While we all fixate on glyphosate, Monsanto prepares its next GM trick: RNA pesticides

He's got the whole world in his hands! Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant at the Fortune Global Forum, Tuesday 3rd November 2015. Photo: Fortune Global Forum via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).

He's got the whole world in his hands! Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant at the Fortune Global Forum, Tuesday 3rd November 2015. Photo: Fortune Global Forum via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).

The global pesticide and bioscience giant Monsanto is a byword for evil for millions of campaigners and concerned citizens, writes JP Sottile. But that has never stopped it getting its way with the people that matter - politicians and regulators. And now the company is on the verge of biggest victory ever - winning clearance to spray biologically active RNA sequences on US crops.
The real issue is whether or not the next best move after drenching the planet in pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is to then start pumping out RNAi bio-pesticides and spraying RNAi messages onto plants. But that's a debate we're not having.

Is Monsanto 'evil'? Just pop that question into Google and you'll find out quickly why Monsanto ranks near the top of every 'most hated company' list.

And ask any news editor ... the name 'Monsanto' is guaranteed clickbait that reels in readers by the bushel. It's probably why you are reading this right now.

Perhaps you, like many anti-GMO farmers, environmental watchdogs and consumer advocates, see Monsanto as the embodiment of everything that's wrong with corporate America.

Its name is synonymous with unbridled greed, indifference to the environment, bipartisan cronyism and a demonstrated willingness to steamroll the little guy.

To wit, Monsanto wields a three-decade-old Supreme Court patent ruling like a scythe as it cuts down farmers who dare to save seeds for the next planting season. It has also beaten back challenges from organic farmers who fell victim to 'genetic drift' when Monsanto's patented crops cross-pollinated with their non-GMO neighbours and therefore rendered them unsellable.

Monsanto acts like a corporate Borg, methodically amalgamating conventional farmers while also quietly eliminating their organic competition through the sheer ubiquity of its patented pollen. With 90% of soybean, corn and cotton acreage in the United States now planted with genetically modified (GM) seeds - and with other common food crops quickly following suit - noncompliant farmers are quite literally surrounded.

The rise of Monsanto

Interestingly enough, Monsanto spent decades as a fairly typical industrial chemical company, producing PCBs, DDT and even Agent Orange. But it pivoted away from its chemical business - which it oddly calls 'former Monsanto' - in the mid-1970s.

The real issue is whether or not the next best move after drenching the planet in pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is to then start pumping out RNAi bio-pesticides and spraying RNAi messages onto plants. But that's a debate we're not having.

Luckily for the new Monsanto, Congress recently inserted a paragraph into a pending revamp of the Toxic Substances Control Act. It shields the new Monsanto from "hundreds of millions" of dollars in lingering liability from the PCBs made by the former Monsanto.

Today's Monsanto took shape when its patented formula for glyphosate hit the market in 1974. Sold under the name 'Roundup,' glyphosate demonstrated an uncanny ability to kill every plant it touched - an ability that eventually transformed Monsanto into a globe-spanning, gene-patenting agrochemical empire worth $47 billion.

Monsanto also became a consumer market titan as millions of weekend warriors strapped on their 'sharpshooter' spray nozzles to do battle with the dreaded weeds they simply don't have the patience to pull or the willingness to mulch.

Monsanto's perennial 'Wild Western-style' ad campaign sells convenience with the sound of ricocheting bullets and the kind of satisfied look that only comes with shooting first and not asking questions later. Roundup is the United States' 'second most widely used' lawn and garden poison.

Roundup products populate the best-seller list on Amazon. And it's used by gardeners around the world, bureaucracies seeking weed-free parks and, of course, farmers running on the agrochemical treadmill.

Monsanto's globe-spanning agrochemical business model came together in 1982 when it developed the first engineered plant cell and, quite presciently, it acquired the Jacob Hartz Seed Company and its soybean seed empire. Monsanto ultimately launched Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. Those glyphosate-resistant soybeans literally killed the competition.

They also sparked an industry-wide race to modify crop seeds. By 2013, Monsanto controlled 90% of the United States' soybean seed market. It's now the world's largest seed company and it's one of six titanic agrochemical companies that together control 75% of the world's agricultural inputs (seeds, plant material, fertilizers and pesticides).

