Review by Rafa Lombardino
Title: The World According to Monsanto ― Pollution, Corruption, and The Control of Our Food Supply: An Investigation into the World's Most Controversial Company
Author: Marie-Monique Robin
Translator: George Holoch (from French)
Published in: 2010
This past week, there were several demonstrations worldwide against Monsanto, a U.S. chemical company founded in 1901, whose first product was saccharin. However, the company is currently best known as the maker of weed killer RoundUp, for filing for patents on several seeds and taking farmers to court in order to control how crops using their seeds are to be managed. In a nutshell, Monsanto asks for royalty on food production, since one-time-only payment when their seeds are first purchased doesn't seem to be good enough for them.
I picked up Marie-Monique's "The World According to Monsanto"―which was originally written in French and translated into English by George Holoch―because I come across the subject very often in my technical translations. I translate many reports on experimental crop viability, sustainable agriculture, pesticides and other agrochemicals, in addition to articles for organizations like Greenpeace on crop resistance and diversity.
On the one hand, it was a pleasure to read an accurately translated book that mentions the same keywords I use in my translations into English, such as glyphosate, hybrids, runoff, and Agrobacterium tumefaciens, for example. On the other hand, it is a tale of horrors about what is going on in the world, which includes accidental and intentional poisoning ("The number of accidental poisonings by pesticides is estimated at more than a million per year around the world, 20,000 of which are fatal" and "Roundup [...] is the favorite herbicide of would-be suicides by poisoning" -- page 86,) contamination, health problems, bankruptcy, skewed research results, prosecution of whistleblowers ("I'll never forget the first time I used the phrase 'We are not in the business of the pursuit of knowledge; we are in the business of the pursuit of products'" -- page 138, words of Richard Mahoney, Monsanto CEO between 1984 and 1995) and government involvement―to mention just a few taboos explored in the book.
About the issue with royalties, it drives small farmers bankrupt and does not allow them to carry on their activities, since they must make several payments throughout different stages of the process, from buying the seeds, sowing them, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables they planted because every step of their labor is subjected to a licensing mentality, in which Monsanto has proprietary rights over the fundamental element that makes crops possible, not to mention all the chemicals involved in crop treatment. You see, one of the perks of engineering seeds and patenting them is that you can create products to treat the emerging plants and ensure that treatment will only be effective if your own products are used in your own seeds...
If farmers try to fight this arrangement, they must spend large sums of money they do not have in attorney's fees, unless they can find a law firm willing to donate their time and resources to engage in this head-on combat and be faced by the army of lawyers hired by the company. Incidentally, the recent wave in demonstrations against Monsanto is also due to the fact that the Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of the company in such a court case, stating the following:
“Patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission."
From a consumer's perspective, this complex issue is taking astronomic proportions as well because of the debate surrounding GMOs, that is, Genetically-Modified Organisms. Basically, companies like Monsanto have been genetically engineering seeds and crops in order to either make them more resistant to plagues, thus increasing the yield, or introducing/removing features (known as traits) so that fruits and vegetables can acquire certain characteristics or lose undesirable attributes. When legislation surfaces to try and make GMO foods accurately labeled, thus allowing consumers to choose whether they want to ingest such products, these bills are shot down by strong lobbying and marketing efforts and they never pass into law.
For me, personally, one of the most interesting parts of the book was the timeline of events involving Monsanto in the Southern Cone, since I'm originally from Brazil. It was astonishing to find out about the push for Monsanto soy in Argentina, to the point that there was a campaign against cow's milk in order to increase consumption of soy milk. Coincidentally, there was a recent scandal involving contaminated soy juice in Brazil and the resulting support for non-GMO soy crops in the country.
Here are some interesting excerpts related to these cases, so that you can evaluate the richly detailed material explored in this book:
[...] in July 2002, the Consejo Nacional de Coordinación de Políticas Sociales organized a forum on the subject where it was pointed out that "soy juice should not be called 'milk' and it can in no case replace milk." Health professionals pointed out that soy is much less rich in calcium than cow's milk and its heavy concentration of phytates blocks the body's absorption of metals such as iron and zinc, increasing the risk of anemia. Above all, they strongly advised against the consumption of soy products by children younger than five, for a common sense reason: it is known that soy is very rich in isoflavones, which act as hormone substitutes for premenopausal women and can therefore cause significant hormonal imbalances in growing bodies.
