July 2017


Key to understanding genetically engineered crops is knowing who and what drives this trade. (Second of a 2-part article)

By G. Clare Westwood

3.0       Agri-TNCs: Growing Cancers in Society

3.1       Rooted in Destruction

            The Green Revolution turned agri-culture into agri-business creating a whole generation of farmers trapped in a cycle of dependency on corporate inputs and technologies. In 2013, the global pesticides market was estimated at US$54 billion and the seed market at US$39 billion.[42] Corporate control over agriculture is an indisputable fact evidenced by the ETC Group’s report in 2015 showing that BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta together control 75% of the global agrochemical market, 63% of the commercial seed market and over 75% of all private sector research and development in the sector.[43] Three companies control 55% of the commercial seed market (#1 Monsanto, #2 DuPont/Pioneer and #3 Syngenta) and 51% of the agrochemical market (#1 Syngenta, #2 Bayer Crop Science and #3 BASF).[44] How did these companies come to acquire such power?

            Taking just the pesticide industry as a case in point, this business dates back to World War 2. Lethal gases were developed and manufactured by the German chemical company, I.G. Farbenindustrie AG (I.G. Farben), as a chemical weapon and used on concentration camp prisoners in Germany in WW2. I.G. Farben later split into six companies which included BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst. Bayer marketed/markets organophosphates[a] which are descendants of nerve gases like sarin (created by I.G. Farben) and are some of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. Bayer also manufactured the infamous endosulfan, which has been linked to birth defects, cancers, and mental retardation among other diseases[45]; and neonicotinoids, which have been linked to the death of bees in Europe[46].

            Monsanto and Dow, among others, manufactured and supplied to the US government millions of litres of ‘Agent Orange’ for use in the Vietnam War with devastating effects on the Vietnamese people and the environment. Agent Orange was a unique combination of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, contaminated by dioxin.[b] Monsanto’s Agent Orange had a thousand (1,000) times higher concentration of dioxin than other formulations.[47] Monsanto is now promoting its second generation of GE HR crops resistant to 2,4-D to replace its first generation of GE RR crops. Meanwhile, Syngenta’s top selling pesticide, atrazine, is a known potent endocrine disruptor[48],[49] which can lead to birth defects[50], infertility[51], and cancer[52].[c] The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported finding atrazine in 94% of the country's drinking water tested in 2008.[53]

            Corporate attempts to control seeds date back to the 1920s when the US seed industry initiated a programme on hybrid maize. Hybrid seeds breed true only in the first generation, with low and unstable yields in subsequent generations, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every planting season. The extension of patents to cover living organisms from 1980, as a result of historic judicial decisions in the US, has enabled the biotech industry to construct systems of exclusive monopoly control over genetic resources via intellectual property rights (IPRs).[54] TNCs have patented more than 900 rice genes.[55] In the US alone, by 2012, Monsanto had sued farmers and farm businesses for US$23.5 million for alleged patent infringements.[56]

3.2       Pervasive Domination; Interference with Science and Governance

            Agrochemical TNCs are highly influential in their home countries.[d] In September 2014 and January 2015, the USDA approved Dow’s and Monsanto’s GE 2,4-D-resistant corn and soybeans, respectively. This was in spite of thousands of comments in opposition from farmers and other concerned citizens.[57] The Center for Food Safety (CFS) warned then that the deregulation “violate(s) all applicable statutes, is arbitrary and capricious, is not supported by sound science, and otherwise is not in accordance with the law….The proposed approval will likely cause significant environmental, agronomic, and socioeconomic harm”.[58] Yet the authorities blithely ignored such protests along with the scientific evidence presented.

