Even set against the standards established by today’s behemoths of international trade and commerce, The Monsanto Company is a veritable giant. Since its founding in 1901, Monsanto has advanced through various embodiments, most often as a producer and purveyor of chemicals. Its many mergers and acquisitions have often dramatically altered the scope of its operations, and as the twentieth century came to a close Monsanto began a transition of its principal role from that of a chemicals company into a formidable biotechnologies operation where she remains today. Following this transformation Monsanto has sought to portray itself as a soldier of the sustainability cause; on its homepage a brief description asserts that “We apply innovation… while also reducing agriculture’s impact on our environment.” Monsanto maintains 17,500 employees around the globe, and recorded revenues of US$7.344 billion in 2006. And yet all is not well in the corridors at Monsanto headquarters in Saint Louis.
Monsanto continues to carry the baggage of some dubious legacies which predate its biotechnologies reincarnation. Amongst them is the Texas City Disaster, a 1947 explosion during loading of its fertilizers at Galveston Bay which is considered the largest industrial accident in American history. In the years of the Vietnam War Monsanto supplied the defoliant Agent Orange to the United States Armed Forces for use in its herbicidal warfare program. In a 2002 report Monsanto was identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as being a “potentially responsible party” to the contamination of 56 industrial sites. Its popular “Roundup” glyphosate herbicides are cited in a number of studies as causes of cancer (though a number of countervailing studies refute these claims). Monsanto has been accused or implicated in a litany of cases of adverse health effects on both employees at its plants and users of its products. And Monsanto’s enthusiastic use and promotion of genetically modified seeds has provoked the ire of many in Europe and beyond, where a deep public mistrust of these organisms remains widespread.
Enter Marie-Monique Robin. The veteran French investigative journalist has never earned a reputation as a scourge of corporate interests in the spirit of such crusaders as Ralph Nader; her interests and works in the past have been mostly political in nature. She was widely recognized for a book and accompanying documentary film which exposed the role of French secret services in endearing certain unsavory techniques to their Argentine and Chilean counterparts during South America’s troubled 1970s and 1980s. But with a new book and documentary film entitled Le monde selon Monsanto (The World according to Monsanto), she has executed a full frontal assault on Monsanto itself, and the corporate world may never be the same again.
I have neither read the book nor viewed the documentary, but to judge from reviews and from the author’s own comments in interviews it seems that her premise is as follows. Following her extensive three-year investigation which exposes the depth of Monsanto’s vices past and present, Robin feels that we must ask the question: “Can we believe [Monsanto] when they tell us that biotechnologies are going to solve the problems of hunger and environmental contamination?” (My own translation from the French) (source: Arte TV) In essence Robin questions the ethic, given the ignominy of its past, of allowing Monsanto to feed the world today.
The overwhelming evidence shows that Monsanto is indeed guilty of grave misconduct on many counts. Robin’s work is a product of an age in which we now expect our corporations to behave as responsible members of society, and its form and tone give teeth to this approach. Not only are these expectations legitimate and real, but the citizenry is willing to act, and act decisively, to ensure corporate compliance. The forceful way in which Robin transmits this message is welcomed, and Monsanto (and indeed any and all corporations that have committed environmental and other transgressions) is to make reparations accordingly.
However I would make the point that it is important in this particular case to divorce the instances of Monsanto’s wrongdoing from the bio-engineering industry wholesale. I am not delusional and I acknowledge that it is the profit motive and not a spontaneous and overwhelming altruism which guides firms such as Monsanto. However if the entire system is properly monitored, there are many poster illustrations of how the interests of global capitalism and the underprivileged need not be mutually exclusive. It is a fact that high-yield seeds and other varieties, readily proffered by Monsanto and others, have allowed for intensifications of agricultural cultivation. This is of particular importance in densely populated poor rural regions where the land available for agriculture would otherwise simply not be sufficient to carry the population. The consequent reductions of malnutrition have saved many lives and have improved countless others. A New York Times article dated October 2007 gives a a sense of the enormous transformative potential at hand if only a comprehensive implementation can be achieved. In this article, Celia W. Dugger shows that seed programs in Africa have fallen short not owing to deficiencies of the seeds themselves, but rather to inadequate farm economy infrastructure and local know-how. She highlights the pockets of success, and makes reference to India’s “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s that enabled the feeding of hundreds of millions of people. India’s success, she says, is attributable to the stronger farm-economy foundation with which it was endowed.
These truths serve as a telling example of the dangers that are inherent if we allow cases of corporate negligence and neglect to necessarily sink the entire ship. We can and must showcase specific outrages and demand redress, but it would be a mistake to paint an entire industry with the toxic brush. As with pharmaceuticals, the bio-engineering industry must be allowed and encouraged to continue its work with aid and input from philanthropic and other organizations, and under the oversight of national and international bodies of governance.
We must demand accountability where accountability is often refused. But in the spirit of equity, we must also give credit where credit is well due.
Copyright (c) 2008 Jackson Kern
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