The Monsanto Monster

One corporation’s attempt to take over the world

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th December 1997.

Last month the giant biotechnology company Monsanto received a rather unusual letter. Julie Draycott, from the Isle of White, wrote to its St Louis, Missouri headquarters demanding £6418 compensation for the time, trouble and money she claims Monsanto is costing her every year. Because, she argues, the company is insisting that the genetically manipulated soya beans it produces cannot be separated from ordinary beans, she has to spend much more time and money both shopping and preparing food from raw ingredients. As around 60 per cent of all processed foods contain soya, and Monsanto’s manipulated soya beans now account for 15 per cent of the US crop, there is, she argues, no other way to avoid eating genetically engineered soya.

Her life is set to get harder and harder. Last year, a Monsanto representative, Robert Fraley, described his company’s corporate strategy in the magazine Farm Journal. “What you’re seeing,” he explained, “is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”

Over the last two years, Monsanto has indulged in an extraordinary spending spree,
swallowing up key companies associated with genetically engineered crops, crop breeding
and molecular biology. In January, it bought Holden’s Foundation Seeds, America’s biggest maize seed producer, for just over $1 billion. In February, it completed its purchase of Calgene, the company which developed genetically engineered tomatoes, oilseed rape, cotton and strawberries. Last year it paid $150 million for Agracetus, which claimed to possess patents for all genetic manipulations of soya, cotton and several other crop plants. Now Monsanto is hinting that it is about to start buying into the food processing industry.

But the company’s peculiar genius lies not just in acquisition but in consolidation; ensuring that its most lucrative products continue to reap rewards for Monsanto far into the future. The patent on Monsanto’s most successful herbicide, glyphosate, which is sold as Roundup, runs out in the year 2000, allowing competitors to market similar products. But for the last ten years it has cleverly been developing a range of new crops, genetically engineered to resist glyphosate. One condition of purchase is that the crops are treated only with Monsanto’s Roundup. 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.

Despite the draconian contract they have to sign, the new crops are attractive to farmers, who previously had to deploy selective herbicides to control their weeds. Between eight and ten million acres of “Roundup Ready” soya were planted this year. Roundup Ready hybrid maize is due to be launched in the US next year, Roundup Ready oilseed rape and another oil crop, canola, are under development, and Roundup Ready sugar beet was to have been tested in field trials in Ireland over the summer, but the crop was destroyed by environmental activists.

Monsanto claims that these new crops not only make life easier for growers, but are also environmentally friendly, as they will reduce the amount of pesticides farmers need to use. Environmentalists dispute this claim, and argue that glyphosate is more harmful than the manufacturer suggests. In January, the New York attorney-geneneral’s office forced Monsanto to withdraw adverts claiming that Roundup is “biodegradable” and “environmentally friendly”. According to the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, glyphosate is the third most commonly-reported cause of pesticide illness among farm workers and the commonest cause among landscape maintenance workers.

But Monsanto’s pesticides and genetically engineered crops are not alone in attracting controversy. In *September, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the European Union would have to lift its ban on imports of beef and milk from cattle treated with Posilac, the injectable growth hormone manufactured by Monsanto. The WTO’s decision is deeply unpopular over here, and not only among Eurocrats, consumer and animal welfare groups. Farmers argue that, in order to compete with American producers, they too might reluctantly have to start using Posilac. Scientists funded by Monsanto reported that cows treated with the hormone suffered only a minor increase in udder infections. But when the results were re-examined by independent researchers, they found to their astonishment that only part of the data had been processed. A complete analysis revealed that white cells (pus, in other words) increased by 20 per cent in the udders of cows treated with Posilac.

Even more controversial is another of Monsanto’s big sellers, the artificial sweetener aspartame, marketed as NutraSweet. In 1991, the Journal of Advancement in Medicine carried a report associating aspartame with brain tumours. Its author wrote to the United States’ Congress urging it to declare aspartame an “imminent public health hazard” which should be withdrawn from the market. It is still legally on sale in both Europe and the United States, principally for sweetening diet food and drinks.

