“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably
a war against himself.” – Rachel Carson
For more than 100 years, the name Monsanto has engendered both faith and fear, loyalty and loathing. The corporate leader first made a name for itself in the early 1900s as a maker of artificial ingredients, moving over the years into a maker of industrial compounds and synthetic chemicals and eventually taking on Mother Nature herself as a corporate creator of genetically engineered seeds.
From the time of its founding in 1901 by John F. Queeny – whose wife Olga Mendez Monsanto was the company’s namesake – until its absorption by Germany’s Bayer AG in 2018, Monsanto made billions of dollars manufacturing a range of products that have left a poisonous legacy across a global landscape. The company’s manufacturing history includes such things as sulfuric acid, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and growth hormones for dairy cows as well the manufacturing of controversial pesticides, including an insecticide called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, which was banned worldwide under the Stockholm Convention in 2001 after it was discovered to be dangerous to wildlife and the environment. Monsanto was also a maker of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War by U.S. troops to kill vegetation that provided hiding places for enemy soldiers. Agent Orange was eventually found to have links to cancers, birth defects, and a range of human health problems. Many of the company’s other products and practices have proven to be dangerous as well, despite decades of denials by Monsanto. The American town of Anniston, Alabama became so polluted from a Monsanto PCB plant that city residents won a $700 million settlement in 2003. The townspeople said the company knew about the toxic effects of PCBs for decades but did nothing to protect the health of residents or to protect the area’s water and soil from contamination.
Monsanto may be best known, however, for its introduction in the 1970s of a weed-killing chemical called glyphosate. Company chemists combined glyphosate with water and other ingredients in a brand Monsanto dubbed Roundup. The formulation poisoned plants so effectively that it became a hot seller not just in the United States but in many countries.
Roundup was heralded as a much safer alternative to other, older herbicides, and one that people could spray in their own yards with little concern. The company said glyphosate interacted in plants in ways that were not possible in mammals, meaning that people and their pets would not be harmed through exposure to the chemical. U.S. and foreign regulators have echoed the company’s safety assertions – relying heavily on studies funded by Monsanto in their assessments. Glyphosate herbicides have been deemed to be so safe by regulators that these herbicides are allowed for a wide range of uses, including use in growing soybeans and corn, wheat and oats, cotton and canola, and dozens of other types of foods. Glyphosate herbicides are even used in orange groves, vineyards and watermelon patches.
With a green light from regulators, Monsanto marketed Roundup and related brands for everything from knocking out hard-to-kill weeds in residential yards to spraying it over entire crops to dry out before farmers harvested. The herbicide has been commonly sprayed from planes and helicopters, pumped from truck-mounted tanks and squeezed out of handheld plastic bottles. School districts around the United States have spent years spraying the weed killer on playgrounds and areas frequented by children without fear.
Monsanto’s move in the 1990s to genetically alter different types of widely grown crops, such as corn and soybeans and cotton, was done in large part to encourage the continued use of Roundup and to protect Monsanto’s profits as its patent on glyphosate neared expiration. Farmers buying the company’s glyphosate-tolerant, “Roundup Ready” seeds could spray the weed killer directly over the crops that grew from the GMO seeds without hurting the crops at all. The weeds in the fields would die but the crops would flourish. Farmers could spray their fields with Roundup multiple times if needed and the crops would continue to grow. Use of Roundup and other glyphosate products exploded in the late 1990s and 2000s with the adoption of these genetically altered crops, making glyphosate the world’s most widely used weed killing chemical.
Use of glyphosate has since become so pervasive that researchers have documented traces of the chemical in finished foods, surface and drinking water supplies, and in human urine. The chemical has also been confirmed to persist in the soil and show up in rainfall.
Though based in the United States for all of its existence, Monsanto’s footprint included operations in Canada and Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Israel, Australia, Europe, and numerous locations throughout African and Asian countries. As Monsanto extended its reach into agriculture it started buying up seed companies and eventually became the world’s largest seed company. At one point, Monsanto’s seed portfolio included not just row crops used as ingredients in finished foods, but also fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, melons, onions, carrots, broccoli, and lettuce.
But as the company’s business grew, so did public distrust. Monsanto became commonly known as “Monsatan” to critics and activists who deemed the company as dangerously tinkering with the global food supply and polluting the environment with its Roundup herbicides and other chemicals.
Scientists around the world published study after study showing harmful impacts of glyphosate herbicides both for people and for the environment. Yet Monsanto continued to assure consumers, farmers and regulators that its products were safe. Advertising by the chemical giant showed people spraying wearing shorts and sandals, smiling happily as they applied the poison to areas where their children would play.
The beginning of the end for Monsanto came in 2015 when the company’s pledges of safety surrounding its Roundup herbicides started to unravel. The unwinding revealed numerous corporate secrets, covert strategies to alter both the scientific record and regulatory assessments about the so-called safety of a chemical that millions of people around the world were exposed to. Records also show the company working to manipulate media and press coverage and to create ghost-written articles and op-eds to manipulate consumer opinion.
Thousands of people suffering from debilitating and deadly cancers came to learn that decades of research linking the weed killer to cancer had been suppressed and dismissed due to actions by Monsanto. And they found out first-hand that the EPA and other regulators worked closely with Monsanto in ways that protected the company’s profits much more than public health.
Many hoped lawmakers and regulators would ride to the rescue. But in the end the victims would find the only avenue for attempting to hold Monsanto accountable came through the courts.
Monsanto is no more. But more than 42,000 people stricken with cancer after using Roundup products have sued Monsanto since 2015 and are continuing to pursue justice from Monsanto’s owner Bayer for the alleged cover up of years of scientific research showing the health risks of exposure to Roundup and related glyphosate-based herbicides made by Monsanto. After three trials, unanimous juries in all three cases awarded damage awards totaling more than $2 billion, though the trial judges later lowered the awards. Bayer’s shareholders have reacted with anger and alarm and Bayer saw a significant drop in its market capitalization due to the Roundup litigation.
Many cheer the troubles of Monsanto and, by extension, Bayer. But even as the Monsanto name fades and the truth of its glyphosate herbicides is exposed, the deeper realization is that the story of Monsanto and its weed killer is also merely one part of the much larger problem of how the pervasive use of pesticides is poisoning the planet.
Pesticides pushed by the Dow Chemical Co. and Syngenta – both now also morphed into other companies – are also shown to cause multiple health problems for people and the environment. Scientific research shows that birds are dying and that bees and other insects are disappearing, while water, air, soil and humans themselves grow more polluted.
In 2017, United Nations experts called for a comprehensive global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders, and sterility.
Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections, the United Nations has noted.
The UN experts say this: “It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”
“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” ― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Carey Gillam is the author of the award-winning book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science
Winner – 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award