The March Against Monsanto : Who is Monsanto and why should you care?

This coming Saturday, May 25, the March Against Monsanto gets underway in 36 countries around the globe. Yes, 36. I am excited and worried and hopeful.

In my circle of experience, I take for granted that most people know who Monsanto is and why they’re bad news. I realized this week that I shouldn’t.

So.

First of all, let’s get a look at the lay of the land, so to speak.

What are GMO’s?

GMO’s are Genetically Modified Organisms. You might also sometimes see them referred to as GE’s or Genetically Engineered organisms.

Traditionally, variations of food species were created over time by selective breeding by farmers. They watched their crops and saved the seeds of plants that exhibited desirable traits; this plant survived the drought, this one resists mildew, this one has the best yield, this one the best taste. Each year the seeds were saved, they became more perfectly adapted to their place and the needs and desires of the people who grew them.

GMO’s are touted as a better, sped-up, technologically advanced version of selective breeding. This, frankly, is a load of crock.

Instead, GMO’s allow genes from plants and animals and bacteria and most alarmingly – toxins, to be inserted into the genes of a plant or animal that would never mix in nature. Two of the more common versions are plants that have been created to produce their own pesticides, as in Bt corn, or are created to resist herbicides as in Roundup Ready corn or soybeans.

What is the difference between GMO’s and hybrids?

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between a hybrid seed and a GMO. Hybrids are created by cross-breeding related species through sexual reproduction.

This can be done with animals – think the Labradoodle, or with plants – on purpose or accidentally like when you try to save seeds from your pumpkin and next year get some crazy pumpkin / squash cross because the bees have cross-pollinated them for you.

GMO seeds cannot be saved for legal reasons. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved because the plant produced from the seed will not reliably “come true” – meaning it will not be the exact same as it’s parent.

What you are not going to get is genes from a totally unrelated species or some crazy bacteria spliced into an existing gene. Although I personally prefer to use open-pollinated and heirloom seeds for a variety of reasons, there is nothing wrong with using hybrid seeds (usually labeled F1) in your garden, in my opinion. We are growing F1 broccoli this year because we’ve had poor success with the open-pollinated varieties carried by our favourite seed supplier. We just won’t be able to save the seeds, that’s all.

A snapshot of the Biotechnology Industry:

  • in the US, as of 2009 genetically modified (GM) soybeans accounted for 91 percent of the soybean market. Eighty-five percent of all corn grown was GM, as well as 88 percent of all cotton.
  • As much as 70% of the food on grocery store shelves contain some form of GMO-based products.
  • Genetically modified seeds are owned and controlled by the companies who produced them by way of patents. This means farmers cannot save their seeds from year to year and must buy new seed each year. Some seeds, known as Terminator Seeds, cannot reproduce themselves at all.
  • In many areas, farmers do not have easy access to non-gmo animal feed or seed. Simply not buying these products is not an option for many farmers, because the companies have such a stranglehold on the market.
  • Five large biotechnologies currently control the world seed market. These companies are Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer and Dow.

So, who the heck is this Monsanto we’re marching against?

Monsanto began in 1901 as Monsanto Company, a chemical company and remained one from 1901 to 1997. During this time Monsanto produced products like Agent Orange. In 1997 they spun off the chemical portion of their business to become a “100% agricultural company”. (Only natural that they’d go into agriculture with a history like that, right?)

Monsanto’s website describes the company thusly:

Producing More Conserving More Improving Lives. That’s sustainable agriculture and that’s what Monsanto is all about. […] The Challenge : Meeting the needs of today while preserving the planet for tomorrow.

Reading this, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking, well heck, what’s wrong with that?

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Monsanto is the producer of both household name herbicides like Roundup as well as lesser known seed products like Roundup-Ready Soybeans, for example. Roundup has been linked to a number of serious diseases in people and heavy use of it and herbicides like it is associated with the spread of superweeds (weeds that are evolving to resist herbicides).

Monsanto defends their methods with a complicated (and I believe misleading) version of the-end-justifies-the-means. Their main message is that without the technology they provide, we will never be able to feed the world. The argument goes that we can’t rely on organic agriculture, because the yields are not as high and as a result we would need to turn even more wild spaces over to agriculture to meet demand.

In short, without Monsanto, we’re all gonna starve.

{Whether or not that is true is a topic for a whole other series of blog posts, some of which I’ve touched on when talking about GMO’s before. Let’s just say I don’t believe that’s the whole truth, and is missing some pretty important pieces to the puzzle.}

Another item up for debate is whether or not Monsanto’s products are safe. Monsanto has said this to the New York Times about the safety of their products:

“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” said Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications. “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Awesome.

Why should I care?

Well, I’ll tell you why I care, and you can decide for yourself.

Monsanto holds a powerful monopoly over our food system.

Monsanto’s business model is to completely control the food system, from seed to supermarket. Monsanto’s business model is one of vertical integration, meaning they want to control (and profit from) every step in the process of the creation of our food. This is an effective model and is serving them well.