            Officials from regulatory bodies or government posts are often offered high positions in agri-TNCs. The ‘revolving door’ practice has created a symbiotic relationship between the regulators and the regulated, minimizing the likelihood of ensuring the latter’s compliance with regulations and facilitating approvals for them.[e]

            In March 2017, a court in San Francisco ordered a series of internal Monsanto documents to be unsealed for more than 55 lawsuits brought by individuals from around the US who alleged that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide had caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.[59] The court documents included Monsanto’s internal emails and email traffic between the company and federal regulators. These revealed disturbing communication which pointed to the agrochemical giant's manipulation of scientific literature and collusion with a government official to protect its flagship herbicide, Roundup, and to delegitimize the IARC's classification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. For instance, there were emails about Monsanto having ghostwritten research that was later attributed to academics.[60] Other communication records indicated that a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency had allegedly worked to quash a review of glyphosate that was to have been conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.[61]

            Dow Chemical and DuPont are set to merge, while China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina) is acquiring Syngenta, and Bayer is acquiring Monsanto. The proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger will give control of almost 30% of the world’s commercial seed market and almost 25% of the world’s commercial agrochemical market to just one company. The European Union (EU) has approved the Dow-DuPont merger. The EU and the US approved the ChemChina-Syngenta deal in April 2017. The Bayer-Monsanto merger is currently being prepared for filing with the EU regulator. Should all these mergers be approved, the consolidation in the sector will reach even worse thresholds.[62]

            The main concern about these mega-mergers is that they will expand and intensify an extractivist economic model.[63] These mergers will exacerbate social inequities and ecological crises caused by industrial farming. They will squeeze global productive and food systems, placing them on a narrow technological path, characterised by a dependence on proprietary seed and agrochemical inputs, and the promotion of highly processed, standardised, input-intensive staple crop varieties to the detriment of traditional foods, resulting in the loss of nutrients and diversity. Small farmers will be further marginalised in terms of input prices and even less access to land.

            The statistics and cases cited above provide a clear and disturbing snapshot of how the world’s food and agricultural system is dominated by a handful of powerful TNCs which have driven the industrial model of food production since the first Green Revolution. They also underscore how seriously scientific research and the US regulatory system, in particular, have become infected by the influence of incredibly powerful companies like Monsanto in pushing their agenda.

3.3       Human Rights Violations

            In the process of gaining control over the global food and agricultural system, TNCs have violated and continue to violate human rights with impunity. In 2011, the Permanent People’s Tribunal against Agrochemical TNCs[f] found Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and DuPont “prima facie responsible for gross, widespread and systematic violations of the right to health and life, (and) economic, social and cultural rights, as well as of civil and political rights, and women and children’s rights”.[64] The Tribunal jury further found that the six TNCs’ “systematic acts of corporate governance have caused avoidable catastrophic risks, increasing the prospects of extinction of biodiversity, including species whose continued existence is necessary for (the) reproduction of human life”.[65] The jury identified both the use and presence of agrochemicals and GE crops as a threat to livelihoods, food production, and in particular, food sovereignty; and patented GE seeds also as a violation of the right to seed.[66]

            Not only have agrochemical TNCs marketed their highly hazardous brand of agriculture with impunity, they have acquired humongous amounts of power and wealth along the way, taking advantage of legal loopholes and safe havens to evade accountability. Although the obligations of states are addressed in most current international human rights laws, international legal redress can only come into play when there are failures by states to recognize the rights of their citizens under specific human rights conventions. This does not cover violations by corporations or other legal persons. Currently, there is no platform to administer international human rights law with respect to violations committed by TNCs for actions brought directly by individual victims or groups of victims or their next of kin. The International Court of Justice has jurisdiction only over disputes between member states while the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction only over natural persons, not legal persons. Underlying this situation is the lack of political will by states and international bodies to hold TNCs accountable for their crimes and to check their unbridled greed. Thus, they are complicit in the human rights violations committed by these corporations.

            The recently concluded Monsanto Tribunal was an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto accountable for human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and ecocide. Eminent judges heard testimonies from victims, and delivered a legal opinion following procedures of the International Court of Justice on 18 April 2017 in The Hague. The Tribunal concluded that Monsanto had engaged in practices which had negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment, the right to food, and the right to health.[67] It also concluded that Monsanto had negatively affected the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research through conduct such as intimidation, discrediting independent scientific research when it raised serious questions about the protection of the environment and public health, suborning false research reports, and putting pressure on governments.[68] The Tribunal further concluded that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute such a crime.[69]

