BRIAN TOKAR: Monsanto: Origins of an Agribusiness Behemoth

Many years ago, in the spring of 1998, I was invited to be part of a pub­lication that would make history, but not for the reasons its editors and publisher anticipated. The item in question was a special issue of the UK-based magazine, The Ecologist, profiling the Monsanto corporation and its expanding push to genetically engineer common food crops. Genetically engineered foods, or GMOs (i.e., foods made from genetically modified organisms) had only been grown commercially for two short years but had already inspired massive worldwide opposition. The first Global Day of Action against GMOs featured demonstrations and public gatherings in 19 U.S. cities, as well as 17 European countries, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Ethiopia.1 Greenpeace painted a 100-foot biodegradable “X” on a field of Roundup-resistant soybeans in Iowa and later blocked a ship containing genetically engineered soybeans from leaving Cargill’s grain facility on the Mississippi River, outside of New Orleans.2 European activists fought to block imports of GMO corn and soybeans from the United States, uprooted experimental plots of engineered crop varieties in broad daylight, and would soon succeed in their push for labeling requirements for products of genetic engineering throughout the European Union.

Monsanto, which was already the most aggressive promoter of GMO agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic, fought back with as much hype and political clout as they could muster. They had already derailed congres­sional efforts to regulate GMOs in the United States, forcing public officials to rely on food and plant safety laws that long predated the new technology. The company tried to brand itself literally as a savior of humanity, uniquely able to feed the world’s nutritionally insecure masses. A pervasive advertis­ing campaign across the United Kingdom aimed to convince readers that the future of global agriculture depended on Monsanto’s ability to enhance future harvests.

In those days, The Ecologist was probably the leading popular journal of environmental research and activism in the English-speaking world. Its readers were active on every continent, and its reputation was unsurpassed, even after a team of internationally acclaimed editors departed following a dispute with the magazine’s publisher. A special issue of The Ecologist was planned focusing on Monsanto and its history. With a foreword by Prince Charles and articles by some of the leading United States and United King­dom critics of the global biotechnology and pesticide industries, this special edition was bound to have a major impact.

Apparently, someone on the other side felt the same way. …..

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