2005


A tiny woman with an infinitely gentle gaze whom I met in January 2007 had understood in her flesh that transgenic soybeans were mortal enemies. To reach her, you have to drive for eight hours from Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, toward the Argentine border. As far as Iguazú, Ruta 7 runs through green pampas with huge grazing herds of cattle, dotted with palm trees and wooded hills. Then you turn off toward Encarnación, in the department of Itapuá. As far as the eye can see, hundreds of acres of RR soybeans stretch north toward nearby Brazil and south to the Argentine province of Formosa.

Silvino, Age Eleven, Killed by Roundup in Paraguay

Petrona Talavera, age forty-six, invited me into her humble shack located at the end of a red dirt road winding through Monsanto’s GMOs. “This is the road where my son died,” she said, handing me a welcoming cup of maté. “I’ll fight to the bitter end to keep Paraguayan children from being poisoned by the agriculture that is killing them.” Her husband, Juan, with whom she had raised eleven children, listened in silence.

It was January 2, 2003. Silvino, who was eleven, was coming home on his bicycle after buying noodles and a piece of meat in the only shop in the area, several miles from the house. On the road, he was sprayed by a mosquito driven by a sojero named Herman Schlender. “He came home soaked, complaining of nausea and a violent migraine,” Petrona said. “I told him to lie down and I prepared a meal with the noodles and the meat. I didn’t know that the product was so dangerous. In the afternoon the whole family experienced vomiting and diarrhea. Silvino was feeling worse and worse and I had to take him to the hospital.” The boy went home after three days in intensive care, but the next day another soybean producer, Alfredo Lautenschlager, decided to spray his field, located about fifteen yards from the family’s shack. Silvino did not survive the second poisoning. He died in the hospital on January 7.

Petrona then began her hard battle, determined that the crime would not go unpunished. Supported by the Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones de Mujeres Trabajadoras Rurales e Indígenas (Conamuri, National Coordinating Committee of Rural and Indigenous Women Workers), she filed a claim with the court in Encarnación. In April 2004, the two sojeros were each sentenced to two years in prison and fined 25 million guaranis. This was a first in the nation. The court found that the child had died as a result of poisoning by a toxic agricultural product that he “had absorbed through his respiratory system and orally, as well as through the skin.” The two sojeros appealed, backed by Capeco, the organization of large-scale soy producers, the Paraguayan counterpart to the ASA in the United Sates and Aapresid in Argentina. The sentence was upheld in July 2006, but the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court.

In November 2006, the appeal was denied, but when I went to see Petrona in January 2007, they were still at liberty. During the three years the case went on, a group of NGOs was created and frequently organized demonstrations so the affair would not be buried. “The sojeros are very powerful,” Petrona said, “more powerful than the government. They threatened to kill me. They paid several of our neighbors to make our life impossible and force us to leave. But where would we go? To a slum? Silvino had a classmate who died recently from poisoning, but her family did not file a claim for fear of reprisals, and because they couldn’t afford it. How many Paraguayan children have already died in the face of complete indifference?”

The question was hard to answer. At the Ministry of Health, Dr. Graciela Camarra acknowledged that Roundup pollution had become a real public health problem but that for now it was impossible to number the victims. “We are trying to set up a reporting system so that we can be informed as soon as a suspect case appears, but it’s not simple. I know of a case of two children who died after eating fruit sprayed with herbicide. And then there was Antonio Ocampo Benítez, talked about in the press, who almost died after swimming in a polluted river. There was another tragedy in an indigenous community in the department of San Pedro, where three children succumbed to the effects of spraying. We in the Ministry of Health are trying to persuade our colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture to enforce the rules for the proper use of herbicides, but no one can stand up to the sojeros. And yet we’re all concerned, even here in Asunción, because the fruits and vegetables we buy all come from the countryside.”

Smuggled Seeds

“We are first in the world in soy production per inhabitant, with an average of sixteen hundred pounds per person,” Tranquillo Favero bluntly declared in a June 12, 2004, interview with the Argentine daily Clarín. The Paraguayan “soybean king” explained that he had substantially contributed to this record, since he himself cultivated 125,000 acres in the departments of Alto Paraná and Amambay.

Welcome to Paraguay, which in ten years had risen to the rank of sixth-largest soy producer in the world and the fourth-largest exporter! From 1996 to 2006, surfaces devoted to soybean cultivation went from less than 2.5 million acres to 5 million acres, an increase of 10 percent a year. For good measure, the Clarín reporter hastened to add that the Paraguayan boom was due to the cultivation model graciously provided by Aapresid, the Argentine association of large sojeros closely associated with Monsanto. If he had gone a little further, he could have added that the organization had transmitted to its counterparts in Capeco not just the technique of direct sowing but also illegal RR soybean seeds. In 2004, no Paraguayan law authorized the cultivation of GMOs, even though they covered nearly half the cultivated land (this was still true in 2007).

paraguay, brazil, argentina: the “united soy republic” 275 “How is that possible?” The question startled Roberto Franco, deputy minister of agriculture, whom I met in Asunción on January 17, 2007. He seemed delighted to see me, so infrequently do European reporters show any interest in his country, which had been stifled for nearly forty years by the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954–89).

“The transgenic seeds entered illegally,” he said with a nervous smile. “It’s what we call bolsa blanca, because they came in white sacks with no indication of their source.”

“But where did they come from?”

“Well, mainly from Argentina, but also a little from Brazil.”

“Who organized the smuggling?”

“Large Paraguayan soy producers, who have close ties with their Argentine colleagues.”

“Do you think Monsanto played a role in the smuggling?”

“Well, we don’t have any evidence. But it’s not impossible that firms involved in this technology helped promote their varieties. Faced with this situation, the government had to act, because we export almost all our grain, 23 percent of it to the European Union, which requires the labeling of agricultural products that contain GMOs. We have no way of knowing whether the soy was transgenic or not. To avoid losing our markets—soybeans account for 10 percent of our GDP—we had to legalize the illegal crops.”

“Putting it bluntly, the government was confronted with a fait accompli?”

“Yes. We have the same problem today with Bt cotton, which is in the process of spreading with no official authorization and no law to govern it.”

“You don’t think it was a trap?”

“Well, we’re not the only ones; Brazil went through the same thing.”

A strange coincidence indeed. In 1998, when RR soybeans were invading the North American plains and the Argentine pampas, Monsanto seemed to be champing at the bit in Brazil, the world’s second-largest soybean producer. A petition filed by Greenpeace and the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense (IDEC) secured a temporary suspension of the marketing of GMOs on the grounds that “with no prior study of the environmental impact and the health risk to consumers, it would violate the precautionary principle of the Convention on Biodiversity” signed in 1992 in Río de Janeiro.

By lucky chance, smuggling was organized in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul; seeds were clandestinely imported from nearby Argentina, which led them to being nicknamed “Maradona” after that country’s famed soccer player. Backed by Aapresid, Apassul (Seed Producers Association of Rio Grande Do Sul) organized sumptuous churrascadas (barbecues) to promote transgenic crops, right before the eyes of the authorities, who did nothing. “It’s not unusual to see Argentine technicians in Brazilian fields who have come to lend a hand to their local colleagues,” according to a 2003 report by Daniel Vernet in Le Monde, which quoted a statement by Odacir Klein, the agriculture secretary of Rio Grande do Sul: “The federal police conducts inspections on farms and on the roads to charge violators, and transmits the charges to the justice system, which almost never follows up.”1

The result was that in 2002, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, ran for president for the fourth time and campaigned against GMOs, they had already spread throughout the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and also in the neighboring states of Parana and Mato Grosso do Sul. Nine months after the Workers Party candidate had entered the Palácio do Planalto in Brasilia, the European Commission adopted two rules on September 22, 2003, on the traceability and the labeling of GM foods intended for human and animal consumption. This decision directly threatened Brazil’s exports, since it was unable to distinguish between conventional and transgenic soybeans, because the latter officially did not exist.

Three days later, Lula signed a decree authorizing—temporarily—the sale of RR soybeans for the 2003 crop, then their planting and marketing for the 2004 season. [i] It offered an amnesty for all GMO producers, inviting them to come out of the closet and identify their crops so that segregation could be organized. The decision caused an uproar among peasant and ecological organizations, but also inside the Workers Party, which had promised not to release transgenic seeds before their environmental, health, and social impact had been seriously evaluated.

Aware of the disastrous consequences that would inevitably follow from the onward rush of soybeans, João Pedro Stedile, leader of the Landless Peasants Movement (MST), called Lula a “transgenic politician,” and the environment minister, Marina Silva, seriously considered resigning. For the opponents of GMOs, the presidential decree signaled the surrender of the new government to agribusiness, represented by agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues, and above all to Monsanto.

Time to Collect

Monsanto had been waiting in the starting blocks for a long time. Its entire strategy in Brazil demonstrates that it had largely anticipated the takeover of the country by soybeans, and transgenic crops more broadly. It had been marketing its herbicides in Brazil since the 1950s, and it opened its first glyphosate production facility in São Paulo in 1976. But in the 1990s, when its RR soybeans were spreading illegally, it launched the construction of a new plant that its Brazilian Web site presented with all the expected fanfare: “In December 2001 Monsanto inaugurated, at the Petrochemical Pole of Camaçari, the first plant of the company designed to produce raw materials for the herbicide Roundup in South America. The investment is equivalent to US $500 million. . . . The Camaçari Plant, the largest unit of Monsanto installed out of the United States, is also the only Monsanto plant manufacturing raw materials for the Roundup production line. The production is directed to Monsanto units installed in São José dos Campos (SP), Zarate (Argentina) and Antwerp (Belgium); in the past those units received raw materials from the United States.”2

As it was adapting its Roundup production capacities to the huge market it was seeking to develop, the company took control of Brazilian seeds in 1997 by acquiring Agroceres, the largest seed company in Brazil, and through the Brazilian subsidiaries of American seed companies that had come under its control in the United States, such as Cargill Seeds, DeKalb, and Asgrow. In 2007, Monsanto was the largest supplier of corn seeds in Brazil, and the second largest for soybean seeds, just behind Embrapa, the National Institute for Agricultural Research, which was desperately fighting to survive.

