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Why I Marched Against Monsanto!

On 08.07.2013 by Tracey Tipping

A few weeks ago, I attended my first ever protest against the actions of an individual corporation and, given Monsanto's current involvement in our global agricultural system, I am so glad that I was part of this peaceful protest in my local area of Hobart (Tasmania, Australia).

So, Who is Monsanto and Why Should I Care?

You might recall the Monsanto of old - who bought us such chemical wonders as DDT, PCBs and good old Agent Orange - highly toxic, persistent organic pollutants that still remain in our environment to this day. But hey, all of these chemicals were banned decades ago... oops, except for Agent Orange (otherwise known as 2,4-D) which is still used as a weed killer & applied to lawns, gardens & golf courses!!

But back to Monsanto - you might know them more recently through their Roundup product line of weed killers, which they (and industry experts) have always told us are safe and less damaging to the environment than other commonly used chemicals (perhaps they are comparing it to Agent Orange??) [1].

And then, of course, there's the other Monsanto - the "Sustainable Agriculture Company" - that is "improving lives" and helping "farmers produce more food using fewer natural resources" [2] or "Meeting the Needs of Today while Preserving the Planet for Tomorrow"[3]. Or at least, that's what they say on their website...

Perhaps Monsanto defines "Sustainable Agriculture" as the genetic engineering (GE) of our crops. And lets be frank, when it comes to GE crops Monsanto is the king. In fact, Monsanto's GE seeds are "found in roughly 86 percent of the GE seeds sold in the US" [4].

  • Don't get me wrong, maybe the world needs crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup so that you can still spray the crap out of your fields with Roundup and have piece of mind that your 'Monsanto GE Round-Up Resistant Seeds' won't have been impacted negatively by the spraying.
  • Maybe we do need Monsanto's genetically engineered 'Bt' Seeds that produce toxins in the tissues of the plant to kill certain pests that try to feed on them.
  • Perhaps we should have 'terminator seeds' which produce plants with sterile seeds... [5]

Call me old fashioned, but I just don't think we should be messing with the fundamental building blocks of life. I honestly think we are doing it tough enough as a species and as a planet at the moment without messing with the genetics of our food supply.

But, believe it or not none of the above is actually why I chose to march against Monsanto.

Enter Monsanto - Seeking Global Domination by Controlling Our Entire Food Supply!

Okay, now before you quickly close this post and unlike my Facebook page, please hear me out on why I am making this totally stupendous claim about Monsanto and our food supply.

First, I need to set the scene a bit...

Giving Corporations the Right to Patent Life Forms

In 1980 the US Supreme Court decided to approve the world's first patent of a genetically engineered bacteria [6] and this opened the flood-gates for the patenting of all life-forms on the basis of their genetic coding.

Say what? You can't patent a life-form, that's beyond ridiculous. Surely no-one can own the rights to plants or animals or the human genome!!

  • However, "over the past thirty years, more than 3,000 gene patents have been granted. Nearly 20 percent of the human genome is now privately owned. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued nearly 50,000 patents involving human genetic material. Patents have been granted for microorganisms, genetically modified plants and animals, stem cells, tissue and many other living things" [7].

Monsanto Becomes the World's Biggest Agricultural Seed Company

So, while corporations like Monsanto were not heavily involved in the seed industry prior to the mid-1980s, the 1980 ruling dramatically changed the global seed industry from being a public, renewable resource into a private, monopolized industry as corporations like Monsanto started quickly buying up the rights to a plant's genes.

Within 3 decades, Monsanto went from being a chemical company extraordinaire to being the world's largest seed company, accounting for nearly 27% of global commercial seed sales [8].

  • In fact, 53% of the global commercial seed market is now owned by 3 firms - Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta [9].

To achieve this number 1 position, Monsanto literally spent billions of dollars purchasing around 50 seed companies between 1996 and 2008 [10]. And in Monsanto's own words "what you‘re seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it‘s really a consolidation of the entire food chain" [11].

Of particular importance, was Monsanto's purchase of Seminis in 2005:

  • This purchase gave Monsanto an an estimated 39% market share for vegetable seeds in the US, 24% in the EU, and 26% globally [12].
  • To put this in further context Seminis supplies "the genetics for 55 percent of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75 percent of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas" [13].
  • Seminis seeds are used in both large, industrial production as well as by "regional conventional and organic farmers as well as market and home gardeners" [14].

Mmmm... should we be worried? Is it okay for our entire food chain to be owned and controlled by a few corporations without any regulation or oversight?

Can we trust Monsanto with our Seeds?

Patented Seeds (Both GE and non-GE) Can't Be Saved or Replanted

When a corporation like Monsanto owns the patent on a seed (whether it is a GE seed or not), it means that farmers are not allowed to save the seed to replant the following season. They have to purchase new seeds each season.

