By all means, the deluge of damning information, string of political intricacies and overall ominous tone of the latest documentary by French journalist and director Marie-Monique Robin, “The World According to Monsanto,” should have put me to sleep. But it didn’t. In fact, it kept my stomach literally churning. The film, a National Film Board of Canada co-production, meticulously details the manipulative deeds of Monsanto Co., one of the world’s biggest agrochemical- biotech companies, on its route to global domination by tracing a trail of evidence, cover-ups and tragedies from the American heartland and beyond.
Notorious for its development of hazardous chemicals such as Agent Orange, PCBs (now banned) and the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), Monsanto is now also known for its monopoly on genetically modified (GM) seeds of food crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans. Despite the uncertainty of the long-term health effects of consuming and growing GM foods, the company’s GM seeds are now widespread in much of North and South America.
Non-labeling and genetic contamination
The film documents the beginnings of the company as a chemical start-up in the early 1900s, producing saccharin, caffeine and vanilla. As we watch Robin Google up unclassified documents and interview a bevy of officials, scientists and farmers, we see that today’s Monsanto is a giant multinational wielding its considerable financial, political and marketing clout to influence government officials, ruthlessly sue farmers using patent laws – all the while surreptitiously lobbying to keep their potentially toxic products unlabeled or falsely advertised.
Monsanto claims that their genetically modified seeds will solve the food crisis, especially in developing countries, where it will provide significant economic benefits, higher quality and better yield. Nevertheless, the film compellingly shows the unsettling possibilities of genetic contamination of conventional or local varieties of seeds by their genetically- engineered cousins, pointing to a horrific future where global plant biodiversity is nil and farmers are not able to grow anything but genetically contaminated food.
It’s a terrifying thought. But perhaps Monsanto’s agenda is even simpler than all their lofty claims put together. As one farmer puts it, “The reason they do it is control. They want to control seed. They want to own life. I mean, this is the building blocks of food we are talking about. They are in the process of owning food, all food.”
Genetically modified seed “more powerful than bombs”
And what of the future of global food security? In one interview, eco-activist Vandana Shiva asserts: “The second Green Revolution has nothing to do with food security … it is about returns to Monsanto’s profits… patenting is the real aim. If you look at Monsanto’s research agenda, they are testing something like twenty crops at this point with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes. There’s nothing that they are leaving untouched – the mustard, the okra, the rice, the brinjal (eggplant), the rice, the cauliflower – once they have established the norm that seed can be owned as their property, royalties can be collected, and we will depend on them for every seed we grow, for every crop we grow. If they control seed, they control food… it’s strategic, it’s more powerful than bombs, more powerful than guns, and it's the best way to control the populations of the world.”
Importance of labellings genetically modified foods
Despite the rather dismal picture it paints, the film does an excellent job in digging up and piecing the facts together, much of it easily available online (Robin also wrote a book, Le Monde Selon Monsanto, based on her investigations) . But what can we as consumers do to address concerns about the possible health and environmental risks of genetically modified foods? Or should we rephrase: what else is Monsanto not telling us? As some surveys already show that a majority of people want GM foods labeled, one crucial step would be to take action to ensure GM foods are clearly labeled and standards quickly put into place, so that consumers can make an informed choice. For in the midst of ignorance, how could we ever choose?