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Taking Monsanto to the People’s Court

With the legal system failing to hold Monsanto accountable, Iowans convened a court of public opinion.

judge gavel by s_falkow

Photo by S_falkow

On April 21, approximately 100 people came to a courtroom in Iowa City to attend a mock trial called the Monsanto Hearings, the second of five such events scheduled nationwide. The trial was modeled after a preliminary hearing, an attempt to collect stories about harm caused by agribusiness giant Monsanto and determine if further public scrutiny is warranted.

The court’s five presiding judges—including a professor, a graduate student and an organic farmer —made no pretense of impartiality. “We are under no obligation to be even-handed,” they announced early on, “because in the court of public opinion, Monsanto is not even-handed. They have money for lobbyists, advertisements, corporate-funded research and media campaigns. The influence of this hearing, by contrast, depends on the power and truth of what is said.” The court, they explained, would not be considering legal violations, but rather violations of nature, ethics and human rights.

Untraditional as it might be, the hearing had an air of formality—the judges looked smart in their black robes, and witnesses swore to the truth before testifying, some in person and some over video. The first witness was a Vietnam veteran, trembling in a Hawaiian shirt, suffering from Hepatitis C linked to exposure to Monsanto’s Agent Orange (of which an active ingredient, 2,4-D, is a common lawn pesticide today); then a small farmer whose neighbor lost acres of organic crops due to pesticides drifting on morning fog; later, a garden and soil educator who brought a wooden box of soil and worms to the witness stand.

Because peoples’ tribunals are not legally binding, their main goal is to bring visibility to offenses that might otherwise go unseen or unrecorded, and to victims for whom legal protection has fallen short.

Other witnesses included professors, farmers, scientists and local activists. Their testimonies ranged from personal to technical, from stories of the approximately 200,000 Indian farmers who, indebted after Monsanto’s cotton seed prices rose from 7 to 17,000 rupees/kg, have committed suicide, to explanations of the influence of corporate agribusiness on U.S. land-grant universities and how minute manipulations of chemical structure have allowed Monsanto to sidestep health regulations. One man came dressed as a “superweed”—a plant that developed pesticide resistance after exposure to the chemical glyphosate—and lounged with his feet on the edge of the witness box. “I don’t give a fuck about Monsanto,” he said, swigging from a bottle marked “Roundup,” “though they do make a good drink.”

One common theme throughout the testimonies was the importance of adhering to the precautionary principle, which dictates that if an action (or, say, a pesticide or a genetically modified crop) has the potential to cause significant harm, it should not be implemented until it has been proven safe. The European Union mandates use of the precautionary principle when regulating chemicals and biotechnology, but the United States doesn’t, instead placing the burden on consumers to prove harm once the damage has already been done.

Crop dusting, photo by Roger Smith
A Month Without Monsanto

April Dávila wondered what it would take to cut the GMO giant out of her family’s life. She found that it was far more entrenched than she’d ever realized.

Which is, in a way, what the activists behind the Monsanto Hearings are trying to do. By using the courtroom as a public theater, they aim to spread knowledge and conversation within a region—the Midwest—that is heavily dependent on large-scale agriculture. I talked to the event’s main organizer, Sarah Kanouse, a member of the artist and activist group Compass. She cited a groundswell in public resistance to Monsanto’s products as an impetus for the hearing. “We wanted to see what an amateur legal proceeding would look like,” she explained.

The Monsanto Hearings are based on a robust international tradition of peoples’ tribunals that dates back 40 years to the Russell Tribunal, which examined human rights violations by the U.S. military in Vietnam. Because peoples’ tribunals are not legally binding, their main goal is to bring visibility to offenses that might otherwise go unseen or unrecorded, and to victims for whom legal protection has fallen short. By specifically adopting the mantle of a legal proceeding, a peoples’ tribunal can call attention to the insufficiency of the law when it comes to fostering social and environmental justice.

A similar Monsanto Hearing was held recently in Carbondale, Illinois, and more are planned for Chicago, Santa Cruz and St. Louis, near Monsanto’s headquarters. Footage from the Iowa City hearing will be shown this summer at dOCUMENTA13, an art festival in Germany, as a preliminary documentary, and a more polished documentary is also in the works.


Blair Braverman writes about environmental policy, health, and justice. She is a recent contributor to Orion magazine, a current MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, and a contributor to Waging Nonviolence, where this article first appeared.

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