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Monsanto Mania 

Is the industrial agriculture company a big GMO satan, or a company just trying to do the right thing to make sure people get fed?

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TV journalist Walter "The Most Trusted Man in America" Cronkite believed that "in seeking truth, you have to get both sides of a story" and that a journalist's job was to "hold up the mirror."

Behold the mirrored image of Monsanto Company, painted as both hero and villain depending on who's wielding the paintbrush. Those who work for the multinational giant feel they're the good guys, wearers of white hats—"delivering agricultural products that support farmers all around the world."

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While they have many detractors who view them differently, as the big dog on the agricultural porch, their growl is loud and their bite hurts. Independent farmers have been forced into bankruptcy trying to fight Monsanto corporate lawyers and their reach is long and wide. Just days ago, the House of Representatives passed legislation blocking the state of Vermont from enforcing a mandatory GMO labeling law. Other labeling initiatives have previously been defeated in California, Washington and Oregon. And according to Western Farm Press magazine, "There are currently more than 70 bills introduced in over 30 states to require GMO labeling or to outright ban GMO foods."

The company asserts that there is "a lot of misperception and confusion" regarding their position that "Monsanto is not opposed to labeling," a statement that contrasts with one printed in Acres U.S.A. magazine—"The 'No' campaign was fueled by cash-rich large corporations."

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said, "Monsanto has millions of dollars to dedicate to this fight, and this vote shows they are skilled in using those vast resources to buy votes in Congress. The message for Monsanto is this—bring it on. You may have the money, but we have millions of Americans demanding the right to know what is in their food and every time the company fights tooth and nail to deny people that right, all they do is grow the ranks of ordinary Americans willing to stand up and fight."

click to enlarge Sunny Holliday, former chemist and now owner of Lovin’ Spoonfuls. - COURTESY OF LOVIN’ SPOONFULS
  • Courtesy of Lovin’ Spoonfuls
  • Sunny Holliday, former chemist and now owner of Lovin’ Spoonfuls.

"Monsanto is very successful at influencing government policy in their favor," says Sunny Holliday, who brings the unique perspective of being both a chemist and owner of Lovin' Spoonfuls restaurant, 9-time winner of Tucson Weekly's Best Vegetarian Restaurant.

"What's not to hate,?" she asks. "Monsanto, the company, could be diagnosed as sociopathic, gifting us with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and seeking to prohibit the long-time practice of farmers saving seeds. They are aggressive in their lawsuits for patent infringements even in cases of unwanted cross-contamination, driving many small growers out of business. Sadly, we live in a political system that fosters greed and empowerment of special interest groups with strong financial backing."

Undeterred, in the Monsanto at a Glance web page, the company notes: "We are focused on empowering farmers to produce more from their land (and) we do this with our leading seed brands in crops like corn, cotton, oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables." Monsanto owns nearly 700 biotechnology patents, and along with four other giant biotech corporations, dominates access to seeds. While the company mantra promises in-the-seed trait technologies (read: genetically modified organisms) aimed at "protecting yield and supporting on-farm efficiency," some look upon the company's efforts as producing Seeds of Evil.

Monsanto doesn't buy that argument. "Some people believe the answer to our food challenges is to move backwards in time toward an agricultural system that relies less on human innovation and more on human labor (and) while we respect that opinion, we don't share it. To focus only on present obstacles would be short-sighted (because) we have our eye on the future, bringing innovative products to the market."

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Headquartered in Missouri with locations throughout Europe, in South, Central and North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, Monsanto has a domestic presence in nearly 150 cities in 33 states, with Arizona publicly claiming four sites. "Monsanto is involved in various collaborations and field trials in Arizona, often working with schools like the University of Arizona as well as growers in the state," says Ben Eberle, Monsanto communications manager for cotton, wheat, and specialty crops.

"We're committed to providing farmers with tools to help them have better harvests—and farmers themselves often play a big part in making these tools available via our new product evaluator program. In the case of cotton, 200 farmers, including upland cotton farmers in Arizona, are managing trial plots as they would the rest of their farm to find out how different varieties perform. Currently in our eighth season, NPE farmers have helped us bring over two dozen new cotton varieties to market."

Field trials and academic research are nothing new for Monsanto. "We've been performing field trials with genetically modified crops for over 20 years," says Phil Miller, a company regulatory affairs spokesman. "Product stewardship and regulatory compliance are at the heart of everything we do. We continuously review our processes and procedures including site selection, field trial isolation, and auditing of the field trial locations."

The company take on field trial research is pretty hard and fast: "Monsanto does not disclose specific locations of the company's field trials out of respect for—and to ensure the safety of—third party cooperators with whom we work."

click to enlarge Monsanto at work. - COURTESY OF MONSANTO
  • Courtesy of Monsanto
  • Monsanto at work.

