Pulp Non Fiction: The Ecologist Shredded
After 28 years of continuous publication,
The Ecologist, England’s leading environmental magazine, is having a tough time
finding its audience. Perhaps that has something to do with the subject matter of the
current issue: Monsanto and genetic engineering. Penwell, a small Cornwall-based company
that has printed The Ecologist for the past 26 years, decided in late September to
shred all 14,000 copies of the Monsanto issue. England’s tough libel laws apply not only
to publishers but to printers as well.
The magazine carries tough attacks on the
St. Louis-based biotech giant, including reviews of its links to major corporate disasters
involving Agent Orange, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), genetically engineered bovine
growth hormone (rBGH), Round-Up herbicide, and the "terminator" seed. The
magazine also reprints a broadside against genetically engineered foods written by the
Prince of Wales. In an article first published in The Daily Telegraph, Prince
Charles, an avid organic gardener, questions the safety of genetically engineered foods.
"I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic modification, nor do I
knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests."
Europe is following Prince Charles’s
lead. Monsanto and its genetically engineered test crops are routinely met with civil
disobedience and massive resistance. But in the United States, about 45 million acres have
already been planted with biotech crops. Americans are already eating biotech foods, but
hardly anyone knows it. Monsanto would like to keep it that way.
Monsanto says it had nothing to do with
the shredding of the magazine or with the fact that big retailers in the U.K. are refusing
to carry it. Monsanto says it did not contact the printer prior to the pulping of the
issue and that it has not contacted the retailers.
Yet, it is clear that Monsanto could not
have been pleased with the September/October issue of The Ecologist. The editors
lead with an open letter to Robert Shapiro, chief executive officer of Monsanto. "You
tell us in your advertisements that you want to help preserve the environment, yet
Monsanto has caused environmental pollution on a massive scale–not the least through the
production of enough PCBs to kill all mammal life in the world’s oceans. You tell us that
your aim is to feed the hungry of the world, yet Monsanto has been directly responsible
for undermining one of the key practices of sustainable, subsistence agriculture–that of
saving and improving locally-adapted seeds from year to year. And you tell us that you see
genetic engineering as a means of reducing the need for pesticides, yet Monsanto is the
producer of Roundup, one of the biggest-selling pesticides in the world."
Monsanto, the corporation which once made
famous the slogan "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible," has in
recent years undergone a radical transformation. It has sold off its industrial chemical
lines and refashioned itself as a "life sciences" company, steeped in
biotechnology. Monsanto’s overt goal is to remake modern agriculture, with Monsanto
products at the center of worldwide agricultural production. The rationale for the new
products is that they will increase agricultural efficiency and help solve world hunger.
But critics respond that hunger rarely reflects a shortage of food–it is a result of
centralized control over land, agricultural inputs, and political power. One thing
Monsanto’s new products have in common is that they give the company a stranglehold over
agricultural processes. Making things even worse, while in pursuit of a spurious
efficiency, Monsanto’s products pose health and environmental risks.
BGH exemplifies the flaws in the Monsanto
model. A growth hormone injected into cows, it spurs cows to produce 10 to 20 percent more
milk. Problem number one: there is a surplus of milk in the United States, the primary
market for BGH–there is no need to increase milk production. But individual farmers may
nonetheless choose to use BGH to increase their cows’ milk production. And the more
farmers use BGH, the more others feel compelled to do so to avoid being put at a
competitive disadvantage. Problem number two: BGH overstresses cows and makes them sick.
Problem number three: BGH stimulates development of another hormone, IGF-1, in cows’ milk,
and that may pose a human health risk. Farmers also treat their sick cows with extra
antibiotics, which may also endanger humans.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
requires a warning label on BGH stating that it may put cows’ health at risk, but the
agency and the company insist milk from cows treated with BGH is perfectly safe for
Monsanto’s growing line of Roundup-Ready
crops is designed to solidify the position of the company’s Roundup, the world’s leading
pesticide. Roundup-Ready crops, including soy and cotton, are genetically engineered seeds
that are resistant to the pesticide. That resistance is designed to allow earlier and more
effective spraying of the pesticide. (The company says it should enable lesser use of the
pesticide; critics say farmers are likely to use more on a pesticide-resistant crop.)
