Critiquing Monsanto’s Response to Vanity Fair
by Pamela Drew
In the May 2008 issue, Vanity Fair published Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear, by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. If you haven’t read the article, you should; it is a wonderful recap of what’s been happening in the legislation, politics, science and spin zones of America’s food supply. In response to the Vanity Fair article, Monsanto’s Communications Director, Darren Wallis, put together a page by page reply to issues raised by the authors. This is my critique of Monsanto’s response; it selects points in the Monsanto letter to address because doing a full five page point by point is too much for readers to slug through. Monsanto must have had a preview copy, since the article was published in May and the reply is dated March. Monsanto’s full reply is linked below if anyone wants to read that first or in addition to selected passages here.
Friday, March 14, 2008 Mr. Jim Steele Contributing Editor VANITY FAIR 4 Times Square, 22nd Floor New York, NY 10036 Dear Jim: Thanks for your recent correspondence and your interest in Monsanto Company. As someone who values research, you’ve undoubtedly seen that the name “Monsanto” has been associated with a company headquartered in America’s Heartland since 1901. However, today’s Monsanto is a relatively new company that took shape in the year 2000, and is today 100 percent focused on agriculture.
This is priceless; just erase the past and begin anew in 2000, free from all the toxic history that came before. Like a Holy Baptism by the powers vested in the SEC, voila, out with the old and in with the new.
In 1997, the company formerly known as Monsanto (“Old Monsanto”) spun off its chemical businesses as Solutia Inc. In 2000, Old Monsanto merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn to form Pharmacia Corp. In 2002, Pharmacia Corp. was acquired by Pfizer Inc. and spun off its agricultural businesses as Monsanto Company (“New Monsanto”). A provision in the spin-off agreement states that in the event Solutia fails to meet its environmental obligations outlined in the 1997 spin-off agreement, New Monsanto would be responsible for them on behalf of Pharmacia. This is what happened when Solutia filed for bankruptcy in December 2003.
Glad we’re all clear on who is who. What happens to the Solutia facility in Texas that’s ranked in the top toxic waste with tens of millions of pounds of known carcinogens released into the environment. I know the government stops reporting the releases and soon we can look forward to all pesticide data vanishing (LINK).
It sure makes the new technology look brighter when the critics and evidence disappear. What the heck, if Monsanto and Solutia get it wrong and stuff makes people sick the Pfiser opportunities explode (LINK).
Monsanto’s rebirth process may have helped feed a cadre of hungry lawyers and meet the letter of the law in financial reporting terms, but there are a few problems with this approach. First is how the “new” Monsanto begins with a selective product line from the “old” Monsanto. To an average observer it looks like dumping the liabilities and keeping the money makers, which include seeds that are tolerant to Monsanto’s herbicide and the monopoly in bovine growth hormone. Tossing off losses is not a concept most Boards of Directors ignore; profitability stays on the agenda. The PCB and dioxin pollution and associated criminal activity, was handily spun off to a tidy solution, by creating a new corporation called Solutia. But the patented seeds and dairy hormones remained core agricultural offerings. See how confusing this is to appreciate where the “old” Monsanto ends and “new” Monsanto begins? Monsanto’s gmo Bovine Growth hormone treatments have been uninterrupted in in America’s food supply and banned in developed countries since 1994. We do know the ban is not worldwide any longer, Pakistan and Mexico now allow these treated products too. Consumers across America should be tickled pink to know that such bastions of protection in human rights and science are with us in swallowing the stuff.
I just want my right to know who’s hands are on my food and opt out of any help from folks who mostly know how to kill stuff. I want to know how many of the folks who consume the bulk of the low priced stuff are getting diabetes now. When the European Union first banned hormone treatments for cows they cited concerns about increased risk for diabetes and cancers. Have we tracked consumers to see if we’re seeing that now? Nope, don’t look don’t find is the policy and then the argument becomes that absence of evidence of harm is substantially equivalent to proof of safety. Monsanto’s other GMO seed patents are uninterrupted by the rebirth. I’d like to be rebirthed, with my losses cut, too bad we can’t all enjoy being corporate citizens!
