Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Biotech bonanza

Last year's global food crisis made millions for agro-giant Monsanto. Tim Hunt fails to find any redeeming features in this corporate behemoth

November 22, 2009
5 min read


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


  share     tweet  

Try looking objectively at biotech firm Monsanto, a company that only ever seems to receive a negative press, and see if you can find any redeeming features – any ray of light emanating from this seeming black hole of corporate misanthropy. You will struggle. Monsanto is the exemplar of all that is wrong with the world’s corporate-controlled food system.

Monsanto has a damning history. It worked on the atomic bomb in the 1940s and produced the chemical weapon Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. More recently its herbicides have been used to devastating effect against coca-producing peasant farmers in Colombia.

But nightmarish weapons have never been the company’s primary money-spinner. The big bucks come from industrialised agriculture. When it comes to food, never before has so much been controlled by so few – a situation that is worsening as genetically modified (GM) crops and patents are pushed further into agriculture.

The ETC action group on erosion, technology and concentration says that just ten companies now control more than two-thirds of global proprietary seed sales – compared with thousands of seed companies and public breeders three decades ago.

Monsanto is the biggest of the big, the world’s fifth largest agro-chemical company, and the largest seed company. In 2007 it held the patents for the seeds used on 90 per cent of the world’s total land area devoted to GM crops. It accumulated this monopoly by buying up existing seed companies, spending £6 billion on acquisitions during the 1990s.

Monsanto claims that there is a happy synergy between its need for profit and the world’s need to feed a growing population with crops resistant to changes in the climate. But according to Dominic Glover (Made by Monsanto: the corporate shaping of GM crops as a technology for the poor, Steps Centre, 2008), GM seeds merely offer the best means of preserving the commercial life of Monsanto’s most successful product: the pesticide Roundup.

Roundup, which is sold in more than 115 countries, was developed during the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s, which was characterised by the promotion of oil-based fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Farmers working with soil depleted by intensive agriculture became dependent on the chemicals sold by companies such as Monsanto. This often drove rural communities into debt and poverty – and the chemicals harmed those exposed to them. Worldwide, chemical pesticides are still responsible for the poisoning of 25 million workers every year.

The leading GM firms developed out of the chemical industry. According to GM Watch, the leading GM corporations control nearly 75 per cent of the global pesticide market.

When the lucrative Roundup patent was set to expire in 2000, Monsanto was faced with potentially devastating commercial challenges. GM was its solution. Monsanto introduced glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, into plant genes, in order to create resistance.

Now farmers could spray Roundup without harming the crop, even during the growing season. The company preserved its market dominance by selling ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds alongside Roundup.

But surely technological innovation must be good news for farmers? No – not when the technology is this tightly controlled.

This year, 85 per cent of all corn planted in the US was GM. For soya the figure was 91 per cent. Such a huge volume of sales allows Monsanto to spend millions of dollars on a small army of investigators to pursue and prosecute farmers who breach the strict contracts that the corporation attaches to each and every seed sale.

These contracts forbid farmers from keeping any new seed produced by the crop for the following year, or even saving leftover seeds. If a crop containing a Monsanto patented trait is found on the land of a non-purchasing farmer (even if it was brought there by wind or insect pollination), the farmer is told they are liable for theft.

In 2007, the US not-for-profit watchdog the Public Patent Foundation noted that, in a rare victory for anti-GM groups, the US Patent Office had rejected four key Monsanto patents related to GM crops ‘because the agricultural giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue – and in some cases literally bankrupt – American farmers’.

It’s not just US farmers who are suffering. Monsanto exploited last year’s global food crisis to increase its profits. As rice stocks hit their lowest levels in 30 years, the corporation announced plans to raise the price of the company’s staples.

GM maize varieties went up by 35 per cent and soybean seed by more than 50 per cent from 2006 to 2008. Retail prices for Roundup have more than doubled over the past two years. And so, as the world’s poorest people went hungry, Monsanto celebrated a 120 per cent rise in its profits.

Now Monsanto is a leading proponent of the ‘new green revolution’ – the ‘gene revolution’. It claims its new technologies can feed the world’s poor. But who would trust Monsanto to spearhead any sort of humanitarian endeavour?

Find out more at www.gmwatch.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


1