Environment

Monsanto's Migraine: Big Fiascoes Facing the World's Biggest Seed Company

The problems are piling up at the company's front door.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock.com

Monsanto has been reeling from a number of setbacks around the globe. Here's a look at some of the main reasons that 2015 has been a giant headache for the biotech giant. But that headache could find some reilef if the U.S. Senate hands them a legislative victory that would keep American consumers in the dark about what's in their food.

Roundup Probably Causes Cancer

In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization's cancer arm, said that the controversial herbicide glyphosate — the main ingredient in Monsanto's popular weedkiller Roundup — is "probably carcinogenic to humans." IARC noted, "Case-control studies of occupational exposure in the USA, Canada, and Sweden reported increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides." Used by home gardeners, public park gardeners and farmers, and applied to more than 150 food and non-food crops, Roundup is the Monsantot's leading product and the world's most-produced weedkiller.

In June, France banned Roundup. French Ecology Minister Segolene Royal said, "France must be on the offensive with regards to the banning of pesticides." She added, "I have asked garden centers to stop putting Monsanto's Roundup on sale" in self-service aisles. And earlier this month, California issued a notice of intent to list glyphosate as a carcinogen. “As far as I’m aware, this is the first regulatory agency in the U.S. to determine that glyphosate is a carcinogen,” said Dr. Nathan Donley, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “So this is a very big deal.”

In April, U.S. citizens filed a class action lawsuit against Monsanto, claiming that the company is guilty of false advertising by claiming that glyphosate targets an enzyme only found in plants and not in humans or animals. The plaintiffs argue that the targeted enzyme, EPSP synthase, is found in the microbiota that reside in human and non-human animal intestines. In addition to its potential cancer-causing properties, Roundup has been linked to a host of other health issues, environmental problems and the record decline of monarch butterflies.

And in September, another of the company's herbicides got slammed when a French appeals court confirmed that Monsanto was guilty of chemical poisoning, upholding a 2012 ruling in favor of Paul Francois, whose lawyers claimed the company's Lasso weedkiller gave the cereal farmer neurological problems, including memory loss and headaches.

Tweet Backfires

Monsanto would probably love to forget one of their recent tweets that tried to put out the glyphosate-fueled public image fire. A day before the cancer-listing announcement by California's EPA, Monsanto posted a tweet, asking if people has questions about glyphosate with a link to a FAQ page:

The tweet wasn't the PR success that the company had hoped for. Instead of helping to alleviate consumer fears about the chemical, the tweet became a target for the Monsanto-hating Twitterati:

EU Nations Ban GMOs

In addition to the glyphosate backlash, Monsanto has had to deal with several EU countries who have said no to the company's GM crops. A new European Union law signed in March allows individual member countries to be excluded from any GM cultivation approval request. European opposition to GMOs has been strong: Unlike in the Americas and Asia, where GMO crops are widely grown, only Monsanto's pest-resistant MON810, a GMO maize, is grown in Europe. Several nations have taken advantage of the new exclusion law: Scotland, Germany, Latvia, Greece, France and recently, Northern Ireland, have all invoked it.

In August, Scotland became the first EU nation to ban the growing of genetically modified crops by requesting to be excluded by Monsanto's application to grow GMO crops across the EU. “Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment — and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” said Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead.

Germany cited strong resistance from farmers and the public when it made its opt-out request. “Germany has committed a true act of food democracy by listening to the majority of its citizens that oppose GMO cultivation and support more sustainable, resilient organic food production that doesn’t perpetuate the overuse of toxic herbicides,” said Lisa Archer, food and technology director at environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth. “We are hopeful that more members of the EU will follow suit and that the U.S. Congress will protect our basic right to know what we are feeding our families by requiring mandatory GMO labeling.”

Soon after Germany's decision, Latvia and Greece announced that they too are taking advantage of the EU law. France, too, is using the opt-out law to ensure the country's GMO ban remains in place.

While anti-GMO activists warn of the dangers that genetically modified foods pose to health and the environment, the Big Food industry and many scientists argue that GMOs are safe and can help feed a skyrocketing human population. Monsanto told Reuters: "We regret that some countries are deviating from a science-based approach to innovation in agriculture and have elected to prohibit the cultivation of a successful GM product on arbitrary political grounds.” There is a significant political dimension as well: Newswire reported that the GMO opt-out law "directly confronts U.S. free trade deal supported by EU, under which the Union should open its doors widely for the U.S. GM industry." It remains to be seen how the opt-out law will play out in the long run.

