GMO SEEDS CAN CONTAMINATE SOIL FOR 10 YEARS
GM seeds can 'last for 10 years'
BBC News, 1 April 2008.
Genetically Modified Crops Can Stay In Soil For Up to Ten Years
AHN, April 1 2008.
Transgenic crops can persist for ten years
Genetically modified oilseed rape springs up a decade after trial crop was sown.
Nature magazine, 1 April 2008.
GM SEEDS CAN 'LAST FOR 10 YEARS'
BBC News, 1 April 2008. By Richard Black, Environment correspondent.
[image caption: France has recently seen street protests against GM crops]
Seeds of some genetically modified crops can endure in soil for at least 10 years, scientists have discovered.
Researchers in Sweden examined a field planted with experimental oilseed rape a decade ago, and found transgenic specimens were still growing there.
This was despite intensive efforts in the intervening years to remove seeds.
No GM crop has been found to endure so long; and critics say it shows that genetically modified organisms cannot be contained once released.
Tina D'Hertefeldt from Lund University led the team of scientists that scoured the small field which had hosted the GM trial 10 years ago looking for "volunteers" - plants that have sprung up spontaneously from seed in the soil.
"We were surprised, very surprised," she told BBC News. "We knew that volunteers had been detected earlier, but we thought they'd all have gone by now."
Presenting their findings in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers note that after the trial of herbicide-resistant GM rape, the Swedish Board of Agriculture sprayed the field intensively with chemicals that should have killed all the remaining plants.
And for two years, inspectors looked specifically for volunteer plants and killed them.
This is much more effort than would usually be deployed on a normal farmer's field.
But even so, 15 plants had sprung up 10 years later carrying the genes that scientists had originally inserted into their experimental rape variety to make them resistant to the herbicide glufosinate.
Non-GM varieties were used in the 10-year-old study as well, and some of these had also survived.
"I wouldn't say that the transgenic varieties are able to survive better," said Dr D'Hertefeldt. "It's just that oilseed rape is a tough plant."
Jeremy Sweet, a former head of the UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany and now an independent consultant on biotech crops, agreed.
"It's been known for some time that oilseed rape is a bit of a problem because of the survival of its seed," he told BBC News.
"It means that if farmers want to swap [from growing GM rape] to conventional varieties, they will have to wait for a number of years."
Rapeseed - often known by its Canadian name canola - is the fourth most commonly grown GM crop in the world, after soya beans, maize and cotton.
An industry organisation, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), calculated recently that more than one million square kilometres of land across the world are now dedicated to growing GM plants.
Europe accounts for only about 0.1% of that total, with a single maize variety the single transgenic food plant being grown.
Many European countries, including the UK, have yet to implement legislation on the thorny issue of how fields of genetically modified crops could co-exist with others that farmers are keen to keep free of transgenic material.
The Lund research does not deal with the flow of genes into neighbouring fields, or whether transgenes can transfer into wild plants growing nearby.
But Tina D'Hertefeldt believes legislators do need to take note of her findings.
"What we are saying is they also need to take into account the temporal aspect," she said.
Professor Mark Westoby, a plant ecologist from Macquarie University in Australia, had a more blunt assessment.
"This study confirms that GM crops are difficult to confine," he said.
"We should assume that GM organisms cannot be confined, and ask instead what will become of them when they escape."
GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS CAN STAY IN SOIL FOR UP TO TEN YEARS
AHN, April 1 2008. By Nidhi Sharma.
London, England (AHN) - Genetically-modified crops such as oilseed rape can survive and produce plants as much as a decade after it was sown, according to a study done in Sweden.
Researchers in Sweden examined a field planted with experimental oilseed rape a decade ago, and found transgenic specimens still growing there. The study raises new concerns that genetically modified organisms cannot be contained once released despite intensive efforts in the intervening years to remove seeds.
Critics are also concerned to find ways to monitor GM crops so that they don't mix with food chains. The persistence of oilseed rape may be an important consideration for non-transgenic oilseed rape strains, such as those grown for use as biofuels.
The persistence of these seeds may lead to contamination of food crops, making them unfit for human consumption. The GM crops also produce chemicals that may pose a danger if they enter the public food chain.
To minimise unwanted mixing of GM and non-GM crops farmers should allow some years to pass before a GM field reverts to non GM, according to the team.
Plant ecologists led by Tina D'Hertefeldt of Lund University made the discovery after studying seedlings found growing at Lönnstorp Experimental Farm. The biotech firm Plant Genetic Systems sowed a plot of various transgenic oilseed rape strains, including a herbicide-resistant variety, in the farm in 1995 as part of a trial.
Since 1996, the plot has been used to grow wheat, barley and sugar beet. The findings were reported Wednesday in the journal Biology Letters.
TRANSGENIC CROPS CAN PERSIST FOR TEN YEARS
Genetically modified oilseed rape springs up a decade after trial crop was sown.
Nature magazine, 1 April 2008. By Michael Hopkin.
Transgenic oilseed rape can survive and produce plants as much as a decade after it was sown, according to a study done in Sweden.
The discovery that transgenic seeds can survive and germinate on farmland for this length of time raises fresh questions about how to monitor genetically modified (GM) crops. The crops need to be controlled to ensure that genes designed to pump out pharmaceuticals, for example, don't wind up in food, and that crops labelled as 'organic' are pure enough to satisfy consumers and regulators.
Plant ecologists led by Tina D'Hertefeldt of Lund University made the discovery after studying seedlings found growing at Lönnstorp Experimental Farm. The biotech firm Plant Genetic Systems sowed a plot of various transgenic oilseed rape strains, including a herbicide-resistant variety, in the farm in 1995 as part of a trial. Since 1996, the plot has been used to grow wheat, barley and sugar beet instead.
D'Hertefeldt and her colleagues collected seedlings from the plot in 2005, and unexpectedly found 38 oilseed rape plants growing amongst the modern crops. When they tested the plants with herbicides, they found that 15 were resistant and so came from seeds left by the transgenic plants. They report their findings in the journal Biology Letters .
Oilseed rape strains, both transgenic and non-transgenic, are known to be persistent. This study confirms that "some of the seeds will remain viable for an awfully long time", says Les Firbank, head of North Wyke Research in Devon, UK.
With no proven health dangers of herbicide-resistant crops, the issue here is one of living up to labelling standards, Firbank says.
The European Union, for instance, rules that food labelled as 'organic' should contain no more than 0.9% of its material from genetically modified sources. The persistence of transgenic seeds may now make this limit difficult to adhere to, particularly if new crops are planted in the same field where GM crops were once grown.
D'Hertefeldt says that there is no way to tell whether the level of contamination they found would exceed the European Union's limits in fields sown with GM oilseed rape and then used for food production. "We found quite a low number of plants," she says.
