"Sustainable development will be a primary emphasis in everything we do."
-- CEO Robert Shapiro, Monsanto 1996 Environmental Review.
"The problem with Monsanto's gene pool is that there's no lifeguard."
-- Roger Sanders, California cotton farmer.
Last June's 5-year review of the Earth Summit made it clear that since the historic Rio gathering, most governments had sidelined environmental concerns and broken the commitment to economic development for the world's poor. Meanwhile, in other fora, notably the World Trade Organization, the world's mighty global corporations had mercilessly pursued their own objectives: free trade, liberalized investment and control over technology.
But at a time when even UN diplomats have tired of the rhetoric of sustainable development, companies like Monsanto have increased their use of the phrase to describe their activities. Monsanto would have us believe they are a leader of sustainable development.
Monsanto IS unquestionably a world leader in agricultural genetic engineering, and has staked its future on that business. It has moved aggressively with R&D, takeovers, mergers and lobbying. And, in the style of this age of greenwash, the company has initiated a slick campaign to convince a skeptical public that their genetic manipulation is a key to 'sustainable development.'
Monsanto tugs at our heart strings by pointing to the gap between a growing world population and food supply. As the company's CEO Robert Shapiro writes in the introduction to Monsanto's 1996 Environmental Review, the use of genetically engineered crops "will help immensely in closing the gap between hungry people and adequate food supplies."
But will genetically engineered crops actually help feed the hungry? The evidence says no.
Let's take Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. It's designed to increase milk production. But the US already has an oversupply of milk, so increased production merely drives down the price that farmers receive. In addition, rBGH is so costly that dairy farmers in the Third World will be unable to purchase it, thereby excluding them from any of the "benefits" of this technology.
How about Roundup Ready soybeans? These beans are not designed to increase yield, though their ease of use might allow farmers to plant more soy beans (while increasing use of the Roundup herbicide in those marginal acres). But if you think that these additional soybeans will make it to the mouths of protein-starved kids, think again. Most soybeans end up in oil or become minor ingredients in a wide variety of processed foods never seen by undernourished peasants in Bangladesh or Chad.
Yieldgard corn? Most of the corn goes to animal feed.
Take a closer look at Monsanto's transgenic canola, sugar beets, cotton, corn or potatoes -- none of them is designed to put food in the mouths of hungry children.
The myth that world hunger is a result of global food shortages was debunked years ago. More germane issues for the poor include access to the food that exists and access to land to grow their own. High technology, high input cash crops are not the answer to this problem.
They are, however, helpful to Monsanto's appetite for increased control over food production. Their purchase of seed companies, their contractual prohibitions on farmers' traditional practice of saving seeds from one season to the next (know as brown bagging), their opposition to smaller companies trying to avoid bovine growth hormone, all speak of a company anxious to advance our dependence on them for our sustenance.
Monsanto's early forays into genetically manipulated crops are aimed at bolstering sales of its own herbicides. At least here we have a modicum of truth in labeling; Roundup Ready soybeans are designed to tolerate applications of Roundup, which is Monsanto's trade name for glyphosate. Since Roundup is Monsanto's most profitable product, it doesn't take a genetic genius to figure out why the company aggressively defends crops which invite the use of Roundup. They do so even to the point of opposing labeling of products which contain roundup ready soybeans. Monsanto executives seem to believe their soybeans are no different than conventional ones, but when it comes to consumer's right to know, Monsanto is firmly opposed.
In the long term, Monsanto believes it will win us over to transgenic crops. Meanwhile, knowing that most consumers are highly wary even of the phrase 'genetic engineering,' Robert Shapiro refers to Monsanto's 'genetically improved' crops.
But back to reality. Genetic engineering is a profound and radical experiment with life itself. The consequences, as with Monsanto's PCBs earlier this century, are unforeseen, perhaps unforeseeable. Increased allergies, runaway supercrops and decrease in biodiversity, increased use of pesticides, pesticide resistance, corporate control over seeds, decreased effectiveness of natural pesticides, and, ultimately, worse conditions for the world's farmers, rather than better -- these are among the predicted consequences of the headlong rush into genetically engineered crops touted as sustainable development by its inventors.
Perhaps it would be wise for CEO Shapiro to review his own introductory letter to Monsanto's 1995 Environmental Review: "There have been times in Monsanto's 94 - year history when we, like others, weren't as aware of our actions as we should have been. These days have been over for a long time."
Have they really, Mr. Shapiro? Please think again. Because the risks of bioengineering are too great to hide behind the fancy greenspeak of genetically manipulated sustainable development.
In recognition of this GREENWASH AWARD, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro will receive a shipment of organic soybeans.
For more information on the environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops, see:
- 102 Greenwash Awards
- 181 Food and Agriculture