The World According to Monsanto/Le Monde Selon Monsanto
by Marie-Monique Robin
National Film Board of Canada/Office National du Film Canada, 2008
DVD, 109 mins., col.
Distributor’s website: www.nfb.ca.
Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
The World According to Monsanto/Le Monde selon Monsanto is a film that will make your blood run cold. A scrupulously documented film of deception and disastrous consequence, it is a damning indictment of the world’s leading biotechnology company, a chemical company enhanced as a multi-national agricultural behemoth. Monsanto declines comment.
The documentary is built around a record of government documents, legal reports, hearings and investigations and the carefully orchestrated lack thereof, scientific studies and interviews with former government officials, scientists and victims – and of-course proponents. Much of this material is available on the internet and indeed, the film is particularly interesting in terms of how it incorporates these internet searches into the actual structure and content of the documentary. It reveals incontestably it would seem, a mendacious criminal fraud and collusion between big business and governments, so much so that it exceeds even the most jumped up conspiracy any conspiracy theorist could imagine in their worst psychotic nightmare.
If it were not for the science and the lack and perversion thereof, for the dire consequences for the victims globally, for the systematic persecution of those scientists who have dared to reveal the scientific evidence of the toxicity of the herbicide Roundup which is marketed in tandem with Monsanto GMO-seeds, and arguably its raison d’etre in the first place, one might if unawares be tempted to dismiss it as the insane work and testimony of red-eyed Luddites and environmental activists refusing the march of progress, the fruits of biotechnology and ignorantly resisting a second green revolution while denying the said benefits of the first.
At the time of filming, there were seven million five hundred and seventy thousand on-line critical documents on Monsanto and Monsanto related products, specifically on the relevant lawsuits and problematic issues. Through a simple, ingenious and most unusual way of building a documentary plot, the film is structured around scenes of Marie-Monique Robin typing in the company name, a chemical term or an issue or combination thereof into a google search. In each unfolding drama, after clicking on one of millions of the most utterly compromising documents you can imagine, she reveals herself a consummate investigator.
The film begins in a rail-side garden outside Paris. An old man in his garden is reading the label on the back of a green spray bottle of Roundup. The label reads – “biodegradable” – and that the herbicide is not toxic if used “appropriately”. What we learn in the rest of the film is that it is indeed “biodegradable” in that after 28 days, 2 % of it will degrade. In what follows you will learn that Roundup is glycostat ring molecule - a PCB, basically dioxin. Sold as a biodegradable harmless weed killer, it is a form of Agent Orange, and as we know all to well from Vietnam, it causes cancers, extreme birth defects and many other problems leading to illness and eventually death.
The extraordinary history of documented lies and fraud, the dirty tricks and dark powers of the collusion between multinational business and governments, the calculated evil behind this and other products and their connections to genetically modified crops simply defies the imagination. For instance, in one scene Marie-Monique Robin accesses a Washington Post article from 2002. There she discovers that the company and the US government purposively hid the fact that they knew the Roundup was toxic and that the factory in Anniston, Alabama was poisoning the community all along. For instance, in leaked (“stolen”) internal classified documents, made available on-line, she shows that though it is a known fact that PCB had systemic toxic effects and caused hepatitis that “we [Monsanto] can’t afford to loose one dollar . . .”
Monsanto hid this information from the public and was protected in doing so by the government. Looking into this perverse collusion of industry and government, Robin visits the Anniston community to record the long term effects on the community’s health. The cemetery filled with those who died prematurely tells all, as do the community meetings in which the residents relate their illnesses, the medications and costs and one by one the phenomenal levels of PCB in their blood and tissues. Monsanto settled the charges against the company out of court for 700 million dollars. No one was ever held accountable and the fact has had no negative feedback on the production and sale of the chemical except in terms of having to modify the advertising through removing the word “biodegradable”.
Robin then interviews David Carpenter of the University of Albany who explains the well known fact today of how the whole world has been contaminated by PCB’s and that they are known to be carcinogenic. Returning to the computer, Robin types in Roundup where instead according to Monsanto we learn that it is not only “biodegradable” but “good for the environment”. So she types in “Roundup biodegradable”. Amidst the many hits, she focuses on two which report that the company was twice found guilty of false advertising for these claims, the first time in 1996 in New York and the second time in 2007 in France. What this shows is the stubborn insistence of business and government to continue in the collusion of the sale of toxic chemicals in the name of advancing biotechnology in the quest for increased food production and arguably above all – profit – at the expense of the environment and people’s health despite the obverse food security discourse.
Returning to France, Marie interviews a French scientist, Robert Belle of CNRS. There Belle describes how his laboratory had found that using doses of Roundup far below the said acceptable levels created genetic instability, a process which provokes the first stages that lead to cancer. To his amazement, he was ordered by the French government not to alert the public specifically in order to protect the GMO’s which were in then in the process of being introduced into the European market. Returning to America, she interviews John Hoffman, a farmer and then Vice President of the American Soybean Association who espouses the economic advantage of growing genetically modified soybean and using Roundup.
