The Bonvie Blog: Vanishing Act
‘Disappearance’ of GMOs, Monsanto, Should Be No Cause for Complacency
By LINDA and BILL BONVIE
You might think of it as a kind of double disappearing act – a pair of closely related evil entities now on the verge of vanishing before our very eyes.
We’re talking about the man-made mutations commonly known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (often referred to in the vernacular as “Frankenfoods”), and the chief creator of these mini-monsters, the Monsanto Corp. of St. Louis.
Only they aren’t really going away. They’re rather resurfacing with altered identities in the hopes that these new incarnations will be less apt to arouse antagonism and stir up controversy.
But before we go into the details of this makeover in the making, a bit of background is in order.
Like the body snatchers of sci-fi fame, GMOs have been steadily transforming such major crops as soy, corn (even sweet corn), canola, cotton, and sugar beets into things that may look exactly like the real McCoy, but have had their DNA doctored.
That might have been bad enough, since these imitations, although grown from patented seeds, were declared to be the “substantial equivalent” of the commodities they replaced with no requirement for safety testing, despite evidence that they could trigger allergic reactions. But what makes them an even bigger health hazard is the main reason that their genes were rewired.
Monsanto has long claimed GMOs are intended to make crops better able to grow under various conditions, and “feed the world.” In reality, however, most of them were created to be “Roundup Ready” – that is, able to withstand the effects of the glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide, which has been identified as a likely carcinogen (now the basis of thousands of consumer-injury lawsuits as well as complaints by consumer advocacy and environmental groups) and destroyer of beneficial gut bacteria.
In addition to profiting hugely from Roundup sales, the company has also succeeded in making farmers dependent on its genetically modified seeds, and contractually obligated to buy new ones from the company every year (under threat of being sued), rather than saving their seeds as is traditional in agriculture. That has created an epidemic of “superweeds” – and a market for even more pernicious herbicides.
This toxic takeover of much of our food supply may have made Monsanto a ton of money, but has also made it probably the most hated corporation on the planet. Its GMOs have likewise become widely shunned – and despite political resistance to labeling foods containing them as some five dozen other countries do, the non-GMO Project label now appears on thousands of products (which unfortunately is no guarantee that Roundup hasn’t been used on ingredients as a post-harvest drying agent, unless a product is also organic).
Just how much of a problem that’s become for biotechnology companies was reflected in a forum for venture capitalists back in 2015, where a market research firm representative observed that “a big struggle everyone here has is how do you talk about your product without calling it a genetically modified organism.”
Well, it appears that soon they’ll no longer have to.
The ultimate result of a protracted political battle over mandatory GMO labeling was passage of supposed “compromise” legislation in 2016 that overrode state labeling initiatives, including one actually signed into law in Vermont. But it only permits consumers with a smart-phone app to know that a product contains GMOs.
Now, some new “guidelines” created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and due to take effect after the requisite public-comment period ending July 3, would do away entirely with what The New York Times called the “stigmatized terms” GMO and genetically engineered, substituting “bioengineered” or “BE.” While such euphemisms may mean essentially the same thing, they would supposedly not be as readily recognizable – sort of like putting a Groucho Marx disguise on Public Enemy No. 1.
Meanwhile, an even more meaningful, if unrelated, transmogrification is also in the works – the pending purge of the much maligned Monsanto moniker.
And this is no small matter when your realize that the 117-year-old name was retained even when the company morphed from a manufacturer of such chemicals as dioxin (which resulted in a number of health- and pollution-related lawsuits against the company) and PCBs (the careless disposal of which culminated in a $550 million settlement with residents of Anniston, Ala.) into an “agricultural” enterprise back in 2002.
The notoriety that has accompanied the “new” Monsanto’s increasing stranglehold on agriculture, however, is something that even millions of dollars put into corporate consumer-oriented advertising and PR campaigns couldn’t dispel. And that little image problem is something its new owner – the German conglomerate Bayer (perhaps best known for its aspirin) – seems intent on shedding ASAP.
As a result, according to a statement given to media this month, “Monsanto will no longer be a company name. The acquired products will retain their brand names and become part of the Bayer portfolio.”
And while all this won’t quite happen overnight, Bayer’s apparent haste to dispense with the widely detested designation seems to have surprised both business experts and opponents. “The speed at which they’re looking to do away with the Monsanto brand speaks volumes,” was the way one brand-management consultant put it.
To hear Bayer CEO Werner Baumann describe it, what will emerge from this merger will be a kinder, gentler and less aggressive agricultural agenda.
“Of course, there needs to be a lot more engagement,” he declared. “We aim to deepen our dialogue with society. We will listen to our critics and work together where we find common ground. Agriculture is too important to allow ideological differences to bring progress to a standstill. We have to talk to each other. We need to listen to each other. It’s the only way to build bridges.”
Now, all that might be construed as a sign of progress – not only because of its conciliatory tone, but because the toppling of a mercenary monolith as mighty as Monsanto might be considered a testament to the power of informed consumers to effect major change in the marketplace, not unlike the deposing of a dictator.
Just as in the aftermath of many a revolution, however, what follows may merely be a continuation of the same type of tyranny under another regime. Perhaps Monsanto’s often ruthless methods of doing business may be softened somewhat, and U.S. politicians (like former Kansas Representative and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) who once did the company’s bidding may not be as inclined to do likewise for a German conglomerate. But make no mistake – its products and practices aren’t likely to disappear along with the Monsanto name.
Realistically speaking, Bayer didn’t sink $63 billion into this acquisition as an exercise in altruism. Upon its completion, in fact, the company will reportedly control an estimated 29 percent of the world’s seed supply and nearly a quarter of all pesticide production.
In other words, this is no time to let our guard down, as both the USDA and Bayer seem to hope we’ll do. The threat to the integrity and safety of our food supply posed by GMOs is not about to go away, and could very well continue to expand under the new management, just as it has been doing over the past two decades.
Perhaps when we see Roundup heading for the last roundup – and not being replaced with an even more pernicious chemical concoction – we’ll have real reason to believe we’re finally winning this battle.
Linda and Bill Bonvie are regular bloggers for Citizens for Health and the co-authors of Badditives: The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them.