Monsanto is a name which brings together a whole rainbow of complex issues, ranging from the moral and economic to the agricultural and genetic. It is a name which brings out real anger in protesters around the world but it also affects the hungry, the poor, farmers, scientific researchers, investors (shareholders), employees of the company, the PR industry, and politicians. All of these are uneasy about a corporation which, while hijacking evolution, has carefully intertwined the good and the bad.1
On the one hand, scientific research and genetics have enabled the creation of new strains of seeds which are more resistant to diseases and pests, which produce more proteins and less wastage, are resistant to drought and saline conditions and which are generally favorable to farmers. Monsanto spends the equivalent of about 10 per cent of its annual sales on research and development.
On the other hand, associated products, such as sprays against viruses, fungi and destructive insects have also had devastating effects on bees and unknown side-effects on birds, frogs and even humans. The effect on the declining bee population and other species by the use of toxic sprays remains a most challenging issue — but Monsanto is not alone in this matter.
A contentious aspect of Monsanto’s operations is its insistence on contractual obligations which force farmers to buy Monsanto seed every year without any recourse — reversing an agricultural tradition going back to our very origins. Some critics contend that this goes against nature, others that it is against religion, but almost all agree that it is a policy motivated by corporate greed and excused on the ground that it enables continued research in biological engineering to take place.
There is no need for Monsanto to continue this program. In France, for example, when it sells unaltered seeds because the genetically altered versions have been prohibited by French law. (Despite all the money spent by Monsanto on PR and less open methods to persuade the French public and politicians not to ban the sterilized seeds.)
Monsanto has also spent millions fighting GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) being labeled on food products. Indeed, most developed countries have mandated labels at the insistence of environmental and consumer advocacy groups. However, this has not occurred in the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration maintains (because of the intense pressure exerted by Monsanto), that engineered food is no different than conventional food and so needs no labels that reveal details of production.
Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe, however. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the US, the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.
A key issue remains how Monsanto sells and licenses its patented trait that allows farmers to kill weeds with its own Roundup herbicide while leaving crops unharmed. This particular genetic strain is now in almost the entire crop of soybeans grown in the US where Monsanto employs intellectual property law to prohibit farmers from saving seed. For example, Monsanto’s license (covering transfer of the seeds) forbids saving seeds and also requires that purchasers sign separate patent license agreements. Monsanto and other corporations contend that they need such product control to prevent seed piracy. Insidious is the word I use to describe this policy of patenting seed alteration and
then forcing farmers into contractual obligations.
And I am only one out of millions of protesters. Last year saw a global protest by the Occupy movement with impressive turn-outs. Despite the intensity of the opposition to a number of Monsanto products, the corporation did not change its position on any of the contentious challenges it faces. It simply spent even more on PR. As of this writing a global March Against Monsanto is scheduled for both May 24th and 25th on the internet, leading me to wonder whether this corporation is trying to undermine the protest movement!2 One can hope that global anger will eventually be effective in altering the management’s intransigence.
If Monsanto were to drop compulsory purchasing of its patented seeds, for example, it could produce an astounding turn around of its public image: It might it even lose its ranking as the most despised corporation in the world! The millions of dollars it could save currently being expended on PR, law suits and protecting all its offices, plants, employees and distributors from attack would more than make up for the losses on abandoning its compulsory purchasing programs.
1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) p.72
2See internet: Protest Marches Against Monsanto 2014