Some farmers favour herbicide-resistant oilseed rape because it allows them to easily wipe out weeds before sowing other crops. Some seed companies, such as the multinational giant Monsanto, have suggested that transgenic crops could be grown in between seasons of non-GM crops to help manage weeds.
Getting into the food chain
The persistence of oilseed rape may be an important consideration not just for transgenic crops, but also for non-transgenic oilseed rape strains, such as those grown for use as biofuels. The persistence of these seeds may lead to contamination of food crops, making them unfit for human consumption. "This is an important issue for all crops that have persistent seeds ˜ it's not only about GM," Firbank says.
Other strains of oilseed rape are being engineered as potential 'pharma' crops, producing chemicals that may pose a danger if they enter the public food chain. "There are potential issues for food safety," Firbank says.
Persistence might not be such an issue with other transgenic crops, especially those that can be prevented from producing seeds, such as the high-starch potatoes being trialled in Germany, D'Hertefeldt says. But engineering oilseed rape not to produce flowers is out of the question. "With oilseed rape the crop you're after is the oil, and the oil is in the seeds," D'Hertefeldt says.
1. D'Hertefeldt, T ., Jørgensen, R. B. & Petterson, L. B. Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2008.0123 (2008).
Sunday, 6 January 2008
GMO SEEDS CAN CONTAMINATE SOIL FOR 10 YEARS
MONSANTO'S HARVEST OF FEAR
Vanity Fair, May 2008. By Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele.
Monsanto already dominates America's food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation's tactics - ruthless legal battles against small farmers-is its decades-long history of toxic contamination.
Gary Rinehart clearly remembers the summer day in 2002 when the stranger walked in and issued his threat. Rinehart was behind the counter of the Square Deal, his "old-time country store," as he calls it, on the fading town square of Eagleville, Missouri, a tiny farm community 100 miles north of Kansas City.
The Square Deal is a fixture in Eagleville, a place where farmers and townspeople can go for lightbulbs, greeting cards, hunting gear, ice cream, aspirin, and dozens of other small items without having to drive to a big-box store in Bethany, the county seat, 15 miles down Interstate 35.
Everyone knows Rinehart, who was born and raised in the area and runs one of Eagleville's few surviving businesses. The stranger came up to the counter and asked for him by name.
"Well, that's me," said Rinehart.
As Rinehart would recall, the man began verbally attacking him, saying he had proof that Rinehart had planted Monsanto's genetically modified (G.M.) soybeans in violation of the company's patent. Better come clean and settle with Monsanto, Rinehart says the man told him—or face the consequences.
Rinehart was incredulous, listening to the words as puzzled customers and employees looked on. Like many others in rural America, Rinehart knew of Monsanto's fierce reputation for enforcing its patents and suing anyone who allegedly violated them. But Rinehart wasn't a farmer. He wasn't a seed dealer. He hadn't planted any seeds or sold any seeds. He owned a small—a really small—country store in a town of 350 people. He was angry that somebody could just barge into the store and embarrass him in front of everyone. "It made me and my business look bad," he says. Rinehart says he told the intruder, "You got the wrong guy."
When the stranger persisted, Rinehart showed him the door. On the way out the man kept making threats. Rinehart says he can't remember the exact words, but they were to the effect of: "Monsanto is big. You can't win. We will get you. You will pay."
Scenes like this are playing out in many parts of rural America these days as Monsanto goes after farmers, farmers' co-ops, seed dealers—anyone it suspects may have infringed its patents of genetically modified seeds. As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities. Farmers say that some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records. Farmers call them the "seed police" and use words such as "Gestapo" and "Mafia" to describe their tactics.
When asked about these practices, Monsanto declined to comment specifically, other than to say that the company is simply protecting its patents. "Monsanto spends more than $2 million a day in research to identify, test, develop and bring to market innovative new seeds and technologies that benefit farmers," Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis wrote in an e-mailed letter to Vanity Fair. "One tool in protecting this investment is patenting our discoveries and, if necessary, legally defending those patents against those who might choose to infringe upon them." Wallis said that, while the vast majority of farmers and seed dealers follow the licensing agreements, "a tiny fraction" do not, and that Monsanto is obligated to those who do abide by its rules to enforce its patent rights on those who "reap the benefits of the technology without paying for its use." He said only a small number of cases ever go to trial.
Some compare Monsanto's hard-line approach to Microsoft's zealous efforts to protect its software from pirates. At least with Microsoft the buyer of a program can use it over and over again. But farmers who buy Monsanto's seeds can't even do that.
The Control of Nature
For centuries—millennia—farmers have saved seeds from season to season: they planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then reclaimed and cleaned the seeds over the winter for re-planting the next spring. Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.
Monsanto developed G.M. seeds that would resist its own herbicide, Roundup, offering farmers a convenient way to spray fields with weed killer without affecting crops. Monsanto then patented the seeds. For nearly all of its history the United States Patent and Trademark Office had refused to grant patents on seeds, viewing them as life-forms with too many variables to be patented. "It's not like describing a widget," says Joseph Mendelson III, the legal director of the Center for Food Safety, which has tracked Monsanto's activities in rural America for years.
Indeed not. But in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world's food supply. In its decision, the court extended patent law to cover "a live human-made microorganism." In this case, the organism wasn't even a seed. Rather, it was a Pseudomonas bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills. But the precedent was set, and Monsanto took advantage of it. Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won 674 biotechnology patents, more than any other company, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Farmers who buy Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.
This radical departure from age-old practice has created turmoil in farm country. Some farmers don't fully understand that they aren't supposed to save Monsanto's seeds for next year's planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product. Still others say that they don't use Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, but seeds have been blown into their fields by wind or deposited by birds. It's certainly easy for G.M. seeds to get mixed in with traditional varieties when seeds are cleaned by commercial dealers for re-planting. The seeds look identical; only a laboratory analysis can show the difference. Even if a farmer doesn't buy G.M. seeds and doesn't want them on his land, it's a safe bet he'll get a visit from Monsanto's seed police if crops grown from G.M. seeds are discovered in his fields.
Most Americans know Monsanto because of what it sells to put on our lawns— the ubiquitous weed killer Roundup. What they may not know is that the company now profoundly influences—and one day may virtually control—what we put on our tables. For most of its history Monsanto was a chemical giant, producing some of the most toxic substances ever created, residues from which have left us with some of the most polluted sites on earth. Yet in a little more than a decade, the company has sought to shed its polluted past and morph into something much different and more far-reaching—an "agricultural company" dedicated to making the world "a better place for future generations." Still, more than one Web log claims to see similarities between Monsanto and the fictional company "U-North" in the movie Michael Clayton, an agribusiness giant accused in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit of selling an herbicide that causes cancer.
Monsanto's genetically modified seeds have transformed the company and are radically altering global agriculture. So far, the company has produced G.M. seeds for soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. Many more products have been developed or are in the pipeline, including seeds for sugar beets and alfalfa. The company is also seeking to extend its reach into milk production by marketing an artificial growth hormone for cows that increases their output, and it is taking aggressive steps to put those who don't want to use growth hormone at a commercial disadvantage.
