Monsanto: The Most Hated Corporation on Earth?

By Glenn Ashton

What does it take to be the most hated corporation on earth? How many global corporations have had an entire day of global protest declared to draw attention to their nastiness? Well, the worlds leading producer of genetically modified seed, Monsanto, has just managed this feat, with millions having participated in over 450 actions across 52 countries on the 25th of May. It is worth examining how and why Monsanto has become so uniformly hated around the planet.

It is difficult to assume the bottom slot amongst a panoply of corporate villains that pollute and destroy the environment, exploit the poor, corrupt governments, lie about their products, sue their customers and do their best to avoid taxation by every legal and other means possible.

Monsanto regularly takes the honours as the most abhorred corporation, in amongst some noxious competitors. In 2012 Monsanto won the “Greenwash Award” for misinforming the public about its environmental credentials. It won the worst company of 2011 award. In 2009 it won the Angry Mermaid Award during the run-up to the failed Copenhagen climate change talks for misleadingly claiming its GM crops reduced CO2 emissions.

This long list of negative awards should be incredibly damaging to the company. However the investor community embraces rogue corporations and Monsanto’s shareholders have been richly rewarded for its bad behaviour. Were Monsanto an individual and not a corporation it would certainly have been sentenced to jail, probably indefinitely, for repeatedly breaking laws around the world. Yet corporations manage to evade responsibility for the sort of behaviour you or I cannot.

None of this is new. In 2002 Monsanto was found guilty of not only contaminating the town and surrounds of Anniston, Alabama with carcinogenic polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCBs), but of covering up this pollution for decades. Beside being ordered to pay a paltry $800 000 settlement, it was found guilty of the crime of “outrage.” Outrage is legally defined as conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.” It really is difficult to beat that.

Monsanto not only opposed the Anniston case, it attempted to avoid prosecution through its sale of its chemical business to Solutia, insisting it was the problem of the new owner. It took exactly the same tack with its pollution of its ‘home town’ of Sauget, which originally was incorporated under the name of Monsanto in 1926.

In the US Monsanto is linked to nearly 100 superfund sites, two in Sauget alone, where its historical pollution is being remediated, mainly through taxpayer funds. It has managed to avoid similar responsibility in the UK as well. The infamous Vietnam War defoliant, Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and others, was routinely contaminated with PCBs.

When Rachel Carson wrote her carefully researched book “Silent Spring,” outlining the dangers of agricultural chemicals and heralding the a emergence of the environmental movement, she was aggressively targeted by Monsanto, responsible for production of chemicals like DDT that she questioned. Monsanto parodied Carson’s book while viciously attempting to undermine her reputation and vilifying her as a “hysterical woman.” Tactics have changed very little with opponents of GM crops denigrated as luddites or unscientific.

Today Monsanto is better known for its GM crops than its chemicals. It is the world’s single biggest producer of genetically modified (GM) crops, responsible for around 95% of global GM plantings. The most widely grown GM crop, GM soy, is specifically engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s herbicide “Roundup”.  The chemicals in Roundup have been linked to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and gut disease, as well as having serious documented impacts on amphibians, fish, soil biota and other ecological processes. Needless to say herbicide resistant crops have sharply increased the use of chemicals. As weeds develop resistance more potent chemicals are needed and further GM crops are being introduced to resist these chemicals in turn.

The pursuit of GM crops has led Monsanto to morph from a chemical corporation into the worlds largest seed company. Through purchase of seed companies around the world it has acquired an unimaginable wealth seed germplasm. Yet it has sharply reduced the number of seed varieties sold by its subsidiaries, instead concentrating on its core business of pushing GM crops.

Monsanto is fully aware of its inherent unpopularity, which continues despite its every attempt to reform its reputation through extensive public relations campaigns. Its strategy to sidestep this is to form and fund groups and alliances that promote its interests. Organisations like BIO, the US biotechnology association, as well as Africa- and Europa-Bio, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and Crop Life each support Monsanto’s interests as supposedly independent voices. Additionally, Monsanto spends millions of dollars directly lobbying governments around the world.

Monsanto then negates these massive PR campaigns by its aggressive legal prosecution of farmers it alleges are re-using its seed containing its patented GM genes. While there are constant high profile cases in the USA, Monsanto insists it will not prosecute African farmers for saving or possessing seed contaminated by their genes. In South America Monsanto has gone directly to the governments of Argentina, Brazil and other nations in order to try to leverage royalties on farmer saved GM seed.

Monsanto has also ensured its continued domination of the chemical herbicide industry by contractually linking the sale of Roundup to herbicide resistant “Roundup Ready” and “Yieldguard” soy, maize and cottonseed. Pushing this technology into developing markets has exposed farmers to increased debt through the purchase of seed and chemicals. When crops fail, as they repeatedly have, farmers lose their land or, as happens in India, choose to take their lives to escape debt bondage.

The model of industrial agriculture Monsanto promotes exacerbates problems of chemical pollution, water extraction and indebtedness, while also aggravating social upheaval. Small farmers whose lands and crops are contaminated not only by chemicals, but by patented GM crops are forced into burgeoning urban slums where they are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Monsanto has shifted focus toward developing nations in Africa and Asia, after saturating the Americas and rejection from within the EU. It dominates the GM seed market in South Africa, Brazil and India. There is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Monsanto’s business model, as much as it is supported and promoted within the dominant capital market.

These are just some of the reasons why millions of people protest against Monsanto’s destructive proposals to create profit through the privatisation of our food. That this model perversely masquerades as something beneficial, purporting to offer a hope of feeding a burgeoning planet is even more grotesque. The deeper one looks, the more outrageous is the behaviour of this rogue corporation.

In reality Monsanto epitomises so much that is wrong with the world and how corporations conduct themselves. Were it a living person it would be languishing in jail. The time has come to consider instituting a global criminal court for corporations, where their charters are withdrawn and they are put out of business. That is probably wishful thinking in a world where too big to fail has become a corporate mantra embraced by the very governments these psychopathic corporations support and maintain in power. In the meantime it is up to us, the 99%, to direct our ire toward curbing the misbehaviour of this particular corporate misanthrope.

First published in The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).
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