Monsanto—a major player in GE Technology

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, March 11, 2001

"Industry has long labeled the precautionary approach as reactionary, arguing that it stifles research and prevents economic progress. On the contrary, advocates realize that all stakeholders—including consumers, government, and industry—benefit from an open and democratic attempt to anticipate any undesirable social and financial surprises. The goal is to apply wisdom and judgement about the potential effects of a new technology before flooding the marketplace with the products of that technology."

Brian Halweil, Portrait Of An Industry In Trouble, World Watch Institute, February 17, 2000

While organic agriculture has become one of the most rapid growing industries within the food market, the agrochemical industry is trying to hit back.

Some genetic engineering companies, such as Monsanto spend large amounts on public relations to extort the facts. Monsanto brought us NutraSweet. They also created Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used in Vietnam to defoliate entire rainforest ecosystems.

Monsanto is primarily a chemical and pesticide company. It is getting bigger as they buy up various biotech firms and is also one of the largest biotechnology companies in the world. They also exert a huge amount of influence in Washington D.C. which prevents any large-scale meaningful debate. So while they present themselves as a "life science" or biotechnology firm, they are really a chemical firm.

It appears that as people are becoming more aware of some of the issues and public pressure to do something about these problems increases, companies like Monsanto are coming under a lot of fire. Take the following as a small example:

  • Their attempt to market its genetically engineered products as organic in the United States came under criticism and was fought back -- for now.
  • But that did not stop them trying it in India, using an Indian seed company that they bought in order to use the term "Organic" as a Trojan Horse to enter the huge Indian market, amidst huge protest.
  • In Europe, they launched an advertising campaign attempting to promote the use of genetically engineered crops and this has led to African scientists expressing their concern as well.
  • They are also accused of creating products that will withstand more pesticide use and therefore allow more sales of their pesticide products. (Note, as mentioned above, they are largely a chemical and pesticide company.) Genetically engineered Roundup Ready Soybeans, for example, are engineered to be more resistant to its Roundup weed killer. That weed killer also kills many beneficial "weeds" and insects. This doesn't have much to do with increasing yields as studies have shown but more about increased sales. The following quote reveals a lot:

    Many of you have heard of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. And it's very effective at killing weeds -- so effective, in fact, that Roundup would control soybeans as well as weeds if it should come into contact as both. ... [Until that is,] Monsanto developed Roundup Ready Soybeans ... [that] express a novel protein that allows them to survive, even when sprayed with enough Roundup to control competing weeds.

    from the International Association of Plant Breeders, quoted by Vanadana Shiva, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), p.98

    Also, see Vanadana Shiva, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), pp.99 - 101 for more about the "Myth of Increased Yields and Returns".

"GE Technologies will solve world hunger"

A part of the biotech industry's point is that biotechnology will help alleviate world hunger. However, people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. International trade and economic policies have lead to immense poverty, inequality and lack of access to food, not food scarcity due to over population. While genetically engineered food could help alleviate hunger, it would not solve it, as it would not help tackle these root causes. (For more about this, see this section's look into the argument of helping feed the world and more links to articles that discuss the fact that this is a political problem, not a food shortage problem.)

What also comes over as contradictory is Monsanto's investment into the terminator technology. This is seen by farmers as nothing more than a way to make profit, because there does not seem to be any other rational reason to invest in a technology that prevents seeds from germinating. This therefore results in additional costs to farmers, which again is not compatible with the claim to solve world hunger. (Monsanto have actually decided not to market this technology -- for now. Check out the Terminator technology section for more about this.)

Back to top

Corporate power

As an example of corporate control and propaganda on this issue, on April 2, 1998, two award-winning Florida TV producers announced a lawsuit against a Fox TV network television station which they claim had fired them after they refused to broadcast false reports about Monsanto's controversial genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone. This hormone is said to harm cows and pose risks to humans. Due to public pressure, Canada, for example, has refused to allow it to be used.

In UK, the Ecologist Magazine had devoted an entire edition on Monsanto. However, the original printers were afraid of being sued if they printed so they shredded the entire issue. The magazine found that many other printers and publishers were all afraid of Monsanto's potential power.

In addition, in UK, it has emerged that a Monsanto Lobby firm is paying a key member of parliament thousands of pounds. The MP is in charge of the influential House of Commons committee policing Government food policy). There are similar charges of a "revolving door" at the USA's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) where former Monsanto employees end up at the FDA and back to Monsanto again.