Even as the company is pushing its G.M. agenda, Monsanto is buying up conventional-seed companies. In 2005, Monsanto paid $1.4 billion for Seminis, which controlled 40 percent of the U.S. market for lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetable and fruit seeds. Two weeks later it announced the acquisition of the country's third-largest cottonseed company, Emergent Genetics, for $300 million. It's estimated that Monsanto seeds now account for 90 percent of the U.S. production of soybeans, which are used in food products beyond counting. Monsanto's acquisitions have fueled explosive growth, transforming the St. Louis-based corporation into the largest seed company in the world.
In Iraq, the groundwork has been laid to protect the patents of Monsanto and other G.M.-seed companies. One of L. Paul Bremer's last acts as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority was an order stipulating that "farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties." Monsanto has said that it has no interest in doing business in Iraq, but should the company change its mind, the American-style law is in place.
To be sure, more and more agricultural corporations and individual farmers are using Monsanto's G.M. seeds. As recently as 1980, no genetically modified crops were grown in the U.S. In 2007, the total was 142 million acres planted. Worldwide, the figure was 282 million acres. Many farmers believe that G.M. seeds increase crop yields and save money. Another reason for their attraction is convenience. By using Roundup Ready soybean seeds, a farmer can spend less time tending to his fields. With Monsanto seeds, a farmer plants his crop, then treats it later with Roundup to kill weeds. That takes the place of labor-intensive weed control and plowing.
Monsanto portrays its move into G.M. seeds as a giant leap for mankind. But out in the American countryside, Monsanto's no-holds-barred tactics have made it feared and loathed. Like it or not, farmers say, they have fewer and fewer choices in buying seeds.
And controlling the seeds is not some abstraction. Whoever provides the world's seeds controls the world's food supply.
After Monsanto's investigator confronted Gary Rinehart, Monsanto filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Rinehart "knowingly, intentionally, and willfully" planted seeds "in violation of Monsanto's patent rights." The company's complaint made it sound as if Monsanto had Rinehart dead to rights:
During the 2002 growing season, Investigator Jeffery Moore, through surveillance of Mr. Rinehart's farm facility and farming operations, observed Defendant planting brown bag soybean seed. Mr. Moore observed the Defendant take the brown bag soybeans to a field, which was subsequently loaded into a grain drill and planted. Mr. Moore located two empty bags in the ditch in the public road right-of-way beside one of the fields planted by Rinehart, which contained some soybeans. Mr. Moore collected a small amount of soybeans left in the bags which Defendant had tossed into the public right-of way. These samples tested positive for Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology.
Faced with a federal lawsuit, Rinehart had to hire a lawyer. Monsanto eventually realized that "Investigator Jeffery Moore" had targeted the wrong man, and dropped the suit. Rinehart later learned that the company had been secretly investigating farmers in his area. Rinehart never heard from Monsanto again: no letter of apology, no public concession that the company had made a terrible mistake, no offer to pay his attorney's fees. "I don't know how they get away with it," he says. "If I tried to do something like that it would be bad news. I felt like I was in another country."
Gary Rinehart is actually one of Monsanto's luckier targets. Ever since commercial introduction of its G.M. seeds, in 1996, Monsanto has launched thousands of investigations and filed lawsuits against hundreds of farmers and seed dealers. In a 2007 report, the Center for Food Safety, in Washington, D.C., documented 112 such lawsuits, in 27 states.
Even more significant, in the Center's opinion, are the numbers of farmers who settle because they don't have the money or the time to fight Monsanto. "The number of cases filed is only the tip of the iceberg," says Bill Freese, the Center's science-policy analyst. Freese says he has been told of many cases in which Monsanto investigators showed up at a farmer's house or confronted him in his fields, claiming he had violated the technology agreement and demanding to see his records. According to Freese, investigators will say, "Monsanto knows that you are saving Roundup Ready seeds, and if you don't sign these information-release forms, Monsanto is going to come after you and take your farm or take you for all you're worth." Investigators will sometimes show a farmer a photo of himself coming out of a store, to let him know he is being followed.
Lawyers who have represented farmers sued by Monsanto say that intimidating actions like these are commonplace. Most give in and pay Monsanto some amount in damages; those who resist face the full force of Monsanto's legal wrath.
Pilot Grove, Missouri, population 750, sits in rolling farmland 150 miles west of St. Louis. The town has a grocery store, a bank, a bar, a nursing home, a funeral parlor, and a few other small businesses. There are no stoplights, but the town doesn't need any. The little traffic it has comes from trucks on their way to and from the grain elevator on the edge of town. The elevator is owned by a local co-op, the Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator, which buys soybeans and corn from farmers in the fall, then ships out the grain over the winter. The co-op has seven full-time employees and four computers.
In the fall of 2006, Monsanto trained its legal guns on Pilot Grove; ever since, its farmers have been drawn into a costly, disruptive legal battle against an opponent with limitless resources. Neither Pilot Grove nor Monsanto will discuss the case, but it is possible to piece together much of the story from documents filed as part of the litigation.
Monsanto began investigating soybean farmers in and around Pilot Grove several years ago. There is no indication as to what sparked the probe, but Monsanto periodically investigates farmers in soybean-growing regions such as this one in central Missouri. The company has a staff devoted to enforcing patents and litigating against farmers. To gather leads, the company maintains an 800 number and encourages farmers to inform on other farmers they think may be engaging in "seed piracy."
Once Pilot Grove had been targeted, Monsanto sent private investigators into the area. Over a period of months, Monsanto's investigators surreptitiously followed the co-op's employees and customers and videotaped them in fields and going about other activities. At least 17 such surveillance videos were made, according to court records. The investigative work was outsourced to a St. Louis agency, McDowell & Associates. It was a McDowell investigator who erroneously fingered Gary Rinehart. In Pilot Grove, at least 11 McDowell investigators have worked the case, and Monsanto makes no bones about the extent of this effort: "Surveillance was conducted throughout the year by various investigators in the field," according to court records. McDowell, like Monsanto, will not comment on the case.
Not long after investigators showed up in Pilot Grove, Monsanto subpoenaed the co-op's records concerning seed and herbicide purchases and seed-cleaning operations. The co-op provided more than 800 pages of documents pertaining to dozens of farmers. Monsanto sued two farmers and negotiated settlements with more than 25 others it accused of seed piracy. But Monsanto's legal assault had only begun. Although the co-op had provided voluminous records, Monsanto then sued it in federal court for patent infringement. Monsanto contended that by cleaning seeds—a service which it had provided for decades—the co-op was inducing farmers to violate Monsanto's patents. In effect, Monsanto wanted the co-op to police its own customers.
