The Devil’s Seeds: Monsanto, Environmental Extremism, and the Demonization of Virtue

While the United States has focused its attention and resources on alleged terrorists in the Middle East, other threats to humanity have metastasized in the overlooked shadows. With no terror alerts or declarations of war from the government that was ordained to provide for the common defense, and barely a whimper from the vaunted free press, a global organization has deliberately contaminated much of the world’s food, soil, and water with poisonous chemicals and dangerous biological experiments. This secretive organization has planted its operatives deep within the highest reaches of the state, infiltrating successive presidential administrations, the Congress, and even the Supreme Court. Cloaking its actions in the respectability of an established philosophy, its real aim is nothing less than global domination. Leaving in its wake devastated landscapes and hundreds of thousands of dead and diseased people, it intimidates struggling families with hired goons, and takes control of other organizations that could potentially resist its spread. With the nation conveniently distracted by other matters, this organization stands on the cusp of a total victory that will change the world beyond recognition for all time. By any sensible standard, it presents a grave threat to mankind, and should be fought to its death.

The organization in question is not a loose band of disgruntled Muslims in the mountains of Pakistan or the deserts of Mali; it is a publicly traded corporation based in St. Louis, Missouri. The ideology it uses to justify its radical actions is not the eastern religion of Islam; it is the western philosophy of capitalism. And though it poses an infinitely greater risk to life on Earth than any offshoot of al-Qaeda, the few people who dare to stand up to it are the ones demonized as extremists. The alarmist language used in the preceding paragraph is frequently deployed to describe dark-skinned strangers in distant lands most Americans cannot find on a map, but is never regarded as acceptable when discussing corporate executives in the heartland of America. Thus, the very ideas with which we know the world around us have themselves been poisoned by toxic propaganda – a carefully fertilized ideological monoculture designed to resist attack from competing concepts. Not content merely to own the physical sources of our sustenance, the corporation also seeks to own our minds.

Defining Environmental Extremism: Rachel Parent v. Kevin O’Leary

A near-perfect illustration of this battle of ideas was recently provided by our friends to the North. Teenage activist Rachel Parent, who founded a group called Kids Right to Know that calls for the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, appeared on CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Show to debate the issue with co-host Kevin O’Leary. (O’Leary is best known to Americans as one of the “sharks” on NBC’s Shark Tank. He is Canada’s answer to Donald Trump, presenting himself as a highly successful businessman on television but with a past that undermines his claims if examined closely.) Parent acquits herself remarkably well for a 14-year old, and one can only wonder how effective she could become in the future. The key exchange for our purposes occurs toward the end of the session:

O’Leary’s accusation that Miss Parent has become “a shill” for environmental extremists, though swiftly retracted by the more neutral co-host, demanded a far harsher response than the young lady was willing or able to provide. What is “extreme” about mothers and daughters wanting to be sure that the food they prepare for their families is safe? What is “anti-science” about calling for thorough, long-term research by genuinely independent laboratories before unleashing a radical new technology on the planet? Why should we buy into the pipe dream that biotechnology will alleviate global hunger when industrial farming undermines the biodiversity upon which our food security depends (and when there are far less risky solutions, such as fixing broken distribution systems and abandoning the monstrous inefficiency of factory “farms”)? And why are reasonable people not able to ask such basic questions without having their motives impugned by patronizing little pricks like Kevin O’Leary?

The only shill in that debate is Kevin O’Leary himself, and the corporation for which he regurgitates propaganda represents a form of environmental extremism that must be exposed and extirpated.

The Enemy You Are Never Told to Fear: A Brief History of Monsanto

While Kevin O’Leary eagerly embraces and propagates Monsanto’s marketing message that its biotechnology offers the human race the prospect of higher crop yields with reduced inputs, the reality is very different and far less rosy. More fundamentally, there is no reason on earth – other than willful self-delusion in the search of investment returns – for any rational adult to credit any public statements emanating from Monsanto. The company has a proven record of creating deadly poisons and deliberately lying about their damaging effects on both people and the rest of the natural world.

