Alongside corporate giants like Philip Morris and Wal-Mart, Monsanto Co. is locked in the crosshairs of consumer criticism with nowhere to run.
A quick Google search will reveal staggering amounts of information on Monsanto’s long history of paying lobbyists to block government regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), putting small farmers out of business, polluting the environment, allegations of false advertising and lacking adequate safety testing on their products, along with helping to engineer some of the most harmful chemicals to date, including Agent Orange.
No matter: Monsanto now provides roughly 90 percent of the world’s genetically modified seeds.
These seeds have already become dominant in some developing nations, effectively eliminating the use of conventional and heirloom seeds, along with the sustainable farming practices that have fed humans since the dawn of agricultural societies.
But as skeletons tumble out of Monsanto’s deep, dark closet and spill onto the Internet, consumer awareness continues to grow and so does the perceived importance of making conscious decisions every time a shopper exchanges the almighty dollar for food.
Local farmers and small business owners continue striving to meet the increasing demand for sustainable, organic foods despite limited supply and heavy competition from genetically enhanced foods that dominate the 21st-century marketplace.
Monsanto’s legacy can be traced by a series of partnerships with significant corporate entities dating back to the company’s founding in 1901.
John Francis Queeny, a seasoned veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, funded the company’s startup, along with some financial backing from a soft drink distributor. In less than a year, Queeny partnered with the Coca-Cola Co. upon introducing Monsanto’s first cash cow — the artificial sweetener saccharin, still sold as Sweet’N Low today.
In the 1940s, Monsanto worked in conjunction with the U.S. military officials to help develop the first nuclear weapon in the endeavor famously known as the Manhattan Project. Later, Monsanto partnered with Dow Chemical Co. in the 1960s to manufacture Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide intended to be used as part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare initiative during the Vietnam War. This venture tragically affected nearly 40,000 American soldiers while serving in Vietnam, resulting in a class-action lawsuit that cost Monsanto nearly $90 million in damages.
Two other expensive missteps in Monsanto’s product line include DDT, a pesticide banned by Congress in 1972 due to harmful environmental effects, and the controversial artificial sweetener aspartame, now deemed safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) despite previous scientific claims that consumption might result in harmful side effects.
These controversies are difficult to overlook; Monsanto, however, has opted to omit them from the company’s historic timeline illustrated on its website, arguably violating the company’s pledge of transparency and integrity.
More importantly, it reveals the company’s inclination to keep secrets.
Perhaps in an attempt to distance itself from a damning past — or to evade pending lawsuits — Monsanto went through a series of transactions in 2000 to legally distinguish the “Original Monsanto Co.” from “Today’s Monsanto Co.”
As stated on the company’s website, “While we share the name and history of a company that was founded in 1901, the Monsanto of today is focused on agriculture and supporting farmers around the world in their mission to produce more while conserving more.”
The “Original Monsanto Co.” merged with Pharmacia and Upjohn in 2000, then conveniently re-spawned as a stand-alone subsidiary of Pharmacia called the new Monsanto later that year.
Despite Monsanto’s new mission to support farmers around the world, the company now controls the global seed market to such an extent that many conventional farmers are forced to use Monsanto’s gene-patented seeds.
“The amount of consolidation in the seed industry is extreme,” says Carol Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
OEFFA is one of 60 plaintiffs represented by the Public Patent Foundation in a lawsuit filed March 30 against Monsanto challenging its patents on genetically modified seeds.
“From an economic perspective, it’s dangerous to have one corporation with such a disproportionate share of a market,” Goland says.
“From a security perspective, we are at risk when we rely on just one or a few varieties of any crop.”
She notes that a tremendous amount of crop biodiversity has been lost in the last century and the introduction of genetically engineered seeds has accelerated the process.
“We cannot contain genetic material outside of the laboratory. Pollen drifts and seed spills can result in interbreeding with non-GMO varieties, contaminating (them).”
Every seed that’s genetically enhanced by Monsanto contains a patented gene sold under exclusive rights so that farmers must purchase them anew each year, or else run the risk of being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement.
As explained by Joe Logan, agricultural programs director at the Ohio Environmental Council, “This may be creating an uncompetitive market for seeds bought by farmers, costing Ohio farmers an estimated $115 million annually in excess seed costs.”
To add insult to injury, Monsanto has sued farmers in the United States and Canada when the firm’s patented genetic material has inadvertently contaminated their crops.
Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer whose fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola due to pollen drift, was sued by Monsanto in 1997 for patent infringement. Monsanto won the case in a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling.
“It’s not just organic farmers who are worried about contamination from genetically engineered seeds,” Goland says. “There are many non-organic farmers who choose to grow non-GMO crops and they have particular markets that they can access because they’re GMO free. Farmers risk losing those markets, particularly European markets, due to widespread GMOs.”
On Jan. 27, the Obama administration fully deregulated Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa, despite evidence provided by the United States Department of Agriculture revealing the threat that it poses to both organic and conventional agriculture.
Further, GMO labeling laws are still at bay in the U.S. even though other nations, such as Japan, China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, now require mandatory GMO labeling.
Despite Monsanto’s prevailing dominance in the genetically modified seed industry, consumer awareness continues to grow, creating a continuous increase in demand for local, sustainable and organic foods.
Josh Rinckel, an organic buyer for Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, says, “The market for organic produce has certainly been growing. It isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, but every year our organic sales increase.”
Nevertheless, the market for organic foods still pales in comparison to Monsanto’s market, which earned the company roughly $6 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2011.
Meredith Trombly, co-founder of Fresh Table in Findlay Market, testifies to the increase in organic demand over the last decade but also highlights a few limitations to supplying organic foods in the Midwest.
“It’s really hard to find a steady flow of organic and local foods because our growing season is short and there’s not a wide acceptance for organic foods here yet,” Trombly says.
Barry Cooper, co-owner of Daisy Mae’s Market at Findlay Market, reports that only 10 percent of all produce sold at his stand is organic.
“The bottom line is we have to be able to make money,” Cooper says. “If we put out bananas for 59 cents per pound and put organic bananas right next to it for 79 cents per pound, we end up throwing the organic bananas away at the end of the week because they rot. They don’t sell.”
Sales aside, more than 30 farmer’s markets now exist in Cincinnati and the city’s suburban outskirts, many of which have opened in the past 10 years, revealing a small but certain place for organics and sustainable foods in the marketplace.
Bryan Madison, owner of Madison Farms in Adams County, says, “Farmers markets are all over the place now. Back in the ‘90s, those markets didn’t exist. What does that mean? It means that there is a growing demand for organics. People want to know who’s growing their food and where it’s coming from.”Trombly concludes, “Awareness of GMOs and organics is growing in the Midwest. I think the market for organic foods is here to stay.”