Squeeze more food from a raindrop?

by Joel Preston Smith

This article was originally published in May 2013

leaf and raindrops

A few years ago, Monsanto, agriculture’s industrious seed and pesticide giant, launched an aggressive advertising campaign on public radio and in high-brow, left-wing magazines — on American Public Media’s Marketplace, in the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and even the coveted back page of the New Yorker.

“How can we squeeze more food from a raindrop?” The key to solving environmental woes and feeding the world, the ads argue, depends on Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) seeds and pesticides.

The print and media ads have subsided, but the biotech industry’s messaging continues in corporate brochures and homey online “webisodes” (see americasfarmers.com/stories/webisodes). In these videos, “America’s farmers” talk with humility, pride and gratitude about what it means to raise a kid on the land, and plant crops with your brothers beside you, and how nice it is to plow a field in an air-conditioned tractor, and about the goodness of a strong work ethic, and the joy of bottle-feeding calves and …

Did you swallow that? The feel-good montage — interspersed always with a salutation to GE seeds and pesticides. It’s slick marketing.

Exposing lies

But not everyone is suckered into believing Monsanto is helping farmers build idyllic, prosperous farms. From the beginning, skeptics have questioned Monsanto’s claims.

In 1996 New York’s attorney general sued Monsanto for false advertising. One Monsanto ad at the time read: “Roundup can be used where kids and pets play.” The lawsuit ended with Monsanto agreeing to stop calling Roundup “biodegradable” and to pull ads claiming Roundup was “safer than table salt” and “practically nontoxic.”

In 2008 more than 400 scientists and 58 countries working under the auspices of the UN, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization released a report called the IAASTD unequivocally recommending a return to traditional, natural farming methods. To feed the world, they concluded, non-GE, non-chemical-intensive approaches that cost less and are more effective should be prioritized.

Last December the Dutch Advertising Code Commission ruled Monsanto’s ads in the Netherlands were misleading. The company claimed its weedkiller, Roundup, didn’t harm soil and doesn’t leach into groundwater.

In 2009 a court in France upheld two earlier Monsanto convictions (in 2007 and 2008) for false advertising. This time Monsanto was nailed for claiming Roundup cleans soil.

The company also has been on shaky ground with the South African Advertising Standards Authority since 2007, when it ran full-page ads in Yes magazine announcing GE foods were “safer and more nutritious than natural food.” The standards board demanded proof, which Monsanto has yet to upchuck.

The list goes on. The German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety recently called for a new risk assessment of Roundup, pointing out researchers who test the chemical should be “independent of industry.” The Indian Advertising Standards Council has ruled Monsanto’s newspaper ads were either false or unsubstantiated. They had claimed the company’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” cotton (Bollgard II) had raised farmers’ incomes dramatically.

Another blow to Monsanto’s image was a report by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini, of the University of Caen. He replicated Monsanto’s own study, except instead of running only 90 days, it ran two years — the first lifelong feeding study of lab animals on GE traits. Research found the rats suffered liver and kidney damage. Fifty percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely. There have been a few other long-term studies, but none involved as many animals or as many detailed measurements.

The reality

Monsanto’s reach and influence has not permeated the governments of Europe, Africa or Asia like it has in the United States. (See a map of 64 counties around the world with laws requiring labels on genetically engineered foods.) Why the difference?

It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because the EU has a more precautionary regulatory system, requiring safety assessments before products are allowed on the market — the opposite of the U.S. regulatory system. Here, hundreds of untested products go to market, without requiring years of research to prove they’re not harmful before they’re allowed. Meanwhile, Monsanto continues to insist its technologies will “feed the world.” Another bit of make-believe.

If you look at the data on world hunger, the countries showing improvement are places where GE food is neither grown nor allowed. There have been significant declines in hunger in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, China and Pacific countries. But these nations have banned or restricted GE foods. In other words, the improvements in hunger and malnutrition are from traditional farming methods and research in high-yielding traditional seeds.

Joel Preston Smith is a writer and photographer living in Portland.

Also in this issue

Soil & Sea: reports from our producers

A looming olive oil shortage, coffee rust fungus threatening coffee harvests, and a new cherry-plum hybrid are the buzz in agriculture this month.

News bites, May 2013

PCC first to pledge "No GE fish", Fructose tricks us?, Why we buy organic, and more

Letters to the editor, May 2013

Urban beekeeping, PCC's GE fish ban, Humanely raised eggs, and more