The culmination of Monsanto’s work was the collecting of royalties, first in Brazil, followed by Paraguay, and finally Argentina. Scarcely had Lula legalized the illegal crops when Monsanto began negotiations with producers, exporters, and processors of the precious grain, brandishing its intellectual property rights to the RR gene. Threatened with a cutoff of seed supplies, the Brazilians did not resist for long; by January 2004, they had signed an agreement providing that royalties would be collected when producers delivered their crops to the grain elevators of dealers and exporters of soybeans, such as Bunge and Cargill, the American giant whose foreign operations Monsanto had just purchased. Royalties were set at $10 per ton for the first year and $20 for the 2004 harvest. When you consider that 30 percent of Brazilian soybeans in 2003 were transgenic, amounting to about 16 million tons harvested, the math is simple: for the first year alone, intellectual property rights brought in $160 million for Monsanto.

In October 2004, it was the Paraguayan producers’ turn to pay up. They didn’t offer much resistance either, because in the end the official payment of royalties confirmed their triumph. The agreement provided for an initial payment of $3 per ton of soybeans, which was supposed to double within five years. As in Brazil, the fee was collected by dealers when the harvest was delivered, and they transferred it to Monsanto after deducting a commission. One week later, on October 22, 2004, Agriculture Minister Antonio Ibáñez issued a circular authorizing the sale of four varieties of transgenic soybeans belonging to Monsanto.

“In this matter, in fact, the government just legalized the violation, didn’t it?” I asked Roberto Franco.

“Well, let’s say we went along with it,” he said hesitantly. “The large producers were the ones who negotiated directly with Monsanto. It wasn’t like in Argentina, where the government handled the issue of royalties from the very beginning.”

That’s true. And it can be said that in Argentina, Monsanto hit a snag that has poisoned its relations with its loyal ally since 2004. It will be recalled that when it launched its RR soybeans, the company demonstrated extraordinary generosity by agreeing that producers would not pay royalties on the seeds. Eight years later, it was estimated that only 18 percent of the seeds used were certified, that is, bought at the list price from dealers subservient to Monsanto through licenses; the rest were seeds that had been saved or bought on the black market. Monsanto did not move until January 2004, when it suddenly threatened to withdraw from Argentina if all the producers did not pay the “technology fee.”

At first Agriculture Secretary Miguel Campos didn’t bat an eyelid. He even offered to set up a royalty fund paid for by a tax the government would collect from producers and turn over to Monsanto, the trifling sum of $34 million a year. To enter into force, the measure had to be approved by the Congress, which dragged its feet for fear of antagonizing the agricultural sector. “There is no question of our paying anything at all,” I was told in April 2005 by Eduardo Buzzi, president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation. “First of all, Monsanto didn’t patent its gene in this country; besides, farmers are protected by law 2247, which guarantees what is called the ‘principle of the farmer’s exception,’ that is, his right to replant part of his harvest, even if the original seeds are certified by breeders. There is no reason why Monsanto should enjoy special status.”

“But your organization at first encouraged the development of transgenic soybeans.”

“That’s right, and we were totally taken in. How could such cynicism be imagined? The company had planned everything for the long term, relying on Aapresid, an association it finances to promote its products, with the complicity of government officials and the media. Everything had been calculated, even smuggling to Paraguay and Brazil, and we fell right into the trap.”

“It’s war?”

“Yes, the seed war, except that we’re not worried about collecting dividends to satisfy shareholders but simply about staying alive.”

A few days after our meeting, Buzzi flew to Munich, headquarters of the European Patent Office, to plead his cause. On March 14, 2005, Monsanto had sent a letter to soybean exporters informing them that the company was going to “go after any shipment of soybeans, soy flour, or soy oil leaving Argentine ports headed for countries where the RR gene is patented.” For that purpose, it would request “the assistance of the customs authorities to take samples to detect the presence of the gene.” If the test was positive, it would sue the exporters in European courts, demanding a penalty of $15 a ton in addition to legal costs. At this moment, although the European Patent Office has granted a patent for the RR gene, only five countries recognize it: Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Holland, and Spain. In 2004, those five alone imported 144,000 tons of soybeans and 9 million tons of soy flour from Argentina. “Monsanto’s demand is completely illegal,” according to Campos. “The patent covers only seeds, not beans, flour, or oil. European law does not permit Monsanto to collect royalties on Argentine products.”

That remains to be seen. Monsanto for its part asserts that the gene belongs to it wherever it may be found, in the plant as well as in the products derived from it. And once you agree to take the first step into the infernal system of the patenting of life, the reasoning seems logical. In the meantime, the multinational corporation wasted no time in carrying out its threats: in 2005, it had ships inspected in Holland and Denmark in connection with lawsuits, and in early 2006, three shipments of soy flour were inspected in Spain. The cases were brought before the European Court in Brussels and Monsanto lost. If successful, these maneuvers could be a serious threat to Argentine exports, because in order to avoid disputes with uncertain outcomes, European dealers have begun to turn to other sources of supply. “It’s unjust,” says Campos, “because Monsanto has greatly profited from the boldness of Argentina, which authorized its seeds when they were very controversial. And it’s thanks to Argentina that the company was able to make inroads into other countries on the continent.”

The New Conquistadores

Back in Paraguay, the inroads Campos spoke of rather euphemistically have assumed the shape of an ecological and social catastrophe. “It’s a new conquest,” according to Jorge Galeano, president of the Agrarian and Popular Movement (MAP). “Nothing seems to be able to stop the sojeros, who use the same brutality as the conquistadores to increase their empire.” When I was in Paraguay in January 2007, the peasant leader was eager to show me the latest line of the “soy frontier,” which was constantly progressing toward the interior of the country. We left in a four-by-four from Vaquería, a small town 125 miles northeast of Asunción, in the department of Caaguazú. We drove on red dirt roads through a hilly and forested landscape of astonishing beauty. Along the way we passed Guarani Indians carrying bundles of wood; here and there thatch-roofed houses were lost amidst luxurious vegetation, with naked children splashing in a river under the burning sun. “Everything grows here,” Galeano said, “corn, cassava, sweet potatoes, all kinds of beans, sugarcane, citrus fruits, bananas, maté. Families feed themselves from a tiny plot of land, because we’re still waiting for the agrarian reform that is permanently threatened by soybeans.”

He spoke of the history of his country, one of the poorest in Latin America, where 2 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land, a glaring injustice that goes back to the Spanish conquest but that was accentuated by the 1870 war against the Triple Alliance, in which Paraguay was defeated by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. To pay for the reparations demanded by the victors, the Asunción government sold off public land, privatizing 57 million acres between 1870 and 1914 for the benefit of Brazilian and Argentine citizens and companies. Fabulous estates of 175,000 acres still survive from that time. Starting in 1954, the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner further intensified the concentration of land ownership to the detriment of small farmers: 25 million acres fell into the hands of allies of the bloodthirsty general, the son of a Bavarian brewer, who distributed them to local political bosses or foreign companies in return for large bribes. In the 1970s, during the first expansion of (non-transgenic) soybeans, another deviation of the agrarian reform that was always being postponed led to the sale of huge territories in the public domain to Brazilian producers from Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, the “Braziguayans” who organized the smuggling of RR seeds twenty years later. It is now estimated that sixty thousand producers share the transgenic bounty, 24 percent of them Paraguayan and the rest foreigners from Brazil, Germany, and Japan, or “international investors who have placed their money in the new green gold,” to adopt the expression of Deputy Agriculture Minister Roberto Franco. [ii] Putting it bluntly, they are foreign companies that buy huge properties to plant GMOs and have no qualms about driving off, by any means possible, the small farmers in their way.

“Look,” said Galeano, “this is where the soy frontier has reached today.” The view was startling. We were now going down a straight path running for several miles. To our left, toward the east, were soybeans as far as the eye could see, from which tiny clumps of trees infrequently emerged. To our right lay the wooded landscape rich in biodiversity that we had been going through for the past two hours. “Less than two years ago, these huge areas were populated by peasant and indigenous communities, all of whom finally left,” Galeano explained. “The technique of the sojeros is always the same. First they contact the families and offer them food and toys for the children’s birthdays. Then they come back and offer to rent their plots of land with a three-year contract. The families keep living there, keeping a small space for food crops. But they are very soon affected by the spraying, so the sojeros offer to buy their land outright. Since title deeds usually don’t exist for these properties, because they are supposed to be part of the agrarian reform that never happened, the producers bribe well-placed government officials in Asunción and they become the legal owners of these ‘liberated’ plots, as they call them. Then the bulldozers come and destroy the entire natural habitat of these very fertile lands, and the next year monoculture takes over. That’s why I say it’s a new conquest, because the expansion of soybeans is based on the pure and simple elimination of human communities and ways of life.”

“Is the phenomenon reversible?”

“Unfortunately, no. Even if small farmers could one day recover the land, it would be so contaminated by chemical products that it would take years for the initial quality of the soil to be restored. Transgenic soy is really a deadly enterprise against which we’ve decided to fight, whatever it costs.”

Soy’s Musclemen and Repression

In contrast to Argentina, where transgenic expansion has met little organized resistance, in Paraguay collective action against RR soybeans proliferated starting in 2002. Joined together in the National Front for Sovereignty and Life, peasant organizations such as Galeano’s MAP and the MCP (Movimiento Campesino Paraguayo) and civil society organizations such as Conamuri, to which Petrona Talavera belongs, have been conducting campaigns against the takeover of the country by soybeans. A week does not go by without a demonstration, a blocking of roads, or an occupation of land to slow the “advance” of Monsanto’s GMOs.

The government of President Nicanor Duarte chose to respond to this situation with repression and the criminalization of the anti-soy movement. Hundreds of peasants have been incarcerated since 2002 and a dozen assassinated. In some cases, the local police openly conduct themselves as an armed militia in the pay of the sojeros, with no qualms about shooting opponents on sight. For example, one day in February 2004, a truck carrying fifty peasants that had blocked mosquitos in the department of Caaguazú was fired on by M16s, killing two and seriously wounding ten. All around the country, with the approval of President Duarte, armed thugs have been recruited to protect the spraying machines and the large soybean properties.