That catalysing role is why Monsanto - but not DuPont, Dow, BASF or Syngenta - became the face of agrochemical evil. The 'new' Monsanto is a mega-monopolizing, life-patenting, food-controlling colossus many have rechristened 'Monsatan.'

That dark image wasn't helped by its recent push to get the comically named Safe and Accurate Food Labelling (SAFE) Act through Congress. Opponents shrewdly renamed it the 'Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act' because it would've nullified state-level GMO labelling laws in favour of a national, 'voluntary' labelling standard. Perhaps it's not surprising that the SAFE/DARK Act failed in an election year.

The public simply isn't on board the GMO train

A Pew Research Centre survey found that 57% of Americans think "GM foods are generally unsafe to eat." And a survey by Consumer Reports found "more than 70% of Americans say they don't want genetically modified organisms in their food." But Monsanto keeps pushing GM food through the approval process in spite of widespread public revulsion and vitriol.

Understanding this 'Monsanto Mania,' as journalist Lee Allen aptly termed it, is a zero-sum game. Allen points out that Monsanto's status as hero or villain depends on "who's wielding the paintbrush." More to the point, "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."

Bill Nye echoed their enthusiasm after his infamous 'Come to Monsanto' moment. Despite years of scepticism, the beloved Science Guy now believes GM crops hold the promise of safely meeting the growing demand for food in a rapidly changing climate.

He joins 88% of scientists recently surveyed by the Pew Research Centre who believe "GM foods are generally safe to eat." There is actual hard science that seems to support their comfort, including a much-cited 'trillion meal study' based on 29 years of animals 'safely' eating GM feed.

However, a defiant article published last year in a peer-reviewed journal points out that there is no epidemiological data to support the 'trillion meal' hypothesis nor do most studies even gather the type of toxicological data needed to properly assess risk. And it bluntly states that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety outside of an "internal circle of stakeholders." As a key influencer, Bill Nye is now one of those stakeholders.

The Science Guy spoke about his conversion in Monsanto's experimental greenhouse after it gave him the tools to assemble his own genetically engineered 'foster grand-plants' in its high-tech laboratory. Let's face it, if you're a scientist it must be intoxicating to go into a lab and cook up a whole new form of life. Nye sure thought so. And so do the other stakeholders who benefit from practicing Monsanto's patented brand of science.

Who is Monsanto, anyway?

Monsanto certainly has its fair share of faceless 'suits'. They are the lawyers, lobbyists, salespeople and business-schooled bottom-liners who make such easy targets for critics of corporate greed.

The company's board of directors certainly is a target-rich environment with a former CEO of Peabody Energy, a professor of economics, a former president of McDonald's, the CFO of Procter & Gamble, a retired CEO of Sara Lee Corporation and, just for kicks, a retired CEO of Lockheed Martin among its members.

Additionally, just four of Monsanto's 12 executives have science degrees, but of those four, two also happen to be Monsanto's biggest wigs. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant has a degree in molecular biology and an annual compensation package worth nearly $12 million.

Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Robert T. Fraley holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry, received the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 1999 and received the World Food Prize in 2013. He earns a tidy $3.4 million for his efforts.

In fact, Fraley was literally present at the creation of the first GM plant cell in a Belgian laboratory in 1982. Now, as Monsanto's lead scientist, he directs a staff of 5,000 researchers who earn an average of $96,638 per year. So, who are these well-paid scientists who do the gene-altering, chemical-concocting work that makes Monsanto go?

Well, you are cordially invited to meet them on Monsanto's well-designed website. As it happily points out, Monsanto employs "a diverse group of thinkers with one common goal: helping to make a balanced meal accessible." Sounds great, right? Monsanto even has a YouTube page brimming with professionally produced videos and, if you're curious, you can find out why Laura - a geneticist and mom - works at Monsanto.

As Laura quite earnestly points out, she and her fellow scientists just want to "improve the seeds that the farmers are planting." Oddly enough, Laura fails to mention that the seeds need to be 'improved' because the plants will die if they're not genetically altered to withstand Monsanto's flagship product - Roundup.