In the majority of cases where Monsanto sues, or threatens to sue, farmers settle before going to trial. The cost and stress of litigating against a global corporation are just too great. But Pilot Grove wouldn't cave—and ever since, Monsanto has been turning up the heat. The more the co-op has resisted, the more legal firepower Monsanto has aimed at it. Pilot Grove's lawyer, Steven H. Schwartz, described Monsanto in a court filing as pursuing a "scorched earth tactic," intent on "trying to drive the co-op into the ground."
Even after Pilot Grove turned over thousands more pages of sales records going back five years, and covering virtually every one of its farmer customers, Monsanto wanted more—the right to inspect the co-op's hard drives. When the co-op offered to provide an electronic version of any record, Monsanto demanded hands-on access to Pilot Grove's in-house computers.
Monsanto next petitioned to make potential damages punitive—tripling the amount that Pilot Grove might have to pay if found guilty. After a judge denied that request, Monsanto expanded the scope of the pre-trial investigation by seeking to quadruple the number of depositions. "Monsanto is doing its best to make this case so expensive to defend that the Co-op will have no choice but to relent," Pilot Grove's lawyer said in a court filing.
With Pilot Grove still holding out for a trial, Monsanto now subpoenaed the records of more than 100 of the co-op's customers. In a "You are Commanded … " notice, the farmers were ordered to gather up five years of invoices, receipts, and all other papers relating to their soybean and herbicide purchases, and to have the documents delivered to a law office in St. Louis. Monsanto gave them two weeks to comply.
Whether Pilot Grove can continue to wage its legal battle remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the case shows why Monsanto is so detested in farm country, even by those who buy its products. "I don't know of a company that chooses to sue its own customer base," says Joseph Mendelson, of the Center for Food Safety. "It's a very bizarre business strategy." But it's one that Monsanto manages to get away with, because increasingly it's the dominant vendor in town.
Chemicals? What Chemicals?
The Monsanto Company has never been one of America's friendliest corporate citizens. Given Monsanto's current dominance in the field of bioengineering, it's worth looking at the company's own DNA. The future of the company may lie in seeds, but the seeds of the company lie in chemicals. Communities around the world are still reaping the environmental consequences of Monsanto's origins.
Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny, a tough, cigar-smoking Irishman with a sixth-grade education. A buyer for a wholesale drug company, Queeny had an idea. But like a lot of employees with ideas, he found that his boss wouldn't listen to him. So he went into business for himself on the side. Queeny was convinced there was money to be made manufacturing a substance called saccharin, an artificial sweetener then imported from Germany. He took $1,500 of his savings, borrowed another $3,500, and set up shop in a dingy warehouse near the St. Louis waterfront. With borrowed equipment and secondhand machines, he began producing saccharin for the U.S. market. He called the company the Monsanto Chemical Works, Monsanto being his wife's maiden name.
The German cartel that controlled the market for saccharin wasn't pleased, and cut the price from $4.50 to $1 a pound to try to force Queeny out of business. The young company faced other challenges. Questions arose about the safety of saccharin, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture even tried to ban it. Fortunately for Queeny, he wasn't up against opponents as aggressive and litigious as the Monsanto of today. His persistence and the loyalty of one steady customer kept the company afloat. That steady customer was a new company in Georgia named Coca-Cola.
Monsanto added more and more products—vanillin, caffeine, and drugs used as sedatives and laxatives. In 1917, Monsanto began making aspirin, and soon became the largest maker worldwide. During World War I, cut off from imported European chemicals, Monsanto was forced to manufacture its own, and its position as a leading force in the chemical industry was assured.
After Queeny was diagnosed with cancer, in the late 1920s, his only son, Edgar, became president. Where the father had been a classic entrepreneur, Edgar Monsanto Queeny was an empire builder with a grand vision. It was Edgar—shrewd, daring, and intuitive ("He can see around the next corner," his secretary once said)—who built Monsanto into a global powerhouse. Under Edgar Queeny and his successors, Monsanto extended its reach into a phenomenal number of products: plastics, resins, rubber goods, fuel additives, artificial caffeine, industrial fluids, vinyl siding, dishwasher detergent, anti-freeze, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides. Its safety glass protects the U.S. Constitution and the Mona Lisa. Its synthetic fibers are the basis of Astroturf.
During the 1970s, the company shifted more and more resources into biotechnology. In 1981 it created a molecular-biology group for research in plant genetics. The next year, Monsanto scientists hit gold: they became the first to genetically modify a plant cell. "It will now be possible to introduce virtually any gene into plant cells with the ultimate goal of improving crop productivity," said Ernest Jaworski, director of Monsanto's Biological Sciences Program.
Over the next few years, scientists working mainly in the company's vast new Life Sciences Research Center, 25 miles west of St. Louis, developed one genetically modified product after another—cotton, soybeans, corn, canola. From the start, G.M. seeds were controversial with the public as well as with some farmers and European consumers. Monsanto has sought to portray G.M. seeds as a panacea, a way to alleviate poverty and feed the hungry. Robert Shapiro, Monsanto's president during the 1990s, once called G.M. seeds "the single most successful introduction of technology in the history of agriculture, including the plow."
By the late 1990s, Monsanto, having rebranded itself into a "life sciences" company, had spun off its chemical and fibers operations into a new company called Solutia. After an additional reorganization, Monsanto re-incorporated in 2002 and officially declared itself an "agricultural company."
In its company literature, Monsanto now refers to itself disingenuously as a "relatively new company" whose primary goal is helping "farmers around the world in their mission to feed, clothe, and fuel" a growing planet. In its list of corporate milestones, all but a handful are from the recent era. As for the company's early history, the decades when it grew into an industrial powerhouse now held potentially responsible for more than 50 Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites—none of that is mentioned. It's as though the original Monsanto, the company that long had the word "chemical" as part of its name, never existed. One of the benefits of doing this, as the company does not point out, was to channel the bulk of the growing backlog of chemical lawsuits and liabilities onto Solutia, keeping the Monsanto brand pure. But Monsanto's past, especially its environmental legacy, is very much with us. For many years Monsanto produced two of the most toxic substances ever known— polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, and dioxin. Monsanto no longer produces either, but the places where it did are still struggling with the aftermath, and probably always will be.
Twelve miles downriver from Charleston, West Virginia, is the town of Nitro, where Monsanto operated a chemical plant from 1929 to 1995. In 1948 the plant began to make a powerful herbicide known as 2,4,5-T, called "weed bug" by the workers. A by-product of the process was the creation of a chemical that would later be known as dioxin. The name dioxin refers to a group of highly toxic chemicals that have been linked to heart disease, liver disease, human reproductive disorders, and developmental problems. Even in small amounts, dioxin persists in the environment and accumulates in the body. In 1997 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classified the most powerful form of dioxin as a substance that causes cancer in humans. In 2001 the U.S. government listed the chemical as a "known human carcinogen."
