Founded in 1901 to make artificial sweeteners, Monsanto has had a long history of controversial products, using litigation and sophisticated lobbying and public relations strategies to battle critics. Many of its products have produced harmful side-effects, including chemicals such as PCBs and dioxin (a by-product of chlorinated herbicides, including Agent Orange), rBGH (bovine growth hormone) and certain herbicides and genetically modified seeds. The company's biggest critics include farmers, scientists, and food safety advocates.
Monsanto has been by far the most prominent and controversial corporation promoting the introduction of biotechnology in agriculture. The company has a long and messy history of manufacturing hazardous chemicals. Their products have included chemical warfare agents (Agent Orange), industrial materials (PCBs), food additives (NutraSweet), agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.
St. Louis purchase agent John F. Queeny founded Monsanto in 1901 to produce artificial sweeteners. (Monsanto was his wife's maiden name.) Sales passed the $1 million mark in 1915. By the end of WWI the company was rapidly turning into a diversified chemicals manufacturer, and WWII made Monsanto an integral part of the rapidly-emerging military-industrial complex, producing large amounts of plastics and synthetic fibers. (In its 1942 annual report to shareholders, the company lamented that "It is with regret that we abandon our past practice of transmitting to our shareholders an informative and interpretive annual report ... the necessity of secrecy imposed by our national interest surrounds much of the activities upon which the company has been engaged.")
In the 1940s, Monsanto began to operate the Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg, Ohio, for the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons and, after 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission.
On April 16, 1947 -- the company's Texas City styrene plant burned to the ground in the aftermath of a tremendous explosion of ammonium nitrate aboard a French freighter tied up near the plant. (145 Monsanto employees were among the 512 victims).
For decades the company continued to operate as one of the largest chemical companies in the U.S. ("Without chemicals," a Monsanto ad suggested, "life itself would be impossible." The company initiated the chemical industry's trend to aggressively advertise in 1977 $4.5 million.)
Monsanto was a leading producer of Agent Orange -- the dioxin-contaminated herbicide used by the US Military in Vietnam as a defoliant.
During the 1990s Monsanto began to shed many of its core chemical production lines, in order to become the pioneer in industrial ‘life sciences.' The company invested heavily in biotechnology research and spent nearly $10 billion worldwide acquiring seed companies. In the late 1990s, Monsanto became the first company to widely market first generation GM crops, deploying an aggressive public relations campaign aimed at persuading a concerned public that GM crops were a safe and desirable innovation. The campaign backfired, resulting in Monsanto becoming the primary focus of a rapidly growing global resistance to GM crops. By late 1998 a combination of Monsanto’s status as an international bogeyman, and a need for returns on their extensive investments resulted in a loss in market confidence in the company and its share price plummeted.
Stability was partially regained through a merger with pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia/UpJohn in April 2000. As a result of the merger, the combined company -- known as Pharmacia -- took over Monsanto’s pharmaceutical wing Searle. The agrochemical and biotechnology division (still known as Monsanto) was spun off as a nominally separate company with Pharmacia retaining an 85% share.
In 2003 Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant refocused the company to reduce reliance upon the company’s agricultural chemicals business (including RoundUp, which had recently went off-patent), placing greater emphasis on its seeds and traits business.
Dioxin: Science for Sale
Monsanto was (along with Dow Chemical) a leading manufacturer of Agent Orange, the herbicide used as a defoliant to combat guerrilla insurgents in Vietnam. The company has a history of politicizing debates over the toxic effects of dioxin.
A series of Monsanto studies of workers exposed to dioxin was later criticized as fraudulent by an EPA scientist/whistleblower. The Monsanto scientists who conducted the studies, which were widely used to set regulatory standards for dioxin (since exposure records for veterans were incomplete, epidemiological studies for exposed workers were considered more reliable), admitted that more than a dozen workers with cancer who were known to be exposed to dioxin had been shifted into the "control" group or removed from the study, creating a bias in the analysis. After extensive controversy, media attention, and a failed libel lawsuit against a journalist covering the story in detail, Monsanto's studies fell into disrepute.
The long term effects of Monsanto’s GM crops on the environment are as yet unknown. In areas where RoundUp Ready crops are being grown commercially, herbicide tolerance is being spread to neighbouring crops and wild plants by cross pollination. Rather than reducing the amount of chemicals used in farming RoundUp Ready crops are locking farmers into a chemical dependant farming system. Several scientific studies have suggested that the Bt technology utilised by Monsanto in their Bollgard, YieldGard and NewLeaf insect resistant crops may kill ‘non-pest’ insects such as the Monarch butterfly.
Having encountered increasing opposition to GM technology in the developed global north, Monsanto have put more energy into pushing their products in the developing global south. An example of this being the attempt by Monsanto/Mahyco to rush their Bt insect resistant cotton through the Indian government’s regulatory process and on to the market. The decision on allowing commercial growing of Bt cotton was postponed for a year in the face massive opposition from Indian farmers and NGOs all over the world.
Monsanto holds a patent for 'terminator' technology. Terminator technology involves the genetically engineering of plants to produce sterile seeds thus forcing farmers to buy new seed every year, rather than saving their own seed from year to year. Monsanto has said it will not use this technology but still holds the patents and may use it in future.
Accused of Using Child Labor in India
According to a study conducted by the India Committee of the Netherlands, a company subsidiary employed children to make cotton seeds, thereby exposing them to Endosulfan and other pesticides, while paying less than Rs.20 (50 U.S. cents) per day.
Anti-competitive and consumer protection
Monsanto doesn't like the thought of anyone publicly disagreeing with them or worse still pulling a fast one on them. Where their GM crops are being grown commercially Monsanto have paid a small army of private investigators to check whether farmers are growing their GM crops without permission.
In 1997, 2 TV journalists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre who had been making a documentary on the dangers of Monsanto’s BST were fired by their employers Fox TV. Fox TV had come under pressure from Monsanto to change the content of the documentary.
There is a well documented ‘revolving door’ between Monsanto employees and officials from US Government regulatory bodies (particularly the Food and Drug Administration - FDA). This has effectively enabled Monsanto to bypass the regulatory process and get marketing consent in the US for their GM and other products with minimal safety checks. US influence has made it much harder for other countries to implement more rigorous regulatory standards.