The World According to MonsantoPerhaps the best overall account of Monsanto’s real character was provided in 2008 by the French journalist, Marie-Monique Robin. The World According to Monsanto, available as both a documentary film and a more comprehensive book, chronicles Monsanto’s evolution from a producer of some of chemistry’s most dangerous industrial toxins to a global agricultural hegemon. As gripping as a murder mystery – for that is really what it is – its main defect is simply that it is not recent enough to include the company’s latest assaults against democracy, decency, and life itself.

The proposition that Monsanto is being candid with the world about the effects of its products is laughable on its face, and Americans in particular should know better by now. In Anniston, Alabama, Monsanto hid decades of pollution from its PCB plant, despite knowing exactly how deadly its emissions and dumping really were. PCBs cause numerous diseases, particularly cancer; they were banned in the 1980s but have contaminated the entire planet. When residents of Anniston poisoned by PCBs sued the company, Monsanto eventually settled for $700 million, an amount easily covered by its profits. No executives were ever punished.

Monsanto also treated the world to Agent Orange, the principal ingredient of which is dioxin. Agent Orange, deployed by the United States in a war crime for which this allegedly Christian nation feels no remorse, contaminated 3 million people and continues to cause birth defects and cancers to this day. When Vietnam veterans sued Monsanto, the company deliberately manipulated the findings of its own health studies conducted after a serious accident at its West Virginia plant. On the basis of this rigged data, thousands of veterans were denied benefits for years.

Child as Science ExperimentMonsanto’s first major application of genetic engineering to food production was recombinant bovine growth hormone (BGH), marketed as Posilac from 1994. In the U.S., the FDA sidetracked the veterinary scientist who doubted the validity of Monsanto’s tests on BGH. Subsequently, Dr. Samuel Epstein, the president of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, reviewed a trove of Monsanto’s files on BGH that had been anonymously delivered to him by an FDA whistleblower. The documents recorded dramatic physiological changes in the cows given the hormone, including enlarged ovaries that caused reproductive problems and extensive mastitis. Milk from cows given BGH contains pus from the mastitis, antibiotics from farmers’ attempts to control the mastitis, and IGF-1, a known carcinogen. Canada banned BGH after it emerged that Monsanto attempted to bribe officials at Health Canada; the European Parliament took note of this episode and followed suit. But in the US, the company does not need to be so heavy-handed, as the federal government has bent over backwards to accommodate the company.

Monsanto has enjoyed exceptionally favorable treatment from administrations of both parties (something to bear in mind the next time Russ Sloan bemoans excessive regulation of business.) In this long train of regulatory deference to corporate interests, perhaps the watershed moment came in 1992, when Vice-President Quayle announced the FDA’s latest rules regarding this new type of food. The critical element of the American regulatory regime is the principle of substantial equivalence, according to which GM foods are treated Substantially Equivalent to Foodas no different from real foods. It is this rule that prevents GM foods from being labeled, thereby denying consumers the right to know what they are eating. While the Consumers’ Union urged the FDA to treat GM foods the same way they would treat food additives – which would require extensive, peer-reviewed, published studies – the FDA responded to political pressure to ease the way forward for an industry that was regarded as essential to America’s future economic success. (This choice has a more recent parallel in the elite’s embrace of another dangerous technology, fracking for unconventional fossil fuels.) Dr. James Maryanski, who headed the FDA’s biotech department from 1985 to 2006, admitted that the decision on substantial equivalence was political, but also claims that Monsanto has no interest in presenting falsified data to regulators and believes that the FDA’s reviews of Monsanto’s data constituted a proper basis for their regulations.

Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation for Economic Trends, observed that Washington lobbyists knew that the principle of substantial equivalence was a joke – nothing more than a cover to allow the biotech industry to market its products:

I have never seen a situation where one company could have so much overwhelming influence at the highest levels of regulatory decision-making as the example of Monsanto with its GM food policy in the government.

