From it’s initial founding in 1901, Monsanto has frequently been at the center of many controversies – not only because of their products, but also because of their questionable political practices. Through my research into Monsanto and GMOs and subsequent blogging and discussion, I hope to examine Monsanto and its practices through a poltical science perspective. What are the two sides to the controversy surrounding Monsanto? How does the government affect Monsanto and how does Monsanto affect the government? Does the way Monsanto interact with the government differ from how other large corporations do? Is it the government’s responsibility to regulate and protect its citizens from possibly harmful GMOs?
Generally speaking, Monsanto is a company that causes few people to feel indifferently about its practices. For many people, no other company quite epitomizes that image of a greedy, massive corporation quite like Monsanto – and there are definitely legitimate reasons for concern. At the argument’s very basic level, while GMO’s have been around since 1994, there is a lot of debate around whether they are truly safe, and many studies say that the pesticides used in the growing of genetically modified crops, like those produced by Monsanto, can cause health issues.
The main argument in favor of Monsanto’s products is that, while we don’t know for certain that GMOs are unsafe, we do know that they can be beneficial to farmers who want to produce more at a lower cost. Furthermore, many argue that Monsanto’s products are helpful in combatting malnutrition and hunger in less developed countries. One product of Monsanto’s, a golden rice engineered to contain beta carotene, is produced to feed people in areas where Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness, persists. Because GMOs allow farmers to produce more than ever, GMOs can be used to feed people in places where food is scarce.
Discomfort with Monsanto, however, expands beyond simply its products. The company has, in many ways, exemplified many people’s concern for the ways large corporations can seemingly affect the government and legislation in its favor. There has been controversy over the company’s decision to pay public university researchers and scientists to support its agenda and help with what the company describes as “biotechnology outreach.” The fact that Monsanto can pay scientists, especially those at highly regarded public universities funded by the government, has been, understandably, a cause for concern to some. Like many large corporations, the company also makes financial political contributions in favor of its business. This presents a much larger question that goes beyond simply Monsanto, and one that has been hotly debated recently: should corporations be able to make such large contributions to political causes and political action comiittees as if they were people? So far the Supreme Court has argued yes. This kind of ability to influence politics is a little too close for comfort.
As far as the government’s control over Monsanto goes, the company and its products have experienced very little regulation from US legislation or politicians. There have been two major instances of this. One of these is the 1980 Supreme Court decision to extend patent law to cover, “a live human-made microorganism.” In this specific court case, the microorganism wasn’t even Monsanto’s – it was instead a bacteria produced by General Electric. However, this precedent has aided Monsanto and to patent 647 different pieces of biotechnology. What does this mean? Farmers, who, in the past, have been able to reuse seeds for consecutive planting seasons, must purchase new seeds from Monsanto every year. The other piece of legislation that has greatly aided Monsanto is the Farmer Assurance Provision, also known as the Monsanto Protection Act, which is no longer in effect. The Farmer Assurance Provision effectively stopped courts from being able to end the sale and production of GMOs, even if health issues related to the products arise in the future. While the 1980 Supreme Court decision was not influenced by Monsanto, the law was, and there has been speculation that Monsanto directly worked with legislators in order to write the bill. Laws frequently aid Monsanto despite the fact that the government should be cautious to make laws that protect companies that produce products whose effects we are not entirely sure of yet.
Monsanto is merely a case study in a major political question: How much influence should large corporations be able to have in government? Should controversial corporations like these be regulated by the government? If so, to what extent? No matter one’s opinion on Monsanto itself, it’s difficult to deny that the company will likely play a major role in setting the precedent for legal theory in the coming years on the relationships between government and big business.