But for now, could the GMO resistance in Europe be working? Following the announcements by Latvia and Greece, EurActiv, an online news service covering EU affairs, reported that Monsanto "said it had no immediate plans to request approvals for any new GM seeds in Europe."

The GMO Debate Rages On

The debate over genetically modified foods is complex, and not without its contradictions. While the anti-GMO movement appears to gaining steam, GMO foods have been a big part of the U.S. food system for many years. The vast majority of several key crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, including soy (93 percent), corn (93 percent) and canola (90 percent). As Morgan Clendaniel, editor of Co.Exist, points out, "Many crops are genetically modified so frequently, it’s nearly impossible to find non-GMO versions." He adds that, althought 80 percent of all packaged food sold in America contain GMOs, consumers are kept in the dark, because the U.S. is "one of the few places in the developed world that doesn’t require food producers to disclose whether or not their ingredients have any modifications."

One scientist who has been sharply critical of GM crops is David Williams, a cellular biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. He says that "inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later," which can result in potentially toxic plants. In addition, faulty monitoring of GM field tests presents another danger. For example, from 2008 to 2014, only 39 of the 133 GM crop field trials in India were properly monitored, "leaving the rest for unknown risks and possible health hazards."

But within the scientific community, Dr. Williams is in the minority, In fact, as science writer David H. Freeman notes in Scientific American, "The vast major it of the research on genetically modified crops suggests that they are safe to eat." David Zilberman, an agricultural and environmental economist at the University of California at Berkeley (who Freeman describes as "one of the few researchers considered credible by both agricultural chemical companies and their critics") says that the use of GM crops "has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”

The European Food Safety Authority said it will issue its scientific opinion on the GM crops by the end of 2017. For now, the GMO debate — filled with a host of pros and cons — rages on. But beyond the health and environmental threats that Monsanto's products may pose, some worry that about the how control of the global food system is increasingly concentrated in a few biotech and agriculture megacorps like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer and DuPont. "Beating in the heart of every good capitalist is the heart of a monopolist," says Neil Harl, an agricultural economist at Iowa State. "So we have to have rules, we have to have the economic police on the beat. Or we end up with concentration and that means higher prices."

GMO Labeling Law: SAFE or DARK?

While Monsanto has been taking a beating lately, the company is crossing its fingers for a huge victory in the Congress. Any day now, the U.S. Senate could take up H.R. 1599, the misleadingly named "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling (SAFE) Act," which would make federal GMO labeling voluntary, while prohibiting states from labeling GMOs — even though it goes against the vast majority of the public wants.

According to a New York Times poll that, 93 percent of Americans want GMO foods to labeled as such, with three-quarters of survey respondents expressing concern about GMOs in food. The industry-backed bill, which opponents have nicknamed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act" has already passed the House of Representatives and, if passed, could overturn democratically enacted state laws.

"The bill is a sweeping attack on states’ rights to self-govern on the issue of GMO labeling, and on consumers’ right to know if their food has been genetically engineered," warn Alexis Baden-Mayer and Ronnie Cummins of the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association. "If the Dark Act becomes law, there will never be GMO labels, safety testing of GMOs, protections for farmers from GMO contamination or regulations of pesticide promoting GMO crops to protect human health, the environment or endangered pollinators."

Going to Market

It remains to be seen how Monsanto will be impacted by the persticide and GMO backlash. Since the onslaught of bad news for Monsanto started in the spring, the company's stock price has plummeted from a February high of $125.46 to $87.61 as of September 21. This decline follows a first quarter decline of 34 percent that analysts have tied to the cut back on Monsanto's GMO corn by South American farmers.

Still, Roundup remains one of the world's most widely used weed killers and the most popular weedkiller in the U.S. The global market for glyphosate is expected to reach $8.79 billion by 2019 (up from $5.46 billion in 2012). In addition, Transparency Market Research reported that "Monsanto Company, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont have been shifting their focus to develop integrated weed management systems, in order to reduce reliance on single dominant herbicide such as glyphosate."

"Stocks in the fertilizer space have struggled all year long," said TheStreet's Bryan Ashenberg and Bob Lang of Trifecta Stocks, noting that Monsanto in particular "has been hit hard" and their "performance has been dreadful." Perhaps a sign of that economic reality is the fact that last month Monsanto dropped its $46.5 billion hostile bid for rival Syngenta, the world's biggest pesticide company. To many Monsanto-watchers, this development may have been the company's biggest setback of the year.

However, the Ratings Team at TheStreet sees things differently and rated Monsanto as a buy, saying "The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth, growth in earnings per share, increase in net income, expanding profit margins and notable return on equity." But that review holds little value for those who value health, the environment and the fate of world's food supply more that a "notable return on equity."

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Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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