Boasting more back channels and revolving doors with national and regional governments than most other companies on the planet, Monsanto is used to getting its way. With the direct assistance of the U.S. government and diplomatic services, the company goes from strength to strength, regardless of its myriad scandals.
As California based economics blogger (& friend) Wolf Richer wrote on his blog, Testosterone Pit, its previous flagship products include:
The once harmless DDT, now banned worldwide; a family of industrial chemicals called PCBs that are now considered highly toxic; Agent Orange, the defoliant liberally used during the Vietnam War and promoted as harmless to people, with grave results for the Vietnamese and US soldiers who came in contact with it. And there was saccharine, the sweetener that ended up being a carcinogen.
More recently, Monsanto reinvented itself and decided to save mankind not with a DDT successor, but with genetically modified seeds, whether people wanted them or not.
Present in more than 80 countries around the world, Monsanto is now the world’s leading manufacturer of GM seeds. Its main competitors include the German agribusiness and chemical behemoths Bayer, Syngenta and Basf, and US chemicals titan Dow.
Despite the competition, Monsanto’s profits have never been healthier: its third quarter 2013 profits ($368 million) comfortably beat expectations and its total revenue rose 7 percent to $3.1 billion. According to the company’s CEO, Monsanto expects further growth in 2014. “All of our indicators continue to line up to deliver mid- to high-teens” growth in operating profit on a percentage basis this year, chief executive Hugh Grant (no, not that Hugh Grant) told reporters on a conference call early Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported.
However, not everything is going Monsanto’s way. In May 2013 the company had to suffer the ignominy of being the target of the two-million-man “March Against Monsanto,” as people in over 400 cities in 52 countries protested against the company, its influence and its GMO seeds.
What’s more, despite its tireless lobbying efforts in Brussels, Monsanto and its main rivals continue to hit a brick wall of resistance in many of Europe’s biggest markets, including Germany and France. And now, with popular resistance on the rise in Latin America, the U.S. agribusiness giant faces the prospect, albeit slim, of losing its grip on one of its most important strategic markets.
From Mexico’s Rio Grande in the north to Argentina’s fertile pampas in the south, indigenous and peasant communities are rising up against government legislation that would apply brutally rigid intellectual copyright laws to the crop seeds they are able to grow. The latest chapter in this unfolding drama was written in Chile, where the coordinated actions of a broad alliance of social movements have managed to put a stop – at least for now – to the passage of the so-called Monsanto Law.
Nine-Hundred and Seventy
Even the U.S.’s staunchest ally in the region, Colombia, is beginning to feel the heat. In August 2013 the Colombian independent journalist Victoria Solano released the documentary 970, so-named after the government’s Resolution 970, a law which sought to force the nation’s farmers to exclusively use certified seeds – that is, seeds patented by the world’s largest agribusiness companies.
The film denounced the injustices committed by the government against the peasant farmers of the Huila region, who had 70 tonnes of uncertified rice seeds confiscated and destroyed. According to the farmers, the government hadn’t even informed them of the new law. Indeed, it was only through Solano’s film that many Colombians realised that sharing or giving away seeds – a practice that dates back millennia – was now a crime.
The response of the Colombian campesinos was to mount a collective resistance struggle that brought large swathes of the country’s rural heartland to a standstill and resulted in direct, bloody clashes with government and paramilitary forces. In the face of the public backlash, the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, decided to suspend the law – temporarily of course! Then, at the tail end of 2013 Colombia’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional since indigenous communities had not been consulted before its implementation.
With the privatisation of seed laws effectively on hold in Colombia and Chile, and resistance growing in Mexico, where 800 scientists recently sent a petition to President Enrique Peña Nieto calling for a complete ban on transgenic corn, events on the ground in Latin America seem to be taking a decided turn against the interests of Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow & Co.
The reason why this should be of vital interest – not only to GMO producers and Latin American growers, but also food growers and consumers around the world – is that Latin America is currently the epicentre of the GMO movement, accounting for anywhere between 60 and 70 percent of total global GMO production.
Industrialization of Agriculture in Latin America’s Southern Cone
The three biggest players in the market are Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. In Argentina, soybean crops, most of which are transgenic, are grown on 60 percent of the country’s fertile land, generating annual revenues of over 30 billion dollars. And with the government increasingly dependent on foreign reserves to meet its crippling debt obligations, it is money that is desperately needed.
Unlike Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, Argentina is not a signatory of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is widely seen as an enabling act for the global domination of GMO producers (read more here). Even so, the Kirchener government is trying to pass its own version of “Monsanto Law” through parliament. However, in the face of broad opposition from small farmers and consumers, it, too, has had to stall its progress.
In Brazil, meanwhile, popular resistance is growing against the government’s attempts to pass a law which would allow for the use of GM terminator or suicide seeds – seeds which make crops die off after one harvest without producing offspring. As a result, farmers would have to buy new seeds for each new planting, making them dependent on major seed and chemical companies.
In 2000, 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which recommended a de facto moratorium on this technology. However, as the Guardian reports, powerful landowning groups in Brazil have been pushing Congress to allow the technology to be used for the controlled propagation of certain plants used for medicines and eucalyptus trees, which provide pulp for paper mills. Environmentalists fear that any such move by Brazil – one of the biggest agricultural producers on the planet – could produce a domino effect that would result in the worldwide adoption of the controversial technology.
Like Argentina, Brazil is one of the world’s largest producers of soybean. And its biggest customer? Why, none other than fellow BRICS nation China, which gobbles up nearly 70 percent of Brazil’s soybean exports. Furthermore, in what could radically change the dynamics of farming in Brazil, China recently agreed to import three new GE soybean varieties from the nation, which will mean even greater pressure to turn over its agricultural land (and of course Amazonian rainforest) to soybean cultivation. It will also mean even juicier profits and greater control over the global food chain for Monsanto and other GMO producers.
Ignoring the Real Problems: Consumption and Distribution
With few exceptions, governments across Latin America have sold off vast tracts of fertile land to the world’s biggest agricultural conglomerates. Precedence is almost always given to export markets, at the expense of domestic needs. Now the same governments seek to hand over control of their food supply to giant international GMOs such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Du Pont.
Their justification for doing so is always the same: improved productivity and efficiency. It is the exact same meme used by the GM industry. According to Bernard Geier, the former president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture, it’s a disingenuous argument. Despite all the lofty talk of putting an end to worldwide hunger, there is no crop which offers the genuine potential to significantly raise yields, he says.
What’s more, the problems in today’s food markets have much less to do with production than they do with distribution and consumption. As Geier said during a two-day conference on the future of food production in Latin America (in Spanish) at the University of Cologne, the crude reality of the world we live in today is that we suffer from over, not under, production of food:
We produce so much that each person on the planet could consume 4,000 calories per day. Instead of producing more, we need to change our consumption behaviour. At the global level, 40 percent of food is not consumed; it is wasted.
In short, “feeding the world” is the last thing on GMO producers’ minds. In their war against the common seed stock, what they seek to achieve is nothing short of full-spectral dominance of the global food supply. It is about profits, power and control. Above all, control.
In Latin America, the epicentre not only of the GMO markets but also of the fair trade movement, the rural resistance has begun. And the stakes could not be higher: for the continent’s millions of small holders and peasant farmers, what they are fighting for is nothing short of basic self-sufficiency and survival.