On March 8, 1949, a massive explosion rocked Monsanto's Nitro plant when a pressure valve blew on a container cooking up a batch of herbicide. The noise from the release was a scream so loud that it drowned out the emergency steam whistle for five minutes. A plume of vapor and white smoke drifted across the plant and out over town.Residue from the explosion coated the interior of the building and those inside with what workers described as "a fine black powder." Many felt their skin prickle and were told to scrub down.
Within days, workers experienced skin eruptions. Many were soon diagnosed with chloracne, a condition similar to common acne but more severe, longer lasting, and potentially disfiguring. Others felt intense pains in their legs, chest, and trunk. A confidential medical report at the time said the explosion "caused a systemic intoxication in the workers involving most major organ systems." Doctors who examined four of the most seriously injured men detected a strong odor coming from them when they were all together in a closed room. "We believe these men are excreting a foreign chemical through their skins," the confidential report to Monsanto noted. Court records indicate that 226 plant workers became ill.
According to court documents that have surfaced in a West Virginia court case, Monsanto downplayed the impact, stating that the contaminant affecting workers was "fairly slow acting" and caused "only an irritation of the skin."
In the meantime, the Nitro plant continued to produce herbicides, rubber products, and other chemicals. In the 1960s, the factory manufactured Agent Orange, the powerful herbicide which the U.S. military used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War, and which later was the focus of lawsuits by veterans contending that they had been harmed by exposure. As with Monsanto's older herbicides, the manufacturing of Agent Orange created dioxin as a by-product.
As for the Nitro plant's waste, some was burned in incinerators, some dumped in landfills or storm drains, some allowed to run into streams. As Stuart Calwell, a lawyer who has represented both workers and residents in Nitro, put it, "Dioxin went wherever the product went, down the sewer, shipped in bags, and when the waste was burned, out in the air."
In 1981 several former Nitro employees filed lawsuits in federal court, charging that Monsanto had knowingly exposed them to chemicals that caused long-term health problems, including cancer and heart disease. They alleged that Monsanto knew that many chemicals used at Nitro were potentially harmful, but had kept that information from them. On the eve of a trial, in 1988, Monsanto agreed to settle most of the cases by making a single lump payment of $1.5 million. Monsanto also agreed to drop its claim to collect $305,000 in court costs from six retired Monsanto workers who had unsuccessfully charged in another lawsuit that Monsanto had recklessly exposed them to dioxin. Monsanto had attached liens to the retirees' homes to guarantee collection of the debt.
Monsanto stopped producing dioxin in Nitro in 1969, but the toxic chemical can still be found well beyond the Nitro plant site. Repeated studies have found elevated levels of dioxin in nearby rivers, streams, and fish. Residents have sued to seek damages from Monsanto and Solutia. Earlier this year, a West Virginia judge merged those lawsuits into a class-action suit. A Monsanto spokesman said, "We believe the allegations are without merit and we'll defend ourselves vigorously." The suit will no doubt take years to play out. Time is one thing that Monsanto always has, and that the plaintiffs usually don't.
Five hundred miles to the south, the people of Anniston, Alabama, know all about what the people of Nitro are going through. They've been there. In fact, you could say, they're still there.
From 1929 to 1971, Monsanto's Anniston works produced PCBs as industrial coolants and insulating fluids for transformers and other electrical equipment. One of the wonder chemicals of the 20th century, PCBs were exceptionally versatile and fire-resistant, and became central to many American industries as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, and sealants. But PCBs are toxic. A member of a family of chemicals that mimic hormones, PCBs have been linked to damage in the liver and in the neurological, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, now classify PCBs as "probable carcinogens."
Today, 37 years after PCB production ceased in Anniston, and after tons of contaminated soil have been removed to try to reclaim the site, the area around the old Monsanto plant remains one of the most polluted spots in the U.S.
People in Anniston find themselves in this fix today largely because of the way Monsanto disposed of PCB waste for decades. Excess PCBs were dumped in a nearby open-pit landfill or allowed to flow off the property with storm water. Some waste was poured directly into Snow Creek, which runs alongside the plant and empties into a larger stream, Choccolocco Creek. PCBs also turned up in private lawns after the company invited Anniston residents to use soil from the plant for their lawns, according to The Anniston Star.
So for decades the people of Anniston breathed air, planted gardens, drank from wells, fished in rivers, and swam in creeks contaminated with PCBs—without knowing anything about the danger. It wasn't until the 1990s—20 years after Monsanto stopped making PCBs in Anniston—that widespread public awareness of the problem there took hold. Studies by health authorities consistently found elevated levels of PCBs in houses, yards, streams, fields, fish, and other wildlife—and in people. In 2003, Monsanto and Solutia entered into a consent decree with the E.P.A. to clean up Anniston. Scores of houses and small businesses were to be razed, tons of contaminated soil dug up and carted off, and streambeds scooped of toxic residue. The cleanup is under way, and it will take years, but some doubt it will ever be completed—the job is massive. To settle residents' claims, Monsanto has also paid $550 million to 21,000 Anniston residents exposed to PCBs, but many of them continue to live with PCBs in their bodies. Once PCB is absorbed into human tissue, there it forever remains.
Monsanto shut down PCB production in Anniston in 1971, and the company ended all its American PCB operations in 1977. Also in 1977, Monsanto closed a PCB plant in Wales. In recent years, residents near the village of Groesfaen, in southern Wales, have noticed vile odors emanating from an old quarry outside the village. As it turns out, Monsanto had dumped thousands of tons of waste from its nearby PCB plant into the quarry. British authorities are struggling to decide what to do with what they have now identified as among the most contaminated places in Britain.
"No Cause for Public Alarm"
What had Monsanto known—or what should it have known—about the potential dangers of the chemicals it was manufacturing? There's considerable documentation lurking in court records from many lawsuits indicating that Monsanto knew quite a lot. Let's look just at the example of PCBs.
The evidence that Monsanto refused to face questions about their toxicity is quite clear. In 1956 the company tried to sell the navy a hydraulic fluid for its submarines called Pydraul 150, which contained PCBs. Monsanto supplied the navy with test results for the product. But the navy decided to run its own tests. Afterward, navy officials informed Monsanto that they wouldn't be buying the product. "Applications of Pydraul 150 caused death in all of the rabbits tested" and indicated "definite liver damage," navy officials told Monsanto, according to an internal Monsanto memo divulged in the course of a court proceeding. "No matter how we discussed the situation," complained Monsanto's medical director, R. Emmet Kelly, "it was impossible to change their thinking that Pydraul 150 is just too toxic for use in submarines."
Ten years later, a biologist conducting studies for Monsanto in streams near the Anniston plant got quick results when he submerged his test fish. As he reported to Monsanto, according to The Washington Post, "All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds and all were dead in 3 and a half minutes."
