Food fight: The business of biotechnology

Fifth in a six-part story

By David Lichtenstein

Modern agriculture has brought about a strange convergence of politics, law, science and big business. One way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the world’s largest seed producer, Monsanto, which also happens to be Molokai’s biggest employer.

Monsanto’s Molokai workers took home a portion — albeit a small portion — of the $11.365 billion in revenue the company reported for 2008. But with $6.18 billion in gross profit for 2008, an increase of 46 percent, a lot of money went to stockholders as well.

These record profits also helped solidify Monsanto’s position as the world’s largest investor in agricultural research in the area of seeds and traits. Monsanto says it invests $2.6 million a day on research and development in breeding and biotechnology. It was also announced on March 25 that a $10 million grant will establish Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, which will help identify and support young scientists interested in improving research and production in rice and wheat.

But research scientists have complained about Monsanto’s role in advancing biotechnology for the public good. A New York Times article, from February 2009, said that Monsanto requires purchasers of its patented genetically engineered seeds to obtain permission prior to research. Sometimes permission is denied or the company will insist on reviewing the findings before they can be published, said the article.

Monsanto … “has the potential to launder the data, the information that is submitted to E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency),” said Elson J. Shields, a professor of entomology at Cornell, in the Times story.

Fear of oligopoly

In order to control its products, Monsanto has won 674 biotechnology patents since the 1980s, the most of any company, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When the supply of a commodity is controlled by only a few, which in turn impacts price and competition within that market, it is known as an oligopoly. With five seed companies dominating the commercial seed market — and Monsanto being the largest — could this group control the entire world food supply chain?

This is the premise of the book and documentary “The World According to Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin. She claims that Monsanto has strengthened its market position by purchasing 50 different seed companies. In doing this they also purchased the related patents and intellectual property rights needed for new biotechnology developments. To fight against this, Robin said that U.S. farmers have filed a class action antitrust lawsuit against Monsanto.

Monsanto has argued that it is only through patent protection that they can afford the regulatory costs of bringing innovative crops to market. While patenting seeds and genes has led to many legal debates, the impact of licensing the inventions has even broader implications. By licensing specific lab techniques Monsanto effectively prevents public sector scientists from accessing the tools needed to advance biotechnology.

Overcoming its reputation

To protect these patents, Monsanto has filed 112 lawsuits against farmers for claims of seed patent violations, according to the non-profit Center for Food Safety. Monsanto reports that it pursues approximately 500 cases of suspected infringement annually. Monsanto’s aggressive defense of its patents was documented in the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair in the story “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear: Politics & Power.”

Monsanto has also been the defendant in class action lawsuits concerning the health of its products. Most notably, The Washington Post reported in 2002 that Monsanto hid information about carcinogenic PCB dumping in Anniston, Alabama that resulted in $700 million in damages awarded to residents of the town. Monsanto has also had to defend itself in court from claims arising from its production of agent orange.

Monsanto has attempted to “raise awareness of the agricultural challenges facing the planet” by launching a public relations campaign in 2008 called “produce more conserve more.” At the core of this campaign is a pledge by Monsanto to develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030 and would require 30 percent less water, land and energy to grow. A full-page ad for this campaign appeared in last week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine.

The success of this campaign will depend, in part, on Monsanto convincing the public and government regulatory agencies that its practices are safe and beneficial to the public and the environment. To help it achieve these goals, Monsanto spent $8,831,120 for lobbying in 2008. In 2007 that figure was $4,520,000.

Monsanto influence reaches into government regulatory agencies as well. Several former Monsanto employees currently hold positions in agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), EPA and the Supreme Court. These include Clarence Thomas, Michael Taylor, Ann Veneman, Linda Fisher, Michael Friedman, William D. Ruckelshaus, and Mickey Kantor. Fisher has even gone back and forth between positions at Monsanto and the EPA.

Monsanto is hardly the only large corporation to practice “revolving door” influence peddling. It’s hard to say if these efforts will eventually lead to Monsanto controlling our food supply, but the appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama may help the company’s cause. Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, was named “governor of the year” by the biotechnology industry for his support over the years.

David Lichtenstein is the News Director for KMKK radio. Listen to KMKK, 102.3 FM, Molokai’s only radio station, for Molokai news reports every weekday morning at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. He can be reached at news@kmkk1023.com.

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