The “March Against Monsanto” in 52 countries, an unapproved strain of its genetically modified wheat growing profusely in Oregon, cancelled wheat export orders…. A rough week for Monsanto.
But now it threw in the towel in Europe – where its genetically modified seeds have faced stiff resistance at every twist and turn. Even its deep corporate pockets and mastery of lobbying have failed: “It’s counterproductive to fight against windmills,” its spokesman told the Tageszeitung.
The propitious week started last Saturday with the “March Against Monsanto,” when people in over 400 cities in 52 countries protested against the company, its influence over governments, and its GMO seeds. Much of it was focused on the mundane issue of labeling. Protesters wanted GMO ingredients in food to show up on the label, just like fat or protein. A simple solution to the controversy: let consumers decide.
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But a red line for the industry. It’s worried that consumers will read the label – and choose an alternative. So Monsanto continued to assure us through its minions that labeling would be too costly, that it would kill the cupcake shop down the street, that we don’t need to know anyway because GMO foods are safe for human consumption, etc. etc.
These assurances bring up echoes from the past. Monsanto’s previous flagship products included the once harmless DDT, now banned worldwide; a family of industrial chemicals called PCBs that are now considered highly toxic; Agent Orange, the defoliant liberally used during the Vietnam War and promoted as harmless to people, with grave results for the Vietnamese and US soldiers who came in contact with it. And there was saccharine, the sweetener that ended up being a carcinogen. More recently, Monsanto reinvented itself and decided to save mankind not with a DDT successor, but with genetically modified seeds, whether people wanted them or not.
The hubbub of the “March Against Monsanto” had barely died down when the USDA confirmed that genetically modified wheat was mysteriously growing on a farm in Oregon. Something that we’d been assured could never happen. Numerous impenetrable precautions would prevent that. Monsanto had developed that strain years ago, but field trials ended in 2004, and the thing had never been approved for sale or consumption. The reaction was immediate.
Japan would “refrain from buying western white and feed wheat effective today,” a Japanese farm ministry official announced on Thursday, adding that the ministry is pressing the USDA for details of its investigation. US wheat imports would be on hold until at least a test kit is available to identify GMO wheat, he said. South Korea, which bought about half of its wheat imports from the US last year, announced that it would suspend imports of US wheat. The EU’s consumer protection office announced that any shipments that tested positive for GMO could not be sold in the EU. Other countries were making similar announcements. And everyone is badgering Washington for more information.
GMO contaminations have occurred before, most notoriously in 2006, when much of the US long-grain rice crop had been contaminated by an experimental strain of genetically modified rice concocted by Bayer CropScience. Japan and Europe banned imports of American rice, which caused its price to collapse in the US. The company settled with rice farmers in 2011 for $750 million. But rice export is small business in the US, compared to wheat. And this time, it’s Monsanto that is on the hot seat.
And now Monsanto threw in the towel in Europe where its efforts to bamboozle people into loving its seeds have had mixed results. “We won’t lobby any longer for cultivation in Europe,” Brandon Mitchener, Monsanto’s public affairs lead for Europe, told the Tageszeitung. They had no plans to apply for the approval of new genetically modified crops “at this time,” he said, and the company would also forgo new field trials with GMO seeds.
Monsanto’s largest European competitors – Bayer CropScience, BASF, and Syngenta – had already pulled out of the GMO crop business in Germany and many other Member States. “We understand that this doesn’t have wide acceptance right now,” chimed in Ursula Lüttmer-Ouazane, Monsanto’s spokeswoman in Germany.
Mitchener blamed it on the lack of interest from farmers. They have their reasons: in Germany, the cultivation of genetically modified crops is banned; and GMO foods, broadly rejected by consumers, are practically unsalable. Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, who’d thrown her weight around in 2009 to stop the cultivation of MON810 corn in Germany, explained it this way: “For agriculture in Europe, the promises of salvation made by the gene-technology industry have so far not been fulfilled.”
Monsanto’s surrender was only partial, however. In Spain, Portugal, and Romania, where laws and consumers were less squeamish about GMO crops, Monsanto would continue to hawk is MON810, Mitchener said. Nor was Monsanto finished lobbying in the EU: it would still try to get the EU to allow the import of GMO animal feed. But in terms of cultivation in Europe, Monsanto would focus on conventional seeds for corn, canola, and veggies.
Triumphs against multinational lobbying giants are rare. So, even mini triumphs count. And Monsanto’s admission that it would quit trying to force GMO crops down people’s throats in Europe, limited as this admission may be, is now celebrated as one of them.
Meanwhile, hunger is spreading from its strongholds in the global south to depression-hit Southern Europe. In Greece, reports are growing of children having to scrounge for food from classmates, while in Spain city dwellers have become inured to the spectacle of people rummaging in trash cans for a bite to eat. But there’s a reason.