Pulp Non Fiction: The Ecologist Shredded

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman          

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.

Monstrous Monsanto

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 humans.

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 said.            "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 for production."

"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.