Every Foodie’s Watch List. Part 2: The World According to Monsanto

I continue the series of reviews of some of the most thrilling documentaries on food-related topics. Today’s hero, as I have hinted in my previous post, is a documentary on the subject of genetic modification and controversies surrounding it, called “The World According to Monsanto”. It is an almost two-hour movie which touches upon the most pressing issues around genetic engineering and which will leave you with a sound understanding of how the whole GM story has been unfolding during the last couple of decades, what the most popular transgenic products on the current market are, how they are produced, used and what implications may have, as well as what strategies the biotech business makes use of to literally spread the seeds of genetic modification throughout the world.

A discussion of round up – the world’s leading herbicide produced by Monsanto since 1974 – opens up the movie. From there, it takes us to a journey through the history of Monsanto as it has been developing from a chemical company founded in the early 20th century to its present-day carefully built and sustained image of an innovative agricultural corporation and a biotechnology leader working towards improving farming methods and practices while reducing humanity’s ecological footprint. The real story behind Monsanto is revealed through an account of its most inglorious products – Agent Orange, aspartame, Bovine Growth Hormone, PCBs. The movie focuses specifically on the controversy behind PCBs – chemically created oils used as lubricants up to the 1980s when they were finally banned after being proved to be one of the most powerful environmental pollutants, highly toxic and carcinogenic substances. We are taken to Anniston, Alabama to meet some of the people on whose life uncontrolled production of PCBs has taken the most dramatic toll.

The narrative goes on to reveal some of the tactics and strategies used by the biotech business to promote the production and use of GM products, such as bribery, lobbying, revolving doors – these political contrivances look innocent in front of some other tools biotech leaders do not shun, such as false advertising (of which the company was accused twice and was consequently forced to remove the “biodegradable” claim from some of its products) and, most importantly, falsification of scientific studies. The documentary details how in 1978 Monsanto, faced with lawsuits on behalf of the veterans of the Vietnam War (who were among 3 million people poisoned by Agent Orange – highly toxic defoliant developed by the company), funded two research investigations into the health effects of the dioxin – Agent Orange’s key ingredient. The chemical was not found to be carcinogenic which resulted in the denial of benefits to the Vietnam War veterans. However, suspicions persist that the results of the study were manipulated and falsified, although the research was never open to any reviews.

The story continues to unfold in the developing countries where genetic modification has already firmly established its presence and to a large extent determines the conditions of food production.  In contradiction to Monsanto-imposed view of biotechnology as an agricultural boon promising to deliver higher quality and better yielding crops and feed the hungry throughout the world, we hear first-hand stories from small farmers sharing their experience of growing GM crops.  First, Indian cotton growers talk about the implications of Monsanto’s domination over the cotton seed market which is argued to have fuelled the epidemic of farmers’ suicides in India. Vandana Shiva, Alternative Nobel Prize laureate and a relentless fighter for the preservation of traditional agriculture, shares her view on the genetic modification as the second Green Revolution and its hidden goals. Her book, eloquently titled “Seeds of Suicides”, encapsulates the GM-driven tragedy of Indian farming.  We are then transported to Mexico, yet another victim of the forceful spread of transgenic crops. Here we learn the story of uncontrollable cross-contamination and an ever-growing threat of subversion of traditional Mexican corn by genetically modified varieties.

Thus, starting from the American Midwest, where Monsanto was founded more than a century ago, through to India and South America, the documentary provides a comprehensive overview of how transgenic crops managed to establish their dominance in some of the world’s biggest agricultural regions and what threats it poses upon the future of global food production.

While the movie undoubtedly leaves a deep impression, it has also motivated me to learn an alternative point of view which, I am sure, exists on the issue of genetic modification, its dangers as well as its benefits. Since I am always somewhat cautious of taking one-sided views, I will embark on a journey of GM truth-seeking in an attempt to acknowledge both sides of the argument. Will report back.

Direct link to the documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nNFmzAOtJI

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