At Monsanto, we apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world be more successful, produce healthier foods, and better animal feeds, and create more fiber, all while reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment.
Never have more inspiring words been uttered, but sadly they do not reflect the reality of a decade of biotech crops. Where are these healthier foods? As long as we’re looking at health, where are the human health studies showing these things are safe? Who has the peer reviewed studies? Where are these acres of nutritionall improved varieties? According to the USDA these biotech crops are divided into three categories, herbicide tolerant, pesticide producing or both also known as stacked.
This product summarizes the extent of adoption of herbicide-tolerant and insect–resistant crops since their introduction in 1996. Three tables devoted to corn, cotton, and soybeans cover the 2000-07 period by State. (LINK)
In 2007 biotech was over 90% of the US soy acreage. Which one of those is healthiest for me? Can I ask my doctor? Have the New England Journal of Medicine and Jama endorsed those or should we look for the pharma rice to be evaluated there first? Don’t ask a medical doctor because no studies have been done for them.
On the biotech side is a cadre of veterinarians and Ph.D.’s, serving as the industry’s voice of the “Doctors” and the animal studies, comparing relative weight gain from gmo feeding is what the focus is on. There’s no human health study done by industry. Here are all the often cited industry studies, but feel free to add any I have missed (LINK).
Will a fatter pig help me reach my health and fitness goals? No. Will the same gmo feed traits bioaccumulate so the stuff that made the pig fatter might make people fatter too? Probably not, as if we’d miss an obesity epidemic and not look to it like a population wide feeding result to investigate. A pig feed, that grows the bottom line for agribusiness, may have its appreciative fans, but don’t sell it to the public as healthier to anything more than revenues. It isn’t. There are downstream effects of industrial farming.
From Scorecard, the global authority on chemicals and pollution. Almost two trillion pounds of animal waste are produced per year nationally. An increasing amount of this animal waste is produced by intensive livestock operations, which are really more factories than farms. Common animal waste treatment practices used by these livestock factories are often inadequate to protect our drinking water and environment, posing one of America’s serious pollution problems. See Scorecard’s overview of animal waste problems. (LINK)
What about being better for the environment? Surely that would count to the positive side, if it were true. We see the claims but not the evidence. It is not true that this new technology does anything it was billed to do at the outset. Past the third year of gmo crops, insect and weed tolerance begin to require heavier applications of chemicals. It’s survival of the fittest in the world’s natural order. Organisms either targeted or non-targeted mutate or vanish from the chemical exposure. Stronger toxins need to be used over time. Denying the basics of Nature isn’t going to change the reality of mutation. The myth of chemically intensive yield advantages was busted by the Cornell 22 year study that found organic farming produces the same corn and soybean yields as chemically intensive farming, without chemicals! (LINK)
Then there are findings which relate specifically to the gmo crops, which predate the creation of the “new” Monsanto, but use the exact same technology and product name. Imagine my confusion, again!
Roundup Ready (RR) GM soya Studies from 1999 – 2007 consistently show RR GM soya to yield 4 – 12% lower than conventional varieties. A 2007 study by Kansas State University agronomist Dr. Barney Gordon suggests that Roundup Ready soya continues to suffer from a yield drag: RR soya yielded 9% less than a close conventional relative. A carefully controlled study by University of Nebraska agronomists found that RR soya varieties yielded 6% less than their closest conventional relatives, and 11% less than high yielding conventional lines (Elmore et al, 2001). This 6% ‘yield drag’ was attributed to genetic modification, and corresponds to a substantial loss in production of 202 kg/ha. In 1998 several universities carried out a study demonstrating that, on average, RR soy varieties were 4% lower in yield than conventional varieties (Oplinger et al., 1999). These results clearly refuted Monsanto’s claim to the contrary (Gianessi, 2000). Yields of GM soybeans are especially low under drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects (stems splitting under high temperatures and water stress), GM soybeans suffer 25% higher losses than conventional soybeans( Altieri and Pengue, 2005) 5 studies between 2001 -2007 show that glyphosate applied to Roundup Ready soybeans inhibits the uptake of important nutrients essential to plant health and performance. The resultant mineral deficiencies have been implicated in various problems, from increased disease susceptibility to inhibition of photosynthesis. Thus, the same factors implicated in the GM soya yield drag may also be responsible for increased susceptibility to disease. (Motavalli, et al., 2004; Neumann et al., 2006; King, et al.,2001; Bernards,M.L, 2005; Gordon, B., 2007). The yield drag of RR soya is reflected in flat overall soybean yields from 1995 to 2003, the very years in which GM soya adoption went from nil to 81% of U.S. soybean acreage. By one estimate, stagnating soybean yields in the U.S. cost soybean farmers $1.28 billion in lost revenues from1995 to 2003 (Ron Eliason, 2004). More recent evidence shows that the kilogram per hectare ratio of soybean has been in decline since 2002, leading to the conclusion that RR soy does not have an impact on yield (ABIOVE, 2006a). (LINK)
Where are all the loudly boasted benefits borne out in the data? Noble goals a plenty, but talk is cheap.
