Monsanto likes to frame itself as a benevolent mastermind of food production: friend to the lowly farmer, and selfless guardian of the environment. Their web site proclaims through text and video that Monsanto Company is Comitted to Sustainable Agriculture. Monsanto’s TV commercials are filled with soft-focus feel-good images of children playing in green fields, as abundant crops sway gently in the summer breeze.
A smooth and well-funded PR department, a quasi-monopoly on GM technology, and aggressive legal tactics towards farmers who resist Monsanto’s stranglehold have bought ample success for the biotech Goliath. But recent lawsuits shine a harsh and unflattering light on Monsanto’s practices, as farmers and others around the country reach for a slingshot and take aim. Two court cases deserve close attention in the coming months, from ecovores and other conscientious consumers.
Nitro Residents vs. Monsanto: Dioxin Contamination
In West Virginia, mediation in December 2011 failed to avert a class action suit against Monsanto by residents of a town called Nitro. Residents allege Monsanto illegally burned dioxin waste at its Nitro chemical plant, covering the town with toxic soot and unsafe levels of dioxin contamination. The case was initially filed in 2004, and the trial finally began earlier this month. Anywhere from 5,000 to 80,000 residents are suing Monsanto for access to medical monitoring, to assess potentially serious health effects caused by long term dioxin exposure following unsafe disposal. They hoped to hold Monsanto accountable for cleaning up the toxic chemicals contaminating their town, but that part of the case was recently thrown out. So according to the West Virginia Gazette,
Putnam County jurors will decide only if current and former Nitro residents should receive medical monitoring to detect diseases potentially caused by exposure to Monsanto’s dioxin. They won’t be able to do anything to clean up homes and businesses, ending the toxic exposure. Lawyers for thousands of residents and property owners in the class-action suit appealed [this decision]. They say the rulings left a huge gap in their efforts to deal with the legacy of Monsanto’s chemical-making operations. “The current presence of dioxin contamination in the class area is a public-health hazard,” the lawyers argued in court documents. “It makes little sense to initiate a medical monitoring program for a population without first eliminating that population’s exposure to the toxin at issue.” Thanks to Monsanto’s maneuvering, the jury will not be allowed to consider issues surrounding the need (or cost) of environmental cleanup, to limit further exposure.
Originally the company that gave us such destructive chemical products as Agent Orange, dioxin, and PCBs, Monsanto now controls 70 to 90 percent of global food production. Monsanto has a long history of unethical and deceptive corporate conduct — a tradition that’s alive and well in their handling of the Nitro dioxin case. They clearly expect to pollute with impunity, and endanger health without consequence. Monsanto’s actions here refute their rosy PR self-portrait, and deserve consumer notice.