A Genetically-Engineered Empire

December 14, 2007 at 5:29 pm Leave a comment


Businessweek ran a really interesting article about Monsanto this week, and I wanted to recommend it and also say a few words about the company, which has had an enormous but largely unrecognized effect on our food.

Monsanto’s a century-old company that most of us have probably heard of. As a kid, I often passed a large Monsanto plant that stretched along the Massachusetts Turnpike near where I grew up. The place reminded me of an city on Mars, a big tangle of shiny metal ducts and smokestacks and lights with steam rising off of everything. We always had to roll up the car windows as we drove by to keep the sulfurous rotten-egg stench of the place from entering the car and asphyxiating us.

I knew the name “Monsanto”, and I knew it was some sort of a chemical company, because that’s what my mom told me. What I didn’t know, was that this company was the inventor and manufacturer of Roundup, a toxic weed killer sprayed on fields and lawns across America and worldwide. Nor did I know that this company produced rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone injected into cows to make them produce painfully large amounts of milk.

Over the past couple of years my blissful ignorance about Monsanto has melted away, as I’ve read about our food system and the pesticides, hormones and other chemical inputs that are poured into it. Monsanto consistently pops up as a source of these chemicals, most of which are tested thoroughly for their effectiveness in increasing crop yields and killing pests, but receive minimal testing for their effects on human and environmental health.

Over the past decade, Monsanto has become the leader in the genetically modified (GM) crops business. In the beginning, the company faced a wave of negative feedback and consumer fear about this technology (which tampers with the genetics of common plants like corn, tomatoes and squash to give them herbicide-resistance or bug-killing properties or both). We didn’t know if eating GM foods would give us cancer or other diseases, because Monsanto hadn’t thoroughly tested their safety. The EU actually outlawed these crops due to the strength of public outcry against them.

So Monsanto got smart, and – as the Businessweek article will tell you – it switched its focus from creating GM vegetables to GM commodity crops (like corn, soybeans and canola). This meant that GM crops wouldn’t be sold directly to consumers in the grocery store produce section, but instead they would be sold to food processors for making vegetable oils, corn syrup, and animal feeds. In the end, we’re still eating these genetically-altered foods, but Monsanto has managed to hide them from us.

After a decade of eating GM foods, we still don’t know what their possible health effects are, and since there hasn’t been a disease outbreak or wave of children born with two heads, people are beginning to trust GM technology. I, personally, have done my best to avoid them. I buy organic (which only certifies non-gm foods) and keep away from processed foods and vegetable oils as much as possible. But if you ever eat out, or buy a non-organic corn chip, or have a hot dog from a street stand, you’re either directly or indirectly consuming some GM foods. They’re everywhere – literally – making up one or more ingredients in 60 to 70% of all the processed foods we eat.

This is all good news for Monsanto, which has been making a bundle off its GM seeds, but it’s not such good news for people like me, who prefer to eat foods that haven’t been given pesticide-like properties. Merry Christmas, Monsanto, but to be honest, I would rather you didn’t exist.


Entry filed under: food, rant time, recommended.

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