This week’s Photogenie theme is titled Disruptive Dependence. Through visual stories, our curators research the question “How is agricultural production affecting communities and the environment?”
Who hasn’t heard of Monsanto yet? The company has been the subject of public discussion for years and ecological and human rights organisations have frequently criticized their ways. But, what is Monsanto and what do they do?
For Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation is a series by Mathieu Asselin. With this work, the French-Venezuelan photographer tries to capture the possible future of the company by looking at its past and present.
Monsanto is an American company that deals with agricultural chemicals and biotechnology. The corporation was founded in 1901 and grew into a leading trader in agrichemicals around the world. They are a key player in the commercialization of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). Ecological organisations, scientists and human right organisations criticize Monsanto, as they are worried about the risk they are posing to public health, food security and natural ecosystems.
Changing the natural structure of crops and seeds can cause severe harm to the established environment. When crops are genetically modified, the natural diversity within the crop is being limited. This means that when a new disease enters the crops, it doesn’t have enough genetic variety to survive. Not even a few plants will be left, therefore there is no natural selection by survival of the fittest. This can put local food security in danger: one epidemic can ruin the entire harvest and leave local communities in famine. Since transgenic material in GMO’s is not natural, new kinds of human allergies can originate, of which we don’t know the consequences. It is also possible that our body’s enzyme system can’t break down new structures and transgenic material will accumulate in our liver. The third risk on human health, although very improbable, is the risk of incorporation of transgenic DNA into the genome of microflora or other transgenic organisms, which can become hosts for new pathogens that could be dangerous for human beings. Lastly, Monsanto has been criticized for using patents on its technologies and developments. Patents on different kinds of agricultural technologies give Monsanto the sole right to producing and trading these technologies and products that are treated with these technologies. Some opponents call the use of patents ‘biopiracy’: a form of stealing from local communities. Patents prevent local farmers from saving seeds for the next year. It also prevents them from buying the Monsanto seeds because they are more expensive, making them unable to compete with other farmers that do use the new technology. They can’t compete with the large agriculture companies and may end up in poverty.
All these risks make Monsanto’s work controversial. Mathieu Asselin decided to investigate Monsanto’s strategies with the power of the image. Asselin found that Monsanto holds strong ties with the US government and other powerful economic and political authorities, which makes the company unlikely to be punished for the provision of misleading information and the persecution of individuals and organisations that try to address their crimes. Asselin studied hundreds of documents that entailed communication of Monsanto about their practices, analysing each document as another exercise of disinformation. The series addresses the misleading commercialisation of chemicals and the impact of Monsanto on, for example, the small town of Aniston that became a ghost town after the toxic chemical PCB was released in the air and water.
Although irresponsible handling of GMO’s and the patents that Monsanto uses have terrible impacts on the environment and society, it is important to remember that not all agrichemicals and biotechnologies are bad for us. Without many of these developments, we would not be able to produce food in the amounts that we do nowadays. For example, think about removing a gene from a mushroom that makes it go bad after a slight bump or scratch: it does not have a big impact, but it decreases food waste during harvest tremendously. Genetic modification is somewhat like alcohol: it can be fun as long as we act responsibly! For Monsanto, this is unfortunately not the case. Their unlimited control makes them the biotech bullies of American agriculture.
About the artist:
Mathieu Asselin was born in 1973, and lives and works between Arles, FR and New York, USA. Asselin’s work on Monsanto was awarded the Aperture Foundation First Book Award in 2017, the Dummy Book Award Kassel 2016, and a special mention for the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award 2016. Additionally, his book was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation 2018. Monsanto: An Photographic Investigation will be displayed at The Ravenstijn Gallery in Amsterdam, as the first in a series of exhibitions of emerging artists with work surrounding social topics. Asselin’s work will be exhibited from the 29th of June until the 31st of August. Go check it out!
Check out Mathieu Asselin’s full body of work at www.mathieuasselin.com and on Instagram @asselin.mathieu.
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Written by Myrthe Peek