Monsanto and the money-making industry

And therein lies the rub. Monsanto's scientists are not engineering seeds that generate extra seeds so farmers can expand planting during the next season or even eat during times of famine. That would certainly help African farmers who lack seeds, and assist Indian farmers struggling to afford Monsanto's seed monopoly.

Instead, the company developed a 'Terminator gene' that rendered offspring seeds infertile. Monsanto says it will never commercialize this "genetic use restriction technology," which is good news. The bad news is that Monsanto can afford to keep that ace in the hole so long as its patents are enforced and farmers keep buying its pricey, patented seeds - and the herbicide those seeds are built upon.

What's more, Monsanto's 'white hats' in the white coats are not working on 'open-source' drought-resistant crops for cash-starved farmers in poor nations. They are not working on 'open-source' technologies to increase yields for a growing global population. No, they get paid to produce proprietary products for a profit-making company that ruthlessly enforces its monopoly.

They can argue that this is 'science' and 'progress.' And they might point out that science is expensive. Patents help pay for the innovations that will 'feed the world.' Sadly, their science isn't really about true 'sustainability.' It's about sustaining an otherwise unsustainable agrochemical model that denudes soil, poisons water and stokes counter-evolutionary responses from Mother Nature.

It's not 'pure science.' It's a business model. Frankly, Monsanto's 'innovations' wouldn't be needed if its scientists weren't perfecting poison and playing poker with evolution. And now they're doubling down with a sci-fi-sounding surfactant that could literally change life with one simple spray.

Resistance is (almost) futile

Monsanto is upgrading the Borg. It's called the 'BioDirect' initiative and it will eliminate costly resistance to glyphosate, eradicate vexingly resilient insects with biopesticides and even modify the genetic code of a plant by simply spritzing it with an RNA-infused surfactant spray.

The technology is called 'RNA interference' (RNAi) and it heralds a brave new world of profitability for agrochemical corporations. It also opens a Pandora's Box full of as-yet unanswered ethical questions about genetic drift, patenting plants on the fly and, most ominously, whether RNAi can, should or will be weaponized like another Monsanto product - Agent Orange.

RNAi technology hijacks DNA's messenger system - the ribonucleic acid (RNA) that carries out DNA's instructions. In effect, RNAi sends human-made messages that can, in turn, alter or kill its target by scrambling cellular functions, turning off organs, dropping resistance to a herbicide (glyphosate) or altering the DNA's command system to produce an artificial gene expression.

BioDirect is an end run around the DNA-altering process Monsanto used to create Roundup Ready crops and 'Bt' corn and cotton. Bt-infused crops have the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin built directly into the plant. That toxic protein kills hungry insects. But, like Roundup-doused weeds, insects are developing resistance to Bt crops.

Whether it's lice in Texas, bacteria in India or super-weeds choking American farms, resistance to human-made poison is literally a textbook response by Mother Nature. Now this predictable evolutionary response is casting a pall over the agribusiness model.

The Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that the super-weed 'plague' overshadows "60 million acres of U.S. cropland" and is "wreaking environmental havoc, driving up farmers' costs and prompting them to resort to more toxic weed-killers." Even worse, scientists at the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds found "467 unique cases of herbicide resistant weeds globally" and that weeds evolved resistance to "160 different herbicides" in "86 crops in 66 countries."

So here's the upshot: Using poison causes the farmers using the poison to have to buy ever-more toxic poison to deal with the resistance caused by the use of poison. Go figure. Of course, Monsanto's scientists assured the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1993 that glyphosate posed a "low risk for weed resistance."

RNAi and the unknown

Now, instead of conceding and working with nature, they are counterattacking with RNAi technology. Why? Because sales are flagging. The market is literally oversaturated with glyphosate. And Monsanto wants to extend the life and profitability of Roundup by knocking out resistance at the cellular level.

As a result, we face the unknown consequences of introducing a tidal wave of RNA into ecosystems that are not adapted to a sudden influx of genetic messages. Just think about that for a minute. Antonio Regalado pointed out in MIT Technology Review, "RNA may be natural ... but introducing large amounts of targeted RNA molecules into the environment is not."

The USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have already signed off on RNAi apples engineered by a Canadian company and although Monsanto is still awaiting approval, a 2014 statement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that their RNAi may already be baked into your cake:

"Indications are that the majority, if not all, orally administered [RNAi] ... is degraded by the acid environment of the stomach and the action of pancreatic RNases." (RNases are enzymes that dismantle RNA molecules).

The EPA believes this should "lessen the probability" that RNAi will survive digestion and trigger responses in the consumer eating the material. The EPA does note, however, that "questions remain" about the survival of RNAi past the acid and enzymes in the human gut, but claims that "a number of reports" indicate it is unlikely, including "a paper co-authored by Monsanto researchers."

With Monsanto's scientists pushing favourable papers at the EPA and with farmers who are supportive of agrochemical options clamouring for new GMO herbicide technology, it sure seems like resistance to their solution to glyphosate resistance is futile.

A killer business model

How does the 'Great Monsatan' persist in spite of widespread antipathy in Europe, Africa, India, South America and the United States? The simple fact is that Monsanto's power is based on transactions. Monsanto's model relies on transactions with industrial-scale agribusinesses running on a treadmill of petrochemical-based fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Its de facto monopoly forces farmers around the world into transactions as they struggle to compete with industrial-scale farming, super-weeds and seed scarcity. Monsanto negotiates transactions with political players in both parties who, in turn, drive regulatory agencies like a giant corporate-government combine that harvests short-term profits - future fallowness be damned.

There is the key transaction with convenience-minded consumers who've helped make Roundup weed killer quite literally a household name. It's a subtle psychological 'buy-in' that gets a little herbicide on everybody's hands. And then there are the transactions with Monsanto's own scientists who make a killing off of the killing.

And Big Agrochemical - much like Big Oil and Big Tobacco - actively purchases consensus by funding academic studies, public interest groups, high-profile 'experts,' key influencers and media outlets.

Crucial are the 'independent' scientists and academics who tout the whiz-bang wonders of GMOs, while also enjoying Monsanto's largess. It's a practice Monsanto employed in the 1980s when it was under fire for the toxic, mutagenic effects of Agent Orange.

It took four decades for the World Health Organization (WHO) to list glyphosate as a 'probable' carcinogen. Interestingly enough, the EPA listed glyphosate as a possible carcinogen from 1985 to 1991. But that was reversed - some believe 'mysteriously' - when the science was called into question. Now Monsanto's multimillionaire CEO Hugh Grant predictably questions the WHO's science. And finally the FDA has been spurred into testing for glyphosate in food.

It shouldn't be hard to find glyphosate

Glyphosate has shown up in nearly everything, including: German beers, German dairy cows, actual Germans, French panty liners and tampons, a shocking number of American waterways, 75% of air and rain samples in Mississippi and, quite predictably, in 'high levels' on 70% of genetically modified soy.

As Douglas Main reported in Newsweek, humans have used enough glyphosate "to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world."

Meanwhile, as the debate rages over genetically modified food, the real issue is whether or not the next best move after drenching the planet in pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is to then start pumping out RNAi bio-pesticides and spraying RNAi messages onto plants. But that's a debate we're not having.

Sadly, this non-debate reflects a casual willingness to use poison that ultimately drives the entire agrochemical model. Monsanto is banking on the farmers who escalate their war on their own fields and on the trigger-happy consumers who don't realize that convenience is their true enemy.

Most importantly of all, Monsanto's power comes from the scientists who should know better than to relentlessly challenge Mother Nature to an evolutionary showdown.

It's a no-win situation - unless, of course, you're one of Monsanto's well-paid stakeholders.



JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, published historian, radio co-host and documentary filmmaker (The Warning, 2008). His credits include a stint on the Newshour news desk, C-SPAN and as newsmagazine producer for ABC affiliate WJLA in Washington. His weekly show 'Inside the Headlines With The Newsvandal' co-hosted by James Moore airs every Friday on KRUU-FM in Fairfield, Iowa. He blogs at 'Newsvandal'.

This article was originally published by Truthout. Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

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