Monsanto Under Attack
Setbacks from Brazil, to Canada, to the U.K.
Little Marais, Minnesota
Quote of the month:
"It's a gradual process of allaying public fears and obtaining more public acceptance," says Monsanto U.K public and government affairs director Anne Foster. "Gradually people will gain confidence in a new science."
After a disastrous month of internecine power struggles, a collapsed merger with American Home Products, PR (public relations) snafus, and continuing "glitches" in its genetically engineered products, Monsanto's stock has plummeted 30%. Despite millions of acres of its GE (genetically engineered) crops under cultivation across the world, the Behemoth of Biotech no longer seems quite so invincible. In the last few months, the St. Louis-based multinational has suffered a number of reverses, including the following:
- A failed $35 billion merger with American Home Products (AHP). Monsanto, heavily in debt, has literally run out of cash. The company desperately needs the kind of capital and sales force which a pharmaceutical giant like AHP has in order to finance their recent multi-billion dollar acquisitions of seed and research companies and to market the numerous genetically engineered products in their pipeline. Without a massive influx of capital, an over-extended Monsanto now will have no choice but to slow down its manic rush to bio-colonize the world. In the wake of the AHP fiasco, Citibank has agreed to front Monsanto several billion dollars in cash, and the company announced plans to sell four billion dollars in new stocks, but financial analysts predict that Monsanto may now be ripe for an unfriendly takeover by one of the other larger "life science" transnationals such as Dow, Dupont, or Novartis.
- Continuing public relations and marketing problems in Europe and around the world. Although calls for a three to five year moratorium on planting GE crops in Britain and across Europe apparently have been shelved, at least for the moment, the fact that mounting public pressure has forced the European Parliament and European Commission officials to even discuss such a GE moratorium has Monsanto and the entire biotech industry spooked. Across Europe genetically engineered field crops continue to be uprooted by protestors, more and more supermarket chains are attempting to source non-GE products, while activist organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Global 2000, European Farmers Coordination (CPE), and the Genetic Engineering Network generate steady media coverage and publicity.
- In late-September in the U.K., a special issue of The Ecologist magazine on Monsanto was pulled off the presses and destroyed by its printer. After finding another printer brave enough to publish the magazine, The Ecologist then learned from leading U.K. newsstands that they would not distribute the issue. Although Monsanto claims they haven't threatened printers or magazine vendors, almost no one seems to believe them. As Zac Goldsmith, The Ecologist's co-editor, stated, "Through reputation alone Monsanto has been able, time and time again, to bring about what is in effect defacto censorship. Their size and history of aggression has repeatedly brought an end to what is undeniably a legitimate and very important debate. They believe in information, but only that which ensures a favorable public response to their often dangerous products."
- In the United States Monsanto has begun receiving adverse publicity for prosecuting farmers for saving Monsanto's patented herbicide-resistant "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds. According to press reports Monsanto has hired Pinkerton detectives to harass more than 1800 farmers and seed dealers across the country, with 475 potential criminal "seed piracy" cases already under investigation. A group of seed-saving farmers in Kentucky, Iowa, and Illinois have already been forced to pay fines to Monsanto of up to $35,000 each. Besides the cost of the seed, a $6.50 technology fee is charged by Monsanto for each 50 pound bag of Roundup Ready seed. As Monsanto told the Associated Press October 27, "We say they can pay (either of) two royalties --$6.50 at the store or $600 in court,'' said Scott Baucum, Monsanto manager for intellectual property protection.
- According to the Daily Mail (Oct 25, 1998) in the U.K., the British government is considering charging Monsanto with violating environmental pollution laws for a Roundup-resistant rapeseed (canola) farm test site in Lincolnshire, where GE rapeseed plants contaminated an adjoining non-GE rapeseed plot.
- Following in the wake of mounting worldwide criticism of Monsanto's "Terminator Technology," the CGIAR organization, the world's largest international agricultural research network, announced that they would boycott all Terminator Technology seeds. According to RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) Director Pat Mooney, a leading critic of the Terminator Technology, "It's (CGIAR's) the right decision and it is also a courageous decision," "Since the (Terminator) patent was granted in the United States last March, it has attracted unprecedented opposition from farmers' organizations, environmentalists, and agricultural scientists. More than 1,850 individuals from 54 countries have written personal protests to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture demanding that the technology be banned.
- In Brazil a judge at least temporarily blocked Monsanto's efforts to get approval for farmers to plant Roundup Ready Soybeans. According to a September 20 story by Bill Lambrecht in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "Monsanto discovered an unsettling reality last week: Anti-biotechnology sentiments that are widespread in Europe are sprouting in South America. Hours before a government agency met to approve Monsanto's request to plant gene-altered soybeans, a Brazilian federal judge granted an injunction blocking the application. For St. Louis-based Monsanto, the ruling is a setback that would be a real defeat if the company misses the Brazilian planting season in October and November. Brazil is a potential market worth tens of millions in profits. With 165 million people and a thriving economy, Brazil is a vital cog in the drive by Monsanto and its rivals to change the genetic codes of crops -- and food -- around the world."
- In Canada, the controversy surrounding Monsanto's strong-arm tactics to get government regulators to approve their controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST) has reached new levels of intensity. Recent revelations that Monsanto apparently concealed troubling rBGH safety tests on rats (rats fed high levels of rBGH showed damage to thyroid and prostate tissues--potential danger signals for cancer) from government regulators in the U.S. and Canada have led to renewed calls by farmer and consumer organizations in North America to have rBGH pulled from the market. In the October 6 Rutland Herald newspaper in Vermont spokespersons for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto flatly contradicted one another -- with Monsanto claiming they gave the controversial rat studies to the FDA prior to rBGH approval in 1993, while the FDA stated "We do not have the data from that study."
- In San Francisco on October 27, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro was confronted by anti-GE protestors who smashed a tofu vegan cream pie in his face. According to a press release by the "Anti-Genetix" splinter faction of the Biotic Baking Brigade (BBB) issued on October 27 "The chief executive of one of the world's biggest corporations was struck in the face with a tofu creme pie on Tuesday night at the 'State of the World Forum' conference in the Fairmont Hotel. The incident occurred after Shapiro gave a keynote address on the brave new world of genetic engineering." According to "Agent Apple" of the pie-throwers:
"Monsanto has engaged in ruthless intimidation of critics; embarked upon an aggressive global takeover of seed, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies, with an aim to control world food distribution; and is conducting an intensive PR "Greenwash" campaign in order to promote itself as an eco-friendly corporation. We will not be fooled, and we will wage our gastronomical struggle with epicurean passion" said Agent Apple. "Monsanto and its subsidiaries have spread chemical death across every continent through products such as PCBs, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, Nutrasweet, Equal, and Roundup (the world's biggest selling herbicide). The corporation's toxic Superfund sites poison workers and community members, and its dioxins will continue to cause birth defects and major health problems for generations to come." The EPA has designated Monsanto as a "potentially responsible party" at 93 Superfund sites.
Published in In Motion Magazine November 9, 1998.
For additional in-depth information on these news items and further info on how Monsanto is "Under Attack," link to http://www.purefood.org , http://www.icta.org .
Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Pure Food Campaign (PFC), a non-profit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the U.S. and the world. The PFC's primary strategy is to help build a national and international consumer / farmer / labor / progressive retailer boycott of genetically engineered and chemically contaminated foods and crops. To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, Food Bytes, send an email message to: < email@example.com > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action