“Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is [Food and Drug Administration’s] job.” – Monsanto director of corporate communications Phil Angell in a 1998 interview with author Michael Pollan.
Monsanto has had a rough go at it the last few years.
In 2010, the Missouri-based agribusiness giant ranked dead last in the Covalence ethical index, citing frequent and unfair legal practices in suing small farmers for patent infringement, while last year the Natural Society named Monsanto the worst company in the world for “threatening both human health and the environment.”
While all subjective indications are that the multinational corporation is easily the most despicable on the planet – primarily for their genetic engineering practices of soy and other seeds that are patented and sold to farmers at increasing prices, as well as acting as the world’s leading herbicide producer – Monsanto gives away over $3 million of their $2.5 billion operating budget to fund programs in North America. Through its rural and community growth projects, the company hopes to impact science and math programs in rural schools to work toward sustainability and inspire new food science.
And that’s just about where the good press ends. Ironically, the company’s science focus has led to the practice of patenting seeds, which has caught the ire of farmers, who’ve seen the prices of seeds steadily increasing over the past decade to double the price. In April, a coalition of more than 2,000 U.S. farmers and food companies said they would be taking legal action to force government regulators to analyze possible problems their crops may face by having weed-killing chemicals sprayed on them. The coalition also wants the government to look into biotech crops to verify potential harmfulness to humans who ingest them.
Today, the vast majority of the U.S.’s two primary crops, soybeans and corn, come from Monsanto company patents. For corn, the number is 80 percent. For soybeans, the number is 93 percent. Competitors say the company has stifled competition, and Obama Administration officials have been far busier since 2009 than the previous administration at investigating anti-trust threats.
But what about the potential health-threats that farmers speak of? A 2010 study released by the International Journal of Biological Sciences focusing on the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health suggested that at least some GM food is bad for health, at best. Organ damage, sterility, and infant mortality were all linked to Monsanto GM corn in small rodents. According to the study, three varieties of Monsanto’s corn were analyzed; each of these types of corn has been approved for consumption by most first-world national food safety authorities, including the U.S. Monsanto’s own crude statistical data suggested that there were no problems after conducting a 90-day study, but IJBS researchers say that chronic problems can rarely be found after 90 days.
Monsanto has also been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as being a “potentially responsible party” for 56 contaminated Superfund sites in the U.S. The conglomerate has been sued multiple times for damaging the health of their employees and other residents near the Superfund sites through pollution and other poisons.
Indignation from organic food supporters is also at an all-time high due to Monsanto’s engineering of bovine growth hormones, which seriously increases risk of many forms of cancer. In women, elevated levels of BGH (specifically IGF-1, found in Monsanto’s milk) are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer.
Because of the FDA’s 1993 decision to allow for use of BGH, even amid widespread criticism from scientists, government leaders, and farmers, it is difficult to find products in national supermarket chains that don’t use hormones, or are considered entirely “organic.” The FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Policy from 1991 to 1994 was a former Monsanto law firm attorney, where he presided over the firm’s food-and-drug law practice. After the FDA’s decision to green-light BGH – a decision in part made by him – he promptly left the FDA and resumed working directly for Monsanto as vice president and chief lobbyist.
But this is not the only example of government infiltration; President Obama appointed an agriculture industry lobbyist named Islam Siddiqui to the position of Chief Agricultural Negotiator in 2010. Some news outlets have suggested that his consistent record on public policy places the special interests of large agribusiness above the health and welfare interests of the broader public. Obama also appointed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; Kagan defended Monsanto in her capacity as Solicitor General in 2009.
Further troubling to organic-food enthusiasts was Whole Foods Market’s decision last year to attempt to “coexist” with Monsanto, allowing GM food products to be sold on their shelves. Part of Whole Foods $9 billion in annual sales from “naturally” processed foods and animal products contain GM organisms.
While the naturalist may feel as though the food they buy cannot be safe from Monsanto or GMOs, there is solace in the fact that Ben & Jerry’s gets all their milk from dairies that have pledged not to inject their cows with genetically engineered hormones. Many other companies, such as Yoplait, Dan-non, Tillamook, and Starbucks have decided to follow suit. So while the problem of GMOs to natural-food enthusiasts will exist regardless of corporate or government decision-making and regulations, the solution that exists has always been the same: buy products from companies that dedicate themselves to truly organic and natural food products.
Then, the question of whether Monsanto is truly “evil” or bad for the U.S. simply will not matter.