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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.


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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

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Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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