The Power and Political Clout of Biotech Companies Fr. Seán

Any discussion of GMOs would not be complete without examining the power  of biotech companies. We get a glimpse of this in an article by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele entitled, ‘Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear’ in the May 2008, edition of Vanity Fair. The subtitle outlines how Monsanto is both powerful and uncompromising when it comes to dealing with various constituents.

The article gives examples of how Monsanto, the largest biotech company on the planet, uses a shadowy army of private agents in the American heartland to strike fear into the farming community. These investigators sometimes show a farmer a photo of himself coming out of a shop to let him know he is being followed.  They infiltrate community meetings and gather information about what farmers are planting. Farmers call these investigators “seed” police and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics (page 114).  Often these “seed police” get it wrong, as in the accusations against a small store owner, Gary Rinehart. In 2002, Monsanto a investigator Jeffery Moore, accused Rinehart of planting Roundup GM soybeans.  Though Rinehart was innocent they filed a case against him and forced him to hire his own lawyer to protect his interests.  Soon Monsanto realized they had the wrong person, but, did they offer an apology?  There was “no letter of apology, no public concession that the company had made a mistake, no offer to pay his attorney’s fees.  “I don’t know how they got away with it”, Reinhart said. “If I tried to do something like that it would be bad news, I felt I was in another country”. (page 116).

The article gives a number of examples of Monsanto’s record as a chemical company. Monsanto produced two of the most toxic substances known – polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs and dioxin. (page 119). In 1949, a huge explosion at a Monsanto factory in the town of Nitro, in West Virginia caused a plume of toxic smoke to drift over the factory area and the town.  Court records show that 226 plant workers were affected. However, Monsanto claimed that the contamination was “fairly slow acting” and “caused only irritation of the skin”.   In 1981 many of Monsanto’s former workers at the Nitro plant filed a case in the federal court. They claimed that Monsanto knowingly exposed them to chemicals which caused long-term health problems, including hearth failure and a variety of cancers.  (page 119).  In 1988, on the eve of the trial Monsanto settled the cases by making a single payment of $1.5 million. The company also agreed to drop its claim to collect $307,000 in court costs from six former employees who had unsuccessfully charged in a separate lawsuit that Monsanto had recklessly exposed them to dioxin. (page 120).

Monsanto’s PCBs, were extremely versatile and were used in many industries as sealants, lubricants and hydraulic fluids.  Unfortunately, they are toxic and can damage the neurological, immune, endocrine and reproductive systems in animals and humans.  37 years after ceasing operations, Anniston, Alabama, the town in which Monsanto manufactured PCBs, is still one of the most contaminated areas in the US.  Monsanto has paid $550 million to the 21,000 citizens of Anniston, many of whom suffer from illnesses associated with PCBs. The article claims that the company was very slow to accept that their product was highly toxic.  Rather than accept responsibility, the company mounted a PR campaign to limit damage.   It detailed the measures which were underway to limit disclosure including getting public officials to fight their case. All of this was aimed at playing down the danger even though there was enormous cause for public concern.

Currently, Monsanto are targeting dairy companies which advertise that their milk is produced by cows not treated with Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone rBGH.  The article describes how Monsanto wishes to stop Jeff Kleinpeter, a dairy farmer in Baton Rouge from including the phrase – “from Cows NOT Treated with rBGH on his milk carton.  In an attempt to stamp out this practice, Monsanto have appealed to the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the “deceptive advertising and labeling practices” of milk producers such as Kleinpeter.  Monsanto argue that people like Klelinpeter are misleading the public. A Monsanto-backed farmers groups called, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), has also been attempting to discredit  Kleinpeter and farmers like him.

Monsanto’s reach is global. In 2005 the company broke the U.S. anti-corruption laws by paying almost $1 million in bribes to officials in order to circumvent the environmental regulations governing the planting of genetically engineered cotton. [1]

There is some recent indication that Monsanto may be held more accountable by the US courts.  On June 24th 2009, a U.S. appeals court left in place an injunction barring Monsanto from selling its Roundup Ready alfafa seed until the government completes an environmental impact study on how the genetically modified product neighbouring crops.  The ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the company’s request for a rehearing of its appeal and side it would accept no more petitions for rehearing in the three  year old case.  The only avenue left open to Monsanto is to bring the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.  According to George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety “this is a major victory for consumers, for farmers and the public as far as protecting their rights and the rights of farmers to sow the crop of their choice and consumers to eat the food of their choice.”[2]

A consortium of environmental organizations and conventional seed companies, led by Geertson Seed Farm, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February 2006 to force it to rescind its 2005 approval of the Monsanto seed until it does a full environmental study.

[1] Guerin, B.  “The seeds of a bribery scandal in Indonesia.” Asia Times, January 20th 2005.

[2] Gina Keeting, “U.S. court cuts off appeals in Monsanto alfalfa case,” REUTERS, June  24th 2009.


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