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The "business" of poisoning the planet. Monsanto's criminal record

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By Fernando Glenza

Monsanto is the company that brought the first generation of GM crops to the market, becoming the world leader in promoting biotechnology in agriculture. Their crops account for more than 90 percent of all GM crops in the world.


A recent resolution of the scientific authorities of Argentina invites us to remember the black history of this North American transnational that threatens the environment and life.

Monsanto presents itself as a visionary company, a force in world history that works to bring cutting-edge science and an environmentally responsible attitude to solving humanity's most pressing problems. But what is Monsanto really? Where are you from? How did it become the world's second largest producer of agrochemicals and one of the main seed suppliers on the planet? Is Monsanto the "clean and green" company that its advertisements proclaim, or are they merely an image operation that hides the criminal nature of the company?

In a Resolution of December 13, 2004, the National Committee of Ethics in Science and Technology (CECTE), dependent on the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Argentina, learned of the announcement of the "Encourage Entrepreneurship" Award, instituted by the National Council for Scientific, Educational and Technical Research (CONICET) and the company Monsanto, which awarded $ 30,000 to the best project in the area of ​​biotechnology and the environment, and collected the concerns raised about this award by some researchers.

In view of these considerations, the CECTE considered that it is "inconvenient" for a public institution of science and technology to associate in the awarding of prizes for scientific or technological research with organizations or companies that "are subject to ethical questioning for their responsibilities and concrete actions to the detriment of general well-being and the environment ".

Monsanto is the company that brought the first generation of GM crops to the market, becoming the world leader in promoting biotechnology in agriculture. Their crops account for more than 90 percent of all GM crops in the world. Crops resistant to its herbicide "glyphosate", such as "RR soybeans" (Roundup Ready) and "RR corn", only promote industrial input-dependent agriculture. A look at its history will give us some insightful clues, and can help us better understand current company practices.
A summary of detailed research by Brian Tokar, author of "Earth for Sale" (South End Press, 1997) and "The Green Alternative" (New Society Publishers, 1992), and Professor of Social Ecology at Goddard College, of Plainfield, Vermont, United States, shows a veritable collection of atrocities perpetrated by this multinational of great current interference in Latin America.

Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, Monsanto Chemical Company was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny, a self-taught chemist who brought the technology of making saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, from Germany to the United States. In the 1920s, Monsanto became one of the leading manufacturers of sulfuric acid and other chemical industry commodities, and from the 1940s to the present day, it is one of only four companies that have always been among the Top 10 chemical companies in the United States.

In the 1940s, Monsanto's business revolved around plastics and synthetic fibers. In 1947, a French freighter carrying ammonium nitrate (used as a fertilizer) exploded on a dock about 90 meters from Monsanto's plastics factory outside Galveston, Texas. More than 500 people died in what came to be considered one of the biggest disasters in the chemical industry. The plant produced styrene and polystyrene plastics, which are still used for food packaging and other consumer products. In the 1980s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked polystyrene in fifth place in the ranking of chemicals whose production generates the highest total amounts of hazardous waste.

In 1929, the Swann Chemical Company, acquired shortly after by Monsanto, developed polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were highly praised for their chemical stability and non-flammability. Its most frequent use was in the electrical equipment industry, which chose PCBs as non-combustible refrigerants for a new generation of transformers. During the 1960s, compounds from Monsanto's growing family of PCBs were also used as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, lubricating tool oils, waterproof coatings, and liquid sealants. Evidence for the toxic effects of PCBs dates back to the 1930s, when Swedish scientists studying the biological effects of DDT began to find significant concentrations of PCBs in the blood, hair, and fatty tissues of wild animals.

Research during the 1960s and 1970s revealed that PCBs and other organochlorine aromatic compounds were powerful carcinogens, and also linked them to a wide array of reproductive, developmental, and immune system disorders. The chemical affinity of these compounds for fats is responsible for their enormous accumulation and bioconcentration rates, as well as their expansion through the marine food chain in the world. Although the manufacture of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1976, their toxic and endocrine disrupting effects persist around the world.

Monsanto's relationship with dioxin dates back to the manufacture of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, which began in the late 1940s. Almost immediately, workers began to fall ill, with skin rashes, unexplained pain. in the extremities, joints and other parts of the body, weakness, irritability, nervousness and loss of sexual desire. Internal documents show that the company knew that those people were really as sick as they claimed, but the company kept all evidence hidden. The pollutant responsible for workers' ailments was not identified as dioxin until 1957, but prior to that date, US Army chemical warfare specialists had become interested in the substance as a possible chemical weapon.

