They say their transgenic seeds will help feed the poorest countries. But in reality their restrictive patents and poisonous agrochemicals are causing more harm than they could do good.
By Eliván Martínez / Source: Centro de Periodismo Investigativo / November, 24. 2011
The American John Francis Queeny was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman to name the Monsanto Company, which started as a pharmaceutical laboratory in Missouri, 1901. Queeny baptized the company in honor of his wife Olga, daughter of Emmanuel Mendes Monsanto, who also financed the first steps of the corporation. The company would latter became manufacturer of Agent Orange, the defoliant and herbicide that was tested on Aguadilla’s Farms in the 50s, and later used on a massive scale to “peel the jungle” under which the US enemy was hiding during the Vietnam War.
Nowadays, Monsanto is the largest producer of transgenic (GM) seeds in the world, and uses Puerto Rico as its huge laboratory to develop corn, soybean, sorghum and transgenic cotton. As an agricultural corporation, it covers more than the 500 acres permitted by the Constitution. In fact, the 6th article of the Constitution of Puerto Rico was intended to prevent the conformation of monopolies and to prevent the displacement of small local farmers, as was the case at the beginning of the century, when the “Sugarcane Empire” ruled, the same one that Don Emmanuel Mendes Monsanto financed in Vieques and the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas.
Monsanto. Transgenic. Among the scientific community and consumer defence groups, those two words raise passions. Some argue that genetically modified seeds can increase food production in places where pests and drought harm it, and argue that it could help alleviate famine in third world countries (the same countries that they devastate).
However, an scientific organization independent of the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists, dedicated to environmental protection, states that transgenics do not result in a reliable increase of production and that they require more pesticides than conventional crops. Many consumer groups claim that there have not been profound studies on the consequences of Genetically Modified crops on human health, and they warn that federal law does not require food manufacturers to mention the presence of transgenics on product’s labels.
In practice, it is known that pollen from the “improved” seeds can (accidentally or on purpose) reach crops that are not genetically modified. That means that if Puerto Ricans start harvesting corn crops, for example, the seed production would be at risk of contamination.
When a farmer unknowingly plants transgenic-contaminated seeds, corporations can also argue that the farmer “stole” the patented genetic material. This was the case of Canadian canola grower Percy Schmeiser, whose crops were contaminated on his farm in the province of Saskatchewan in 1997. The Supreme Court of Canada decided it was a “use” of the invention patented by Monsanto.
The company also makes farmers sign a contract in which they are forced to resign the age-old practice of saving seeds for next year, in order to force them to go back to buy more. There are not many other options: 90% of the sold corn in the United States has genetic material produced by Monsanto.
Most of the company’s income comes from the manufacture of “total herbicide” Roundup, one of the most popular in the world, which is even sold in the gardening sections of department stores. The corporation produces “Roundup Ready” seeds, genetically engineered to resist the herbicide, so that farmers can use it to kill all plants except the transgenic crops. In other words, Monsanto genetically modifies plants not because it wants to increase food production or make it resistant to plagues, but to resist their own poison.
One June 2014, the international organization Earth Open Source, which brings together farmers, corporations and academic institutions, stated in a report that the herbicide, whose active ingredient is glyphosate, causes birth defects in laboratory animals even when used in low concentrations, smaller than those applied in agriculture. But this information has been kept hidden since the 80’s by the European regulators, the entity affirms.
Glyphosate is a herbicide developed for the elimination of herbs and shrubs. The leaves of plants absorb it, and consequently die because their ability to generate amino acids, which are necessary for life, is suppressed.
A rare positive precedent was set by the courts of France, which found Monsanto guilty because they falsely marketed the herbicide as ” biodegradable”, between 2007 and 2009.
This is the profile of a company that represents the kind of investment that the Government of Puerto Rico encourages so as to consolidate the island as a destination for bioscience, according to the Secretary of the Department of Economic Development, Jose Perez Riera. The Law on the Promotion and Development of Agricultural Biotechnology Companies in Puerto Rico, signed in 2009, established the attempt to make the island a Mecca for the agricultural sector, as a public policy.
“Certainly, an industry that carries on experiments on Puerto Rico’s land, is attached to the obligation of preparing an environmental impact statement, required by the Environmental Public Policy Law of Puerto Rico” confirmed attorney Jessica Rodriguez, professor at the Faculty of Law of the Interamericana University. “The transgenic experimentation affects the soil health and groundwater, and the chemicals used may also be a health hazard for the population. Therefore, before any governmental approval, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was supposed to be prepared and had to be made public so that citizens can learn and participate in the proceedings”. The Environmental Quality Board could not inform the Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro de Periodismo Investigativo) whether these companies comply with this requirement.
Meanwhile, even Monsanto admits that during their activities in their leased farm, which belongs to the Puerto Rican Land Authority Juana Diaz, “toxic materials and substances can be generated, for both humans and the environment in general, if proper management practices [?] are not carried out”.