Documentary: The World According to Monsanto
- Friday, 01 May 2009
Monsanto. You've probably heard the name of this agricultural engineering juggernaut once or twice, and maybe you've noted some controversy. But how much do you really know about this company?
In environmental and sustainability circles, Monsanto is synonymous with Roundup pesticide, genetically modified (GM) crops and hormones that increase milk production in dairy cows—not to mention farmer suicides and a slew of unexplained layoffs of bureaucrats and researchers who have called into question Monsanto's research.
For anyone who's curious about the company, food safety or sustainable farming, get your hands on a copy of French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin's 2008 film The World According to Monsanto. The film is a sobering, even terrifying, look at the ways one corporation is taking control of food.
Robin focuses her lens on the relationship between food safety and health related to pesticides, genetically modified foods and growth hormones. The film also examines the "revolving door" between Washington, the FDA and large corporations like Monsanto, suggesting that there are huge ethics issues at play.
As Robin blends views from former Monsanto employees, researchers, farming and food safety activists and regular farmers, the story of Monsanto appears to be fraught with deception, extortion, fraud and death.
The film starts in France, with farmers talking about changes in labeling on Monsanto's seminal pesticide Roundup. As the film quickly shifts to the United States, where genetically modified Roundup Ready Soy accounts for 95 percent of U.S. soy production, the issue quickly becomes complicated.
Monsanto rapidly re-branded itself shifting away from its roots as a chemical company to become a global leader in agri-engineering.
While some farmers interviewed in the documentary sing the praises of Monsanto's miracle crops, others sing an altogether different tune. One farmer interviewed ended up settling out of court with Monsanto to avoid being bankrupted by legal fees (he said company representatives threatened to bury proceedings in motions that would draw the case out for years). Monsanto alleged the farmer was saving and reusing Monsanto seed—a big no-no under Monsanto's contracts. But how did Monsanto get wind of this alleged infraction? The answer, it seems, is Monsanto has created a culture that pits farmer against farmer, encouraging them to snitch on their neighbors.
The issue gets even scarier when it comes to milk. As Robin's documentary reveals, Monsanto developed a hormone for dairy cows to spike milk production. The recombinant bovine somatotrophin (rBST) was quickly approved by the FDA and sold under the brand Posilac. But Canada and Europe banned rBST. While Monsanto says this drug doesn't change the milk in any significant way, the film puts forth independent research that indicates the drug spikes levels of an insulin-mimicking hormone in humans-which is linked to various health issues, including many types of cancer. So much for milk doing a body good.
(Incidentally, Monsanto sold the Posilac brand to Eli Lily and Co. in October 2008, just months after Robin's documentary was released. Nevertheless, Monsanto is back in the spotlight defending rBST and supporting legislation to compel companies labeling milk as rBST-free to also include a disclaimer: "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows.")
While Monsanto is headquartered in the U.S., their products are marketed around the world. And, as The World According to Monsanto reveals, the controversy has followed.
Renowned researcher Arpad Pusztai was working at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Scotland when the Ministry of Agriculture gave him 2 million Euros him to lead a research project into the health effects of GM potatoes. They figured the research would be an endorsement of GM potatoes, but the science didn't add up. As Puztai tells Robin, he found the starchy tuber caused a proliferation in the gut of mice—and while this doesn't mean the mice would certainly develop cancer, it's an indicator of a problem that may lead to cancer. The GM potatoes also led to a spike in immune system activity, which meant the body recognized the potato as alien. Pusztai was later fired and his research team was broken up.
In India the issue isn't just political, it's a matter of life and death. When Monsanto introduced GM cottonseed that could withstand certain pests, farmers jumped at the new product. In many cases, farmers went into heavy debt to buy the seed, so when a bad year came around, there was no way to cover their high loans. Many Indian farmers have committed suicide to erase the debts.
Half a world away in Paraguay, local farm activist Jorge Galeano tells Robin about the steep spike in GM soy grown in his country, where 75 percent of producers are foreigners. "[Monsanto's] objective is to control all of the world's food production through farmerless farming," says Galeano in the film. "The result is that Monsanto is depriving us of our food sovereignty, of our ability to feed ourselves."
The film also reveals a rapidly evolving problem with corn. Corn originated in Mexico and the country is highly protective of the many heirloom varieties, growing the varieties to protect biodiversity of the species. But there's a problem. While genetically modified Bt corn is banned in Mexico to keep the genetic lines of corn pure, it's popping up along roads and in fields. It's uncertain how Bt corn made it into Mexican soil, but one of the possibilities suggested in the film is accidental planting from American corn foods sold in Mexican markets. A few kernels dropped on the ground here and there can have plants popping up in no time.
There are also problems with cross-pollination. Many organic farms bordering farms that use genetically modified seed have set up vast buffer zones to try to reduce the chances of the GM seed from taking root in organic fields. But it can be a losing battle since bees can carry pollen across vast distances.
If these issues sound complex, consider that there were far too many details in this documentary to discuss them all in this article. The above concerns are just the tip of the iceberg-the full story is alarming and incredibly detailed.
Bringing together independent research, archival footage from hearings, leaked memos and reports from Monsanto and numerous interviews with farmers, activists, researchers, bureaucrats, former FDA employees and former Monsanto employees—the company itself refused comment—Robin has developed a documentary that calls in to question everything corporations and governments have telling the public about the safety of their food.
If ever there was an argument for organic farming, The World According to Monsanto is it.
The World According to Monsanto
Filmmaker: Marie-Monique Robin
Distributor: The National Film Board of Canada