Jeffrey M. Smith
July 30, 2010
At a biotech industry conference in January 1999, a representative from Arthur Anderson, LLP explained how they had helped Monsanto design their strategic plan. First, his team asked Monsanto executives what their ideal future looked like in 15 to 20 years. The executives described a world with 100 percent of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented. Anderson consultants then worked backwards from that goal, and developed the strategy and tactics to achieve it. They presented Monsanto with the steps and procedures needed to obtain a place of industry dominance in a world in which natural seeds were virtually extinct.
This was a bold new direction for Monsanto, which needed a big change to distance them from a controversial past. As a chemical company, they had polluted the landscape with some of the most poisonous substances ever produced, contaminated virtually every human and animal on earth, and got fined and convicted of deception and wrongdoing. According to a former Monsanto vice president, “We were despised by our customers.”
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
So they redefined themselves as a “life sciences” company, and then proceeded to pollute the landscape with toxic herbicide, contaminate the gene pool for all future generations with genetically modified plants, and get fined and convicted of deception and wrongdoing. Monsanto’s chief European spokesman admitted in 1999, “Everybody over here hates us.” Now the rest of the world is catching on.
“Saving the world,” and other lies
Monsanto’s public relations story about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are largely based on five concepts.
1. GMOs are needed to feed the world.
2. GMOs have been thoroughly tested and proven safe.
3. GMOs increase yield.
4. GMOs reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.
5. GMOs can be contained, and therefore coexist with non-GM crops.
All five are pure myths — blatant falsehoods about the nature and benefit of this infant technology. The experience of former Monsanto employee Kirk Azevedo helps expose the first two lies, and provides some insight into the nature of the people working at the company.
In 1996, Monsanto recruited young Kirk Azevedo to sell their genetically engineered cotton. Azevedo accepted their offer not because of the pay increase, but due to the writings of Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro. Shapiro had painted a picture of feeding the world and cleaning up the environment with his company’s new technology. When he visited Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters for new employee training, Azevedo shared his enthusiasm for Shapiro’s vision during a meeting. When the session ended, a company vice president pulled him aside and set him straight. “Wait a second,” he told Azevedo. “What Robert Shapiro says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don’t even understand what he is saying.” Azevedo realized he was working for “just another profit-oriented company,” and all the glowing words about helping the planet were just a front.
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A few months later he got another shock. A company scientist told him that Roundup Ready cotton plants contained new, unintended proteins that had resulted from the gene insertion process. No safety studies had been conducted on the proteins, none were planned, and the cotton plants, which were part of field trials near his home, were being fed to cattle. Azevedo “was afraid at that time that some of these proteins may be toxic.”
He asked the PhD in charge of the test plot to destroy the cotton rather than feed it to cattle, arguing that until the protein had been evaluated, the cows’ milk or meat could be harmful. The scientist refused. Azevedo approached everyone on his team at Monsanto to raise concerns about the unknown protein, but no one was interested. “I was somewhat ostracized,” he said. “Once I started questioning things, people wanted to keep their distance from me. . . . Anything that interfered with advancing the commercialization of this technology was going to be pushed aside.” Azevedo decided to leave Monsanto. He said, “I’m not going to be part of this disaster.”
Monsanto’s toxic past
Azevedo got a small taste of Monsanto’s character. A verdict in a lawsuit a few years later made it more explicit. On February 22, 2002, Monsanto was found guilty for poisoning the town of Anniston, Alabama with their PCB factory and covering it up for decades. They were convicted of negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass, and outrage. According to Alabama law, to be guilty of outrage typically requires conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.”(1)
The $700 million fine imposed on Monsanto was on behalf of the Anniston residents, whose blood levels of Monsanto’s toxic PCBs were hundreds or thousands of times the average. This disease-producing chemical, used as coolants and lubricants for over 50 years, are now virtually omnipresent in the blood and tissues of humans and wildlife around the globe. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group says that based on Monsanto documents made public during a trial, the company “knew the truth from the very beginning. They lied about it. They hid the truth from their neighbors.” One Monsanto memo explains their justification: “We can’t afford to lose one dollar of business.” Welcome to the world of Monsanto.
