IN ITS QUEST to dominate the planet’s agricultural biotechnology sector, Monsanto’s business model has produced significant collateral damage. Generations of farming families in South America, India and other robustly developing regions have been devastated by the US-based multinational’s product line, namely its flagship herbicide Roundup and the patented seeds that go with it. In the 1970s, the company began geneticallymodifying canola, and they’ve since created their own patented versions of soybeans, corn, cotton and a range of other crops.
IN ITS QUEST to dominate the planet’s agricultural biotechnology sector, Monsanto’s business model has produced significant collateral damage. Generations of farming families in South America, India and other robustly developing regions have been devastated by the US-based multinational’s product line, namely its flagship herbicide Roundup and the patented seeds that go with it. In the 1970s, the company began geneticallymodifying canola, and they’ve since created their own patented versions of soybeans, corn, cotton and a range of other crops. The havoc wreaked by Monsanto’s remarkable growth in the interim includes widespread claims of pollution, illegal activity and damage to health and livelihoods, as well as a systematic effort to crush detractors and monopolize new markets with its financial heft.
Saskatchewan canola grower Percy Schmeiser famously battled Monsanto in the late 90s over patent infringement and crop contamination, which he alleged was the result of pollen drift. Canada’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Schmeiser, rejecting his argument that wind transmission – and not his own action – caused the unauthorized spread of Monsanto’s seed. But his story and the experiences of other North American farmers have anchored whistle-blowing media coverage, including Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book Fast Food Nation and documentary films such as David Versus Monsanto, The Corporation and Food, Inc.
While debate about the value and dangers of genetic engineering has intensified, Canada’s government has followed many other Western counterparts by embracing Roundup. Up against the overwhelming din of product promotion, citizens’ and critics’ concerns remain understated. Yet with the health and wellbeing of crops, wildlife, livestock and people at stake, and a festering body of evidence pointing to the pitfalls of allowing Monsanto greater market share, an important question begs a response: Why is Ottawa allowing corporate seduction to trump scientific evidence?
Clearly Monsanto’s marketing strategy has been effective. Newspapers, radio, TV and online ads have long trumpeted Roundup’s ability to help farmers produce more food and make more money. Monsanto has successfully positioned itself as a “partner” in helping farmers to achieve truly “sustainable agriculture” by using less fuel and water, and significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. “By 2050, the population is expected to reach nine billion,” one online ad proclaims, so “farmers will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined.”
In tandem with this heady positioning, Roundup’s growth prospectsseem unstoppable. Take canola, for example. The popular oilseed crop is used widely in such products as margarine, and is by far the largest genetically modified crop in Canada, surpassing wheat in dollar value last year. (Only Prince Edward Island grows non-GMO canola for niche marketsin Japan.) The Canola Council of Canada, which represents producers, researchers and marketers, unveiled ambitious plans a few years ago to boost annual canola production by a whopping 65 per cent by 2015.
Consequently, organic canola has effectively disappeared on the prairies. According to the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, this was due to rampant contamination of seed stock and organic fields by unwanted GMO plants, otherwise known as pollen drift.
As many responsible agriculture advocates have feared, Canada may also soon approve Roundup Ready alfalfa. (Canadian regulators have declared it safe, although the seed cannot be sold here – yet.) Advocates warn that this would be a huge mistake. They say farmers are happy with the value and performance of their existing crop, which is used as a high-protein feed for livestock and a soil-enriching tool for organic growers. They’re afraid of facing the same fate as organic canola growers.
Roundup’s pervasiveness relies on skillfully crafted strategiesto build goodwill at the community level, especially in schools. Since 1991, the Monsanto Fund Opportunity Scholarship program has awarded more than $1-million to thousands of grade 12 graduates from Canadian farm families. The money helps pay for their post-secondary education in agriculture or a related field. Likewise, the corporation is a high-profile supporter of the Made in Manitoba Breakfast Program, organized by a non-profit charity that travels around the province, feeding students hot breakfasts and helping them “explore the agriculture industry and learn where their food comes from.”
