Day 563: Why The Little Guy Keeps Picking On Poor Monsanto

originally published July 16, 2013

If you’re like me, you probably have at least two or three friends on your Facebook feed who periodically vomit a string of ‘awareness’ posts. You’ll read the first couple, then your scrolling will gradually increase speed until you thankfully land on a photo of some friend’s friend’s baby. A lot of those posts you skipped will be about the evils of Monsanto, a company so aptly named to sound like a Bond villain it’s almost too perfect.

Monsanto is evil – that’s the gist of pretty much all of those posts. And Wikipedia – known for being edited by the same public that dispatches a number of its minions to make those Facebook posts – shows no less bias.

For the benefit of those who don’t feel like waving the flag of online activism in your friends’ faces, but who still want to be informed, I’ll give you a quick rundown on the guy Bond won’t kill until the third act.

First I’ll set the stage – Monsanto started off as a tiny dream in St. Louis by founder to John Francis Queeny. I’m not sure what that dream specifically was, but I think it had something to do with using chemicals to make food more chemical-laden, preferably in exchange for truckfuls of money.

Monsanto’s first product was saccharin, which was sold to the Coca-Cola company as their first artificial sweetener. Not a bad start, and Monsanto would quickly branch out into other logical extensions of their entry into the sweetener business: vanillin (may cause migraines), Salicylic Acid (aspirin, skin exfoliator), sulphuric acid (not for use in a bathtub), polychlorinated biphenyl (a cancer-causing adhesive), and the now-banned pest-control substance, DDT.

Okay, so that’s how the company cut its teeth. Today the company sells Roundup, the stuff I used to eat away at the thicket of weeds in my backyard so that my idiot neighbour wouldn’t cry to the bylaw people again. Monsanto also sells specially-tweaked seeds that are resistant to Roundup. In fact, 90% of US-grown maize, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola are Roundup-resistant seeds from Monsanto. To put that another way, if farming is the backbone of American industry, then a disturbingly large portion of that backbone is made up of chemically-treated organic matter. Like Robocop, but less awesome.

They also produce seeds modified to contain an insecticide within their molecular structure. Scary? Yes, but the EPA and the FDA have both approved it, and we all know that large government-run bureaucracies do not make mistakes. So this stuff has to be safe.

So why is there so much Monsanto spew lining the walls of our Facebook feeds? What have these noble chemists, these pharmaceutical paladins of patriotic perishables done to run afoul of so many in the activist community?

I’m not sure I have the room to cover all that.

The Washington Post published a report in 2002 that showed that Monsanto had been dumping mercury and PCB-heavy waste into local creeks around Anniston, Alabama for about 40 years. Forty years. The New York Times chimed in with their own ground zeroes of contamination, ultimately leading to a whopping $700 million Monsanto and their buddy company, Solutia, had to fork out to residents. The residents they hadn’t killed, anyway.

How about the PCBs and Agent Orange chemicals that seeped into the Brofiscin Quarry over in the UK? Or the weird bovine growth hormone that Monsanto has been heaping into their cows in order to up milk production by 11-16%? I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in the field of bovine somatotropin, but… oh hell, why not? It’s my bread and chemically-enhanced butter to pretend I’m an expert in stuff. I’ll give it a shot.

Bovine somatotropin is naturally produced by a cow’s pituitary gland. In the 1970’s, a company with the totally-not-evil-sounding name of Genentech found a way to synthesize the stuff, producing recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST. The upside to this is that the cow keeps on spurting milk, even when she would normally have slowed down.

The down-side to humans is nothing. The downside to the cow is, apart from a likely feeling of discomfort around the udder region, as well as a fiery hatred for whomever injected her with that crap, plenty. A 25% increase in clinical mastitis, a 40% reduction in fertility, and a huge chance of developing lameness. That was enough for Canadian authorities to slap a big ol’ “NO” stamp on rBST-laden milk. Hooray for us, and for Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and the entire EU. But Americans have to hunt for milk that bills itself as as rBST-free.

Careful… next time you sip a cool glass of milk on a warm day, you may hear the groanky-scream of a cow in agony.

Let’s talk a little bit about Monsanto in the marketplace. When you have a lab that can tweak seedlings into resisting pesticides and even resisting the pests themselves, why not make those same little seeds help out with your bottom line? Monsanto developed terminator seed technology for just that purpose. These are seeds that have been genetically modified to be sterile. What you plant, you plant – you won’t get any seeds from your finished product that you can use toward next year.

Nope – instead you’ll be buying a fresh harvest’s-worth from Monsanto again. Or else.

Since the mid-1990’s, Monsanto has filed suit against 145 American farmers for patent infringement or breach of contract, usually because they found a workaround and were able to plant some seeds from last year’s crop the following year. Eleven of those cases went to trial (Monsanto won every time), and one farmer had to spend eight months in prison. Monsanto wants control of the marketplace, and they have the fleet of lawyers to ensure they get it.

I have scarcely scratched the grimy surface of what appears to be a truly goop-laden topic. The US Department of Justice launched a 3-year investigation into anti-trust violations by Monsanto, but came up with no charges. Other terms pepper Monsanto’s history – stuff like ‘scientific misconduct’, ‘child labor’, ‘blew up Alderaan’, etc.

In the end, if you can find a way to avoid eating Monsanto food, and you want to do so in protest, go for it. Chances are, it’s possible. But be aware, there is an evil corporate presence out there, poking at our food with sticks and getting it to dance a queer and ominous jitterbug.

Be careful. And be safe. And if those activist friends of yours on Facebook won’t let up, just block their feed. I’m sure they won’t be hurt by it.

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