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A Biotech Battle Royale

by WILLIAM ALLEN

The name sounds like it could be the moniker of a really bad hombre – the arrogant, cold-hearted, bandolier clad bandito in a Spaghetti Western who rides down from the mountains with his grizzled gang to terrorize the humble villagers, demanding their meager harvest, livestock and occasionally a young daughter.   “Oh no! It’s Monsanto!”

Indeed, if, as Mitt Romney averred: “corporations are people, my friend,” the analogy is apt, for Monsanto is one of the most controversial and detested corporations/persons in the world.

As many consumer and organic food advocates will know, Monsanto is a Missouri based multi-billion dollar biotech behemoth that bestrides the globe and crams its genetically engineered Frankenseeds down the throats of farmers on five continents, consigning many of them to financial servitude, chemical poisoning and, in thousands of cases (mainly in India), suicide.

Monsanto’s detractors and opponents claim that its business plan is simple and straightforward: to dominate the world food system from seed to market shelf. If true, there’s a kind of warped, pathological purity to that – pure focused intent spawned from pure greed; and like the purely murderous creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien, seemingly “unencumbered by conscience or morality.”

One of its most detested practices is its employment of Pinkerton “seed police” to monitor and investigate farms – organic or not – in the vicinity of other farms that are growing crops from its patented genetically modified (GM) seeds.

Woe to the family farmer who has the misfortune of not preventing pollen that has travelled from GM crops ten or more miles distant from pollinating a single plant in his or her field. Monsanto’s glass-towered legal hyenas will file suit for patent infringement.

According to Food Democracy Now  – a non-profit consumer advocate group (I dislike the term “consumer,” but for the sake of familiarity I’ll use it) – Monsanto’s notorious agents investigate (bully) nearly five hundred farms in the US every year. Thus far, nearly two hundred farmers have been hauled into court while several hundred more have settled out of court for undisclosed sums.

While it is regularly the lawsuit plaintiff, Monsanto is no stranger to the defendants’ table, here and abroad. It has endured several major civil and federal lawsuits during the past three decades. Last July a consortium of nearly 300,000 individual farmers, 4,500 organic farms and several seed companies, all at risk of having their products contaminated, brought a pre-emptive lawsuit in an attempt to compel the company to cease its intimidation and litigation practices mentioned above. In February of this year the judge , almost mocking the plaintiffs, dismissed the suit, ruling “these circumstances do not amount to a substantial controversy and there has been no injury traceable to  the defendant.” The farmers filed an appeal last week.

Monsanto is also co-defendant in a recent lawsuit brought by a number of small, family owned Argentina tobacco farms. The farmers claim they were forced to use Monsanto’s herbicides and pesticides without the required training and protective equipment, thus causing debilitating health effects to themselves, deformities to many of their newborn children, and serious environmental damage.

One can be certain a corporation this huge, wealthy and powerful has handmaidens in both state and federal government. Monsanto and its corporate biotech bretheren have spent more than half a billion dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington alone during the past ten years. And it’s paying off. (#Occupy Monsanto  proclaims that Congress is now “GMO contaminated.”)

We learned from the Wikileaks memo dump, for example, that the US State Department has acted as a foreign frontman for Monsanto, muscling governments abroad into permitting GM crops to be grown despite widespread objections by those nations’ farmers and environmentalists.

A few months ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inexplicably deleted from its website one million signatures and comments from a public petition calling for GMO labeling. (Current and former FDA deputy commisioners –  old hands at passing through the well-greased revolving door between industry and its purported regulator – have been Monsanto lawyers. Might that offer us a clue?)

Last month, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt) introduced to the pending 2012 Agricultural Appropriations Bill (Farm Bill) an amendment that would allow states to pass legislation requiring  food and beverages to be labeled as to whether or not they contain genetically engineered ingredients. The amendment was soundly defeated, with twenty eight Democratic senators joining their Republican counterparts despite several recent national polls that reported ninety percent of citizens want their food products labeled for GMO’s.

A new  insidious strategy has recently come to light. Apparently, even a corporate colossus like Monsanto, accustomed to swatting away bothersome lawsuits like  mosquitos, eventually wearies of swatting. Why not drain the swamp and prevent litigations from harassing us at all! It was revealed last week that the chair of the House Sub-Committee for Agriculture, Jack Kingston (R-RoundUp) attached a rider to the Farm Bill that would allow the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to flip-the-bird at courts and issue permits for cultivation of independently untested GM crops even if a court has issued an injunction against  it. (Late last year, Kingston was unironically voted 2011-2012 “Legislator of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association that represents Monsanto, Dow , DuPont  and other biotech heavies.)