Confident in their impunity, some sojeros have revived the proven techniques of the long Stroessner dictatorship and simply eliminated peasant leaders who are too troublesome. For example, on September 19, 2005, two policemen attempted to assassinate Benito Gavilán in Mbuyapey in the department of Paraguari by shooting him in the head. He miraculously survived but lost an eye. Almost everywhere in the areas bordering the “soy frontier,” violent actions have been conducted aimed at dislodging recalcitrant small farmers by force. On November 3, 2004, in the department of Alto Paraná, seven hundred policemen were mobilized to expel two thousand landless peasants who were camping with their families next to the 160,000 acres of RR soybeans recently acquired by Agropeco, a company belonging to a Paraguayan of German origin and an Italian investor.3 The two men had bought the huge estate from Stroessner’s son, who had obtained it through a manipulation of the agrarian reform. The families were cultivating a strip of land along Ruta 6. During the operation, in which thirteen peasants were incarcerated, the crops and the camp were destroyed.

But the symbol of the dictatorial methods that flow from the transgenic model was the rural community of Tekojoja, located 45 miles from Caaguazú, a few miles from the “soy frontier.” Fifty-six families have been carrying on a desperate battle against the appetites of two powerful sojeros of Brazilian origin, Ademir Opperman, a local potentate, and Adelmar Arcario, who owns 125,000 acres in Paraguay and five important grain elevators in the region. On December 3, 2004, the two partners organized an attempt to evict the families by force, by burning houses and destroying fifty acres of crops.4 But with the support of MAP, the families resisted and reoccupied their land.

On June 24, 2005, at five in the morning, 120 policemen backed by private militia recruited by Opperman took the community by storm accompanied by two lawyers who displayed an order of expulsion signed by a judge. “They were forged property deeds illegally obtained from Indert [Instituto Nacional de Desarollo Rural y de la Tierra],” explained Jorge Galeano, who had rushed to the scene as soon as he heard of the operation. “The Supreme Court in Asunción acknowledged that the acquisition was illegal in September 2006, but since then the families have been living in a very precarious state.”

On that January day in 2007 they had left their plastic tents to meet at the scene of the tragic events that had shattered their lives, hoping that my reporting would protect them from another violent action. “It was terrible,” said a toothless old woman. “The police arrested 160 people, 40 of them children. We spent several days in jail. When we were released our houses had been burned down, our crops destroyed, and our animals killed. And then we lost two companions.”

In silence, the families had approached two tombstones covered with flowers in the midst of a clearing. “Here is where they assassinated Angel Cristaldo, who was only twenty, and Leoncio Torres, a forty-nine-year-old father, who were trying to block the way of the bulldozers,” Galeano explained. “The police first claimed that they had died during a confrontation between the police and armed peasants, but we have proof that they were in fact murdered.” The day of the assault, a Canadian anthropologist, Kregg Hetherington, who was doing research in the community of Tekojoja, witnessed the whole operation and took photographs. Galeano gave me copies of the photos, which show police in uniform surrounding the trucks loaded with the furniture that Opperman’s men had stolen from the modest wood huts before they were set on fire. Armed men are bustling around tractors destroying the crops, while peasants are trying to block their progress with their bare hands. A man in a blue T-shirt is lying on the ground, his chest bloody. Another, also wearing a blue T-shirt, has a shattered arm. Faces are ravaged by pain. “I was also wearing a blue T-shirt,” Galeano murmured. “Opperman’s men got the wrong man.” Thanks to Hetherington’s testimony, an arrest warrant has been issued for the sojero, who was on the run when I visited Tekojoja.

It was already time to leave, because a few miles away another community was expecting us, also wanting to tell us of its distress: Pariri, where several hundred families have more or less survived surrounded by fields of GMOs. I had traveled through North and South America where transgenic crops proliferated, but I had never seen so much soy. It was a green ocean that covered every inch of space up to the beaten-earth square in front of the little church where the inhabitants of Pariri had come together. A man approached Galeano with his ten-year-old son, whose legs were covered with burns. To get to school, the boy had to go through a soybean field that had just been sprayed with Roundup. One woman complained of persistent migraines, another of vomiting; a man said he no longer had the strength to work since spraying had resumed. “What can we do?” asked an old man. “Leave the way forty families have already? To pick through garbage pails in a slum? Help us.”

Galeano was moved. I was angry. I lit a cigarette and listened to the speech he improvised in front of men and women who were dying so pigs and chickens in Europe could eat soy, because we can’t take the trouble to feed them with locally produced food. “Don’t leave!” declared Galeano. “We have to resist the model of transgenic production that multinational corporations like Monsanto want to impose on us, because it will lead to an agriculture without farmers. Family farming the way we do it provides work for five people on every two acres cultivated, while RR soybeans employs only one full-time worker for fifty acres. [iii] In the long run, judging by its actions, Monsanto’s aim is to control the production and the food of the world, and that’s why it wants to prevent us from doing our job. We don’t want the transgenic model, because it’s criminal: it pollutes the environment, destroys natural resources, and creates unemployment, poverty, insecurity, and violence. It makes us dependent on the outside for something as basic as food. It kills life, but once it’s settled in, it’s very difficult to go back. That’s why we have to struggle, for us and most of all for the future of our children.”

The Soy Dictatorship

On January 23, 2007, Tomás Palau met me in a house about a hundred miles from Asunción, where he had adopted the habit of retiring to read and write far from the uproar of the capital. That day, the sociologist who specializes in agrarian questions was beginning an article on the “United Soy Republic,” an advertising slogan launched in early 2004 by Syngenta, Monsanto’s Swiss competitor. In the ad, which had been distributed throughout the Southern Cone, you could see a green map linking Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, whose outline formed a soybean with the title “República Unida de la Soja.” “Soy knows no borders,” explained the second page, which sang the praises of a technical assistance service of the company supplying fertilizer and phytosanitary products to producers of RR soybeans.

“You can really say soybeans have taken over the Southern Cone,” said Palau, “because now Monsanto’s GMOs cover 100 million acres in the four countries shown on the map. But this staggering expansion, that has come at the expense of small farmers in the region, represents more than a mere agricultural phenomenon; it is also a real hegemonic political program. And in that sense, Syngenta’s advertising slogan is perfectly right; it’s even a confession.” Palau explained that, in his opinion, “Monsanto does now control the agricultural and trade policy of Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and soon of Uruguay, and its power greatly exceeds that of the national governments. It’s the company that decides what seeds and what chemical products will be used in those countries, what crops will be suppressed, and in the end what people will eat and at what price. The recalcitrant are taken to court, because the patents are the final link in the totalitarian chain. All that is done with the assistance of producers’ associations like Aapresid and Capeco, who maintain close relations with the ASA in St. Louis.”

I had been able to observe myself the links that united Monsanto’s three cooperating associations. At the end of our conversation, Deputy Agriculture Minister Roberto Franco had invited me to go with him to a reception being held the next day on the property of Jorge Heisecke, the president of Capeco. That evening a delegation of twenty members of the American Soybean Association was expected, led by John Hoffman, who had been so hospitable to me at his Iowa farm. I had reorganized my schedule to seize this opportunity. Unfortunately, after six hours on the road, I was never able to penetrate Heisecke’s huge estate, which was protected by armed guards, despite the intervention of the deputy minister, who offered lame excuses. Long live the “United Soy Republic.”

“Do you know how many small farmers in Paraguay have given up farming because of soybeans?” I asked Palau.

“At the last census, the nationwide statistics indicated that 100,000 people out of a total of 6 million inhabitants were leaving the countryside annually to settle in cities,” he answered, not surprised by my misadventures. “That amounts to between 16,000 and 18,000 families. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of the migrants leave because of soybeans. That’s huge, when you consider that families usually end up in slums where they live in conditions of extreme poverty. But beyond the social problems GMOs cause, the greatest impact is the loss of food security. When they leave their land, small farmers stop producing for themselves, but also for others. Since 1965, Paraguay has shifted from a food surplus to a deficit, which means it now imports more food products than it exports. That’s why I say that Monsanto and its allies, including in the end its competitors Syngenta and Novartis [who may eventually merge], are engaged in an imperialist, even dictatorial strategy intended to subject populations politically through tight control over food supplies. Recall the ‘Santa Fé document’ published in 1980, which constituted the basis of the Reagan Doctrine, in which national security advisers presented the food supply as a political weapon that had to be controlled to annihilate enemy governments. Well that’s exactly what Monsanto is doing now.”

On my way to Asunción, where I would board a plane back to France, I thought about the conversation I had had two years earlier with Walter Pengue, the Argentine agronomist who had become one of the world’s best known specialists on the impacts of transgenic soybeans.

“The transgenic model is the latest incarnation of industrial agriculture,” he had explained over a glass of Argentine cabernet sauvignon. “It’s the last link in a model of intensive production, based on a technological package that includes not only seeds and herbicide but a whole series of inputs, such as fertilizer and insecticides, without which there is no yield, that are sold by the multinational corporations of the North to the countries of the South. That’s why we can speak of the second agricultural revolution. The first, the one that came in the postwar years, was piloted by national agricultural organizations, like INTA in Argentina, and was aimed at developing countries’ food-producing capacities relying on the peasant class. The second is driven by supranational interests and leads to an agricultural model turned toward exports, where there are no more active participants in the fields. This model is directed purely toward supplying low-cost fodder for the large industrial feedlots in the countries of the North, and leads to the development of monocultures that threaten the food security of the countries of the South. In ten years, the Argentine economy has gone back a century by becoming dependent on commodity exports whose prices are set in world markets where the power of multinational corporations is decisive. When the price of soybeans collapses, we can expect the worst.”

“What are the consequences of RR soybeans for conventional and organic soybeans?”

“That’s another very important point in transgenic agriculture, which leads to biouniformity, which is another danger for food security. GM soybeans have practically made conventional and organic soybeans disappear, because they are contaminated and their prices have declined drastically. But there is something more serious: if half a country is planted with a single variety, it creates a veritable highway for natural diseases that can annihilate a country’s entire production. A threat is now hanging over soybeans that has no phytosanitary remedy, soybean rust. It began in Brazil, spread to Paraguay, and then Argentina. The lack of diversity of plant species prevents resistance to disease. Don’t forget what happened in the nineteenth century to potatoes in Ireland. The great famine of 1845–49 that killed off a large part of the population and drove tens of thousands of people into exile was due particularly to the lack of biodiversity, which favored the development of the blight that no natural barrier was able to stop.”

“What is Monsanto’s long-term objective?”

“I think the company is seeking to control the food produced in the world. To do that, it has to get its hands on the seeds in the locations where they are used by farmers. First it appropriates the seeds, then the processing of grains, then the supermarkets, and in the end it controls the entire food chain. The seeds are the first link in the chain: whoever controls seeds controls the food supply and thereby controls mankind.”

