Although I generally refrain from posting on Big Ag and relegate the topic to Links, I have a special interest in Monsanto. Last year, I had wanted to devise a list or ranking of top predatory companies, but could not find a way to make the tally sufficiently objective to be as useful in calling them out as it ought to be. Nevertheless, no matter how many ways I looked at the issue, it was clear that any ranking would put Monsanto as number 1. Monsanto has (among other things) genetically engineered seeds so that they can’t reproduce, denying farmers the ability to save seeds and have a measure of financial independence. In 2009, Vandana Shiva estimated that 200,000 farmers in India had committed suicide since 1997, and Monsanto was a major culprit:
In 1998, the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta. The global corporations changed the input economy overnight. Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved.
Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity. This new expense increases poverty and leads to indebtness.
The shift from saved seed to corporate monopoly of the seed supply also represents a shift from biodiversity to monoculture in agriculture. The district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh used to grow diverse legumes, millets, and oilseeds. Now the imposition of cotton monocultures has led to the loss of the wealth of farmer’s breeding and nature’s evolution.
Monocultures and uniformity increase the risk of crop failure, as diverse seeds adapted to diverse to eco-systems are replaced by the rushed introduction of uniform and often untested seeds into the market. When Monsanto first introduced Bt Cotton in 2002, the farmers lost 1 billion rupees due to crop failure. Instead of 1,500 kilos per acre as promised by the company, the harvest was as low as 200 kilos per acre. Instead of incomes of 10,000 rupees an acre, farmers ran into losses of 6,400 rupees an acre. In the state of Bihar, when farm-saved corn seed was displaced by Monsanto’s hybrid corn, the entire crop failed, creating 4 billion rupees in losses and increased poverty for desperately poor farmers. Poor peasants of the South cannot survive seed monopolies. The crisis of suicides shows how the survival of small farmers is incompatible with the seed monopolies of global corporations.
Monsanto’s seeds can also sterilize wild crops via contamination. And Monsanto routinely sues farmers who wind up having some Monsanto seeds by virtue of seeds from neighboring farms blowing onto their property.
I also know a wee bit about Monsanto because I was on its client team as a very junior investment banker at Goldman in the early 1980s. It was then a specialty chemical company, with the herbicide Roundup as the driver of its profits. The Goldman bankers and analysts were aware that Monsanto was effectively a one-trick pony, and that the St. Louis company was exposed both to the end of its patent and the possibility of Roundup-resistant weeds developing. Monsanto managed to extend the life of its patent both legally and far more important, practically, via the genetic engineering described above. The result is that Roundup has been far and away the most widely used herbicide in the US for over 30 years.
And that little fact makes a newly-released study particularly troubling. The study, by Dr. Joel Spiroux and Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology as “Long term toxicity of a herbicide Roundup and Roundup-tolerant genetically has modified maize.” The authors are both members of CRIIGEN (Committee for Research and Independent Information). Per the summary on the CRIIGEN website (furzy mouse):
For the first time, the health impact of a GMO and a widely used pesticide have been comprehensively assessed * in a long term animal feeding trial of greater duration and with more detailed analyses than any previous studies, by environmental and food agencies, governments, industries or researchers institutes.
The two tested products are in very common use : (i) a transgenic maize made tolerant to Roundup, the characteristic shared by over 80% of food and animal feed GMOs, and (ii) Roundup itself, the most widely used herbicide on the planet. The regulatory approval process requires these products to be tested on rats as a surrogate for humans.
The new research took the form of a two year feeding trial on 200 rats, monitored for outcomes against more than 100 parameters. The doses were consistent with typical dietary/ environmental exposure (from 11% GMO in the diet, and 0.1 ppb in water).
The results, which are of serious concern, included increased and more rapid mortality, coupled with hormonal non linear and sex related effects. Females developed significant and numerous mammary tumours, pituitary and kidney problems. Males died mostly from severe hepatorenal chronic deficiencies. Professor Seralini’s team in the University of Caen is publishing this detailed study in one of the leading scientific international peer-reviewed journals of food toxicology, on line on Sept. 19, 2012.
The implications are extremely serious. They demonstrate the toxicity, both of a GMO with the most widely spread transgenic character and of the most widely used herbicide, even when ingested at extremely low levels, (corresponding to those found in surface or tap water). In addition, these results call into question the adequacy of the current regulatory process, used throughout the world by agencies involved in the assessment of health, food and chemicals, and industries seeking commercialisation of products.
The difference between this study and most studies of toxicity is the duration of the exposure. Analyses for regulatory purposes are only 3 months in length, while this was two years (which is pretty close to a normal rat lifespan, or at least for rats as pets). The sample size, 200 animals, is large enough that the findings can’t be dismissed casually. CRIIGEN, a not for profit with a large roster of scientific advisors, is making an aggressive push and launching a related book and documentary. But CRIIGEN can’t be depicted as knee jerk anti GMO. In an interview, Dr. Spiroux stressed that he approved of the use of transgenic GMOs to produce medication, such as insulin, but that he and other CRIIGEN members are opposed to “pesticides plants that are agricultural GMOs and above all are poorly evaluated.” And he is far from alone. A burger eating buddy (as in no sanctimonious health foodie) who is a biomedical engineer whose first job was with the NIH would get agitated on the subject of GMOs, complaining it was a mass scale, uncontrolled experiment on the public at large. He even tried avoiding GMOs but found it too difficult and gave up.
But from my perspective, the more troubling part is the finding of Roundup toxicity. As the study suggests, Roundup is pervasive, it’s even in the water. If it is toxic to the degree this analysis suggests, we may be at the beginning of a large scale legal battle, similar to the suits against Big Tobacco, where the science was initially disputed but the link between smoking and lung cancer was eventually confirmed.
The problem is that if the study’s findings are valid, it will be hard to stuff this evil genie back in the bottle. But Europeans, particularly the French, have long been leery of GMOs and Big Ag generally, and this study may be the opening salvo in a serious pushback effort.
Update 4:30 AM: Below is the published article. Be sure to look at the photos.