All eyes are on Monsanto this month, and not just because of its pending mega-merger with Bayer. A formal tribunal this weekend will assess how the giant corporation has affected human rights around the globe. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking a closer look at RoundUp's potential to cause cancer, while a growing number of groups around the world are advocating to severely restrict the use of Monsanto's flagship herbicide.
Let's hope that shining several spotlights at once on Monsanto will ensure it is held accountable for the harms it imposes on people and planet in pursuit of shareholder profits.
Violating human rights
Over 1,000 institutions — and more than 70,000 individuals — have endorsed the upcoming International Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague. As charged by the tribunal organizers,
Monsanto is able to ignore the human and environmental damage caused by its products and maintain its devastating activities through a strategy of systemic concealment: by lobbying regulatory agencies and governments; by resorting to lying and corruption; by financing fraudulent scientific studies; by pressuring independent scientists; by manipulating the press and media, etc."
Dozens of legal experts and witnesses will present information to five prominent independent jurists. The legal experts will use the UN's 2011 guiding principles on business and human rights, which were unanimously approved by the UN's Human Rights Council — and endorsed by groups like the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and over 350 corporations. The core guiding principles are hard to disagree with:
- Every government is responsible for preventing human rights abuses and protecting its citizens;
- Businesses should not violate human rights, even if the government isn't doing much on its own; and
- When something is wrong, governments must provide a reasonable way for citizens to file complaints, and for complaints to be settled fairly.
Both governments and businesses have let us down many times in the past. Large corporations have walked away from terrible problems like the Bhopal disaster with little more than a slap on the wrist.
Five years ago, PAN International convened a People's Permanent Tribunal in Bangalore, India, to examine charges that the "Big 6" pesticide and seed companies — BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta — violated human rights. The jurists in this case found that the multinationals' "systemic acts of corporate governance have caused avoidable catastrophic risks, increasing the prospects of extinction of biodiversity, including species whose continued existence is necessary for reproduction of human life." If this month's hearings — focused solely on Monsanto — find the company guilty as charged, Monsanto may be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.
RoundUp's cancer connection
Closer to home, EPA is holding public hearings this month to review the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate, better known as the main active ingredient in Monsanto's ubiquitous weedkiller RoundUp. Glyphosate is widely sprayed, primarily on Monsanto's patented "RoundUp Ready" crops — including corn, soy and cotton — and is also commonly used in parks and near homes.
The EPA hearings were sparked by pressure that ramped up after the UN's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that glyphosate, one of the corporation's flagship products, is a "probable carcinogen." That conclusion put the chemical on PAN International's list of highly hazardous pesticides, meaning that it's almost impossible use it safely. PAN International's recent review of the science found that glyphosate is a contributor to acute poisoning (especially in Asia), endocrine disruption, neurological damage, and other health issues — especially for kids living near agricultural fields.
Turning the tides?
Despite loud industry opposition, the probes persist, and the use of glyphosate is rapidly being restricted, even banned, by cities and countries around the world. And while public opinion against glyphosate has been strong in Europe for some time, concern about the herbicide is growing in America, too.
None of this bodes well for the Bayer-Monsanto merger. Anti-trust agencies in the U.S. and Europe are under increasing pressure to block the agribusiness mergers in the works, including Chinese government's purchase of industry giant Syngenta and the planned merger of Dow and DuPont. It's hard to believe that even more corporate consolidation will be a good thing for food democracy or for human rights.
Over 100 years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Together hundreds of civil society organizations are pulling back the curtains to expose how our food system's current reliance on hazardous pesticides is dangerous to people and the environment.
But we need a lot more light — shining as bright as the sun — to uncover all the industry shenanigans. Only then can we wrest the food system from the hands of a few corporate behemoths and move toward safer, sustainable, and equitable alternatives to chemical-reliant agriculture.