A month before I traveled to Paraguay in January 2007, I had been able to observe the effects of this terrible logic on the other side of the planet in an even more dramatic context, in India, where the cultivation of Monsanto’s transgenic cotton had become associated with death—the subject of the next chapter.

_______________

Notes:

i. The decree was renewed in October 2004. Then in March 2005, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress passed a law definitively authorizing transgenic crops.

ii. The Japanese Agency for International Cooperation has encouraged the emigration of Japanese settlers.

iii. In Argentina, figures supplied by the Agriculture Ministry indicate one paid position for five hundred acres cultivated.  
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sun Feb 07, 2016 6:19 am

15: India: The Seeds of Suicide

Our products provide consistent and significant benefits to both large- and small-holder growers. In many cases farmers are able to grow higher-quality and better-yielding crops.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2006


It was December 2006, and we had barely arrived when a funeral procession came around the corner of an alley running between whitewashed walls, shattering the torpor of the little Indian village under the burning sun. Wearing the traditional costume—white cotton tunic and trousers—the drummers led the group toward the nearby river, where the funeral pyre had already been set up. In the middle of the procession, weeping women desperately held on to robust young men with somber faces carrying a stretcher covered with brilliantly colored flowers. Gripped by emotion, I glimpsed the face of the dead man: eyes closed, aquiline nose, brown moustache. I will never forget this fleeting vision, which stains Monsanto’s great promises with infamy.

Three Suicides a Day

“Can we film?” I asked, seized by sudden doubt, as my cameraman questioned me with a motion of his head. “Of course,” answered Tarak Kate, an agronomist who heads an NGO specializing in organic farming who was traveling with me through the cotton-growing region of Vidarbha, in the southwestern Indian state of Maharashtra. “That’s why Kishor Tiwari brought us to this village. He knew there would be a funeral of a peasant who had committed suicide.”

Kishor Tiwari is the leader of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a peasant movement whose members have been harassed by the police because they have insistently denounced the “genocide” caused by Bt cotton in this agricultural region, formerly celebrated for the quality of its “white gold.” Tiwari nodded when he heard Kate’s answer. “I didn’t say anything to you for security reasons. The villagers inform us whenever a farmer has committed suicide, and we come to all the funerals. Right now, there are three suicides a day in the region. This young man drank a liter of pesticide. That’s how peasants kill themselves: they use the chemical products the transgenic cotton was supposed to enable them to avoid.”

As the procession headed off toward the river, where the body of the young victim would soon be cremated, a group of men approached my film crew. They looked suspicious, but Tiwari’s presence reassured them: “Tell the world that Bt cotton is a disaster,” an old man said angrily. “This is the second suicide in our village since the beginning of the harvest. It can only get worse, because the transgenic seeds have produced nothing.”

“They lied to us,” the head of the village added. “They had said that these magic seeds would allow us to make money, but we’re all in debt and the harvest is nonexistent. What will become of us?”

We then headed toward the nearby village of Bhadumari, where Tiwari wanted to introduce me to a young widow of twenty-five whose husband had committed suicide three months earlier. “She’s already talked to a reporter from the New York Times,” he told me, “and she’s ready to do it again. This is very unusual, because usually the families are ashamed.”1 Very dignified in her blue sari, the young woman met us in the yard in front of her modest earthen house. The younger of her two sons, one three years and the other ten months old, was sleeping in a hammock that she rocked with her hand during the conversation, while her mother-in-law, standing behind her, silently showed us a photograph of her dead son. “He killed himself right here,” said the widow. “He took advantage of my absence to drink a can of pesticide. When I got back he was dying. We couldn’t do anything.”

As I listened to her, I recalled an article published in the International Herald Tribune in May 2006 in which a doctor described the ordeal of the sacrificial victims of the transgenic saga. “Pesticides act on the nervous system— first they have convulsions, then the chemicals start eroding the stomach, and bleeding in the stomach begins, then there is aspiration pneumonia— they have difficulty in breathing—then they suffer from cardiac arrest.”2

Anil Kondba Shend, the husband of the young widow, was thirty-five, and cultivated about three-and-a-half acres. In 2006, he had decided to try Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds, known as “Bollgard,” which had been heavily promoted by the company’s television advertising. In those ads, plump caterpillars were overcome by transgenic cotton plants: “Bollgard protects you! Less spraying, more profit! Bollgard cotton seeds: the power to conquer insects!” The peasant had had to borrow to buy the precious seeds, which were four times more expensive than conventional seeds. And he had had to plant three times, his widow recalled, “because each time he planted the seeds, they didn’t resist the rain. I think he owed the dealers 60,000 rupees. [i] I never really knew, because in the weeks before his death he stopped talking. He was obsessed by his debt.”

“Who are the dealers?” I asked.

“The ones who sell transgenic seeds,” Tiwari answered. “They also supply fertilizer and pesticides, and lend money at usurious rates. Farmers are chained by debt to Monsanto’s dealers.”

“It’s a vicious circle,” Kate added, “a human disaster. The problem is that GMOs are not at all adapted to our soil, which is saturated with water as soon as the monsoon comes. In addition, the seeds make the peasants completely dependent on market forces: not only do they have to pay much more for their seeds, but they also have to buy fertilizer or else the crop will fail, and pesticides, because Bollgard is supposed to protect against infestations by the cotton bollworm but not against other sucking insects. If you add that, contrary to what the advertising claims, Bollgard is not enough to drive off the bollworms, then you have a catastrophe, because you also have to use insecticides.”

“Monsanto says that GMOs are suitable for small farmers: what do you think?” I asked, thinking of the firm’s claims in its 2006 Pledge Report.

“Our experience proves that’s a lie.” said the agronomist. “In the best case, they may be suitable for large farmers who own the best land and have the means to drain or irrigate as the need arises, but not for small ones who represent 70 percent of this country’s population.”

“Look,” Tiwari interrupted, spreading out a gigantic map he’d gone to get from the trunk of his car.

The vision was startling: every spot in what is known in Vidarbha as the cotton belt was marked with a death’s head. “These are all the suicides we’ve recorded between June 2005, when Bt cotton was introduced into the state of Maharashtra, and December 2006,” the peasant leader said. “That makes 1,280 dead. One every eight hours! But here, where it’s blank, is the area where rice is grown: you see there are practically no suicides. That’s why we say that Bt cotton is in the process of causing a veritable genocide.” [ii]

Kate showed me a small space where there were no death’s heads. “This is the sector of Ghatanji in the Yavatamal district,” he said with a smile. “That’s where my association is promoting organic farming among five hundred families in twenty villages. You see, we don’t have any suicides.”

“Yes, but suicides of cotton farmers are nothing new; they existed before GMOs came on the scene.”

“That’s true. But with Bt cotton they’ve greatly increased. You can observe the same thing in the sta
te of Andhra Pradesh, which was the first one to authorize transgenic crops, before it got into a battle with Monsanto.”
According to the government of Maharashtra, 1,920 peasants committed suicide between January 1, 2001, and August 19, 2006, in the entire state. The phenomenon accelerated after Bt seeds came on the market in June 2005.3

Hijacking Indian Cotton

Before I flew off to the huge state of Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, Kishor Tiwari was eager to show me the cotton market of Pandharkawada, one of the largest in Maharashtra. On the road leading to it, we crossed a column of carts loaded with sacks of cotton pulled by buffalo. “I warn you,” Tiwari said, “the market is on the edge of exploding. The farmers are exhausted, the yields were catastrophic, and the price of cotton has never been so low. This is the result of the subsidies the American administration gives its farmers, which has a dumping effect on world prices.” [iii]

We had barely gone through the imposing gate into the market when we were assailed by hundreds of angry cotton farmers who surrounded us so we couldn’t move. “We’ve been here several days with our harvest,” one of them said, brandishing a ball of cotton in each hand. “The dealers are offering a price that’s so low we can’t accept it. We all have debts to pay.”

“How much is your debt?” Tarak Kate asked.

“Fifty-two thousand rupees,” the farmer answered.

What came next was an incredible scene in which dozens of peasants spontaneously declared, one after another, the amount of their debts: 50,000 rupees, 20,000 rupees, 15,000 rupees, 32,000 rupees, 36,000 rupees. Nothing seemed able to stop this litany running through the crowd like an irresistible tidal wave.

“We don’t want any more Bt cotton!” yelled a man whom I couldn’t even pick out from the crowd.

“No!” roared dozens of voices.

Kate, clearly very moved, asked: “How many of you are not going to plant Bt cotton next year?”

A forest of hands went up that, miraculously, the cameraman, Guillaume Martin, managed to film, even though we were literally crushed in the midst of this human tide, which made filming extremely difficult. “The problem,” said Kate, “is that these farmers will have a lot of trouble finding nontransgenic cotton seeds, because Monsanto controls practically the entire market.”

Beginning in the early 1990s—in fact, at the same time as it was setting its sights on Brazil, the world’s largest soybean producer—Monsanto was carefully preparing the launch of its GMOs in India, the world’s third-largest cotton producer after China and the United States. An eminently symbolic plant in the country of Mahatma Gandhi, who made the growing of cotton the spearhead of his nonviolent resistance to British occupation, cotton has been grown for more than five thousand years on the Indian subcontinent. It now provides a livelihood for 17 million families, mainly in southern states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh).

Established in India since 1949, Monsanto is one of the country’s major suppliers of phytosanitary products. There is a large market for herbicides and especially insecticides, because cotton is very susceptible to a wide variety of pests, such as bollworms, wireworms, cotton worm weevils, mealybugs, spider mites, and aphids. Before the “green revolution,” which encouraged the intensive monoculture of cotton with high-yield hybrid varieties, Indian farmers managed to control infestations by these insects through a system of crop rotation and the use of an organic pesticide derived from the leaves of the neem tree. The many therapeutic properties of this tree, venerated as the “free tree” in all the villages of the subcontinent, are so well known that it has been the subject of a dozen patents filed by international companies, obvious cases of biopiracy that have led to endless challenges in patent offices. For example, in September 1994, the American chemical company W.R. Grace, a competitor of Monsanto, secured a European patent for the use of neem oil as an insecticide, preventing Indian companies from marketing their products abroad except if they paid royalties to the multinational corporation, which was also flooding the country with chemical pesticides.4

These were the chemical pesticides that caused the first wave of suicides among indebted cotton farmers in the late 1990s. The intensive use of synthetic insecticides produced a phenomenon well known to entomologists: the development of resistance by the insects to the products intended to combat them. The result was that to get rid of the insects, farmers had to increase doses and turn to increasingly toxic molecules, so much so that in India, where cotton covers only 5 percent of the land under cultivation, it alone accounts for 55 percent of the pesticides used.

