How to investigate Monsanto?
For Arte, journalist Marie-Monique Robin has got up close to global leader in GMOs, Monsanto. Risky...
Francois Ekchajzer for Telerama
The telephone keeps ringing of late at Marie-Monique Robin's house and e-mail messages have been inundating her inbox. That's a sign of the rising tension in the build up to the broadcast on Arte of her latest documentary, a massive investigation into Monsanto, and the first on this scale to show the pernicious practices of the St Louis Missouri-based agrochemical firm which heavily controls its communications.
On Monsanto's French website there's no mention of PCBs (a synthetic oil, the toxicity of which Monsanto hid for decades), dioxin (an ingredient of agent orange which created millions of victims during the Vietnam war), or bovine growth hormone (suspected of increasing the risk of cancer in those who consume the milk). But these three items are very much present on the rest of the Web, which abounds in accusatory pages and damning material, carefully investigated by Marie-Monique Robin over months of checking out the Web. 'It's the first time I've built up an entire investigation solely on the basis of Internet research,' explains this journalist-in-the-field, honoured in 1995 with the Albert Londres prize. 'I devoted days and nights to it, and I couldn't believe how all the information is there, starting with a mass of declassified documents placed online at the end of lawsuits against Monsanto.'
This investigation, revolving around scenes where we see Marie-Monique Robin at the computer, which allow the TV viewer to feel closely involved, was conducted in many parts of the world: from the town of Anniston, Alabama, polluted by chemicals; to cotton farms in India and GM soya fields in Paraguay; to the hidden sides of the American government, contaminated by the firm's frenetic lobbying.
For the journalist, making the Internet a focal point was also a way of protecting herself against Monsanto 'by showing the material on which each of the statements made in the film are based.' The viewer's thus free to check out each of the film's assertions at the click of a mouse, or even to retrace her investigation step-by-step. It's a meticulous enquiry, started three years ago, but whose roots lie even deeper, in the soil of her family history.
The daughter of farmers engaged in the Christian youth farm movement, Marie-Monique Robin grew up on a farm in Deux-Sevres. 'I am well placed to understand why farmers have embarked on growing GMOs. I've seen my parents move from one type of production to another, when prices collapsed. I saw the fields empty, the absurdity of milk quotas, the process of industrialization of agriculture in motion ... Together with human rights, agriculture is what led me to journalism.' Then came five years in Germany, 'at the time that the Greens were inventing a political ecology,' and an experience within a 'solidarity brigade' in the Nicaraguan Sandinistas confirmed her vocation.
In addition to major sensational investigations on the trafficking in human organs (Organ Thieves, 1996) and the export into Latin America of 'antisubversive' techniques tested in Indochina and Algeria (Death squads: the French school, 2OO3) Marie-Monique Robin has devoted numerous reports to the farming world. Frequently coming across the results of its actions, the shadow of Monsanto logically ended by leading her to Saint Louis, the century-old home of the firm.
Asking for an interview with its directors, she was told that her past had been probed via the Internet - 'We have Googled you.' That dissuaded them from participating in her documentary - 'We suspect that this would not be positive for us.' The World According to Monsanto presents, in fact, a damning picture of the methods used by the company to dominate the world's agricultural production: interference (official or hidden) in government, deliberate lies about the toxicity of certain products, and pressure on those who threaten its interests in the name of human health.
To do this, Monsanto uses the infinite possibilities of the Internet. 'We must think of the Internet as a weapon on the table,' confessed Jay Byrne, who was formerly responsible for Monsanto's Internet strategy. 'If you don't pick it up, your competitor will.' In order to counter a scientific study that established the transgenic contamination of Mexican maize in Oaxaca, Monsanto went as far as manufacturing emails from fictitious characters in order to seriously discredit the authors of the study. The trickery was finally unmasked at the end of a lengthy investigation by the Englishman Jonathan Matthews, founder of the anti-GM website gmwatch.org.
On the eve of the release of her documentary and the publication of her accompanying book, Marie-Monique Robin monitors the Web each day, fearing to discover through a search engine some twisted, slanderous attack, or even an exhumation of the accusation of 'fraud' that was used to unfairly smear her at the time of Organ Thieves but which failed to make her give up journalism. Unless the colossus of St Louis prefers to exert pressure of a different sort. Just as it pushed the American channel Fox News to pull a report on its GM hormone, to avoid losing its advertising contracts on the herbicide Roundup and the sweetener NutraSweet. As far as Arte, which does not broadcast commercials, is concerned, the risk would be at the level of lawsuits - a threat that discouraged more than one channel to which the project was proposed.
By supporting the dissemination of The World According to Monsanto and by creating a striking web presence, the Franco-German channel is signalling its resolve to fully occupy the field of investigation. It maintains, at the same time, an opposition movement amplified by putting online a more important site, which was initiated by the Association of Sherpa jurists [Sherpa is a French network of jurists dedicated to promote corporate social responsibility] summoned to counter, point by point, disinformation orchestrated by the GM giant (www.world-of-monsanto.org). One way to oppose the lies transmitted on the Internet is a militant use of the net.