            The Tribunal called for the assertion of the primacy of international human and environmental rights law, particularly by UN bodies. It warned of the risk of a widening gap between international human rights and environmental law and international trade and investment law.[70] The Tribunal was also of the view that the time was ripe to consider multinational enterprises as subjects of law that can be sued in the case of infringements of fundamental rights. It denounced the severe disparity between the rights of multinational corporations and their obligations.[71]

3.4       Agri-Business: The Real Disaster

            Agri-business has proven to be not only untenable but dangerous. Not only has it failed to deliver on its many empty promises, many of which are related to GE crops, it has ruined the lives and livelihoods of millions of rural communities, poisoned people and the environment, and exacerbated hunger and poverty, all with impunity. In addition, the global (industrial) food system driven by agri-corporations contributes some 29% to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.[72] Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, monocultures, land change, deforestation, refrigeration, waste and transportation are all part of a food system that contributes greatly to climate change. Industrial agricultural practices, from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to synthetic fertilizer-intensive crop monocultures, and GE HR crops that release massive amounts of herbicides into the environment not only contribute significantly to GHGs, but also underpin an inequitable and unhealthy global food system.[73] Industrial agriculture is a fossil fuel-based, energy-intensive industry that is aligned with biotech, trade and energy interests over farmers' and consumers' welfare.[74] The evidence is overwhelming. The world should see GE crops for what they really are ─ a public relations campaign to feed agri-business greed and advance its domination over the global food and agricultural system regardless of the cost to people and planet. As the ETC group aptly concludes: “The real disaster is the corporate-controlled agro-industrial food system.[75] The burning question now is: What are we going to do about it? – Third World Network Features.

[a] For instance, methyl parathion and monocrotophos are classified as extremely and highly hazardous (respectively) by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Source: Kishi, M. 2002. Initial Summary of the Main Factors Contributing to Incidents of Acute Pesticide Poisoning.

[b]  Dioxin was a by-product of the deliberately accelerated production of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, one of the components of Agent Orange. The dioxin in Agent Orange was 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) which is the most toxic of all the dioxins and dioxin-like compounds. The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for the Research on Cancer list TCDD as a known human carcinogen. Dioxin has been found to be an endocrine disrupter, and it can cause chloracne, certain cancers, and reproductive and developmental effects (at least in animals).

[c] For more effects of atrazine see PAN North America (PANNA), 2011, Health Effects of Atrazine, Fact Sheet.

[d] Monsanto, DuPont and Dow, USA. Bayer and BASF, Germany. Syngenta, Switzerland.

[e]  For example, Michael R. Taylor, former Vice-President for Public Policy in Monsanto, was appointed Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  in January 2010. For more information, see,_Revolving_Doors,_rBGH,_Bribery_and_Monsanto

[f] The Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT) is an international opinion tribunal founded in 1979, in Italy based on a "Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples". It looks into complaints of human rights abuses submitted by communities facing such abuses. It uses the rigorous conventional court format. The PPT issues indictments, names relevant laws and documents findings. While its verdicts are not legally binding, they can set precedents for future legal action against, for example, as in this case, agrochemical companies.

[42] ETC Group. 2015. Breaking bad: Big Ag Mega-mergers in play – Dow + DuPont in the pocket? Next: Demonsanto? ETC Group.

[43] ETC Group. 2015. Breaking bad: Big Ag Mega-mergers in play – Dow + DuPont in the pocket? Next: Demonsanto? ETC Group.

[44] ETC Group. 2015. Breaking bad: Big Ag Mega-mergers in play – Dow + DuPont in the pocket? Next: Demonsanto? ETC Group.

[45] Embrandiri A., R.P. Singh, H.M. Ibrahim and A.B. Khan. 2012. An Epidemiological Study on the Health Effects of Endosulfan Spraying on Cashew Plantations in Kasaragod District, Kerala, India. Asian Journal of Epidemiology, 5: 22-31.

[46] Schwartz, J. 2014. Bees: Study Points To Key Cause Of Colony Collapse Disorder.