Back to top

Poor Image Plus Merger Equals a New Name

The negative public reaction to genetically engineered food has troubled the large corporations and the biotech industry in general. In fact, the stock prices for agricultural biotech companies are going down, while, exports of such crops are falling. (For more detail, check out this following news brief, titled "Portrait Of An Industry In Trouble" by Brian Halweil.)

The name "Monsanto" will be changing soon. Monsanto is merging with a US-Swiss drugs group Pharmacia & Upjohn. The result will be a $50bn corporation going by the name of "Pharmacia".

According to this news report, "[t]he newly merged Pharmacia Corporation will use the names Searle, Pharmacia and Upjohn for its three sales divisions. Only an autonomous agricultural subsidiary will continue to use the Monsanto name."

Back to top

Policies of others in the industry also raises questions and concerns

It is not just Monsanto that has come under fire for its policies, but in fact the entire industry. Risks of accidents and gene spills increase, as safety concerns take a back seat to the bottom line.

As a small example, in September 2000, there was a fiasco in the United States about genetically modified taco shells in the food system using genetically engineered corn that was not approved for human consumption. It highlighted a series of concerns about gene spills, and, also less mentioned and analyzed by the US press, the corporate policies of accountability (or, lack of it).

The following summarizes the various issues very well and is hence worth quoting at length:

In studying [the taco] case we are struck by the dense network of transnational corporations (TNCs) involved, and the relationships between them -- symptomatic, we feel, of larger problems in our food system. A food processor (Kraft) owned by a tobacco company (Phillip Morris), pays a licensing fee to the world's largest fast food corporation (Tricon, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), itself a spin-off from PepsiCo, and buys the taco shells from a direct subsidiary of Pepsi (Sabritas), who bought the flour from the company (Gruma) who produces over half of the tortillas consumed in the world and is partially owned by the nation's largest grain processor (ADM), a major campaign contributor to both political parties, found guilty at various times of price fixing and anti-trust violations. ADM in turn bought the corn from farmers who bought the seed from a biotech conglomerate (Aventis CropScience), formed by the merger of two chemical companies (AgrEvo and Rhône-Poulenc), one of whom (AgrEvo) is itself the product of the previous merger of the Hoechst and Schering pharmaceutical and pesticide giants. Where does the buck stop? Who is to blame? If GE Food Alert hadn't paid for independent testing, who would have?

... As fewer companies come to dominate each step in food production, whether supplying farmers with seeds and chemicals, processing food, or retailing through supermarkets, there are fewer checks and balances in the system.

When an industry is competitive -- when there are many companies producing similar products, each with a small market share -- consumers have a better shot at getting what they need and want, and government regulators are less likely to be in the pockets of giant conglomerates. But when oligopolies or monopolies achieve preeminent positions in the market, they can unilaterally raise prices and cut costs, allowing quality to deteriorate because consumers are captive-they have no choice. And the windfall profits that accrue to dominant market positions make it possible-and necessary to protect those profits-to influence regulators through the revolving door between government and industry, campaign contributions and outright payoffs.

Since it is the transnational corporations which are the beneficiaries of the long history of inequity that has plagued us in our position of disadvantage, I believe that it is our responsibility to reject such a misleading oversimplification of the solution to our problem; especially the use of our condition, by those very beneficiaries of the inequity, to justify the continuation of the benefits that they derive.

Anatomy of a 'Gene Spill', Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First)

Notice in the above quote the strategic partnerships and ownerships, commonly used to promote a companies series of products across subsidiaries. There are more corporations on paper, but less owners in reality.

And is it arrogance, insensitivity, or even just a drive for profits for the following scenario to occur?

Farmers in the U.S. have already have had non-GMO crops contaminated by nearby GMO fields. Currently farmers have no recourse in such situations, since there is no legal protection from this bio-pollution. Farmers who lose premiums for their non-GMO or organic crop have nowhere to turn. Biotech industry spokespeople have suggested that farmers who are concerned about such contamination should take part of their land out of production as "buffer zones." Obviously farmers who are doing nothing different than before feel that they should not now be burdened by the industry's failure to control its technology.

Bill Christison, Opposing Genetic Engineering In New Zealand (and around the world), In Motion Magazine, February 25, 2001

Back to top

Where next?

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Sunday, March 11, 2001

Back to top