Interview with Marie-Monique Robin

28 May 2009

Marie-Monique Robin doesn’t like to stick to comfortable topics. This indefatigable Frenchwoman with 25 years of investigative journalism under her belt has produced an impressive range of hard-hitting books, reportages and documentaries. They include Voleurs d’yeux (Eye Thieves) on organ trafficking, which won her the prestigious Albert London prize in 1995 and Escadrons de la mort, l’école française (Death Squads: The French School), on the links between the French secret services and the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships, which was described by the French Senate as “best documentary of the year” in 2004.

But Marie-Monique Robin is also proud to be the daughter of small farmers. She explains why she decided to dedicate four years of her life to investigating the leading global company in the transgenic industry, Monsanto, which now owns 90% of GMOs grown worldwide (mainly soy, corn, cotton and canola). “I have always been interested in human rights and agriculture. More recently I began to work on the dangers facing biodiversity: here the three issues are interlinked to an incredible extent”. The result of this work was The World According to Monsanto, an investigative book which covers the history, hidden strategies and true objectives of the controversial multinational.

Now published in Italy, it has been translated into 13 languages and the DVD film version has been distributed in 22 countries. In the year since its first publication in France it has unleashed a massive international debate, but no official reaction from the biotech colossus, apart from the creation of a blog which confined itself to denying the points made in the book: yet another, if inadvertent, admission of the credibility and seriousness of Robin’s work.

In the book you show how Monsanto, when it was one of the most important chemical companies in the world, deliberately lied on many occasions, particularly regarding the toxicity of its products, from PCBs (polychlorobiphenyls) to dioxin, and Agent Orange used in Vietnam. It is now genetically manipulating seeds entering our diet. Can we trust them?
Absolutely not. They lied in the past and are continuing to do so, even if their website says things like “we help small farmers to produce healthier food with reduced environmental impact”. In fact none of this is true, just look at Roundup Ready seeds (RR). GM soy, for example, the first GMO launched on the market, now constitutes 90% of all soy grown in the US. It has been manipulated to resist a powerful glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup which has been produced by Monsanto since the 1970s (since 1988 there has also been a version for home gardens). The multinational maintained that it was a 100% biodegradable herbicide that was completely harmless for humans and the environment. Too bad that it has been found guilty, first in the US and recently in France, for misleading advertising. Last year a confidential Monsanto study was made public where it was stressed that only 2% of Roundup decomposes in the soil, and then only after 28 days! A far cry from the concept of biodegradability. This is a crucial lie, since 70% of GMOs currently grown in the world have been genetically manipulated so they can be sprayed with Roundup.

Can Roundup adversely affect health?
It is very toxic and over the long term can cause cancer, as I show in the book on the basis of several scientific studies, but it also leads to sterility, abortions and genetic malformations. It acts as an endocrine disruptor, altering the male and female reproductive system. In Argentina I have met people living very close to enormous soy plantations which have been sprayed from the air. The immediate effects of acute intoxication are dermatitis, inflammation to the eyes, vomiting and respiratory difficulties. To think that Roundup is the most sold herbicide in the world: Denmark is the only country not to permit it.

What is Monsanto’s position on the possible “side effects” of GMOs?
Very reassuring. According to the company, genetic manipulation has been thoroughly studied and there is absolutely no risk to health. This is not true: it has never been seriously investigated. We have no idea what consequences GMOs may have on human health in 20 years time.

There are 100 million hectares of land growing transgenic crops around the world. 70% of food sold in American shops contains genetically modified organisms and there has been no proper scientific study. How is that possible?
To understand what has happened you need to look at the regulation of GMOs in the US, where everything began. The central revelation in my book concerns the enormous influence exercised by Monsanto within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency in the US responsible for ensuring the safety of foods and drugs released onto the market. The mechanism used, the so-called “revolving doors” situation (where people move to and fro between the private and government sector Ed.), is very common in the US and extensively exploited by Monsanto. It highlights the collusion between industrial lobbies and political authorities. In this specific case, I discovered that the basic document of 1992 that regulates – or rather, doesn’t regulate – GMOs, was drawn up by Michael Taylor. This person was a lawyer for Monsanto who entered the FDA just to deal with this issue and later returned to Monsanto as Vice President. The text signed by Taylor is based on the “principle of substantial equivalence”, according to which a GMO is grossly similar to its natural counterpart, i.e. the conventional plant. So it is unnecessary to subject it to any study. This is a massive fraud, because the principle is not based on any scientific data: it was a political decision to favor the interests of multinational companies, as was candidly admitted in an interview by James Maryanski (a microbiologist who worked for the FDA and then moved to the top management of Monsanto, Ed.). What is more, in 1992 they couldn’t have carried out tests to support the hypothesis even if they’d wanted to, because GMOs were still being created in the laboratory.

