This is not an article about the genetically modified organisms (gmos) and whether they are harmful or not. It is not about the health of humans and the environment. It is an article on the political economy of bio-industries; it is about food security, politics and civil freedoms. How can a seed industry blackmail citizens and still governments bow in front of them?
It is not about what Monsanto merchandizes, it is about how it does it. It is about Mafia-like-running companies defining food security and civil liberties.
The politics of policy making is an arena where different sets of actors, not necessarily only political, contest and interact in order to influence policy emergence and its application. This process is of course legitimate, as long as the market actors do not overrun or even move like puppets the political, elected by the citizens, actors.
It is of great interest to take a closer look in the US and the bio-tech monolith Monsanto. The United States Department of Agriculture recently approved Monsanto’s controversial herbicide-resistant genetically modified strains of soybean and cotton, something that many critics see as a bow to probably the most powerful bio-industry, at the expense of human health and environmental conservation. Moreover, the company is also seeking to extend its reach into milk production by marketing an artificial growth hormone for cows that increases their milk production, and it is taking aggressive steps to bring those who don’t want to use growth hormone at a commercial disadvantage.
The research studies that have shown that Monsanto’s genetically-modified foods can lead to serious health conditions, such as the development of cancer tumors, infertility and birth defects, are merely besides the point here. And the fact that something like this is beside the point, in my opinion means, that the whole systemic problem that Monsanto represents is simply absurd.
In the United States, the FDA, the agency responsible for ensuring food safety for the population, is lead by ex-Monsanto executives, and apparently this is a dubious conflict of interests. Recently, the U.S. Congress and president passed the “Monsanto Protection Act” that, among other things, prohibits courts from ceasing the sale of Monsanto’s genetically-modified seeds.
For decades, Monsanto has not only been the benefactor of political favoritism, but on top of that have received considerable corporate subsidies. For instance, Monsanto received millions to expand its activities in Africa; and I will come to this later on. This is not wrong because of its potentially harmful merchandize, which for many scientists is not even proven; but because Monsanto forces an annihilating monopoly in the seed market and the world’s food supply, with the buying up of conventional-seed companies and by acquiring exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup; over life forms. It is absurd because Monsanto’s seed police, blackmails, threatens, humiliates and financially destroys farmers that do not comply with its preposterous seed policy. It is absurd because Monsanto launches incredibly expensive campaigns to fight Act initiatives, attempting to regulate the industry, causing in fact, the nullification of democracy; as money so easily silences political voices coming from both elected representatives and citizens alike. Monsanto exerts overwhelming influence over the government through campaign donations and lobbying, turning the government into a marketing spokesperson for Monsanto products.
Everyone sees the problem through the lenses of human and environmental health, and this is absolutely reasonable. But let us say, for the sake of the argument, that a corporation that sells “ambrosia”, implements the same tactics; would that be acceptable. Wouldn’t that be tyranny as well? Protection of civil liberties, in all levels, has a value on its own. The concept of the benevolent tyrant exists only in Plato’s world of ideas, and there is a reason for that; that is because absolute, all-consuming power in one’s hands is dangerous, no matter what. History of humanity proves it.
And why am I saying benevolent tyrant. For instance, in Mr. Friedberg’s view, Vice President of Monsanto, genetically modified seeds enable farmers to grow larger crops with less resources and represent a way to help sustain the growing world population. Some of Monsanto’s critics “want to live in a natural world where we’re all living in treehouses in the rainforest and picking coconuts out of the tree,” Mr. Friedberg said. “Maybe it would be possible if we had 100,000 people living on earth, but that’s not the reality that we’re living in today.”
Nonetheless, even if there is a point in this argument, and I am not saying there isn’t, citizens of a democratic country should have the real freedom to choose otherwise. The example of what happened in the state of Hawaii is one of many. According to a local news website, Honolulu Civil Beat (HCB), Monsanto and Dow — two of the world’s largest biotech and agricultural conglomerates, have thrown $8 million to beat back a Maui County voter initiative that would prohibit temporarily all GMO farming, according to documents of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission. On the other hand, proponents of the measure have spent less than $83,000; and apparently they lost. These numbers show the absence of real democracy, when policies depend on who can spend more in lobbying and campaigning.
This example is actually one of the civilized actions of Monsanto. Monsanto relies on a dirty army of private investigators and agents to spread fear among farmers. They strike into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers and store owners. They ambush farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records. Farmers call them the “seed police” and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics. Investigators have actually shown farmers a photo of themselves coming out of a store, to let them know they have been followed. Not surprisingly, the numbers of farmers who settle because they don’t have the money or the time to fight Monsanto are overwhelming.
Besides the fact that the loss of biodiversity of seeds, particularly in a time of climate change, threatens the resilience of food supply; there is another side of this problem, which I believe is wildly understated. Traditionally and until the late twentieth century, plant genetic resources belonged to a global commons and were considered the ‘‘common heritage of humankind’’. Who owns biodiversity after all?
IPRs in the area of biodiversity are not merely a matter of transfer of technology but become ground for intercultural dialogue. For many communities, knowledge and biological resources are inalienable. In the hill regions of India, for example, people value their seeds more than their lives. For traditional societies, biodiversity is common property, and knowledge related to it is in the intellectual commons. For biotechnology corporations, biodiversity becomes private property through their investments, and IPRs are the means for such privatization.
The emergence of genetic engineering has encouraged the emergence of patents and lPRs for products originating from biodiversity. Instead of being treated as the common property of local communities or as the national property of sovereign states, the Global South’s biodiversity has in recent years been treated as the common heritage of the world. In contrast, the modified biodiversity is patented and sold back to them as high-priced and patented seeds. Funny enough, this is as well happening in the “free world” as well, the U.S. There is no epistemological justification for treating some germplasm as valueless and common heritage and other germplasm as a valuable commodity and private property. This distinction is not based on the nature of the germplasm but on the nature of political and economic power.
That brings us to the subsidized by the US government presence of Monsanto in Africa. In 2010, the Obama administration pushed a humanitarian initiative focused in increasing the food supply of Africa. In order to solve the hunger problem in Africa, they started promoting industrial, mono-crop farming and genetically modified goods rather than investing in local farms; with devastating results for both biodiversity of the land and cultural diversity of the local population.
Don’t get me wrong. Monsanto is just an example. The same applies to the weapon industry as well. And the list can go and on. People around the globe deserve freedom and deserve governments that protect unconditionally their liberties from private actors. Otherwise politicians lose purpose of existence; and this kind of delegitimization leads always, with mathematical accuracy, to armed revolutions. Maybe Monsanto is not to blame after all; when the elected guardians of the peoples and the peoples best interests, not only turn their face away, but actually concur in the modern slavery imposed upon us by transnational conglomerates, which decide on a global scale, what people shall harvest and eat with no deviation. That is modern time tyranny, and to the best of my knowledge tyranny starts and ends with political decisions.