Is Monsanto the Evil Empire?

Filipinos say NO to Monsanto's genetically modified corn. (AP Photo/Greenpeace/Melvyn Calderon)

It’s a very strong possibility. Consider the facts: Monsanto was started in 1901 to manufacture an artificial sweetener called saccharin, which later became implicated as a possible carcinogen. For most of its history Monsanto’s business was producing chemicals, including  two of the most toxic substances ever created: polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, and dioxin. PCBs have been linked to damage in the liver and in the neurological, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems – and crammed into everything around us. Monsanto also manufactured the powerful herbicide Agent Orange (whose byproduct is the deadly dioxin), used to defoliate 30,000 square miles of South Vietnam. Its best-selling product (accounting for half its corporate profits) is a herbicide called Roundup that kills every green plant it touches. And the great minds of Monsanto also brought us recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) that it tried to force down the throat of every dairy farmer in America, and into every child’s glass of milk.

But the real windfall came when the chemical giant Monsanto, now calling itself a “Life Sciences” company, used a Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to  patent “live human-made microorganisms” to facilitate its quest for world domination…through seeds.

Whoever controls seeds controls the world’s food supply, and Monsanto quickly became the world leader in genetic modification of seeds, winning hundreds of biotechnology patents that force farmers to re-buy seeds every year, instead of simply saving them from the previous crop. It controls those patents with an iron fist and a ferociously litigious army of lawyers, secretly videotaping farmers and threatening them with crushingly costly lawsuits.

Alfalfa, up close & personal

Which is why the recent Supreme Court victory by the Center for Food Safety in Monsanto v. Geerston Farms was such a stunningly satisfying upset. In true David-and-Goliath fashion, CFS (with organic companies like Stonyfield Farms, Cliff Bar and Eden Foods) took on Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture in the first genetically modified crop case ever brought before the Supreme Court — and prevailed!

“We brought this case to court because I and other conventional farmers will no doubt suffer irreversible economic harm if the planting of GE alfalfa is allowed,” said plaintiff Phil Geerston.  “It was simply a question of our survival…” He isn’t exaggerating.

Green waves of grain

Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop in America and a key source of dairy forage. With the incursion of Monsanto’s patented GE alfalfa into fields nearby, organic and conventional farmers face the loss of their businesses due to widespread contamination and cross-pollination. Roundup-Ready Alfalfa seeds are genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, so farmers can conveniently spray fields with weed killer without affecting the crops (which kinda makes you wonder what its residue does to you when you eat the crops slathered in it). But seeds tend to spread, on the wind and by birds, meaning no fields or forest are safe from transgenic invasion. Plus, an epidemic of super-weeds have sprung up in nature’s creative response to genetically engineered crops, affecting all farmers.

Nearly all sugar beets are genetically engineered by Monsanto.

Faced with this imbroglio, the judges ruled that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa is illegal and the ban on the crop will remain in place until a full and adequate Environmental Impact Statement is prepared by USDA and the crop is officially deregulated–which will take a least a year. “The Court’s decision affirmed that the threat of genetic contamination of natural plants posed by biotech crops is an issue of significant environmental concern now and in the future,” said George Kimbrell, senior staff attorney for CFS, in an austere understatement. (Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are banned in much Europe, where they obviously take their food a lot more seriously than we do here in the USA.)

I’m so thrilled today to be donating $100 to the Center for Food Safety in its ongoing fight to protect our health and the environment by challenging harmful food production technologies and  promoting organic and sustainable agriculture. And for taking on the big legal guns (and unlimited legal budgets) of Monsanto. To join me in putting your money where your mouth quite literally is, click here.

And for more great information about the food we eat, read Barbara Kingsolver’s  Animal Vegetable Miracle or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watch the movie Food Inc.,or go to the Center for Food Safety website for non-GMO Shopping Guides!