Agriculture is facing great challenges: increasing population, limited arable land and precious fresh water resources, among others. Farmers are being asked to address these challenges in an environmentally sustainable way while also balancing pressures that face them on their farm. Helping address these topics is not only important, but at Monsanto we believe they are essential in helping farmers succeed today and tomorrow. This introduction to you describes Monsanto’s focus and commitment to the success of farmers and agriculture around the globe. It’s important because you’ve raised questions on complex topics which face our business, questions that seem to cast doubt on our intentions.
There are no doubts about the intentions of Monsanto. All corporations are chartered to deliver increasing returns for stock holders. People understand that and a quick glance at the MON stock shows your Directors get it too. This trail of benevolent concern leading the market growth is hard to follow. So very much falls through the cracks with the end of one Monsanto and the beginning of another. Take the feeding study for example, the glyphosate tolerant soy sounds exactly like the patented varieties that belong to the “new” Monsanto.
Hammond, B., J. Vicini, G. Hartnell, M.W. Naylor, C.D. Knight, E. Robinson, R. L. Fuchs, and S.R. Padgette et al. 1996. The feeding value of soybeans fed to rats, chickens, catfish and dairy cattle is not altered by genetic incorporation of glyphosate tolerance. J. Nutr. 126: 717-727. (LINK)
They also leave no doubt the proiducts are designed to benefit agribusiness customers, but where’s the healthier part? Maybe health is measured in profits alone and by that measure there’s nothing about the “new” Monsanto that isn’t robust. Imagine the delight of the public if they could find an investment opportunity like this, from start up in 2000 to what? Ah yes, the seed and genomics business had sales of $4bn for 2006, or more than half of Monsanto’s total revenue. Quite a nice sum for a start up venture in a market not known to reward farming so richly. (LINK)
Bovine somatotropin, or bST, is a naturally-occurring protein produced by all dairy cows. It’s a necessary component of milk production. Supplementing dairy cows with bST enables dairy farmers to produce more milk using fewer cows and other resources which ultimately benefit the environment. All milk and dairy products meet stringent safety requirements and pass regular inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture making milk one of the safest foods available. Milk produced by cows supplemented with bST is the same, safe, nutritious milk as that which comes from cows not receiving supplemental bST. Regulatory agencies and independent scientific and academic organizations throughout the world have reviewed and studied the use of supplemental bST in dairy production for more than 20 years and determined it to be a safe, responsible and effective management tool for dairy farmers. Monsanto supports accuracy in consumer labeling. Dairy product labels that make unqualified absence claims, such as no hormones or bST-free, imply a safety or quality difference and are misleading to consumers. These labels undermine consumer confidence in dairy products. To that end, we applaud the efforts many states are making to ensure accuracy in consumer labeling for dairy products. Monsanto supports many industry groups across all areas of agriculture. And we have provided assistance to the Center for Global Food Issues, CGFI, and to American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, known as AFACT.