In 1998, when [Roundup Ready] soybeans were invading the North American plains and the Argentine pampas, Monsanto seemed to be champing at the bit in Brazil, the world's second-largest soybean producer. A petition filed by Greenpeace and the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense (IDEC) secured a temporary suspension of the marketing of GMOs on the grounds that "with no prior study of the environmental impact and the health risk to consumers, it would violate the precautionary principle of the Convention on Biodiversity signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro."
By lucky chance, smuggling was organized in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul; seeds were clandestinely imported from nearby Argentina, which led them to be nicknamed "Maradona" after the country's famed soccer player. Backed by Aapresid, Apassul (Seed Producers Association of Rio Grande do Sul) organized sumptuous churrascadas (barbecues) to promote transgenic crops, right before the eyes of the authorities, who did nothing.
[...] in 2002, when Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, ran for president for the fourth time and campaigned against GMOs, they [Monsanto soy seeds] had already spread throughout the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and also in neighboring states of Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul. Nine months after the Workers Party candidate had entered the Palácio do Planalto in Brasília, the European Commission adopted two rules on September 22, 2003, on the traceability and the labeling of GM foods intended for human and animal consumption. This decision directly threatened Brazil's exports, since it was unable to distinguish between conventional and transgenic soybeans, because the latter officially did not exist.
Three days later, Lula signed a decree authorizing―temporarily―the sale of RR [Roundup Ready] soybeans for the 2003 crop, then their planting and marketing for the 2004 season. It offered an amnesty for all GMO producers, inviting them to come out of the closet and identify their crops so that segregation could be organized. The decision caused an uproar among peasant and ecological organizations, but also inside the Workers Party, which had promised not to release transgenic seeds before their environmental, health, and social impact had been seriously evaluated.
Aware of the disastrous consequences that would inevitably follow from the onward rush of soybeans, João Pedro Stedile, leader of the Landless Peasants Movement (MST), called Lula a "transgenic politician," and the environment minister, Marina Silva, seriously considered resigning. For the opponents of GMOs, the presidential decree signaled the surrender of the new government to agribusiness, represented by agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues, and above all to Monsanto.
It will be recalled that when it [Monsanto] launched its RR soybeans, the company demonstrated extraordinary generosity by agreeing that producers would not pay royalties on the seeds. Eight years later, it was estimated that only 18% of the seeds used were certified, that is, brought at the list price from dealers subservient to Monsanto through licenses; the rest were seeds that had been saved or bought on the black market. Monsanto did not move until January 2004, when it suddenly threatened to withdraw from Argentina if all the producers did not pay the "technology fee."
At first Agriculture Secretary Miguel Campos didn't bat an eyelid. He even offered to setup a royalty fund paid for by a tax the government would collect from producers and turn over to Monsanto, the trifling sum of $34 million a year.
Eduardo Buzzi, president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation: "First of all, Monsanto didn't patent its gene in this country; besides, farmers are protected by law 2247, which guarantees what is called the 'principle of the farmer's exception,' that is, his right to replant part of his harvest, even if the original seeds are certified by breeders. There is no reason why Monsanto should enjoy special status."
Marie-Monique Robin: "But your organization at first encouraged the development of transgenic soybeans."
EB: "That's right, and we were totally taken in. How could such cynicism be imagined? The company had planned everything for the long term, relying on Aapresid, an association it finances to promote its products, with the complicity of government officials and the media. Everything had been calculated, even smuggling to Paraguay and Brazil, and we fell right into the trap."
MMR: "It's war?"
EB: "Yes, the seed war, except that we're not worried about collecting dividends to satisfy shareholders but simply about staying alive."
I highly recommend "The World According to Monsanto" as a way to acquire knowledge in and raise awareness of the issue. And, to complement the reading experience, there's also a documentary by the same name, also put together by Marie-Monique, which was released in 2008 before the book. Thanks to this documentary, the author, journalist, and film-maker received a Rachel Carson Prize the following year for her environmental achievements.
TRAILER: The World According to Monsanto
RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).