Monopolies typically don’t benefit the consumer very well. And when the “consumer” is anyone who eats, well . . . that’s kind of a big deal. Do we really want the security and vitality of our food left in the hands of a huge corporation that doesn’t even believe it’s their responsibility to ensure their products are safe??? Do we want a handful of corporations deciding what’s for dinner, based on their needs and bottom line?

Monsanto has an aggressive, open policy of actively suing farmers, seed-savers and seed-cleaning businesses.

Monsanto sets out its rationale for suing farmers here.

Monsanto aggressively pursues anyone who they suspect of infringing on their patents. This has even included farmer’s whose fields have been contaminated by pollen from neighbours GMO crops.

Now, the argument is – it’s their property, and they have the right to profit from their intellectual property as well as protect it.

This argument completely misses the question as to whether they ought to have the right to “own” these things at all. This right has been bestowed on Monsanto by the courts, who shouldn’t have had the power to give it in the first place. Surely the right to profit is not the almighty rule of life. Surely somewhere in there the Greater Good has to come out on top. Right? Right??

The seeds of life do not belong to the Supreme Courts. The seeds of life belong to the people.

You can read about why I believe it’s important to keep seeds in the public domain here.

And remember . . .

“An unjust law is no law at all.” – St. Augustine

Monsanto has a tight-knit, extremely influential relationship with government.

This goes beyond the usual money-for-votes we’re all so familiar with.

Many former Monsanto employees and allies hold powerful positions within the US government, even the United States Supreme Court. Notions of conflict of interest seem to be lost and forgotten, like the time this former Monsanto lawyer become Supreme Court Justice wrote the majority opinion in this landmark legal decision that favourably impacted Monsanto’s business.

Here is a list of former Monsanto employees and associates and their government rolls:

NAME
MONSANTO JOB
GOVERNMENT JOB
ADMIN
Toby Moffett Monsanto Consultant US Congessman D-CT
Dennis DeConcini Monsanto
Legal Counsel
US Senator D-AZ
Margaret Miller Chemical Lab Supervisor Dep. Dir. FDA,
HFS
Bush Sr,
Clinton
Marcia Hale Director, Int’l
Govt. Affairs
White House
Senior Staff
Clinton
Mickey Kantor Board Member Sec. of Commerce Clinton
Virginia Weldon VP, Public Policy WH-Appt to CSA, Gore’s SDR Clinton
Josh King Director, Int’l
Govt. Affairs
White House Communications Clinton
David Beler VP, Gov’t & Public Affairs Gore’s Chief Dom.
Polcy Advisor
Clinton
Carol Tucker-Foreman Monsanto Lobbyist WH-Appointed Consumer Adv Clinton
Linda Fisher VP, Gov’t & Public Affairs Deputy Admin
EPA
Clinton,
Bush
Lidia Watrud Manager, New Technologies USDA, EPA Clinton,
Bush, Obama
Michael Taylor VP, Public Policy Dep. Commiss. FDA Obama
Hilary Clinton Rose Law Firm, Monsanto Counsel US Senator,
Secretary of State
D-NY
Obama
Roger Beachy Director, Monsanto Danforth Center Director USDA NIFA Obama
Islam Siddiqui Monsanto Lobbyist Ag Negotiator
Trade Rep
Obama

Despite this cozy relationship with the government, the people have had little chance to have our voices heard. No one asked us if we think it’s appropriate, moral or just for a private company to patent life. No one asked us if we’re comfortable with contaminated genes being released into the wild.

Doesn’t that seem like something we should be having a public discussion about? Shouldn’t someone have asked us first?

If they can’t just block our voices, they throw huge amounts of money at convincing us that we’re wrong. When California was set to vote on Prop 37, which would require labelling of most GMO products, Monsanto spent $8.1 million dollars to help defeat it. Together with their allies in agri-business, industry spent 45 million dollars to defeat the Prop 37. How can democracy function in this sort of environment? And why on earth are they so reluctant for us to know what is actually in our food? If their products are safe, why do they care?

When the people DO speak, as they have been right now in Vermont where they are in the process of trying to pass law that will require the labelling of GMO products, Monsanto is threatening to sue the ENTIRE STATE.

Perhaps in response to this, an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill would revoke State’s rights to pass laws requiring labelling of GMO foods.

Recent wiki-leaks documents also show that Monsanto is influencing the government to use tax dollars to push their agenda abroad via US public policy.

And the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” that was recently signed in to law by President Obama was allegedly WRITTEN WITH MONSANTO and brought forward by Republican Senator Roy Blunt, who has received $64, 250 from the company for his campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

The act gives companies who produce and sell GMO seeds immunity from Federal prosecution, EVEN IF their product is later PROVEN to be harmful. This means even if future research proves GMO foods CAUSE CANCER, the federal government will have no power to stop their sale or use.

Monsanto’s monopoly has a devastating effect on farmers around the world.

In India, a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes, often by drinking the pesticides they can no longer afford. Many have either bought into the promises of the big biotech companies, or can no longer access traditional seed varieties.

