By SEAN HUGHES
The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply
By Marie-Monique Robin, translated by George Holoch, The New Press, 2010, Hardcover, $26.95
Marie-Monique Robin has written a critical and insightful appraisal of Monsanto, a U.S.-based agricultural company, enumerating the reasons many have long been skeptical of its actions. Her book is thorough and very detailed, with many revelations of staggeringly immoral conduct.
John Francis Queeny founded Monsanto as a chemical company in 1901 and until recently its primary focus was chemicals. Among its products are a number of controversial compounds, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and Agent Orange.
Monsanto produced PCBs until the chemicals were banned in the 1970s due to their toxicity. Robin discovered that Monsanto employees knew of animal studies that suggested the toxicity of PCBs as early as 1937, but didn't heed the warnings. Robin quotes a 1970 internal letter to Monsanto marketing employees, instructing them about how to respond to customer queries as to the safety of PCBs: "You can give verbal answers; no answers should be given in writing. ... We can't afford to lose one dollar of business."
The company's response to 1958 labeling laws relevant to PCBs is also alarming: "It is our desire to comply with the necessary regulations, but to comply with the minimum and not to give any unnecessary information which could very well damage our sales position in the synthetic hydraulic fluid field." This irresponsible attitude toward safety frequently recurs throughout Robin's book.
Monsanto also produced Agent Orange, a mixture of herbicides used in Vietnam. Dioxins, a group of chemicals known to be toxic, were a byproduct of its manufacture. Yet company officials actually criticized another producer of the herbicides for proposing to inform the government of the presence of dioxins. In addition, in 2002, a Monsanto spokesperson said, "[R]eliable scientific evidence indicates that Agent Orange is not the cause of serious long-term health effects," despite the fact that the VA has been treating and compensating veterans for Agent Orange-related ailments since 1991.
Monsanto took its first step toward biotechnology with the introduction of recombinant bovine growth hormone (known as rBGH or rBST), which increases milk production in cows. The hormone stimulates the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (known as IGF-1), abnormally high levels of which are associated with breast, colon and prostate cancer. Robin cites a number of studies showing that this molecule is present in increased amounts in the milk of rBGH-treated cows and is not destroyed in human digestion. She also movingly details the damage rBGH has on bovine wellbeing.
Through a series of mergers in the 90s, the company shed most of its chemical business (though it continues to manufacture the glyphosphate-based herbicide marketed as Roundup) and acquired a number of seed and biotechnology companies. It thereby became one of the world's largest seed companies and began to develop transgenic plants, which Robin refers to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The technique works like this: A desirable gene is put onto a piece of DNA called a vector. The vector enters the plant and becomes part of its DNA. This causes the plant to produce the protein corresponding to the DNA and thereby to express a certain trait (such as resistance to Roundup).
Indeed, the product Robin spends the most time on is "Roundup Ready soybeans." These soybeans are resistant to the effects of glyphosphate, so a farmer can plant them and control weeds by freely spraying the herbicide: It won't affect the soybeans. The soybeans are considerably more expensive than ordinary soybeans and Monsanto requires farmers to purchase them new every year. Theoretically, the farmer can make more money than with conventional soybeans by virtue of decreased herbicide and labor costs associated with the simpler procedure. This is dubious, however, with an average yield 6.7 percent lower than conventional soybeans and increased herbicide use after three years of planting. In addition, GMO crops and Monsanto's actions have led to devastating consequences on impoverished people, as Robin demonstrates in Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and India (with a brief mention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's finding that Monsanto employees paid bribes to Indonesian officials).
The most alarming revelation is Monsanto's relationship to regulatory agencies. There is a long history of Monsanto employees becoming employed at key agencies and vice versa. Scientists and agency employees who criticize or question Monsanto's claims find themselves intimidated out of their positions.
Perhaps a consequence of Monsanto's influence within regulatory agencies is the fact that GMOs are basically unregulated in the USA. They are treated as though they are conventional seeds: toxicological tests are unnecessary and the companies can consult with the FDA on a voluntary basis. Even then the FDA does not conduct any tests of its own: It simply evaluates data provided by the company. In a telling example, when a certain strain of transgenic corn was discovered in the food supply, the FDA had to ask for help from the manufacturer to detect it because it "did not have the expertise" necessary to conduct the tests.
Robin's criticisms of the ways in which Monsanto has implemented GMOs and of the regulatory structure are right on the mark. However, she is overly critical of the technique itself, saying for example that "rather than respecting the natural laws of plant development," it "attempt[s] instead to break them in any way possible." While Monsanto's GMOs have been designed with what one may regard as too-limited focus on safety and a primary focus on profit, this does not damn the technique itself. Properly regulated and carefully screened for safety, GMOs may prove an important tool in ending world hunger and malnutrition.
Monsanto has presented itself as committed to improving agriculture and safeguarding the environment; employees have been inspired by this vision. Yet one such employee was cautioned, "What counts for us is making money." Another employee looked back on the development of the first transgenic seeds: "It was a constant race against the clock, and the only goal was to dominate the seed market. If you really want to save the world, you start by carefully verifying the safety of the products you're making."
A statement that, in a couple of sentences, sums up Monsanto's central problem.