What Montrealers are protesting on Saturday

Monsanto, which more than 30 years ago became the first company to genetically modify a plant cell, may have cornered our food market. This weekend, Montreal will be but one of many cities protesting the firm.

What’s growing here may not be good. Photo via Flickr

One of the traits of modern man is our ability to blithely ignore where our food comes from. Few of us are hunters or gatherers anymore — we are mere consumers who demand our food be quick, cheap and require as little thinking as possible. Whether it’s meat or mangoes, fish or fowl, oats or spelt, most of our sustenance makes it onto our plates and into our mouths without a second’s thought.

This Saturday — at 2 p.m. in Dorchester Square and in hundreds of cities around the world — activists will be trying to challenge that willful blindness. They will attempt to open our eyes to the threat posed by genetically modified foods (GMOs) and, more specifically, the efforts of one corporate giant to control those foods and monopolize a huge segment of the world’s agricultural production.

If you’ve driven near any farmland in the last decade, you must have noticed the rows and rows of signs indicating that the corn, canola or soybean crops are the offspring of Monsanto, a chemical company that 60 years ago was mostly selling plastics and paints  — as well as DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange. (For the record, my father worked as a chemical engineer for Monsanto at its LaSalle plant until an explosion levelled the facility in 1966, killing 11 workers.)

Starting in the 1980s, Monsanto began to shift its focus to food production, and in 1982 it became the first company to genetically modify a plant cell, heralding the birth of a new technology. By the end of the century, the “original Monsanto” had morphed into the Pharmacia (drug) Corporation, while the “new Monsanto” shed its dark, lawsuit-littered past and emerged, like a butterfly, as the farmer’s newfound friend.

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Corn, canola, soy. It’s hard to find three more ubiquitous components of the modern, processed and fast-food diet. They are in practically everything we eat, from apple pie to veggie burgers, from pablum to pasta. In Canada, 97 per cent of the canola we grow comes from plants patented by Monsanto. And what about soy, corn and sugar beets? “Canadians can’t track data on other GM crops because our government doesn’t gather these statistics,” says Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. Surprise, surprise — just one more thing the Tories don’t want scientists to measure.

So GMO is seemingly everywhere. You wouldn’t know that from the labels on your food, however, because Monsanto has been very successful in convincing our governments that we really don’t need to know when we’re eating GMO products. It might scare us into not eating those foods, thereby scaring producers into not buying corn, canola or soy from Monsanto seeds.

But the labelling debate is a bit of a red herring these days. It would be much simpler to label products that don’t contain GMOs, because there are so few of them. Even the organic food industry has confessed that modified genes often work their way into the eco-friendly food chain due to cross-contamination from Monsanto’s seeds. An estimated 70 per cent of processed foods contain GMOs, and that doesn’t include meat from animals that ate GMO plants drenched in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Ève Lamont — a Quebec filmmaker whose Pas de pays sans paysans (2005) compared the treatment of the GMO issues in Canada and Europe — says the burgeoning Quebec protest movement she documented eight years ago has become much quieter. The scientific whistleblowers she interviewed for the film were among the first harbingers of Harper’s now widespread science-muzzling agenda.  With companies like Monsanto now responsible for evaluating the safety of their own products, Lamont says we’ve “put the foxes in charge of the hen house.”

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Even if you argue that the health risks of eating GM food are unproven (the safety of GMOs hasn’t been proven either), you’ve got to be worried about Monsanto’s lock on key sectors of our food network. Here’s how it works:

Monsanto sells its “Roundup-ready” seeds to the farmer, who will be sued if she tries to re-use these patent-protected seeds. Then it sells her Roundup, which is designed to kill pretty much everything except the Monsanto plant. The following season, she buys more seeds and increases her Roundup purchase because — like over-prescribed antibiotics — it’s not working so well anymore as the weeds develop resistance.

Why doesn’t she just buy seeds from somewhere else? Because now that her land has been used to grow Monsanto crops, it’s most assuredly contaminated with GMO seed. Her next crop of non-Monsanto soy will contain Monsanto plants and, once more, the “farmer’s friend” will threaten to sue her ass off.

Even farmers who have never used GMO seeds have been sued by Monsanto because of plants that grew from seeds blown in from a neighbour’s field! It’s a little like being sued by a neighbour because his dog bit you in your own yard.

Unlike in Europe, where anti-GMO movements have led governments to ban their use, the Canadian population is largely ignorant of the bigger issues. A poll for the B.C. Greenhouse Growers’ Association found that 76 per cent of Canadians think the federal government hasn’t provided enough information on GM foods, while nine per cent didn’t even know what GM foods are.

Saturday’s protests aren’t going to bring Monsanto to its knees, but they will hopefully catch the attention of a public woefully unaware of how a single multinational corporation is cornering the market on food. Today it’s soy and corn, but patents for apples, potatoes and wheat are waiting in the wings.

We are being force fed by a company that has co-opted governments and bullied farmers into submission. If we don’t stop it now, we’re in for a hell of a case of indigestion. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every second Tuesday in this space. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

Correction: A previous version of this story implied that Stephen Harper was prime minister during the making of Pas de pays sans paysans. Harper only took power in 2006, the year after the film was released.

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