The U.S. agribusiness giant Monsanto is long accustomed to getting its own way. Through a combination of back-channel lobbying, opaque political funding and revolving-door politics, the multinational agrochemical and biotechnology corporation has subverted, corrupted and infiltrated the elected governments of countries around the world, from the smallest and poorest to the biggest and richest.
However, if recent events in Europe and Latin America are any indication, the tide may well be subtly turning against the interests of Monsanto and its fellow GMO oligopolies and in the favor of independent food growers and consumers. Despite their tireless lobbying efforts in Brussels, the “Big Six” (Monsanto, Du Pont Pioneer, Syngenta, Vilmorin, Winfield and KWS) continue to hit a brick wall of resistance in many of Europe’s biggest markets, including Germany and France. As I reported in April this year, popular resistance is on the rise across Latin America, as indigenous and peasant communities rise up against government legislation that would apply brutally rigid intellectual copyright laws to the crop seeds they are able to grow.
The latest country to put a spanner in the works is Mexico. This past week the country’s Federal Court voted to uphold Judge Marroquín Zaleta’s 2013 ruling to suspend the granting of licenses for GMO field trials sought by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Pionner-Dupont and Mexico’s SEMARNAT (Environment and Natural Resources Ministry). Zaleta’s ruling was in response to a suit brought by a collective of 53 scientists and 22 civil rights organizations and NGOs.
In defending his ruling, Zaleta cited the potential risks to the environment posed by GMO corn. If the biotech industry got its way, he argued, more than 7000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico would be endangered, with the country’s 60 varieties of corn directly threatened by cross-pollination from transgenic strands. Monsanto’s response was as swift as it was brutal: not only did it – and its lackeys in the Mexican government – appeal Zaleta’s ruling, it also demanded his removal from the bench on the grounds that he had already stated his opinion on the case before sentencing.
However, Monsanto’s bullying tactics failed to impress the Mexican judges. On August 15, the court convened to review Zaleta’s alleged bias ruled against the U.S. corporation’s legal suit. Also spurned by the Mexican courts was the world’s third largest GMO seed manufacturer, Syngenta, whose reapplication for a license to run test trials of its maize crops was rejected this week by the Federal Court.
Resistance to GMOs has been brewing in Mexico for a number of years. The country’s corn crop is far more than a mere staple; for millenia it has played a vital part in the country’s culture and economy, and a broad coalition of scientists and civil organizations is determined to safeguard its diversity and common ownership.
The painful lessons of the past serve as a stark warning of what could happen if the giants of agribusiness get their way. In 1994, the signing of NAFTA with the U.S. and Canada exposed the country’s smallhold farmers to competition from U.S. giants like Cargill and Corn Products International – all under the auspices, of course, of “free trade”. In short order millions of campesinos were turfed off their land and pushed into a precarious existence on the margins of cities in both Mexico and the U.S.
Should Biotech giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta win the current battle against Mexico’s judicial branch, the consequences would be even more devastating, as award-winning professor of Cellular Neurobiology David R. Schubert warned in a 2013 letter to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto:
- Introducing GM corn into Mexico would pose a huge environmental risk given that the plant is native to the country. The GM varieties would drastically diminish the crop diversity of both Mexico and the world at large.
- GM corn would make the crop production process a lot more expensive. Buying the same crop seeds year after year – as already happens in the U.S. and across many agricultural sectors in the global south (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and India) – would increase the costs throughout the Mexican food chain, putting millions of smallholders out of business.
- GMO corn will also increase Mexico’s social and political dependence on oligopolies. Once transnational corporations dominate the seed market of a particular crop (as has happened with Soy and is fast happening with Corn), they will continue introducing GM seeds for other crops and increasing their power over Mexico’s agricultural sector. As Schubert warned, this has already happened in the United States, “where seed companies are one of the main sources of financial funding for the two main political parties and have put their own people in senior positions of power to dictate national and international agricultural policy”.
- GM maize expressing Bt protein and herbicide resistance and the chemicals required for their cultivation pose a serious health hazard to those who consume it – especially on the scale at which it is consumed in Mexico.
- Most importantly, once the GM seeds are planted, they’ll be no going back. The country’s native varieties, which are the result of thousands of years of careful selection and breeding, will be irreversibly contaminated – even if the GM seeds are introduced on a modest scale.
A War for Survival
Thanks to the rare intervention of a brave judge, the civil movement to protect Mexico’s crop diversity and the common ownership of seeds has delivered a significant blow to the interests of some of the world’s largest and most powerful transnational corporations. But if history has taught us anything, it is that the likes of Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta are unlikely to sit on their hands and let a few pesky Mexican judges thwart their plans for full-spectral dominance of the global food supply.
As Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher for the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (Grupo ETC), warns, never before in the long history of human agriculture and food have we faced such serious concentration of power and ownership of the global seed industry, the primary link of the global food chain. In the year 2014, just six American and European companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer and Basf – control 100 percent of the GM seeds planted in the world. All of them were originally chemical manufacturers.
It wasn’t always that way. Indeed, such concentration of the seed industry is a wholly new phenomenon. Thirty-five years ago, there were thousands of seed manufacturers and not a single one of them had more than one-percent control of the global market. Fifteen years later, the top ten companies had captured 30 percent of the market, yet Monsanto was not among them.
Now Monsanto alone, after having acquired a huge portfolio of seed companies such as Agroceres, Asgrow, Cristiani Burkard, Dekalb, Delta & Pine and the seeds division of Cargill North America, controls 26 percent of the entire global market of all seeds, not just GMOs. Monsanto, second-placed Dupont, and third-placed Syngenta combined control 53 percent of the market.
Such concentration of ownership has granted a handful of Western corporations and the governments with which they are inseparably intertwined vast control over one of the world’s primary resources, food. And although these companies control almost all commercial seeds, whether genetically modified or not, they prefer to sell GMOs despite the fact that 16 years of official US statistics have proven that they are less productive, significantly more expensive and not (as the GMO giants claim) resistant to all pests or disease. The two main reasons for their preference for GMOs are: a) they use a lot more agrichemicals, an industry in which the same companies have a controlling stake; and b) by patenting GMO seeds, the companies can guarantee that farmers will have to come back for more, year after year, decade after decade.
Put simply, it is enforced dependence on a scale never before imagined. As the dark lord of U.S. geopolitics Henry Kissinger is alleged to have once said, “control oil, you control the nations; control food and you control the people”. Thankfully, in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Chile, France, Germany and India, the resistance is rising and spreading. Whether it will be enough to head off one of the greatest threats to human freedom, health and the environment, only time will tell.