Five international judges say Monsanto’s activities have negatively affected food availability for individuals and communities. Claire Robinson reports
Monsanto promotes its genetically modified (GM) crops and associated pesticides on the claimed grounds that they are needed to help “feed the world”.
But the five judges of the Monsanto Tribunal found that far from contributing to food security, Monsanto’s activities have “negatively affected food availability for individuals and communities”.
The judges of the Tribunal, held last October in The Hague, listened to the testimony of 28 witnesses from around the world whose health and livelihoods had suffered as a result of Monsanto’s products and activities.
The judges are all renowned for their expertise in human rights and international law issues. They were led by the Belgian Françoise Tulkens, former vice-president of the European Court of Human Rights.
On 18 April the Monsanto Tribunal judges announced their damning verdict, based on a number of considerations.
First, the judges found that Monsanto had interfered with the ability of individuals and communities to feed themselves directly from productive land.
The judges said, “Monsanto’s activities have caused and are causing damages to the soil, water and generally to the environment, thereby reducing the productive possibilities for the production of adequate food.
They added, “Communal agricultural activities as well as forests that provide food resources are being devastated by the spread of genetically engineered seeds that use large amounts of herbicides like glyphosate. These activities by Monsanto are interfering with the right to produce food.”
Aims and scope of the Monsanto Tribunal
The verdicts of opinion tribunals such as the Monsanto Tribunal are not legally binding. Such tribunals are tasked with examining the rules of law applicable to problematic events or situations that directly affect and are of serious concern to individuals, groups, or society as a whole. Their objective is twofold: to alert public opinion, stakeholders and policy-makers to acts considered unacceptable and unjustifiable under legal standards; and to contribute to the advancement of national and international law.
The Tribunal judges stated that they had no reason to doubt the sincerity or veracity of those who volunteered to testify before it. But, because their testimony was not given under oath or tested by cross-examination, and because Monsanto declined to participate in the proceedings, the Tribunal was not in a position to make findings of fact concerning the allegations of various company misdeeds. Rather, for the purpose of answering the questions posed for the Tribunal’s consideration, the Tribunal assumed that the facts and circumstances described by the witnesses would be proven in a court of law.
Monsanto denies farmers access to seeds
Furthermore, the judges said that Monsanto is interfering with the right to food by denying peasant farmers access to seeds.
Farmers in countries that adopted GMO crops have seen their seed choices restricted. Non-GMO seeds are being withdrawn from the market, leading to a decreased choice of seeds.
The judges added, “The use of GMOs all around the world is undermining the ability of farmers to access seeds and damaging agricultural production by communities. This situation is also affecting food sovereignty, which implies priority of people’s right to food and food production, rather than corporate interests.”
Monsanto’s activities also threaten biodiversity, the judges said, as an increasing number of farmers use the same GMO seeds to grow the same monocrops. The judges commented, “By reducing crop biodiversity and local plants, Monsanto has interfered with the right to food and is moreover aggravating the risks of food security and undermining the resilience of local food production systems.”
Another dimension of the right to food that was exposed by the witnesses was the impact of GMO seeds on farmers’ property rights. For example, farmers who have not bought or intentionally used Monsanto’ seeds have had their fields or crops contaminated by GMOs. In some cases, farmers have been forced to pay royalties to Monsanto and have been unable to sell their products as organic or free from GMOs. The judges added, “Monsanto has aggressively pursued intimidation tactics that have damaged the fabric of communities and caused great anxiety and mental affliction.”
Patents on seeds contradict human rights
In a blistering condemnation of patents on seeds, the judges said that these “are in contradiction with the principle of human right to food which guarantees access to nutrition, the basic need for every human to exist. Intellectual property rights should be rightfully respected, but when companies are taking hold of sources of nutrition, [this should be] under closer scrutiny.”
Seed saving threatened by aggressive marketing of GMO seeds
The judges noted that the “aggressive marketing of GMO seeds” has “interfered with the right to food by forcing farming methods that do not respect traditional cultural practices.”
They explained, “Farmers that have fallen prey to Monsanto’s aggressive and misleading tactics have been forced to buy seeds every year and have lost the ability to save seeds. Since the advent of agriculture thousands of years ago, farmers have been saving seeds for cultivation the next season. This cultural practice has allowed for diversity and resilience in periods of drought or against pests. But the spread of GMO seeds by Monsanto has denied farmers the ability to practice agriculture according to their traditional cultural practices. A non-commercial seeds system must exist and expand, ensuring that farmers have the ability to preserve their traditional knowledge.”
Widening the perspective beyond Monsanto alone, the judges stated that “Today’s dominant agro-industrial model is highly problematic, not only because it is dependent on dangerous chemicals, but also due to its negative effects on climate change, its impact on the loss of biodiversity, and its inability to ensure food sovereignty.”
Monsanto’s activities could constitute ecocide
The judges considered whether Monsanto could be held liable for the crime of ecocide – defined as causing substantive and lasting damage to biodiversity and ecosystems, affecting the life and the health of human populations – if it were recognized in international criminal law. They decided that the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide, based on (among other actions) the company’s introduction of large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture; the production and release of genetically engineered crops, which expose communities and individuals to the risks of increased pesticide and herbicide use; and severe contamination of plant diversity, soils, and water.
Another future is possible
The judges pointed out that an alternative farming future to the agro-industrial model is not only desirable but also practical. Referring to the UN- and World Bank-sponsored IAASTD report on the future of farming, the judges said: “A rise in organic agricultural practices in many places illustrates that farming with less, or without, pesticides, herbicides, and other dangerous chemicals is feasible. Studies have indicated that agroecology is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world population and ensure that people are adequately nourished.”
In conclusion, the five eminent judges of the Monsanto Tribunal found that Monsanto has:
• interfered with people’s right to feed themselves from the land
• contaminated soil and water, thus reducing the potential for the production of food
• undermined farmer access to seeds by genetically modifying and patenting seeds, which cannot be saved but which have to be bought anew each year
• promoted the growth of GMO monocultures, which damage biodiversity and undermine the resilience of local food production systems
• introduced the large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals along with the GM crops that depend on them, thus exposing people and the environment to increased amounts of health-threatening pesticides.
Most damning of all is the judges’ conclusion that none of these tragic developments are necessary, as the world can feed itself using agroecological methods.
1. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Agriculture at a Crossroads – Synthesis Report, Washington-Covelo-London, Island Press, 2009.