How did a nation of would-be self-sufficient yeoman farmers and master craftsmen become the wellspring of the new thralldom? Can we blame corporate barons and their enablers in government for our dependence on "systems that mask and disperse responsibility while simultaneously spreading and intensifying risk" or have our own frivolity and negligence perverted the American dream?
Dominique Dhombres' review of Marie-Monique Robin's movie, "The World According to Monsanto", shown on French TV this spring, provoked so much reader interest, I obtained a copy of the book in French (to be released this coming spring in English) and the movie in English to see for myself.
Both text and film are extraordinary models of investigative reporting, each comprising chilling and compelling indictments of a company with a long history of producing varieties of poison. I have no doubt that had a human individual, rather than a multinational corporation, been responsible for the death, suffering and destruction Marie-Monique Robin documents, the International Criminal Court and other jurisdictions around the world would be clamoring for that person's head. Yet, Monsanto continues to operate so much more freely than the disguised Radovan Karadzic. Only last week The Independent reported that Gordon Brown and other European leaders are secretly planning to promote GMO food - 90 percent of which is produced by Monsanto - over the objections of their own populations.
While "The World According to Monsanto" excoriates Monsanto executives and their enablers, what Marie-Monique Robin most effectively documents are the perverse effects - the moral, social, technological, economic and market failures - of Western society's economic organization, most specifically with respect to science and the products of science, and, ultimately, with respect to the preservation of the public commons and human life on the planet.
Both Ms. Robin's film and her book use a montage of Monsanto advertising, promotional films, claims and pledges to illustrate the fantasy chemical, then biotech/life sciences company it purports to be. Then she proceeds in both media to examine, deconstruct and destroy the fantasy, revealing a far less attractive reality - which the company invariably denies. From PCBs to the 2,4,5,-T dioxin in Agent Orange to Roundup, Ms. Robin demonstrates that the company's products caused serious harm, that the company knew and denied the dangers and proceeded to discredit - ruining careers and sometimes lives - whistleblowers and opponents. In each case, "The World According to Monsanto" shows government agencies and entities charged with protecting the public good - most notably the EPA - standing against it, defending Monsanto's interests rather than the innocents poisoned by its products.
As Ms. Robin's investigation moves forward in time - to the introduction of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), genetically modified foods (GMO), "Terminator" seeds, and patents on life - and across the world to Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and India, she shows the pattern repeating itself. The film uses the image of an actual revolving door to convey the chief means by which Ms. Robin shows the company perverting its own regulatory regime as regulators, judges and scientists move in and out of Monsanto's executive suites and the offices of such key contractors as its legal counsel. And while American readers and viewers may be unsurprised by the impact of what Russ Feingold has called a "system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion" with respect to regulatory agencies, the corruption of science Ms. Robin depicts operating through the very mechanisms that are supposed to keep it professional and objective - peer-reviewed articles in professional journals, for example - may shock and surprise, although perhaps less so now when the eagerness of "independent" financial rating agencies and many academic economists and financial experts to jump on the financial industry's gravy train has been revealed.
Robin's documentary has the tremendous emotional force that comes from seeing the impact on human beings of the events she described and the stark gulf between company promises and realities delivered. The book is in other ways more powerful: her arguments and evidence are more thoroughly developed and supported throughout with detailed notes. It is earnestly to be hoped that the English language edition will contain an index. A timeline allowing the reader to track the overlaps and sequences of various events described would be even more helpful, as would diagrams tracking the connections between regulators and the regulated.
The most damning regulatory failure Ms. Robin documents is the FDA's May 29, 1992, ruling that genetically modified food is "substantially equivalent" to conventional varieties. The policy statement went on to address labeling: "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. For this reason, the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plant variety É would É usually be required to be disclosed in labeling for the food." (1) She evokes the unrestrained joy of lobbyists following the ruling - which they know is a joke, scientifically - and she films James Maryanski - who in 1992 was biotechnology coordinator with the United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition - saying the ruling was "a political decision ... not based on scientific data." And although the evidence, Robin argues, using as examples the L-trytophane epidemic and Arpad Pusztai's transgenic potatoes, is compelling that transgenic plants may have dramatically different properties from the natural variety - properties that do not inhere to the transgene - none of the GMO food sold in the United States has been independently tested, a level of stringency inferior to that applied to the least food additive.
You might be naive enough to imagine that in the US the market would rule and consumers would be free to decide whether they care to be guinea pigs for the long-term impact of drinking pus-laced milk from rBGH-injected cows or of eating untested foods. But no, Robin reports, the agencies charged with protecting US consumers have carried water for Monsanto a little further and supported its efforts to ban labeling. "As many as 20 polls effected between 1997 and 2004 clearly indicate that over 80 percent of Americans want labeling of transgenic products." (2) Apparently our free market ideologues are unaware that a free market is predicated on - requires - perfect information. Robin illustrates the near impossibility of acquiring or developing such information when Monsanto's proprietary technology claims make it impossible for scientists to study their products or release the results of those studies without permission, when scientists who succeed in doing independent work are hounded from their jobs, subjected to concerted attacks on professional blog sites, and otherwise victimized - all too often with the collusion of their own governments. The stories Robin documents make a mockery of the concept of independent science.
