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2008-05-06

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear

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Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics — ruthless legal battles against small farmers — is its decades-long history of toxic contamination. We speak to James Steele, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Monday’s top story on the popular financial website Kiplinger.com begins with this advice to potential investors: “Everywhere you look people are grumbling — and in many cases rioting — about the high price of food. Before you buy a 20-pound bag of rice at Costco, consider hording shares of Monsanto.”

It’s true. While the rising cost of food pushes millions around the world into deeper hunger and scarcity, agricultural companies like Monsanto are posting record profits. The top seed maker in the world, Monsanto’s stock has gained 95 percent over the past year and 1,600 percent over the past five years. Monsanto’s profits topped $1.6 billion in the first quarter, up 37 percent from the same quarter last year.

Monsanto rose to prominence as one of the leading chemical giants of the twentieth century, but its focus today is agriculture. A company statement says, “At Monsanto, we apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world be more successful, produce healthier foods, and better animal feeds, and create more fiber, all while reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment.”

But critics have accused Monsanto of undermining local farmers and public health through a wide means of corporate bullying. The latest issue of Vanity Fair has a lengthy article profiling some of Monsanto’s controversial corporate practices, from patenting seeds to fighting warning labels on milk cartons. It’s called “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.”

Vanity Fair contributing editor James Steele joins us here in our firehouse studio. He is the co-author of the piece, along with Donald Bartlett. And we welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jim.

JAMES STEELE: Nice to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you look at Monsanto?

JAMES STEELE: I think one of the reasons, it’s one of these companies that’s sort of below the radar screen to a lot of Americans at this point, and one of the things that fascinated us is the transformation of this company. I think a lot of people think of them for chemicals, fibers, all of those things that the name — that the company made its reputation on. But below that, in recent years, has been this remarkable revolution, where they are now an agricultural company, a life sciences company, and they want to completely put their chemical past behind them, in that sense, to concentrate on these new areas: genetically modified seeds and artificial supplements to increase milk production, and so forth. So it became just one of those interesting companies that people sort of know the name, but they don’t really know much about. That’s the kind of thing that’s always appealed to Don and me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Pilot Grove, Missouri.

JAMES STEELE: Pilot Grove, Missouri is a little town right smack dab in the middle of Missouri, 750 people, in the midst of a very productive soybean growing area.

By the way, I’m now Vanity Fair's resident expert on soybeans. I’m not sure exactly where I can go with this in the future, but I didn’t realize exactly how pivotal soybeans are to every aspect of our food supply, foods, you name it. And they're an extremely important thing in terms of an export crop in this country.

Pilot Grove is in the midst of one of these great soybean growing areas. And Monsanto has been targeting farmers and a seed co-op in that area over the last few years, accusing them of patent infringements. Monsanto, when they developed genetically modified seeds, patented the process. And unlike soybean seeds back to millennia, where farmers saved them, cleaned them over the winter and then replanted them in the spring, Monsanto prohibits that. You are to repurchase a new bag of seeds every spring and start the process over again. They claim this is necessary to justify the kind of money they invested to produce the genetically modified seed in the first place.

But a lot of farmers don’t always know that. Sometimes conventional soybean seeds get mixed in with genetically modified seeds. They look exactly the same. There’s absolutely no difference. And as a result of that, when they suspect that somebody has infringed on their patent, they unleash their investigative corps and private investigators to look at farmers, seed dealers, and so forth.

And that’s what happened in Pilot Grove, and it’s been going on for several years now. They’ve targeted many farmers there, and upwards of two dozen, the last time I looked at things, had settled with the company, had not gone to court, had just reached some confidential agreement.

But the co-op, the seed co-op that is sort of the pivotal unit in that county, did not agree to a settlement. They felt, how in the world can we agree to this? We — farmers bring us seeds. We don’t know whether these are traditional seeds or whether these are genetically modified seeds. They’re basically saying, “You want us to be a policeman of our customers.” So they resisted, and they’re in court over this.

