A battle of corporate profit vs people’s needs has been fought out at the European Union over the past two days as heated negotiations took place about the re-licencing of a chemical that probably causes cancer in humans. It just so happens that this very same chemical makes millions in profit for the giant chemical and seed company Monsanto.
For now, neither side has emerged victorious as the decision about whether to relicense glyphosate, which was due to be voted on today, has been postponed until May. The news of postponement would have come as a particular blow to Monsanto who have a lot at stake - glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship product Roundup, the world’s most widely sprayed weed-killer and the product responsible for one third of Monsanto’s total earnings.
"This resistance to one of Monsanto’s key chemicals goes beyond Europe with hundreds of bans, restrictions and campaigns across the world."
It is used everywhere from our gardens, local parks and school playgrounds to our food, clothes and cosmetic products. In the last ten years 6,133million kilos have been sprayed globally and its use is rapidly increasing. Glyphosate is now so widespread that traces can be found in one out of every three loaves of bread consumed in the UK, it appears in all of Germany's top 14 beers and it recently made headlines after being identified in numerous feminine hygiene products across Europe.
For those of us who take seriously the public's wellbeing, and are less interested in Monsanto's profit margins, the pending decision about whether or not to relicense glyphosate for another 15 years has a lot resting on it.
Concerns about the safety of glyphosate were corroborated by the World Health Organisation’s 2015 breakthrough study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
This serious threat to public health was behind the decision of a number of member states including France, Sweden and Italy to announce in recent days that they would be voting against the relicensing of glyphosate. It also drove 1.5million people to sign Avaaz’s petition urging the EU not to relicense it.
This resistance to one of Monsanto’s key chemicals goes beyond Europe with hundreds of bans, restrictions and campaigns across the world. From countries such as Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Colombia either banning or restricting its use, to local communities in New York and California banning it from their public spaces.
Instead of following suit and taking steps to protect all European citizens from this chemical, the EU called for its own European Food Standard Agency (EFSA) to carry out an alternative study. Their conclusions reject the WHO's findings and claim glyphosate is in fact safe for humans.
Having two studies with such conflicting conclusions is confusing for anyone who simply wants to avoid eating food that has been sprayed with cancer causing chemicals, or just wants to avoid using toxic products in their gardens. But what makes it worse is that this can’t be resolved by a simple process like having independent scientists re-visit the two studies, or even allow people to compare the two and make a decision themselves. This is because of EFSA's insistence that the data used in their study remains strictly secret and unavailable for any external scrutiny. The secretive study has also kept anonymous the names of the researchers. This makes it impossible to know whether any conflicted interests were at stake, which is particularly worrying given that EFSA's research into product safety are well known to be reliant on industry sponsored studies.
This is all in stark contrast to the WHO study which has made public all its data and named all the scientists involved.
It was this scandalous lack of transparency that triggered some 96 prominent scientists to write a fierce letter calling for the EFSA findings to be disregarded.
You don't need to be an expert in scientific research to find it mind boggling that the European Commission wants to make a decision, with such serious implications for people's health, on the conclusions of a secret study while disregarding the WHO findings. The sensible thing to do, if of course the main concern is public wellbeing, would be to exercise the precautionary principle and stop the use of glyphosate once and for all.
While it is notoriously difficult to unravel the specific details of the secretive way in which Monsanto works in influencing these decisions, they are well known for exerting power behind closed doors via lobbying groups such as the European Association for Bioindustries (Europabio), the Crop Protection Association and the glyphosate Task Force. According to lobbying monitor group Corporate Europe Observatory Monsanto's lobbying activities in Europe are "hidden, secretive and dirty”
If approved, the implications go beyond Europe and beyond Roundup. If global leaders can continue to approve Monsanto’s products despite serious public health concerns, and based on secret evidence, then we need to be seriously worried because Monsanto currently positions itself as the global expert on sustainable food production. It is among a handful of large companies in the agriculture industry who are increasingly pitted as the solution to feeding the world’s growing population. A reputation that Monsanto fiercely defends with slick PR campaigns, and a £90 million annual advertising budget.
"Monsanto needs to be stopped, the health of the world literally depends on it."
Monsanto is hugely influential in global food and agricultural policy, it is regularly given a platform at the UN's Food and Agriculture body (FAO) and is involved in numerous international agricultural projects and agreements, increasingly including those related to Africa. It is a part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and GROW Africa. Under the guise of being development projects, these schemes have actually helped Monsanto expand its African markets and have enforced drastic changes to laws and policies in order to ensure more favourable business environments for Monsanto and their friends.
Like in Europe, Monsanto's Africa division benefits from new rules passed by regional governmental bodies that help keep Monsanto's business booming. Such was the case with the little reported but hugely controversial 2015 Arusha Protocols - an agreement that enforces strict new legislation that is essentially about the commercialisation of seeds. It gives new rights to private seed breeders and companies (like Monsanto) while criminalising traditional farming practices of swapping and saving seeds, which is devastating for small-scale farmers. As expected in such negotiations, Monsanto weren't named at the table but were very much present through their membership of the African Seed Trade Association who had a heavy presence.
This pattern of Monsanto lurking behind decision makers as they take important decisions regarding our food and agriculture needs to end if we want a food system that puts the needs of people before profit. Monsanto needs to be stopped, the health of the world literally depends on it. This is our opportunity to do just that – let’s stop this relicensing and stop Monsanto.