What has been the reaction of the scientific world since that time?
As was later revealed, many FDA scientists and researchers at that time opposed the principle of substantial equivalence and asked for studies to be carried out to prove it. But they were all forced to keep quiet. It’s very strange: whenever scientists have decided to start a serious toxicological study on the effects of GMOs, they have lost their jobs. This happened to the biochemist Arpad Pusztai in Scotland and Manuela Malatesta when she was a researcher at the University of Urbino. It is a recurring phenomenon. It is alarming, people wonder, what will happen to me? Monsanto has silenced academics, journalists and anyone who has ventured to criticize or expose them. That’s why I say there is a real problem with GMOs, otherwise there would be transparent and accessible studies.

An equally controversial situation is the question of intellectual property rights for seeds. What is Monsanto’s global strategy?
Their objective is to control the entire food chain using the valuable tool of patents and royalties, otherwise Monsanto would never have entered this market. From being a chemical multinational, the company has transformed itself into the leading seed producer in the world. It has been in the top spot since 2005. Since 1995 it has bought more than 50 seed companies in various countries. Whether in the US, India or South America, it is almost impossible to find a non-transgenic seed because Monsanto first bought the main seed companies and then imposed its patented seeds. This is a crucial development: if a seed is protected by a patent, farmers who buy it have to first sign a contract undertaking not to save part of their harvest for reseeding the next year, as they have always done in the past. Now farmers have to buy new seeds and Roundup pesticide each year, and you can guess who from. As the economist Peter Carstensen, professor at the University of Madison in Wisconsin explains: “The company no longer sells seeds, but leases them out for a season, while always remaining the owner of the genetic information contained in the seed. The seed is no longer a living organism but has become a simple product”. And the market for seeds is huge: don’t forget that everything we eat exists because a farmer planted a seed in the earth.

What happens to people who don’t respect the contract?
Monsanto has a control agency called the “gene police”. It’s an outrageous system: these are private investigative agencies who go on to farmers’ fields and take samples, they ask farmers to show their invoices for purchases of seed and herbicide from Monsanto and if they are not forthcoming, the farmers get sued. The company always wins in court, because not respecting a contract is considered a breach of Monsanto’s intellectual property rights. They not only win when a farmer has intentionally saved part of the harvest, but even when GM seeds from a neighbor’s property, or through chance, are found in the fields of a farmer who doesn’t grow transgenic seeds. This happened to Hendrik Hartkamp, a Dutchman who bought a farm in Oklahoma: he was sued and forced to pay a big fine which led to him having to sell his property. The judge’s justification? It’s irrelevant how the seeds got there, the farmer is responsible for what is in his fields. So he is guilty… It’s incredible.

But shouldn’t seeds be the “heritage of all human beings”?
They used to be. This madness started in the 1980s with the concept of the privatization of life and living things. It all began when a researcher working at General Electric applied for a patent on a bacterium which he had genetically modified. The Patents Office in Washington turned down his application. According to the law, since the bacteria were living organisms they couldn’t be patented. He appealed and lost, appealed again and in the end the US Supreme Court pronounced the fateful words: “anything under the sun that is made by man” can be patented. From that moment there was an unstoppable rush, patents were granted for genes, seeds and plants. To give an idea, the patents office in Washington currently grants more than 70,000 patents annually, 20% of which are for living organisms. Between 1983 and 2005 Monsanto alone obtained 647 patents for plants, almost all from the Global South.

A company that patents species selected by humans over the centuries. It seems a form of biopiracy…
Certainly, and following their reasoning there is something that doesn’t make sense: Monsanto introduced a gene, in this case the gene giving resistance to Roundup, but in the contract maintains it is owner of the whole plant. It is totally illogical, a complete disregard of the law, which hasn’t changed since the 1980s. How can it claim intellectual property rights over the whole plant when it is introduced only a single gene?

At the beginning you mentioned biodiversity. Is it now at risk?
Genetic contamination is causing damage everywhere. The most obvious example is in Canada. Monsanto introduced transgenic Roundup Ready Canola in 1996. As a result of open pollination, conventional canola is now at serious risk and organic canola has completely disappeared. Organic farmers in Saskatchewan have therefore taken a class action against Monsanto to demand damages. In Mexico, Roundup Ready Corn is threatening hundreds of varieties of criollo corn (150 in the region of Oaxaca alone) which have been cultivated for 5000 years. These traditional varieties are considered a staple food and were sacred for the Maya and Aztecs. It is an unstoppable phenomenon which is causing a distinct reduction in biodiversity. And biodiversity is of course a necessary condition for food security.

