Volume 22 - Issue 05, Feb. 26 - Mar. 11, 2005
A multinational exposed
Agribusiness giant Monsanto faces criminal and civil charges in the United States for bribery and other offences committed in Indonesia.
IN a setback to the cheerleaders of the multinationals-driven
genetically modified (GM) crops, agribusiness giant Monsanto, which
controls most of the global GM seed market, was recently caught bribing
Indonesian officials to scrap the requirement that GM crops be subject
to an environmental assessment, so that it could freely develop GM
crops in that country. This has vindicated the stand that some 650
civil society organisations from over 80 countries took last year
against the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
report "Agricultural biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor",
which sees GM crops as the answer to the plight of poor farmers.
Monsanto faced both criminal and civil charges from the Department of
Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United
States. The MNC agreed to pay $1 million to the Department of Justice,
adopt internal compliance measures, and cooperate with continuing civil
and criminal investigations. It will also pay $500,000 to the SEC to
settle the bribe charge and other related violations.
In the latest incident of bribery, in 2002, a former senior manager at
Monsanto directed an Indonesian consulting firm to give $50,000 to a
high-level official in Indonesia's Environment Ministry. The manager
apparently told the company to disguise an invoice for the bribe as
Monsanto accepted that it paid the bribe and also admitted to a series
of "illegal or questionable" payments totalling "at least" $700,000 to
"various Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002". The payments were
partly financed "through unauthorised, improperly documented and
inflated sales of Monsanto's pesticide products in Indonesia". The MNC
apparently bribed more than 140 incumbent and former Indonesian
government officials and their families.
According to Rob Edward, Environment Editor, Sunday Herald, Lori
Fisher, a spokesperson for Monsanto in St. Louis, said: "We accept full
responsibility for the improper activities that occurred in connection
with our Indonesian affiliates." But she pointed out that the company
had voluntarily disclosed the potential irregularities to the U.S.
authorities after they were discovered by an internal audit and review.
But, says Jonathan Matthews, director of GM Watch, an international
non-governmental organisation that monitors GM crops: "What has emerged
about corrupt practices in Indonesia may just be the tip of the
"Monsanto has a long history of bringing out products that have proved
harmful to people and the environment," says Jule Klotter, who traces
the history of the company since its inception, in Townsend Letters for
Doctors and Patients, a popular U.S.-based magazine that aims at
educating people on issues related to health and medicine.
Founded in 1901, Monsanto Chemical Company has manufactured
industri<147,1,7>al chemicals (for example, sulphuric acid), plastics
and synthetics, pesticides, and saccharin, a proven carcinogenic
artificial sweetener. It has also produced or granted production
licences for most of the world's polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs; a
common name for a group of over 200 chemical compounds of varying
viscosity). These oily, insulating fluids, according to Klotter, cause
brain damage and other birth defects in mammalian foetuses, immune
system disorders and cancers. Says Klotter: "The public became aware of
the PCBs in 1968, when PCB-contaminated rice made 1,300 people in
Kyushu, Japan, sick; and serious birth defects appeared in babies whose
mothers had eaten it."
Monsanto's herbicide 2,4,5,-T contained a highly toxic chemical
byproduct, the dioxin TCDD. This herbicide was one of the two used in
Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War.
Although Monsanto was not the only company that produced Agent Orange,
its products contained the highest levels of dioxin.
According to Klotter, Dr. Cate Jenkins, a chemist for the U.S.
Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) Regulatory Development branch,
urged the EPA to investigate the company in her November 1990 report,
"Criminal Investigation of Monsanto Corporation - Cover up of Dioxin
Contamination in Products - Falsification of Dioxin Health Studies".
But Monsanto lobbied hard and the investigation, which lasted over two
years, was dropped.
Asparetame, also known as "Nutrasweet" and "Equal", is produced by
Monsanto's subsidiary G.D. Searle Pharmaceuticals. According to
Klotter, though Monsanto denies Asparetame's toxicity, consumers have
complained of headache, blurred vision, numbness, hearing loss, muscle
spasms and epileptic-type seizures since the 1980s. A 1996 study in the
Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology reported a
correlation between Asparetame and an increase in brain cancers.
Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), sold under the
name Posilac, makes cows produce more milk than normal. According to a
study by Mark Kastel of the Wisconsin's Farmers' Union, Wisconsin
farmers reported numerous spontaneous deaths, an increase in udder
infection, severe metabolic difficulties and calving problems in cows
that were given the drug. Posilac is now banned in several countries.
At the time of Posilac's approval by the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), Margaret Miller was Deputy Director of the FDA's office of New
Animal Drugs, and Suzanne Sechen was the FDA's lead reviewer of
scientific data on rBGH. Margaret Miller had worked for Monsanto on
rBGH safety studies as a research scientist, and Suzanne Sechen on
Monsanto-funded rBGH studies during her graduate studies at Cornell
University. The FDA's Michael R. Taylor, who wrote the rBGH labelling
guidelines that requires labelled non-rBGH products to say that "there
is no difference between rBGH and the naturally occurring hormone," was
a lawyer representing Monsanto for seven years (1984 to 1991) before
joining the FDA.
