Social Engineering

Watch out for Monsanto – this obscure company is trying to take over the foodchain

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 17th September 1997.

It’s easy to miss even the biggest newspaper ads, when you’re not looking out for them. The three pages in the middle of yesterday’s Financial Times devoted to the corporate de-merger of a chemical company called Monsanto were not exactly riveting, even for many readers of the FT. But this was one advert we could ill-afford to ignore. It is one of the few public indications of the opening of a new chapter in the world’s economic history.

The publicity, aimed at shareholders and corporate customers, announced that Monsanto is to split into two firms, to pursue “applied chemistry”and “life sciences”. The life science division will “Provide better food, better nutrition, and better health for all people. … Hope for environmentally sustainable solutions. Hope for a healthier planet. That’s how we’ll be growing in the century to come.”

Monsanto’s claims about the environmental and human impacts of its produce are questionable, but one of these statements is surely beyond doubt: this company will be growing, as fast as any firm on earth. For Monsanto has embarked on one of the most extraordinary and ambitious corporate strategies ever launched.

The story begins simply enough, with a single chemical. Glyphosate, sold to farmers and gardeners as “Roundup”, is the world’s biggest-selling herbicide. Last year, it earned Monsanto nearly $1.5 billion. But the company’s patent on Roundup runs out in the year 2000.

Far from sowing corporate catastrophe, however, this event seems likely only to enhance Monsanto’s market value. For the last ten years it has cleverly been developing a range of new crops, genetically engineered to resist glyphosate. Spraying them with Roundup does them no harm, but destroys all the weeds that compete with them. New patent legislation in Europe and the United States allows Monsanto to secure exclusive rights to their production.

The first “Roundup-Ready” plant Monsanto released onto the market was a genetically engineered soyabean. Between 50 and 60 per cent of processed foods contain soya, so the potential market is enormous. Alarmed at possible increases in the use of herbicides, as well as the health effects of genetically engineered crops in general, environmentalists and consumer groups in Europe started calling for products containing the new beans to be clearly labelled. But in the US – from which most of our soya comes – Monsanto insisted that it would be impossible to keep Roundup-Ready beans apart from ordinary ones. About fifteen per cent of this year’s US crop is Roundup-Ready: the chances are that nearly all of us will soon be consuming manipulated soya beans every week of the year, whether we want to or not.

As the new beans were snapped up by growers in the States, Monsanto began an extraordinary round of acquisitions, buying shares in seed and biotechnology companies worth nearly $2 billion in the last 18 months alone. Among its purchases are companies which produce the famous “Flavr-savr” tomato, own the US patent on all genetic manipulations of cotton, and control around 35 per cent of the germlines of American maize. Monsanto is now experimenting with new rice, maize, potato, sugarbeet, rape and cotton varieties. It has suggested that within a few years all the major staple crops on earth should be genetically engineered. The new products are so attractive to many farmers that the company has managed to get them to sign away their future rights to the seed they grow, and allow Monsanto to inspect their fields whenever it wants.

Monsanto’s new crops could not have become commercially viable without major legislative change. As members of the trade lobby Europabio, Monsanto and the other big biotech companies have mastered the legal climate in which they operate. Despite significant public opposition, in July Europabio managed to persuade the European Parliament to adopt a new directive, allowing companies to patent manipulated plants and animals. Last week, the European Commission announced that it would force Austria, Italy and Luxembourg to repeal their laws banning the import of genetically engineered maize.

In the United States a Monsanto vice-president is, according to the St. Louis Post, a “top
candidate” to become Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the food industry. Researchers and lawyers from Monsanto already occupy important posts in the FDA. The administration has approved some of the company’s most controversial products, including the artificial sweetener aspartame and an injectable growth hormone for cattle. Only the New York Attorney General’s office has taken the company to task, forcing it to withdraw adverts claiming that Roundup is biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

But Monsanto has been most successful when appealing to multilateral bodies. Last month, the World Trade Organization confirmed its ruling that the European Union can no longer exclude meat and milk from cattle treated with bovine growth hormone, despite the protests of farmers, retailers and consumers. As Scientific American magazine disclosed, Monsanto’s clinical trials of the drug were incompletely analyzed, obscuring the fact that it increases the number of infected udder cells in cows by about 20 per cent. Biotech firms are now trying to persuade the World Trade Organization to forbid the labelling of genetically engineered foods. Any country whose retailers tell consumers what they are eating would be subject to punitive sanctions.

With astonishing rapidity, a tiny handful of companies are coming to govern the global development, production, processing and marketing of our most fundamental commodity: food. The power and strategic control they are amassing will make the oil industry look like a cornershop. More successfully than any other lobby, they are inhibiting the two remaining means of public restraint of their activities: government regulation and genuine consumer choice.

All this will be a big pill for the public to swallow, which is why we’ll be seeing a lot more of Monsanto over the next few weeks. It has just engaged an advertising agency for a major new “consultative” campaign – aimed at us this time, not just the City. It deserves our full attention. This may be the first and the last chance we’ll get to tell the biotech companies what we think about their re-engineering: of both the stuff of life itself and the means by which it reaches us.