Sometimes stories emerge which you expect to run and run. If they don’t, that is suspicious in itself. It suggests that hard work is being done to bury them, and we need to look at what is being done elsewhere to identify that.
On August 10th a court in California found the agrochemical giant Monsanto guilty of causing the cancer suffered by a school groundskeeper who used its Roundup herbicide products, such as a weed killer, on a regular basis in his job.
The jury ruled that the company had failed to warn the groundskeeper of the cancer risks its products, especially Glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer by California state scientists and the World Health Organization posed. He was awarded 39 million dollars in damages and the court fined the company an additional 250 million
The victory was hailed by a predictable chorus of people. For years it has been alleged that Monsanto, and similar companies, have been buying off scientists and regulators so that these risks do not come to light and its profits are not dented. It has been further alleged that this corruption could only have occurred because Monsanto has friends in high places who are not only willing to be bought off themselves, but have actively encouraged such behaviour.
The defeat of Monsanto in one court case is a victory for democracy, we are told. The company now faces thousands of similar lawsuits across the US, which will be fought on the basis of evidence which has been extracted from Monsanto’s internal documents and other companies alleged to operate in the same way must now be getting nervous. No longer will they be protected special interests, able to do what they like, but be held accountable to the public, as a democracy requires.
The trouble is, there is no sign as yet that this will actually happen. You can only buy alternatives to Monsanto products if they are made available, and proven not to bear the same risks. But that can only happen if the other companies have a better distribution network, and more bought off suppliers. Unless Monsanto products are banned, which has not yet happened, they will continue to dominate the market.
Similarly, the general public do not know or care what the chemical differences are between products. If one causes cancer all those of the same type will be believed to cause cancer, so you may as well buy the most convenient one and hope it does not happen to you.
So the “special relationships” which allowed Monsanto to get this far are still in place. As in foreign affairs, no matter what crimes are committed by this or that interest group, protecting those at the top, who could have prevented those crimes, is paramount. But if more cases result in more fines and convictions, someone will have to pay the price, just as ministers who are implicated by the mistakes of others are manoeuvred out.
As yet, no one has been held to account other than the Monsanto company itself. So how will democracy, in the US and around the world, be served by governments finally admitting that such corruption has long existed? What can we expect the fallout to be from putting justice before corruption, and for whom?
One law for the rich, another for the sick
Every country has had its corruption scandals. In most of the world buyoffs which kill people aren’t even scandals, as this is a way of life everyone has to adopt to survive.
Eduard Shevardnadze understood this when he used criminal gangs to take over Georgia and then made the country an intricate web of petty corruption in which everyone was implicated, and ultimately beholden unto him. When people feel that is the only option they have, they take it, even though this never has to be the case as poorer countries all have rich patrons who can stop it if they want.
One famous example of such relationships, and what happens when they are exposed, is the thalidomide scandal. This new “wonder drug” was introduced in the late 1950s and prescribed for pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. It also created thousands of disabled children, born with defects such as missing arms and legs, and was eventually withdrawn from sale, although not from use, in 1961 when the link was established and public outrage grew too great.
It took seven years for the manufacturers of the drug to reach a compensation agreement with its victims. However even this private arrangement was considered inadequate, and the company was forced, reluctantly, to pay out millions more. Even then it took until 2010 for the UK government, which had approved and licensed the drug and overseen all the consequences and attempts to gain compensation, to formally apologize for the harm it had done
This might nevertheless seem to indicate some level of contrition for, or at least recognition of, the problem by the drug company and the UK government. However throughout this period, and down to the present day, thalidomide has remained in use within medicine for other purposes, even though government regulators could prevent this.
This is happening because the manufacturers have actively campaigned to ensure its continued use to try and absolve themselves from blame, by saying that the harm it did was relatively insignificant compared with all its alleged benefits. This is not said in as many words, but that is the purpose behind the continual promotion of the drug, when others can be used to achieve the same benefits.
Judgment was made against the UK manufacturer of thalidomide long before Monsanto. To this day it is allowed to operate, grow and become the mighty conglomerate now known as Diageo. This is the sanction it has faced for its crimes, from those who make it illegal to deny the Holocaust whilst spiriting its perpetrators out through ratlines.
Case which should be history
In 1962 Maud Biddulph of Birmingham, UK, was carrying her third child. Her doctor, a young and recently qualified man, insisted she take thalidomide, even though he knew the effects, and knew the drug had already been withdrawn from sale as a result of them. He omitted to give her these small details about what he was prescribing.
She refused, and he told her he would strike her off the practice for not accepting his advice. Knowing better, Maud had the baby anyway without his “help”.
Seventeen years later Maud was bedridden with a debilitating illness, having always previously been very active. Her doctor was the head of a large group practice which was notorious for having more drug company reps in the waiting room than patients, and had been featured on the local TV news for this reason. Some the the gratuities given to these doctors for prescribing their products had been shown, and all of these also had other, non-medical, applications.