So food security is also at risk, but one of the main arguments in favour of GMOs is that they can defeat world hunger. It is claimed that the benefits of these seeds include their moderate costs and high yields. Is this true ?
It is criminal propaganda and I say this quite openly. In fact the opposite is happening: GMOs are leading to hunger, if not death, as is the case in India, where small farmers’ movements condemn the “genocide” caused by introducing Monsanto’s transgenic Bt cotton. It is very expensive, four times as much as the conventional variety, and requires the same use of pesticides and fertilizers. Indian growers who change to Bt incur debts to buy these products and if the harvest is lower than expected, they find themselves in a desperate situation, squeezed by loan sharks. Furthermore it has been shown that yields from transgenic plants are always lower (between 5% and 12%) than those from conventional ones. The idea of ending world hunger was invented by Burson-Marsteller, the large public relations and communications agency. At the end of the 1990s Monsanto was struggling and faced problems on various fronts, particularly from the opposition to GMOs in Europe. So it contacted Burson-Marsteller, which developed a pro-GM publicity campaign to mainly run in France, Germany and Britain. The message they created and have repeated since then? Thanks to GMOs we can build a better world for everyone.

But in spite of all the propaganda, it was soundly defeated on one occasion.
Yes, in 2004, over the introduction of Roundup Ready Wheat in the US and Canada. For the first time in its history it had to drop a product launch. In manipulating the cereal that accounts for almost 20% of crops worldwide and is a staple ingredient in the diet of one in three humans, Monsanto had encroached on a cultural, economic and religious symbol dating back to the birth of agriculture: our daily bread. But it got a long way. In economic terms, opposition in Europe played a key role (in Italy through the efforts of Grandi Molini Italiani, the largest milling group in the country) along with objections from Japan, the main importer of US and Canadian wheat. As a result the large American cereal growers categorically refused to use the GM product and this was decisive. In Canada, for the first time they were fighting together with consumer associations and even Greenpeace, with whom they had previously always disagreed. And to this time there are no transgenic cultivations of wheat anywhere in the world.

Do you think it is too late to turn back?
For Roundup it is very difficult. Argentina has 14 million hectares growing RR soy: it has impregnated and polluted the soil, which is destined for sterility because the herbicide gets rid of all the bacteria and microorganisms, even the useful ones. The first step is to inform people about its effects. After my investigations, various cities in France decided to stop using it. Many citizens’ committees were formed explaining to families what they were using in their gardens. If we could eliminate it we would resolve part of the problem. But at the same time we need to boycott GMOs and support organic agriculture, create a market which enables growers to return to organic methods. It is something that concerns us all because Roundup is served on our plates together with the main course: the meat we eat comes from European farms, from animals fed with US, Argentine or Brazilian transgenic soy. A campaign is now under way in France and Germany to require the labeling of meat, milk and eggs produced by animals given feed containing GMOs. But there isn’t just Roundup, there are many other dangerous pesticide residues on our tables.

But in Italy, as in Europe, there has always been a fairly high level of awareness.
Yes, consumer opposition is clear, but the situation is different at an institutional level, though things have recently been changing. For example, in March the EU Council of Ministers for the Environment supported Austria and Hungary’s refusal to grow Monsanto’s GM corn Mon 810, in opposition to the European Commission’s request to lift the ban. But the European Community’s problem is EAFS, the European Authority for Food Security: 80% of its members have very strong links to the biotech lobby. Here we come back to the question of a lack of scientific independence and the pressure of experts: a conflict of interest in other words.

Monsanto was supported by the Republican governments of Bush father and son, but also by Bill Clinton’s Democrats. Will it be different with Obama?
Unfortunately Michael Taylor is in Obama’s transition team. While we are talking, the American President is considering making him Director of the Food Safety Working Group. It was Taylor who proposed nominating Tom Vislack as the new Secretary of Agriculture. From 1998 to 2006 Vislack was Governor of Iowa, the leading soy producing state in the US: he always supported the interests of agribusiness and biotechnology. It seems pretty clear that policies will remain the same.

What was the most difficult part of your investigation?
Something I hadn’t considered: persuading Monsanto’s victims to give evidence. They were all afraid. It was very strange—usually when you work in the area of human rights, people want to talk and appreciate the interest you show in their story. That didn’t happen in this case. They were frightened of the consequences. There were frightened you weren’t what you said you were, because sometimes Monsanto sends fake journalists and fake TV crews. I managed to gain the trust of many people because now I am well known and people can check that I really am a journalist.

Marie-Monique Robin
Franch, award-winning French TV journalist and documentary filmmaker. She received the 1995 Albert Londres Prize for Voleurs d’yeux (1994), an expose about organ theft; best political documentary award from the French Senate for a 2003 film about the transfer of French counter-insurgency techniques (including torture) to Argentina; and the Rachel Carson Prize for her work on Monsanto.
The World According to Monsanto is a book and a documentary.

Laura Stefani
Italy, freelance journalist specialized in biodiversity and sustainability.

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