The irony of the story is that Monsanto was perfectly capable of benefiting from the deadly spiral that its products had helped create and which, in conjunction with the fall in cotton prices (from $98.20 a ton in 1995 to $49.10 in 2001), had led to the death of thousands of small farmers. The company praised the virtues of Bt cotton as the ultimate panacea that would reduce or eliminate the need to spray for bollworms, as its Indian subsidiary’s Web site proclaims.

In 1993, Monsanto negotiated a Bt technology license agreement with the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), the largest seed company in India. Two years later, the Indian government authorized the importation of a Bt cotton variety grown in the United States (Cocker 312, containing the Cry1Ac gene) so that Mahyco technicians could crossbreed it with local hybrid varieties. In April 1998, Monsanto announced that it had acquired a 26 percent share in Mahyco and that it had set up a 50-50 joint venture with its Indian partner, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), for the purpose of marketing future transgenic cotton seeds. At the same time, the Indian government authorized the company to conduct the first field trials of Bt cotton.

“This decision was made outside any legal framework,” said Vandana Shiva, whom I met in her offices at the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi in December 2006. The holder of a Ph.D. in physics, this internationally known figure in the antiglobalization movement received the “alternative Nobel Prize” in 1993 for her service to ecology and her efforts against the control of Indian agriculture by multinational agrichemical corporations. “In 1999,” she told me, “my organization filed an appeal with the Supreme Court denouncing the illegality of the trials conducted by Mahyco Monsanto. In July 2000, although our petition had had not yet been considered, the trials were authorized on a larger scale, on forty sites spread over six states, but the results were never communicated, because we were told they were confidential. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had asked that tests be done on the food safety of Bt cotton seeds, used as fodder for cows and buffaloes, which thus might affect the quality of milk, as well as on cottonseed oil which is used for human consumption, but that was never done. In a few years, Monsanto had carried off a hijacking of Indian cotton with the complicity of government authorities, who opened the door to GMOs by sweeping away the principle of precaution that India had always upheld.”

“How was that possible?” I asked.

“Well, Monsanto did considerable lobbying. For example, in January 2001, an American delegation of judges and scientists very opportunely met Chief Justice A.S. Anand of the Supreme Court and vaunted the benefits of biotechnology at the very time the court was supposed to issue a decision on our appeal. The delegation, led by the Einstein Institute for Science, Health, and the Courts, offered to set up workshops to train judges on GMO questions.5 Monsanto also organized several trips to its St. Louis headquarters for Indian journalists, scientists, and judges. The press was also extensively used to propagate the good news. It’s appalling to see how many personalities are capable of stubbornly defending biotechnology when they obviously know nothing about it.”

It should be noted in passing that not only Indian personalities fell for Monsanto’s line. A company press release on July 3, 2002, reported with obvious satisfaction that a European delegation had gone on a tour of Chesterfield Village, the biotechnology research center in St. Louis. “The delegation of visitors represented government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, scientific institutions, farmers, consumers, and journalists from 12 countries that are involved in biotechnology and food safety,” according to the press release.6

“Do you think there was also some corruption?” I asked.

“Well,” Shiva answered with a smile, searching for words, “I don’t have any proof, but I can’t exclude it. Look at what happened in Indonesia.”

On January 6, 2005, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched a two-pronged proceeding against Monsanto, accused of corruption in Indonesia. According to the SEC, whose findings can be consulted on the Web, Monsanto representatives in Jakarta had paid estimated bribes of $700,000 to 140 Indonesian government officials between 1997 and 2002 for them to favor the introduction of Bt cotton into the country.7 They had, for example, offered $374,000 to the wife of a senior official in the Agriculture Ministry for building a luxury house. These generous gifts, it was claimed, had been covered by fake invoices for pesticides. In addition, in 2002, Monsanto’s Asian subsidiary was said to have paid $50,000 to a senior official in the Environment Ministry for him to reverse a decree requiring an assessment of the environmental impact of Bt cotton before it was marketed. Far from denying these accusations, Monsanto signed an agreement with the SEC in April 2005 providing for the payment of a $1.5 million fine. “Monsanto accepts full responsibility for these improper activities, and we sincerely regret that people working on behalf of Monsanto engaged in such behavior.”8

The Dramatic Failure of Monsanto’s Transgenic Cotton

The fact remains that on February 20, 2002, much to the chagrin of peasant and ecological organizations, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave a green light to the cultivation of Bt cotton. Mahyco Monsanto Biotech pulled out all the stops: it hired a Bollywood star to promote GMOs on television (which enjoys a large audience in India), while tens of thousands of posters were put up throughout the country showing smiling farmers posing next to shiny new tractors, supposedly acquired with the profits from Bt cotton.

The first year, 55,000 farmers, 2 percent of India’s cotton growers, agreed to join the transgenic adventure. “I heard it is a miracle seed that will free me from the bondage of pesticide spraying,” a twenty-six-year-old farmer from Andhra Pradesh, one of the first states to authorize the marketing of GMOs (in March 2002), told the Washington Post in 2003. “Last season, every time I saw pests, I panicked, I sprayed pesticides on my cotton crop about 20 times. This season, with the new seed, I sprayed only three times.”9

Regardless of this obvious advantage (which soon disappeared because insects developed resistance to Bt plants), the remainder of the picture was much less brilliant, as farmers interviewed by the Washington Post reported at the end of their first GM harvest. “I got less money for my Bt cotton because the buyers at the market said the staple fiber length was shorter,” said one. The yield also did not improve. “The price of the seed is so high, now I wonder if it was really worth it.”10 In fact, because the patenting of seeds has (for now) remained prohibited in India, Monsanto could not apply the same system as in North America, that is, require that farmers buy their seeds every year under threat of legal action. To make up for its “losses,” it decided to rely on a quadrupling of seed prices: while a 450-gram packet of conventional seeds sold for 450 rupees, the same amount of Bt seeds cost 1,850 rupees. Finally, the Washington Post reported, “the ruinous boll weevils have not disappeared.” These less-than-stellar results did not keep Ranjana Smetacek, public relations director for Monsanto India [iv] from declaring confidently: “Bt cotton has done very well in all the five states where it was planted.”11

The accounts presented by the Washington Post were, however, confirmed by several studies. The first was commissioned in 2002 by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defense of Diversity (CDD), which brought together 140 civil society organizations, including the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a very respected NGO that specializes in careful farming and sustainable development. The CDD asked two agronomists, Dr. Abdul Qayum, a former official in the state Agriculture Department, and Kiran Sakkhari, to compare the agricultural and economic results of Bollgard with those of non-transgenic cotton in the district of Warangal, where 12,300 farmers had succumbed to Monsanto’s promises.

The two scientists followed a very rigorous methodology consisting of monthly observation of the transgenic crops, from planting in August 2002 to the end of the season in April 2003, in three experimental groups. In two villages, where twenty-two farmers had planted GMOs, four were selected by random drawing. In midseason (November 2002), twenty-one farmers from eleven villages were questioned about the state of their transgenic crops, followed up by a visit to their fields. Finally, at the end of the season, in April 2003, a survey was conducted among 225 small farmers, chosen at random among the 1,200 Bt cotton producers in the district, 38.2 percent of whom owned less than five acres, 37.4 percent between five and ten acres, and 24.4 percent more than ten acres (the latter were considered large farmers in India). During the same period, they also recorded the performance of producers of conventional cotton (the control group). I provide all these details to emphasize that a scientific study worthy of the name requires this kind of effort, or else it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors. The results of this large field investigation were conclusive: “The cost of cultivation for Bt cotton was Rs. 1092 more than that for non-Bt cotton because there was only a meager reduction in the pesticides consumption on Bt crop. On an average, there was a significant reduction (35%) in the total yield of Bt cotton, while there was a net loss of Rs 1295/ in Bt cultivation in comparison with non-Bt cotton, where the net profit was Rs 5368/-. Around 78 per cent of the farmers, who had cultivated Bollgard this year, said they would not go for Bt the next year.”12

To put flesh on this scientifically irreproachable investigation, the DDS added to the initiative a group of “barefoot camerawomen,” to use the expression of P.V. Satheesh, the founder and director of the ecological organization. The six women, all illiterate peasants and dalits (untouchables, on the bottom rung of the traditional social scale), were trained in video techniques in a workshop set up by the DDS in October 2001 in the little village of Patapur under the name of Community Media Trust. From August 2002 to April 2003, they shot film monthly of six small Bt cotton producers in the district of Warangal who were participants in the agronomists’ study.

The result was a film that is an extraordinary document of the failure of transgenic crops. It shows first all the hope that farmers placed in Bt seeds. Everything goes well for the first two months: the plants are healthy and there are no insects. Then disillusionment strikes. The plants are very small and cotton bolls less numerous than in the adjacent conventional cotton fields. In the October dry season, when parasites have deserted the traditional crops, the GM plants are besieged by cotton thrips and whiteflies. In November, when the harvest begins, anxiety can be seen in farmers’ faces: the yields are very low, the bolls hard to pick, and the cotton fiber shorter, which means a 20 percent reduction in price.

I met the filmmakers in December 2006 in a cotton field in Warangal where they had come to film with the two agronomists. I was impressed by the professionalism of these extraordinary women, who, carrying sleeping babies on their backs, set up camera, stand, microphones, and reflector to interview a group of farmers who were desperate because of the failure of their Bt crops.

Since the first report published by the two agronomists, the situation had only gotten worse, triggering the second wave of suicides, which soon reached the state of Maharashtra. Worried by this tragic situation, the Andhra Pradesh government conducted a study that confirmed the conclusions reached by Qayum and Sakkhari.13 Aware of the electoral consequences this disaster might have, the head of the Agriculture Department, Raghuveera Reddy, then demanded that Mahyco indemnify the farmers for the failure of their crops, a demand the company ignored.  

