March 4, 2010

Farmers, foodies and activists take on a giant

— To say Maine farmer Ryan Parker dislikes Monsanto would be an understatement.

''I hate Monsanto with every fiber of my being,'' Parker said. ''I have a lot of issues with everything they're doing.''

He's not alone. An international chemical and biotech giant, St. Louis-based Monsanto is a frequent target of agriculture reformers, human rights campaigners, environmental activists and natural foodies.

Those who lament the current industrial agriculture system and the often nutritionally deficient, environmentally destructive and contaminated food that it produces see Monsanto as the system's poster child.

In response, activists around the globe have organized the International Day of Opposition to Monsanto this Friday. In Maine, 13 communities will host film screenings, talks and seed swaps aimed at raising awareness of the company's practices.

Accompanied by clever marketing, use of lawsuits against farmers and chummy relationships with regulators, Monsanto has rapidly developed a number of genetically modified crops. Many of these seeds (which haven't been independently tested for safety) come imbedded with pesticides or are resistant to the company's flagship herbicide, Roundup.

While all of this is disturbing on its own, Monsanto's truly sinister side can be seen in its patenting of seeds.

These patents make it illegal for farmers to save seeds and replant them the following year (a practice that is as old as farming itself). Even worse, farmers who don't plant Monsanto's patented seeds, but happen to have their non-genetically modified crops crossed with the patented variety, find themselves in possession of Monsanto's property and subject to persecution.

Does all this have you concerned that you're eating genetically modified food? Monsanto thinks you shouldn't worry, which is why the company, according to its Web site, continues to oppose mandatory labeling of genetically-modified foods.

After a request for comment about their practices, Monsanto spokesman John Combest said: ''Because Monsanto is a leader in biotechnology, our company and products are often the subject of activist campaigns. Unfortunately, the information provided by our critics is not always balanced or accurate.''

But you may recall when Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy over its labels proclaiming the Maine milk to be free of Monsanto's bovine growth hormone. Oakhurst later settled the lawsuit out of court and agreed to change the wording of its label.

Today, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods in this country's supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.

All of this adds up to ample motivation for Bob St. Peter, the director of Food for Maine's Future and the coordinator of Friday's events in Maine, to beat the anti-Monsanto drum.

''They're the biggest seed company in the world, and they're the most aggressive,'' St. Peter said. ''So they deserve special attention. In addition, they've produced some of the most toxic substances this planet has ever seen.''

These chemicals include Agent Orange, DDT and PCBs, plus food additives such as saccharin and aspartame.

Parker, who describes his chem-free farming style as ''beyond organic,'' was propelled into helping with Friday's events after hearing Monsanto's ads airing on Maine Public Radio, courtesy of programming licensed by American Public Media. The ads claim Monsanto is ''committed to sustainable agriculture'' and working to ''increase crop yield.''

The latter claim was called into question by a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report showing organically grown crops significantly outperform genetically modified crops in terms of yield.

But then Monsanto, which is often accused by activists of making misleading statements and falsifying research, has never been a slave to truth. For example, in 1996, Monsanto agreed to change its ads for Roundup in response to complaints by the New York Attorney General that the company portrayed the herbicide as environmentally safe.

There is one thing the Fortune 500 company is a slave to, and that's profits. Strangely enough, this is the one place where I found a bright spot for people like Parker and St. Peter. Last week, the company's quarterly earnings report revealed declining sales and a loss of $233 million.

If activists have their way, Friday's events will convert more farmers into activists and further erode the multinational's profit base.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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