But as a result of this, Monsanto has unleashed the full weight of its investigative forces in this little county. No less than seventeen surveillance videos by private investigators have been made of farmers in and around this town. I mean, this was eye-opening to us, the idea that a company is out there videotaping farmers, apparently, in their fields, coming out of stores. I’m not exactly sure where some of these videos were taken, but the court record refers to those. And these are part of the evidence that they gather to then confront farmers and say, “Look, you need to settle. You need to come clean. You’re infringing on our patent. It’s time to really make an agreement with us.”

So — and it turns out, most cases that Monsanto gets involved in never get this far. When the farmers are faced with certain possibility of litigation, most simply settle. It’s easier. They don’t have the resources to fight, even if they think they’re innocent. And they go on about their business. But this is one of the exceptions, and this is why this case is so remarkable, because it lays out exactly the methods the company uses, and so forth. Other farmers have talked about this in many other parts of the country for absolutely — over the last few years, ever since these genetically modified seeds were introduced in the late ’90s.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Steele, you talk about — you begin your piece with Gary Rinehart. Explain what happened to him.

JAMES STEELE: Gary Rinehart was just — is not a farmer. He’s not a seed dealer. He’s not even somebody in agriculture. But one day he was in his store in a small town in Northwest Missouri, and a man comes in and accuses him of infringing on Monsanto’s patents on soybean seeds. Gary resisted — or denied this, said he wasn’t a farmer, had nothing to do with this, couldn’t figure out what the man was up to.

The man became increasingly boisterous and suggesting that “Really, you need to settle with us, because Monsanto is big. You really can’t fight them. You’re just going to end up paying.” And [Rinehart] said, “Look, you’ve got the wrong man. I’m not even a farmer. I don’t even sell these seeds. I don’t have these seeds.”

AMY GOODMAN: Rinehart said this.

JAMES STEELE: Rinehart said these things. The investigator from Monsanto apparently ignored this, and several months later Monsanto filed a lawsuit in federal court —-

AMY GOODMAN: Against the store owner.

JAMES STEELE: —- against the store owner, Gary Rinehart, accusing him of infringing on Monsanto’s patents. It turned out totally false. He had not. He had submitted an affidavit to that effect, even though a Monsanto investigator submitted an affidavit saying the exact opposite. But when Gary was forced to get a lawyer to defend himself, and when that lawyer actually took this information to Monsanto’s attorneys, the case was immediately dropped. Most farmers are not really quite that fortunate. Usually, most of these things work their way further through the system, and many end up reaching some sort of an agreement with Monsanto.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with James Steele, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter together with Don Bartlett, wrote the piece in Vanity Fair, “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.” Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Monsanto has denied our request for a spokesperson to appear on Democracy Now! with James Steele, but they did share with us their initial response to your questions, Jim, while you were reporting this article. I want to read some of what they had to say on a few of the issues you’ve raised. On patenting and lawsuits, Monsanto says, quote, "Protecting our customers’ interest in research that will bring new advancements and future productivity tools to their operations is critical to their success, and to ours. One tool in protecting this investment is patenting our discoveries and, if necessary, legally defending those patents against those who might choose to infringe upon them...

"While the vast majority of farmers and seed dealers follow the licensing agreements they sign with our company, there have been a tiny fraction who have chosen not to honor their agreements over the years. Monsanto then has an obligation to the thousands of our customers who have chosen to honor their agreements to enforce our patent rights to protect the integrity of the licensing process and to maintain a level playing field in the marketplace. The growers who honor their commitments have made it abundantly clear to us that others should not be allowed to reap the benefits of the technology without paying for its use.” Jim Steele, your response?

JAMES STEELE: I think the biggest issue is the tactics that they use in going about enforcing those patents. And I mean, you just saw in the case of Gary Rinehart, even with a guy who says, “Look, I’m innocent, I didn’t do this,” they very often don’t listen to that and barge ahead, in terms of the investigation. I think it is the aggressiveness by which they go about protecting their patents. I mean, other companies have also developed genetically modified seeds, and they do not have the reputation in the Heartland that Monsanto does in terms of these tactics, the private investigators very often confronting farmers in their fields, urging them to sign documents that will then give them a free and unfettered access to all of their crop records, and so forth. I think that’s what separates them from some other companies.

And the issue isn’t just the amount of litigation filed, because Monsanto makes the point that very few cases actually go to trial. But the significant thing are the total numbers of these investigations, which are substantial and considerable.

