The World Reacts to Monsanto

By Tanya Silverman

All photos by John Novotny.

Monsanto, the St Louis-based biotech giant, is as powerful as it is controversial.

In Oregon, there was a discovery of unapproved, genetically-modified wheat being grown that originated from Monsanto. This particular strand of wheat was derived from a former field trial, but never approved for sale, and the way it ended up in that field is still unknown. While the issue exploded throughout the media last week, Monsanto claims that the wheat is free of environmental and safety concerns.

Monsanto even issued a statement that it is busy investigating the source of the wheat’s presence. Regardless of however it ended up in Oregon croplands, the wheat’s mysterious discovery has far reaching consequences, such as the decision by Japan and South Korea to partially postpone importing American wheat for the time being. Considering that South Korea imports half of their wheat from America, the suspension of wheat imports from the US shows quite a significant commitment to South Korea’s concern regarding GMOs.

Alexis Baden-Mayer Esq., Political Director of the Organic Consumers Association, claims that having an unapproved crop spread like it did in Oregon poses a threat to biodiversity, and has the potential to wipe out “non-GMO, pure, organic” strains of staple crops like rice, wheat, corn and soy.

“It was an inevitable tragedy. Whenever there are open-air field tests of unapproved, genetically-modified crops, they are going to contaminate the food supply. We’ve seen it happen before many times,” Baden-Mayer tells BTR, reflecting on an incident when a Bayer rice strain caused an organic variety to go extinct.

Back on American soil, Monsanto’s growing influence poses serious implications, not only throughout the fields, but also within the federal government. The Supreme Court, in Bowman v. Monsanto, recently ruled that the company and others like it reserve the right to patent their seeds, and forbid farmers to harvest leftover and regenerated seeds for future use. Further, each year farmers are now required to purchase new GMO seeds like those patented by Monsanto, and are forbidden to plant seeds obtained from the previous harvest.

The ruling proceeds a widely debated budgetary measure, labeled by its opponents as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” in which Congress underhandedly allowed biotech companies the right to override federal courts so they can sell, plant, harvest and distribute their GMO seeds, regardless of if there are any related environmental or health threats. The boiling reaction from organic-oriented food and agriculture activists threw both the legislation and the company into the limelight.

The double blow of both the budgetary measure and Supreme Court ruling were part of what fueled the protestors at the March Against Monsanto on May 25th.

“We’ve got Clarence Thomas as one of our Supreme Court Justices who worked for years as a Monsanto attorney,” says Tami Canal, founder and co-international coordinator of the march, about some of the political implications on Monsanto’s influence throughout the federal government. She voices concern over his everlasting loyalty to this controversial company (which also employed Michael Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods for the FDA).

To add even more fuel to the fire, the US Senate recently rejected an act, in a 71-27 vote, that would require states to label food as being genetically-modified. Canal points out that several of the Senators, such as Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, that voted against this bill had previously accepted donations from this Monsanto. In addition to politics, another central focus of March Against Monsanto were the adverse health effects of GMO foods, along with the danger of cross-pollination of GM crops with organic crops.

Canal was also impressed with the fact that over 2 million people, which included anyone from anarchists to concerned parents, came together to protest against Monsanto at the end of last month. Nevertheless, there was still a problem of getting coverage in the mainstream media, even though organizers had alerted news outlets and sent press releases two weeks prior to the event.

“CNN refused to cover our march, which spanned six continents in over 52 cities,” Canal reflects on the volume and dispersion of the activism. It occurred on a Saturday, but its participants had to go through social media to get coverage: “It took us getting everyone on our Facebook page to literally bomb their twitter accounts and demand why that wasn’t covered, and they finally covered it on Tuesday.”

While the grassroots reaction to Monsanto’s legislative and judicial victories registered loudly throughout Washington and social media channels, outrage certainly was not limited to the United States. Many of the Monsanto protests occurred throughout European cities, and while it is unclear how the GMO debate will play out in the United States, the biotech giant decided to refrain from lobbying European governments to allow GMO plants and seeds to be cultivated.

Protests were also organized in Asian cities, including Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a nation that, at the moment, is still busy in its aims to test “all wheat and flour imported from the US for genetic modification before they decide to resume allowing this grain to fully come back into their market.”

Meanwhile in Monsanto’s home country, Americans still have not settled. A Kansas farmer has just sued the company over the GMO wheat discovery in Oregon, and the Democratic Senator of this state, Jeff Merkley, is petitioning to repeal the Monsanto Protection Act. The perserverance of these multi-layered, ongoing collection of burgeoning Monsanto-related issues in the national conversation shows that while this biotech company is a giant, powerful force, its controversial influence on the nation’s government and agriculture will certainly work to instigate further challenging, protesting and questioning.