Much of this influence flowed from a familiar phenomenon in the plutocratic states of America: the revolving door. Prominent figures like Donald Rumsfeld, Clarence Thomas, Mickey Kantor, and William Ruckelshaus (the first head of the EPA) were employed by or involved with Monsanto either before or after their periods of “public service.” Most timely for the substantial-equivalence rule was Michael Taylor, who became an FDA deputy shortly before the policy was announced. Taylor had been a partner in a law firm which had several biotech firms, including Monsanto, as clients; while in practice, he drafted a model rule for those clients that bears a striking resemblance to the rule that was ultimately adopted while he worked at FDA. In 1996, Taylor became a Vice-President at Monsanto. After the release of The World According to Monsanto, he returned to a new position overseeing food matters at the FDA. It should not surprise anyone that the FDA has denied that Taylor’s actions at the agency violated any ethics rules. Nor should we be surprised that Justice Clarence Thomas, a former Monsanto lawyer, did not recuse himself from Monsanto v. Bowman (2013), which reaffirmed Monsanto’s ability to patent life (see below), or that President Barack Obama signed into law an agricultural appropriations bill containing the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, which (among other things) blocks the courts from stopping the planting of GM crops even if new studies reveal damaging health effects.

Today, over 250 million acres worldwide are planted with Monsanto’s GM crops, about 70% of which are Roundup-ready (modified to resist Monsanto’s best-selling, full-spectrum herbicide) and 30%  of which are modified to produce an insecticide called BT. In the US, 90% of the soy bean crop is genetically engineered, and fully 70% of the processed food in stores contains genetically-engineered elements – not that you would know. When Monsanto Modern Industrial Farmingfirst started marketing Roundup, it touted it as the world’s first biodegradable herbicide. This was another blatant lie, and courts in New York and France found the company’s advertising to be false, forcing Monsanto to change its labels. A senior scientist at France’s Pierre & Marie Curie Institute found that Roundup (chemically known as glyphosate) sets the stage for future cancers even when human exposures are well below normal usage levels. He was ordered not to publicize his findings to protect the GM industry. Similarly, when one of Europe’s foremost researchers, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, appeared on British television and described the troubling effects of feeding GM potatoes to rats (altered cell-production rates and an irritated immune system, both suggestive of cancer risks), he was immediately fired at the behest of Tony Blair’s Downing Street office. Long before Barack Obama would have America’s European puppets bring down the aircraft of Bolivia’s President to search for Edward Snowden, they were dancing an ugly little jig in the interests of progress.

While Europe does require the labeling of GM foods, the WTO forced it to accept imports of animals treated with BGH, and its own factory farms are the primary market for Paraguay’s exports of Roundup-ready soy, grown on huge plantations owned by a few wealthy investors (and which force thousands of peasant farmers to flee the country for city slums). Researchers at the University of Bergen found numerous, major flaws in Monsanto’s studies on animals fed Roundup-ready feed, but they were consistently denied access to the raw data informing the company’s questionable conclusions. As with BGH and the other examples of deception discussed here, any rational observer would have to ask what Monsanto is hiding now. And that question becomes more important every day, as secretive trade negotiations currently underway between the US and Europe may force the Europeans to open their doors completely to GM foods lest they be accused of erecting barriers to “free trade.”

Patenting Dystopia: Sowing the Seeds of America’s Enduring Legacy

Monsanto’s seemingly unstoppable march to global agribusiness domination has obviously been facilitated by friends in high places and supplemented by an aggressive mergers-and-acquisitions department, which has bought up seed companies worldwide. But the company’s most insidious growth tactic involves its exploitation of patent law.

In the US and Canada, hundreds of farmers have been sued for patent infringement; i.e. using Monsanto’s seed “product” without paying for it, even when the facts indicated that conventional crops had been contaminated accidentally by pollen blown in from neighboring farms. Monsanto’s aggressive use of private investigators (the “gene police”) to gather potentially actionable intelligence (sometimes by trespassing on farmers’ land) has turned neighbor against neighbor and driven families into debt to cover legal expenses. This fear of litigation has driven many farmers to plant Monsanto’s GM seeds instead of sticking with conventional seeds and risking a nightmare. And of course, in order to grow that crop, the farmer must also purchase Monsanto’s herbicides. Nothing could be more American than a family farm, but Monsanto’s America rips those traditional values apart. One of the company’s victims, Troy Roush of Iowa, explains why:

They want to control the seeds. They want to own life…. This is the building blocks of food we’re talking about. They are in the process of owning food – all food.