The doctor insisted Maud was merely going through the menopause, and prescribed her a branded product to address this. He then refused to see her, no matter how sick she got, but just kept on prescribing this product. She actually had breast cancer, as one of that doctor’s colleagues confirmed when the practice finally sent someone round, and it is not hard to tell the difference between the two.
In a matter of weeks Maud died from a disease which would not have claimed her life if she had been prescribed different products. But she had been repeatedly prescribed that particular one, by the head of a practice whose doctors were known to receive gratuities from different drug manufacturers for prescribing their particular products, as opposed to others.
None of this would have happened if the corrupt relationships between governments and Big Pharma companies, such as both Diageo and Monsanto, had actually been affected by the thalidomide case. Therefore we have little hope that the Monsanto case will lead to greater accountability or democracy, let alone justice. On the contrary, we can expect more deaths, because those could prevent them will be too busy trying to justify their existing crimes, precisely because they go all the way up to the people who have a responsibility to prevent them.
Journalists do not usually reveal their sources. This one has specifically asked to be named. It is Rumwold Leigh, who is the baby Maud Biddulph was carrying in 1962. And will more than likely be glad to hear from any doctor or government minister who is prepared to compensate him and his family.
Under the counter and over the line
The Monsanto judgment has not led to public denunciation of the company by the public officials and scientists it has bought off for so long. So these people feel their best interests are best served by defending it in some way, no matter what it has done. Does this give us any clues as to who will face the consequences of this judgment, if there are any?
It will now be more difficult for Monsanto to sell its products in any Western country. No matter how much distribution it controls, a significant number of consumers will care enough to boycott its wares. It will also be more difficult for it to export them to Europe, as this has a different regulatory regime considered stricter. The EU is enjoying the anxiety UK consumers are feeling about having to eat chlorine-washed American chicken after Brexit, and is not going to vacate the moral high ground now.
We can therefore expect that these cancer-producing agrochemical products will find their way to developing countries. After all, this is exactly what happened as soon as cigarette smoking was linked to lung cancer in the Western world. Every time a law was passed restricting cigarette advertising, the companies simply shipped out their worst products to third world countries, where they were promoted in the same way now declared illegal in the West.
The purpose of this was not simply to maintain profits. The more tax revenues, and illicit backhanders, cigarette sales generated the more governments were dependent on them. They were unlikely to act against tobacco with the freedom of Western governments under such circumstances.
This was only one prong of the blackmail strategy. At the same time, tobacco companies sponsored increasing numbers of sporting events, such as the Benson and Hedges Cup in cricket and the W.D. and H.O. Wills World Matchplay Championship in golf
These sports likewise became dependent on tobacco sponsorship, despite knowing they were receiving it just to make cigarette smoking look healthy rather than deadly.
It took many more years before such sponsorship was also banned, and other donors were found to keep competitions going. Strangely enough, this coincided with the opening up of new markets in Eastern Europe, and the advents of governments so desperate to join the capitalist world that they sold everything to the highest bidder for the sake of it. It is hardly surprising that Eastern Europe is now bottom of the league when it comes to drug regulation, despite all the “health promotion” programmes which have provided cover for introducing ever more dubious drugs, and supply cartels, to countries we were told had already suffered enough.
Laying down your friends for your life
Products which are shunned in the West do not find their way to the developing world by accident. Consumers are just as wary of cancer risks in one country as they are in the next. If left to decide for themselves, which is what “liberal economics” is supposed to mean, the buying public would treat Monsanto products in the same way anywhere.
We can therefore expect the US, and various global agencies, to suddenly discover a need for more agricultural aid programmes. How genuine any of these are can be seen by the fact that people are starving in Centtral Asia because their previous food crops are now being grown for Western biofuel, while their own vehicles still run on the smellies and ugliest petrol. But that is why they are never undertaken alone.
Alongside every rural aid initiative is another designed to promote the things everyone wants: democracy, rule of law, human rights. These also are designed not to work, as they are undertaken by partner governments who would lose everything if these principles were actually applied. But they give countries the right image. If countries want more help, they have to go along with them, and also accept all the dodgy stuff with them as a quid pro quo, even when organizations such as USAID have become so notorious they can shove notorious dictators off the front pages.
None of those rejoicing at the Monsanto judgment would ever want such abuses to be the consequence of their victory. But when confronted with them, will they really extend their fight to protecting millions more innocents in faraway lands?
We have all seen the pictures of residents of Prague trying to turn back the Warsaw Pact tanks in 1968. What we never see is how they all slunk off home when the Soviets didn’t leave. When people have made their principled stand, and expressed their anger, that is where it usually ends. No matter how much they protest, the crimes of Monsanto will rumble on until one of their perpetrators chooses to sacrifice others before they themselves are sacrificed – and all it takes is for enough people to keep quiet to prevent that ever happening.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.