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The GM Food Industry MO

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It’s a fact that our supply chains are playing a more significant role than ever in building up, or tearing down our own hard earned reputations. Here is a little food for thought…

There has been a distinct shift in investor preferences to sustainable business practices, and rapid growth in the field of socially responsible investing and the measurement of performance against environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. Everything you and your suppliers do is being – or will soon be – scrutinised against this criteria.

Some major corporations in the industry of agricultural chemicals and biosciences may have missed this, busy as they have been engineering food and drugs and chemicals in their laboratories. At the same time there has been a consumer-driven gravitation to organic food, that is unmistakably a collective rejection of corporatised factory and genetically modified (GM) food production. It appears the industry missed that too.

With a documented track record of regulator influence, consistently false claims, negative environmental impacts, and bullying of farmers, scientists and even sovereign governments, the industrial giants of agri-chemicals have eclipsed the battery livestock farmers as the bad guys of the food-production industry.

Producing food used to be about feeding people; today it is about cost savings and production volumes. Farmers we trusted with feeding us have traded biodiversity for monoculture; soils rich with organic matter for chemical-aided continuous production; nutrition for pest resistance.

Yet, failures of ethics are also failures of market engagement, and have presented opportunities for organic farmers and retailers alike, cognisant of the desire of consumers to make informed decisions as to what they eat, based upon what is in the food, from where it was sourced and how it was grown. This opportunity presents itself to countries too, that might choose to maintain the biodiversity of their crops and security of their food supply.

Despite warnings for nearly a decade regarding the known, unknown and unintended consequences; despite increasing resistance from consumers, tinkering with the genetic make-up of crops and the patenting thereof remains allowed, encouraged and protected by law in many countries.

Those, ahem, chickens… are now coming home to roost.

Multinational agri-biotech company Monsanto is the market leader in GM potatoes, soybean and corn, holds 91% of the world’s genetically engineered or modified seed market, and much of the as-yet-unmodified seed supplies. (Genetically modified is also known as genetically engineered (GE), as genetically modified organism (GMO) or transgenic.)

Monsanto makes the synthetic bovine somatropin hormone (bST) (sold as Posilac) at the heart of the ‘hormones in the milk’ controversy; Agent Orange (dioxin), PCBs, synthetic sweetener Aspartame (NutraSweet) and the glyphosate herbicide (weed killer) Roundup.

It even makes ‘Roundup Ready’ soybean, corn, canola and cotton seed, so you can soak them full of weed killer but they will survive. What a wonderful cross-selling strategy to boost revenue and profit from each customer. To get over the sales line, it even advertised Roundup as biodegradable.

In 1996, Monsanto was accused of false and misleading advertising of glyphosate products, prompting a law suit by the New York State attorney general. Monsanto had made claims that its spray-on glyphosate based herbicides, including Roundup, were safer than table salt and “practically non-toxic” to mammals, birds, and fish.

Environmental and consumer rights campaigners brought a case in France in 2001 for presenting Roundup as biodegradable and claiming that it left the soil clean after use. Glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is classed by the European Union (EU) as “dangerous for the environment” and “toxic for aquatic organisms”. In January 2007, Monsanto was convicted of false advertising. The result was confirmed in 2009.

Fish and aquatic invertebrates are more sensitive to Roundup than terrestrial organisms. Glyphosate is generally less persistent in water than in soil, with 12 to 60 day persistence observed in Canadian pond water, yet persistence of over a year have been observed in the sediments of ponds in Michigan and Oregon. The EU classifies Roundup as “R51/53 Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment”.

Genetically Modified Organisms

There are three different kinds of GM crops – those that are modified to be insect resistant, those that are modified to be herbicide (weed killer) resistant, and a variation including both traits. All are registered pesticides (yup, the stuff you eat, a registered pesticide).

