Longform

How Monsanto Is Terrifying the Farming World

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A year later, a judge agreed, ordering all recently planted GM sugar beet crops destroyed until their environmental impact was studied.

The Monsanto Protection Act was designed to end such rulings. It essentially bars judges from intervening in the midst of lawsuits — a notion that would seem highly unconstitutional.

Not that Congress noticed. Monsanto's spent more than $10 million on campaign contributions during the past decade — plus another $70 million on lobbying since 1998. The money speaks so loudly, Congress has become tone-deaf.

In fact, the U.S. government has become Monsanto's de facto lobbyist in countries distrustful of GM safety. Two years ago, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables showing how the feds had lobbied foreign governments to weaken laws and encourage the planting of genetically modified crops in Third World countries.

Other wires from State Department diplomats ask for money to fly in corporate flacks to lean on government officials. Even Mr. Environment, former Vice President Al Gore, was key in getting France to briefly approve Monsanto's GM corn.

These days, the company has infiltrated the highest levels of government. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a former Monsanto lawyer, and the company's former and current employees are in high-level posts at the USDA and FDA.

But the real coup came in 2010, when President Obama appointed former Monsanto Vice President Michael Taylor as the FDA's new deputy commissioner for foods. It was akin to making George Zimmerman the czar of gun safety.


Trust Us. Why Would We Lie?

At the same time Monsanto was cornering the food supply, its principal products — GM crops — were receiving less scrutiny than an NSA contractor.

Monsanto understood early on the best way to stave off bad publicity was to suppress independent research. Until recently, when negotiating an agreement with major universities, the company had severely restricted access to its seeds by requiring researchers to apply for a license and get approval from the company about any proposed research. The documentary Scientists Under Attack: Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money noted that nearly 95 percent of genetic engineering research is paid for and controlled by corporations like Monsanto.

Meanwhile, former employees embedded in government make sure the feds never get too nosy.

Meet Michael Taylor. He's gone back and forth from government to Monsanto enough times that it's not a revolving door; it's a Bat-pole. During an early-'90s stint with the FDA, he helped usher bovine growth hormone milk into the food supply and wrote the decision that kept the government out of Monsanto's GM crop business.

Known as "substantial equivalence," this policy declared that genetically modified products are essentially the same as their non-GM counterparts — and therefore require no additional labeling, food safety, or toxicity tests. Never mind that no accepted science backed his theory.

"It's simply a political calculation invented by Michael Taylor and Monsanto and adopted by U.S. federal policymakers to resist labeling," says Jim Gerritsen, a Maine farmer. "You have this collusion between corporations and the government, and the essence is that the people's interest isn't being served."

The FDA approves GM crops by doing no testing of its own but by simply taking Monsanto's word for their safety. Amusingly, Monsanto agrees that it should have nothing to do with verifying safety, says spokesman Phil Angell. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job."

So if neither Monsanto nor the feds is ensuring that the food supply is safe, who is?

The answer: No one.


We've Got Bigger Problems Now

So far, it appears the GM movement has done little more than raise the cost of food.

A 2009 study by Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman looked at four Monsanto seeds and found only minimal increases in yield. And since GM crops cost more to produce, their economic benefits are questionable at best.

"It pales in comparison to other conventional approaches," says Gurian-Sherman. "It's a lot more expensive, and it comes with a lot of baggage that goes with it, like pesticide use, monopoly issues, and control of the seed supply."

Meanwhile, the use of pesticides has soared as weeds and insects become increasingly resistant to these death sprays. Since GM crops were introduced in 1996, pesticide use has increased by 404 million pounds. Last year, Syngenta, one of the world's largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major corn soil insecticide more than doubled in 2012, a response to increased resistance to Monsanto's pesticides.

Part of the blame belongs to a monoculture that developed around farming. Farmers know it's better to rotate the crops and pesticides and leave fields fallow for a season. But when corn prices are high, who wants to grow a less profitable crop? The result's been soil degradation, relatively static yields, and an epidemic of weed and insect resistance.

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker