….but Russia suspects Monsanto’s monopolist motives

Just as with the global warming debate, neither side on GM is entirely good, bad or indifferent

Even if we lack solid research to suggest serious health dangers in the growing use of GM crops, the long-term monopolistic and controlling aims of Monsanto remain a very real and present danger. Sources suggest this may be uppermost in the mind of Russian officials who yesterday halted the use of the Monsanto NK630 wheat strain in their country. If we have good reason to question the anti-NK630 research conducted by Gilles-Eric Seralini, we have even more obvious reasons to suspect the long-term motives of Monsanto.

Further to The Slog’s earlier post about Russia putting a stop on further use of the genetically modified ‘Roundup Ready’ wheat  strain NK630, more skullduggery is coming to light by the hour. It seems that in 2012, there are liars, damned liars, and advocates.

1. Monsanto seems to be implicated in spreading disinformation about the sample size of the French labrat research. Although there were doubts suggesting that ‘the control sample’ of non-NK630 fed rats was only ten strong, in fact (a) the study looked at 200 rats, and (b) the duration of the study – two years – was far longer than any previous research.

2. However, the French director of the study Gilles-Eric Seralini’s team used a strain of rat that is known to be highly prone to developing mammary tumors. That factor, plus the small sub-sample sizes of 20 per cell, mean that the prevalence of mammary tumors found among the treated female rats could be pure happenstance.

3. Nevertheless, between 1992 and 2002—the timescale during which GM crops moved rapidly from test plants to dinner tables, the USDA spent about $1.8 billion on ag-biotechnology research—of which a minute 1% went to safety testing. At the same time, the sheer power of ag-biotech industry influence maintains a dubiously tight control over who researches what—and dominates the research agenda at America’s main ag-research universities.

4. One of The Slog’s two Russian sources has come forward by email to offer this view: ‘I’m told the [Russian] government has access to intelligence suggesting that Monsanto is using the aperture of a year in which there are chronic grain shortages to frighten everyone into going completely over to GM in general, and pressing ahead with NK630. Let me say that there are suspicions here about their motives, and also among our farmers about Monsanto’s repressive trickery on patents and repurchasing’. Neither of those two observations are unique to this source, by the way. Former seed-trade executive and Slog threader Edward Spalton notes, “I think it’s a fair idea to give the plant breeder some income from his long-term research and efforts, but the modern practice seems far too restrictive, and weighted in favour of Monsanto and their like.”

An interesting take comes from Slog Scandinavian source Dietrich von Ausland: “I am all in favour of crop improvements and we stand little chance of feeding the future world without GM development to facilitate this. However, I absolutely agree that big business in general and Monsanto in particular is just not to be trusted with it. I am all against the English tree-hugging fluffies who are just scared of GM on principle. But that does not mean we should rush into the arms of commercial crooks.”

Others further  support that essentially neutral, commonsense view. “Many of the noisiest [anti GM] protagonists – the prime example being the CRU at UEA (an academic disgrace) – are statistical numpties. But Monsanto’s commercial model depends upon patents, and growers having to return annually to obtain Monsanto seeds. Good reasons not to take anything Monsanto says on trust.”

Exactly. And an equally good reason not to take Gilles-Eric Seralini’s data on trust either: the bloke has a long anti-Monsanto track-record. That doesn’t make him a bad guy, but it does make him innately biased. Others, however, are not at all biased – merely long-time observers of the Men from Monsanto. Kit Green writes, ‘Most GM crops only produce higher yields because they are resistant to high doses of herbicides and insecticides. The funders of GM research are the chemical companies who all want to sell more chemicals. There is far less money in just making seeds stronger and self resistant to disease and pests. It is iniquitous that peasant farmers in many countries are being hoodwinked into buying seed that produces sterile crops, so ensuring the purchase of new seed every year.”

I have to say that the evidence to support that last contention from Kit is irrefutable: it’s the Monsanto business model, for crying out loud. However, as ever when there are potential consequences to be assessed, the motherlovers on Wall Street are keen as mustard to dismiss any and all tentative frontal-lobe thinking – in favour of Goforit: Goldman Sachs’ response to the evidence of rat-organ damage was to upgrade Monsanto shares, a move that saw the company’s stock price power ahead by 2.8% on the day (September 19th). “Monsanto’s doing a lot of things right,” OptionMonster’s Jon Najarian told CNBC  the same afternoon. Perhaps not if you’re a rat, Jonny baby.

Monsanto’s unremittingly aggressive approach to litigation, its seed commercialisation practices, and its history as a chemical company, have made it widely hated. This isn’t entirely Greenpeace nuttery: lest we forget, these are the beautiful people who gave us DDT, Agent Orange, and of course Roundup. I became concerned when I noted at the weekend that the collateral marketing materials from Monsanto were branding NK603 as ‘Roundup Ready’: that’s to say, mutated to ensure complete resistance to the weedkiller. You can kind of discern a double sales-bonus for Monsanto in all this; you can also be assured that NK603 will itself be pounded with Roundup throughout its growing season. Let’s hope those washing products employed by cereal manufacturers are effective. (For all I know, they’re made by Monsanto too).

The two key elements in the GM debate that cause me anxiety are first, the statistics on whether we actually need to use GM in the first place; and second, the track record of the Men from Monsanto. They may be using this drought-ridden year to scare the crap out of everyone, but it seems unlikely NK630 survives dry weather better than any other maize type – maize per se being easily the most thirsty grain crop there is. At the end of the day, Monsanto shows all the signs of being just another sociopathic multinational pharmco masquerading as good capitalists solving the global food problem: in reality, they are as monopolist in their actions as Murdoch.

Related: Shell & the EU – an object lesson in hypocrisy.