You don’t believe me, do you? EPA GM ‘registered pesticide’ crops started with potato, include corn/maize, canola, tomatoes, plums and cotton, along with squash, wheat, rice, alfalfa, sugar beets with GM peanuts and wheat leading dozens of new lines of GM produce soon to be available.

Monsanto’s colleagues in this industry are the Dow Chemical company through Dow Agrosciences, Syngenta (born of the merger of agricultural chemical divisions of pharmaceutical corporations AstraZeneca and Novartis), Pioneer Hi-Bred International, pharma giant Sanofi-Aventis, Bayer CropScience, Mycogen Seeds, BASF, Australian government owned CSIRO, other crop science companies, universities and state government departments.
Monsanto's genetically modified corn satire

This stuff is now in just about every processed food product on supermarket shelves. In some countries, beef  and dairy cattle, chickens and pigs eat a diet of GM feed. How hard is it, I wonder, given the quantity of acreage under GM crops worldwide, for cereal, oil and margarine, pasta, biscuit, muffin, cake and bread products, potato chip and other snack food, milk, meat, eggs, vegetable and fruits and juice producers, to not have genetically modified ingredients in their supply chain?

Kelloggs, the global giant in cereal and snack food production defends its use of GM food ingredients in its products, and supported the introduction of GM sugar beets, a key source of sugar in processed food.

There were no human trials. There was insufficient environmental research and monitoring. Labelling laws in the United States specifically prohibits the claim of ‘GM-free’ that would help organic farmers and consumers alike, and do not require labelling of products that do contain GM ingredients to state so. Labelling is voluntary in most countries.

Intellectual Property Rights

Monsanto began patenting its genetically modified seeds in the early 1990s. The impacts of the company’s much quoted and near attained 1999 BHAG of “owning and patenting the world’s commercial seed supply” (as revealed by Arthur Andersen) are far reaching.

The first time growers purchase Monsanto seed, they sign a contract agreeing not to save and replant seeds produced from the crops grown from Monsanto product. This is the modus operandi (MO) of the GM industry.

Kem Ralph of Covington, Tennessee is believed to be the first farmer to have gone to jail for saving and replanting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy seed in 1998. Monsanto was awarded US$1.8 million in penalties; Ralph spent months behind bars.

Ensuring its seed stock has a genetic marker that can be detected in the harvested crop, Monsanto has been most vigilant and energetic in pursuit of farmers across all countries that allow the sale of GM seeds, with dozens of lawsuits notched up to-date.

Under patent laws, a farmer commits an offence even if they unknowingly plant Monsanto’s seeds without purchasing them from the company. Monsanto has successfully sued farmers around the world for that too.

Martin Khor penned a paper called Intellectual Property, Competition and Development for the Third World Network in June 2005, which included the case study of Percy Schmeiser:

In the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, pollen from a neighbour’s GM canola fields and seeds that blew off trucks on their way to a processing plant, ended up contaminating his fields with Monsanto’s genetics. The trial court ruled that no matter how the GM plants got there, Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto’s legal rights when he harvested and sold his crop.

The Internet may have spawned the terms ‘open source’ and ‘crowd sourced’, but they are ancient concepts born of farming communities where neighbours would share seed, labour and effort for the benefit of all. What was the MO of farming the world over for centuries, is not the MO of food production in a GM world.

An industry of bad apples

The National Farmers Union of Canada summed it up in their protest against a Canada – European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA):

Canadian farmers will lose a great deal and be subject to draconian intellectual property rights enforcement measures. CETA will eliminate the age old practice of farmers to save, reuse, exchange, and sell seed from their crops. Using farm saved seed could cost you your farm. The farmer’s land, equipment, and crops can be seized for an alleged infringement of intellectual property rights attached to plant varieties owned by global seed corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta.

Consumers vs Regulators

Consumer interest in everything to do with food (growing, production, cooking) is as high as it has ever been. There is also strong public interest in the epidemics of allergies, autoimmune diseases, cancers, asthma, autism and ADHD among children the world over. And a growing concern for for the possibility of links to what we are eating. Retailers are finding their customers ever more demanding of organic, free-range and GM-free food. This is getting harder to get.