Monsanto also has the ready ear of federal lawmakers. Leading up to Parliament’s February 2011 defeat of Bill C-474 (which called for more scrutiny of GMO crops for foreign export), government officials held 50 private meetings with biotech industry executives. Monsanto took a lead role in those discussions.
Meanwhile, there has been a gradual accumulation of scientific research that undercuts the safety of glyphosate – the common, active ingredient in Roundup, and the 200 similar formulations that are sold under different brand names.
Many authors have reported significant declines in amphibian populations in several areas during the past 30 years. In 2005, University of Pittsburgh researcher Rick Relyea blamed Roundup directly, concluding that it “can cause extremely high rates of mortality to amphibians that could lead to population declines.” Relyea’s laboratory work had already indicated the herbicide might be highly lethal to North American tadpoles, so he exposed three frog species (toad, tree and leopard) to Roundup outdoors, in “more natural conditions.” After a single day, Roundup had killed up to 86 per cent of the juveniles and, in three weeks, up to 100 per cent of the tadpoles.
The Ontario Farm Family Health Study had previously surveyednearly 4000 pregnant women exposed to a variety of farm chemicals (including glyphosate) while milking cows, cultivating or seeding fields, and in some cases helping their partners mix and apply pesticides. The study noted that “among older women (over 34) exposed to glyphosate, the risk [of miscarriage] was three times that for women of the same age who were not exposed to this active ingredient.”
A French molecular biologist, Gilles-Eric Séralini, corroborated these findings in 2009. He demonstrated that glyphosate was lethal to three different kinds of human cells (umbilical, embryonic and placental) at just a fraction of the concentrations used in agriculture. Moreover, Séralini was surprised to discover that the Roundup mixture was consistently twice as deadly as glyphosate alone. One of Roundup’s ingredients, polyoxyethylene tallow amine (POEA), has also been clinically shown to cause high mortality in fish and amphibians, although Séralini indicated that regulators continue to legally classify POEA as “inert.”
Extensive research by Agriculture Canada, published in 2009, showed that glyphosate was also the most significant agronomic factor in incidences of Fusarium head blight (FHB) and Common root rot (CRR) in wheat and barley crops. Both FHB and CRR are considered serious cereal crop diseases in places like Eastern Saskatchewan (where the trials were conducted). Fusarium toxins have been known to cause livestock to vomit and refuse food, and their fungi create more severe diseases for other crops. While tillage practices were also a contributing factor, the research concludes that “previous glyphosate use was consistently associated with higher FHB levels” and “significantly increased” the risk of plant diseases.
“Glyphosate is a very strong, somewhat selective antibiotic –and patented as such,” explains Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University. “It is toxic to beneficial intestinal microorganisms that prevent botulism and diarrhea, so we have a 400 per cent increase in C. difficile diarrhea since 2000, as well as escalating chronic fatigue syndrome, inflamatory bowel disease, gluten intolerance and celiac disease, and so on. It is also toxic to many essential soil microorganisms involved in natural disease control, nutrient availability, residue decomposition and synergistic interactions such as nitrogen fixation.”
There is also the emerging reality of “super weeds.” More than 20 resilient species of weed have developed resistance to glyphosate due to overuse, including Kochia weed in Alberta and Canada fleabane at nearly 80 sites in Ontario. Ironically, canola has become an unwanted weed in other crop fields. Monsanto and other agribusinesses treat this as a business opportunity, selling even more potent chemicals to “burn down” the super weeds.
Curiously, none of this evidence seems to disturb Canada’s policy makers. Health Canada, which regulates pesticide management, has confirmed its awareness of the research summarized by this article, but a government official reported (via emails to the author) that “It did not raise immediate risk concerns that would have triggered regulatory action.”
Furthermore, in December 2011, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) approved Roundup for yet another use – on mustard seed crops. PMRA’s ruling states, “The evaluation of this glyphosate application indicated that the end-use product has merit and value and the human health and environmental risks associated with the new uses are acceptable.”
Meanwhile, even the Federal Court of Canada felt it necessary to ask the federal government to justify its position on glyphosate. In 2009, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq refused a request by a BC-based environmental activist named Josette Wier for a “special review” into the safety of glyphosate. Wier had become concerned that glyphosate-based herbicides – which logging companies spray on forests near her home before replanting – were harmful to human health and the environment. Instead, the minister opted for a routine, longer-range re-evaluation, which began two years later and won’t be completed for about another year.
