Thursday, December 23, 2010

The World According to Monsanto

Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Politics and Power, Tulika Books, Delhi, 2010, pp xii + 372, Rs 675.
Corporate history affords several case studies of companies changing and reinventing themselves over time, acquiring a contemporary shape and form simply not foretold in their original genetic code.
Mutations in product profile are a part of corporate evolution. But few companies manage to retain the unmutated gene of corporate criminality through all transformations of product profile. This book by a highly regarded French journalist is precisely that kind of a case study. The story of Monsanto that Marie-Monique Robin unfolds is of a company whose scientific and technological career has been so deeply scarred by felony and ethical violations, that it is by most criteria, unique.
What is it about Monsanto that makes it a serial offender? What impels it to push the frontiers of research with the single-minded intent of multiplying profit? What makes it evade all prescribed safeguards in its rush to the market -- and persist with hazardous products despite the human costs?
The chronicle that Robin unfolds is compelling, persuasive and deeply alarming. It leaves no room for even the most voluble champions of corporate free enterprise to make a case of unfair treatment. The problem in fact is the opposite: of public safety becoming a victim of untrammelled corporate profiteering, of oversight bodies unable to maintain a distance from the companies they regulate and becoming, in effect, accomplices in criminality.
The Monsanto website proudly blazons a corporate commitment to the world’s farmers. On a futuristic note, Monsanto proclaims its commitment to helping the world’s farmers meet the food needs of the nine billion people who will populate the planet by mid-century. Sustaining this mass of humanity, it estimates, would require more food production in the next forty years than in all the last 10,000 years. If the identity of the company were to be summed up, its chosen words indeed, would simply be that it is “all about farmers”.
In one of the later chapters of a book which sets a new standard in socially responsible and committed reporting on matters of great scientific complexity, Robin describes her encounter with the epidemic of farm suicides in India. Behind the story of farm suicides, which has been told in fits and spurts by the Indian media, lurks a reality which lends it an added poignancy. For the most part, the farmers opting out are not those who customarily inhabit the desolate fringes of subsistence. Indeed, they invariably come from the middle strata that can realistically entertain aspirations of upward mobility. On the flipside, this also means that they are all too susceptible to the fantasies conjured up by corporate dream merchants, of fabulous wealth emanating from the new farming techniques that promise higher yields and lower costs.
It is just a few months since the Indian government, in a move that drew worldwide attention, stopped the commercial marketing of brinjal seeds implanted with the gene for the naturally occurring pesticidal bacteria, bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt). All mandated tests had ostensibly been completed and the empowered body had entered a strong recommendation that the seeds be widely sold. Farm protests continued though, and the Indian government in a concession to the depth of sentiment encountered, decreed that commercial sales of the genetically modified seed would have to wait.
As a cause, Bt brinjal found a number of very voluble champions in the media, offering a sure signal that its banishment from India’s agricultural fields would be a passing phase. As often happens with these issues, it is not a paucity of information about Bt brinjal that is the problem so much as a surfeit. Indeed, for every inconvenient fact that surfaces about its products, Monsanto has managed to put out a dozen contrary findings, invariably found on deeper examination, to be part of a complicated web of self-serving, carefully cherry-picked information, artfully dressed in the vocabulary of scientific research.
Health and epidemiological studies on any new substance or process whose introduction into the chain of food production is sought, are governed by an elaborate protocol. In essence, the procedure involves detailed observations of two clusters: a “control” group that is not exposed in any manner to the new process or substance, and a “sample” group which is. Accuracy requires that the two groups be as similar to each other in every other parameter. Every study is subject to challenge on the grounds that its choice of control and sample groups is not sufficiently rigorous. When Canada recently decreed that bisphenol A – a chemical widely used in food packaging and storage -- is toxic to human health, it found the substance so ubiquitous that identifying a control group that had not been exposed to it was virtually impossible.
As Robin documents, Monsanto has frequently used the procedure of fixing experiments so that test parameters would be virtually identical between the “control” and “sample” groups, after the latter has been put through the defined level of exposure. In cases involving exposure of its factory personnel to hazardous substances, it has freely interchanged individuals between control and sample groups, to report no discernible adverse effects. In many of these enterprises, it has enjoyed the collusive support of a wide network of scientific institutions and editorial boards, all too eager to grant an imprimatur of approval without insisting on procedures such as examining the primary data.
Monsanto’s career walking the borderline between science and crime begins in the 1930s. The new science of polymers was making its debut on the world stage, seemingly holding out limitless possibilities. Regulatory agencies were yet to acquire their mandate to inquire into the toxicology of new substances and in most instances, public interest had no other safeguard than the sense of responsibility of individual companies. In a mood of idle curiosity, chemists working in laboratories around the world found a means of combining chlorine in varying proportions with benzene – a chemical compound whose properties were analysed and characterised as the petroleum refining industry grew. The new compounds, called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found to possess extraordinary thermal stability and resistance and soon became widespread in their use as industrial coolants.