In contrast to this apparent consumer concern is very lax regulation, with many governments around the world following the United States. The general belief being that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority in the world’s most litigious country wouldn’t approve anything that wasn’t good for us, would it? This article may well answer that question.

Not only was the responsibility for protection of consumers abdicated by the US government, it became Monsanto’s advocate on a global stage. In 2003, President George Bush spruiked genetically modified foods to feed the starving masses:

We can also greatly reduce the long-term problem of hunger in Africa by applying the latest developments of science. I have proposed an Initiative to End Hunger in Africa. By widening the use of new high-yield bio-crops and unleashing the power of markets, we can dramatically increase agricultural productivity and feed more people across the continent. Yet, our partners in Europe are impeding this effort. They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears. This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnologies, for fear their products will be shut out of European markets. European governments should join—not hinder—the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.

This led the New Statesman to ask Is George Bush the New Bob Geldof? Clearly not…as African countries remain hungry. And it’s not as if the grain were being given freely – someone had to pay the GM companies.

The US government extended itself further on behalf of Monsanto, linking US Aid to Africa, to the use of GM food crops, passing Public Law 108–25 - Act to provide assistance to foreign countries to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and for other purposes, which states in part:

(A) The United States provides more than 60 percent of all food assistance worldwide.

(B) According to the United Nations World Food Program and other United Nations agencies, food insecurity of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS is a major problem in countries with large populations of such individuals, particularly in African countries.

(C) Although the United States is willing to provide food assistance to these countries in need, a few of the countries object to part or all of the assistance because of fears of benign genetic modifications to the foods.

(D) Healthy and nutritious foods for individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS are an important complement to HIV/AIDS medicines for such individuals.

(E) Individuals infected with HIV have higher nutritional requirements than individuals who are not infected with HIV, particularly with respect to the need for protein. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the full benefit of therapy to treat HIV/AIDS may not be achieved in individuals who are malnourished, particularly in pregnant and lactating women.

(2) It is therefore the sense of Congress that United States food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS, particularly African countries, in order to help feed such individuals.

The message to African nations is clear – accept our GM food or you won’t receive our aid.

In 2006, the US government also filed  a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against the European Union, claiming its ban of GM food was illegal. The United States won – forcing GM crops into Europe.

Ben Lillston, writing in Multinational Monitor in 1999 surmised the US regulator’s stance with regard to GM in an article called Don’t Ask, Don’t Know:

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a remarkable “Statement of Policy” that would forever change the food supply. Touted by then-Vice President Dan Quayle as a deregulatory initiative, the FDA determined that genetically engineered foods were “substantially similar” to conventional crops, and thus were not required to be labelled or undergo special safety testing before they entered the marketplace.

Despite a growing body of new scientific evidence of potential environmental and human health risks of genetically engineered foods, the U.S. regulatory system continues to give this radical new technology a free ride. All three agencies currently regulating genetically engineered products – the FDA (regulating food), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, regulating the environment) and Department of Agriculture (regulating the farm) – utilise statutes that were designed to regulate other products. And Congress still hasn’t passed a regulatory statute that deals specifically with the unique threats posed by genetically engineered crops and foods.

In the Spring of 1999, Cornell researchers found that pollen from genetically engineered Bt corn was toxic to the Monarch butterfly. In November, University of Georgia researchers reported that Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans were splitting open in heat at a much higher rate than conventional soybeans because of their unique metabolic structure. And in December, New York University researchers reported in the journal Nature that roots from common genetically engineered Bt corn exude the Bt pesticide into the soil, where it binds with soil particles and remains active for 243 days.

Sales Claims vs Science

One of Monsanto’s claims is that the use of Roundup Ready seed saves farmers money as it will reduce their need to purchase weed killer – with the exception of Monsanto’s own Roundup; already the world’s most used herbicide.