While Roundup is less hazardous to the environment and human health than other pesticides,
it still harms both. In addition to institutionalizing a new model for pesticide use–and
thereby forestalling a broader and more rapid transition to organic
agriculture–Roundup-Ready crops pose many unknowable risks. For example, the genetic
resistance to Roundup might transfer to weeds. Other risks may flow from the loss of
biodiversity associated with farmers relying on a single strain of seeds.
Monsanto’s newest "innovation"
is the terminator technology, seeds which grow into crops with "dead" seeds.
Second generation terminator seeds will not grow into plants. This technology is actually
the product of a seed company named Delta and Pine Land–but Monsanto announced
acquisition plans for the company in May (U.S. government approval is still forthcoming).
Inserted into high-tech seeds, the terminator genes will prevent farmers from saving
seeds–thus requiring them to go back to Monsanto again and again. The Rural Advancement
Fund International emphasizes the alarming possibility of the terminator genes infecting
the broader agricultural gene pool.
Monsanto and The Ecologist
In late September, after sending the
issue to the printer, Zac Goldsmith, co-editor of the magazine, received a telephone call
from Penwell’s. "They were having doubts about whether or not they should release
it," Goldsmith said in an interview from his office in London. "I pointed out to
them that not only have we been with them for 26 years, but there had never been any
conflict of any sort at all prior to this issue. I asked, ‘Have you been approached by
Monsanto?’ They said ‘no’."
Goldsmith said that he was speaking with
Jackie Batterbee, a Pennwell’s staffer with whom he had not previously spoken. "I
pointed out that we had been putting out very controversial issues for a long, long
time," he said. "This was long before I took up the reins a year and a-half ago.
But even in the last year, we have put out at least two controversial issues. No one has
ever successfully sued The Ecologist although many have tried."
"I said, ‘Relax, it is not going to
happen,’" Goldsmith related. "This is no different than an issue you printed
four months ago which raised no eyebrows at least in the printing world. That issue (The
Ecologist, March/April 1998) was titled ‘Cancer–Are the Experts Lying?’"
"We were going for the real causes
of cancer, which were pollutants in the environment," he said. "She said she
would distribute the magazine as long as I wrote a letter saying that in my opinion this
was a very carefully researched report on Monsanto and genetic engineering, that it was
not libelous, and that we could justify any claims we make in the issue," Goldsmith
"I sent that
letter to them," he said. "So, on Saturday, they were calmed down. On Sunday, I
got a message from them. It was lunchtime on Sunday. They said categorically that they
were not going to send out this issue, it was too hot to handle."
"That is where it ended,"
Goldsmith said. "I pointed out that this was a sad occasion, that we were by far
their biggest customer and their most reliable customer. There were no bad feelings
between the printers and The Ecologist. They maintain that they were not approached
by Monsanto prior to this. I don’t believe them because it is by no means the most
controversial issue we have done."
Reached at his office in Cornwall, Mike
Ford, Penwell’s commercial director, said there was an article in the issue "that
might have been libelous."
When asked how he found out the article
might have been libelous, Ford said, "I’m not saying."
"You are not going to get me to say
anything on that," Ford said. "We were a bit worried about it and we checked it
out with barristers in London. They read through it and advised us not to distribute
them." Ford said he did not know whether the lawyers Penwell’s consulted had any
contact with Monsanto. Ford said that The Ecologist represented 2 percent of
Penwell’s business. Ford said the magazine spent about 40,000 pounds a year with Penwell’s
and Penwell’s is a 2 million pound a year business.
Goldsmith said that Monsanto was tipped
off that The Ecologist was focusing on Monsanto and genetic engineering.
"About two weeks before we went to
the printers, I got a call from Monsanto’s public relations man, Dan Verakis,"
Goldsmith said. "He is Monsanto’s man in the UK. He called me and wanted to know
whether we were doing an issue on Monsanto. He wanted to point out their frustration as a
company that we hadn’t consulted them."
"We had a brief conversation,"
Goldsmith said. "All it led to was the conclusion on our part that they had been
tipped off and that they knew we were doing the issue. A few days later they took out a
subscription for a year, which was very generous of them."
The Monsanto Chill
Goldsmith believes that Monsanto
contacted the printer before the printer decided to pulp the issue. "I’m quite sure
of it, but I have to take the printer’s word for it," he said. "I have no
evidence to support this. If they weren’t contacted by Monsanto, then that is even more
scary. This company, through reputation alone, has managed to bring about what is, as far
as we are concerned, de facto censorship."