AMY GOODMAN: I was surprised to see your reference to Iraq and L. Paul Bremer, one of his last acts when he was in charge in Iraq.

JAMES STEELE: One of his last acts was to issue an order that basically would set up the same kind of regimen over in Iraq that we have in this country, which is that you cannot recycle the seeds. Basically, you can only use them for one crop season. You would not be able to clean them, which of course Iraqi farmers have done for years and years and millennia. And you would have to buy them each year, just as American farmers do with soybeans and many other products. Monsanto has maintained that they have no intention of enforcing that or going that route. But the fact is, if those seeds should ever become widely available, there would be the option of enforcing that law, the order.

AMY GOODMAN: The order stipulating “farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties.” Monsanto has said it has no interest in doing business in Iraq, but should the company change its mind, the American-style law is in place. Jim Steele, milk?

JAMES STEELE: One of the things that just amazed us is like milk is this other whole battle that’s going on out there that people are not aware of. Monsanto developed an artificial hormone for to increase milk production. Cows are injected with this, and as a result of that they give more milk. Many farmers, many dairy farmers, do not want to use this artificial hormone. They want to just get milk the old-fashioned way, the way cows have always produced this.

And because there’s such a movement in this country, that people want to know what is in their food, what is in their milk, many of these dairy farmers simply put on their milk carton “No RBGH,” which means “no bovine growth hormone.” It doesn’t say anything beyond that. In fact, on the back of many of these cartons it says something to the effect that studies have shown there’s no difference in the milk between cows that receive the artificial growth hormone versus those that don’t.

But even so, Monsanto has taken action, first with the Federal Trade Commission, to try to get some action to restrict that label and to change that labeling. This is one case where the FTC has not gone along with Monsanto. They’ve denied that request. Monsanto is now working through various state agricultural departments, especially in big dairy producing states, to try to get similar action on the milk cartons.

And the dairy farmers I’ve talked to who do this, who have actually been singled out by Monsanto — one fellow down in Louisiana, in particular, said, “Look, consumers want to know what’s in their food, what’s in their products. All we are doing is telling them that.” And what many of them are finding is that their sales actually increase as a result of that. The milk may cost a little more, but if consumers want it, they should have the right to have that choice.

AMY GOODMAN: I was driving through Vermont this weekend the passed Ben & Jerry’s, and they took on Monsanto —-

JAMES STEELE: That’s right, years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: —- just wanting to put on that they are RBGH-free. On labeling BST-free milk, BST or — what’s the difference?

JAMES STEELE: RBST is the more scientific term. It’s a real mouthful. But RBGH is the more popular and means “bovine growth hormone,” but it’s basically the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Monsanto says, quote, “Monsanto supports accuracy in consumer labeling. Dairy product labels that make unqualified absence claims, such as ‘no hormones’ or ‘BST-free,’ imply a safety or quality difference and are misleading to consumers. These labels undermine consumer confidence in dairy products,” they say.

JAMES STEELE: Most of the dairies that were singled out by Monsanto in its action where it sought some results from the FTC, these were dairies that did not make those claims on their cartons. The fellow down in Louisiana, in particular, just simply says on the front of it “No RBGH,” which means no artificial growth hormone. But Monsanto has taken the position that even that disparages the product.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to quickly jump to a last point, the investigation you did of the health effects in two places that have Monsanto plants, in Alabama and West Virginia.

JAMES STEELE: Right. Before, when Monsanto was a chemical company, and which was most of its history, in Nitro, they produced an agricultural herbicide, and one of the offshoots of this was dioxin, which is one of the most polluted and contaminated substances imaginable. And the other place, Anniston, Alabama, they produced PCBs, which was this industrial lubricant used in all kinds of electrical equipment, machinery, and so forth. Both of these places, Monsanto operated these facilities for decades, and now both of them are tremendously polluted places, particularly Anniston. Many of the people in that community are walking around with elevated levels of PCBs in their bodies, which apparently will never change. Once these get in your system, it’s very, very hard to get them out. Both of these are sort of a legacy of Monsanto’s past, from the time it was a chemical giant.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, James Steele, I want to thank you very much for being with us. James Steele is the co-author with Donald Bartlett of “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear” in the latest Vanity Fair magazine.

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