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Ethical Consumer profiles infamous chemicals company Monsanto who produce a variety of GM seeds. 

In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, famously said: “Control oil and you control nations...Control food and you control the people.”

The 2012 film, Seeds of Freedom, developed this quote one step further when John Vidal, Environment Editor at The Guardian commented: “If you can control the seed, you control the profit from growing food”. 

Monsanto: the seed industry’s dictator

With net sales of US$15.85 billion in 2014, Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world, and accounts for more than 27% of the proprietary seed market.

In relation to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Monsanto was reported to account for 87% of the total world area devoted to genetically engineered seeds in 2007. 

Monsanto’s biggest competitor, DuPont, has understandably criticised the company’s monopoly: “In comments submitted to US antitrust investigators, DuPont points to Monsanto’s monopoly in GM trait markets for herbicide-tolerant soybean (98%) and corn (79%). DuPont also notes that Monsanto, as “a single gatekeeper,” has the power to raise seed prices and exclude competition”. 

Holding Monsanto’s reins is a board of directors, which is currently made up of a number of powerful members from different industries. More notable directors include Gregory Boyce, chairman and chief executive officer of the world’s largest private-sector coal company (Peabody Energy Corporation); Jon R. Moeller, financial officer of The Procter & Gamble Company; and Janice Fields, the former president of McDonald’s USA.

In 2014 all of the company’s executives received compensation of above $1 million each, including Hugh Grant, chairman of the board and chief executive officer, who received $13,436,483.

GMOs: Monsanto’s products of controversy

Although Monsanto does not have any consumer facing brands in the UK, it has become a well-recognised corporate villain. Its infamous brand portfolio includes its Roundup herbicide brand and the biotechnology trait, Roundup Ready, which enables crops to tolerate Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides.

Its aggressive marketing of GMOs, lobbying against GMO labelling, its veto of independent studies on its products, and its controversial protection of intellectual property rights, have made Monsanto a popular target for anti-GMO campaigns and sustainable agriculture activists. 

According to the Center for Food Safety’s 2013 report ‘Seed Giants vs US farmers’, farmers have paid Monsanto an estimated $85 to $160 million in out-of-court settlements since 2006.

Monsanto’s practices do not look set to change. In its 2014 Annual Report the company stated that “Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment”. What’s more, according to the Open Secrets website, Monsanto spent US$5.5 million on lobbying in 2013, and was reported, by the Union of Concerned Scientists, to have spent more on lobbying than all other agribusinesses to “persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo”.

An even darker past

However, not all of Monsanto’s criticism comes from its work with GMOs. Since its initial founding as a chemical company in 1901, Monsanto has been accused of a plethora of human rights and environmental violations. 

These include manufacturing DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls and Agent Orange (which was supplied to the US military in Vietnam).

It was also linked to the poisoning and deaths of farmers in India and France, and criticised for promoting unsustainable agricultural practices. 

What’s the verdict?

In December 2011, Monsanto, along with Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont and BASF faced a public trial, having been accused by a Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal of “violating more than 20 instruments of international human rights law through promoting reliance on the sale and use of dangerous and unsafe pesticides including endosulfan, paraquat and neonicotinoids”. 

The Tribunal, which took place in India, concluded that all six corporations were responsible for:

“Gross, widespread and systematic violations of the right to health and life, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as of civil and political rights, and women’s and children’s’ rights”.

The “violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights and other entitlements”.

Causing “avoidable catastrophic risks, increasing the prospects of extinction of biodiversity, including species whose continued existence is necessary for reproduction of human life.” 

Does this sound like a company that should be trusted with our food system’s seed?

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