From the beginning some consumers have consistently been hesitant to drink milk from cows treated with artificial hormones. This is one reason Monsanto has waged so many battles with dairies and regulators over the wording of labels on milk cartons. It has sued at least two dairies and one co-op over labeling.
Critics of the artificial hormone have pushed for mandatory labeling on all milk products, but the F.D.A. has resisted and even taken action against some dairies that labeled their milk "BST-free." Since BST is a natural hormone found in all cows, including those not injected with Monsanto's artificial version, the F.D.A. argued that no dairy could claim that its milk is BST-free. The F.D.A. later issued guidelines allowing dairies to use labels saying their milk comes from "non-supplemented cows," as long as the carton has a disclaimer saying that the artificial supplement does not in any way change the milk. So the milk cartons from Kleinpeter Dairy, for example, carry a label on the front stating that the milk is from cows not treated with rBGH, and the rear panel says, "Government studies have shown no significant difference between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-rBGH-treated cows." That's not good enough for Monsanto.
The Next Battleground
As more and more dairies have chosen to advertise their milk as "No rBGH," Monsanto has gone on the offensive. Its attempt to force the F.T.C. to look into what Monsanto called "deceptive practices" by dairies trying to distance themselves from the company's artificial hormone was the most recent national salvo. But after reviewing Monsanto's claims, the F.T.C.'s Division of Advertising Practices decided in August 2007 that a "formal investigation and enforcement action is not warranted at this time." The agency found some instances where dairies had made "unfounded health and safety claims," but these were mostly on Web sites, not on milk cartons. And the F.T.C. determined that the dairies Monsanto had singled out all carried disclaimers that the F.D.A. had found no significant differences in milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone.
Blocked at the federal level, Monsanto is pushing for action by the states. In the fall of 2007, Pennsylvania's agriculture secretary, Dennis Wolff, issued an edict prohibiting dairies from stamping milk containers with labels stating their products were made without the use of the artificial hormone. Wolff said such a label implies that competitors' milk is not safe, and noted that non-supplemented milk comes at an unjustified higher price, arguments that Monsanto has frequently made. The ban was to take effect February 1, 2008.
Wolff's action created a firestorm in Pennsylvania (and beyond) from angry consumers. So intense was the outpouring of e-mails, letters, and calls that Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell stepped in and reversed his agriculture secretary, saying, "The public has a right to complete information about how the milk they buy is produced."
On this issue, the tide may be shifting against Monsanto. Organic dairy products, which don't involve rBGH, are soaring in popularity. Supermarket chains such as Kroger, Publix, and Safeway are embracing them. Some other companies have turned away from rBGH products, including Starbucks, which has banned all milk products from cows treated with rBGH. Although Monsanto once claimed that an estimated 30 percent of the nation's dairy cows were injected with rBST, it's widely believed that today the number is much lower.
But don't count Monsanto out. Efforts similar to the one in Pennsylvania have been launched in other states, including New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, and Missouri. A Monsanto-backed group called afact—American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology—has been spearheading efforts in many of these states. afact describes itself as a "producer organization" that decries "questionable labeling tactics and activism" by marketers who have convinced some consumers to "shy away from foods using new technology." afact reportedly uses the same St. Louis public-relations firm, Osborn & Barr, employed by Monsanto. An Osborn & Barr spokesman told The Kansas City Star that the company was doing work for afact on a pro bono basis.
Even if Monsanto's efforts to secure across-the-board labeling changes should fall short, there's nothing to stop state agriculture departments from restricting labeling on a dairy-by-dairy basis. Beyond that, Monsanto also has allies whose foot soldiers will almost certainly keep up the pressure on dairies that don't use Monsanto's artificial hormone. Jeff Kleinpeter knows about them, too.
He got a call one day from the man who prints the labels for his milk cartons, asking if he had seen the attack on Kleinpeter Dairy that had been posted on the Internet. Kleinpeter went online to a site called StopLabelingLies, which claims to "help consumers by publicizing examples of false and misleading food and other product labels." There, sure enough, Kleinpeter and other dairies that didn't use Monsanto's product were being accused of making misleading claims to sell their milk.
There was no address or phone number on the Web site, only a list of groups that apparently contribute to the site and whose issues range from disparaging organic farming to downplaying the impact of global warming. "They were criticizing people like me for doing what we had a right to do, had gone through a government agency to do," says Kleinpeter. "We never could get to the bottom of that Web site to get that corrected."
As it turns out, the Web site counts among its contributors Steven Milloy, the "junk science" commentator for FoxNews.com and operator of junkscience.com, which claims to debunk "faulty scientific data and analysis." It may come as no surprise that earlier in his career, Milloy, who calls himself the "junkman," was a registered lobbyist for Monsanto.
Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele are Vanity Fair contributing editors.
SEEDS OF WORRY
The McGill Daily, March 31 2008, Volume 97, Issue 45. By Charles Mostoller.
Charles Mostoller, a former Daily editor, reports from Mexico's movement against genetically modified corn.
After 14 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement's devastating effects on the majority of Mexican farmers, Mexico's food system now faces another serious threat. Illegally planted and unknowingly imported since the late nineties, genetically modified (GM) corn has contaminated farms all over Mexico, threatening the livelihoods of small farmers, endangering consumer health, and putting at risk the incredible genetic diversity of native Mexican corn.
But for over a year now, farmers, scientists, and activists all over Mexico have been mobilizing under the banner Sin maìz, no hay paìs without corn, there is no country. The campaign has been organizing protests against the import of GM corn and in support of maiz criollo, known in English as "Indian corn" or maize.
At a recent Sin maìz, no hay paìs event in Huajauapan, Oaxaca, longtime indigenous-rights activist and honorary Zapatista Commander Don Felix Serdán called for the prohibition of GM corn, saying that it represented a threat to food security and to Mexico's sovereignty.
"If we lose our corn, we lose our sovereignty, our very dignity," he says. "We will depend on the U.S., we will have to buy their GM seeds. That will be slavery. Now, we're no longer self-sufficient and there is no food security.... We have the responsibility to avoid the contamination by GM corn, to protect our communities."
The sad story of Mexico
Mexico's 109 million people consume about 300 million tortillas every day. Nobody knows how much of the maize in these tortillas is genetically modified, and serious concerns persist about GM corn's effects on human health.
The planting of GM corn has never been legal in Mexico, although some biotech companies have permission to plant small "pilot fields" to test out their GM varieties. But according to a recent Reuters article, there are an estimated 9,000 hectares of GM corn in northern Mexico's Chihuahua state. The government is aware of this, but has done nothing to stop it.
Mexico does allow the importation of GM corn, and since the late nineties, enormous quantities of it have entered unlabelled into Mexico's food system. Farmers also unwittingly plant GM corn, and native varieties have been contaminated by GM corn all over the country thanks to the fact that pollen can travel long distances by wind.