Monsanto poisoned Vietnam. The herbicide known as Agent Orange, which was used by the US military to defoliate Vietnam's rainforest ecosystems during the 1960s, was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D that came from various sources, but Monsanto's Agent Orange had dioxin concentrations many times higher than that produced by Dow Chemical, the other major producer of the defoliant. This made Monsanto the main defendant in the lawsuit brought by Vietnam War veterans, who experienced a set of symptoms of weakness attributable to exposure to Agent Orange. When a $ 180 million settlement agreement was reached in 1984 between seven chemical companies and veterans' attorneys, the court ordered Monsanto to pay 45.5 percent of the total. Of course, it did not occur to the courts of the United States that the society and the State of Vietnam were entitled to greater compensation.

Roundup is the world's best-selling herbicide. Currently, glyphosate herbicides, such as Roundup, account for at least one sixth of Monsanto's total annual sales, and half of the company's operating income, or perhaps slightly more, since it delegated its activities. around industrial chemicals and synthetic fabrics in a separate company called Solutia (in September 1997). Monsanto aggressively promotes Roundup as a safe, general-use herbicide anywhere from lawns and orchards to large forests.

In 1997, Monsanto responded to five years of complaints from the New York State Attorney General that its Roundup ads were misleading, changing its ads to remove references to "biodegradability" and "environmentally positive" character. herbicide. The series of large fines and court decisions against Monsanto in the United States include liability in cases of death from leukemia, fines of 40 million dollars for the dumping of dangerous products into the environment, and many other episodes. In 1995, Monsanto was the fifth United States company on the EPA's toxic waste inventory, with millions of kilograms of toxic chemicals discharged to land, air, water, and underground.


Monsanto's pharmaceuticals also have a disturbing track record. The flagship product of the Monsanto subsidiary Searle pharmaceutical company is the artificial sweetener "aspartame", sold under the trade names Nutrasweet and Equal. In 1981, four years before Monsanto bought Searle, an advisory committee to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) made up of independent scientists confirmed reports that aspartame could induce brain tumors.

The FDA withdrew Searle's license to sell aspartame, but this decision was overturned by a new commissioner appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan. At that time the current US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was the president of the company.

A 1996 study published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology has raised concerns again, linking aspartame to a surge in brain cancers shortly after the substance was introduced. The Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, England, cites a series of reports from the 1980s, linking aspartame to a broad set of adverse reactions in sensitive users, including headaches, blurred vision, numbness, hearing loss, muscle spasms and induced seizures of the epileptic type, among many other ailments.

Monsanto's aggressive promotion of its biotech products, from recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to "Roundup Ready" soybeans and their insect-resistant cotton varieties, appears to any observer as a continuation of their long decades of ethically questionable practices.

Monsanto was originally one of four companies that wanted to introduce a synthetic bovine growth hormone, produced by the bacterium E. coli, genetically engineered to produce bovine protein. Monsanto's 14-year effort to obtain FDA approval for the commercialization of recombinant BGH was fraught with controversy, with a coordinated effort to suppress information on the harmful effects of the hormone.

Monsanto's hormone was approved by the FDA for commercial sale in early 1994. The following year, the Wisconsin Farmers Union released a study of farmers' experiences with the drug. Their findings exceeded the 21 potential health problems that Monsanto was required to include on the warning label of its brand Posilac (the trade name of rBGH). There were many reports of spontaneous deaths among cows treated with rBGH, high incidence of udder infections, severe metabolic difficulties and calving problems and, in some cases, inability to separate treated cows from the substance, which had been habituated.

Many experienced ranchers who used rBGH had to suddenly replace a large part of their herds. Rather than respond to the causes of farmers' complaints about rBGH, Monsanto went on the offensive, threatening lawsuits against small dairy companies that advertised their products as free of the artificial hormone, and participating in legal action brought by various industry trade associations against the first (and only) mandatory labeling law for rBGH in the United States. All while mounting evidence of rBGH's detrimental effects on the health of cows and people.

Efforts to prevent the labeling of US exports of genetically engineered corn and soybeans seem to indicate that Monsanto continues to use tactics engineered by the company to quell complaints against the milk hormone. While Monsanto argues that its "Roundup Ready" soybeans will eventually reduce herbicide consumption, the widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crop varieties means that farmers are increasingly dependent on the herbicide. Weeds that appear after the original herbicide has dispersed or degraded are often treated with further herbicide applications.

On the other hand, Monsanto has increased its production of Roundup in recent years. With Roundup's patent expired in the United States in 2000, and with competition from generic glyphosate products springing up around the world, the Roundup herbicide and "Roundup Ready" seed "package" has become the cornerstone of Monsanto's strategy to continue increasing its herbicide sales.

The possible environmental and health effects of Roundup tolerant crops have not been fully investigated; for example, the allergenic effects, invasiveness or weediness of these crops, and the possibility that herbicide resistance is transferred via pollen to other soybeans or related plants.

While the problems with herbicide-resistant soy are dismissed as highly generic and speculative, the cotton farmers' experience with Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds is a very different story.

