Award-winning French journalist and filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin is the author of “The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption and the Control of Our Food Supply” (The New Press) and the creator of the film by the same name.
In a review of these two projects, Leslie Thatcher writes: “What Marie-Monique Robin most effectively documents are the perverse effects – the moral, social, technological, economic and market failures – of Western society’s economic organization, most specifically with respect to science and the products of science and, ultimately, with respect to the preservation of the public commons and human life on the planet.”
My conversation with Marie-Monique Robin follows:
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Mickey Z.: Was there an initial spark that led you to this project that took three years and investigations on four continents to complete?
Marie-Monique Robin: My “story” with Monsanto began in 2003, when I made three documentaries for the Franco-German channel ARTE (to which I pay a tribute for the quality of its programs) about the reduction of biodiversity.
MZ: Please take us through those documentaries and their connection to Monsanto.
MMR: The first, “Biopirates,” told how corporations like Monsanto were holding abusive patents on living organisms which are contributing to a new drastic reduction of biodiversity. At that I time, I heard about a company called Monsanto which already held more than 600 patents on living organisms. The second documentary, called “Wheat: Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” told the story of cultivation of that golden cereal, from the very beginning 10,000 years ago until today and explained how the practices of industrial agriculture that brought the “green revolution,” made thousands of local landraces and varieties disappear, a dramatic evolution which will be accelerated by GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. At the same time the so-called green revolution provoked a huge contamination of the environment through the massive use of chemical pesticides, “biocides,” which “entered into living organisms, passing one to another in a chain of poisoning and death,” as Rachel Carson wrote in “Silent Spring.” Finally, I made a documentary, called “Argentina: The Soybeans of Hunger,” about the cultivation of Roundup Ready soybeans in Argentina, where I depicted the environmental, social and health disasters which the introduction of Monsanto’s GMOs represent. Today, they cover 60% of the area under cultivation in the country.
MZ: What was the process like, creating these three films?
MMR: I traveled around the world for a year: Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Israel and India. The ghost of Monsanto lurked everywhere, almost like the Big Brother of the new world agricultural order – the source of much anxiety. Therefore, I proposed a new investigation to ARTE about this powerful multinational, created in 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri, the world leader of GM foods (90% of genetically modified crops) which presents itself on its website home page as “an agricultural company” the purpose of which is to “help the world’s farmers to produce healthier food … while reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment.” But what it doesn’t say is that, before getting involved in agriculture, it was first of the largest chemical companies of the twentieth century and one of the biggest polluters in industrial history. My book, “The World According to Monsanto,” tells how the firm became one of the major industrial empires on the planet and one of the most controversial companies in the industrial history.
MZ: With so much background and research, how did you ever reach the conclusion that you had gathered enough material to write this important book?
MMR: Once more, I traveled a lot – to the US, Canada, Mexico, Paraguay, India, Vietnam, Europe – and met a lot of scientists, experts, whistleblowers (from the FDA, EPA, Berkeley University), lawyers, farmers and Monsanto victims. I consulted thousands of declassified documents from the EPA (on dioxin), FDA (GMOs), judiciary affairs (PCBs), scientific studies, reports from independent organizations and then decided it was enough!
MZ: Monsanto has given the planet “gifts” like Agent Orange and Roundup Ready crops, PCBs and GMOs, yet, for most humans, it has pretty much flown under the radar. To what would you attribute the fact that the vast majority of us rail mostly at governments, instead of the far more dangerous and powerful multinational corporations?
MMR: The problem is that the corporations act behind the scene, manipulating information, studies, press and the experts of the regulatory agencies. To speak quite frankly, I had never imagined before that a company could resort to such procedures, to sell its harmful products, in complete impunity, during decades: concealing scientific data, lying, manipulating regulations, corruption, pressuring scientists and journalists, threats. The problem is also that governments do not take any legal action against companies which are repeatedly affecting the environment and the health of consumers. If Monsanto were a private person, it would be convicted as a great criminal, but current law protects the criminal companies, which are never held accountable for the damage they cause.
MZ: What role does Monsanto play in the all-important areas of food safety and food supply?
MMR: Nowadays Monsanto is the world leader in biotechnology and the first seed company. Ninety percent of the GMOs grown in the world belong to it. During the last decade, the firm bought dozens of seed companies all over the world, pushing its transgenic seeds, which are patented. A patented seed means that the farmers who grow it may not keep a part of their crops to re-sow it the next year, as farmers used to do everywhere in the world. In the US and Canada, farmers who grow transgenic crops must sign a “technology agreement” – the no-sowing requirement is clearly expressed. If they don’t respect the agreement and violate the patent, they are harassed by the “gene police” and sued by Monsanto. Clearly, transgenic crops are just a tool to control the seed supply, which is the first link in the food chain, by forcing farmers to buy seeds each year.
MZ: How influential is Monsanto in the decision-making process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other so-called protection agencies?
MMR: It was quite amazing to discover how Monsanto is using the “revolving door,” in order to control the decisions and policies that affect its products. Just one example: To avoid tests on GMOs to assess their possible harm on the consumer health and on the environment, the FDA invented the concept of “substantial equivalence,” which was based on no scientific data, as James Maryanski, the former chief of the Biotechnology Department, recognized in front of my camera. And who wrote the FDA’s May 1992 policy? A former Monsanto attorney named Michael Taylor, who was hired by the FDA as deputy commissioner for policy, and then became Monsanto vice president! Interesting enough, Michael Taylor went back to the FDA under the Obama administration.
MZ: What does it say about industrial civilization that Monsanto has become so rich and powerful by creating and selling what you call “some of the most dangerous products of modern times”?
MMR: Consumers and citizens played a role in this dramatic story. We all use the hazardous products, which characterize “modern life.” And the price we are paying is very high. In my next documentary and book, “Toxic Lies,” I explain how the chemical industry is “poisoning our plate.” I investigated the link between chemical exposure (pesticides, food additives, plastics, etc.) and the epidemics of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, obesity, reproductive disorders and diabetes, which can be observed in the so-called “developed countries,” and especially in the US. And if you investigate how all the chemicals are assessed and regulated, you finally understand that consumers are not protected at all against these dangerous hazards.
MZ: What can be done? What can readers take away from this interview and your book that will inspire immediate direct action? What steps would you recommend being taken to challenge not only Monsanto. but also an industrial culture seemingly hell bent on wiping out life on earth?
MMR: The key is held by consumers and farmers. That means that all of us should promote organic farming by buying organic food, which is the best way to protect our health and environment. That will be the end of Monsanto and similar companies for sure. Another suggestion: order “The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption and the Control of Our Food Supply.”
Marie Monique-Robin received the 1995 Albert-Londres Prize, awarded to investigative journalists in France, and is the director and producer of over 30 documentaries and investigative reports filmed in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia.