Monsanto Sells Hunger

The biotech company threatens Africa with starvation

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 4th June 1998.

Even during the Irish famines in the middle of last century, anyone with eyes to see knew that starvation was not a purely technical matter. The potato crops might have failed, but there was no shortage of grain; instead of delivering it to the starving, however, tenant farmers were forced to surrender it to their landlords.

Famine arose, in other words, less from a failure of harvests than from a failure of distribution, which in turn emerged from a still greater want: the absence of self-determination. Without control over their own lives, the Irish could neither grow the crops they wanted, nor ensure that they each received a fair share of the land’s bounty. Only the landlords and their apologists chose to represent the carnage as the result of fungus and poor yields.

Today, this pattern persists. The victims of most modern-day famines are all too well aware that the main reasons for their distress are deficiencies of distribution and democracy, while the world’s fat cats continue to insist that starvation emerges principally from failures of yield.

A fortnight ago, consultants acting for Monsanto, the biotechnology company whose recent merger will make it one of the largest corporations on earth, wrote to some of Africa’s most prominent academics and politicians, inviting them to sign a stirring public statement called “Let the Harvest Begin”. “Many of our needs have an ally in biotechnology and the promising advances it offers for our future,” it declares. “With these advances, we prosper; without them, we cannot thrive … Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.” The statement, with the names and titles of its signatories, would be published “in major European newspapers in early June.”

While some of the recipients responded with outrage, others, inspired perhaps by the visionary language, signed up. Monsanto’s name appears in such small print on the draft declaration as to be barely discernable: readers could be forgiven for imagining that the statement is the initiative of the signatories, rather than the company.

There’s no question, of course, that the world will need more food, and there’s also no question that more of it will need to be produced in Africa. But Monsanto’s suggestion that the continent’s freedom from famine depends upon its technologies would be hilarious, were it not so sinister. For Monsanto’s operations can now be numbered among the hungry continent’s greatest threats.

The leading edge of Monsanto’s new work is not the production of food, but the production of feed: crops, in other words, grown not for humans but for animals. Last month, the company announced a joint venture with the gigantic multinational grain merchant Cargill, to produce and market the seeds of genetically engineered fodder plants, particularly maize. “The opportunity is just enormous,” Monsanto’s president announced, “We see the value that we can create as several billion dollars”.

Feed production is a growing component of Third World agriculture, supplying the ever-increasing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy produce in the First World. It is also one of the engines of African famine, as land previously devoted to meeting local people’s necessities has been expropriated to supply the rich world’s luxuries. Much of Africa’s most fertile territory is ideal for growing the new, more profitable strains of maize fodder being developed by Cargill and Monsanto.

But this is the least of the ways in which Monsanto threatens Africa. Three months ago, America’s Delta and Pine Land Company patented a remarkable technology. Its “Terminator” gene ensures that the plants which contain it produce only sterile seeds: farmers planting these crops, in other words, will be forced to buy new stock every year. The new technology’s “primary targets”, are, according to the original patent holders, “Second and Third World” countries.

Four weeks ago, Monsanto bought the company. If it succeeds in inserting the Terminator into its seed varieties and maintains its relationship with Cargill, farmers could be presented with little choice but to buy its non-reproducing seed, as Cargill has already established near-monopolies in many parts of the developing world. It’s a great development for Monsanto, but disastrous news for farmers, especially the one billion small farmers who produce most of the Third World’s staple crops for local markets.

Monsanto, in other words, threatens to become the hunger merchant of the third millennium. Where it goes, famine will follow. And the poor saps who signed its advertisement will find themselves picking up the blame.