By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
An estimated 2 million people demonstrated worldwide on May 25 to protest Monsanto. The corporation, headquartered in St. Louis, is the largest producer and distributor of genetically modified seeds (GMOs)—which are a grave and growing threat to the natural environment, the livelihood of small farmers, and a healthful food supply. GMOs are now in some 70 percent of the processed foods consumed in the U.S.
March Against Monsanto organizers said that events were held in at least 436 cities and 52 countries, from Britain to Argentina.
One of the largest U.S. demonstrations was in Portland, Ore., where the march was estimated at from 3000 to 6000 people. About 2000 marched in New York City, 2000 in St. Paul, 2000 in Eugene, Ore., 1000 in Miami, 800 in Orlando, 800 in Philadelphia, close to 1000 in Sacramento, 400 in Providence, and 100 in Duluth. Hundreds marched in Los Angeles, where home-made signs carried slogans such as “I am not a lab rat!” “Why is the government protecting Monsanto?” “Label GMOs; it’s our right to know,” and “Happy cows do not eat GMOs.”
In Hartford, Conn., from 300 to 500 people rallied in the rain outside the Statehouse—where legislators had recently defeated a bill to require labeling of GMOs to consumers. An organizer told the crowd that this should be a year of grassroots education, so that next year not a single person in the state would not know the story of GMOs.
The Monsanto protest movement grew amazingly in just a few months. It started in February when organizer Tami Canal created a Facebook page calling for mass demonstrations. Canal has told the press that the movement will build on the successful May 26 actions: “We will continue until Monsanto complies with consumer demand. They are poisoning our children, poisoning our planet.”
Genetically modified crops (GMOs) are grown from seeds that are altered for purposes such as facilitating plant growth and improving appearance; increasing shelf life; speeding the process of conversion to biofuel; repelling insects, viruses, and fungi; and tolerating chemical herbicides and pesticides. Studies have shown a link between the use of GMOs and increased allergies and organ toxicity. Moreover, the use of GMOs has spawned the use of heavier doses of herbicides and pesticides to combat mounting resistance to the substances by weeds and insects.
Throughout its history, Monsanto has been protected by federal and state government officials. The corporate media likewise can be depended on to promote the company line. Congressional legislation has allowed Monsanto and other gentech and chemical corporations to virtually regulate themselves, with minimum review by agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In 1992, the FDA concluded that there was no difference between genetically modified and non-engineered plants.
The Obama administration is a strong cheerleader for genetically modified foods, swiftly rubber-stamping in recent years a dozen new seed products as safe and ready to be marketed. Monsanto executive and attorney Michael Taylor became a top official at both the FDA and the USDA under Bill Clinton, and more recently, after another stint at Monsanto, was re-appointed by Obama to the FDA and to the USDA Office of Foods. In the 1990s, Taylor had a key role in Monsanto’s suit against dairy farmers who had dared to label their products “rBGH-free” (referring to the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone).
The May 25 demonstrations received additional momentum from the fact that two days earlier, the U.S. Senate had rejected a farm bill amendment to let states decide whether to require labels on food or beverages made with genetically modified ingredients. And on the same day, the Senate blocked an attempt to repeal a measure dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which allows the Secretary of Agriculture to overrule any court injunction against planting seeds that had been deemed unsafe. Groups pressing for food protection have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions against the measure.
In her new book, “Foodopoly,” Food & Water Watch director Wenonah Hauter comments: “It is not a surprise that the biotech industry is able to dictate policy to sitting presidents, members of Congress, and the regulatory agencies. Since 1999, the fifty largest agricultural and food patent-holding companies and two of the largest biotechnology and agrochemical trade associations have spent more than $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures.”
Monsanto was founded in 1901, and operated throughout much of the 20th century as a major manufacturer of drugs, plastics, and chemicals—gaining wealth through military contracts in wartime. It was one of the main producers of PCBs until the 1970s, DDT during the Second World War, Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, genetically modified plants in the 1980s, and recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone in the 1990s. In recent years, it has spun off most of its chemical and drug business, while acquiring a much larger stake in the distribution of agricultural seeds.
In the 1970s, Monsanto created glyphosate (Roundup)—the most widely used chemical weed-killer in the United States—which is still responsible for some 10 percent of the company’s profits. In more recent years, the corporation developed seeds that enable food crops to withstand Roundup. Many major U.S. crops are now grown from genetic modified seeds—engineered mainly for the purpose of being “Roundup Ready.” These crops include corn (88 percent was genetically modified in 2011), soybeans (94 percent), cotton (94 percent), canola (90 percent), and sugar beets (90 percent).
Monsanto and the FDA declare that Roundup is safe, but laboratory studies have indicated that its ingredients, even in low concentrations, can cause human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells to die. Other studies link Roundup with hormone damage and liver damage in lab rats.
Monsanto promised farmers that the use of Roundup Ready seeds and its other GMO products would reduce the amount of herbicide they needed to apply to their fields. But farmers are now seeing the reverse happen. Because “superweeds” have become resistant to Roundup on close to 15 million farm acres (especially in the Midwest), the growers in those areas feel compelled to use heavier quantities and stronger compounds of herbicide.
To answer this need, Monsanto’s main competitor, Dow Agrosciences, has a new product for farmers with significantly increased concentrations of 2,4-D—the main ingredient of Agent Orange, which the U.S. military employed in the Vietnam War in the 1970s to defoliate the jungle, and which is blamed for cancer and other fatal diseases.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in regard to animal pests; since rootworms, for instance, are becoming resistant to Monsanto’s GMO corn that is meant to repel them, growers have been greatly increasing the dosage of insecticide that they apply.
Monsanto responded to the May 25 protests with a press statement defending their products, alleging that their seeds help farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy. The corporation often touts its GMOs as part of the process to “end world hunger.” However, several studies have indicated that genetically modified seeds do not increase crop yields—quite the opposite. A University of Wisconsin study in 1999 compared soybean yields in 12 U.S. states, and found that GMO varieties were 4 percent lower than conventional plants. A University of Nebraska study in 2000 found that GMO soybeans were six to 11 percent lower than conventional ones.
GMO seeds have not been engineered to help poor farmers. They have not been developed for laudable goals such as aiding plant growth in marginal soils or arid conditions, or reducing dependency on expensive chemicals and machinery. Instead, they are designed to force farmers to end their traditional practices of sharing and saving seeds (with threats of being sued for patent infringement), and to require them to purchase Monsanto products year after year.
GMO seeds are not meant to help poor societies feed themselves. On the contrary, the promotion of these seeds dovetails with the take-over of agricultural land by vast chemical-dependent, oil-dependent, and water-wasteful corporate farms. These farms are geared toward producing mono-crops like soybeans or corn for the processed food industry—while spewing pollution into the waterways and air, and poisoning our bodies.
Monsanto and GMOs are an especially flagrant example of how the drive for capitalist profits operates to destroy what is best for health and the environment. It is wrong to harness scientific discovery to the production of environmental Frankensteins like GMO seeds; instead, science should be utilized in an emergency program to clean up pollution, halt global warming, replenish the natural environment—and really end world hunger.
Monsanto and its friends in government must be stopped. Big agribusiness and the biotech labs must be nationalized under the control of workers and family farmers, and realigned to produce food and other items that can nurture people and the natural environment. Ultimately, we need to build a movement that can end the profit-hungry capitalist system entirely, and bring about a worldwide socialist society.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action