[47] Tran DinhThanh Lam. 2004 (27 February). Vietnamese fight back on Agent Orange, Asia Times (Online)

[48] Cragin L.A., J.S. Kesner, A.M. Bachand, D.B. Barr, J.W. Meadows, E.F. Krieg, and J.S. Reif. 2011. Menstrual cycle characteristics and reproductive hormone levels in women exposed to atrazine in drinking water. Environmental Research, 111(8):1293–1301.

[49] Hayes TB, Collins A, Lee M, Mendoza M, Noriega N, Stuart AA, Vonk A. 2002.Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses.ProcNatlAcad Sci. 99(8): 5476–5480.

[50] Villanueva CM, Durand G, Coutté M-B, Chevrier C, Cordier S. (2005). Atrazine in municipal drinking water and risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery, and small-for-gestational-age status. Occup Environ Med. 62:400–405.

[51] Chevrier C, Limon G, Monfort C, Rouget F, Garlantézec R, Petit C, et al. 2011. Urinary Biomarkers of Prenatal Atrazine Exposure and Adverse Birth Outcomes in the PELAGIE Birth Cohort. Environ Health Perspect 119:1034-1041.

[52] Reuben, SH. 2010. Reducing environmental risk: What we can do now. For the President’s Cancer Panel, 2008-2009 Annual Report. US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.

[53] USDA. 2009. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2008. Science and Technology Programs, Agricultural Marketing Service.

[54] Paul, H. & R. Steinbrecher.  2003. Hungry Corporations – Transnational Biotech Companies Colonise the Food Chain. Zed Books. London. UK.

[55] Choudry, A. 2007. Intellectual Property Rights and Rice. Rice Sheets, PAN AP, Penang, Malaysia.

[56] Center for Food Safety. 2013. Seed Giants vs. US Farmers.

[57] Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA).2015. USDA Ignores Farmer Opposition, Approves Monsanto’s Dicamba-Resistant Seed.

[58] Center for Food Safety. 2015. USDA Approves New Pesticide Promoting Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops.

[59] Gillam C. 2017. Monsanto weed killer deserves deeper scrutiny as scientific manipulation revealed. Huffington Post.

[60] Mierzwinski E. 2017. Monsanto manufactured scientific studies and then used those studies to influence EPA, other regulators.

[61] Rosenblatt J., L. Mulvany and P. Waldman. 2017. EPA official accused of helping Monsanto ‘kill’ cancer study.

[62] African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). 2017. The three agricultural input mega-mergers: Grim reapers of South Africa’s food and farming systems.

[63] African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). 2017. The three agricultural input mega-mergers: Grim reapers of South Africa’s food and farming systems.

[64] Pesticide Action Network International. 2011. Verdict - Permanent People's Tribunal Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (Bangalore, 3-6 December 2011).

[65] Pesticide Action Network International. 2011. Verdict - Permanent People's Tribunal Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (Bangalore, 3-6 December 2011).

[66] Pesticide Action Network International. 2011. Verdict - Permanent People's Tribunal Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (Bangalore, 3-6 December 2011).

[67] International Monsanto Tribunal Advisory Opinion. 2017.

[68] International Monsanto Tribunal Advisory Opinion. 2017.

[69] International Monsanto Tribunal Advisory Opinion. 2017.

[70] International Monsanto Tribunal Advisory Opinion. 2017.

[71] International Monsanto Tribunal Advisory Opinion. 2017.

[72] GRAIN. 2017. Two ways to tackle livestock's contribution to the climate crisis.

[73] Zinn, R. 2015.Food, farming and climate change: it's bigger than everything else. GRAIN.

[74] Zinn, R. 2015.Food, farming and climate change: it's bigger than everything else. GRAIN.

[75] ETC. 2008. Who Owns Nature?


About the author: G. Clare Westwood holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration and has had extensive experience in education, people development, facilitation, human resource management, programme/campaign coordination, writing and editing. She is currently the new Head of the Justice & Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Penang, Malaysia which is focusing on ecological justice. She is also a writer and researcher on food, agriculture, climate change and agriculture, and biosafety for the Third World Network.

The above article is an update of the paper “Agri-Business Rules the Food Chain" which was first published in Third World Resurgence No. 295, March 2015, pp 18-22. by the same author.

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