Infiltrating the minds and offices of the government
To get their genetically modified products approved, Monsanto has coerced, infiltrated, and paid off government officials around the globe. In Indonesia, Monsanto gave bribes and questionable payments to at least 140 officials, attempting to get their genetically modified (GM) cotton accepted.(2) In 1998, six Canadian government scientists testified before the Senate that they were being pressured by superiors to approve rbGH, that documents were stolen from a locked file cabinet in a government office, and that Monsanto offered them a bribe of $1-2 million to pass the drug without further tests. In India, one official tampered with the report on Bt cotton to increase the yield figures to favor Monsanto.(3) And Monsanto seems to have planted their own people in key government positions in India, Brazil, Europe, and worldwide.
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Monsanto’s GM seeds were also illegally smuggled into countries like Brazil and Paraguay, before GMOs were approved. Roberto Franco, Paraguay’s Deputy Agriculture Ministry, tactfully admits, “It is possible that [Monsanto], let’s say, promoted its varieties and its seeds” before they were approved. “We had to authorize GMO seeds because they had already entered our country in an, let’s say, unorthodox way.”
In the US, Monsanto’s people regularly infiltrate upper echelons of government, and the company offers prominent positions to officials when they leave public service. This revolving door has included key people in the White House, regulatory agencies, even the Supreme Court. Monsanto also had George Bush Senior on their side, as evidenced by footage of Vice President Bush at Monsanto’s facility offering help to get their products through government bureaucracy. He says, “Call me. We’re in the ‘de-reg’ business. Maybe we can help.”
Monsanto’s influence continued into the Clinton administration. Dan Glickman, then Secretary of Agriculture, says, “there was a general feeling in agro-business and inside our government in the US that if you weren’t marching lock-step forward in favor of rapid approvals of biotech products, rapid approvals of GMO crops, then somehow, you were anti-science and anti-progress.” Glickman summarized the mindset in the government as follows:
“What I saw generically on the pro-biotech side was the attitude that the technology was good, and that it was almost immoral to say that it wasn’t good, because it was going to solve the problems of the human race and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. . . . And there was a lot of money that had been invested in this, and if you’re against it, you’re Luddites, you’re stupid. That, frankly, was the side our government was on. Without thinking, we had basically taken this issue as a trade issue and they, whoever ‘they’ were, wanted to keep our product out of their market. And they were foolish, or stupid, and didn’t have an effective regulatory system. There was rhetoric like that even here in this department. You felt like you were almost an alien, disloyal, by trying to present an open-minded view on some of the issues being raised. So I pretty much spouted the rhetoric that everybody else around here spouted; it was written into my speeches.”(4)
He admits, “when I opened my mouth in the Clinton Administration [about the lax regulations on GMOs], I got slapped around a little bit.”
Hijacking the FDA to promote GMOs
In the US, new food additives must undergo extensive testing, including long-term animal feeding studies.(5) There is an exception, however, for substances that are deemed “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). GRAS status allows a product to be commercialized without any additional testing. According to US law, to be considered GRAS the substance must be the subject of a substantial amount of peer-reviewed published studies (or equivalent) and there must be overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that the product is safe. GM foods had neither. Nonetheless, in a precedent-setting move that some experts contend was illegal, in 1992 the FDA declared that GM crops are GRAS as long as their producers say they are. Thus, the FDA does not require any safety evaluations or labels whatsoever. A company can even introduce a GM food to the market without telling the agency.
Such a lenient approach to GM crops was largely the result of Monsanto’s legendary influence over the US government. According to the New York Times, “What Monsanto wished for from Washington, Monsanto and, by extension, the biotechnology industry got. . . . When the company abruptly decided that it needed to throw off the regulations and speed its foods to market, the White House quickly ushered through an unusually generous policy of self-policing.” According to Dr. Henry Miller, who had a leading role in biotechnology issues at the FDA from 1979 to 1994, “In this area, the U.S. government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do.”
The person who oversaw the development of the FDA’s GMO policy was their Deputy Commissioner for Policy, Michael Taylor, whose position had been created especially for him in 1991. Prior to that, Taylor was an outside attorney for both Monsanto and the Food Biotechnology Council. After working at the FDA, he became Monsanto’s vice president. He’s now back at the FDA, as the US food safety czar.