The Contrary Countryman

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Monsters among us

The modern corporate model is the Mafia. Make the family as large as possible, make the family interests diverse and widespread and kill anyone who offends the family or its interests. Modern corporations do this barely within the law through advertising, mergers, buyouts, lawsuits, payoffs. CEOs are the equivalent to godfathers, whose compensation packages are beyond moral justification, indeed are tied directly to increasing stock value through any means.

Size begets power, power is corrupting and that corollary never changes. Whether Microsoft, Monsanto or Dow Chemical, successful corporations gain their initial power through sales of essential products. They then buy other companies to kill competition and gain market share and power through marketing channels. They buy political power through campaign contributions and by placing their people in high places and by recruiting people in high places to work for them, as Monsanto has most successfully done. Monsanto is the second-largest purveyor of pesticides in the world. According to the St. Louis Post, a Monsanto vice-president is “a top candidate” to become Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Don’t think fox in the henhouse—think fox in charge of all henhouses. Researchers and lawyers from Monsanto reportedly already occupy important posts in the FDA. The administration has approved some of the company's most controversial products, including the artificial sweetener aspartame and the controversial cattle growth hormone rBGH. Only the New York Attorney General's office has taken the company to task, forcing it to withdraw advertisements claiming that Roundup, its flagship product, is biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

What follows is an example of current corporate tactics. Using taxpayer funds, the United States Department of Agriculture recently invented with Delta and Pine Land Company—the country’s largest producer of cotton seeds—a new genetic technology to create seeds that only work for one growing season. If seeds from this year’s crop are saved and planted next year, they will not grow. The technology was quickly dubbed the Terminator by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). The Terminator has only been tested on cotton and tobacco but its developers believe it will work on all crops. A 1970 law allows farmers to save seeds and replant them, which seed companies do not like. Hence the Terminator technology. Zap the seeds with the Terminator and farmers have no choice but to buy new seeds each year.

The process was patented in March of this year [1998]. Such patents are granted to protect seed company research and development, much as copyright law protects this written material. Unlike copyrighted writings, patented Terminator seeds are intended to feed and clothe the world. Concern immediately arose that plants grown from Terminator seeds might send their death message through pollen to the fields of non-cooperating farmers and natural areas alike, potentially destroying the viability of seeds from all nearby competing annuals. Resistance by RAFI grew.

Enter the monster. On May 11th, Monsanto Corporation bought Delta and Pine Land Company and with it the Terminator. Monsanto has suggested that within a few years all the major staple crops on Earth should be genetically engineered. As noted earlier, Monsanto is the company that makes recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), the genetically engineered hormone injected into cows to increase milk production. The hormone is used extensively in the USA while Europe has put a moratorium on rBGH until 2000. Believe it or not, until recently, food producers were precluded by a judge’s ruling to label their products as free of rBGH. Ben & Jerry have finally prevailed in another court to have the right to label their ice cream as made from milk and cream that is rBGH-free. Imagine that—we consumers have a partial right to know what’s in or not in our food.

Monsanto produces glyphosate, brand-named Roundup, the world's biggest-selling herbicide. In 1996 Roundup earned Monsanto nearly $1.5 billion. Now here’s the insidious part. For the past 10 years Monsanto has been developing new crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate. This allows farmers to inundate their fields with Roundup, killing everything that grows except the patented crop. The first glyphosate tolerant plant Monsanto released was Roundup Ready soybean. It is estimated that between 50 and 60 per cent of processed foods contain soy. You eat products made with Roundup Ready soybeans and, yes, those soybeans are sprayed with Roundup, an herbicides that kills all that it touches—unless protected by Roundup Readiness.

Roundup Ready soybeans have sold like crazy and Monsanto has used the money to buy shares in seed and biotechnology companies worth several billion dollars. Among its purchases is the company that produces the infamous bioengineered "Flavr-savr" tomato. Others control 35 percent of the germlines of American corn. Monsanto is now experimenting with bioengineered rice, corn, potato, sugarbeet, rape and cotton varieties.

Monsanto announced in late June that it will buy the international seed products division of Cargill International for $1.4 billion in cash. The purchase gives Monsanto testing, research and production facilities in 24 countries and sales and distribution facilities in 51 countries. "The potential for our existing biotechnology traits outside North America is roughly double the acreage potential within North America," said Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto's president. "The Cargill international seed businesses give us quicker access to these global markets."

Monsanto seems to be on the same track as Novartis, the largest agribusiness in the world. Novartis comprises three distinct divisions: agribusiness, which contributes 30 percent to total sales; healthcare, which contributes 50 percent; and nutrition, which contributes 20 percent. Novartis operates in over 100 countries. Chemicals, seeds, food products, healthcare. What a combination. A true cradle-to-the-grave company.

The price of healthful food today is knowledge and action. Our elected representatives have become so deeply influenced by campaign contributions and sophisticated lobbyists of huge corporations that we have largely lost control of them. With the electoral process undermined, all we have left is revolution or voting with our buying decisions. Let’s try consumer power first. Make the checkout lane your voting booth. Read labels but know that the apparent ingredient or the apparent manufacturer may in fact be something or someone hidden. Pay attention to what consumer advocates are saying, people like Ralph Nader, Jeremy Rifkin, Jim Hightower. Immoral and moral corporations alike gain their power through sales. Educate yourself and vote your morality—with your wallet.

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