By James N. Kariuki*
On November 6, 2012, Californians voted on Proposition 37, a statewide initiative. Had it succeeded, it would have required labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The initiative was narrowly defeated at the polls, but it cost the big anti-labeling agribusinesses a whopping $47 million to campaign against it.
The California vote was a big issue but it was overshadowed by the bigger presidential election that took place concurrently. However two days later on November 8, 2012, the Kenya Government banned importation of genetically-engineered foods effective immediately, until their safety to humans was scientifically confirmed. Well-funded pro-GMO forces in Kenya were up in arms against the importation ban; but it is still in force.
In mid-January 2013, another food outcry erupted, this time in Europe. Irish food inspectors had uncovered in their supermarkets almost 30 percent horsemeat in beef burgers intended for human consumption. Further tests revealed that burger products elsewhere in the country had traces of horse and pig DNA.
The horsemeat issue in Britain triggered considerable public unease in South Africa which imports some foods from the United Kingdom. The issue slowly died down when SA’s food companies issued assurances that they were not involved in the British food scandal as they did not import any of the implicated foods.
Thousands of kilometers away from Kenya, Britain, SA, and the USA, the Catholic Medical Association of Nigeria (CMAN) was constantly busy nagging Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, not to sign into law a proposed bill that would allow GMOs to be imported into the country.
According to the Association, such a move would have the potential of destroying the lives of Nigerians. The Association thus advised the Nigeria’s Federal Government not to allow introduction of GMO products into the country because, overall, uncertainties about their benefits have led to their rejection in Europe.
What is the link between these stories? Put simply, it is that people worldwide have become increasingly conscious and protective of what they ingest. Hence, the uproar in Ireland about horsemeat in their foods, public outcry in SA to the British meat contamination, Kenya’s ban on GMO importation, and Nigeria’s reluctance to allow importation of genetically-engineered foods. And, lest we forget, there was Prop 37 in California, USA, on food labeling.
When I first approached the Pan-African Vision to write for them, there was one clear proviso: to promote positive aspects of Africa. In my view, it is the best news of the 21st century that Africans have joined the rest of the world in opposition to food contamination, no matter how well concealed.
Today, public-interest news media is engaged in the never-ending debate over gun control. Those against uncontrolled private possession of firearms insist that, background checks must be conducted on applicants for gun ownership. Presumably, if an applicant has a criminal record, he is of suspicious character and, therefore, disqualifies from owning a firearm. In short, what you do today will haunt you later.
Why isn’t the same logic applied to businesses, especially the multinational corporations that touch upon human lives around the world? Should the global community not ensure that previous business offenders are restrained from roaming the world ravaging mankind? Some anti-GMO groups are now thinking in those terms regarding the US-based Monsanto Company.
Monsanto is the world’s biggest food-engineering and genetically modified seed company. In addition to being the leader of the contemporary agribusinesses, it also has the dubious distinction of owning the most repulsive history.
Monsanto’s history is one steeped with controversial products, deadly consequences; massive cover-ups political sleight of hand, and culminates as a modern day plague on humanity, a plague that is about to peak to biblical proportions.
The America author of this statement goes on to outline Monsanto’s anti-social activities which include contribution to building the atomic bomb. But that is another story.
More recently, Monsanto has been involved in manufacturing other hazardous chemicals including DDT, an artificial pesticide, which was banned in the US in 1972. Subsequently, the same Monsanto got into the act of manufacturing Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant herbicide used in the Vietnam War to kill jungle growth and destroy growing crops (food.) Contact with the defoliant substance contaminated Vietnamese people and US troops indiscriminately, earning itself the nickname, the Merchant of Death.
In the early 1980s, US victims of Agent Orange and their families brought a class-action suit against the producers of the lethal herbicides, companies that supplied the lethal substance for the Vietnam War. The applicants sought compensation for injuries suffered from exposure to toxic Agent Orange. An out of court settlement of $180 million was reached in May 1984. Monsanto was a defendant in the case but continued to refuse to accept culpability even after the settlement.
Remarkably, Monsanto’s reputation as a danger to life and environment is not a new phenomenon; it goes back to its early beginnings. From the late 1920s to the early 1970s, the company manufactured PCBs in Anniston, Alabama and left a gory story.
PCBs are man-made organic chemicals once used to prevent fire explosions in electrical equipments and other industrial applications. Originally, PCBs were considered a life-saver, but ultimately, they turned out to be more than that: a highly toxic product, causing birth defects and potentially carcinogenic.
In the four decades (1929-1971) that Monsanto manufactured PCBs, it had a monopoly in the US and made hefty profits. Yet, it routinely dumped dangerous toxic wastes into a creek and oozing open-pit landfills around Anniston. The dangers of those chemicals were withheld from the town’s residents.
The consequences of PCBs to the Anniston community were devastating. Over time, thousands of children developed cancer, cerebral palsy and other health complications directly linked to exposure to PCBs. When these health damages initially surfaced, there was a specter of an explosive political reaction when innuendos of racism were floated. Rumors had it that Monsanto’s intentions were genocidal because west Anniston was primarily a black community.
Genocidal claims cannot be substantiated. However, it is true that the health dangers associated with Monsanto’s toxic activities in Anniston were visible. More specifically, those dangers were known to Monsanto’s officialdom.
Back in 1966, Monsanto’s officials knew that “fish turned belly-up in ten seconds’ when submerged in Anniston’s creek water, spurting blood and shedding skin as if they were dunked in boiling water.” Subsequently, Monsanto’s files were uncovered clearly marked, “CONFIDENTIAL: Read, Learn and Destroy.”
Against this background a rhetorical question is posed:
If Monsanto hid what it knew about its toxic pollution for decades, what is the company hiding from the public now? This question seems particularly important to us as this powerful company asks the world to trust it with a worldwide, high-stakes gamble with environmental and human health consequences of its genetically modified foods.
Today, Monsanto has tentacles spread around the world, preaching the gospel of saving mankind from starvation. Yet, a quick background check reveals that the same company is a repeat offender against humanity everywhere. Critics are indeed justified in categorizing Monsanto as evil, unethical, poisonous and a killer. No wonder it has been dubbed a Modern Day Plague.
*James Kariuki is Professor of International Relations and a private consultant based in South Africa.The views expressed in this blog are his.