Culture  Monsanto and the bad seeds

Green Week documentaries target food conglomerate and its genetically engineered crops

Every year the McGill Science Undergraduate Society hosts Green Week, a chance for students to explore environmental issues and participate in a variety of eco-friendly activities. This year’s event featured two documentaries that provide a strong incentive to check the labels on your food: The Future of Food and The World According to Monsanto. Both films explore one central issue – since when did eating unmodified and organic products become a luxury?

The Future of Food explores the effects of genetic engineering on agriculture, health, and biodiversity. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds are patented by the companies that create them, resulting in crops designed to terminate themselves after one harvest. Canadian and American farmers have been sued by Monsanto, the maker of the world’s most popular pesticide, Round-Up, and a global leader in genetic engineering. According to the farmers interviewed in the film, the seed was accidentally spread to their fields through cross-pollination. This leads to one of the documentary’s main questions – how can life be patented, especially in the dynamic form of a seed, whose natural purpose is to spread?

The World According to Monsanto is framed as a detective story, with director and journalist Marie-Monique Robin interviewing several scientists, local farmers, and officials. Its focus is more global than that of The Future of Food: Robin begins with interviews in Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto knowingly leaked toxic waste into the water for over 40 years, with devastating health effects on the surrounding population.

Robin then moves beyond North America to explore the effect of GE crops on farmers in India, Paraguay, and Argentina. In India, the suicide rate among the rural population has soared since the introduction of GE cotton, the presence of which forces farmers to buy expensive Monsanto seeds among other specific agriculture products. Land ownership is being consolidated in Argentina, where small farms are no longer able to compete with expensive GE crops, leading many to migrate to urban slums.

One example of the unwanted effects of genetic engineering explored in both films is found in the case of Mexico. The government has banned GE crops to safeguard the biodiversity of nation’s corn, yet despite the ban, the GE seeds of American corn – which are less expensive than domestic corn because of government subsidies and NAFTA policies – have mixed with the local crop. The Mexican farmers who plant the seeds they save from American corn often unwillingly introduce genetically engineered plants into their plots. Compare this with the situation in Paraguay, where the government was forced to legalize GE crops because of their extensive, anonymous importation and growth within Paraguay.

Both films portray Monsanto as monolithic and unscrupulous, suing independent farmers and attempting to literally spread seeds of evil throughout the globe. However dubious this accusation might appear to skeptics concerned about the one-sidedness of documentaries, it is difficult to ignore the compelling evidence both films present. Allegations that Monsanto is attempting to achieve a high degree of control over the food supply are reinforced by its purchase of multiple seed companies over the last decade.

Several high-ranking American officials and employees of the Food and Drug Administration have worked for or profited from Monsanto in the past. One of the films also features an interview with one of the three Canadian scientists fired by Health Canada in 2004 after it was discovered that Monsanto had offered them a bribe to approve Bovine Growth Hormone, currently not approved for use in Canada.

The Future of Food and The World According to Monsanto are compelling and provide frightening evidence. Rather than focus on the abstract morality of genetic engineering technology, the films provide a convincing argument against how it has been put into practice by corporations like Monsanto.