Last November, the Federal Court sided with Wier and ruled that more research was needed, specifically to determine whether herbicides were harming frogs and salamanders. The court ordered Minister Aglukkaq to “reconsider” her refusal. Despite this, Aglukkaq has declined to give the court a definitive response.
Wier calls the court’s request a “small victory, but a victory, nevertheless,” and refuses to accept a tepid response as defeat. “I truly feel that I am doing the job of government, and that government has become the enemy,” she says. “Scientific facts mean nothing, as [government is] so embedded with industry. Monsanto, Dow Chemicals … are so powerful. What is left is this awful job [of] going through the court and wasting enormous amounts of time and money … what counts is to keep the flow going.”
Earth Open Source, an international team of concerned researchers, echoes this sentiment in its 2011 report, Roundup and Birth Defects: Is the Public Being Kept in the Dark? They concur that citizens can’t rely on government and industry to protect them from the dangers of products like Roundup. In addition to simply avoiding use of and exposure to herbicides, the report suggests lobbyinglocal authorities, farmers and other stakeholders to disclose what herbicides they are spraying (and when) and to encourage them to switch to less toxic methods.
This may seem deceptively straightforward, or even too tame a response. But given the entrenched complexity of the current situation, getting back to basics is perhaps the only meaningful solution.
Kate Storey, a former Green Party candidate and an organic producer of grain, beef and eggs near Grandview, Manitoba, sees the responsibility for creating a new system as something that farmers can control. “Roundup is not necessary in the production of food,” she says. “Organic farmers have been producing high-yielding crops for years without the use of any herbicides at all. A few non-organic farmers are starting to adopt some of those same techniques.”
And while those techniques won’t spread quite as naturally as pollen, change must take root with farmers first. If we’re ever going to benefit from a Roundup detox, it certainly won’t be our government that leads the way.
To get involved in the GMO alfalfa debate or in other anti-GMO campaigns, visit the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network at cban.ca.
This November, Californians will vote on whether or not to require labels on all GMO foods, a practice that has been deployed in Europe and China, and which India will adopt in January 2013. Track both sides of the California debate at carighttoknow.org and stopcostlyfoodlabeling.com.
Sidebar: The Other Side of the Corn
FOR MOST LAYPEOPLE, the debate over glyphosate’s safety becomes muddled by contradictory reportage and research results. In contrast to the evidence collected here, a recent report from the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (“Developmental and reproductive outcomes in Humans and Animals after Glyphosate Exposure: A Critical Analysis,” Williams, et al.) concludes that “the available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”
The authors state that glyphosate controls unwanted vegetation because it inhibits an enzyme used to synthesize several essential aromatic amino acids, but “because the shikimate pathway is not shared by members of the animal kingdom, glyphosate is not expected to adversely affect humans and other mammals under normal use conditions.” The report, funded by Monsanto and aided by the company’s “unpublished glyphosate and surfactant toxicity study reports,” goes on to dissect a range of safety claims against Roundup and its main active ingredient. For example, the authors refute that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor by characterizing a dozen studies from between 1997 and 2010 as “flawed from the outset,” largely because of low concentrations of surfactants and detergents evident in those studies.
Regarding the Ontario Farm Family Health Study in particular, Williams, et al. argue that the data are invalid because of recall bias and “substantial exposure misclassification.” For instance, the authors observe that “fathers of pregnancies with adverse outcomes are more likely to recall pesticide use during the preconception period than fathers of pregnancies with normal outcomes.”
While both sides of the debate tend to position their science as definitive, the prevailing issue is that we are wagering our collective health on outcomes we cannot definitively predict. We don’t know the implications of our food systems becoming stressed and modified by new ingredients, technologies and demands. The intention of research is to refine how we cope with these challenges, not cancel out knowledge that contradicts vested interests.
When it comes to glyphosate, it’s clear that what we need most is a transparent cost-benefit analysis that incorporates precaution.
– Eric Rumble