Since 1996 Monsanto has released two varieties of genetically engineered cotton; one is a Roundup resistant variety, and the other, called "BT", secretes a bacterial toxin to control damage from cotton pests. The toxin, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), has been used by organic farmers since the early 1970s in the form of a natural bacterial spray. But unlike Bt bacteria, which live relatively little, and secrete their toxin in a form that is only activated in the digestive systems of certain worms and caterpillars, genetically modified "BT" crops secrete an active form of the toxin along with it. throughout the life cycle of the plant.

Much of the genetically engineered corn on the market is a variety with the ability to secrete this bacterial toxin, designed to repel the corn rootworm and other common pests.

The first problem with these crops that secrete pesticides is that the presence of the toxin throughout the life cycle of the plant favors the appearance of strains resistant to B.t. among insects. The EPA has determined that widespread resistance to B.t. may render natural applications of B.t. in just three or five years, and asks farmers to plant up to 40 percent of their crops with non-genetically engineered cotton, to serve as a "refuge" for insects and prevent the emergence of resistance to B.t. Second, the toxin secreted by these plants can harm beneficial insects, as well as those other species that farmers want to eliminate.

But the damaging effects of "BT" cotton have turned out to be much faster than expected, so much so that Monsanto and its partners have recalled more than 2 million kilos of genetically engineered cottonseed, and agreed to pay the growers of United States a compensation of many millions of dollars. Despite these problems, Monsanto continues to promote the use of genetic engineering in agriculture by taking control of many of the largest and most established seed companies in the United States, controlling 85 percent of the US cotton seed market. .

The company also follows this aggressive policy of company acquisitions and product sales in other countries. In 1997, Monsanto bought "Sementes Agroceres S.A.", described as "the main corn seed company in Brazil", with a market share of 30 percent. On the other hand, reports of illegal importation of transgenic soy from the Argentine subsidiary of Monsanto are known.

With this long and disturbing history, it is clear why many informed citizens in Europe and the United States are reluctant to trust Monsanto for the future of their food and health. The same is not the case in Latin America.

Under its president, Robert Shapiro, Monsanto has removed all obstacles to transforming its image from a supplier of hazardous chemicals into an enlightened and forward-thinking institution fighting to feed the world. Shapiro describes himself as a visionary and Renaissance man, charged with a mission to use the company's resources to change the world: "It is not a problem of good guys and bad guys. If they were, then the world would be fine - it's the entire system that needs to change, there's a great opportunity to reinvent it, says the Monsanto executive.

Shapiro's "reinvented" system is such that not only do large companies continue to exist, but they also exercise greater and greater control over our lives. But lately we are being told that Monsanto has reformed, successfully spun off its chemical industry divisions, and committed to replacing chemicals with "information," in the form of genetically engineered seeds and other biotech products. . This is still ironic coming from a company whose most profitable product is a herbicide.

Monsanto clearly demonstrates that it has learned to use proper quackery. Thus, Roundup is not a herbicide, but "a way to minimize soil work and reduce erosion." Genetically engineered crops are not simply sources of profit for Monsanto, "they arise to solve the inexorable problem of population growth." Finally, we are led to believe that Monsanto's aggressive promotion of biotechnology is not the result of corporate arrogance, but simply a "law of nature."

Monsanto has christened the apparent exponential growth of what it calls "biological knowledge" the "Monsanto Law" - no less. As with any other presumed law of Nature, little can be done outside of observing how its predictions play out, and in this case, the prediction is neither more nor less than the continued exponential growth of Monsanto's world power.

But the growth of any technology is not simply a "law of nature." Technologies are not social forces in themselves, nor are they simple neutral tools that can be used to achieve any social end, but rather the product of social institutions and particular economic interests.

For example, the so-called "Green Revolution" of agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s temporarily increased crop yields, and also made farmers in all parts of the world increasingly dependent on expensive chemical inputs. This caused widespread displacement of peasants off their land, and in many countries it has been detrimental to the soil, groundwater and communal lands, which have sustained people for thousands of years. These large-scale imbalances have fueled suburbanization and the loss of social power of communities, leading in turn to another cycle of impoverishment and hunger.

The "Second Green Revolution", promised by Monsanto and other biotech companies, threatens an even greater destruction of social relationships and traditional ownership of land.

By rejecting Monsanto and its biotechnology, we are not necessarily rejecting technology "per se", but we want to replace a technology of manipulation, control and benefits, that denies life, with a truly ecological one, designed to respect the functioning of Nature. , improve personal and community health, sustain communities that live off the land, and operate on a genuinely human scale. If we believe in sovereignty, we need to be able to choose which technologies are best for our communities, rather than having entities that are very difficult to hold accountable, such as Monsanto, decide for us.

Instead of technologies devised for the continual enrichment of a few, we can base our technology on the hope of greater harmony between our human communities and the material world.

Our health, our food and the future of life on Earth are really at stake.

* Fernando Glenza - Mercosur News Agency - La Plata, Argentina


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