Having established the fact that Roundup is not “biodegradable” or “safe”, and after a short science lesson explaining how GMO’s are created, that they are transgenic plants which contain microbial DNA resistant to Roundup, she asks the obvious question: “Were they [GMOs] tested for safety?” To do so, she turns to Dan Glickman, formerly Secretary of Agriculture. She learns from Glickman that even in his position he was “slapped around” and forced by members of the administration and especially by the US Trade representatives not to pursue the issue. So she turns to James Myransky, former Bio-Technology Co-Director of the Food and Drug Administration. He candidly admits that the decision not to create a special set of laws for GMO’s was a political not a scientific decision in which the government had already decided that there were sufficient relevant laws in place so as to circumvent regulation. As we learn later, this was necessary so as to evade the application of the precautionary principle required for all new food products and pharmaceutical drugs.
In this ever deepening revelation of mendacity, we become privy to some of the fascinating inner workings of industry and government manipulating law and science. Specifically, the introduction of GMO products was facilitated through the manipulation of language as to avoid deregulation through a conveniently invented notion of the “principle of substantial equivalence”. Therein, GMO products were defined as being food substances, proteins, that are “substantially similar” to other crops. Following up on this critical point of policy and law, Jeffrey Smith, Michael Hansen and Jeremy Rifkin are introduced next. Dr. Smith notes that it is a “deception” to claim that these foods are not meaningfully different. He clarifies that obscure language was deliberately introduced to make it possible for legalized deception through this and the associated ambiguous term “generally recognized as safe”. Michael Hansen however argues that because GMO’s are not “substantially similar” being in fact qualitatively new and different crops, being “transgenic”, that they should have been treated as food additives and thus as requiring testing for safety as with any other new element introduced into the market for foods and drugs.
Rifkin bluntly notes that it was no secret that the notion of “substantial equivalence” was a joke and simply a means for avoiding government interference in a time when de-regulation was the government’s leading priority. This was a period in which “bureaucratic hurdles” seen as holding back development were systematically eliminated by the Republican administration and in that context Rifkin notes that no other company has ever had such a powerful influence over the FDA. In order to show how this collusion between Monsanto and the government worked the film then explores what is termed the “revolving door” in which key players move in and out of industry and government over time furthering long term agendas such as the promotion of bio-technology, specifically the Monsanto agenda. The names are strikingly familiar – George Bush Senior, Dan Quayle, Clarence Thomas, Donald Rumsfeld and Mickey Kantor – and most important of all in many ways – Michael Taylor, working today for Resources for the Future. As Rifkin relates, it was a “brilliantly executed takeover” in which Monsanto policy became FDA policy. Nevertheless, Taylor explicitly denies any connection with the FDA policy and GMO’s and any association on his part, specifically the FDA policy plans. It would be fascinating to see future documentaries looking into this particular discrepancy. Naturally, Monsanto denied any comment. Above all, it is important to keep in mind, that any independent or government scientist who questioned, brought attention to or provided evidence of the toxicity of Monsanto products were systematically persecuted and eventually fired – whether it be in the US, Canada, the UK or France.
While the casual reader of this review or viewer of the film might not be shocked enough to be spurred into becoming an anti-GMO activist, maybe if you knew what was in your next glass of milk, thanks to Monsanto, you would think again.
Take another Monsanto product, Posilac, that is, BGH – Bovine Growth Hormone, a transgenic chemical that increases milk production by 20%. Posilac causes mastitis and an increase on the size of ovaries by 34-44 %, it increases levels of growth factor, rates of colon and prostate cancers and creates severe reproductive health problems. The milk itself has puss in it from the infections and thus high levels of antibiotics which are used to treat the infections. The consequence is that to argue that Posilac is “safe and beneficial” and that “every” scientist says so is simply not true and yet another gross instance of the collusion between the bio-technology, chemical, agricultural industry and government.
To close by way of the significance this has for society and evolution at the widest level. What we see here is a triad of industry, government and science in which industry uses science with government support in a deliberately modified regulatory environment where laws pertaining to public safety of agricultural products and chemicals are manipulated as part of policy in order to advance business interests nationally and internationally. This film and others argue that this radical step in evolution, the crossing of the species barrier with unknown consequences coupled with what amounts to a poisoned earth policy and a new impetus for forest destruction, is to the detriment and not otherwise of the poor despite the discourse of a Second Green Revolution. While the most extreme consequences occur in places like Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico and India as documented in greater depth in the film Bullshit, keep in mind that whoever or wherever you are, the same danger is staring at you out of your bowl of cereal, in the water you drink, in your very daily bread.
Bullshit by Pea Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian, Directors. A Cinema Guild Release, 2005. Distributor’s website: www.cinemaguild.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg at http://www.muse.jhu.edu/journals/leonardo/v041/41.1reviews_on-line.pdf.