Defining the Devil: Monsanto and Your Food

by Elizabeth on March 13, 2012

photo from a Colorado Springs rally of Millions Against Monsanto, courtesy MillionsAgainstMonsanto@Flickr. (CC licensed.)

Before I even get into this today, I feel I need to warn you.

I get ranty about all of this.  I also get red-faced ass-burning pissed off, and more than a little terrified.  As a person who, as one would expect, eats food in this country and would very much like that food not to kill me, the thought of this one company makes me more than just a little afraid to put anything in my mouth unless I know the person who made it from seed to plate.  For good reason…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I also want to acknowledge the following:

  • This is as political as I’ll ever get in this blog.  Ever.  And this, even, isn’t a republican v. democrat/liberal v. conservative issue, thank god.  It’s a human v. corporation issue, and if you eat, it affects you.  Considering that the alternative to eating is starving to death, this means you.
  • I’m all for companies profiting from what they do.  Do not mistake this post as some kind of hippie-esque we should all just love each other and not charge anyone for anything ever utopian-type socialist blathering.  I’m a free-market capitalist.  I like money.  So do companies.  We could go there about greed and such, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  (Rant all you want, occupy whatever you want, buy/boycott what you want.  This ain’t that.)
  • It’s very hard to talk about this issue without tipping over into tin-foil-hat-wearing-conspiracies.  In fact, the two camps often overlap when it comes to the issue of our food.  It makes it hard not to either a) give in and start folding up the aluminum headgear or b) dismissing it all as the ravings of lunatics.  However, I’m going to try very hard to keep the conjecture to a minimum (well, a minimum for me), and just tell you what you need to know in order to be more informed about the choices you make every time you open your mouth to shovel in a Twinkie or six.  I’ll try to back it up with links to actual articles that aren’t all THE ALIENS DID IT, so you can see, objectively, why I’m so terrified of and angry with this company.
  • It’s likely going to be a very long article, even by my standards.  And you know how yappy I am when I’m talking about nothing of consequence, so you know that when I acknowledge that there’s a lot to cover, there’s a lot to cover.  It’s ALL important, however, and I hope that despite the sheer amount of crazy that I’m verbally throwing your way, that you’ll try to make it to the end.  I’ll try to at least be entertaining enough to make it worth it.  Deal?

To me, Monsanto represents everything that’s wrong with the industrial food production system in the world.  Everything.

Here’s the deal:  We all have to eat.  Whether we like it or not, our lives here in the USA are geared toward eating what we can get at a store or a restaurant or a drive-through, too.

That means that the people who control the food, quite literally, control whether we live or die.  It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s really not — if the companies that make/supply the food suddenly went away tomorrow, there would be huge swaths of our population that would, literally, starve to death.  Especially in areas that are deemed “food deserts”, where some folks have very limited (or no) access to healthy food, a sudden stoppage of supply would be devastating.

Now consider that Monsanto has its greasy little paws in more than 85% of the food that’s on the shelves as we speak.

Eighty-five percent.

Scary, isn’t it?

Even if none of the rest of this article was true, that one fact — that 85% of our food is directly controlled by one single company — should be enough for alarm.

Are your bells ringing?  Is that little internal OMG ALARM going off yet?  Mine were.

Moreover, once I started looking at what this one powerful company has been doing, I went from alarmed to near-panicked.

Let’s start with one of the most visible problems:  GMO crops.

Just in case you don’t know about the whole GMO kerfluffle, here it is in a nutshell:

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, and it is not, inherently, a bad thing.  People have been cross-hybridizing plants for a long, long time.  Even just using Mendel’s genetic theories of choosing to save seeds that have certain mutated characteristics is, technically, GMO-ing a crop.  (If you looked at corn pre-1900, for instance, it’d be strange to you now.  There were no straight, golden ears.  They were twisted and kind of odd, and much smaller than what we think of as corn now.  Farmers intentionally saved seed corn from straighter ears and bigger ears, essentially forcing the evolution of the corn plant in a certain direction.  This is just good business, really.  Use what works and toss the rest.)

Thing is, we weren’t happy with having to wait for things to grow and evolve.  And with modern technology being what it is, humans are now able to do much more radical, weird things to our plants in order to give them characteristics we think would be better for business.  Things like, oh, say, splicing fish DNA with tomato DNA in an effort to have a tomato that lasts longer on the shelf of your local grocery store.  Things that Dr. Caligari would probably look at and think I ain’t touchin’ that, man.

As of 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that GMO crops could be patented, too.  This’ll be important later on in the story, but for folks who think that this weirdo GMO business has been around forever and, therefore, couldn’t possibly be a bad thing — it really hasn’t.  Selective breeding is a far cry from splicing your salad with a wildebeast.  Moreover, when selective breeding was done pre-1980, it was done for everyone, for the common good of all, not for profit.  Keep that in mind.

