Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Frankenfruit

Monsanto continues its buying spree with the acquisition of the largest fruit and vegetable seed company in the world. Despite the acquisition Monsanto says that genetically modified fruit and vegetable crops are well down the road. Here's the take from The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods in its most recent email alert:

In a move that opens the door to the aggressive marketing of biotech fruits and vegetables, Monsanto has agreed to purchase Seminis, the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds, for about $1 billion.

Monsanto seems to be downplaying the significance of this move in relation to genetically engineered fruits and vegetables. In a somewhat coy statement, their chief executive officer, Hugh Grant, stated "In the long term, there may be opportunities in biotech."

Many activists feel this is a gross understatement and that Monsanto will push hard to bring genetically engineered vegetables and fruits out sooner rather than later. Some insiders speculate that Monsanto wants to get a significant variety of biotech crops into the marketplace quickly while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations are still incredibly lax.

Until recently, a significant focus of Monsanto was to move forward on the introduction of genetically engineered wheat. However, U.S. and international opposition to biotech wheat caused the company to shelve those plans in the short term.

Some feel this new grandiose move by Monsanto into the fruit and vegetable market is a strategic move to gain broader acceptance of biotech crops. They feel Monsanto will then again try to move forward with genetically engineered wheat.

Monsanto is considered by many to be one of the world's most controversial companies. The company has faced numerous legal charges over the years that continue even in recent days.

In 2001, Monsanto was found guilty of releasing tons of PCBs into the city of Anniston, Alabama and covering up its actions for decades. The jury found Monsanto liable on all six charges it considered: negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage. Under Alabama law, the charge of "outrage" requires conduct "so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society."

Most recently, on January 6, 2005, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed two settled enforcement proceedings charging Monsanto with making illicit payments in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It appears that Monsanto had bribed more than 140 current and former Indonesian government officials and their families by an amount totaling more than $700,000 between 1997 and 2002. The cash was paid to allow the company to develop genetically engineered crops in Indonesia.

The SEC lawsuit charged Monsanto with violating the FCPA and imposed a civil penalty of $500,000. They also issued an administrative order finding that Monsanto violated the anti-bribery, books-and-records, and internal-controls provisions of the FCPA and ordered the company to cease and desist from such violations. Further, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal information charging that Monsanto violated the anti-bribery and books and records provisions of the FCPA. Monsanto agreed to pay a $1 million monetary penalty to defer prosecution charges by the Department of Justice.

Considering the track record of Monsanto, you might think that the FDA would closely scrutinize any new genetically engineered crops the company plans to bring to market. But under current FDA regulations, Monsanto is not even required to notify the agency that they are bringing out a new genetically engineered crop (unless the nutrient value is significantly altered or the product contains a known allergen.) Apparently the FDA trusts Monsanto to do the right thing. Do you?
But surely Monsanto can be trusted to do what's right for us when it comes to our food.

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