As Farmers Go For Round Two Against
Monsanto, Investors Remain Oblivious
Farmers will appear today before the U.S. Court of Appeals to seek protection against Monsanto, which is threatening them if any of its patented seeds is found in farms that it does not own. The case may be a turning point in the long-running struggle between the two sides.
Arguing on the farmers’ behalf, the Organic Seed Growers Association is appealing an earlier dismissal of their case by a federal judge, even though Monsanto was, as it still is, ready to take legal action against growers whose seeds may have been accidentally contaminated.
Since we’ve written about it last April (story below), the giant food corporation’s balance sheet has only grown stronger, though, while ever more vilified among independent farmers and consumer advocates. Ironically, then as now, it reported earnings gains, to glowing reviews by investors and analysts.
But although Monsanto’s unregulated research into genetically manipulation of seeds and crops is the focus and reason for its widespread unpopularity, this lawsuit is about yet another highly arguable claim: that it has the right to sue if what considers its property is found, say, in your own backyard.
In the case of farmers, that mean an impossibility, since seeds are carried along since immemorial times by natural forces such as birds, insects, wind, even erosion. No one should have to hire expensive lawyers to protect themselves from what may as well be the definition of ‘an act of god.’
THE LORD OF THE FRANKENSEEDS
Not for Monsanto, apparently, which has the financial muscle to sustain long battles, while it continues financing ways to manipulate crops guided only for the need to feed its corporate bottom line. We’ve tried to be as broad and comprehensive in our report, which is based on a variety of stories about the company.
We’re also thinking of the transcendence of what’s about to be decided in Washington, in the context of a more populated and hungrier world than ever. It’s quite clear which side most of us are in this issue: if Monsanto succeeds stomping down the resistance to its claim, that will be really great only to its shareholders.
If the farmers win, however, that will bring benefits across the board, and way beyond the absurd component of this lawsuit. Never mind the wind; Monsanto will have to prove beyond doubt that its seeds are not contaminating, in a wrong, disastrous way, the crops of those who chose to plant them the way it’s been done for centuries.
Plus, the greater focus will hopefully turn to Monsanto’s genetically manipulation of seeds, as such an enterprise should never be pursued solely under the premise of increasing profits, and without proper supervision and accountability. In any case, we also thought about offering the thousands heading to DC a good story to read on the bus.
Monsanto’s Profit Grows Despite
Worldwide Aversion to Gen-Alt Crops
What’s a food corporation to do when it’s vilified around the world, both for introducing genetically-altered crops before proving their safety, and fighting against having products made out of them labeled as such in stores? It raises its profit forecast, of course.
Monsanto, whose weed killer Roundup’s been linked to mutations in frogs, is also accused of strong-arming small farmers by waging court battles against them in several states, over issues concerning its patent-protected seeds. But even thought its crops have been banned in seven European Union nations so far, the company’s been able to get on the good side of most U.S. courts.
So much so that, in at least one instance, the Supreme Court may be asked to weight on the issue of when its proprietary claims may be crushing farmers’ rights. Judging by recent decisions, though, potential litigants against it may first try to win wider support in the court of public opinion: the current crop of U.S. justices may not even accept to review the issue, and that would benefit Monsanto.
That a food company that’s been involved in so much litigation has still managed to expect even higher profits may not be easy to grasp, if all you know about it, you’ve learned from the headlines. In that case, we’re very sorry to say, but this is not even the place to start your education. Still, stick around and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
You’ve probably heard that Poland just decreed that it’ll ban a strain of a genetically-altered organism known as MON810 maize, which is manufactured by Monsanto. Known by its trade name, “YieldGuard,” it includes a bacteria into its DNA structure, that the company says, makes it resistant to insect pests that damage harvests, a claim disputed by experts.
What you may not know is that Poland is only the latest EU countries to ban the strain. France did it first, as a ‘precautionary’ measure, and Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland and Slovakia blocked a proposal by the Danish EU presidency to allow the cultivation of genetically-modified plants in Europe. Elsewhere, opposition to GMO foods, and Monsanto’s tactics, is also growing.
