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Compelling Photos Reveal the Legacy of America’s Most Hated Corporation

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Amber Beller, resident of Poca River Basin, West Virginia 2012, holds a photograph of her mother, Shirley Beller, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006. The level of cancer has reached abnormal numbers in the communities located close the Monsanto’s dump sites in Poca River basin. Almost everybody has a family member affected by cancer.

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Choccolocco Creek Anniston, AL 2012

For nearly 40 years, while producing the now-banned industrial coolants known as PCBs at a local factory, Monsanto Co. routinely discharged toxic waste into a west Anniston creek and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into oozing open-pit landfills. Thousands of pages of Monsanto documents – many emblazoned with warnings such as “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy” – show that for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.

Over the past five years, photographer Mathieu Asselin has devoted his life to researching and documenting the controversial history of Monsanto, a leading American corporation manufacturing agricultural chemicals and genetically modified food products. For Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, he has traveled throughout the country, from the PCB-contaminated creeks of Anniston, Alabama to the hazardous waste sites of Sauget, Illinois, photographing the landscapes and persons devastated by exposure Monsanto’s toxic products and the company’s monopoly on seeds. Included in Asselin’s dark portrait of Monsanto are objects collected by the photographer himself: vintage advertisements, memorabilia, and newspaper clippings.

In its 113 year history, Monsanto has manufactured everything from plastic to the now-banned Agent Orange, an herbicide used to destroy a large area of jungle during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange has since been found to cause miscarriages and birth defects in the children of Vietnam veterans. Today, Monsanto is a main producer of the herbicide glyphosate, which goes by the brand-name Roundup, and bovine growth hormone, both which have raised ethical and environmental concerns relating to the welfare of animals, humans, and the environment. We spoke to Asselin about his project as well as Monsanto’s past, present, and future.

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Lee Roy Muck. At his home in the Poca Basin close to one of the Monsanto Illegal dumps. Like an alarming number of residents in the area, he suffered a cancer related death. 

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Poca River Basin, West Virginia 2012
Headless snake in a contaminated site

You write that your inspiration for this project came from a conversation with your father. Do you remember what specifically compelled you to take action?
“As I write in the introduction of my dummy: ‘This photographic investigation is the result of an outrage that became an idea, an idea that became long hours of travel and sincere encounters.
It doesn’t pretend to present scientific proof; it is rather the recollection of visual testimonies from people and landscapes deeply affected by this company. And this project is the translation of these testimonies and the translation of my outrage.'”

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Postcard of the former Monsanto factory in Anniston, AL 1936. Collection of the photographer.

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Sturgeon, Missouri 2013
On January 10, 1979 on this intersection, a freight train accident in Sturgeon, Missouri spilled thousands of gallons of wood preservative called Chlorophenol. Monsanto tried to deny the presence of dioxin (the most toxic man-made chemical) in the spill; however, the EPA testing documented its high levels. The Monsanto Company was found liable for failing to warn Sturgeon residents about the risks of this spill.

Why did you choose to include archival materials in addition to portraits and landscape images?
“I find a lot of pleasure in the process of ‘before and after’ in my photography. By ‘before,’ I mean the endless possibilities offered by ideas that than take shape by the restrictions of the act of the photography. The transformation of that original idea and of what that idea will become is like making a map that never existed before, which results in the ‘after.’ Archival materials are great tools to play with, on this ‘before and after’ process. They expand the possibilities of my photography work, broadening the possibilities of visual narration. It also gives me a sense of detachment from the work I create. It is a collaboration with somebody else’s work where I can set the rules, and it adds an external or maybe validity and value to my work.”

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The State Historical Society of Missouri, University of Missouri, Columbia MO. Microfilm machine with the Sturgeon accident headline.

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Sauget, Illinois 2012
Sauget was formed in 1926 and was known as “Monsanto City.” In the time of strict environmental regulations, “Monsanto City” provided a liberal regulatory environment for the Monsanto chemical plants. High concentrations of dioxin and PCBs were detected in a two-mile-stretch of a local creek, located within a residential area of Sauget. In 2001, after years of investigation, the US Environmental Protection Agency designated the plant site along Dead Creek as a Superfund Site.