Now Monsanto's interest in agriculture has expanded to GM seed.
Monsanto is selling Roundup-Ready (herbicide tolerant) soybean, canola
and corn seed, which produce plants that can withstand high doses of
Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has acquired several seed
companies, including Holdens Foundation Seeds, Asgrow, Agronomics,
DeKalbGenetics, Delta and Pine Landand Sementes Agroceres SA. The
company is said to have spent $8 billion acquiring large seed companies
during the last few years.
In effect, according to Klotter, Monsanto is trying to gain control
over the seed market and eventually its genetic-engineered,
herbicide-resistant seed could become the only choice for farmers.
Further, Monsanto's merger with American Home Products creates the
largest manufacturer of pesticides and herbicides in the world.
MONSANTO'S major brush with the law was over Agent Orange. The
negative health effects of exposure to Agent Orange are well documented
over the past three decades. Everyone agrees that the dioxin in Agent
Orange is one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, causing
everything from severe birth defects, cancers, neurological disorders
and deaths. But there has been no major movement towards compensating
American Vietnam War veterans and civilians who were exposed to Agent
Orange. Monsanto continues to claim that this now-banned chemical is
A study by eminent oncologists Dr. Lennart Hardell and Dr. Mikael
Eriksson of Sweden has revealed clear links between one of the world's
largest selling herbicides, glyphosate produced by Monsanto and
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) - a form of cancer.
In the study published in the March 15, 1999 issue of the Journal of
American Cancer Society, the researchers also maintain that exposure to
glyphosate "yielded increased risks for NHL".
It is alleged that though primarily used to control annual and
perennial plants, glyphosate kills indiscriminately a wide variety of
weeds. According to the Organic Consumers Association - an
international NGO campaigning for food safety, fair trade and
sustainability - companies developing herbicide-resistant crops are
also increasing their production of herbicides such as glyphosate and
requesting permits for higher residue levels of these chemicals in
genetically engineered food. For example, Monsanto is said to have
received a permit for a threefold increase in herbicide residues on GM
soybeans in Europe and the U.S. (up from 6 parts per million to 20).
PERCY SCHMEISER is a farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada, whose fields
were contaminated with Monsanto's genetically engineered Canola by
pollen from a nearby farm. Monsanto says it does not matter how the
contamination happened but wants Schmeiser to pay it the Technology Fee
(for "growing" Monsanto's genetically engineered products). Schmeiser
said: "I never had anything to do with Monsanto, outside of buying
chemicals. I never signed a contract. If I would go to St. Louis
(Monsanto's headquarters) and contaminate their plots - destroy what
they have worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail and
the key thrown away. But now I have been asked to pay for the
contamination of my land by Monsanto's GM seeds."
Like Schmeiser, hundreds of other homesteaders are being forced to pay
Monsanto for fields contaminated with GM seeds.
According to the Centre for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy
group and a critic of the biotechnology industry, Monsanto has filed 90
lawsuits targeting 147 farmers and 39 small businesses since 1997.
While some were filed against farmers who planted transgenic seeds
without paying Monsanto as required in their contract with the company,
most were sued simply because transgenic seeds had drifted into their
fields and spread roots amid their crops.
The Washington Post and other major U.S. publications have been
highlighting a massive new movement of conventional and organic farmers
who are working together to pass state legislation that would put a
moratorium on Monsanto's new genetically engineered wheat.
Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications told, The
New York Times that the corporation should not have to take
responsibility for the safety of its food products. "Our interest is in
selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's
job," he said.
However, the U.S. government regulatory agencies seem to have given
Monsanto a long rope. The clout Monsanto enjoys in the U.S. government
is by no means incidental. According to the Organic Consumers
Association, Clarence Thomas, before being the Supreme Court Judge who
put George W. Bush in office (in his first term), was a Monsanto
lawyer; Anne Veneman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, was on the
board of directors of Monsanto's Calgene Corporation; Donald Rumsfeld,
the Secretary of Defence, was on the board of directors of Monsanto's
Searle Pharmaceuticals; Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson received
$50,000 in donations from Monsanto during his winning campaign for
Wisconsin's governorship; and the two Congressmen who received the most
donations from Monsanto during the last election were Larry Combest
(Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee) and John Ashcroft (the
According to the Organic Consumers Association, for the FDA to
determine if Monsanto's growth hormones were safe or not, the MNC was
required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller,
one of Monsanto's researchers, put the report together. Shortly before
the report's submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA.
Her first job at the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the
report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own
report. In January, Martha Scott, a former Director of Government
Relations for Monsanto, was appointed Staff Director for the U.S.
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Philip Mattera, in his extensively researched recent paper, "USDA
Inc.: How Agribusiness has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture", (initiated by the U.S.-based Agribusiness
Accountability Initiative), concludes: "Big agribusinesses such as
Monsanto have packed the USDA with people who have been working,
lobbying or researching for them. These appointees have helped to
implement policies that undermine the regulatory mission in the
interests of the MNCs, severely compromising public health and
livelihoods." According to him, with the deep-rooted and pervasive
clout that MNCs have carefully built over the years, they seem to get
away with anything.