Canadian review: The World According to Monsanto
Montreal Mirror, May 22-28 2008
The World According to Monsanto investigates the disturbing practices of an agricultural giant
Journalist Marie-Monique Robin takes on a farm industry supervillain in her damning documentary The World According to Monsanto
FARM ALARM: The World According to Monsanto
by MALCOLM FRASER
In last year's Michael Clayton, George Clooney's character did legal work for a sinister chemical company who disguised their nefarious efforts as environmentally friendly altruism. A key plot point was a secret document showing that the company knew their product contained toxic ingredients that caused disease. When the document was revealed, I remember thinking that it was a bit obvious, a little too convenient for something to turn up that spells everything out in black and white.
But when I saw the new documentary The World According to Monsanto, an NFB co-production which details the exploits of a real-life industrial multinational, I was stunned to see that many such documents exist in real life, laying out in plain language the toxicity of the materials that go into much of the food we eat. The extent of the Monsanto corporation’s evildoing, and how they’ve been able to get away with it for so long, is the subject of the scrupulous, thorough and damning new film from French director Marie-Monique Robin, who’s published a companion book of the same title.
As the film explains, Monsanto started out as an old-fashioned chemical company, in the space-age days of "better living through chemistry." Among its best-known products were Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant used in the Vietnam War, and PCBs, the nasty compound of highly toxic and polluting chemicals used in industrial coolants until they were banned in the ’70s.
Today, the company is best known for its agricultural products””notably Roundup, a widely used herbicide and insecticide””and for the large-scale proliferation of transgenic (genetically modified) crops, many of which are designed to be “Roundup-ready” in order to survive heavy spraying. As Robin shows, between Monsanto’s corporate power and their aggressive use of patent legislation, farming areas that adopt these practices are soon overtaken, with conventional crops being superseded and replaced by their transgenic cousins.
Many voices of authority publicly shrug all this off, chalking it up to the march of scientific progress. Amazingly, though, Monsanto has also succeeded in having its GMOs approved by the U.S. and other governments (including our own) without any scientific testing. The film explains how, and takes the viewer around the world and through the last 80 years of history, showing Monsanto’s efforts at global domination and the effect they’ve had on small-scale farmers.
After watching it and trying to absorb its mountainous information and unsettling message, I spoke to Robin on the phone from France. Some people speak in paragraphs; she speaks in pages, unloading a deluge of data in rapid-fire, Parisian-accented French. “I’ve been a reporter for 25 years,” she says when asked about the roots of the film. “I’m very interested in agriculture, in particular because I’m a farmer’s daughter. So it’s a subject I know quite well, and I’ve made films about agriculture just about everywhere in the world. About five years ago, I proposed three films to Arte, the German-French TV channel, about the issue of biodiversity.”
The three docs, about transgenic food, the history of wheat and the Argentinian soy-farming industry, ended up having an unexpected common thread. “Each time, Monsanto was involved,” Robin recalls. “So one day, I said to Arte, ‘Everywhere I go in the world, they talk to me about Monsanto. It would be interesting to make a portrait of this company.’”
The film has quite an odd structure, built around Robin sitting at her computer looking up information on Google. She’d never appeared onscreen before” in fact, in general I make a point of not being seen,” she laughs. The decision was made for two reasons. “A great number of the company’s declassified documents are available online, because there have been a lot of lawsuits, so at some point they all became public””the reports and studies that the whistleblowers exposed,” Robin explains.
“So I dove in, and started finding out how they had hidden data, lied, manipulated””it’s incredible. When I told this to Arte, they thought it would be interesting to show how all this stuff is available. If you want, you can check it all.”
“The other reason is something my lawyer told me: that it protects me from Monsanto,” she continues. “The way it’s done is very difficult to attack, because in fact, I don’t say anything. I’m just saying ‘look at this, look at that,’ and going to read the documents”¦ all the lawyers who’ve seen it say that [Monsanto] couldn’t really do anything about it, because it’s very well documented and sourced.
“What was complicated was getting people to talk. There are some people who it was a miracle to get on camera.” A couple of particular scoops are Clinton-era Food and Drug Administration officials who candidly, if at times reluctantly, admit that they gave official approval to GMOs under political pressure. “James Maryanski from the FDA, who’s never spoken about this in his life, spoke to me. And obviously he didn’t know what he was getting into””I think he just expected some French woman who didn’t know much about anything, and who would be easy to convince that there were no problems with GMOs. But I had all the declassified documents in hand. And in the interview, you can see him get quite unsettled.”
Indeed, Robin’s persona””a rumpled middle-aged woman with funky-mom fashion and a thick French accent””masks a deadly serious journalist determined to hunt down the truth. Monsanto’s argument to the FDA was based on the “principle of substantial equivalence,” the notion that GMOs are no different in content than conventional foods. “What I show in the film and the book,” says Robin, “is the scientific invalidity” of this principle.
“There was nothing scientific about it, absolutely nothing. It was a matter of approving GMOs very rapidly, which Monsanto was behind””with Michael Taylor acting as a lawyer for the FDA, who later became the vice president of Monsanto.” (The film details the revolving door between the U.S. government and Monsanto’s executive board, Donald Rumsfeld being the most high-profile example).
“And all the international regulations followed from this FDA decision, which means that the GMOs in your fields are Monsanto GMOs, 70 per cent of which are resistant to Roundup [and therefore] contain insecticide. They’ve never been tested. We’ve never tested the impact on food safety!” she exclaims. “In the United States, there’s been an explosion in food allergies in the last 10 years. One hypothesis is that it’s because of GMOs. But we don’t know, because there’s no way of tracing it!”
After seeing the film, I felt enlightened but also depressed, powerless before Monsanto’s iron rule. I asked Robin what we, as consumers and citizens, can do to make a change. “There are plenty of things you can do, but you have to act fast,” she answers without hesitation. “The first thing you have to do, as Canadian consumers, is what we Europeans have already done”¦ which is labelling of [foods containing] GMOs.
“Twenty-two studies since the existence of GMOs show that 80 per cent of consumers want to have them labelled, so if consumers got what they wanted, and could choose like us, that would be the end of GMOs.”
The film’s less than glamorous subject, unabashed political stance, peculiar structure and demanding load of information could well scare the average viewer away. But it’s a film that should be seen as widely as possible, particularly by people who don’t think much about this kind of thing””drag them out if you have to.
As Robin concludes on a hopeful note: “What I’ve seen in touring the world is that there are more and more people who are aware that food, which is the basis of life, after all, is something we need to reclaim, to know what we have on our plate.”
The World According to Monsanto opens this Friday, May 23.