It has paid for scientific research to assert the safety of Roundup, GM seeds and Roundup Ready GM crops, that they won’t contaminate other fields or species, that they have no negative environmental impact. It is these documents the government regulators quote in their approvals of GM seed/food products.

The medical community however is revealing a different story. Some of the research published on the subject:

In 1999, Terra Prima, a company that sells organic corn chips, used DNA testing to prove that corn grown by a certified organic farmer in Texas was contaminated by cross-pollination from a neighbour’s field where genetically modified Bt corn was grown. Terra Prima was forced to destroy nearly $100,000 worth of its chips. The company became a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the EPA in February 2000, together with Greenpeace, Center for Food Safety and other organic farmers, alleging that the EPA registered genetically modified crops without adequately considering their health and environmental impacts.

The full complaint of plaintiffs can be found here. Greenpeace and the Center for Food Safety later withdrew their suit. The outcome was reported in Nature Biotechnology Magazine in the article Withdrawn Greenpeace Bt suit enters spin cycle, by Jeffrey Fox.

The Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) misrepresented the case as having been dismissed by the court and that the dismissal:

“…affirms the EPA’s regulatory policies and its past scientific findings that Bt crops are safe for the environment and, in many cases, enhance environmental quality,” says BIO executive director for food and agriculture Michael Phillips. “The dismissal also demonstrates that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were not able to produce credible scientific evidence to support their charge that the EPA acted negligently in approving Bt crops.”

Not exactly.

Joseph Mendelson, an attorney with the CFS, a co-plaintiff with Greenpeace, says part of the reason for withdrawing the lawsuit is that the five-year registrations which EPA granted to several of the Bt-producing corn and cotton varieties are due for re-consideration either this year or next. This means that on technical grounds some elements of the recently withdrawn lawsuit were set to be “mooted out,” he says. “We plan to track the re-registrations closely. It isn’t over, and the fat lady hasn’t sung”.

Indeed, in setting its new reviews, EPA officials appear to be heading off anticipated renewal of the Greenpeace lawsuit. For instance, they point to elaborate efforts to base the re-evaluations on “the most current health and ecological data, including recently reviewed non-target impact data” and say that “the reassessment process has…been designed to assure maximum transparency”.

A few months later the EPA agreed to do a “comprehensive reassessment of all currently registered, commercial varieties of corn and cotton genetically engineered to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-specified insecticidal genes”.

Environment Endangered

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has condemned the use of genetically modified food products in the supply chain and called for doctors to prescribe non-GM food for all patients:

Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.

There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation as defined by Hill’s Criteria in the areas of strength of association, consistency, specificity, biological gradient, and biological plausibility.

The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies. Specificity of the association of GM foods and specific disease processes is also supported. Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation, including upregulation of cytokines associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation.

Animal studies also show altered structure and function of the liver, including altered lipid and carbohydrate metabolism as well as cellular changes that could lead to accelerated aging and possibly lead to the accumulation of reactive oxygen species.

One of the biggest issues is the potential impact on bees and other insect pollinators. The last few years has seen a dramatic decline in bee populations in the United States, Canada, South America, in Europe and the UK. We are utterly dependent upon these tiny critters that provide the essential service of plant pollination. It is as black and white as no bees and bugs, no fruits, vegetables, edible oil seed crops and so on.

The president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association, Walter Haefeker, who is also a director of the German Beekeepers Association, suggests in this article from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, that genetically modified crops, specifically the type that have pesticide genes inserted into them like Monsanto’s Bt Corn – and which is toxic to insects – is to blame.

While the European Union was forced (by the WTO) to allow the sale and farming of GM seed, Monsanto’s most widely used strain of genetically modified corn is now banned in France, Austria, Hungary, Norway, Greece, Luxembourg and Germany.