Food safety and organic farm organizations have gone to Red-Alert. Food Democracy Now states on its website: “This dangerous provision…would strip judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer rights and the environment., while opening the floodgates for the planting  of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, consumers and the environment.”

Take Action:  Rep. Pete DeFazio has introduced an amendment that will kill the Kingston rider. The final bill may reach the floor of both houses in just a few days. It is imperative that we flood our congresspersons and senators with demands that they either approve the DeFazio amendment, remove the insidious rider during reconciliation, or failing those, defeat the Farm Bill altogether. (In addition to weakening already feeble GMO regulation, other provisions of the Farm Bill in its present form have led many of the above mentioned groups along with social welfare organizations to call it: “the worst piece of farm and food legislation in decades.”)

What may turn out to be the GMO Battle Royale is forming up right now. Monsanto, its biotech band of brothers, and processed food giants such as PepsiCo and Kraft are mustering their considerable forces to counter the latest visible threat to their dominance and huge profit stream: growing public agitation for open GMO food labeling in the U.S.

According to the Center for Food Safety, nineteen state legislatures considered some kind of GMO food labeling laws during the past year. So far, none have passed. Could that be due to aggressive lobbying or intimidation by the biotech giants? Ask Vermont. In April the legislature began the process of considering a bill that, if passed, would require food manufacturers to label products that are created partially or wholly from GM organisms. In addition, products with GM ingredients could not have the word “natural” and its variants, alone or in any combination with others such as “naturally grown,” on the labels. Monsanto publicly threatened to sue the state if the measure was approved. The bill is currently stalled in committee.

Monsanto and its allies are probably counting on the reality that in the current crappy economy, with state budgets hemorrahging red ink, few lawmakers (regardless of what the public wants) will have the stomach to battle the corporate Goliaths in costly court cases that can be dragged on for years.

Having achieved “Check” for the time being with state governments, the biotech, processed food, and grocery mega-companies have trained their gunsights on us – the voters of California.

Like the Pentagon sending nearly every carrier-led battle fleet into the Persian Gulf bathtub, these corporations are pouring millions of dollars into California to defeat the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (Prop. 37), a ballot initiative – similar in language to the proposed Vermont legislation – that will be voted on in November. More than a million voter signatures were gathered on petitions by the California Right to Know Campaign to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Californians can expect to be bombarded by disinformation speakers, op-eds, and ads “paid for” by phony, industry sponsored “concerned citizens” groups with names akin to “Citizens Against Job Killing Regulations,” etc.  Actually, two have now  run-up the colors: the Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling, a start-up, industry backed group whose chief talking point is that open labeling will increase food prices and thus be an added burden to already struggling families; and California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse,  who claim with straight faces that GMO labels will render small businesses and family farmers vulnerable to costly lawsuits.

The hypocrisy of the latter deserves a derisory belly laugh  A group co-funded by Monsanto –  the company that has sued or threatened to sue several hundred US farmers at the drop of a pollen grain  – is warning California’s organic growers and vendors that a law written in part to protect them will expose them to lawsuits.

Both opposition arguments have been thoroughly discredited by reputable scientists, economists and experienced advocacy organizations, on the web and in print publications – easy for readers to find.

The essential issue is that the biotech industry, the food processors who use its products, and  anti-GMO groups nationwide recognize the trend setting potential of this upcoming vote. If voters in the most populous state pass this labeling initiative it could galvanize citizens in other states to follow. They also recognize, given a growing public awareness and avoidance of GM foods, that the final outcome of such a trend may be radical: the end of GM poisons in most of the nation’s diet.   Battle over.

Will California voters play the role of the no-name gunfighter who confronts and defeats El Diablo Monsanto and his gang in that Spaghetti Western?

Here‘s how Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association put it  (via Mercola.com):

“For decades (Monsanto has) controlled the food supply by buying off politicians and regulatory agencies, intimidating small farmers, manipulating the outcomes of scientific studies, lying to consumers…

Despite Monsanto’s claims to the contrary, scientists are clear: genetically engineered food has been linked to a wide range of health hazards, including kidney and liver damage, infertility, auto-immune disorders, allergies, autism, accelerated aging and even birth defects. We have the right to know if the food we buy has been genetically engineered… It’s time to take back our food, our farms, our power. It’s time to show Monsanto what ordinary people like us can do when we come together.”

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