Citizens United Indeed

Last week, the Supreme Court blocked a ban to restrict political spending by corporations, unions and special interest groups. The case was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and when the ruling was announced my first thought was of one thing: Monsanto.

Earlier this month, Forbes magazine named biotech-giant Monsanto company of the year, crediting "the vast numbers of farmers who prefer its seeds to competing products" along with the company's $44 billion market value, for the magazine's top award. Dismissing years of serious environmental and health questions regarding the company's products, as well as anti-trust concerns that have brought both a suit from competitor DuPont and an impending Department of Justice hearing on seed competition, the article paints Monsanto the victim, albeit the very, very rich victim, of a pesky and hard-to-please public.

Conspicuously absent from the article is any mention of one gaping hole in big-ag logic; the logic that drives what Forbes writers, Robert Langreth and Matthew Herper, call Monsanto's efforts to "make humanity better fed." Indeed, millions of people worldwide are hungry and the challenge of feeding us all grows with our population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Companies like Monsanto suggest that their seed technology in combination with the chemical herbicides that they produce will increase agricultural production and solve the problem of world hunger. But here's the rub. We do not need to increase agricultural production to feed the hungry. In 2008, we grew enough food worldwide to feed 11 billion people. Enough food to feed 11 billion, for a population of less than 7 billion. Our problem of feeding the hungry is not a matter of increased production.

Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, summed it up well in his piece last week for the Atlantic Food Channel, "Hunger is not a global production problem. It is a global justice problem. [...] There may be profit to be made in exporting our high-tech, input-reliant, greenhouse-gas-emitting agricultural systems to the developing world. But let us not pretend it will solve global hunger or address climate change."*

Pretending is exactly what big-ag companies like Monsanto have done. Because there are massive profits to be made by selling biotechnology (Monsanto raked in a tidy $2.1 billion net revenue for 2009) the environmental damage and health problems attributed to our current food and agriculture systems are ignored or dismissed as nagging from a petulant public.

And so we arrive at a crucial conflict of interests. The gargantuan profits of ag-giants like Monsanto versus the sustainability of our food systems, the health of our planet and the health of the people who live on it. (Incidentally, Forbes seems to at least have it right on this point. Their article is titled, "The Planet versus Monsanto") Like it or not, all of these interests are affected daily by our government. They determine the subsidies that support large American monocrops, and the trade policies that influence the global import and export of food products. Their agencies decide what is safe for us to eat, and what isn't. Until last week, restrictions were in place to limit corporate spending on political TV ads in an effort to protect us from these conflicts of interest. But when the Supreme Court lifted the cap on corporate funding for campaign advertising, that semblance of protection was laid to waste. Though we’ve yet to see the extent to which this monumental decision will effect our political system as a whole, a door has certainly been opened and I, for one, am not excited about seeing what’s on the other side.

I’ve spent the last several days searching for a loop hole, a reason to be cautiously optimistic that this change won’t seriously damage the rights of us as individual citizens in favor of the singular, now even louder, voice of a company like Monsanto. The court’s decision effectively makes me or you David versus Monsanto’s Goliath in communicating our positions to our legislators. You or I get one vote and as many heated letters to our lawmakers as we like, and Monsanto gets a $44 billion direct line into the hot-seat. If I disagree with Monsanto, I am welcomed to incorporate myself and accumulate a few billions dollars to combat their position. The odds are ugly, but the reason for optimism is the fact that huge numbers of thought leaders are crying foul, and we've yet to hear the end on this issue.

*Viertel also does a nice job of explaining the findings of a recent report on global agriculture at a crossroads, put together by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Development Program. Their conclusions, along with Viertel's perspective on where we go from here, suggest a promising way forward.

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