The German ban was announced in April 2009 by German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner and reported in Der Spiegel newspaper:

Under the new regulations, the cultivation of MON 810, a GM corn produced by the American biotech giant Monsanto, will be prohibited in Germany, as will the sale of its seed. Aigner told reporters Tuesday she had legitimate reasons to believe that MON 810 posed “a danger to the environment,” a position which she said the Environment Ministry also supported. In taking the step, Aigner is taking advantage of a clause in EU law which allows individual countries to impose such bans.

At the 6th European Conference of GMO Free Regions in Brussels in September 2010, a group of international scientists released a report summarising some of the scientific findings of harmful effects of GM food ingredients, the glyposate herbicide  Roundup, and specifically GM Roundup Ready crops.

More pointed was the rejection of 475 tons of pesticide-soaked corn donated by Monsato to Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, just as Zambia had done in 2003.

In February 2010, Monsanto pulled its GM corn from evaluation by the European regulators “rather than accede to the request for additional research and safety data”.

In August 2010, eight years after the lawsuit brought by Greenpeace, Center for Food Safety and organic farmers against it, the EPA cancelled certain products containing the pesticides, Bacillus thuringiensis Cry3Bb1 protein and the genetic material necessary for its production in Monsanto’s MON 863 corn, MON 863-5 and/or Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab protein and the genetic material necessary for its production in MON 810 corn. The cancellation order stated that it would follow the September 30, 2010, expiration of two conditional, time-limited registrations.

Monsanto had decided not to pursue extending those registrations in the United States. It instead obtained approval from Brazilian authorities to sell a soybean seed that contains the very same pesticide gene in Brazil.

You Know You’re Soaking In It

Monsanto claims that the use of Roundup Ready seed saves farmers money as it will reduce their need to purchase weed killer – with the exception of Monsanto’s own Roundup; already the world’s most used herbicide.

In 2003, a study by Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center using USDA data on the usage of pesticides, found that genetically engineered crops increased pesticide use by about 50 million pounds in a three year period.

This evidence should end the biotech industry’s erroneous claims that genetically engineered crops are better for the environment,” said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “Not only do these crops do the opposite of industry claims by increasing pesticide use, they also threaten to reduce biodiversity, to create super weeds, to undermine farmers, and to harm human health.

Another study released in November 2009, entitled Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, proved a link between the planting of GM crops and a marked increase in the use of pesticides.

The basic finding is that compared to pesticide use in the absence of GE crops, farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the last 13 years as a result of planting GE seeds. GE crops are pushing pesticide use upward at a rapidly accelerating pace. In 2008, GE crop acres required over 26% more pounds of pesticides per acre than acres planted to conventional varieties. The report projects that this trend will continue as a result of the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

This study also used freely available U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pesticide-use data up until 2008 “to estimate the differences in the average pounds of pesticides applied on GE crop acres, compared to acres planted to conventional, non-GE varieties”.

In 2008, the USDA stopped tracking pesticide use on crops, so no such study can be conducted on current or future use of pesticides.

And now with the mass spraying of Roundup and weed killer resistent genes in food crops, Monsanto has created ‘super weeds’ able to withstand glyphosate. Monsanto is today urging US customers to soak their crops with Roundup TOGETHER with competitors’ chemical herbicides, even paying for the additional products.

Not too long ago, farmers were praising the wonders of GM soybean and corn. Things are not so sweet for the agri-biotech industry today though, with huge declines in sales and customers in its home ground of the United States.

Perhaps the strongest message against the GM industry’s ‘MO’ came in 2007 from the United States Patent and Trademark Office after objections to the way Monsanto enforces its intellectual property rights.

The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) announced today that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has rejected four key Monsanto patents related to genetically modified crops that PUBPAT challenged last year because the agricultural giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue – and in some cases literally bankrupt – American farmers. In its Office Actions rejecting each of the patents, the USPTO held that evidence submitted by PUBPAT, in addition to other prior art located by the Patent Office’s Examiners, showed that Monsanto was not entitled to any of the patents.