When it became a profitable thing, that’s when Monsanto jumped into the game.

In its infancy, Monsanto was a small company that made industrial chemicals. Agriculture chemicals were just a small part of the business, until they hit upon a gold mine:  chemical pesticides.  You’ve probably seen Round-Up(r) on store shelves, in fact.  If you live in Ag country, you’ve surely seen the commercials aimed at farmers, talking about the product’s amazing ability to kill everything — any unwanted plants that bother commercial farmers.  At its inception, the product was revolutionary.  It killed just about anything, and was the best herbicide out there.

Problem was…it also killed the crops.  It was really good at being an herbicide.  And killing the plants farmers were trying to grow was A Bad Thing, obviously.

So Monsanto set out to GMO up strains of corn and soybeans that would be resistent to its herbicide.  That way, farmers could plant Monsanto seeds (patented, of course), and use Monsanto herbicides (patented also), and get all the corn with none of the dead things.  Perfect system, right?

Not so much.  Because nature has a way of adapting.

With the bigger herbicides came the bigger, better, and stronger weeds.  Which made for bigger, better, and stronger herbicides.  Which needed bigger, better, and stronger GMO seeds.  Which then naturally produced even bigger, even better, and even stronger weeds.

You can see how this might be a cycle that would frustrate farmers and Monsanto alike.

There’s this thing about weeds, though.

Weeds grow.  And they grow indiscriminately.  Which means that even if I happened to be not using Monsanto’s herbicides/seeds, if my neighbor was, I’d still get the bigger, badder, and stronger weed growth.  The evolved weeds would still be in my fields, whether I was contributing to the problem or not.  Many farmers started making the choice to use Monsanto’s products simply because the new weeds were everywhere, thanks to the evolutionary leaps being forced by the herbicides.  There wasn’t really much of a choice, especially during the ’80′s, when family farms were in a lot of trouble already.  Use it and feed your family for a year, or don’t use it and go belly-up.  It’s still a choice, but not one with very attractive options.

So now we have nearly an entire industry with Monsanto controlling both the seeds and the way to keep those seeds alive.

Moreover, because the seeds are patented (as the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 — it was perfectly legal to do so), farmers are now indebted to Monsanto for everything — from the seeds to the chemicals — and can’t get out.  We’ll talk here in a bit about farmers who have tried and had the pants sued off them for daring to get away.  Suffice it to say, though, that for the most part, you can’t stand in farm country and throw a rock without hitting something that’s patented by Monsanto.  Not a good thing.

So now we have a whole industry dependent on one company, which now has heaping buckets of money that they can use for whatever they want.

Like I said in the disclaimers, I don’t think that’s inherently bad.  There’s nothing wrong with making money.  It’s what you do with that money that matters.

Monsanto has chosen to buy out competitors.  (Including CalGene, the company I referenced earlier that spliced together tomato and fish DNA to improve shelf life.  It’s called the FLAVR SAVR tomato, by the way.)  It’s also chosen to use those very deep pockets to do some really shitty things.

For instance, they’ve been vehemently opposed to labelling GMO foods.

There’s a reason for this.  Most consumers who care about what they eat are a little nervous about GMO foods.  We’ll get into that in a second here. (There’s good reason.)  Europe actually banned GM crops for human consumption, in fact.  Here in the US, though, the powerful Monsanto corp has done an insane amount of lobbying against telling you what you’re eating.

This is DIRECTLY from Monsanto’s own website:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.

A better question might be: What would be the benefits of labeling products containing GM ingredients? Individuals who make a personal decision not to consume food containing GM ingredients can easily avoid such products. In the U.S., they can purchase products that are certified as organic under the National Organic Program. They can also buy products which companies have voluntarily labeled as not containing GM ingredients. The law allows for voluntary labeling so long as the information is accurate, truthful and avoids misleading consumers about the food. Monsanto supports both options.

Aside from all the rhetoric bullpuckey in that statement, let’s break that down, shall we?

They’re saying that to label GM food (theirs) would be an unnecessary burden that would make people choose other food.  They’re then saying, in the next breath, that non-GM foods should be labelled instead, and apparently, that’s not an unnecessary burden on regulatory agencies, simply by virtue of it not being them that has the labelling.  They also say, effectively, that you can’t make your own choices, and that if food was labelled, you’d be confused about your choices.  How nice of them to think of our welfare, as mindless masses who can’t make up our own minds.

California proposed a bill that would force labeling, and Monsanto spent billions to try and put it down, even.

That, alone, should make consumers perk up their ears.  When a company spends massive amounts of cash to make sure you don’t know about something, there’s probably a damn good reason why they don’t want you to know.

