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Monsanto

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Monsanto is a company with a very illustrious-and unsavoury-past. At the moment it is trying to escape liability (up to $2.3 billion US) for major chemical contamination in Alabama that it hoped to get rid of when it hived off its chemical operations as the independent company Solutia.

Readers of alive will be all too familiar with the name Monsanto. It's the St. Louis-based US corporation that has brought us such health delights as Agent Orange (Vietnam defoliant), NutraSweet (aspartame), recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (never legal in Canada), Roundup Ready canola (engineered to tolerate Monsanto's herbicide), Roundup Ready soy (for health food devotees), and Bt corn (engineered with the pesticide inside). Monsanto is also the company that sues farmers for illegally using (or so they've claimed) the company's patented seeds.

Lessons of the Past

Monsanto is a company with a very illustrious and unsavoury past. At the moment it is trying to escape liability (up to $2.3 billion US) for major chemical contamination in Alabama that it hoped to get rid of when it hived off its chemical operations as the independent company Solutia. This company is now bankrupt and claims that its liabilities for contamination really belong to Monsanto.

Then there is NutraSweet, which kept Monsanto going for years after it was purchased from the drug company Searle. By the time the patent on NutraSweet ran out a few years ago, Monsanto had Roundup, its relatively benign and universally used herbicide. Sales of the patented herbicide kept the company going for another decade until its patent ran out as well. Now it relies on patented genetically engineered seeds, with a potentially bigger market than it could ever have dreamed of with either NutraSweet or Roundup. Hence its ruthless and relentless "marketing" of transgenic seeds primarily soybeans, corn, and cotton around the world, particularly in Africa, by fair means or foul.

The New Colonialism

Monsanto may have gotten about as far as it is going to with genetic engineering in Canada, the US, and Europe. The product Monsanto wanted to introduce into Canadian agriculture a decade ago recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) never made it past the regulatory stage. Public and food-industry resistance has forced it to throw in the towel on transgenic Roundup Ready wheat in Canada and the US. In the intervening years, however, Monsanto did achieve notable success in contaminating the entire Canadian canola crop, and partial success in getting farmers hooked on its Bt corn and Roundup Ready (RR) soy. With genetically engineered (GE) wheat out of the question and the potato processors refusing to handle transgenic potatoes, there are no more major crops for Monsanto (or it chief competitor, Syngenta) to colonize and contaminate. Add Bt cotton to RR soy and Bt corn and the story is much the same in the US, now that it looks like the rBGH episode is coming to an end there, too.

So it's on to Brazil, fast becoming the world's largest soy producer, and Africa, which the biotech industry, backed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has targeted for takeover. USAID has promised to make the continent's agriculture jump from "backward" to ultra-advanced, at whatever cost to the people and their sovereignty. It is doing this through the introduction of transgenic seeds, "education," and the takeover of just about all agricultural research institutions and programs. This incentive is financed by Monsanto, Syngenta, and USAID, among others.

Renting Seeds

While the figures available on GE crop production all come from the industry itself or its promoters such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA itself backed by Monsanto and Syngenta), some numbers do convey a significant message. For example, Monsanto claims that its patented seeds accounted for 150.8 million acres of GE crops out of ISAAAs estimated total of 167.2 million acres of transgenic crops grown worldwide in 2003, giving Monsanto 90 percent of the total. Even allowing for exaggeration (for stock and public promotional purposes) and unintentional error, this 90 percent figure clearly indicates the extent of Monsanto's global control in certain crops.

All of Monsanto's seeds carry a patent, and their cost to the farmer includes royalties, resulting in a seed cost roughly calculated to be five times the cost of open-pollinated seed. If the farmer saves and selects her own seed, then the savings are far greater, of course. However, there is also a "technology use fee" which Monsanto charges on top of the cost of the seed itself. Thus, the farmer growing Monsanto seed is really only renting it for a season, at a high price, since the patent, coupled with the Technology Use Agreement (TUA) that purchasers of Monsanto seed are required to sign, strictly forbids the farmer from saving any seed from the crop for planting the next year. Violators face stiff penalties. According to Monsanto, the average out-of-court settlement in the US is $108,400.

Monsanto Canada vs. Percy Schmeiser

The ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser was delivered on May 21, 2004. The five to four decision of the court ruled that Schmeiser violated Monsanto's patent on its Roundup Ready canola by knowingly growing it without having purchased the seed. At the same time, the court refused to award Monsanto any costs or damages on the grounds that Schmeiser did not in any way benefit from growing Monsanto's transgenic canola. The split in the court came over the issue of the patenting of plants. While all the judges agreed that higher life forms, including plants, cannot be patented under Canadian law, the majority opinion held that because Monsanto has legitimate patents on both the transformation process and the genetic construct that is replicated throughout the plant, "use" of the plant, i.e., growing it, violates Monsanto's patents. This seems to amount to a de facto recognition of a patent on the whole plant. The dissenting opinion pointed to the judgement of the same court in the Harvard OncoMouse?case two years ago that decisively ruled that patenting of "higher life forms" is not permitted under Canadian law.

To my non-legal mind, it appears that the majority opinion expresses a rather abysmal ignorance of biology. The court's argument is cast entirely in mechanical terms, with references to zippers and Lego blocks; it takes no notice of the self-replicating character of life forms. Nor does it appear to recognize that canola plants have, of necessity, the same growth and reproductive processes whether or not they have been genetically engineered to contain the Roundup Ready gene construct. The majority opinion virtually attributes the growth and reproduction of Schmeiser's canola to Monsanto's transgene.

As the court put it, "By cultivating a plant containing the patented gene and composed of the patented cells without license, the appellants [Schmeiser] deprived the respondents [Monsanto] of the full enjoyment of the monopoly."

The court's opinion amounts to a huge insult to the many millions of farmers who have nurtured their crops and selected their seeds every season, not for maximum "efficiency" but for a wide variety of characteristics, conditions, and uses, both cultural and culinary, without a hint of ownership claims, patents, or monopoly.

Monsanto's Revenge

The latest chapter in the saga of Monsanto in Canada concerns whistle-blowers and Health Canada.

Back in 1988 Monsanto expected to start marketing its genetically engineered drug, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, to US and Canadian dairy farmers. Thanks to the "revolving door" between Monsanto and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the drug, renamed Bovine Somatotropin (BST) to hide the fact that it was a hormone, was finally approved by the FDA in 1994.

The drug, injected into dairy cows every two weeks to force them to give more milk, was never approved for use in Canada thanks to three Health Canada scientists, Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon, and Gerard Lambert. These scientists refused to give the drug a green light on the grounds that Monsanto did not provide sufficient information for them to make a sound judgement about the product's safety. The three refused to give in, despite pressure from senior bureaucrats and various "disciplinary" actions. Monsanto continued to press for approval until 1998 when public demand caused the Senate Agriculture Committee to hold hearings into the matter. In order to receive testimony from the three scientists, the Senate Committee had to grant them immunity from prosecution. The outcome was the announcement on January 14, 1999, that Monsanto's rBGH would not be licensed for use in Canada.

On July 14, 2004, Monsanto got its revenge: Health Canada, waiting until after the federal election and when everyone was enjoying their summer holidays, summarily fired the three scientists. We can be sure that they will not let the matter rest there, and neither should we.

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