  • When it comes to a GE seed you might be thinking, fair enough - if Monsanto spent billions of dollars genetically engineering the seed to make it better in some way, then you have to follow their terms of sale and agree to not save and re-use the seeds.
  • But what if this applies to non-GE seeds as well - for example, Monsanto-owned "Seminis tomato seed packets notify the purchaser that upon opening the seed packet, they are engaging into a contract with the company and cannot save and replant seeds"[15].

Because a corporation has been awarded patent ownership rights on a non-GE seed variety (that really should be a public good available to all humankind to use as we see fit), you forfeit your right to save and reuse your seeds. You need to throw away your old seeds and buy new seeds each season... Or get sued...

Where does this leave us as a planet or a civilization?

Why Would Monsanto Sell Their Non-GE Seeds When they Can Make More Money Selling their GE Seeds?

If Monsanto owns the patents on both non-GE and GE-seeds, surely they would favour selling their GE seed varieties over their non-GE varieties, because the real money is in GE seeds. Indeed, between 1995-2011 the average cost to plant one acre of:

  • soybean seed increased by a 325%;
  • cotton seeds increased by 516%; and
  • corn seeds increased by 259 % [16].

If Monsanto owns both the GE and the non-GE seeds its not hard to picture where things might go.

In fact, the latest report by the "Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds" states that "it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to purchase non-GE seeds" given the GE seed domination in commodity crops (soybean, corn, cotton and canola) [17].

Patented Seeds Can't Be Used in Independent Research

Say what?? One of the restrictions attached to the purchase of GE patented seeds from Monsanto is that those seeds or crops cannot be used in independent research.

How can we ever know if GE crops are really safe for long-term human consumption if the patents on these seeds explicitly prohibit independent research?

  • "For instance, Monsanto demanded the right to approve publication of scientific research on its Roundup Ready sugar beets by university researchers as a condition for allowing the research to proceed; the universities could not accept such strictures and the research was abandoned" [18].

I don't know about you, but I would find it pretty hard to trust studies saying that GE crops are safe if the studies can only be legally commissioned or approved by the corporations that own the seeds patents.

US Federal Courts Aren't Able to Halt the Sale or Planting of GE seeds, Nomatter What Health Issues Arrise

Two months ago, in a stunning victory for Monsanto the "Farmer Assurance Provision" was signed into law in the United States effectively barring "federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of controversial genetically modified (aka GMO) or genetically engineered (GE) seeds, no matter what health issues may arise concerning GMOs in the future"[19].

Okay, so its a violation of Monsanto's patent agreement to do scientific research on a GE seed unless you give them permission to "approve" the research before publication AND even if you somehow sneak some research in there that finds health issues with GE seeds its illegal for a court of law in the US to halt the sale or growing of GE seeds.

And Monsanto already owns 27% of the worlds seeds, bring me a bucket I think I want to throw up...

Are Farmers Selling their Souls to Use Monsanto's GE-Seeds?

When a farmer decides to grow one of Monsanto's GE crops they have to sign complex agreements, including:

  • Providing Monsanto with their internet service provider records to enable Monsanto to "validate Growers electronic signature" [20] - whatever that means!
  • Giving Monsanto access to third parties records, thereby enabling their patent investigators to access reporting information held by the USDA Farm Service Agency, including accessing "aerial photos and farmer submissions, on any land farmed by the grower" [21].
  • Farmers may even have to show receipts on what chemicals or herbicides they have purchased as well as giving investigators full access to their land and facilities [22].
  • "Monsanto maintains an anonymous hotline, urging farmers to turn in neighbors" [23].
  • Interestingly, these agreements also specify that should any cases be launched against a farmer the "exclusive jurisdiction and venue for all disputes go to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri or the Circuit Court of the County of St. Louis32 - both in Monsanto’s hometown" [24].

It's all starting to feel a bit like George Orwell's 1984 to me!

I guess a farmer doesn't have anything to worry about if they are following each and every aspect of their agreement with Monsanto to the perfect letter of the law (which of course they should be!) but its like these farmers are giving up the right to their own property and land when they sign on to grow a Monsanto GE crop.

Can Farmers be Sued when their Farms are Accidentally Contaminated by GE Seeds?

The documentary Food Inc alleged that when a small amount of GM crop seeds are blown into a neighbours field, that Monsanto can (and does) sue the farmer for infringing their patent rights.

  • However, Monsanto's website clearly states: "It has never been, nor will it be, Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented traits are present in farmers’ fields as a result of inadvertent means" [25].

The latest report released a couple of weeks ago by the "Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds" outlined the following cases:

  • David Runyan, an Indiana corn and soybean farmer: "Monsanto accused Runyon of illegally growing its patented GE soybean, despite the fact that for several years he had always purchased public, non-patented soybean seed from local universities. Monsanto pointed to his purchasing pattern of the herbicide glyphosate, often used on GE soybean crops, as evidence. Monsanto’s attorney claimed that the company had an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture to search his land; however, at the time of the purported infringement, the Indiana Department of Agriculture did not exist. Ultimately, Monsanto was unable to present a copy of this alleged agreement and dropped its investigation. However, the protracted investigation required considerable financial resources of Mr. Runyon" [26].
  • Organic Seed Growers & Trade Ass'n V. Monsanto Co: "In 2011, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations against Monsanto to challenge the chemical giant’s patents on GE seed. The organic plaintiffs were forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s GE seed, something Monsanto has done to other farmers in the past. Rather than provide plaintiffs with a binding promise that they would never sue them for patent infringement upon contamination, Monsanto filed a motion to dismiss the case. In February 2012, the District Court judge dismissed the case, aligning with Monsanto by finding that the plaintiffs’ concerns over being contaminated with Monsanto's GE seed and then being accused of patent infringement were unreasonable" [27].