To my knowledge, no GM food has ever made anyone’s nose fall off.

Of course, the reason I don’t know of any detachable noses may be because Monsanto is notorious for paying off people it hurts with its food. (Including at least one point in its history where it was feeding uranium to pregnant women for some reason.  Yeah, THAT’s a good idea.)

It also may be because Monsanto is violently opposed to testing any of its GM products.  We don’t know what the long-term effects of eating food laced with miRNA (micro RNA, for those who don’t know) might be.  Maybe it’s perfectly safe and our stomach acids will kill it all.  Or maybe we’ll all be brain-eating mutants with removable noses.  We just don’t know, because Monsanto throws an incredible amount of money and resources at opposing any agency, body, or group that might suggest that perhaps a little testing may be a good thing.

And now that Monsanto owns far more than just seeds (including companies that produce everything from milk hormones to artificial sweeteners laced with nerve toxin), the idea that chemical-laden and genetically-altered foods (which, under independent testing, have been implicated in everything from obesity to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease and Asperger’s syndrome) would be able to go to market not only unlabeled, but also completely untested seems beyond ridiculous.

I know you’re wondering it, too:  Where’s the FDA in all of this?  Aren’t they supposed to keep us safe from this kind of nonsense?

Well, yes.  Yes, they are.  In theory.

In theory, the FDA is all about keeping citizens safe from food and drugs that may be unsafe.  It should be all about testing AND labeling, one would assume.

However, since the early ’90′s, when a Monsanto executive was appointed to oversee the FDA, that mission seems to have become a little murky.  And worse, when it was questioned whether or not an executive for the biggest food company in the US just may have a little conflict of interest issue when in charge of the very agency that’s supposed to regulate the actions of her former friends and employers, a GAO said that no, it’s not a conflict of interest at all.  It boggles the mind, really.

Since then, there’s been what’s been called a revolving door between Monsanto and the FDA.  The list of former employees who went on to “serve” at the FDA is impressively, frighteningly long. Nearly all of the FDA big positions are former Monsantans.

Still feel safe about putting that frankenfood in your mouth, knowing that the FDA says it’s okay and doesn’t need to be tested?

Clearly, Monsanto has conquered the US Government.  But what about the farmers?

Monsanto doesn’t spend all of its mattress full of cash on blocking bills to force it to tell you what you’re eating.  It uses some of that money, instead, to sue farmers who may want to break the cycle of power it has over them.

See, crops like soybeans and corn are air-pollinated.  That means that if there’s a wind coming from the east, all of the crops planted to the east of my farm could be pollinated by whatever those crops are, even if I choose not to use Monsanto’s seeds.  Anything short of putting a bio-bubble over the whole farm simply wouldn’t work, since wind has a tendency to go wherever the hell it wants to go.  And it’s not like someone’s got a finger on the Wind Control, choosing where the air goes — it just goes.

Which means that small farmers who make the choice not to feed into the industrial machine that is Monsanto’s business plan will often times end up with pollen from those GM crops on their own, non-Monsanto crops.  Not by choice, but by nature.

And since 1980, when the courts ruled that they could, in fact, patent a seed — Monsanto’s been suing these resisters, claiming sometimes huge “technology fees” if they find contaminated crops.  Farmers can try to fight it, but even if they’ve saved their own seeds for replanting for years, Monsanto will often throw large amounts of money at legally challenging/suing these small farmers until the farmer can’t afford to continue.  Farmers that do continue often win, but many simply can’t afford to fight the fight, which leaves many of them bankrupt and unable to continue farming.

In this way, Monsanto bullies its competition/hold-outs out of business with lawyers, and gets rid of farmers not using its seed/herbicides, bit by agonizing bit.

This is bad news, not just for farmers, but for us.

Here’s why:

Soil, like we talked about yesterday, has stuff in it that makes plants grow.  Duh, I know.  What I didn’t mention yesterday is that that stuff is plant-specific.  Certain plants need certain minerals/compounds in order to grow up all healthy and strong.  Growing a particular crop will, eventually, leech from the dirt all of that particular mineral/compound, unless it’s put back into the soil somehow.  When we say soil is infertile, or have to use chemical/artificial fertilizers for a plant, it’s because previous plantings have leeched all of that out of the soil in order to grow and produce fruit.

Back in the olden days (pre-1980, really, before the age of Aquanet and Hair Bands…and Monsanto’s agriculture focus…), farmers used to rotate crops.  What that means is that this year, I might plant corn in my east field, and soybeans in my west field.  Next year, I change that up, planting wheat in the east field and corn in the west.  Or maybe I leave part of it fallow, so my cows will leave poo there while grazing, and re-energize the soil naturally.