Here is a first-hand account of the situation in India. I also found the documentary Bitter Seeds a heart-wrenching illustration of the impact of GMO cotton on Indian farm families. It tells the story of a young woman who lost her father to suicide. I sobbed through the whole thing, be warned.

GMO seed technology cannot be contained

We have opened a pandora’s box of unintended consequences by releasing these genes into the wild. While many agri-industry wonks would convince themselves that agriculture is not a part of nature, the fact is – it is. We don’t farm in a bubble, and as that lovely line from the cheesy cautionary tale Jurassic Park goes – Life will find a way.

We have no idea how these toxin-laced plants will eventually affect insect populations, or how the altered genes might interact with the genes of other food crops or wild species. We fancy ourselves able to understand and foresee the implications of this technology, but that’s just hubris. We don’t know. We can’t know. We might not know for sure until it’s way too late.

Isn’t it better to just – not? Do we really need plants that can be sprayed with poisons and not die?? Should be we pouring poison onto our food at all? This kind of technology, and the agriculture it represents is killing the goose to get the golden egg. We are depleting our future ability to produce food in exchange for short-term monetary benefits for a chosen few. It’s suicidal.

So, to sum up, why should you care . . .

If you believe no one should have the right to patent life, you should care. If you believe seeds belong in the hands of family farmers and backyard gardeners, you should care. If you value genetic diversity, you should care. If you know how important pollinators are to our survival, you should care. If you don’t want to see increasing amounts of poison poured into our soil and water, you should care. If you think there’s even a slim chance this technology could go wrong, you should care. If you believe huge multi-national companies shouldn’t have so much power and influence over our food or our government, you should care.

If you eat, you should care.

I care because I love my son and my unborn daughter.

. . . .

Now, like anything, this is a complex issue that cannot be succinctly summed up in one blog post (albeit a long one.) Monsanto might be one of the biggest and baddest bad guys to blame, but there is plenty of blame to go around. World government, non-governmental agencies like the World Trade Organization, foreign policy, social injustice, predatory lending, greed, commodification of food, land-grabbing by huge corporate interests, food-industry lobbyists, domestic agricultural policy, and yes – you and I.

In the end, I can tell you from my extensive experience in the garden, growing food organically – seeds are about life. They are firmly rooted in a paradigm of plenty. In our current culture of corporate coups over our democracy, sharing really is rebellious. The best thing we can all do is plant seeds, save seeds and share seeds.

Life begets life and the bounty grows by sharing; it is not diminished by it.

This is a basic truth of life. No amount of PR spin or scare tactics will convince me otherwise. I hold tight to this knowledge and it gives me hope for my son and the daughter dancing in my belly, that they will have access to food and seeds that are good, clean and fair. That they will have a future as abundant as the one we enjoy now.

It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor! Love is somethin’ if you give it away, you end up havin’ more.

6 thoughts on “The March Against Monsanto : Who is Monsanto and why should you care?

  1. Pingback: “This is What Democracy Looks Like” | Growing Up in the Garden

  2. Pingback: When a world-wide peaceful protest ISN’T news : The March Against Monsanto | The Slow Foods Mama

  3. SherryGreens

    This is an awesome summary. This post has motivated me to send an email to each of my (Canadian) seed companies that I use (T&T and Versey’s) and ask if they sell Monsanto and if they do, if they could send me a short list of seeds that are NOT Monsanto. So I will see what kind of response I get.

    This year I made a real effort to purchase only open pollinated seed and plan to save as much as I can for next year. I could not find some stuff though… like onions!

    I live in Edmonton, and witnessed the MASSIVE protest going on as I was leaving the farmer’s market. In fact they all walked right in front of my car so I saw them all and read all the signs. Estimates where that there was almost 1000 people there. I was so proud that so many people knew about this and cared enough to march in the rain. I explained it all to my 5 year old daughter watching it all go by with saucers for eyes. If people don’t stand up for important things that are wrong, nothing with change! Even kids can stand up! Then we listened to the Marching song by Bobs and Lolo (kids duo from Vancouver) which is awesome by the way. 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      Being there with my son was very emotional for me, much more than I expected. He is too little to understand yet, being only two, but he is very involved on our farm and already knows more about food and farming than a lot of adults I know. We talked about the importance of sharing and that seeds are for sharing; I explained to him that was what we were in the march for, to cheer for sharing seeds. I really feel proud as a mum knowing that I’m instilling in him the idea that doing things like this is a normal, necessary part of life. My mum thought it was hilarious when he called her to tell her about it, and he cheerfully told her he went to a protest, like some other kid would say they’d gone to a parade! He loved the music and all the people.

      If you are looking for good suppliers of heirloom seeds, I would suggest West Coast Seeds and Saltspring Seeds. We grow almost exclusively heirloom varieties here on the farm – including onions! They should be able to ship to you in Edmonton no problem.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: What Kind of Seeds are You Planting | Loves Old Stuff

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