Monsanto is dangerously re-engineering America’s food supply.
Robert Shapiro is the sort of guy who calls himself just plain “Bob” in the pages of his glossy annual report. Down-home. Direct. Just-folks. Dressed in a casual shirt and sweater, no tie.
He’s in the business of serving humanity, saving the planet, getting more food for people to eat, making them healthier and happier. His goal, he says, is simple: “To help people around the world lead longer, healthier lives, at costs that they and their nations can afford, and without continued environmental degradation.” Pretty noble, that.
He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Monsanto Company.
No, not that Monsanto — you haven’t been paying attention. The old Monsanto was a chemical company, and had been since 1901, but its chemical division was spun off into a separate company in 1997. The new Monsanto is, as it puts it, “a life sciences company,” which means that it is interested in creating, controlling, patenting and profiting from life. Of course, it uses chemicals to do that; you wouldn’t expect anything different. One of them is Roundup, at $2.2 billion a year the world’s bestselling herbicide. Another is NutraSweet, at $725 million a year the world’s bestselling fake sugar. Plus Celebrex, an arthritis drug; and Ambien, Arthrotec, Daypro and other pharmaceuticals; Harness and Lasso herbicides; all the Ortho poisons in lawn-and-garden stores; and the controversial bovine growth hormone POSILAC.
But you have to understand that this doesn’t really make Monsanto a chemical company. It just deals with… well, life, and how everyone’s can be better by buying the stuff it produces. “Biology is the key science shared among the company’s agriculture, food and health businesses,” one of its official reports says, “to create new, integrated ways to improve human health and well-being while protecting the environment and natural systems.” Got it?
Of course, not everyone is quite as sanguine about Monsanto’s operations as Bob Shapiro is. Not everyone has bought into the idea that all the “life products” it sells are really so benign. Bovine growth hormone, though it has been adopted by enough dairy farmers in the United States to make it a profitable line, is still resisted by many farmers and consumers, and Ben & Jerry’s has won a lawsuit allowing it to label its products rBGH-free. NutraSweet had to go through rigorous tests over and over again before the Food and Drug Administration agreed that it did not cause cancer, and there is still lingering opposition. And Monsanto’s attempt to blithely introduce its genetically altered soybeans into Europe in 1996 without any food labeling (it sees itself “as a provider of biotechnology-improved seeds to farmers, rather than as a producer of finished food products”) caused a storm that led three countries to ban such foods and flared up again last year in a round of boycotts, lawsuits and direct-action field sabotage from Scotland to Italy.