With industrial farming, and the big contracts that the farmers have to sign with Monsanto in order to use its products, the game changed.  Farmers plant one crop, over and over, year after year, all of the same variety, which is using the same nutrients from the soil.  When the nutrients are gone, farmers either go out of business or they buy commercial chemical fertilizers (sold by…you guessed it…Monsanto!) to recharge the now-dead soil for more growing of the same crops.

Moreover, since the seed is controlled by one company, the varieties of seed available is rapidly dwindling.  Where before, farmers would save seed, some of which would naturally hybridize with other varieties, creating what’s called biodiversity, now we’re seeing what was a seemingly-infinite number of variations on the same plants (say, corn) dwindle down to a scary, miniscule few.  (It’s scary because if something were to mutate — a predator or a competitive weed species or something — the weakness could wipe out an entire year’s worth of most of that crop.  Imagine if there was a year where no corn grew, at all.  No corn syrup, no e-85 gasoline, no corn oil, no corn on the cob, no cornmeal — and since corn is in almost everything that’s processed these days, the impact of having a zero-crop year could be devastating on our food supply, not to mention on commercial meat operations, which use corn and other grains to feed the large volume of cattle/etc. that it produces.  We’ll talk about meat later this week, by the way.)

No biodiversity = a very precarious situation, not just for the dirt, but for us.  And Monsanto wouldn’t have it any other way.  They’re trying very hard to make sure that all the seeds planted in this country — from canola to corn — are all their small, biologically-narrow supply.

IF YOU READ NO OTHER PART OF THIS, READ THIS, REVOLUTIONARIES:

You may be reading all of this and thinking, this is why I want a garden…so I can get away from companies like this that are trying to feed us garbage and call it food.

Your heart is in the right place.  So is the dirt under your fingernails.  Growing things at home, organically, or buying from people who do is the single best thing you can do to take back control of your food.  But there’s a problem.

If you buy seeds from big-box stores that are not labelled “organic”, you may be buying from Monsanto without knowing it.

Monsanto has, very quietly and with cash, purchased one of the largest home-seed distributors in the world. Moreover, nowhere on the package is there any indication that you may be purchasing seeds that are owned (and, thus, patented) by the company.  With your dollars, every purchase of one of those seeds goes to fund this company and all it’s secretive, evil practices.  And considering how anti-label Monsanto has been, historically, god only knows what kind of crazy mutations/chemical changes/DNA or miRNA additions might be in that seed you think is helping you get away from the craziness of the food system.

There is a partial list of some of the patented varieties of seed that Seminis-now-Monsanto owns here. Much like the author of the first article I linked in this section, I copied this to my iPhone so I could check seed names against those owned by Monsanto, to avoid unwittingly feeding into the company’s coffers.  It’s estimated that with this purchase (and others), Monsanto now controls anywhere from 40-80% of the HOME seed market, too.

Let’s be clear, folks.  Any company that owns 80% of a necessary market is dangerous, and shouldn’t be a part of a free-market economy.

If this was just a market for plastic fishing hooks, or something else that we all don’t need to survive, I’d be the first in line to roll my eyes at naysayers and haters.  They’re obviously better at what they do, or they wouldn’t have huge market share, right?

But it’s not plastic fishing hooks.  It’s the very thing that keeps you and I alive.

And even if it was fishing hooks, if the company was bullying its competitors and non-users, buying out any competition, changing the hooks so that they hurt the users and throwing money at Congress so they don’t even have to tell people that the product may be dangerous?  That’s not “being the best”.  That should be illegal, even if it’s not.  (And actually, in fishing hooks, the not labelling wouldn’t happen, because our consumer protections are much, much stronger than our food protections right now.)

I’m just one person though.  What can I even do?

First of all, knowing the enemy is the best way to fight it.  I haven’t even touched on a fraction of what this company’s done/is doing to injure you and I and every person in this country.  Entire movies have been made about it.  A google search will bring you literally tens of millions of pages documenting things they’ve done, including stories by farmers they’ve bullied (including sending out guys with hooked noses and black suits to terrorize people.  I kid you not.).  The organization Millions Against Monsanto (where most of the pictures from this article have come from) has a central website with news and actions you can take.

Most importantly, though, you can remove yourself as much as possible from the commercial food system that makes up the lifeblood of Monsanto.

Eat as local as you can.  Know your farmers.  Read labels, even if they’re getting away with not labelling things as much as they should. Don’t give in to your kids’ requests to buy junk food or McDonald’s.  (or your own.)

Eat food.  Real food.  Don’t let a megacorp tell you what you will and won’t understand.

As always, the forums are always open if you have stories to share, questions to ask, or resources I didn’t get to here.  I’m closing comments on this entry to avoid any Monsanto employees from coming in to shill (they seem to do that on articles that are critical of the company oft-times), but the forum’s open after you’re approved.

See why all of this scares me so much now?

 

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