Artists Call For Monsanto Accountability In Mock Hearings

No matter who you are or where you live, Monsanto has invaded your life. The world’s largest distributor of seeds, agricultural chemicals, and biotechnology impacts not only farmers, but the land and cultures of everyone who grows or eats food on this planet, says University of Iowa (UI) Media Arts Professor Sarah Kanouse. “There is no place that is not touched by Monsanto chemicals,” says Kanouse. “There is no place that has not had their economy, their eco-system, their very bodies polluted by any number of their products. Most recently GMOs, but in the past Dioxin and PCBs, Asparteme, and all these things.”


A member of Compass, a large-scale collective of artists and activists who collaborate to promote social and environmental justice, Kanouse organized a three-hour mock hearing on Saturday, April 21, in a small law school auditorium. The proceedings began when five “judges” dressed in black robes entered and took their seats on the podium.


Kanouse served as the people’s advocate and announced that they were under no obligation to be evenhanded since Monsanto has an ample budget for advertising, public relations, lobbying, and so forth. She noted that the multinational has $17 billion in assets and an annual revenue of $10.5 billion.


The first to testify was a veteran whose prerecorded deposition appeared on a screen. Exposed to Agent Orange when he was in Vietnam, Bill Kapp contracted Hepatitis C and went to the Mayo Clinic for Interferon treatment six years ago. This led to an unrelenting tremor in his right arm. “Before I took the treatment I was able to build my own house,” he said, his arm visibly shaking. “Now I can’t swing a hammer.”


Even though he was disabled by the treatment, a result confirmed by the Veteran’s Hospital in Iowa City, Monsanto escaped legal responsibility.


Monsanto, the Law, and Nature


Kanouse says using the pseudo-legal process to call for accountability brings up questions about the legal system. “Ideally, the legal process has several phases,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for evidence to be weighed, for people to come forward and speak, truth and harm to be determined, and restitution made. What we have seen time and time again with many lawsuits against Monsanto is that the legal system is very much manipulated by money.”


The result, says Kanouse, is that existing law only recognizes certain kinds of harm that can be measured physically or financially, leaving harms that are more intangible unrecognized by our legal system. “What is the value and what is the moral standing of a river or butterflies or fish?” she asks. “These are all creatures that have no restitution in a court of law.”


Many people have long suspected the link between the use of chemicals and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has been devastating bees around the world. Poland recently banned the use of Monsanto’s Mon810 corn, making it the first country to recognize the impact of GMOs on bees.


The federal government, impacted by lobbyists and campaign financing, has done little to protect the consumers, organic farmers, or the environment. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, whose law firm defended Monsanto in court cases, was appointed by President Barack Obama as secretary of agriculture, an obvious conflict of interest.


“Monsanto’s worst abuses have taken place, not in the United States, but in other countries,” says Kaouse, noting how Monsanto pushed chemical agriculture in India.


Monsanto’s Bt Cotton  Disaster In India


Cotton and eggplant  (brinjal) had been two of India’s most profitable crops. Two PhD students from India calling themselves “Cotton” and “Brinjal,” spoke about the devastation wrought by Monsanto to cotton and eggplant farms in their home country. “In India, with the failing harvests and inflated seed prices, poor subsistence farmers began to go bankrupt and these struggling farmers began to kill themselves,” said Cotton. “Often, they would take their lives by drinking the very same insecticide that Monsanto supplied them with—a gruesome testament to the extent to which Monsanto has wrecked the lives of our farmers.” Cotton said over 17,000 farmers committed suicide in 2009, the year they last counted. He then explained how Monsanto started injecting Indian cotton hybrid seeds with bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) a bacterium in the soil that helps fight cotton pests. Monsanto collaborated with Mahyco, an Indian company, and with promises to farmers about high yield and lower use of pesticides. Bt cotton was approved for commercial use in 2002.


“Farmers that used to buy cotton seeds at $7 before now had to buy Bt cotton at $40,” said Cotton. The high price was supposed to be worth it since Bt cotton would fight off all these pests and wouldn’t require pesticides. But, all these things that they promised would happen based on what they saw in the labs, didn’t work on the ground.”


