On Thursday, President Obama quietly signed a sweeping deregulation into law as part of a farm bill. Widely known as the “Monsanto Protection Act”, the rider blocks federal courts from prohibiting the growing and sale of a genetically modified (GMO) crop due to public health concerns. Over 250,000 people signed a petition urging Obama to veto the bill, but the fact is that this President has spent the last four years proving his dedication to neoliberal policies like deregulation. Consumer health is important, as long as it doesn’t interfere with corporate profits.
In the case of GMO, an organism’s DNA is “modified” so that it can be sprayed with huge amounts of weed killer and pesticide. Since the 1980s, the United States has considered GMO “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops, meaning they don’t need to be tested independently to determine their health effects. Because the industry and regulators (substantially equivalent) largely control what tests are done and who hears about them, these effects remain mostly unknown, but GMO and herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready have already been linked to cancer and infertility, among other health problems. The FDA, USDA, and EPA – the agencies tasked with regulating the industry – don’t even require that GM products be labeled as such.
As it turns out, the enterprise that profits the most from this deregulation regime is Monsanto. The multinational corporation effectively has a monopoly on agriculture in the US, and along with DuPont and Syngenta, owns 53% of the global seed market.
According to the US and the World Trade Organization, the products of corporate laboratories are the intellectual property of those multinationals. In the spirit of “free trade”, the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Agreement mandates the patents of Monsanto and other multinationals be valid everywhere. Not surprisingly, Monsanto agrees. Its propaganda arm argues that patenting seed DNA “allows Monsanto to commercialize the products so farmers, consumers, and the environment can benefit from them.” The chief benefit, its advocates claim, is that GM brings higher yields, and can therefore feed more of the world’s hungry.
As nice as this sounds, it’s pretty much all nonsense. Research has shown that GM doesn’t even increase yields relative to conventional and organic methods. And it’s absurd for the US government to claim that a product can be, depending on what suits Monsanto, either unique enough to patent or “equivalent” enough not to test or label. No one seriously believes that, but it’s US policy all the same. That’s what you do for your friends. In fact, no one is a bigger friend to Monsanto than this President, who appointed its former VP and chief lobbyist, Michael Taylor, to head the FDA.
The reality is that Monsanto extorts both farmers and consumers by charging monopoly prices. It undermines competition, as well as local growth and sustainability, by abusing its patent to sue farmers who won’t buy its seeds. Many, if not all, of the 406 US farmers Monsanto has sued didn’t even know their seeds were genetically modified: Due to cross-pollination, replanting, and other accidental contaminations, much of the “non-GM” seed supply actually contains Monsanto’s patented DNA. It’s practically unavoidable when such staggering majorities of the crops grown and sold in the US are GM. It’s reasonable to expect that a multinational corporation will use its exclusive rights to punish small farmers for refusing its business.
The judiciary has consistently sided with Monsanto, first applying intellectual property laws to planting in 1985. US courts have ordered farmers to pay Monsanto about $28 million (not counting thousands of settlements, which are kept confidential). The Monsanto Protection Act comes as the Supreme Court hears the case of Vernon Bowman, an Indiana soybean farmer who chose not to buy from Monsanto. Having inadvertently planted Monsanto seeds that had been saved, Bowman was sued for using stolen technology.
Monsanto, which forbids farmers to save and replant its seeds, claims that Bowman used its intellectual property without paying for it. It’s unlikely this court will be swayed by the defense’s argument that the corporation’s rights don’t extend past the first planting: Replanting a seed just isn’t the same as copying a DVD. Before 1985, this was consistent with US policy, namely, that a private enterprise shouldn’t be allowed to monopolize the food supply. The neoliberal era put an end to that. In a globalized economy, says the prevailing wisdom, markets are unfairly “distorted” when a nation selfishly ignores a foreign company’s patents and subsidizes local farming to provide its citizens with affordable food.
This, too, is blatant hypocrisy. In defiance of the very dogma it pushes on the so-called developing nations, the US government gives out huge subsidies to its “local” agribusiness, undercutting the ability of subsistence farmers in countries like India and Mexico to survive and grow. The partnership between the State Department and Monsanto shows that President Obama’s (not to mention Bill Gates’s) preferred form of food aid to poor countries is patented, non-renewable seeds that farmers must buy at Monsanto’s monopoly prices year after year.
In this way, Monsanto is able to loot public funds, corner national markets, and keep farmers dependent and in debt. Farmers producing for export must grow as much of a single cash crop as possible, rather than the diversity of crops that could have fed local communities. Since India’s neoliberal reforms reduced agricultural subsidies and opened up its land to the tyranny of Monsanto, more than a quarter million farmers have committed suicide.
As Vandana Shiva often points out, the price rises that kill an Indian farmer every 30 minutes aren’t due so much to supply and demand as to speculation in commodity futures markets, far from any democratic process. Thanks to the deregulation regime of the 1990s (led by President Clinton), gambling on commodity prices by the super-rich has such a stranglehold on the global economy that investors profit from the starvation of millions around the world who can no longer afford food.
This is largely a result of how the liberal democracies came out of the last major economic crisis, in the 1970s. The post-WWII Bretton Woods system grounded the welfare state’s social “safety net” in its ability to control capital flows in and out of the country. Beginning in the ’70s, the US led the charge to liberalize capital. “Free trade” agreements and the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and WTO continue to strip national governments of the power to invest and regulate in the interest of their citizens and infrastructure.
Regardless of the Monsanto Protection Act, any country (even the US) that decides GMO should be banned, or that seed patents don’t cover replanting, or that all of its citizens have a right to good food and decent pay, or something silly like that, can be sued under the WTO. Most likely, it will be ordered to pay out millions in public funds to multinationals for breaking the rules of the Market. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently being negotiated behind closed doors by the Obama administration, will allow companies to sue countries directly in shadow courts run by corporate lawyers.
None of this is necessary. Everyone knows there’s enough food in the world. The problem is that an economy that isn’t set up to feed everyone will create hunger. “Globalization” of agriculture was the next logical step for a system that distributes food (and everything else) based not on who needs to be eating it, but on who can pay for it. By recognizing the right to invest as the only inalienable right, neoliberal policies and institutions have undermined the ability of nations to provide their citizens with their own rights, like the right to a living wage, to a safe environment, to a home, and to food.
Instead, investors with an interest in rising prices throw more and more of the world into poverty and insecurity. Whatever sovereignty nations may have had has been replaced by a global, often incomprehensible financial system that touches everything, run by what is effectively a new, transnational elite.