In India, Monsanto sold its BT cotton as a better way to farm, promising higher yields from lower inputs. After buying up local seed companies, Monsanto now controls most of the market for seed, and charges farmers four times more than the cost of conventional cotton. Is it worth it? Many Indian farmers say not. In 2006, a disease ravaged the BT cotton, exploiting a weakness in the plant introduced by the genetic modification. Despite the company’s marketing, the crop must still be sprayed against boll worms, and other pests have developed a resistance to BT, requiring the use of ever-stronger insecticides. When the crop is poor, farmers who went into debt to pay for seed and insecticide are ruined, and many have committed suicide. But behind these predatory practices, Indian agronomists see an even darker agenda, with patenting at the core.

Indian physicist Vandana Shiva sees GM crops protected by patents as a Second Green Revolution. She began campaigning against industrial agriculture during the first Green Revolution in the 1960s, but concedes that it did actually try to feed people. Today’s claims of humanitarianism, however, ring hollow:

The Second Green Revolution has nothing to do with food security…. It is about returns to Monsanto’s profits; that’s all it is about.

They’ve always said genetic engineering is the way to get to patenting, but patenting is the real aim. If you look at Monsanto’s research agenda, they are testing at this point something like 20 crops with BT genes in them. There’s nothing they’re leaving untouched…. Once they have established the norm that seed can be owned as their property, royalties can be collected. We will depend on them for every seed we grow, every crop we grow. If they control seed, they control food. They know it. It’s strategic. It’s more powerful than bombs. It’s more powerful than guns. This is the best way to control the populations of the world.

But the potential costs of that control dwarf even the billions in profit accruing to Monsanto’s coffers. For a transgenic world replaces the wonderful biodiversity that has allowed mankind to survive with a pathetically limited range of artificial monocultures that are doomed to fail. And when Monsanto’s new-and-improved biosphere does fail, no lawsuit will ever be able to compensate mankind for the magnitude of his loss. The stakes are eloquently spelled out in the short film, Seeds of Freedom:

Monsanto threatens biodiversity both directly, by cajoling or effectively compelling farmers to use its seed, and indirectly through the process of transgenic contamination. That process is well underway, but you have no more right to know about it than you have a right to know what you’re buying at the grocery store.

The Demonization of Virtue

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is the world’s genetic reservoir for corn, the home of hundreds of unique landraces perfectly adapted to their environment and lovingly tended for thousands of years. These crops have no need for insecticides or fertilizers, and generate no royalties for “owners.” When Mexican CornBerkeley researchers, led by Dr. Ignacio Chapela, sought a natural control for use in an experiment on GM corn, they traveled to Oaxaca, expecting to find the purest corn on Earth. To their amazement, they found that these native crops had been contaminated by transgenics. In an attempt to protect its natural heritage, Mexico banned the planting of GM crops. But under the terms of the NAFTA, it is not allowed to prevent the importation of “industrial corn” from the north, and it is these GM seeds that are causing the contamination problem, producing some monstrous results. The local people, drawing upon their history, refer to this as the Transgenic Conquest, and fear that if their traditional corn ceases to grow properly after being contaminated they will have no choice but to buy Monsanto’s seeds and employ their chemical methods. Monsanto could come to dominate Mexican agriculture through this backdoor process despite the country’s best efforts to keep it out.

When Dr. Chapela published his findings, the discovery caused an uproar in the agronomic community. Monsanto wasted no time in dealing with the threat to their empire, deploying a smear campaign that led to Chapela being fired. The British environmental group GM Watch proved that Monsanto was behind Chapela’s ouster, and the story was covered by George Monbiot in The Guardian. But the Monsanto juggernaut continues to roll along, unimpeded by such “extreme” concerns.

When the full implications of Monsanto’s activities are understood, it becomes clear that the political and legal institutions of the United States are enabling a form of corporate terrorism. If this cynical experiment with life itself is representative of the practice of American capitalistic freedom, then the country is setting itself up for a horrendous self-fulfilling prophecy. For when worldwide crop failures lead to famine, disease, and a desperate struggle to survive, the blowback against the country that created these conditions will be severe, visceral, and – it must be said – fully justified. “They” will hate us for our freedoms – the freedoms given to corporations to ruin the world.

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