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Recently, you’ve learned here about the impact on frogs of atrazine, a chemical used in a popular herbicide linked to serious genetic mutations in the animals, often causing them to change gender. As it goes, atrazine‘s manufacturer, Syngenta, is a rival of Monsanto and it’s pushing its sales as a counter measure to weeds that become resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup.
Now, new research is finding yet another cause for concerns about frogs. When exposed to Roundup, which as atrazine, can seep through groundwater, tadpoles react physically as they’d in the presence of predators. That means that when they were not killed by the exposure to the chemical itself, they developed tails twice as large as their normal size.
Although more research is necessary to determine the implications of such changes in the general population of the amphibians, one thing is already alarming scientists: if both atrazine and Roundup, whose massive sales dominate the U.S. agribusiness market, can impact so powerfully frogs from their early stage of development, how much harm can they do to human beings?
Monsanto’s record poisoning entire communities’ ground water and environment, while developing its chemical products, is not really inspiring. The company just settled a class action lawsuit brought by residents living near a now defunct Monsanto plant in Nitro, West Virginia, where Monsanto produced a key ingredient to its Agent Orange, between 1949 and 1971.
The suit contended that tens of thousands of people were exposed to toxic substances linked to widespread cancer cases in Nitro. Even though there was little doubt about the origin of the toxic pollution and many original plaintiffs didn’t survive the disease, Monsanto fought in courts for half century, in order not to assume any responsibility. Now, it apparently settled the suit.
COURTS’ OBLIVION TO BULLYING
The company can obviously afford waging such a lengthy battle, even when odds are stacked against it. Most small farmers, albeit strong in numbers and represented by able unions and organizations, can not. In fact, the recent dismissal by a New York state judge of a suit against Monsanto by a seed growers group may serve yet as another cautionary tale of this era of corporate-friendly court decisions.
Some 300,000 small farmers were represented in the suit that sought legal protection from Monsanto, in case some of the company’s patent seed would wound up in their farms. That means, if even one of their seeds would be carried over by birds, animals or even the wind, Monsanto technically could sue the farmer, for supposedly illegal possession of the seeds.
If it all sounds draconian, it’s because it is. There have been cases when Monsanto threatened to suit over similar instances, and the independent farmers, most of them not users or customers of the company’s products, were seeking to avoid an unnecessary court proceedings that could be dragged for years and cost them thousands of dollars to prove their innocence.
When U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald threw out the case brought by farmers, she was effectively throwing them at the mercy of Monsanto’s vague assertion that it’d work with them towards a solution. That, in itself, presupposes that there will be instances when a dispute may arise.
A few years ago, an investigative report by Vanity Fair, drawn from interviews and court documents, indicated that Monsanto routinely deploys teams of agents into fields and farm towns to secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops, and that some had tried to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records.
‘NATURAL’ LABEL FOR FRANKENFOOD
It’s its core product, though, GMO, what inspires so much worldwide fear of Monsanto. It’s already responsible for the sale of more than 90 percent of soybean seeds and 80 percent of corn seeds used in the U.S., wrote recently singer-songwriter and farm activist Willie Nelson and Anna Lappé, in ‘Why We Must Occupy Our Food Supply.’
The article also decries the fact that, in the last thirty years, three companies process over 70 percent of all U.S. beef: Tyson, Cargill and JBS. Four others control up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. And one in four food dollars is spent at Wal-Mart.
No wonder then that the world’s biggest retailer is also at the center of yet another issue that Monsanto is willing to go to court to battle, at least in Vermont: food labeling. In a few weeks, Wal-Mart plans to begin selling Monsanto’s Bt sweet corn, its first ever gen-alt corn product available to consumers as whole ears.
It’ll display it in the produce section, along with Syngenta’s other modified sweet corn product, and all other corn products sold in groceries across the U.S., most of them already made with altered seeds. It’ll probably be sold at a lower price than corn products harvested the traditional way, but one thing it won’t display: a sign saying that it’s genetically altered.