That's the challenge to find out just exactly what the company is doing in Arizona and where. In their Monsanto Facilities Round the World site listings, they publicly acknowledge a presence at two locations in Yuma, one in Eloy and another in Casa Grande with a number of research projects involving the UA via the Maricopa Agriculture Center and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center in Tucson.

"Our involvement in Arizona is in the tens of millions of dollars for company payroll, paying farmers to grow crops, and our university research efforts," says Paul Sawyer, territorial sales manager and national brand manager in Phoenix. A native of Douglas, Sawyer has been a Monsanto man for 25 years. "We've been in Arizona for a long time, are proud of our significant investment in agriculture here, and are committed to having a presence in the future to work on seed quality and supply."

He's aware that his employer is not universally loved. "I know, Mon-Satan and all that. I have a thick skin, but I also have morals, and am proud of the company I work for and our successes." He points to efforts aimed at ensuring higher yield in the field, more food per acre, protecting things like corn from insect or disease damage and making plants grow more efficiently in reference to water and fertilizer. "Farmers wouldn't be growing any cotton here if we hadn't developed protective measures against the pink bollworm. That's just one of our GMO success stories in Arizona."

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The GMO issue is the hot spot for most people who eat, but don't plant or grow, food. Engineered in a laboratory to do what they're told, genetically-modified seeds march to the orders they're given, like resisting herbicides. The Associated Press reports nearly 80 percent of our food already contains genetically-modified ingredients and although the Food and Drug Administration and the country's largest food companies say those items are safe, skepticism abounds.

"Man has been genetically modifying his food ever since we've been around, thousands of years of genetic tinkering. It's just that Monsanto does it more scientifically," Sawyer says.

Concerning any human health impact of GMO's, "We may become our own unwitting lab experiment, because at this point, the only thing we can say is we just don't know," says Holliday, the plant-based diet supporter who is also concerned with other issues involving food supply like the impact of America's meat-based diet on health and destruction of the environment. "GMO technology encourages monocrops and reduces biodiversity, increasing the risk of toxicity to other non-target organisms like pollinators and nearby aquatic life. As herbicide-resistant weeds develop around GM crops, the need for increased application of herbicides in the environment will follow."

click to enlarge “If people put love into their efforts, what they get back is a whole different type of food,” says Avalon Gardens farm manager Tarenta Baldeschi. - COURTESY OF AVALON FARMS
  • Courtesy of Avalon Farms
  • “If people put love into their efforts, what they get back is a whole different type of food,” says Avalon Gardens farm manager Tarenta Baldeschi.

GMO crops are a big deal to the Avalon Organic Gardens and Eco-Village farmers in Tumacacori who run the Food for Ascension Café in Tucson and sell surplus produce through their CSA program. Growing more than 70 different vegetables (and hundreds of different varieties) throughout the year, they pick a pile of produce. "Our fields are GMO-free in our plantings and have been so for over 25 years," says farm manager Tarenta Baldeshi. "Our café is the only all-local GMO-free eatery in Tucson (which closes the end of this month). I think saving your own seeds and growing organically is a safety feature against Monsanto, Dow, and all the other GMO crop users."

"What distinguishes us from other non-GMO farms in Arizona is our activism in organizing GMO protests," says Avalon community spokesman Amadon DellErba. "We're not against technology and innovation, but we don't feel that natural seeds should be tampered with. Monsanto is driven by greed, not a desire to feed the world. One of our main gripes is that Monsanto is patenting their own seeds and trying to privatize the right of people to grow their own food with their own seeds. That should be a basic human right. Anyone who has held a seed in their hands, planted it, and watched it sprout and grow before yielding a crop knows the madness behind Monsanto's attempt to strip farmers from their birthright by privatizing seeds. Monsanto apparently feels like anyone planting non-GMO seeds represents a threat to them. It's like Monsanto is The Third Reich—a multi-transnational company pitted against the small farmer."

click to enlarge Avalon Garden farmers TaliSeen Combs (L) and Tarenta Baldeshi on GMO seeds --- “Never used them, never will.” - PHOTO BY LEE ALLEN
  • Photo by Lee Allen
  • Avalon Garden farmers TaliSeen Combs (L) and Tarenta Baldeshi on GMO seeds --- “Never used them, never will.”

In answer to the inevitable question about America's food future—"Eventually, will all crops be genetically engineered?" the web page GMOAnswers.com (partially funded by Monsanto) notes that while major crops like corn, cotton, and soy were the original focus, "specialty crops like apples, tomatoes, oranges, and potatoes are approaching commercialization. From a technology standpoint, there is much potential for more engineered crops. Although it is difficult to predict whether these technologies will actually be commercialized or made available to farmers, from a technology, patent, and cost perspective, the answer is yes."

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