Feature

Who the heck is Monsanto?

Green Lifestyle Magazine

It’s a name you’ll likely have heard floated around in relation to genetically modified foods, Roundup and Agent Orange… so what’s Monsanto’s deal?

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They’re the world’s biggest seed company and the dominant force in developing and commercialising genetically modified foods. Just uttering their name - Monsanto - is enough to cause some environmental campaigners to recoil. They’re seen by some as the epitome of the global corporation with the heavy hand and the company has faced community protests around the world.

In Monsanto’s eyes, they are “working with farmers and partners worldwide to realise a vision for sustainable agriculture”. But what does Monsanto actually do and where did this global behemoth come from?

The original Monsanto started out as a chemical company at the turn of the 20th century, with its first product being the sugar-substitute saccharin. After moving into agricultural chemicals (they helped to produce Agent Orange used by US troops in the Vietnam war to kill crops and jungle) the
firm moved into GM in the early 1980s.

These days Monsanto says it is no longer the chemical company of old with a focus on agricultural products, seeds and biotechnology. Its popular genetically modified (GM) crops are cotton, corn, canola and soy and these are engineered to resist Monsanto’s top selling weed killer, Roundup™.

The company also has an extensive plant breeding operation where seeds are produced using conventional techniques to have various ‘traits’ such as resistance to disease, bolder colours, longer stems to make harvesting easier or particular tastes.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented GM seeds are prevented from saving and planting any propagated seeds. Monsanto has taken more than 140 farmers to court for breaking these contracts and has settled many others out of court.

Critics say the kind of farming systems that Monsanto’s products are designed to serve pose a threat to food sovereignty – the right to grow and consume food produced sustainably. This food sovereignty fails when large corporations begin to control the production of seeds and the systems used to grow the food.

A 2012 report Combatting Monsanto from campaign groups argued, “the use of GM crops destroys essential crop diversity, homogenises food, and eradicates associated local knowledge and culture.”

Monsanto, which made more than US$7 billion in gross profit last year, is also a willing and active lobbyist for its own interests. In California last year, the public was given a chance to vote on a proposal to create a law to force manufacturers to label foods containing GM ingredients.

Early polling had shown the campaign was winning, but a late advertising blitz from the ‘no’ campaign saw the proposition defeated.

Monsanto was the biggest contributor to the $46 million ‘no’ campaign, pumping in more than US$7 million alongside other major biotech companies and global food brands including Pepsico, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Nestle. Funding the yes campaign were several organic food retailers and a promoter of alternative natural therapies, Dr Joseph Mercola, who would arguably have also benefited from forcing GM food to be labeled.

In the UK, Monsanto has previously stated that it “fully supports” GM food labeling rules. In Australia, all GM foods and foods that contain GM ingredients have to be labelled.

A key issue relating to Monsanto’s GM seeds is the way the resulting plants can infiltrate the land of other farmers. For those relying on markets that restrict or ban GM foods, this poses major problems.

West Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh is currently suing his neighbour for what he claims is the contamination of his land from Monsanto-patented GM canola. Marsh lost his organic certification in 2010 and alleges the GM plants blew onto his property from his neighbour’s farm. The case, the first of its kind in Australia, is being closely watched.

In the US, some 60 organic family farmers filed what was described as a pre-emptive lawsuit against Monsanto to protect themselves from the possibility of being sued for patent infringement if GM plants turned up on their land. Monsanto is also fighting environmentalists in a US court over a decision to deregulate its GM alfalfa seeds.

Monsanto’s latest corporate brochure talks about the company’s vision to “protect and preserve this planet we all call home, and to help improve lives everywhere”. But the Combatting Monsanto report takes a different view. “They ruin local agriculture and harm communities with their attempts to dominate food production systems,” it concludes.