Monsanto has developed a very aggressive
record of working to silence critics, especially about BGH. It has sued and threatened to
sue companies that label their products as BGH-free, on the grounds that there is no
difference between BGH and non-BGH products and labeling suggests there is. In 1997, two
investigative journalists for a Miami television station allege that they were fired after
preparing a story on BGH. The journalists’ report was originally scheduled to air in
February 1997, but withdrawn after the Miami station received a threatening letter from
Monsanto. The two reporters agreed to re-interview Monsanto, but refused to back off of
their tough reporting. They say they were required to rewrite the story 73 times, but that
it never aired and eventually got them fired.
On Sunday, September 27, the printer told
Goldsmith that the issue was going to be destroyed. On Tuesday September 29, the Guardian
newspaper ran an article reporting that the issue has been destroyed. But it hadn’t yet
been destroyed, according to Goldsmith.
"In fact, they hadn’t pulped
it," Goldsmith relates. "They called me up on Tuesday September 29 and said–we
don’t want to break our ties with you. We will send it out if we can arrange a guarantee
from Monsanto that should the issue be considered libelous, they would not sue the
printers, and go only against The Ecologist."
But Monsanto rejected the offer and the
printer shredded the issue. Goldsmith then went out to find another printer. He approached
a printer named Formations, which promptly printed 16,000 copies. The Ecologist then
mailed the issue to its list.
But now England’s two largest retailers,
W.H. Smith and Menzies, are refusing to carry the magazine on its centrally located
newsstands in London and throughout the country, Goldsmith said. Goldsmith said he
received a letter from Menzies saying they are refusing to stock the issue to avoid
potential legal problems.
Monsanto’s Verakis denies talking with
the printer about the issue, although he knew about the issue from talking with Goldsmith
two weeks before it went to the printer. "I told Goldsmith that we would be perfectly
happy to respond to questions or to offer comments about biotechnology if they were
covering it," Verakis said from his office in London.
He admits that it seems strange for a
printer to destroy copies of the magazine and he has no explanation for why it happened.
"Consider this," Verakis said. "We are being accused of putting pressure on
a printer in an effort to stop publication of his magazine. It doesn’t make a whole lot of
sense for us to try to pressure a printer into not printing a particular magazine when
that magazine has their issue on computer disks and can take it to any printer on earth
"I can assure you, we have not put
any pressure on a printer," Verakis said. "And what printer would listen to
Monsanto on this when the paper has been a client for 27 some years?"
When told that large corporations and
their lawyers often send threatening letters to even the smallest of publications in the
United States and that it is tougher for smaller publications in Britain because of the
more stringent libel laws, Verakis professed ignorance. "I didn’t know that there was
more leverage here," Verakis said. When asked whether in fact he wasn’t aware that
libel laws were stricter in England than in the U.S., Verakis said he wasn’t.
When asked whether he had read the
current issue of The Ecologist, Verakis said "I thumbed through it quickly
when I received it."
"There were some interesting
views," he said. "I was disappointed that they didn’t contact us for comment
about some of the issues they raised. I don’t think it was fair. They have taken their
critical opinion and they are entitled to that. I’m sure we could point out some things in
there that weren’t exactly true."
When asked to give examples of things in
the issue that weren’t exactly true, Verakis said he would call back with examples. He
called back the next morning. "I picked it up this morning and read through the story
on (the herbicide) Roundup," Verakis said. "I didn’t get past the first
paragraph without finding some mistakes. They say that Monsanto and its subsidiaries hold
the patents on half of the 36 genetically engineered whole foods being marketed in the
U.S. The fact is we only have patents in corn, cotton, soybeans, and potatoes in the
United States. That’s four whole foods."
In the same paragraph, the author of the
story, Joseph Medelson, says that "Monsanto is a major producer of agricultural
chemicals, and is using genetic engineering to dramatically increase, not decrease, the
use of herbicides on crops."
Verakis said that Monsanto’s studies of
Roundup Ready products show a dramatic reduction in the use of chemicals. When asked
whether Monsanto is contemplating legal action against The Ecologist, Verakis said,
"At this time, no."
Russell Mokhiber is editor of Corporate
Crime Reporter, a legal weekly based in Washington, D.C. Robert Weissman is
editor of the monthly Multinational Monitor magazine.