Monsanto has been a target for many years. They have a terrible environmental and health record, they have harassed small farmers for years, they’ve bribed officials in Indonesia, and they’ve joked about performing “rural cleansing” (a play on the words “ethnic cleansing”, i.e. genocide), and told small seed cleaners that rather than buy them out, “We’d rather put you out of business, it’s more fun that way.” All this from the company that brought Agent Orange to Vietnam, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, as well as 500,000 children born with birth defects.
However, in the world of corporate PR, no sin is too big. Monsanto has sought to remake its image as the company that’s helping to feed the world. Their website claims that “We apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more. We help farmers grow yield sustainably so they can be successful, produce healthier foods, better animal feeds and more fiber, while also reducing agriculture’s impact on our environment.” High claims, to be sure. Too bad we don’t know if they hold up to scrutiny.
A new article by the editors of Scientific American explains the situation:
To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.
Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”
So their claims that their seeds boost yield or are less environmentally damaging may be supported by science, but only if that science is friendly to their interests. Science that indicates potential problems or disproves company claims are quashed by invocation of their patent rights. Similarly, Monsanto sued a small dairy producer in 2003 that advertised that its milk contained no artificial growth hormones. From Democracy Now:
Monsanto claims the advertisements give the public the impression artificial growth hormones are not safe. And Monsanto claims that by doing this Okhurst [sic] is directly disparaging Monsanto’s product Posilac, the only artificial growth hormone on the market.
Monsanto boasts the hormones help cows produce up to 15 percent [more] milk, but there are concerns of the effect on the hormones on both the cows and humans. The president of Oakhurst responded by saying, “We ought to have the right to let people know what is and is not in our milk.”
You can read more about the Posilac controversy here, if interested.
For what it’s worth, this article claims that genetically modified crops do not increase yield. Of course, since the author cannot legally study these crops to prove it, he resorts to simple logic. Genetically modified crops usually have an added gene that makes them tolerant of herbicides (usually Roundup– conveniently also manufactured by Monsanto). So Monsanto’s claim that GM crops improve yields is comparing the yield of a field planted with GM crops and treated with Roundup to the yield of a field planted with conventional crops and left untreated by any herbicide. Obviously, the yields are greater in the field that does not have to compete with weeds, but that doesn’t mean that the genetically modified crops are responsible. Similar results could presumably be found using any commercial herbicide.
The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains this list of genetically engineered foods which are currently allowed on the market in the U.S. There are no special labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods. So who’s responsible to make sure the food is safe? Foodsafety.gov (a project of the FDA) says “The food industry is responsible for producing safe food.” Monsanto says “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA’s job.” The issue is further clouded when foods have been modified to include pesticides– then who’s responsible to regulate their safety? Depending on who you ask, or maybe what time of day you ask them, it’s either the FDA, the USDA, or the EPA. Now are you confident in their safety?