Cotton said Bt cotton was a complete failure and left farmers in great economic debt. “Bt cotton failed to prevent the bollworm attack for which it was designed and the farmers still had to spray pesticides for other pests,” said Cotton. “So not only did resistant super pests emerge, Bt cotton proved to be more vulnerable to pest and diseases than the traditional varieties. Monsanto and Mahyco blamed the poor farmers for not irrigating their fields properly.”


Cotton was played by Abhilash Kizhakke Puliyakote, a PhD biomedical engineering student who believes in the application of scientific research to improve human lives, but only after rigorous testing and peer reviewed studies, with informed consent.


Brinjal, which means eggplant, was played by Renu Pariyadath, a PhD student in communication studies at the University of Iowa. Brinjal said Monsanto was also planning to introduce GM food for human consumption for the first time. There are 2,500 varieties of eggplant in India. “They were looking for a billion lab rats to experiment on,” she said. “But, we’ve learned our lesson from Bt cotton. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in India okayed Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation in October 2009. Scientists, farmers, anti-GM activists were outraged and expressed their concern with nationwide public protests.”


Brinjal noted that people around the country fasted for one full day in January 2010, the day that marked the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, “To protest against losing our hard won freedoms and protect our food sovereignty,” she said. “Thirteen states in India united in this struggle against Bt brinjal and finally we won.”


The Indian government imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal, but only until more tests are conducted and it’s found safe for humans to eat.


Puliyakote and Pariyadath are both members of the Association for India’s Development (AID), a volunteer movement active in the anti-GM movement in India. AID is a proponent of sustainable grassroots development projects in India. “We started a student chapter of AID last year in the University of Iowa and thought the Monsanto Hearings initiative would be a good way of getting to know others who were interested in the same causes as us,” Pariyadath wrote in a recent email. “The Monsanto hearings were an excellent opportunity for us to present the plight of the Indian farmers who are unable to fight back against the corporations and are in desperate need of a voice.”


Feeding The Earth


Scott Koepke, a local food activist who teaches young people about the importance of healthy soil to food production, brought a basket to the stand. “Food needs to eat first,” Koepke said he tells his students. He reached into the basket and brought out a handful of rich dark soil and said there is no safe level of chemical fertilizers, they are not safe or necessary.


He spoke about the “incredible destructive effect” chemicals have on soil, making it biologically dead. He said organic practices build the soil for a more robust environment, making essential nutrients available for food. Holding earthworms he pulled from the soil, he explained how important is the link between biodiversity and balance. “Pesticide is homicide,” he said. “The best pesticide is healthy soil.”


Power of Monsanto vs. The Power of the People


Other witnesses gave evidence about the harm done to the environment from Monsanto’s gene manipulation and the influence of Monsanto money on research institutions and regulatory agencies, as well as our political, legal, and agricultural systems.


Kanouse says you don’t have to be against GMOs or science to be concerned about the role Monsanto has had in transforming agriculture. “You don’t necessarily need to be an organic farmer to have been harmed in some way Monsanto produces a cycle of dependency, even for conventional farmers, where it becomes decreasingly possible to do anything outside of their circuit. And that is something that should be, I think, of concern to everyone, even to those who have been chemical farmers for many, many years.”


In a statement released before the trial, the Iowa City Coordinating Committee of Compass wrote: “Under current law, Monsanto is granted the rights of a legitimate ‘person,’ while human noncitizens and nonhuman agents in our biosphere are not recognized. Even the historic class-action lawsuit brought against Monsanto by organic farmers, which we fully support, must tread on highly technical issues of patent and copyright infringement around genetically modified foods. Our proposition is to consider the issues holistically and to propose all living things as potential plaintiffs in an account of Monsanto’s crimes.”


“I see art very much as a space where we learn how to think differently and to see differently,” says Kanouse. “Whether that’s a painting or an event like this. We are ultimately hoping for this project to be something that can be picked up by people we don’t know yet that can hold these hearings in their own communities.”



Gloria Williams is a freelance journalist, activist, and member of the War Resisters League. Photos in this article were taken by Williams.