Monsanto and the Future of Food

Reviewed by Erin Wiegand

 What happens when an increasingly small number of corporations control an increasingly large percentage of the global food supply? The future of food, argues a new film by Deborah Koons Garcia, will be determined by how quickly these companies can consolidate and patent the seeds and genetic structure of the most important food crops in the world. Welcome to the Gene Revolution.

As of 2003, genetically engineered (GE) foods could be found on over 100 million acres of land in the United States, and in 60% of all processed foods—mostly in the form of corn and canola. And despite an ongoing struggle to conduct more objective research into the real impact that genetic engineering has on food (and, subsequently, on us), GE foods still require no labeling, little testing, and no corporate liability in the United States. A long-term study to assess the health and environmental risks of genetic engineering has yet to be carried out, largely due to the manipulation of research facilities—mainly in universities—by the industry and supporters within the government. And as Ignacio Chapela, one scientist interviewed in the film, points out, these manipulations of genetic structure are "probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into." [go here to read an interview LiP conducted with Dr. Chapela, who was denied tenure and eventually forced to leave his position at UC Berkeley after publishing a paper describing how native corn in Oaxaca, Mexico had been contaminated by genetic material from genetically modified corn.]

But scare tactics, thankfully, are not what The Future of Food relies on—this has been done and redone by many food safety activists, to little avail. The issue is much larger than the lack of research into GE foods, and much scarier than the splicing of animal DNA into tomatoes and corn. Unlike most other anti-GE rhetoric, Garcia also presents the actual science of genetic modification in a clear and even-handed manner, and acknowledges the advances made by scientists using genetic engineering in medicine. For her, it seems that the fear of potential health risks is certainly an issue, but not a greater one than the plight of traditional farmers, the consolidation of the industry, and the corporate ties to many key players in the U.S. government. It will be a hard documentary to dismiss as mere propaganda.

The first living organism (an oil-eating microbe) was patented in 1978, after a legal battle between the USDA and the Supreme Court. About twenty years later, a handful of pesticide companies (including industry giants Monsanto and DuPont) began patenting as many seeds as they could, including even seeds they had not genetically altered in any way. The only legal requirement was that the seed could not have been patented by anyone else. The companies then proceeded to effectively buy the seed industry—Monsanto alone spent $8 billion on the effort,and quickly gained control of the market. Most seed now comes from four conglomerates and their subsidiaries. It is estimated that in the next ten years, almost all of food on the retail level in the entire world will be owned by six companies.

Today, Monsanto owns roughly 11,000 seed patents, but only engineers and sells a few. By controlling the seeds for multiple varieties of popular plants, the company can develop one seed to sell, while preventing farmers from using other species of the same plant. Essentially, the goal is to limit farmers' options so much that they are forced to buy Monsanto seed and Monsanto pesticide—and to have to keep buying it every year.

The Future of Food profiles several farmers caught in legal battles with Monsanto. Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer in Saskatchewan, Canada, explains how his canola fields were contaminated with Monsanto's 'Roundup Ready' canola seeds, which eventually took over large sections of his field. (Roundup Ready seeds are designed to resist Monsanto's Roundup pesticide; the seeds go into the ground waiting to be sprayed.) Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Astonishingly, Monsanto won the case in May of 2004; the judges upheld a lower court's decision that it did not matter how the seeds got into the soil, whether by wind or falling off a truck, but that the seeds being present was all that was necessary for patent infringement.

What this and similar court decisions (Monsanto has 100 active lawsuits against farmers in the U.S. alone) mean is that it is becoming more and more difficult for farmers to save seed from their crops for the next season—because if those plants are contaminated with patented genes, they can be successfully sued. 75% of the world's 1.4 billion farmers depend on saved seed as their primary source. Even more potentially disastrous is the engineering of 'terminator genes,' which force crops to produce infertile seeds, thus making it impossible for farmers to do anything but buy new seeds every year. And if terminator seeds were to contaminate the fields of subsistence farmers, the results could be devastating. The U.S. government, ominously enough, also holds a co-patent on the terminator gene. If that wasn't bad enough, in 1994, the U.S. spearheaded a campaign for international patent law, which could allow a U.S. company to patent an indigenous plant in a third world country—and force farmers there to pay for the use it.

But government connections within Monsanto are not limited to shared patents; the company has been quite successful in forging links between its corporate headquarters and the agencies that regulate its products. Three high-ranking members of the EPA, and two from the FDA, have or continue to work for Monsanto. The former Executive Vice President for Monsanto, Linda Fisher, is now the Deputy Minister of the EPA. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas acts as Monsanto's lawyer for regulatory affairs. The current Secretary of Agriculture, Anne Veneman, sits on the Board of Directors for Calgene, which is owned by Monsanto. Before his bid for senate re-election in 2000, John Ashcroft submitted a brief to the Supreme Court calling for greater protection of gene corporations, and to uphold new plant patents. He received the largest campaign contribution Monsanto gave to any candidate that year.

Additionally, the U.S. government gives huge subsidies to farmers producing GE crops—the only thing that can keep them in business, because the refusal of many countries (especially in Europe) to buy genetically modified crops is crippling the export agriculture economy. As one analyst in the film points out, "While it's not labeled 'GMO seed rebate,' it's part of what is keeping farmers in these costly production systems."

While The Future of Food has appeared in independent theaters and at film festivals, the film is intended more as a tool for activists than anything else. Those willing to organize screenings in their homes can get a copy—along with a 'party pack' of additional information, coupons, flyers, petitions, and other materials—mailed to them from the Organic Consumers Association. And the film is certainly an impressive tool to be used in anti-GE campaigns.

But the power of The Future of Food falls a little short with their suggested resistance to the spread of GE agriculture. The last five minutes of the movie focus on the growing opposition to GE foods and presents a simple alternative—organics—as the solution, showing clips of farmers markets and briefly touching on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Unfortunately, Garcia does not draw any distinction between 'sustainable' and 'organic' agriculture, and the average viewer could very easily come away from the film believing that fighting the agricultural goliaths can be as simple as switching over to the organic version of their favorite brand, or shopping at Whole Foods instead of Safeway.

There are a number of problems with this. First, a company does not have to be sustainable to use 'organic' on their label. One of the quickest trends to catch on along with the popularity of organic goods (consumers spent $13 billion on organic food in 2003) has been for non-organic corporations to buy up organic companies—without changing the label or otherwise notifying the consumer. A few gigantic farms (mostly in California) now control half of the organic produce market in the U.S.

Additionally, the environmental impact of the organic food industry is immense, and can certainly not be considered 'sustainable.' Garcia points out that most food in the U.S. travels an average of 1500 miles—but she fails to mention that most 'organic' food travels just as far. And those locally-based organic farmers? The boom of the organic food industry is actually driving them out of business, due to increased costs of certification and standards that favor larger corporations.

Instead, consumers have to focus less on brands and packaged goods and more to a connection with local farmers (as Garcia suggests) through CSAs and farmers markets. And this is looking up. From 1994 to 2002, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has increased by 79%. Delivery services of boxes of local, organic produce are becoming more popular. Consumers are becoming concerned about the source of their food—but the future of food sustainability will rely on us looking beyond the label.


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