MONSANTO: The most hated corporation on Earth?

2013-05-30 00:00

WHAT does it take to be the most hated corporation on Earth? How many global corporations have had an entire day of global protest declared to draw attention to their nastiness?

Well, the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seed, Monsanto, has just managed this feat, with millions having participated in over 450 actions across 52 countries on May 25. It is worth examining how and why Monsanto has become so uniformly hated around the planet.

Monsanto regularly takes the honours as the most abhorred corporation, in among some noxious competitors.

In 2012, Monsanto won the Greenwash Award for misinforming the public about its environmental credentials. It won the Worst Company of 2011 Award. In 2009 it won the Angry Mermaid Award during the run-up to the failed Copenhagen climate change talks for misleadingly claiming its genetically modified (GM) crops reduced CO2 emissions.

This long list of negative awards should be incredibly damaging to the company. However, the investor community embraces such corporations and Monsanto’s shareholders have been richly rewarded for its bad behaviour.

None of this is new. In 2002, Monsanto was found guilty not only of contaminating the town and surrounds of Anniston, Alabama, with carcinogenic polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCBs), but of covering up this pollution for decades. Beside being ordered to pay a paltry $800 000 (R7,7 million) settlement, it was found guilty of the crime of “outrage”.

Outrage is legally defined as conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilised society”.

Monsanto not only opposed the Anniston case, it attempted to avoid prosecution through its sale of its chemical business to Solutia, insisting it was the problem of the new owner.

It took exactly the same tack with its pollution of its “home town” of Sauget, which originally was incorporated under the name of Monsanto in 1926.

In the U.S., Monsanto is linked to nearly 100 superfund sites, two in Sauget alone, where its historical pollution is being remediated, mainly through taxpayer funds. It has managed to avoid similar responsibility in the UK as well. The infamous Vietnam War defoliant, Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and others, was routinely contaminated with PCBs.

When Rachel Carson wrote her carefully researched book Silent Spring, outlining the dangers of agricultural chemicals and heralding the emergence of the environmental movement, she was aggressively targeted by Monsanto, responsible for production of chemicals like DDT that she questioned.

Monsanto parodied Carson’s book while viciously attempting to undermine her reputation and vilifying her as a “hysterical woman”. Tactics have changed very little with opponents of GM crops denigrated as luddites or unscientific.

Today, Monsanto is better known for its GM crops than its chemicals. It is the world’s single biggest producer of genetically modified crops, responsible for around 95% of global GM plantings. The most widely grown GM crop, GM soya, is specifically engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

The chemicals in Roundup have been linked to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and gut disease, as well as having serious documented impacts on amphibians, fish, soil biota and other ecological processes. Needless to say, herbicide- resistant crops have sharply increased the use of chemicals. As weeds develop resistance, more potent chemicals are needed and further GM crops are being introduced to resist these chemicals, in turn.

The pursuit of GM crops has led Monsanto to morph from a chemical corporation into the world’s largest seed company. By buying seed companies around the world, it has acquired an unimaginable wealth of seed germplasm. Yet it has sharply reduced the number of seed varieties sold by its subsidiaries, instead concentrating on its core business of pushing GM crops.

Monsanto is fully aware of its inherent unpopularity, which continues despite its every attempt to reform its reputation through extensive public relations campaigns.

Its strategy to sidestep this is to form and fund groups and alliances that promote its interests. Organisations like BIO, the U.S. biotechnology association, and Africa- and Europa-Bio, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and Crop Life each support Monsanto’s interests as supposedly independent voices.

Monsanto spends millions directly lobbying governments around the world.

Monsanto then negates these massive PR campaigns by its aggressive legal prosecution of farmers it alleges are reusing seed containing its patented GM genes. While there are frequent high-profile cases in the U.S., Monsanto insists it will not prosecute African farmers for saving or possessing seed contaminated by their genes. In South America, Monsanto has gone directly to the governments of Argentina, Brazil and other nations in order to try to leverage royalties on farmer-saved GM seed.

The seed giant has also ensured its continued domination of the chemical herbicide industry by contractually linking the sale of Roundup to herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready and Yieldguard soya, maize and cotton seed. Pushing this technology into developing markets has exposed farmers to increased debt through the purchase of seed and chemicals.

Monsanto has shifted focus toward developing nations in Africa and Asia, after saturating the Americas and rejection from within the Eruopean Union.

It dominates the GM seed market in South Africa, Brazil and India.

These are just some of the reasons why millions of people protest against Monsanto’s destructive proposals to create profit through the privatisation of our food. That this model perversely masquerades as something beneficial, purporting to offer a hope of feeding a burgeoning planet is even more grotesque.

In reality, Monsanto epitomises so much that is wrong with the world and how corporations conduct themselves. The time has come to consider instituting a global court for corporations, in which their charters are withdrawn and they are put out of business. That is probably wishful thinking. In the meantime, it is up to us, the 99%, to direct our ire towards curbing the misbehaviour of this particular corporate misanthrope.

• Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (

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