The Mexican government hasn't taken any steps to slow or stop the influx of GM corn, nor has it tried to study the consequences of GM contamination or the effects on human health. And despite the importance of Mexico's native corn diversity, and the fact that GM contamination has been discovered all over the country, the corn keeps flooding into Mexico.
"Today, approximately 60 per cent of the corn that enters Mexico is genetically modified," says Cati Marielle, Director of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems division of the Environmental Study Group (known by its Spanish acronym, GEA), a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping indigenous farmers.
"It's the sad story of Mexico, to be subordinate to the interests of the United States government, which in turn represents the interests of transnational corporations," she continues.
Financial interests v. health risks
In the U.S., a GM corn variety approved only for livestock feed made its way into Taco Bell food and triggered a massive recall scandal in 2000. The corn, known as Starlink and made by biotech company Aventis, had been marketed as feed corn because of the possibility of adverse health effects in humans.
Introducing radically different elements into food is not something to be taken lightly. But that's just what biotech companies have done; they have charged ahead with the unlabelled distribution of GM food, despite little real knowledge of long-term health issues. When that GM food is corn, the lifeblood of Mexico, there is even greater cause for concern.
In Mexico some 44 million tons of second-generation foodstuffs are produced annually from imported GM corn, possibly including Starlink corn. GM corn is distributed without any indication that it is modified. More than 11 million tons of GM corn were imported last year, of which 8 million was directed to internal food production, representing one-third of the corn consumed annually in Mexico.
Since corn products are the foundation of the Mexican diet, the pervasiveness of GM products worries Marielle and health advocates.
"Officially, GM corn only enters [Mexico] for consumption by animals and for industrial products for human consumption. But if you go to the supermarket, you'll find an astonishing quantity of products that contain corn, although it appears that you aren't buying corn," Marielle says.
Greenpeace Mexico has published a list of commercial products that contain GM corn. It includes various commercial brands of tortillas, as well as snacks and breakfast cereals. GM corn is also the basis for many industrial food products like corn syrup, fructose, and vegetable oils.
The principal biotechnology corporations doing business in Mexico are Monsanto, Dupont-Pioneer, Syngenta, and Dow. But Monsanto is the key player, both in Mexico and worldwide; it owns 90 per cent of GM seed patents globally and raked in profits of $8.6-billion last year. The company is infamous for its aggressive legal action against farmers whose crops are unwittingly contaminated by Monsanto's patented varieties.
A Monsanto press representative, Darren Wallis, says that GM products have been eaten by humans since their inception, but does not reply to questions about GM corn's possible negative effects.
"Biotechnologies, from Monsanto and many other companies," says Wallis, "have been used in parts of the world now for more than a decade. Food products from staple crops like corn and soybeans have used ingredients from these crops for the same amount of time and have been widely consumed by people around the world."
GM contamination: is it worth it?
The long-term effects of GM contamination on native maize are still unknown even the science behind genetic modification remains unclear. The biotech companies themselves are clueless as to exactly how and where transgenes attach themselves to DNA in the process of creating a GM food variety.
When GM contamination of native maize was discovered throughout Mexico in 2001 by both independent and government studies, it was revealed that some plants had been contaminated more than once, and by different GM corn varieties including Starlink. Farmers in areas of contamination have also reported high rates of mutated cobs.
Although the real extent of contamination is uncertain, it is clear that GM corn can seriously affect insect populations both pests and those beneficial to crops with possibly catastrophic results.
One of the most common types of GM corn is known as Bt corn. Bt is a primary contaminator of maize in Mexico, and produces its own insecticide thanks to the genetic fusing of a toxic bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn genome. Some studies have shown that Bt pollen is harmful or fatal to the larvae of Monarch butterflies millions of which breed each year in central Mexico although the biotech industry's own studies claim otherwise.
More alarming is that crop-destroying pests can become resistant to the Bt toxin, posing a threat not only to GM farms, but contaminated ones as well which could lead to widespread crop failures in the not-so-distant future.
Even Monsanto has realized this. Although the company has published strategies on avoiding the development of Bt-resistant pests, it maintains that such a possibility is unlikely.
"[Bt corn] is a good tool for farmers because it is toxic to target pests like the corn ear worm in corn, and specific pests in cotton, and is something already found in nature," says Wallis.
To protect non-GM corn varieties from contamination, Monsanto suggests separating some corn in "refuge areas" in order to maintain separate pest populations and avoid contamination from GM varieties.
"Monsanto has a rigorous stewardship plan that protects technologies, like Bt, and promotes its longevity. For Bt in particular, this comes in the form of natural refuge in cotton and refuge acres in corn," Wallis says.
In spite of such efforts, Marielle feels that the risks just aren't worth it.
"When we talk to Monsanto's scientists who work with GM crops, they say, 'What we know is really very little.' With so much information lacking, they want to sell us a product that's really not as safe as they say it is," she says.
It's the patents, stupid
Recently, Mexico has passed two laws relating to the planting and sale of GM seeds: in 2005, the Biosecurity Law known as the Monsanto Law for that company's alleged involvement in its creation and in 2007 the Law of Seed Production, Certification, and Sale. Both laws set the stage for the legal planting of GM corn, as well as the criminalization of farmers found to have fields contaminated by GM corn.
These laws are part of a process to institutionalize the rights of the transnational agro-biotech sector, similar to one already established in the US and Canada. After a few years of planting GM crops in test fields, or by farmers who have bought the seed Monsanto takes farmers whose fields have been contaminated to court for patent violations, forcing these farmers to buy Monsanto's GM variety, year after year.
In Canada, Monsanto won a case in 2001 against Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan canola farmer whose field was contaminated by the company's GM canola from a neighbouring field.
Although the judge ruled that Schmeiser did not have to pay Monsanto, he is not yet free from their grasp. In 2005, Monsanto's canola continued to pop up in Schmeiser's field, cross-pollinating his crop and contaminating his seed.
According to Marielle, the issue comes down to biotechnology patents.
"Everything is tied to the patents," she says. "For farmers, they represent a threat to a common good maize with the inheritance of hundreds of generations of farmers and 7,000 years of maize agriculture in Mexico. Fifty-nine maize races with over 1,200 identified varieties are cultivated here. There is a continuous diversification of maize that creates varieties adapted to every ecological niche."
But Marielle says that Monsanto wants to control the seed and fertilizer markets, turning every farmer it can into a lifelong client, and in the process effectively wiping out the genetic diversity of maize.
"It's not just the introduction of a GM gene into the native maize varieties, but the fact that the gene is the private property of Monsanto, entering into a public good," she emphasizes.
Monsanto: a step ahead of the game
Marielle believes that Monsanto's next step is to appropriate the genome of native maize varieties, and to turn some of them into Monsanto's private property.