Monsanto has filed dozens of patent infringement lawsuits asserting the four challenged patents against American farmers, many of whom are unable to hire adequate representation to defend themselves in court. The crime these farmers are accused of is nothing more than saving seed from one year’s crop to replant the following year, something farmers have done since the beginning of time.

With the reputation of GM foods coming under pressure from serious scientific evidence that contradicts the sales brochures, Monsanto and its cohorts are seeking markets for engineered/modified/biotech crop seeds further afield.

The industry has found a friendly regulatory authority in Australia. It is extremely active in lobbying federal and state governments who have welcomed the practice of genetic modification of Australia’s food to include pesticide genes, herbicide resistant genes and other mutations – from both imported and home grown corporations. This is the current list of Australian government approved genetically modified crops.

But this is perhaps one of the most revealing documents – a submission to the Western Australian government review of Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act from the Molecular Plant Breeding CRC:

The MPBCRC strongly supports the development and commercialisation of GM crops and pastures and it is our recommendation to the Western Australian Government that the ACT should be removed to facilitate investment into Western Australian research and development and the adoption of GM crops and pastures by Western Australian farmers.

The ACT implies that there is some sort of risk or negative impact associated with the planting of GM crops.

It is to the chagrin of producers that GM food has not been embraced by the masses. The industry is now on a mission to change Australian consumer sentiment. Prepare yourselves for the onslaught of marketing, the spinning to media, and the discrediting of ‘anti-GM’ activists, as this is what has preceded the wide-scale adoption of GM in every other country in which GM food is grown.

Monsanto has already begun to ramp up its ‘education and advocacy program’ in Australia to convince us all is safe and wonderful in the GM world. As reported on ABC radio:

Speaking at the NSW Farmwriters Forum in Sydney, Monsanto’s head in Australia, Peter O’Keefe, argued that organic and permaculture production was “not viable” on a large scale, and Australia was falling behind other countries in productivity improvements because of the reluctance to embrace GM technology.

Remember, the industry’s concern is not the consumer; its interest is greater production volumes, cost savings, short cuts and profits. In fact, so concerned is the industry about consumer resistance in Australia and the potential impacts to business models, it just held a masterclass for industry executives on how to ‘get their message’ across in the media to persuade us.

At an October 2010 Australian biotech conference, top heavy with practitioners and patent lawyers from the United States, there was a session dedicated to Building reputation to drive corporate strategy: A masterclass in biotech communications.

This presentation is absolutely priceless! The media trainers are right – trust is everything.

Trust is the foundation of reputation. The companies in this article have all but eroded any consumer trust in them. They blame activists and bloggers, when in fact, they can take full credit for their own damaged corporate reputations with the origin their products, practices and propaganda.

If you find the products and practices of these companies as questionable as I do, write to your local member of parliament demanding that they ban GMO seeds and crops in Australia; share this article and everything else you can find on GMO health impacts with your friends and family; support food producers who do not use GMO ingredients, and demand at the very least, GMO labelling on all local and imported products.

On completing this article and checking facts, I found a documentary about Monsanto released in 2008 called The World According to Monsanto, by French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin. Do yourself a favour and watch (if nothing else) the trailer above.

The documentary is essential viewing. “Devastating exposé . . . Will freeze the blood in your veins”—The Gazette.  And it did mine. Full video can be viewed here

© 2010 – 2013, Alex Harris. All rights reserved.

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Category: Feature, Reputational Risk, Sin & Spin

About the Author: Author, freelance features writer, speaker and consultant specialising in reputational risk, corporate social responsibility, business ethics, consumer generated and social media, and the links between them. Winner of Chicago Women in Publishing 1994; National Association of Women Business Owners New Venture Award 1995; past president Australian American Chamber of Commerce of Chicago; past executive director of Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Qld).

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