That Walmart would jump at the opportunity of offering a product surrounded by controversy, to say the least, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Charges of labor violations, discrimination, even child exploitation have been leveled against the company in the past, which didn’t make a dent on its high margins of profitability and strategy for growth.
FIGHT HUNGER OR P.R. CAMPAIGN?
It’s another story altogether when support comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been commended for its efforts at fighting disease and epidemics in impoverished countries, by negotiating lower prices of much needed medicines with pharmaceutical companies, and funding innovative solutions.
When Bill Gates released the foundation’s annual letter announcing its goals for 2012, many who had had only praise for one of the world’s richest man and his accomplishments as a humanitarian, had a moment of pause: among the goals, was the launch of a partnership with Monsanto to fight world hunger, using the company’s expertise developing its gen-alt crops.
Many didn’t just pause: Greenpeace and environmental activists such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, for example, openly criticized the foundation’s $20 million research funding to develop Golden Rice, which is enriched with beta-carotene. They cited the need for a more balanced diet to fight hunger, likely dependence of farmers on patent-holder food producers such as Monsanto, and risks of monoculture.
And others pointed to the fact that Monsanto controls the technology required to develop the special rice, and that the foundation has bought 500,000 shares of the company, worth a total of $23 billion. Still there are some that give the initiative the benefit of a doubt, as overall, the Gateses have been a force for good and have contributed to better living conditions in many places of the world.
The letter evokes the example of the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, when engineered crops for wheat, corn, and rice helped farmers in poor nations “vastly improve their yields.” And it calls for creating better crop strains, such ‘wheat resistant to stem rust fungus in the horn of Africa, and rice that can withstand increased flooding caused by global warming in Bangladesh and India.’
FEAR OF CORPORATE-SPONSORED FUTURE
It’s a noble pursuit and it may as well be just what the world needs. It wouldn’t be the first time that fast-moving world events force scientific research onto the field before being properly tested for its potential long-term harmful events. It’s always a gamble and often the results have been disastrous, as in the case of some drugs that caused birth defects and others.
And it’s part of the social contract that those who can must contribute to improve the lives of those who can not, lest not let the threat of epidemics and pestilence affect the world as a whole. As it’s happened in the past, by the way. In that, there’s a certain amount of risk involved that needs to be taken and the best example of risk-taking leading to safer solutions was the AIDS epidemics.
In its early onset, being as it may have been still contained to a minority or for representing such a costly challenge to attempt at finding a cure, the medical establishment along with big pharmaceutical companies have simply chosen to ignore the seriousness of the situation, and refused to try experimental drugs on even willing patients, who, as it turned out, unfortunately didn’t have much to lose.
It was the work of activists that forced a speed-up research process that, to enormous human suffering and cost, finally reached the protease phase, which led to the containment of the disease, at least in the big urban centers of the world. The irony is that AIDS still rages on in many of the regions that the Gates Foundation has been so active.
But the parallels between the two situations must stop here. There’s an overwhelming factor in this equation that was not present during the AIDS crisis and pretty much many other public health crisis of the magnitude that hunger has reached: there was not a single multinational corporation standing to reap huge profits and gain a monopolistic control over the whole outcome.
Last week, the world’s largest seed company said net income rose 19 percent, to $1.21 billion in the three months through February, according to Bloomberg. It was also a good time to announce that it raised its full-year earnings forecast: Monsanto now expects to ‘earn $3.49 to $3.54 a share in the 12 months through August, a 10-cent increase from the company’s January forecast.’
This is after accounting for all lawsuits, settlements, losses in sales in Europe, bad weather, bad publicity and, above all, way before it’ll start reaping the potential profits that the partnership with a prestigious organization such as the Bill and Melinda Gates will generate.
So now that you’ve read this and checked the links and drew your own conclusions, do you see what it’d all mean to the company?
(Story originally posted on April, 2012.)
* Something You Ate