"To date, all GM seeds are made out of hybrid seeds, but Monsanto is very interested in knowing what is it that makes a maize variety blue, or red, or resistant to droughts. They are promising to develop a GM corn that is drought-resistant," she says. "But here in Mexico we already have drought-resistant varieties or how do you explain that farmers plant corn in the desert? It's because farmers have been selecting, throughout many centuries, to adapt their seed to such extreme conditions."
Monsanto has already made inroads with farmers in the north of the country, despite the fact that it remains illegal to promote GM corn in Mexico. Of course, the farmers in Chihuahua who planted 9,000 hectares of it had to buy it from somewhere.
"Recently, farmers in the north have been quoted saying that 'We want GM corn, and since the government hasn't decided its position, we're already planting it'," says Marielle, adding that Monsanto has influence in Mexico through an organization called Agrodinamica Nacional A.C.
Leonardo Estrada, a leader of the National Confederation of Farmers (CNC) tied to the country's longtime ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Guanajuato state, says that the CNC has strong ties with Monsanto and other bio-tech firms.
"We have a special office in the CNC, the office of Storage and Comercialization, which already has all the necessary ties and connections with the transnationals that can sell us GM seed," he says.
Recently, Monsanto signed an agreement with the CNC, formalizing the future sale of GM seed to CNC farmers as soon as it is legal. In exchange, Monsanto has initiated a project to "conserve" native varieties, hoping to create a database and seedbank of Mexico's maize varieties.
The project could give Monsanto the raw material to start patenting new GM varieties based on Mexico's native maize.
Monsanto's stated goal in undertaking efforts to "conserve" Mexico's maize diversity is to protect maize in the poor southern Mexican states by not planting there. Some of most contaminated regions, however, are in Oaxaca and Puebla, two southern states that are among Mexico's most impoverished.
Out of reach?
Biotech companies are campaigning hard in Mexico's industrialized north, trying to convince farmers to buy GM corn. Farmworkers are led to believe that GM corn will save them money, and are generally unaware of the risks of contamination.
"We are really ignorant as to how GM corn works," says Miguel, a farmer from Guanajuato state. "But GM corn yields more, and it doesn't need herbicides. In total, it already comes with everything, which for us represents a lot of money saved. We want the government to let us plant it, because it yields more with less water."
Biotech companies' own studies support the claim that GM corn yields more product, but critics argue that independent data indicates otherwise.
"Independent studies by scientists in the U.S. and Europe demonstrate that the improvement in yields isn't true," Marielle argues. "In some cases, yes, but it's never more that ten percent. Sometimes it's negative. There's one study that shows that, in the U.S., the average yield increase is two percent. Is it really worth it to run so much risk for such an insignificant increase in yield?"
Monsanto, however, maintains that GM corn is beneficial to farmers because of yield increases.
"In [GM] corn, some of the most dramatic benefits have come in the shape of increased yields which have helped create more food and feed for people and animals," says Wallis.
Although some farmers believe that they will save money with GM technology, even its proponents admit that small farmers can't afford to buy the large quantities of seed, fertilizer, and irrigation that GM corn requires.
"We have to make the federal government give us a subsidy, because our farmers in the CNC don't have the financial capacity to be buying large volumes of seeds," Estrada says. "We are only waiting for the financial resources to bring [GM corn] in."
A recent study on GM crops by Friends of the Earth International shows that since 1994 when herbicide-tolerant varieties of GM soy, corn, and cotton were introduced in the U.S. there has been a 15-fold increase in herbicide use.
Some of the GM corn varieties in Mexico are herbicide-tolerant, resulting in the increased application of glyphosate a Monsanto-produced herbicide known as Roundup. In Mexico, Monsanto's glyphosate-resistant YieldGuard corn varieties, along with Monsanto's Bt corn, are the principal GM contaminators of native maize.
Sin maìz, no hay paìs
A lot of attention has been paid recently to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a so-called "doomsday" bank in Norway to keep the world's seed wealth in suspended animation. But farmers are the real seed bank; they are the original biotechnicians, constantly adapting and bettering their seed as conditions change. Helping farmers maintain that seed diversity is the real key to food security.
Corn is one of the most important crops on the planet, with some 687.2 billion kilos harvested in 2006 and 2007. Although the majority of that corn is produced in the U.S. and in China and a large portion has recently been diverted to production of ethanol and other industrial products like glues it remains a staple food crop all over Africa and the Americas. Preserving the diversity of Mexico's maize is key to future world food security.
The import and planting of GM corn in Mexico whether illegal or legal threatens to contaminate maize all over the country, turning campesinos into Monsanto's slaves, obligated to buy its seed year after year.
Campesinos in contaminated areas filed suit in 2002 with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America (CEC), NAFTA's ruling authority on environmental issues, calling for a review of the risks of GM corn in Mexico. The CEC report called for Mexico to uphold its ban on planting GM seed, and to minimize the import of GM produce.
For the moment, Monsanto is content to wait before taking Mexican farmers to court to formalize their patent rights.
"Right now they're not going to persecute those who have contaminated fields. What they want to do is let their seed proliferate throughout the country," says Marielle.
But indigenous farmers all over Mexico have begun to fight back, holding rituals to cleanse their maize and starting their own seed banks to protect local diversity. However, testing for GM contamination is prohibitively expensive, costing over $200 for each sample.
According to Marielle, a moratorium on the import of GM corn is the only solution to wprotecting Mexico's maize. She argues that consumers must reject GM products and force the government into action.
"What is really needed is a total moratorium. And it's nothing more than a question of political will. It could be done tomorrow," says Marielle. "Why can Japan, who imports a lot of corn and rice from the U.S., successfully reject the importation of GM crops? Because the government of Japan is very strong, and most importantly, Japan's consumers are very strong."
On January 31, in one of Mexico's biggest protests ever, some 200,000 farmers from all over the country flooded Mexico City's central plaza, calling for the government to re-negotiate the terms of NAFTA's agricultural chapter and to immediately stop the importation GM corn.
Bety Cariño is an activist from Oaxaca's Sierra Mixteca 150 kilometres from where GM contamination was first discovered in 2001 and part of the Sin maìz, no hay paìs campaign. She says that GM contamination represented the final straw to not just farmers, but also to Mexico's indigenous peoples, for whom maize is often an important cultural item.
"The government has abandoned real support for the countryside, leaving our fields empty here in the Mixteca, where the youth have to leave for the United States to survive, leaving their communities behind and abandoning the field," she says. "And now, GM corn is going to finish off the countryside which is to say, Mexico's indigenous peoples."
However, thanks to organizations like GEA and Greenpeace and the Sin maìz, no hay paìs campaign, Mexican consumers and farmers are learning the risks of GM corn and starting to fight back.
Despite the government's inaction, campesino and indigenous activists all over Mexico have vowed to keep fighting to do what no one else will: protect Mexico's corn, farmers, and indigenous peoples.
"Better to die fighting," says Don Serdán with tears in his eyes, "than on our knees, begging for the food that we ourselves can produce."