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Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: The World According to Monsanto

You don't have to be an expert on global food systems to be familiar with Monsanto, a seed and chemical corporation whose stated goal is to "advance scientific knowledge and understanding, improve agriculture and the environment... and help farmers." It sure sounds nice, until you delve into the seemingly endless controversy surrounding the company. Two years ago, French journalist Marie-Monique Robin spent four years investigating Monsanto, conducting dozens of interviews, and creating a documentary and book detailing her findings. Recently The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply was translated into English, and it is a compelling account of the company's nearly all-encompassing industry control.

It's worth noting right off the bat that this book comes with a very strong point of view. Robin is not a fan of Monsanto, and she doesn't want you to be either. However, she strives to make a compelling and evidence-backed case; the book is full of quotes, statistics, anecdotes, and headlines that inform her argument.

So what's the case against Monsanto? Robin exhaustively covers a variety of issues. She details the horrific health problems that veterans of the Vietnam War experienced after exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant produced by Monsanto. There are countless stories of farm communities affected by DDT, a pesticide now recognized to be highly unsafe to humans. And dairy farmers recount the mutations and severe health problems experienced by some cows treated with bovine growth hormone. In all of these cases, it's somewhat unclear whether there was an concerted effort to conceal the danger of the chemicals, or if no sufficient research was undertaken. But none of Robin's uncovered information looks good for Monsanto.

She then deals with issues of seed patenting and Roundup-ready plants. Monsanto's ability to patent their modified seeds, with the stipulation that farmers re-buy seeds every season, has led to an iron-clad control of the agricultural industry. Roundup, their star pesticide, is almost ubiquitous among farmers of the Roundup-ready crops that are resistant to the aggressive chemical. Farmers are left with few seed-buying options other than Monsanto, and using their products is most cost-effective and potentially yields a better harvest—put at an unknown cost.

These problems are pervasive already in the United States, but Robin also discusses Monsanto's presence overseas. Farmers in India, China, and beyond have planted genetically modified crops only to see diminished soil quality, lackluster outputs, and a loss of traditional crops. Farmer suicide is a huge problem among small producers who can barely eke out a living, but are also without a source for non-Monsanto seeds.

By far the most sobering aspect to this book is the lack of testing and research that went into determining the safety of the highlighted chemicals. Or even if they were tested, Robin reveals that many documents and findings are concealed from the government or federally approved regardless of safety concerns. The "revolving door" of power between the USDA/FDA and Monsanto is well-known, and government officials are often aligned with industry interests. It would be impossible to detail all of the examples Robin provides as to the dangers and failings of Monsanto's current practices. All I can say is that this book is worth a read—whatever opinion you come away with, it raises important questions about the very foundations of our food safety system.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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