A giant, multinational agribusiness is using its market share and patent system to spread genetically modified crops throughout the world. A movie documenting this problem generated quite a stir. By piecing together facts and presenting it in a powerful, visual way, she can carve out a vision for the future of agriculture
I have been working as a journalist for the past 25 years or so, focusing mainly on human rights and the environment.
What struck me was the number of people I encountered who kept uttering a single name: Monsanto, the giant U.S.-based multinational biotechnology company.
I grew up on a farm in France, hence my keen interest in agricultural issues.
I decided to find out more about Monsanto's global reach.
Monsanto, founded in 1901, started out as a chemical company. It is perhaps best known for producing Agent Orange, the defoliant used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
It now has a commanding share of the global genetically modified seed market. One of its representative products is the herbicide Roundup. The documentary shows how Monsanto makes money by selling Roundup together with transgenic seeds that are resistant to the herbicide.
Monsanto originally marketed Roundup as "environmentally friendly" and "biodegradable," but it had to change its labeling after the company was found guilty of "false advertising," first by a U.S. court in 1996 and then by a French court in 2007.
The company has patented these genetically modified seeds, so when a farmer buys them, he or she must keep paying patent fees for new seeds, even if these seeds are harvested from the farmer's own crops.
When Monsanto first started selling transgenic soy beans in Argentina, it didn't seek patent fees. Several years later, though, after the multinational had captured a large share of the market, it came back and began pursuing farmers for royalties.
Once Roundup has been used, it is very difficult to go back to sowing traditional soy beans. Farmers end up having to pay royalties every year just so they can continue to cultivate Roundup-resistant transgenic crops. What's more, if Roundup-resistant weeds start appearing, farmers then have to buy one of Monsanto's other pesticide products.
Fighting Back with Publicly available materials
It would seem that there is a revolving door between Monsanto and the U.S. government. Take the case of Donald Rumsfeld. In between serving as defense secretary in the Ford and George W. Bush administrations, Rumsfeld was president of a Monsanto subsidiary. Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor also became a Monsanto executive after leaving politics.
Michael Taylor represents a classic example of this revolving door policy. Between 1976 and 1980, Taylor was in charge of food safety at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He then worked for a law firm that represented Monsanto. In 1991, he returned to the FDA and was given an executive position overseeing the deregulation of genetically modified products. Then, in the latter half of the 1990s, he went back to Monsanto to serve as vice president.
My documentary, The World According to Monsanto
, was first screened on French TV to an audience of 1.5 million.
It was then shown on TV channels and in movie theaters across the world. It is screened in Japan from September.
One of my previous movies was about the French Army, also others have delved into the role of governments and giant corporations. I want to practice scrupulous journalism, so the first thing I do when researching materials is to look at documents that are publicly available on the Internet.
If ones searches long enough, it is possible to find governmental and corporate material that, while not exactly "top secret," certainly contains a lot of information. Of course, I travel a lot to carry out research to back up my Internet findings.
For this documentary, I spent a year interviewing people from 10 countries, among them the United States, Central and South America, Vietnam and India. I was able to compare Monsanto's claims with what is actually occurring on the ground.
Monsanto wouldn't be interviewed for the documentary, but by carefully piecing together the pieces of the puzzle, I was able to get a clearer picture of how the company is behaving.
Appeal of Japan's 'TEIKEI' System
For my next documentary, I may look at farming in Fukushima Prefecture in the context of the nuclear disaster there last year. I am also interested in the Japanese "teikei" system of community supported agriculture.
Fukushima's farmers have suffered a lot: not just directly from the disaster but also from the scaremongering that followed. As a nuclear giant, France is watching the situation in Japan very closely.
While conducting research into organic farming and other kinds of environmentally friendly agriculture, I became very interested in the teikei system, whereby consumers can buy agricultural products directly from the farmer.
The word teikei has now been adopted in Europe and the United States.
Through teikei, consumers can meet the people who grow their food and find out how this food is produced. I believe it is a model for global farming and also points the way to the future of agriculture. Japanese people should be proud of this wonderful system.
(Robin's documentary movie The World According to Monsanto
is shown in theaters across Japan from September.)
View the entire film here
(This article was compiled from an interview by Noriko Akiyama from Asahi Shimbun's GLOBE)
About the author
© Noriko Akiyama
Marie-Monique Robin was born in 1960 and grew up on a farm in France. She has received numerous awards for her work, such as for her 1995 documentary on the organ trade, The Eye Thieves
, and The Death Squads: The French School