By ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR
Frontline (India's national magazine)
Agribusiness giant Monsanto faces criminal and civil charges in the United States for bribery and other offences committed in Indonesia.
In a setback to the cheerleaders of the multinationals-driven genetically modified (GM) crops, agribusiness giant Monsanto, which controls most of the global GM seed market, was recently caught bribing Indonesian officials to scrap the requirement that GM crops be subject to an environmental assessment, so that it could freely develop GM crops in that country. This has vindicated the stand that some 650 civil society organisations from over 80 countries took last year against the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report "Agricultural biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor", which sees GM crops as the answer to the plight of poor farmers.
Monsanto faced both criminal and civil charges from the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States. The MNC agreed to pay $1 million to the Department of Justice, adopt internal compliance measures, and cooperate with continuing civil and criminal investigations. It will also pay $500,000 to the SEC to settle the bribe charge and other related violations.
In the latest incident of bribery, in 2002, a former senior manager at Monsanto directed an Indonesian consulting firm to give $50,000 to a high-level official in Indonesia's Environment Ministry. The manager apparently told the company to disguise an invoice for the bribe as "consulting fees".
Monsanto accepted that it paid the bribe and also admitted to a series of "illegal or questionable" payments totalling "at least" $700,000 to "various Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002". The payments were partly financed "through unauthorised, improperly documented and inflated sales of Monsanto's pesticide products in Indonesia". The MNC apparently bribed more than 140 incumbent and former Indonesian government officials and their families.
According to Rob Edward, Environment Editor, Sunday Herald, Lori Fisher, a spokesperson for Monsanto in St. Louis, said: "We accept full responsibility for the improper activities that occurred in connection with our Indonesian affiliates." But she pointed out that the company had voluntarily disclosed the potential irregularities to the U.S. authorities after they were discovered by an internal audit and review.
But, says Jonathan Matthews, director of GM Watch, an international non-governmental organisation that monitors GM crops: "What has emerged about corrupt practices in Indonesia may just be the tip of the iceberg."
"Monsanto has a long history of bringing out products that have proved harmful to people and the environment," says Jule Klotter, who traces the history of the company since its inception, in Townsend Letters for Doctors and Patients, a popular U.S.-based magazine that aims at educating people on issues related to health and medicine.
Founded in 1901, Monsanto Chemical Company has manufactured industrial chemicals (for example, sulphuric acid), plastics and synthetics,
pesticides, and saccharin, a proven carcinogenic artificial sweetener. It has also produced or granted production licences for most of the world's polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs; a common name for a group of over 200 chemical compounds of varying viscosity). These oily, insulating fluids, according to Klotter, cause brain damage and other birth defects in mammalian foetuses, immune system disorders and cancers. Says Klotter: "The public became aware of the PCBs in 1968, when PCB-contaminated rice made 1,300 people in Kyushu, Japan, sick; and serious birth defects appeared in babies whose mothers had eaten it."
Monsanto's herbicide 2,4,5,-T contained a highly toxic chemical byproduct, the dioxin TCDD. This herbicide was one of the two used in Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. Although Monsanto was not the only company that produced Agent Orange, its products contained the highest levels of dioxin.
According to Klotter, Dr. Cate Jenkins, a chemist for the U.S. Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) Regulatory Development branch, urged the EPA to investigate the company in her November 1990 report, "Criminal Investigation of Monsanto Corporation - Cover up of Dioxin Contamination in Products - Falsification of Dioxin Health Studies". But Monsanto lobbied hard and the investigation, which lasted over two years, was dropped.
Asparetame, also known as "Nutrasweet" and "Equal", is produced by Monsanto's subsidiary G.D. Searle Pharmaceuticals. According to Klotter, though Monsanto denies Asparetame's toxicity, consumers have complained of headache, blurred vision, numbness, hearing loss, muscle spasms and epileptic-type seizures since the 1980s. A 1996 study in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology reported a correlation between Asparetame and an increase in brain cancers.
Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), sold under the name Posilac, makes cows produce more milk than normal. According to a study by Mark Kastel of the Wisconsin's Farmers' Union, Wisconsin farmers reported numerous spontaneous deaths, an increase in udder infection, severe metabolic difficulties and calving problems in cows that were given the drug. Posilac is now banned in several countries.
At the time of Posilac's approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Margaret Miller was Deputy Director of the FDA's office of New Animal Drugs, and Suzanne Sechen was the FDA's lead reviewer of scientific data on rBGH. Margaret Miller had worked for Monsanto on rBGH safety studies as a research scientist, and Suzanne Sechen on Monsanto-funded rBGH studies during her graduate studies at Cornell University. The FDA's Michael R. Taylor, who wrote the rBGH labelling guidelines that requires labelled non-rBGH products to say that "there is no difference between rBGH and the naturally occurring hormone," was a lawyer representing Monsanto for seven years (1984 to 1991) before joining the FDA.