Propaganda and Monopoly

In its defense, Monsanto brandished a study very opportunely published in Science on February 7, 2003.14 The influence of scientific studies is extraordinary as long as they are backed by prestigious journals, which seldom or never verify the source of the data presented. Matin Qaim, then at the University of Bonn, and David Zilberman of the University of California, Berkeley, neither of whom “had ever set foot in India,” as Vandana Shiva put it, found that according to field trials carried out in “different states in India,” Bt cotton “substantially reduces pest damage and increases yields . . . as much as 88 percent.” “What is really disturbing is that the article extolling the outstanding performance of Bt cotton is based exclusively on data supplied by the company that owns Bt cotton, Mahyco-Monsanto,” commented the Times of India. “The data presented by the authors is . . . not based on the first Bt cotton harvest—as one would expect—but on the yield from a few selected trial plots belonging to the company. No data from farmers’ fields has been included.”15 And yet the newspaper noted that “the same paper has been quoted extensively by several agencies as proof of the spectacular performance of GM crops”—which indeed was the purpose of the publication in Science.

The article was commented on at length in a 2004 FAO report titled Agricultural Biotechnology Meeting the Needs of the Poor?16 This document caused a lot of ink to flow, because it was an argument in favor of GMOs. It was claimed they were capable of “increasing overall agricultural productivity” and that they “could help reduce environmental damage caused by toxic chemicals,” according to the introductory note by Jacques Diouf, the director general of the UN organization. The report was in any event deeply satisfying to Monsanto, which hastened to put it online.17

Similarly in France, just before the Science article was published, Agence France-Presse distributed a laudatory presentation of it. I quote an excerpt, because it illustrates perfectly how disinformation stealthily makes its way through the media, although one would be hard pressed to attack the press agency, because after all it was only extrapolating from the carefully calculated unspoken suggestions of the original article: “Cotton genetically modified to resist a harmful insect could see yields increase as much as 80 percent, according to researchers who carried out trials in India,” the dispatch stated. “The results of their work are surprising: before this, only a tiny increase in yields had been observed in similar trials conducted in China and the United States.”18 One can imagine the impact this information— widely picked up by the media, as, for example, Le Bulletin des Agriculteurs in Quebec—might have on small and midsize farmers who are constantly struggling for survival. This was especially the case because, disregarding all the data collected in the field, Qaim made so bold as to assert that “despite the higher cost of seeds, farmers quintupled their revenues with genetically modified cotton.” His colleague David Zilberman had the virtue of clearly revealing the real purpose of the study in an interview with the Washington Post in May 2003: “It would be a shame if anti-GMO fears kept important technology away from those who stand to benefit the most from it.”19

The Times of India was more prosaic. “Who will pay for the failure of Bt cotton?” the newspaper asked, pointing out that a law passed in 2001, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, required breeders to indemnify farmers who had been “deceived” about the seeds they were sold with respect to “yield, quality, pest resistance,” and so on.20

This was precisely the law that the Andhra Pradesh Commissioner of Agriculture intended to apply. When he was unable to do so, he decided in May 2005 to ban from the state three varieties of Bt cotton produced by Mahyco Monsanto (which were introduced a short time later in the state of Maharashtra).21 In January 2006, the conflict with Monsanto reached a new stage: Agriculture Commissioner Raghuveera Reddy filed a complaint against Mahyco Monsanto with the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC), the Indian body charged with regulating commercial practices and antitrust laws, denouncing the exorbitant price of transgenic seeds as well as the monopoly established by the GMO giant on the Indian subcontinent. On May 11, 2006, the MRTPC found in favor of the commissioner and required that the price of a 450-gram packet of seeds be reduced to the price Monsanto charged in the United States and China, a maximum of 750 rupees (as opposed to 1,850 rupees). Five days later, the company appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed on the grounds that the decision was entirely a state matter.22

That was the situation when I got to Andhra Pradesh in December 2006. Mahyco Monsanto had finally lowered its seed price to the level demanded by the state government, but the conflict was far from over, because the thorny problem of financial compensation remained. “In January 2006,” Kiran Sakkhari told me, “the Agriculture Department threatened to cancel the company’s marketing licenses if it did not indemnify farmers for their last three harvests.”

“But I thought Andhra Pradesh had banned three Bt cotton varieties in 2005.”

“That’s right. But Mahyco Monsanto immediately replaced them with new transgenic varieties. The government was unable to stop it, short of asking New Delhi to totally prohibit GMOs. And the result was just as catastrophic, as we showed in a second study.23 This year there is a chance that it will be even worse, because, as you can see in this field of Bollgard cotton, the plants have been attacked by a disease known as rhizoctonia, which causes rot in the section of the plant between the root and the stalk. The plant eventually dries out and dies.

“Farmers say they’ve never seen that,” Abdul Qayum said. “In our first study, we saw the disease in only a few Bt cotton plants. But it spread over time, and now it can be observed in many Bt cotton fields that are beginning to contaminate non-transgenic fields. Personally, I think there is a bad interaction between the receiving plant and the gene introduced into it. It causes weakness in the plant so that it is no longer resistant to rhizoctonia.”

“Generally,” Sakkhari went on, “Bt cotton is not resistant to stress conditions such as drought or heavy rains.”

“But,” I said, “according to Monsanto, sales of transgenic seeds are constantly rising in India.”24

“That’s what the company claims, and overall it’s true, even if the figures it presents are hard to verify. But the situation can in large part be explained by the monopoly it was able to establish in India, where it has become very difficult to find non-transgenic cotton seeds. And this is very worrying, because, as we found in our second study, the promise that Bt cotton would reduce the use of pesticides has not been kept; quite the reverse.”

Insect Resistance to Bt Plants: A Time Bomb

The agronomist showed me the results of the second study, covering the 2005–6 season. While in 2002–3, the year following the introduction of Bt seeds, the use of insecticides was slightly lower for transgenic plants than for conventional cotton, three years later the “great promise” had been definitively buried: pesticide expenditures were on average 1,311 rupees per acre for conventional cotton growers and 1,351 rupees for their Bt counterparts. “This result did not surprise us, and it can only get worse,” Qayum explained, “because any serious agronomist or entomologist knows very well that insects develop resistance to chemical products designed to fight them. The fact that Bt plants constantly produce the insecticide toxin is a time bomb that we will pay for one day, and the cost may be very high, both from the economic and the environmental point of view.”

In fact, the prospect that cotton (or corn) parasites would mutate by developing resistance to the Bt toxin was raised even before Monsanto put its GMOs on the market. In the mid-1990s, the strategy the company adopted, in agreement with the EPA, was to have growers of Bt plants agree by contract to preserve plots of non-Bt crops, called “refuges,” where normal insects were supposed to proliferate so that they would crossbreed with their cousins that had become resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis, thereby causing genetic dilution. When insects are constantly confronted with a theoretically fatal dose of poison, they are all exterminated, except for a few specimens endowed with a gene resistant to the poison. The survivors mate with their fellows, possibly transmitting the gene in question to their descendants, and so on for several generations. This is known as “co-evolution,” which, over the long course of the history of life, has enabled species threatened with extinction to adapt in order to survive a fatal disease. To keep this phenomenon from developing among Bt plant parasites, the sorcerer’s apprentices imagined that they just had to maintain a population of healthy insects on the non-transgenic plots—the refuges—so they could mate with their cousins that had become resistant to Bt, thereby preventing the resistant insects from reproducing among themselves.

Once that was established, it remained to determine the size the refuges should have so that the plan would work. The subject was a matter of intense negotiations between Monsanto and the scientists, with the EPA merely recording the outcome. At first, some entomologists argued that the surface area of the refuges should be at least equivalent to that of the transgenic plots. Monsanto, of course, protested, suggesting at first that the surface area of the refuge should equal 3 percent of that of GMOs. In 1997, a group of university researchers working in the Midwest corn belt courageously jumped into the arena with a recommendation that refuges should be equivalent to 20 percent of the transgenic plots, and twice that if the plots were treated with pesticides other than Bt.

This was still too much for Monsanto, as Daniel Charles reports in Lords of the Harvest. “‘Monsanto looked at the recommendations and said, “We can’t live with that,”’ says Scott McFarland, a young lawyer who was working for Pioneer at the time.” The company contacted “the National Corn Growers Association, which also had its headquarters in St. Louis. Monsanto’s representatives convinced the leadership of the NCGA that large refuges were a threat to farmers’ free use of Bt.”25 This went on until September 1998, when the parties met in Kansas City to come to an agreement. As the discussions were getting bogged down in battles over arbitrary percentages, an agricultural economist from the University of Minnesota convincingly demonstrated that, according to his estimates, if the refuges were only 10 percent the size of the transgenic plots, then corn borers—the target parasite of Bt corn—would have a 50 percent chance of developing resistance in the short term and that it would cost farmers a good deal. With their wallets directly affected, the farmers joined the camp of the entomologists.

This is why around the world, Bt growers’ manuals since then have required that refuges be equivalent to at least 20 percent of the GMO surface area. But it must be acknowledged that this amounts once again to tinkering and improvisation, because no serious study has been conducted to verify that this compromise—worked out in one corner of Missouri—has any scientific validity. And when Michael Pollan questioned Monsanto representatives on the issue for the New York Times in 1998, they answered: “If all goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years,” which can only be called a short-term policy.26 When Pollan persisted with Jerry Hjelle, Monsanto vice president for regulatory affairs, attempting to find out what would happen after that crucial period, “the response [was] more troubling. . . . ‘There are a thousand other Bt’s out there. . . . We can handle this problem with new products. . . . The critics don’t know what we have in the pipeline. . . . Trust us.’”

In the meantime, ten years after the inauguration of Bt crops, it is possible to draw up a preliminary assessment of the shiny bureaucratic edifice. First, as an Associated Press dispatch pointed out in January 2001, according to a survey conducted in 2000 “30 percent of [American] Bt corn growers do not follow the published recommendations for the management of resistance,” because they found them too restrictive.27 To tell the truth, I understand them. But they should, of course, stop supporting such an absurd system, which will sooner or later collapse like a house of cards, as a 2006 study conducted by Cornell University researchers in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Science showed.28 Considered “the first to look at the longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton,” the study covered 481 of the 5 million GM producers in China. It found that “the substantial profits they have reaped for several years by saving on pesticides have now been eroded.” According to the authors, while for the first three years after the introduction of Bt crops, farmers had “cut pesticide use by more than 70 percent and had earnings 36 percent higher than farmers planting conventional cotton,” in 2004 “they had to spray just as much as conventional farmers, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed is triple the cost of conventional seed.” Finally, after seven years, “insects have increased so much that farmers are now having to spray their crops up to 20 times a growing season to control them.” The researchers’ conclusion, despite their support for GMOs, is devastating: “These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and governments that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt cotton farmers. Otherwise, these farmers will stop using Bt cotton, and that would be very unfortunate.”