But Robin shows that the independence and integrity - not only of regulators and judges, scientists and reporters - have been undermined by Monsanto's tactics, but also that rural communities in the US have been torn apart by the "totalitarian world" tactics, the "gene police" sent there to enforce Monsanto's agreements with growers and its patents - even against those whose fields have been contaminated by wind-blown pollen. That contamination of conventional varieties by GMO crops - which Robin documents occurring far from where GMO agriculture is authorized - for example, in the Mexican heartland of corn cultivation - lends still more credence to such claims made by Robin interviewees as, "They want to own life;" "They are in the process of owning food, all food."
Robin, the daughter of farmers, reveals how the invasion of mono-culture GMO soybean cultivation in Latin America has contributed to rainforest elimination as well as to the eradication of independent multi-crop peasant farmers, their communities and the extraordinary biodiversity their traditional farming methods had sustained: just so Europeans and other Westerners can feed their chickens and pigs "cheap" fodder. "The fundamental problem with GMO," Robin quotes stock analyst Mark Brunner," is that only Monsanto profits from them: the risks are for others, while the regulatory agencies have abdicated their role of regulation and control." (3)
Robin substantiates that the government of the United States under the last four administrations has been Monsanto's constant champion (there's a marvelous film clip of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush touring a Monsanto facility in a lab coat) against its own citizens' interests and expressed will, lobbying foreign governments at the most senior levels, as one interviewee suggested, as though its biotechnology were key to America's industrial base. Yet, Monsanto's key biotech products have not been developed in response to any perceptible market need: rBGH was introduced when there was a glut of milk on the market; GMO corn and soybeans were developed for resistance to Monsanto herbicides, precluding the need for the labor-intensive weed pulling by hand - at least until herbicide-resistant weeds develop. Robin maintains that no GMO crop has yet been developed that demonstrates nutritional, yield or overall hardiness superiority to conventional varieties in independent studies, not even the famed "golden rice," which apparently produces "derisory" quantities of beta carotene when cultivated under realistic conditions. (4)
The fantasy - not of biotech's promise, which many of the truly independent and subsequently ruined scientists Robin covers believed in - but of its results is nonetheless still maintained. In Le Monde's Monday, November 3, edition, the director of Monsanto's French subsidiary, Laurent Martel, is quoted, "A country that allows a handful of obscurantists to lay waste its research deprives itself of all the promises of progress that research bears for the present and the future." (5)
Not unlike the snake oil salesmen of subprimes who argued their product brought the American dream a home within reach of those who had previously been unable to afford it, Monsanto as portrayed by Robin makes the most extravagant claims for its products, some of which she shows dealing death, ruin and an entire panoply of unintended but foreseeable consequences instead. And as securitized, derivative-enhanced subprimes have infiltrated and contaminated the global financial system, Robin shows how the use of Monsanto's chemical and GMO products has contaminated biological, social and essential economic systems.
How did our leaders come to see support for such jury-rigged systems - systems that mask and disperse responsibility, while simultaneously spreading and intensifying risk - as somehow in the national interest? What has led them to renounce their responsibility to defend us as citizens and consumers - thwarting our will, common sense and the essential independent science necessary for informed decision-making? How is it that we have allowed them to create a desolation and call it "progress?" From the biblical verses in Kings, Isaiah and Micah, America's founders were inspired with the image of what we could expect from freedom and independence:
"You will sit under your own Vine, and under your own Fig-tree, none being permitted to make you afraid. All political Power will be derived from you; and will be exercised only by such Persons, during such Terms in such Manner and for such Purposes as you shall appoint. Those who shall be entrusted with the Management of public Affairs, will be the Servants, and not the Masters of the States." (6)
Neither we, nor the Paraguayan peasants Robin films trying to maintain their diverse little farms as islands in a mono-culture sea of GMO soybeans regularly sprayed with dangerous herbicides, can live without fear of coercion, or be confident there will be no reduction of our human potential for happiness and self-fulfillment through the corrosive and pervasive chemical, social and biological by-products that infuse "the world according to Monsanto."
The World According to Monsanto
English edition, book: New Press (March 2009), 352 pages.
English edition, Movie/DVD: Yes! Books, 109 minutes.
(2) p. 340 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto," my translation.
(3) p. 341 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto," my translation.
(4) p. 345 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto."
(5) Le Monde, "Monsanto contre les obscurantistes'," by Laetitia Clavreul
(6) Journals of the Continental Congress -- THURSDAY, MAY 29, 1777.