Now Monsanto's interest in agriculture has expanded to GM seed. Monsanto is selling Roundup-Ready (herbicide tolerant) soybean, canola and corn seed, which produce plants that can withstand high doses of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has acquired several seed companies, including Holdens Foundation Seeds, Asgrow, Agronomics, DeKalbGenetics, Delta and Pine Landand Sementes Agroceres SA. The company is said to have spent $8 billion acquiring large seed companies during the last few years.
In effect, according to Klotter, Monsanto is trying to gain control over the seed market and eventually its genetic-engineered, herbicide-resistant seed could become the only choice for farmers. Further, Monsanto's merger with American Home Products creates the largest manufacturer of pesticides and herbicides in the world.
MONSANTO'S major brush with the law was over Agent Orange. The negative health effects of exposure to Agent Orange are well documented over the past three decades. Everyone agrees that the dioxin in Agent Orange is one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, causing everything from severe birth defects, cancers, neurological disorders and deaths. But there has been no major movement towards compensating American Vietnam War veterans and civilians who were exposed to Agent Orange. Monsanto continues to claim that this now-banned chemical is not toxic.
A study by eminent oncologists Dr. Lennart Hardell and Dr. Mikael Eriksson of Sweden has revealed clear links between one of the world's largest selling herbicides, glyphosate produced by Monsanto and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) - a form of cancer.
In the study published in the March 15, 1999 issue of the Journal of American Cancer Society, the researchers also maintain that exposure to glyphosate "yielded increased risks for NHL".
It is alleged that though primarily used to control annual and perennial plants, glyphosate kills indiscriminately a wide variety of weeds. According to the Organic Consumers Association - an international NGO campaigning for food safety, fair trade and sustainability - companies developing herbicide-resistant crops are also increasing their production of herbicides such as glyphosate and requesting permits for higher residue levels of these chemicals in genetically engineered food. For example, Monsanto is said to have received a permit for a threefold increase in herbicide residues on GM soybeans in Europe and the U.S. (up from 6 parts per million to 20).
PERCY SCHMEISER is a farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada, whose fields were contaminated with Monsanto's genetically engineered Canola by pollen from a nearby farm. Monsanto says it does not matter how the contamination happened but wants Schmeiser to pay it the Technology Fee (for "growing" Monsanto's genetically engineered products). Schmeiser said: "I never had anything to do with Monsanto, outside of buying chemicals. I never signed a contract. If I would go to St. Louis (Monsanto's headquarters) and contaminate their plots - destroy what they have worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away. But now I have been asked to pay for the contamination of my land by Monsanto's GM seeds."
Like Schmeiser, hundreds of other homesteaders are being forced to pay Monsanto for fields contaminated with GM seeds.
According to the Centre for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group and a critic of the biotechnology industry, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits targeting 147 farmers and 39 small businesses since 1997. While some were filed against farmers who planted transgenic seeds without paying Monsanto as required in their contract with the company, most were sued simply because transgenic seeds had drifted into their fields and spread roots amid their crops.
The Washington Post and other major U.S. publications have been highlighting a massive new movement of conventional and organic farmers who are working together to pass state legislation that would put a moratorium on Monsanto's new genetically engineered wheat.
Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications told, The New York Times that the corporation should not have to take responsibility for the safety of its food products. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job," he said.
However, the U.S. government regulatory agencies seem to have given Monsanto a long rope. The clout Monsanto enjoys in the U.S. government is by no means incidental. According to the Organic Consumers Association, Clarence Thomas, before being the Supreme Court Judge who put George W. Bush in office (in his first term), was a Monsanto lawyer; Anne Veneman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, was on the board of directors of Monsanto's Calgene Corporation; Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, was on the board of directors of Monsanto's Searle Pharmaceuticals; Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson received $50,000 in donations from Monsanto during his winning campaign for Wisconsin's governorship; and the two Congressmen who received the most donations from Monsanto during the last election were Larry Combest (Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee) and John Ashcroft (the Attorney-General).
According to the Organic Consumers Association, for the FDA to determine if Monsanto's growth hormones were safe or not, the MNC was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto's researchers, put the report together. Shortly before the report's submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job at the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. In January, Martha Scott, a former Director of Government Relations for Monsanto, was appointed Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Philip Mattera, in his extensively researched recent paper, "USDA Inc.: How Agribusiness has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture", (initiated by the U.S.-based Agribusiness Accountability Initiative), concludes: "Big agribusinesses such as Monsanto have packed the USDA with people who have been working, lobbying or researching for them. These appointees have helped to implement policies that undermine the regulatory mission in the interests of the MNCs, severely compromising public health and livelihoods." According to him, with the deep-rooted and pervasive clout that MNCs have carefully built over the years, they seem to get away with anything.