The argument made Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari smile. “In India, where the majority of farmers cultivate between two and five acres, the strategy of refuges is frankly ridiculous. It all shows that GMOs, which are the latest version of the green revolution, were invented for large farmers in the North.”

_______________

Notes:

i. About $1,200 ($1 equals about 50 rupees). There is no minimum wage in India, but most workers earned less than 6,000 rupees a month in 2006.

ii. From January to December 2007, the VJAS recorded 1,168 suicides.

iii. Subsidies to American farmers amounted to $18 billion in 2006. See Somini Sengupta, “On India’s Farms, a Plague of Suicide,” New York Times, September 19, 2006. Three days after we filmed, a riot broke out in the market and the police arrested several farmers, including Kishor Tiwari.

iv. The reader will recall the fake scientists under whose names the campaign of defamation against Ignacio Chapela over Mexican corn had been launched; one of them was named “Andura Smetacek,” and Jonathan Matthews, the British researcher who uncovered the truth, had remarked on this unusual name. Perhaps the schemers in St. Louis had simply taken it from their Indian staff.
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Re: The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption,

Postby admin » Sun Feb 07, 2016 6:44 am

16: How Multinational Corporations Control the World’s Food

Through dialogue with many people, Monsanto has learned to appreciate that agricultural biotechnology raises some moral and ethical issues that go beyond science. These issues include choice, democracy, globalization, who has the technology, and who will benefit from it.

—Monsanto, Pledge Report, 2005


If anyone in India knows the subject of the “green revolution” well, it is Vandana Shiva, one of whose books, published in 1989, is titled The Violence of the Green Revolution: Ecological Degradation and Political Conflict in Punjab. 1 In this fundamental book, the feminist antiglobalization figure dissects the misdeeds of the agricultural revolution, launched in the wake of World War II, that was later called “green” because it was supposed to slow the expansion of the “red revolution” in “underdeveloped” countries, particularly in Asia, where the rise of Mao Zedong to power in China in 1949 threatened to create imitators.

The “Only” Goal of the Second Green Revolution Is to Increase Monsanto’s Profits

“I’m not saying that the green revolution did not begin with good intentions, namely, to increase food production in Third World countries,” Shiva told me, “but the perverse effects of the industrial agriculture model that underlies it have had tragic environmental and social consequences, particularly for small farmers.” For our second meeting, in December 2004, the militant Indian intellectual had invited me to the farm of Navdayana (Nine Grains), an association for the preservation of biodiversity and the protection of farmers’ rights that she had established in 1987, located in the state of Uttarakhand, in northern India, on the border of Tibet and Nepal. Here, a few miles from Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas, where she was born, she has established a center for agricultural education intended to promote the growing of traditional wheat and rice crops that the green revolution almost caused to disappear, replacing them with high-yield varieties imported from Mexico.

The agroindustrial concept that in 1968 was labeled the green revolution was born in 1943 in the capital of Mexico. [i] That year, Henry Wallace, vice president of the United States (and co-founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred, which invented hybrid corn), offered to his Mexican counterpart a “scientific mission” designed to increase national wheat production. Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, under the auspices of the Mexican Agriculture Ministry, this pilot project was set up in a Mexico City suburb, where in 1965 it adopted the name of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo).

In October 2004, I visited this renowned research center, which still operates as a nonprofit organization and now employs a hundred highly qualified international researchers, as well as five hundred associates from forty countries. In the entrance hall, a huge painting pays tribute to the father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, born on an Iowa farm in 1914, who was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1944 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 “in recognition of his important contribution to the green revolution.” 2 For twenty years, this agronomist, who is now an ardent supporter of GMOs, had a single obsession: to increase wheat production by creating varieties permitting a tenfold increase in yields. To reach the goal he came up with the idea of crossing CIMMYT’s varieties with a Japanese dwarf variety, Norin 10. Increasing yields involves forcing the plant to produce larger and more numerous kernels at the risk of causing the stem to break. Hence the trick of “stem shortening,” in breeders’ jargon, through the introduction of a gene for dwarfism. [ii]

This is how, in the space of a century, wheat yields increased from about four hundredweight per acre in 1910 to an average of thirty-two hundredweight, while the height of wheat stalks decreased by three feet. But this exploit was accompanied by a side effect criticized by opponents of the green revolution: an increased use of phytosanitary products, without which the “miracle seeds,” as the CIMMYT varieties were called, were of absolutely no use. In order to produce such a large quantity of kernels, the plant had to be stuffed with fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), which eventually brought about a decline in the natural fertility of the soil. In addition, it had to be watered copiously, which depleted aquifers. Furthermore, extreme vegetal density was manna for insect pests and fungi, which meant the massive use of insecticides and fungicides. Finally, the obsession with yields brought about a general decline in the nutritional quality of the kernels and a reduction in the biodiversity of wheat, a number of varieties of which simply disappeared.

In the 1960s, aware of the irremediable nature of the losses associated with its promotion of high-yield varieties, CIMMYT opened a “germoplasm bank,” which now stores at –3ºC some 166,000 varieties of wheat. To supply it, its associates comb countrysides around the world in search of rare grains, such as the wild wheat specimens found at the Iranian edge of the Fertile Crescent, which its technicians were in the process of labeling when I visited the center.

Nonetheless, CIMMYT’s dwarf varieties have spread around the world. In the North, including the Communist countries, breeders used them in their cross-pollination programs. The countries of the South, led by India, sent technicians to be trained at the center, nicknamed the “School of the Wheat Apostles.” In 1965, an unusual drought devastated the wheat crop in the Indian subcontinent, and there was a threat of famine. The government of Indira Gandhi decided to buy eighteen thousand tons of high-yield seeds imported from Mexico, the largest transfer of seeds in history. Trained by CIMMYT, Indian agronomists propagated the green revolution in the regions of Punjab and Haryana, considered India’s breadbasket. They were given financial support by the Ford Foundation, which was in a good position to supply tractors and farm machines. At the same time high-yield varieties of rice were introduced into the country, at the initiative of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), established in 1960 by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations on the model of CIMMYT.

“It is always said that thanks to the green revolution, India achieved selfsufficiency in food supplies and that in the five years from 1965 to 1970 its wheat production increased from 12 to 20 million tons,” I was told by Vandana Shiva, whose last book is titled Seeds of Suicide.3 “The country is now the world’s second-largest wheat producer, with a production of 74 million tons, but at what cost? Exhausted soil, a worrying decline in water reserves, widespread pollution, the spread of monocultures at the expense of food crops, and the exclusion of tens of thousands of small farmers who have moved to slums because they could not adapt to an extremely costly model of farming. The first wave of suicides signaled the failure of the first green revolution. Unfortunately, the second green revolution, the GMO revolution, has been even more deadly, even though it was directly in line with the first.”

“Why? How are they different?”

“The difference between the two is that the first green revolution was led by the public sector: government agencies controlled agricultural research and development. The second green revolution is led by Monsanto. The other difference is that although the first green revolution did have the hidden aim of selling more chemical products and farm machines, its principal motive even so was to provide more food and to guarantee food security. In the end, even though it was done at the expense of other crops, such as leguminous plants, the country produced more rice and wheat to feed people. The second green revolution has nothing to do with food security. Its only aim is to increase Monsanto’s profits, and the company has succeeded in imposing its law around the world.”

“What is Monsanto’s law?”

“Patent law. The company has always said that genetic engineering was a way of getting patents, and that’s its real aim. If you look at the research strategy it is now pursuing in India, you’ll see that it is testing twenty plants into which it has introduced Bt genes: mustard, okra, eggplant, rice, cauliflower, and so on. Once it has established ownership of genetically modified seeds as the norm, it will be able to collect royalties; we will depend on the company for every seed we plant and every field we cultivate. If it controls seeds, it controls food; it knows that, and that’s its strategy. It’s more powerful than bombs or weapons; it is the best way to control the people of the world.”

“But it’s illegal to patent seeds in India,” I said, a bit staggered by the picture she had painted.

“Sure. But for how long? Monsanto and the American government have been pressuring the Indian government for ten years to apply the TRIPS [Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] agreement of the WTO, and I’m afraid that the barriers will finally collapse.”

Patents on Life, or Economic Colonization

Before explaining the TRIPS agreement, a headache for the WTO since its founding in 1995, I have to come back to the question of patents, which is of capital importance for the future of the planet. After listening to Shiva, one might think that she was exaggerating and that the patenting of seeds is just a gimmick of little concern to us. Skeptics should take a second look: the patenting of living things, particularly of seeds, is the tool through which Monsanto could appropriate the most lucrative of markets, the world’s food. And the company has done everything it can to bring this about.

Shiva was quick to take an interest in this colossal challenge “because of the Bhopal disaster,” as she told me the first time we met, in Bhopal, which was then commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy.4 During the night of December 2, 1984, a cloud of toxic gas descended on the city: within a few hours, ten thousand people had died after suffering terribly, and twenty thousand died in the following weeks. The deadly gas came from a factory belonging to the American multinational corporation Union Carbide, a competitor of Monsanto’s that manufactured chemical pesticides.

“It was the Bhopal tragedy that convinced me we had to promote organic farming, hence the neem tree, as an alternative to the multinational corporations’ deadly pesticides,” Shiva recalled. Remember that the Office of European Patents granted a patent on the use of neem oil to W.R. Grace in September 1994. From that point on, the patenting of life became the Indian activist’s great cause; with the support of Greenpeace, she succeeded in having the patent rejected ten years later, along with an American patent held by a Texas company, RiceTec, on a variety of basmati rice. Since then, she has been fighting against a European and American patent held by Monsanto on a variety of wheat prized for the making of chapatis and cookies because of its low gluten content.5 According to the terms of the patents, Monsanto holds a monopoly on the growing, crossbreeding, and processing of this variety, which originated in northern India.