I find myself wondering what happens when a farmer decides to no longer grow Monsanto GE seeds - what if seeds from previous years accidentally sprout into their non-GE crops? Are farmers in breach of the patent? Do they have to destroy their whole crop?

It seems that if you want to go down the Monsanto GE path, you had better be committed to it for life because the exit clauses don't look too good - not from my perspective anyway!

Protecting Our Seed Biodiversity and Our Food Security?

In the words of the amazing Simran Sethi: "every time we drop a seed a set of genes disappears" [28] and given that 75% of crop varieties have disappeared since 1900 [29], we should be protecting our seed biodiversity at all costs.

Because within our global seed banks we can find seeds that have naturally adapted to drought conditions, local pests and plant diseases, seeds that can thrive in salt, seeds that can nourish us and even seeds that can heal our physical ailments. Such seed biodiversity is absolutely critical to our survival as a species.

Seeds are a basic human right provided to us for free by our planet. They are a "public good" and they should be protected at all costs.

Seeds are our past, they are our present and they are our future. Without our seeds, we have nothing.

And that is why I chose to march against Monsanto a few weeks ago...

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References

[1] A new study published on 18 April 2013 found that there may be a link between glyphosate herbicides (like Roundup) and common "diseases associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease". This certainly raises questions (which many of us have always had!) about Roundup's safety. Reference: Glyphosate's Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy by: Samsel A, Seneff S., 2013; 15(4):1416-1463. Special thanks to Greenmed info for first publishing.
[2] Monsanto Home Page: http://www.monsanto.com/Pages/default.aspx
[3] About Monsanto: http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/default.aspx
[4] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 17 (their reference for this stat is [35] on page 44). Link: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/1770/seed-giants-vs-us-farmers
[5] While Monsanto owns this piece of biotechnology, the have made a commitment "not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops" and, if they do, it would be "in consultation with experts and stakeholders, including NGOs". See: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/terminator-seeds.aspx
[6] The Supreme Court ruling I am to is from 16 June 1980, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. The Seed Alliance states that “prior to the Chakrabarty decision, a plant (or animal) could be owned, but the genetics could not. This case cleared the patenting of life forms on the bases of their genetic coding”. See: http://www.seedalliance.org/seed_news/seminismonsanto/
[7] The Chakrabarty Case and the Ownership of Lifeforms, by David Bollier, 10 May 2012, web link: http://bollier.org/blog/chakrabarty-case-and-ownership-lifeforms.
[8] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 6.
[9] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 2.
[10] Howard, P.H., Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability 2009, 1, 1266-128, page 1274.
[11] Howard, P.H., Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability 2009, 1, 1266-128, page 1274 (their reference for this stat is [56] on page 1285).
[12] Howard, P.H., Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability 2009, 1, 1266-128, page 1276 (their reference for this stat is [58] on page 1285).
[13] Dillon, M. And We Have the Seeds: Monsanto Purchases World’s Largest Vegetable Seed Company, 24 January 2005, http://www.seedalliance.org/seed_news/seminismonsanto/
[14] Dillon, M. And We Have the Seeds: Monsanto Purchases World’s Largest Vegetable Seed Company, 24 January 2005, http://www.seedalliance.org/seed_news/seminismonsanto/
[15] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 7.
[16] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 8.
[17] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 18.
[18] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 19 (their reference for this stat is [52] on page 44).
[19] Sheets, C.A. 'Monsanto Protection Act': 5 Terrifying Things To Know About The HR 933 Provision, http://www.ibtimes.com/monsanto-protection-act-5-terrifying-things-know-about-hr-933-provision-1156079#
[20] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 23.
[21] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 28.
[22] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 23 (their reference for this stat is [9] on page 43).
[23] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 18.
[24] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 26 (their reference for this stat is [32] on page 44).
[25] Monsanto Food Inc FAQs: http://www.monsanto.com/food-inc/Pages/FAQs.aspx#q3
[26] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 28 (their reference for these stats are [8] and [9] on page 43).
[27] Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers, by the Center for Food Safety, 13 February 2013, page 33.
[28] Simran Sethi, Seeds - The Buried Beginnings of Food, TEDx Manhattan 2013.
[29] Simran Sethi, Seeds - The Buried Beginnings of Food, TEDx Manhattan 2013, Figure quoted from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

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This post was posted in Genetically Engineered (GE) Foods & Seeds and was tagged with GE Foods, Monsanto

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