The latest documentary by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto, a production of the national Film Board of Canada, can be viewed as a grand recapitulation of familiar, venal themes in corporate indifference.
Monsanto is the bugbear of indigenous markets, rural communities and the developing world. It promotes itself as having the salvaging force of the Second Coming, when its behaviour is closer to that the carcinogenic herbicide producer ‘U-North’ in Michael Clayton.
But how is this second coming initiated? Firstly, through a scientific frame of reference that is panoptic: numerous food groups, for instance, are tested with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes, including mustard, rice, okra, and eggplant. These are then patented. Take Nap Hal, a wheat strain used in making chapatti, which suffered that fate in 2004. Then comes the re-education programme.
Farmers are cudgelled into accepting Monsanto’s world. They must roll over and accept this revolution, or so goes the line from seed warriors and proselytisers of genetically modified (GM) food. Take one of its defenders, the prominent Australian scientist Sir Gustav Nossal, who recently chaired a review by the Victorian state government on a moratorium on GM canola: ‘Monsanto believes that GM technology offers the hope of doubled crop yields per hectare of arable land. A hungry world needs such research’ (23 June). Nossal does, as do most of the defenders of Monsanto, see the issue in narrow, scientific terms: GM food is good, can be easily made to feed the hungry, and should be encouraged.
Whatever scientific merit (if any) may be attached to GM food, the behaviour of Monsanto the corporate bully, is quite another thing. Their operatives, when they are not distributing the ubiquitous pesticide Roundup, function like apostolic disseminators of a creed. That creed, to use an Indian term of reference, is the second Green Revolution. (The first Green Revolution was launched in India 40 years ago.) Some of them go far in US public life – take one of its past employees in the pesticide and agriculture division, current justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas.
This rhetoric of salvation, argues Indian eco-activist and physicist Vandana Shiva, has little to do with ‘food security’ and everything to do with ‘returns to Monsanto’s profits’. The real aim here is patenting, and the corporate giant is in the business of biopiracy, targeting local markets and industries to gain an unassailable market share.
Their methods vary, though they are consistent. Rural areas prove a favourite target. Key areas are peppered with surveillance teams, photographers and informants, gathering data for the less than genteel giant. According to a report in the Nation (11 May 2000), they were happy to convince Alabama farmer Jeremiah Smith, a resident of Anniston, to part with his hogs for $10 a piece accompanied with a bottle of Log Cabin whiskey. Smith sold. That was in 1970. In the meantime, a local creek was being systematically poisoned by polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste.
Then came Gary Rinehart of Eagleville, Missouri, a shop owner in a farm community north of Kansas City. Rinehart in 2002 was accused by a nameless, threatening character with legal proceedings: the owner of the country store Square Deal had apparently planted G.M. soybeans in violation of the company’s patent (Vanity Fair, May 2008). The seed police were bristling.
Occasionally, Monsanto’s tactics can startle. Churches may be on its list of purchases – that is, it will pay money for holy land if it has to conceal the presence of PCB. A memo from a Monsanto committee studying PCBs in 1969 acknowledged that it had a problem with the substance, one that needed to be extinguished to prevent adverse publicity. Such is the way of Monsanto, first a feted saviour, then a grand cover-up artist.
And it runs roughshod over local traditions. This is acutely so in developing countries, where its rural patterns of intimidation and deception in America act as a blueprint for global delinquency. ‘Let the Harvest Begin’ ran an advertisement in various developing countries. We will feed your starving poor, and we will give incentives under contract, as long as you undertake, for instance, not to save seed for re-plantings.
If you don’t accept the offer, we will go ahead and do it anyway, as happened to Indian farmer Bassanna Hunsole of Karnataka, who became the unwitting accomplice to the growing of illegal crops on his land in 1998. Those crops were the ‘bollgard’ cotton variety, an inferior, weevil-invested alternative that was given freely to Hunsole to grow.
In November 1998, the leader of the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS), arrived at a Monsanto test site in Sindhanoor and ran amok. That site belonged to Hunsole. The protesters turned to agricultural pyromania, the site of the first Monsanto ‘cremation’. Genetically modified cotton plants were torn up and burned. Operation Cremate Monsanto had begun.
The company, however, battles on with a burgeoning wallet and a growing cadre of fans and supporters in complicit governments. The US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Teaching, Research, Service, and Commercial Linkages (July 2005) between President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh was met with delight by the global seed police. After all, this agreement was designed to bolster the first Green revolution launched in the 1950s.
Local communities, led by such eco warriors as Shiva and the pyromaniacal exploits of the KRRS, form a vanguard of growing protest. A rural revolution may be stirring. But the seed police will not rest, and will continue to employ bribery (whiskey anyone?), threats (legal proceedings) and biopiracy (patents) to preserve their agribusiness fiefdom. They will, of course, do so with, as Robin’s sarcastic film suggests, ‘your best interests at heart’.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.