“The patenting of life is a continuation of the first colonization,” Shiva said. “The word ‘patent’ itself comes from the age of conquest. ‘Letters patent’ was the name given to an official public document—in Latin, patens means ‘open’ or ‘obvious’—bearing the seal of European sovereigns [and] granting to adventurers and pirates the exclusive right to conquer foreign countries in their name. At the time Europe was colonizing the world, letters patent were directed at territorial conquest, whereas today’s patents are aimed at economic conquest through the appropriation of living organisms by the new sovereigns, the multinational corporations like Monsanto. The same principle was operative in both cases, namely, the patents then and now were based on a denial of the life that existed before the arrival of the white man. When the Europeans colonized America, the land of the New World was declared terra nullius, ‘empty land,’ meaning devoid of white men. In the same way, the patenting of life and of the biosphere is based on an allegation of ‘empty life,’ because as long as the genes of living organisms have not been dissected in a laboratory, the organisms have no value. This is a denial of the labor and knowledge of millions of people who have maintained the biodiversity of life for millennia and who, moreover, live from it.”

“What are the consequences of patents on life for the peoples of the South?” I asked, fascinated by the clarity of her thinking.

“They are huge, because patents are playing the same role as enclosures in sixteenth-century England. This movement, originating before the Industrial Revolution, privatized by enclosing common land that had been used communally, where the poorest villagers, for example, could graze their animals. The patent similarly encloses living things, such as plants that feed and heal people, and finally contributes to the exclusion of the poorest from the means of livelihood and even survival. As can be seen with food and medicine, as soon as a patent is filed, it means royalties and consequently an increase in price. This is why food, crop maintenance products, and medicines are excluded from Indian patent law, so that they remain accessible to everyone. The extension of the Western system of patents, as advocated by the World Trade Organization, and before that by the final round of GATT, directly undermines the economic rights of the poorest.”

Monsanto and the Multinational Corporations Behind the WTO Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was put in place in 1947 by the major capitalist powers of the time with the purpose of regulating customs duties on international trade. The 1986 ministerial conference of Punta del Este, inaugurating what became known as the “Uruguay Round,” marked a decisive turning point in the history of GATT, in effect signing its death warrant. It was in the course of the eighth and final session of these intergovernmental trade negotiations in 1994 that the American government won agreement for the inclusion of four areas that had until then been under exclusively national political jurisdiction: agriculture, investments, services (telecommunications, transportation, and the like), and intellectual property rights (IPR). The U.S. trade representative justified the inclusion of this last area, with which I am particularly concerned, by the fact that “nearly 200 American transnational companies were deprived of 24 billion dollars of copyright earnings because of the weakness or absence of protection for intellectual property in some countries, primarily in the countries of the South,” as a study by the University of Quebec reported.6

The inclusion of these new areas under GATT’s jurisdiction, which had at first been a simple customs union, was the focus of intense negotiations, because they “raised questions that went beyond trade,” namely, “fundamental rights” such as the “rights to employment, health, food, and self-determination,” as Shiva has pointed out.7 In December 1989, Arthur Dunkel, director-general of GATT, submitted a proposed final document, but it was not until April 1994 that the definitive agreement was signed by the 123 member countries in Marrakesh, ratifying the creation of the World Trade Organization, which officially replaced GATT on January 1, 1995.

The founding document of the WTO, which meets in Geneva, contains twenty-nine sectorial agreements making possible the subjection of any good or service to the laws of the market, and therefore the transfer to private companies (over which governments and citizens have no means of control) of areas that traditionally were a matter of public policy. The association of these sectors with trade is so far from obvious that the drafters of the agreements got around the problem by using the expression “trade-related,” thereby pointing to the subterfuge.

This was notably the case with the TRIPS agreement, which, it turns out, “was largely designed by a coalition of companies gathered under the name of Intellectual Property Committee (IPC),” including the “major players in the area of biotechnology,” as the researchers from Quebec pointed out.8 Established in the United States in March 1986, the IPC brought together thirteen multinational corporations, principally from the chemical, pharmaceutical, and computer industries: Bristol-Myers, DuPont, FMC Corporation, General Electric, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Rockwell International, Warner Communications, and Monsanto.

As soon as it was established, the committee contacted the Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), official organ of the European business world, and the Keidanren, the Japanese employers’ confederation, to draft a common document, which was submitted to GATT in June 1988. Titled “Basic Framework of GATT Provisions on Intellectual Property: Statement of Views of the European, Japanese, and United States Business Communities,” this document, which formed the basis for the TRIPS agreement, was aimed at extending to the rest of the world the patent system that already existed in the industrialized countries, which all told, through the offices in Washington, Munich, and Tokyo, registered 97 percent of the patents filed by companies (the vast majority from the North). The document framed the issue in these terms: “Disparities among systems for the protection of intellectual property result in excessive loss of time and resources in the acquisition of those rights. Holders find that the exercise of their rights is hindered by laws and regulations limiting market access and the repatriation of profits.” There followed a short paragraph: “Biotechnology, or the use of microorganisms in production, is a sector in which patent protection has fallen behind the rapid progress of medicine, agriculture, pollution reduction, and industry. . . . This protection should apply to the processes as well as the products of biotechnology, whether they be microorganisms, parts of microorganisms (plasmids and other vectors), or plants.”9

Seemingly convinced that what might be considered a hijacking of GATT was within its rights, Monsanto proudly asserted in June 1990: “Once created, the first task of the IPC was to repeat the missionary work we did in the U.S. in the early days, this time with the industrial associations of Europe and Japan, to convince them that a code was possible. . . . It was not an easy task but our Trilateral Group was able to distill from the laws of the more advanced countries the fundamental principles for protecting all forms of intellectual property. Besides selling our concepts at home, we went to Geneva where [we] presented [our] document to the staff of the GATT Secretariat. We also took the opportunity to present it to the Geneva-based representatives of a large number of countries. What I have described to you is absolutely unprecedented in GATT. Industry has defined a major problem for international trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete proposal, and sold it to our own and other governments. The industries and traders of world commerce have played simultaneously the role of the patients, the diagnosticians, and the prescribing physicians.”10

Despite this masterfully conducted collective lobbying, among the many sectors covered by the TRIPS agreement (copyright, trademarks, label of origin, industrial designs and models, and confidential information, including trade secrets), the sector opportunely suggested by Monsanto is the one that has stymied the implacable machine of the WTO since 1995. The controversy swirls around Article 27, paragraph 3(b), relating to “patentable subject matter.” The official text provides: “Members may . . . exclude from patentability plants and animals other than micro-organisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals other than nonbiological and microbiological processes. However, Members shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof. The provisions of this subparagraph shall be reviewed four years after the date of entry into force of the WTO Agreement.”

The language of this article is so abstruse that it was partially responsible for the paralysis of the third ministerial conference of the WTO, held in Seattle in December 1999. After reading and rereading it, one can figure out that animals and plants but not microorganisms may be excluded from the patent system. But it also stipulates that “plant varieties” shall be protected “either by patents or by an effective sui generis system.” This apparent contradiction is in fact intended directly for transgenic seeds: they may now, backed by sanctions, be “protected” (that is, manufacturers can collect royalties) at a minimum by the system set up by the UPOV agreements. It is precisely because the “protection” of seeds also brings about the protection of the foods derived from them that many countries of the South, led by South Africa, India, and Brazil, have demanded that Article 27, paragraph 3(b), be revised. They are also worried about the consequences of the patenting of microorganisms (theoretically including genes), which can only encourage biopiracy, that is, the theft of genetic resources and the traditional knowledge associated with them, to the detriment of the rural and indigenous communities that have maintained those resources for millennia.

The WTO: A Veritable Nightmare

To get a clear picture, I went to Geneva on January 13, 2005, to meet with Adrian Otten, director of intellectual property for the WTO, and I asked at the outset a basic question that suddenly made him tense up: “What is the goal of the TRIPS agreement?” Stammering a bit, he finally answered, “Well, I suppose that one of the fundamental objectives is to establish common international rules for member governments of the WTO to protect the intellectual property rights of certain member countries of the WTO, as well as those of their citizens and companies.”

“And which article has caused a problem?” I asked, to see if I had understood the WTO’s gibberish.

“Well, it’s Article 27, paragraph 3(b), which adds a clause to the TRIPS agreement according to which inventions connected to plants and animals should be subject to patenting.”

Put like that, it was as clear as spring water.

“The goal of the TRIPS agreement is that a patent obtained in the United States—for example, by Monsanto—will be automatically applicable everywhere in the world,” I had been told a month earlier in New Delhi by Devinder Sharma. Chairman of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, this noted Indian journalist is a fierce opponent of the WTO. “If you observe the international evolution of the patent system, you can see that it follows exactly that of the Patent Office in Washington. With the TRIPS agreement, every country has to follow the model of the United States or else suffer severe commercial penalties, because the WTO has absolutely extraordinary powers of coercion and reprisal. That means that if a country doesn’t enforce respect for Monsanto’s intellectual property rights, for example on a patented seed, the company will inform the American government, which will file a complaint with the WTO Dispute Settlement Body. The TRIPS agreement was also designed by multinational corporations to seize the genetic resources of the planet, chiefly in Third World countries, which have the greatest biodiversity. India is a particular target, because it is a megadiverse country where there are 45,000 plant species and 81,000 animal species. That’s why so many of us say the world of the living is no concern of the WTO, but rather of the Biodiversity Convention signed under the auspices of the UN in Río de Janeiro in 1992. Signed by two hundred countries, this treaty says that genetic resources are the exclusive property of states, who must commit themselves to preserving them and organizing an equitable sharing of the exploitation of the traditional knowledge associated with those resources.”

“Can the TRIPS agreement be reconciled with the Biodiversity Convention?”

“Absolutely not, because the two documents contradict one another. And that’s why the United States didn’t sign the convention. The problem is that the TRIPS agreement takes precedence over the convention, because it is under the jurisdiction of the WTO, which obeys the orders of multinational corporations like Monsanto, which, under cover of the globalization of trade, in fact rule the world.”

For those who think these words are excessive, I will quote a UN report published in June 2000 by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: “The greater percentage of global trade is controlled by powerful multinational enterprises. Within such a context, the notion of free trade on which the rules [of the WTO] are constructed is a fallacy. . . . The net result is that for certain sectors of humanity—particularly the developing countries of the South—the WTO is a veritable nightmare.”11

_______________

Notes:

i. The expression was used for the first time on March 8, 1968, by William Gaud, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in a speech delivered in Washington.

ii. Today, to further shorten stems, large wheat growers have no hesitation in applying to their crops a hormone, euphemistically named “plant growth regulator.”
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