Monsanto’s growing domination of the food chain, and the implications for health, the environment, competition and accountability, has made the company the target of repeated protests and disruption. Greenpeace activists have tried to prevent genetically modified soya from being unloaded in several European ports. Protesters have occupied Monsanto’s British headquarters in High Wycombe, dug up the experimental crops it has planted and sought to persuade the National Farmers’ Union not to sow the seeds it sells.

In response, Monsanto hired the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in September, to find ways of persuading British consumers to accept genetically engineered food. Protesters promptly staged a naked protest on BBH’s roof, claiming that the agency was trying to cover up the bare facts.

But Monsanto possesses more immediate means of deflecting resistance. When sales of milk from cows treated with Posilac, or bovine somatotropin, were approved, Monsanto sent a letter to thousands of retailers, warning that: “Signs or labels placed on or near milk and other dairy products that are false or mislead consumers about bovine somatotropin, either by what they say or fail to say, are unlawful”. Retailers took this as a warning not to label their stock as either containing or being free from Posilac.

Monsanto seems to have an allergy to labels. The trade body to which it belongs is currently attempting to persuade the United Nations’ food standards body, Codex Alimentarius, to prohibit the labelling of genetically engineered food products worldwide. If Codex agrees, then the World Trade Organization will adopt its ruling as the global trade standard, and any country in which retailers label genetically manipulated food will be subject to punitive sanctions. Monsanto has been lobbying the regulatory authorities in both Europe and the US to the same ends. Its spokesperson, Karen Marshall, argues that labelling “would not necessarily be good for the consumer at large” as it would imply that the genetically modified ingredients and conventional ingredients “are not the same, when they are.”

Torn between the demands of the producer and the demands of consumers, the European Commission has delivered a characteristic fudge, suggesting that food labels should inform shoppers that the product “may contain” genetically modified ingredients. Neither retailers nor consumer associations are happy about the proposal. “For the first time in our lives”, says Tony Coombs, public affairs director for Safeway, “we have Safeway brand products on our shelves and we are unable to trace the ingredients and tell customers whether there is genetically modified or conventional soya in the product.” Last month, British food processors and retailers announced that, if no better proposal were forthcoming from the European Commission or the British government by January, they would launch a voluntary code of their own, using definitive labels.

They have not been helped by Monsanto’s insistence, supported by some of the world’s biggest grain dealers, that it is impossible either to separate genetically engineered soyabeans from ordinary beans or to test them for evidence of genetic manipulation. The claims were undermined earlier this year by revelations that some of the big grain merchants have been deliberately spiking their cargos of Roundup Ready soya to make testing more difficult. They have also been secretly segregating unmodified soya from manipulated beans in order to supply the most insistent European food processors.

Monsanto enjoys a close, often cosy, relationship with the regulatory authorities. During the 1996 election campaign, it passed hundreds of thousands of dollars in “soft money” (funds which avoid the ban on corporate donations) to the Clinton camp. Soon after the election, Clinton’s assistant for intergovernmental relations, Marcia Hale, moved to Monsanto, to coordinate the company’s public affairs and corporate strategy in the UK and Ireland. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the food industry, is, according to Betty Martini of the consumer pressure group Mission Possible, so closely associated with the company that it could be described as “Monsanto’s Washington branch office”. Margaret Miller, for example, the Monsanto researcher who helped to develop Posilac, transferred to the FDA, where she was asked to review her own research. The FDA’s approval of Posilac was overseen by Michael Taylor who, until he moved to the agency, worked as a lawyer for Monsanto. And Virginia Weldon, Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto Chemical, is said to be the leading candidate to become Commissioner of the FDA. In October, Monsanto recruited Ann Foster, hitherto director of the Scottish Consumer Council, to become its permanent lobbyist in the United Kingdom. She sits on several government advisory committees, including the key Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition.

Monsanto’s corporate strategy could scarcely have been more effectively conceived and executed. Today the humble soya bean, tomorrow the world.