How did you gain access to photograph these archival materials and how did you meet the farmers and children of Vietnam Veterans photographed here?
“For the past couple of years and as a part of the investigation, I have been collecting many different types of memorabilia, old advertisements, postcards and documents from Monsanto. I have been buying them on eBay. I intended to use these objects and documents as a part of a future exhibition. I gained access to the people I have photographed for the past two years or more doing research on the internet, watching documentaries about the subject, and contacting non-governmental organizations working on the subject. Most of the time, I get in contact with somebody who knows the subject. At other times, I traveled to the affected location without knowing what I will find. As many photographers know, one thing leads you to another.”

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Poca River Basin, West Virginia 2012
Poca River Basin is part of the area locally known as the “Chemical Valley.” During its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, the area was the leading chemical producer in the world. Monsanto’s plant near the town of Nitro was the primary manufacturer of Agent Orange. The waste and residues from the plant were illegally dumped around the area. For years, the leaks from the dump sites have contaminated Poca River which joins Kanawha River, the largest inland waterway in West Virginia.

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West Anniston, Alabama 2012
A house, located close the former Monsanto Plant (Solutia Plant today), was abandoned due to a high level of PCBs. Monsanto’s facility was in a primarily low-income neighborhood and affected more than 20,000 people. Today, it represents the biggest population affected by a single contamination. In recent years, Monsanto has bought and demolished around 100 PCB-contaminated houses and businesses in the area, turning the neighborhood into a virtual ghost town.

What is the correlation between cancer and Monsanto’s dump sites? What other health problems are resultant from pollution from Monsanto?
“Cancer is just one on a very long list of heath related problems with Monsanto pollutants. There is also a long list of Monsanto pollutants: Dioxin, Glyphosate, PCB’s, just to mention the best known. Depending on the pollutant, the health consequences can vary from many different types of cancer, skin disorders, immune suppression, anemia, diabetes, liver problems, and the list goes on and on. The scary part is that even today we don’t have a clear idea of how the population’s health problems are going to evolve, even less the effects in future generations. And this is a pattern that in an early stage has been repeated with GMO’s. We just don’t know what will be the consequences of genetical manipulation in the long term or even the medium term future.”

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Poca River, West Virginia.

Could you tell us a bit about herbicides Agent Orange and Roundup and their historical use by Monsanto? What are the longterm environmental consequences of these herbicides?
“It is important to understand that Monsanto has around 115 years of history and has produced hundreds of different products, from artificial sweeteners, synthetic fabrics, disinfectants, hydraulic oils, PCBs, and others, and many of these products with health and environmental impacts that are hard to quantify. The agribusiness is a relatively new venture for Monsanto. Roundup is a synthetic herbicide made with glyphosate that was developed in the mid 70’s and later on was widely commercialized in the US. The consequences are many, and Monsanto has in the past falsified the test results of these consequences. One of the most well known problems besides soil and water contamination is the Roundup Resistant Weed or Super Weed. This is a type of weed has mutated as an immunization to the product and has became a nightmare to farms around the US. Another possible consequence of the use of herbicides like Roundup is the Bees Colony Collapse Disorder. Many experts are pointing to these herbicides as the leading cause of the collapse.

“But Monsanto goes one step further by genetically modifying seeds like corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, soya, so that they are resistant to the Roundup (glyphosate tolerant crops) called Roundup Ready Seeds. The consequences in humans have been proven in places like Argentina, where large populations living close to crops sprayed with these herbicides have developed different types of health problems, among them malformations on newborns similar to those of children in Vietnam contaminated with Dioxin, the most powerful chemical created by man and the main component in Agent Orange, an herbicide defoliant widely used in the 60’s and 70’s during the Vietnam war. As you can see, many Monsanto products are built on what I call a chain of successful failures. It is the commercialization of these failures that has been a very successful business strategy for this American Corporation.”

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Heather Bowser of Canfied, Ohio describes herself as a child of Agent Orange. She was born without several fingers and is missing a part of her right leg. She is convinced that the cause is Agent Orange. Her father, Bill Morris, fought in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange.

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Bill Morris, Heather Bowser’s father, was one of thousands of young Americans deployed to Vietnam in late 1960s. Morris had served in areas that were sprayed by Agent Orange, probably while he was there. By the early 1980s, while he was in his 30’s, his body started to break down. Morris’ health problems were directly tied to exposure to Agent Orange. Bill Morris passed away on March 11, 1998.

