Monsanto, the US biotech group fined in an English court last week for failing to control genetic modification trials, is under attack on two new fronts. First for obtaining an advance look at confidential European Commission documents during its campaign to win regulatory approval for its controversial bovine growth hormone (BST). Second, because of its legal actions against hundreds of North American farmers for failing to pay for its genetically modified seeds.
Company faxes and Canadian government files obtained this week by The Observer reveal that Monsanto received copies of the position papers of the EC Director General for Agriculture and Fisheries prior to a February 1998 meeting that approved milk from cows treated with BST.
Notes jotted down by a Canadian government researcher during a November 1997 phone call from Monsanto’s regulatory chief indicate that the company ‘received the [documents] package from Dr Nick Weber’, a researcher with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He was given them as a member of the Joint Expert Committee on Food and Drug Additives (JECFA), part of the World Health Organization, which reviewed the Monsanto drug for Codex, the agency that approves products as safe for international trade.
Sources noted that Weber’s supervisor at the US FDA is Dr Margaret Mitchell who, before joining the agency, directed a Monsanto laboratory working on the hormone. Monsanto also obtained an advance look at the submission to JECFA by British pharmaceuticals researcher John Verrall. Verrall, a member of the UK Food Ethics Council, told The Observer that slipping papers to Monsanto was ‘totally wrong’.
BST boosts milk output in cows but, say critics, may increase the likelihood of human cancers for those who drink milk. Advance knowledge of objections to the hormone seems likely to have helped Monsanto to prepare arguments in advance of the EU meeting.
In September at a meeting of a Codex panel in Washington, the UK’s opposition to immediate acceptance of the Monsanto hormone resulted in a tie vote on the drug among 24 nations. The US representative, citing the JECFA report, claimed a ‘chairman’s privilege’ to treat the vote as approval.
The Observer has also learned that Monsanto received documents from the files of a Canadian senator involved in investigating controversies surrounding BST. Senator Mira Spivak stated that documents used in preparing hearings on BST were faxed from an office in the Canadian senate.
Last month, Canada permanently banned BST after hearing testimony from research scientists in its health ministry, who challenged the hormone’s safety. Monsanto, whose GM seeds will account for between 50 and 60 per cent of the US soya bean harvest this year, is prosecuting or has already settled 525 cases of what it calls seed piracy – farmers who fail to pay license fees to plant Monsanto’s Ready Roundup seeds.
Settlements have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.
Monsanto has set up freephone tip lines across the US and Canada, encouraging neighbors to anonymously blow the whistle on neighbors, and has hired private investigators to follow up more than 1,800 of these leads. The technology use agreement that farmers must sign when buying Monsanto seed not only forbids them to save seed for replanting, it also gives Monsanto the right to come onto their land and take plant samples for three years.
Hope Shand, research director for Rural Advancement Foundation International, said: ‘Wherever in the world Monsanto is selling this I’d assume they will adopt the same draconian tactics.’
In one case in western Canada, Monsanto is prosecuting a farmer who maintains he did not plant any genetically modified canola, but his crop was contaminated by GM seeds or pollen blown onto his field from nearby farms – the cross-pollination issue that so worries English Nature.
One farmer said: ‘Everyone’s looking at each other and asking, ”’Did my neighbor say something?”’
Gregory Palast’s column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the Observer’s Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).