Review of the documentary “The World According to Monsanto: From dioxin to genetically modified crops. A multinational with your best interests at heart.” A film by Marie-Monique Robin.
This film is a hard hitting look at Monsanto’s history and origins in the chemical industry through its transformation into a biotech agricultural company and, particularly relevant for this website, its efforts to stamp out traditional seeds and replace them with patented genetically engineered seeds. It is a must see for anybody concerned about preserving our seed heritage and for anybody concerned about the general issue of food security.
Robin starts with a look at Monsanto’s history as a chemical company and a case study with its behaviour in a PCB cover up in Anniston, Alabama. Throughout the film the principle actors are interviewed, at least when they agree to be interviewed. See the article Groups Want Whitman to Explain How Monsanto Escaped Crackdown for Decades of PCB Pollution by Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. The upshot is that after years of evasion and prevarication Monsanto was forced to release internal documents that showed it knew all along about the problems with PCBs in Anniston. Eventually Monsanto was forced to pay $700 million to the Anniston victims. Based on his experience Ken Cook states unequivocally that he would never trust Monsanto to tell the truth.
Monsanto is perhaps best known for its product Roundup (generically known as glyphosphate). Although originally advertised as biodegradable and leaving the soil clean Monsanto was convicted of false advertising in New York in 1996 and in France in 2007 so that the “biodegradable” claims no longer appear on the product container. Monsanto’s own tests showed that only 2% was broken down after 28 days. Search the phrase “ roundup biodegradable” to find plenty of information on this topic.
Professor Robert Bellé of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie studied Roundup and found that it affects cell division control mechanism provoking first stages that lead to cancer in doses well below those commonly used.
The second phase of Monsanto’s one-two sucker punch is Roundup ready genetically engineered plants. These are patented life forms that Monsanto hopes will lock farmers into buying their seeds, herbicides and fertilizers from Monsanto. The Roundup ready soy beans are engineered by inserting a transgene from a bacterium into the soy bean. The transgene encodes a protein which is produced (expressed) and the protein then protects the soy bean plant from Roundup.
Particularly shocking is the US FDA’s near total abnegation of its responsibility to protect the consumer. Interviewing Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, James Maryanski, Biotechnology Coordinator at the FDA, Michael Taylor, former Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the FDA, Jeffrey Smith, “Seeds of Deception”, Michael Hansen, Consumers Union, Jeremy Rifkin, Foundation for Economic Trends, Robin shows that the FDA caved in to pressure to get on the biotechnology bandwagon and give GMOs a free ride with the so-called “Pinciple of Substantial Equivalence”. This bogus principle holds that GMOs aren’t really any different from naturally existing organisms and so don’t need a full regulatory process.
Some of this lack of regulatory zeal can also be attributed to the deregulation political agenda initiated under Reagan ( which has also led to financial disasters in the present day). In archival footage of then Veep George H.W. Bush visiting a Monsanto lab and listening to them worrying about possible regulatory problems they might have he responds, “call me, I’m the dereg man”.
In her inimitably thorough style Robin then delves into issues around recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) released in 1994 under the name Posilac. The litany of prevarication, duplicity and deception starts to sound familiar. Former FDA veterinarian Richard Burroughs warned of suppressed and manipulated data but was sidetracked and eventually fired. Although he was later reinstated he eventually resigned.
Dr. Samuel Epstein of the Cancer Prevention Coalition received, anonymously, records of Monsanto’s tests on rBGH submitted to the FDA. Along with Pete Hardin, editor and publisher of leading industry journal “Milkweed”, they reviewed the documents and saw that animals receiving rBGH suffered serious physiological effects compared to control animals: enlarged ovaries, reproduction problems, mastitis. Contrary to Monsanto claims that rBGH produced milk is no different from ordinary milk the mastitis means that the milk has pus in it, has antibiotics from treating the mastitis, and increases in IGF1 (insulin growth factor 1) which correlates to breast, colon and prostate cancers.
Based on Monsanto’s attempts to bribe Health Canada scientists ( Margaret Haydon, Shiv Chopra) and their review of the product rBGH ended up being banned by Health Canada, normally a corporate lackey, as well as in Europe. Meanwhile in the US consumers are not even allowed to decide for themselves whether they want rBGH milk because of a ban on advertising rBGH free milk.
Robin goes on to detail the “revolving door” between the FDA and Monsanto, with many employees moving back and forth between the two organizations. As well lawyer Steven Druker elaborates more evidence that the FDA ignored its own studies on GMOs.