Could you tell us a bit about Monsanto’s patent laws and how they have affected local farmers?
“For thousand of years, farmers had ownership of seeds. When they buy or trade seeds, these seeds belong to them, so they can save the seeds and replant them for the next year’s crops. On one hand, this system is key for the democratization of seeds because the seeds are under the control of millions of farmers and not just under the control of a few corporations. This is a key factor for food security. This system has allowed the variety of seeds that we have today. Each farmer has worked on perfecting seeds through generations of breeding, since near the beginning of human civilization. This has not only allowed us to have the variety we have today but also has functioned as a protection to avoid the extinction of a specific species. It is a safety net for our food supply that has been woven over thousands of years. Monsanto now is trying to break this system by the appropriation of seed true patents with contracts strategically designed to weaken farmers and take power away from them. Monsanto is relentlessly persecuting farmers and seed cleaners all around the US. Not only is this dangerous for global food security but also it takes power away from farmers, debilitating the fundamental core of what I believe is a human heritage.”

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David Runyon,Geneva, Indiana 2013
In July 2004, David and his family were victims of Monsanto’s reckless persecution of farmers in the USA. Wrongly accused of using Monsanto Patented seed, David was ask by Monsanto’s lawyers to turn over all his business records including taxes. Monsanto has propagated a climate of fear among farmers in rural US. The Center for food safety 2012 report “Monsanto vs Farmers” has established that as of November 28, 2012, Monsanto had filed 142 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its Technology Agreement and/or its patents on genetically engineered seeds. These cases have involved 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses.

How do you think genetically modified food products have impacted the environment and the future of farming?
“In terms of health and ecology and for the medium and long run, the most realistic answer is: We don’t know. Very little effort has been made to undertake long term independent studies on GMO’s. And that is a huge problem. But a small window of what is to come can be opened by looking at the past and present of Monsanto’s business model. In the short run, we are already seeing consequences of this profit-over-sustainability industry business model. The consequences of the extended use of herbicides and fertilizers can be seen in the high levels of contamination of water and soil. These are today’s tangible consequences of what we are dealing with. But a new danger is rising: the consequences of genetically modified organisms. Even if we don’t know yet the danger or the consequences of these manipulations, experts around the world are just starting to link it to severe health problems, such as allergies, obesity, immune deficiencies and cancers, to name a few. So the answer again is: we don’t really know.”

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Edgemont Cemetery, West Anniston, Alabama 2012
David Baker, 65, at his brother Terry’s grave. Terry Baker died at the age of 16 from a brain tumor and lung cancer caused by PBC exposure. David Baker founded the organization Citizens against Pollution in response to the environmental contamination in the area. He was the main force behind the lawsuit that in 2002 forced Monsanto to pay $ 700 million to settle claims by more than 20,000 Anniston residents over PBC contamination.

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Troy Roush of Van Buren, Indiana, was wrongly accused of saving seed. The legal fight cost him $390,000 in lawyers’ fees. Roush probably couldn’t go back to conventional crops even if he could find good conventional seed; once Monsanto’s DNA is in your field, it’s almost impossible to get it out.

What is being done to change and regulate the damaging actions of Monsanto?
“In the US and on a governmental level, very little. Like many other business corporations, Monsanto has infiltrated key institutions and has twisted the arms of a lot of public servants whose purpose is to regulate corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto operates a wide lobbying network in Capitol Hill. This is what we call revolving doors between key governmental positions to senior positions in Monsanto. I believe that the real fight is coming from individuals, NGOs and grassroots movements, people like Jim Gerritsen from OSGATA, or Mr. Parker in Anniston, Alabama, and groups like Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, or NGOs like Center for Food Safety, to name a few. These groups are the ones that are fighting back to trigger policy changes and regulations and accountability for this multinational company.

“I would like to finish by saying that we find ourselves in a crucial moment in time. This is a moment where a lot of the policies that regulate our food and its future are being and will be decided. It is key that we— not only as consumers, but most importantly as heritors, be educated on this subject so we can be active and effective participants in these decisions. Otherwise, the decision will be taken from us and will not be in our interest.”

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In 1996, Monsanto introduced its first GMO seeds. It ensured that farmers could not save the seeds, and they would essentially lose the ownership of their seeds. Consequently, the power balance shifted away from the farmers to corporations who now own about 80 percent of GM corn and 93 percent of the GM soy market.

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Monsanto Magazine Ads from 1943. Collection of the photographer.

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Monsanto memorabilia. Collection of the photographer.

All images © Mathieu Asselin

via EMAHO Magazine

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