Habitual apologists for agribusiness like Reason‘s Ron Bailey gushingly cite studies that show glyphosate, the “active ingredient” in Roundup, is unlikely to cause cancer in the concentrations that appear in supermarket produce. But as it turns out, the focus on glyphosate may actually have been a distraction. There’s evidence (“New Evidence About the Dangers of Monsanto’s Roundup,” The Intercept, May 17) that Roundup is indeed carcinogenic, especially in the concentrations that farm workers are exposed to — but the main culprit is not glyphosate, but “inert ingredients” (like surfactants). In fact, those “inert” ingredients may be deadly to human cells even in the residual amounts consumers are exposed to (“Weed Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells,” Scientific American, June 23, 2009). But legally, Monsanto is required to make public only the active ingredient — glyphosate — itself. In fact the “inert ingredients” are all trade secrets, legally protected by so-called “intellectual property.”
Even if it’s true that Roundup is safe if used to company specifications, as Monsanto claims, when is it ever so used? Given the gross power imbalances in the agribusiness industry, nobody’s going to hold giant plantation farmers to account for cutting corners when it comes to their workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals. Back in the 80s, I witnessed the large-scale use of Roundup to “eradicate weeds” on the lawn outside Old Main at the University of Arkansas. In fact it also eradicated the grass and killed some of the oak trees as well. And even as the physical plant workers themselves applied the Roundup in getups that looked like space suits, groups of students clad in shorts and tank tops casually strolled through the clouds of toxic chemicals.
I would also add that it’s disingenuous to give Roundup a pass based entirely on its danger or non-danger to consumers. The effects of Roundup — and the system of large-scale monoculture plantation farming it’s a part of — on farm workers and the ecosystem are also important.
No doubt libertarians will object to labelling requirements at all, including active ingredients. But libertarians also tend to favor a vigorous civil law of torts — or should so favor, if they’re not hypocrites — as a substitute for the regulatory state. And part of tort law is the ability to subpoena evidence relevant to an alleged harm. In a libertarian legal order (stipulating for the moment the unlikely possibility that anything resembling corporate agribusiness could ever have arisen in a free market in the first place), given the prevalence of cancer like non-Hodgkin lymphoma among agricultural workers exposed to Roundup, there would long ago have been lawsuits in which Monsanto was compelled to disclose the full list of ingredients in Roundup. And in any case “trade secrets” guaranteed by law, or enforced by any means other than the actual secrecy of the company itself and non-binding on third parties, would not exist at all.
So the existence of legally protected trade secrets is a weapon against the health and welfare of the public, depriving them of any knowledge of the nature of toxic chemicals they may be exposed to.
This is nothing new. We’ve already seen it in regard to the cocktail of ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is also kept secret from the potentially affected public by “intellectual property.”
And, in addition to the deaths caused by “intellectual property” itself, the state doesn’t mind, when necessary, inflicting large-scale death in its enforcement of “intellectual property” — as indicated by leaked diplomatic letters from the Colombian embassy (“Leaks Show Senate Aide Threatened Colombia Over Cheap Cancer Drug,” The Intercept, May 14). Colombia has been taking steps towards approving a cheaper generic form of the patented cancer drug imatinib, which costs $15,000 for a year’s supply. An aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch — an intimate friend of the pharmaceutical industry and an ultra-hawk on all “intellectual property” issues — expressed “concern” to Colombian diplomats that if Novartis’s “intellectual property” rights were violated the drug industry might “become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the United States.” In particular, “this case could jeopardize the approval of the financing of the new initiative ‘Peace Colombia.’” Peace Colombia is an attempt at a negotiated peace settlement between the government and guerrillas, and includes funding for the cleanup of land mines.
So basically Pharma’s Congressional hitmen are willing not only to cause death by denying affordable life-saving medicine. They’re also willing to obstruct (“Nice peace plan you got there…”) an end to a civil war that has killed thousands, and the deactivation of land mines in a country with the second-highest rate of land mine casualties in the world.
“Intellectual property” isn’t just theft. It’s terrorism.