Already a serious player in heavy industrial chemicals, Monsanto bought over a PCB manufacturer in 1935 and soon acquired a global patent on the technology, going on to set up a number of manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and Europe. In 1937, it was first apprised of scientific findings that workers exposed to PCB fumes at its manufacturing facilities had begun showing acute symptoms of hepatitis. Experiments with rats soon established that breathing the vapour led to severe liver lesions while bodily contact resulted in a virulent skin condition.
Reports poured in over the years from users of PCBs. But the consensus on PCB toxicity took decades to firm up, because Monsanto managed at every vital juncture to clutter up the scientific discourse. It was only in 1977 that the U.S. finally banned PCBs in any kind of application, though it took nearly another quarter century for the substance to be declared a persistent organic pollutant and proscribed worldwide.
Monsanto’s role in beating back the growing tide of opinion against the use of PCBs remained widely known in scientific circles but only came to public attention when the residents of the town of Anniston in the U.S. state of Alabama organised in 2006 to file a suit for compensation against the company. The hazards of PCBs were acknowledged but the court of law needed to be satisfied that Monsanto was not acting in ignorance, i.e, that it knew of the damage its manufacturing facility could cause while continuing to inflict every manner of ailment, including terminal cancer, on local residents. That mountain of documents, which Robin describes as a testament to “truly Kafkaesque precision and coldness”, was fortuitously discovered to be in the possession of a legal firm that had for long represented Monsanto. It would have remained buried in the deepest vaults of corporate secrecy, if not for a rare decree by a U.S. judge, demanding full disclosure.
It seems a plausible case that Monsanto, despite its multibillion dollar revenues, could not have won its immunity without having taken out a solid insurance policy with governmental authorities. Robin indicates where that may have come from in a chapter detailing the company’s pivotal role in U.S. war strategy in Vietnam, which included the large scale use of the herbicide Agent Orange to defoliate the country, eliminating sources of refuge for guerrilla fighters and depriving the wider population of food and sustenance. The lethal toxicity of dioxin, the active agent used in the defoliant, was known to Monsanto after its use in a municipal cleanup operation in a U.S. town led to large-scale animal morbidity and a final decision to evacuate and entomb the entire town.
Agent Orange remains one of the great unrequited crimes of the 20th century. Monsanto and its partner in the large-scale production of the toxin, Dow Chemicals, came perilously close to paying a price when U.S. servicemen who had suffered exposure while applying the agent or been within the target area at the time of application, brought suit against the company. But after several tortuous twists, Monsanto and the U.S. government were held to be free of all liability. The far more severe suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese population remained the great unmentionable. Responding to intense moral pressure, the U.S. government agreed in 2003 to a joint study with Vietnam of the human effects of Agent Orange, only to abruptly retract without explanation two years later.
Along the way, Monsanto introduced a bovine growth hormone in the U.S. market with the promise of vastly improving milk yields. Growing evidence of disease and morbidity among animals that had been administered the hormone was suppressed and the deleterious health impact of the milk produced, artfully concealed. The company’s forays into genetic engineering which then began to gather momentum, were governed by the narrow focus of creating synergies with existing product lines in herbicides.
After having captured a significant market share with its weed killer brand-named Roundup, Monsanto began in the 1990s to experiment with the possibility of introducing plant varieties that would be resistant to its own weed killer. This promised the farmer an easy route to vastly increased earnings while eliminating all arduous intervening steps: to sow the Monsanto seed, spray his field with Roundup and just wait for the crop to ripen for the harvest.
Monsanto had by this time set up a busy revolving door between its higher management tiers and U.S. regulatory bodies: the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Unlike other corporations which held deregulation to be the ultimate virtue, Monsanto actively promoted regulation, since that stamp of approval from a statutorily empowered body was vital towards bridging its growing credibility gap with the public. But the regulatory process had to be in the hands of people it could trust, preferably those who had once been its senior executives. Given the growing pro-business orientation of U.S. governments since the early-1980s, this was easily accomplished.
Since being forced to settle with the residents of Anniston in one of the biggest class action suits in recent times, Monsanto has suffered the setback of seeing its Bt corn banned from European markets. But its champions in the U.S. remain as vigorous as ever, often pitching their interventions in global councils such as the World Trade Organisation with the sole intent of shoring up Monsanto’s chosen lines of business. The weapon of choice here is intellectual property law and the terrain of battle is the imperative of feeding the world’s growing population when natural resources are shrinking. The stakes are high for the world’s farmers, who face a growing imbalance in material and economic assets, and a rapid erosion of life-sustaining ecological resources. The battles remain to be joined and Robin’s work is a weapon they could with potentially great efficacy, add to their armoury going forward.

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