An especially damning piece of sleuthing was the interview with senior scientist Arpad Pusztai formerly of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, a leading center for nutrition research. Asked to do studies on GMO potatoes engineered to express a transgene coding for the protein lectin, which protects against aphids, he was expected to produce a clean bill of health for the GMOs paving the way for the massive introduction into Great Britain. Instead he came to the opposite conclusion and was fired after a BBC interview in which he questioned the use of consumers as guinea pigs for GMOs.
Pusztai’s research on rats fed the GMO potatoes showed a “proliferative response” in the gut which could possibly have an adjuvant effect on chemically induced tumours. Also seen was a highly stimulated immune system showing the GMOs were recognized as alien, which may or may not be a problem, but is at least a warning flag. Pusztai’s most important point was that it was the technological method of gene insertion that was causing the effects whereas the transgene in isolation had no effect even at very high dosage. This directly contradicts the FDAs “principle of substantial equivalence” which asserts that, since these genes are already existing in nature, there should be no problem engineering them into unnatural organisms.
An extensive literature is exposed on Monsanto falsifying studies in interviews with William Sanjour, formerly of the Hazardous Waste Management Division at the EPA 1970-2001, and Gerson Smoger, lawyer representing Vietnam Veterans, over dioxin exposure it’s revealed how falsified studies were used to deny vets benefits for agent orange (containing dioxin) exposure. As Ken Cook was quoted earlier Gerson Smoger also states unequivocally that he wouldn’t trust anything Monsanto said.
It’s at this point in the film where things really start getting cogent for seed growers and organic gardeners/farmers. Or should I say even more cogent, as if they weren’t already so. Indiana farmers Troy Roush and David Runyan are interviewed over Monsanto’s gene police and lawsuits against farmers for saving seeds. They describe a culture of fear with neighbours no longer trusting one another. Call 1-800-roundup and make big money turning in your fellow farmer. Although not mentioned in the film the case of Percy Schmeiser is familiar to Canadians.
Meanwhile Monsanto is buying up seed companies around the world threatening to wipe out traditional varieties.
In a segment on Indian cotton farmers the BT engineered cotton plants are seen to not live up to hype and in fact fall prey to disease traditional varieties would resist. Some Indian cotton farmers are driven to suicide. Monsanto seed is four times as expensive as traditional seed and requires Monsanto herbicide and fertilizer. The traditional seed is not even available in sufficient quantities any more. See “Seeds of Suicide” by Vandana Shiva, president of the Navdanya Foundation www.navdanya.org.
For seed growers the most immediate segment is the penultimate on transgenic contamination of corn for which Monsanto uses the euphemism “adventitious presence”. This centers around the case of Ignacio Chapela of University of California Berkeley who works with indigenous people in Oaxaca Mexico who grow landrace varieties of traditional corn. His paper “Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca Mexico” Nature v.414, 541-543 29nov01 showed that, even though Mexico has banned GMOs, GMO corn has still found it’s way to Oaxaca and contaminated some of the landrace varieties. There are over 150 landrace varieties in southern Oaxaca and, as the birthplace of corn, this finding shows that the entire genetic heritage of corn is threatened. Although GMO seeds are banned the end product corn must still be allowed into the country under NAFTA and it is thought that stray kernels falling by the wayside may have germinated and caused the contamination. By studying random insertions of the transgene Elena R. Alvarez-Buylla showed that deformities in flowers depend on location of the transgene, with some being describe as monsters.
As an indicator of Monsanto’s corporate culture we are shown how they launched a smear campaign on the internet against Chapela through supposed neutral proxies Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. Analysis of the email headers shows that Murphy works for a PR firm employed by Monsanto and that Smetacek works for Monsanto.
The final segment shows how Paraguay was forced to legalize GMO soy beans because, through contamination, they were de facto in the country anyway. Now Monsanto collects royalties on all soy beans sold in Paraguay. Roberto Franco, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, hints that the contamination may have been deliberate. In the process small farmers and biodiversity are being destroyed.
Monsanto refused to do an interview for the film.
Review by Arthur Ralfs
Reviewers note: Through the wonderful technological inventions of computers and the internet the reader can check out all the assertions in this film and review for him/herself. Typing in a search phrase with Monsanto in it will usually produce more results than you care to look at.
In the same way that corporate control of seeds is a threat to our freedom corporate control of our computers, software, and the internet through closed source proprietary software is too. Consider the transition to free open source software in your fight for freedom.