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).
Advertisements

Rising Food Prices Require Political Response

Rising Food Prices Require Political Response

By Saliem Fakir

The world finds itself back where it was in mid-2008 when food prices skyrocketed causing untold harm to the vulnerable. In the last six months there has been a massive increase in prices for most essential food commodities.

Food and being able to eat properly is going to be the single biggest political issue in the next decade. None other than economist, Paul Krugman, noted this in an op-ed in the New York Times. His tone was one of alarm and grave concern.

Interestingly, Krugman pointed to global warming and climate change as the main causes disrupting food production.

However, climate variability is just one factor that acts on the system as a whole. It increases insecurity, but in the end, food security is an issue of political economy. And, the more one multiplies the unpredictable variables that determine food costs, the more volatile the food economy behaves.

That’s not good news for the poor.

Income and food are inter-related. When people are unemployed and dependent on irregular sources of income, food inflation hurts the most. And, when ordinary people hurt and have no recourse to escape the ravages of food inflation, they will take to the streets.

Indeed commentators have suggested that the true cause of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt spilling over in the streets and the rest of the Middle-East stems from a systemic crisis that is now the inheritance of the political economy related to food.

In South Africa, what is often labelled, “service delivery protests,” are also reflective of a growing underlying problem that goes beyond whether councillors are doing their jobs or not. The costs of things are going up and there aren’t sufficient jobs going around either.

And, even if people do have jobs, their income levels never quite keep up with rising costs. Increasingly, access to food is becoming highly income dependent. And, as South Africa’s population becomes ever more urbanized, dependence on the “food system” as well as dependence on having an income will grow.

Thus, other than growing food oneself, one can only access what is in the food system through cash.

However, income in itself doesn’t guarantee that one eats properly either. The consequence of having no income or low-income growth is that the poor either starve and are under-nourished or just fill themselves with things that lead to long-term poor health.

The general measure of inflation is not a sufficient indicator of how food price inflation specifically affects the poor. As general inflation indicators are measured in terms of a broad basket of goods, they tend to be biased in their estimates in favour of regular income earners.

However, for the poor, food, energy and transport are the biggest cost items and any shift in food prices that is not gradual but depicts rapid and steep price hikes or lows (often in an unpredictable manner) is more disruptive for household economics.

If you live on US$2 or less per day you can imagine the impact. A 2008 estimate put the number of South African living on less than US$2 per day at 34%.

In general, in the last two years food price increases have gone up between 20-100%.  In 2011, food prices are expected to rise an average 20% globally. South African food inflation could hover anywhere between 5-10% by the end of the year.

Four things tend to affect food prices: the relative strength or weakness of a particular country’s currency, energy prices, the weather, which affects supply and demand due to disruption of production; and the political economy of the food production chain — in other words, who has control over different aspects of the production chain.

But there is also something more unsettling within the current economic system that adds to this unpredictability and growing concerns for national governments: decisions that are made very far off in London and on Wall Street  – seemingly unrelated – in the purchase of commodities such as energy, key farming ingredients and even crops themselves, have an impact on food prices.

The more commodified the food trade is, the more scope there is for speculators and producers to milk margins. Consumers and farmers have less and less control over how rewards are apportioned within the food production system.

For example, in America a farmer only gets 19% of every dollar that is spent by a US consumer. The rest goes to other parts of the value chain. And, the value chain is increasingly subject to market concentration. A handful of agribusiness and food retailers control the food market. Commodity traders, millers or food processors and retailers are the biggest winners.

If national governments themselves have no control over these forces and processes, you can bet those who have voted them into power have even less influence and ability to control the behaviour of transnational corporations and actors.

The food system is caught up between the dynamics of the real economy and the unpredictability of the financial economy.

The system is so volatile that any radical shift in one predictable aspect only increases the volatility of the entire system towards more unpredictability. So, when speculators try to get their pound of flesh combined with the weather misbehaving or oil prices going up, the problem is only compounded.

The implications for the poor are dire. Their ability to save as well as their capacity to empower themselves by adapting their livelihood strategies can be impaired. They never really get out of the poverty trap. The dependency on the state grows. The ability of the state to be provider also diminishes over time. The virtuous cycle ends and so begins the vicious one, which we will all reap.

However, national governments can play a role to avert food insecurity and general instability associated with rising food costs. They are not entirely powerless.

They can act in concert with other governments to find ways to limit the impacts of speculation that is purely designed for rent seeking. But, this is better done at a global level than at the national level.

These are tough to achieve but increasing global food crises are more likely going to force governments to act more forcefully in the market than not.

These measures could be applied for strategic crops, like Asia does by breaking global market monopolies on supply for rice exports and inputs such as potash (used in fertilizers). South Korea, specifically, is stockpiling inventories of wheat and maize.

Nationally, the government can run programmes that support poor households in urban and rural areas to grow some food even though all needs won’t be met.

The South African government can also intervene in the market through the Competitions Commission by preventing food monopolies, punishing price fixing for essential foods and as it recently did, block a merger of seed companies that would have given the merged companies market advantage in the seed industry.

In December, the Competitions Commission passed a ruling that prevented Grain SA from creating an export pool for surplus maize as it was viewed that such pooling would increase the likelihood of food insecurity and lead to higher prices for domestic maize.

Governments can also find ways to delink the strong relation between food costs and the cost of oil. They should support farmers to access alternative fuels as well as lower crop and food production costs through better planning.

The vicious cycle can be prevented if governments act early and don’t totally rely on the markets to solve the problem.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

First published by the South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)