It may be an effective “tool” for factory farm operations, but let’s be honest about the lack of safety testing and the interests of these “self directed” groups of supporters. To date the safety assurance at the FDA website remains the opinion of a fluid scientist at Cornell, written in 1994 (LINK). Using measurement tools that are older than Monsanto itself to support the claims of no difference is deceiving.
Where are the follow up studies showing how rBGH consumers fare compared to the consumers with no hormone supplemented dairy in their diets? Surely there’s something more substantial! One would think so and no small credit goes to father and son, Dennis and Alex Avery who have championed biotech from the 1990′s. Not only did they create the Center for Global food Issues, but they made Milk is Milk, Stop Labeling Lies and Voices for Choices. These busy promoters should be recognized and applauded for adding the same list of opinions on all the sites yet making it seem they’re all citing other sources, brilliant really how one or two individuals can seem like a dozen organizations worth listening to. The sites all feature the same collection of Monsanto supporters like the coalition who tried to eliminate labeling of milk from cows not treated with rBGH.
Just a few months ago the Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture, former Monsanto Dairy farmer, Dennis Wolff, got a bill right to the desk of the Governor and no small credit is due Avery’s and the AFACT members. Yes indeed, unbiased informed opinion is what consumers deserve. That’s what we are supposed to find with AFACT as well. But there’s a problem once again. Leader of AFACT is a farmer on the Board of Directors for Corner Bank and the communications contact was listed as a rep for Monsanto’s PR firm from 1998, and beyond to the new Monsanto. (LINK)
AFACT Web site: http://www.itisafact.org/Default.aspx Fax number given on Web site: (720) 367-5047 Contact information listed on AFACT media alert: Jason Gerke email@example.com
These are bankers and advertising agencies and individuals with increased personal fortunes tied to the sale of Monsanto products. The connections are well documented but in some ways the point of who will stand and suypport the benefits of Monsanto is a moot one. Theoretically we Americans are free people with a free market economy. Why is my right to choose what to eat not a basic right? Why is a company formed in 2000 determining what we eat? If so many legislators and executives think the gmo food is so wonderful why not put your mouths where your money is? Why isn’t the White House and Capitol converted to a full biotech menu? Have the visiting dignitaries compare the subtle nuance of difference between herbicide tolerant corn bread and stacked trait, serve some ring spot virus papaya smoothies with Bt soy milk, the possibilities are endless. Just don’t try to do it at Monsanto where the employee cafeteria is GMO Free!!
August 8, 2007 UNITED KINGDOM. From now on, staff at the British headquarters of biotech giant Monsanto will be eating only non-genetically modified products on their lunch breaks. Foods containing genetically modified soy and corn are no longer available in the company cafeteria. (LINK)
Thanks for the opportunity to share our story with you and with your readers. It is our sincere hope that the context that surrounds each of these topics is included within your article. Sincerely, Darren Wallis Monsanto Public Affairs
There’s oodles I’ve left out but for those who have an appetite for more of the scams, frauds, false claims and fronts, Jeffrey Smith who has tracked the biotech mutations the of products and process longer than almost anyone, just released a downloadable report called State-of-the-Science on the Health Risks of GM Foods. The pdf is 28 pages and Smith doesn’t miss a trick.
Vanity Fair http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805
Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear http://www.democracynow.org/pdf/MonsantoResponse.pdf
Monsanto’s Letter to Vanity Fair http://www.nass.usda.gov/research/atlas02/Farms/Land%20in%20Farms%20and%20Land%20Use/Acres%20Covered%20under%20a%20Federal%20or%20Other%20Crop%20Insurance%20Policy.gif
USDA Crop Insurance Bonanza for Biotech http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Farmers_for_the_Advancement_and_Conservation_of_Technology
Bad news about pesticides http://pameladrew.newsvine.com/_news/2008/05/21/1502582-bad-news-about-pesticides-end-pesticide-reporting
Destruction of Amazon at Record Levels http://www.theage.com.au/news/World/Destruction-of-Amazon-reaches-record-level/2005/05/20/1116533544020.html
Soil Association Study
State-of-the-Science on the Health Risks of GM Foods http://www.seedsofdeception.com/DocumentFiles/145.pdf