“Without chemicals, life itself is impossible,” says a 1977 Monsanto advertisement. The image shows a boy about to kiss a puppy in the middle of lush green grass. The text says that there are those who associate “chemical” with “bad” and “natural” with “good” but that, nevertheless, nature is chemical. The document is recovered by the Franco-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin in Monsanto: a Photographic Investigation. The book won awards such as the Kassel Dummy Festival in 2016 and the Aperture Foundation First Book Award in 2017.
Mathieu was born in 1973, more than seven decades after Monsanto was founded in 1901. First, the company produced saccharin for Coca-Cola; then they went on to make aspirin; during World War I, they manufactured artillery shells. Later came rubber, synthetic plastics, PCBs, Agent Orange (it was used by the United States in the Vietnam War and is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of millions of hectares of forest). As Mathieu says in the book, “they besiege the planet in various forms ranging from coolants to lubricants, from paint to paper.”
In dialogue with Vist Projects, Mathieu says that he is surprised that Monsanto not only does not stop growing due to the scandals that surround it but that it is getting bigger and bigger. “It’s like they were doing well thanks to all these disasters,” he says. It is all calculated in the costs, even the future lawsuits that they will have to pay. “The technology they managed to develop is thanks to the ecological, economic and environmental disaster”, analyzes Mathieu.
The Franco-Venezuelan photographer began his training in Caracas, practiced in the United States and now lives in France. He engages in long-term, in-depth research projects. He exhibited his work at Les Rencontre d’Arles in France, the Photo Museum Antwerp in Belgium, and the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
In the case of the Monsanto book, he realized that it was a difficult story to photograph, because part of the damage that occurs is not seen. Beyond the photographs in which people with genetic disorders appear, other areas of the conflict were more complicated to graph. That was the challenge. In the book there are landscapes that look beautiful but are disturbing: in the detail you can see the abandonment, the hand of the man who passed by and is no longer there. Inside, many of those places are destroyed. There is a headless snake in a polluted area or an uninhabited gas station as a symbol of a ghost town. Mathieu puts documents in the function of research and art in order to show the world the disaster.
The book describes how the multinational maintains strong ties with the United States government and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “It is a bed partner with many other central economic and political factors around the world,” he says. “The company carries out disinformation campaigns, persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists who dare to reveal their crimes.” It is a company with roots in weapons technology and that today contributes to an agricultural hyper-capitalism where “the seeds become a product like an Iphone.” With this work, Mathieu seeks to “stop the window to the future that Monsanto proposes”.
What conclusions did the investigation allow you to reach?
Monsanto has the largest market for glyphosate, although the work I do is not just on glyphosate. The work tries to explain what Monsanto is. When I try to explain it, I try to understand why everything has happened and how Monsanto, as a company, grows. How it is getting stronger and bigger, even though we know all the social, health, economic and of course ecological disasters it has left behind.
It’s like they’re doing well thanks to all these disasters. My work tries to explain what the history of Monsanto is in order to understand what it is today and also to defend itself, to try to stop the window to the future that Monsanto proposes. With Monsanto, for the first time the seeds are turned into a product like an iPhone or a camera that belongs to a corporation.
Glyphosate is closely linked to Agent Orange, which was a chemical used in warfare. It was used eradicate the jungle in Vietnam and Cambodia in order to clearly see the movements of the Vietcong troops. Even when this product was developed and when it was proposed to the American military, it was intended as a human weapon of war in the sense that instead of having to bomb blindly, if the forest werw eradicated, it will be possible to see where it has to be bombed.
This is not new: many of the chemicals used in crops today come from the war industry. When the First World War is over, and chemical components like mustard gas were made, companies reconverted that infrastructure and that technology. And agriculture lends itself to this.
The interesting thing about Roundup and glyphosate is that it has its roots in weapons technology.
…try to stop the window to the future that Monsanto proposes.
The idea that Monsanto becomes strong “because of” and not “despite” the damage it generates is very strong in your work …
Most obviously, Monsanto is a very powerful company today, despite all the ecological disasters. But the most important thing here are the ecological disasters that will come in the next 50 years, 100 years. Bayer bought Monsanto a few years ago and is faced with many lawsuits in the United States. The last time I saw there were 13.000 pending lawsuits against Roundup that caused different types of diseases, especially cancer.
There was a man who won in the United States and this set a precedent. For this Bayer, which is now the new owner, proposed several billion dollars to pay for all the next demands of the future. That is a huge amount of money. Why am I saying all this? Because Bayer knows that even with all these short, medium and long-term problems, Monsanto is still a very profitable company.
They use the logic that in order to make an omelette you have to break some eggs. So even if years later, as happened in Alabama, it is discovered that Monsanto knowingly contaminated, they simply have to pay a fine of 700 million dollars. Everything they could generate and the technology they managed to develop thanks to the ecological, economic and environmental disaster, they already have.
It is something similar to what tobacco companies did: hide for as long as possible that cigarettes are harmful. Once discovered, they pay a claim that represents only a small fraction of their earnings. That’s what Monsanto is doing.
Now, Monsanto has produced thousands and thousands of products and surely some have been of great help. But the good products that they have made do not justify all the damage that they generated, that they generate and that are projected in the future.
It seems that when you talk about Monsanto you are talking about a model, an economic system and even geopolitics. Do you see it this way?
This is all big business: glyphosate is really a product that follows the line of agricultural hyper-capitalism. Glyphosate comes to answer a need for hyperculture. So it happens that it is difficult to eradicate if a mentality, a form of cultivation is not eradicated.
It is definitely a kind of “perfect herbicide” for a type of economy…
Of course. Argentina is the best open-air laboratory for genetically modified seeds, which is what calls for the use of excessive glyphosate. Originally, glyphosate was going to reduce and control the use of chemicals. The idea was that with this “miracle” product, you did not have to use so many products to remove the herbicides. Of course, this works well with genetically modified seeds, which are resistant to glyphosate. So ideally less glyphosate should be used, but this all ends up being false. The use of glyphosate worldwide has risen despite the use of genetic seeds.
Part of your work was in the United States … What did you find there?
Among other places, I traveled to the southern United States, to West Virginia, where I photographed the Agent Orange production sites. Especially so that we realize that today the population in that place continues to suffer from this production that was turned off many years ago. The entire population living in that area where these products were illegally disposed of has very high levels of cancer. It really is amazing. Every family I visited has someone close to them who suffers from cancer. I always met someone who had or has had cancer.
It was waste that was dumped in the 60’s, right?
Until the ’80s, until the production of Agent Orange stopped. Getting rid of that implied great costs and they evaluated that the best thing was to put it in barrels and bury it, which came to contaminate the underground layers of river water; quite a big mess.
Monsanto also persecutes activists. Have you been able to see this too?
Monsanto is one of the most aggressive companies in that regard. Now it has stopped a bit because now Monsanto is Bayer and Bayer has a better reputation. Much more care is taken in that sense. But Monsanto at one time even went after university professors who did research on glyphosate problems. To the point of giving large amounts of money to universities on the condition that this research stops. It has also happened with journalists.
When a small documentary about my work was published by the German television, the Bayer people called to say why they had not contacted them before, that they wanted to comment on the matter. They attack very strongly those who criticize them. At the political level they have incredible power in Europe, and in the United States it is not talked about. In the United States there is a lot of what is called the ‘revolving door’: people leaving the government to work at Monsanto and vice versa from the agencies that regulate these large companies. It’s crazy.
Cement on top of an illegal dump. The effects of this method to contain and seal contamination are highly disputed. Photo by: Mathieu Asselin