How Monsanto Went From Selling Aspirin to Controlling Our Food Supply
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Forty percent of the crops grown in the United States contain their genes. They produce the world’s top selling herbicide. Several of their factories are now toxic Superfund sites. They spend millions lobbying the government each year. It’s time we take a closer look at who’s controlling our food, poisoning our land, and influencing all three branches of government. To do that, the watchdog group Food and Water Watch recently published a corporate profile of Monsanto.
Patty Lovera, Food and Water Watch assistant director, says they decided to focus on Monsanto because they felt a need to “put together a piece where people can see all of the aspects of this company.”
“It really strikes us when we talk about how clear it is that this is a chemical company that wanted to expand its reach,” she says. “A chemical company that started buying up seed companies.” She feels it’s important “for food activists to understand all of the ties between the seeds and the chemicals.”
Monsanto the Chemical Company
Monsanto was founded as a chemical company in 1901, named for the maiden name of its founder’s wife. Its first product was the artificial sweetener saccharin. The company’s own telling of its history emphasizes its agricultural products, skipping forward from its founding to 1945, when it began manufacturing agrochemicals like the herbicide 2,4-D.
Prior to its entry into the agricultural market, Monsanto produced some harmless – even beneficial! – products like aspirin. It also made plastics, synthetic rubber, caffeine, and vanillin, an artificial vanilla flavoring. On the not-so-harmless side, it began producing toxic PCBs in the 1930s.
According to the new report, a whopping 99 percent of all PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, used in the U.S. were produced at a single Monsanto plant in Sauget, IL. The plant churned out toxic PCBs from the 1930s until they were banned in 1976. Used as coolants and lubricants in electronics, PCBs are carcinogenic and harmful to the liver, endocrine system, immune system, reproductive system, developmental system, skin, eye, and brain.
Even after the initial 1982 cleanup of this plant, Sauget is still home to two Superfund sites. (A Superfund site is defined by the EPA as “an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.”) This is just one of several Monsanto facilities that became Superfund sites.
Monsanto’s Shift to Agriculture
Despite its modern-day emphasis on agriculture, Monsanto did not even create an agricultural division within the company until 1960. It soon began churning out new pesticides, each colorfully named under a rugged Western theme: Lasso, Roundup, Warrant, Lariat, Bullet, Harness, etc.
Left out of Monsanto’s version of its historical highlights is an herbicide called Agent Orange. The defoliant, a mix of herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, was used extensively during the war in Vietnam. The nearly 19 million gallons sprayed in that country between 1962 and 1971 were contaminated with dioxin, a carcinogen so potent that it is measured and regulated at concentrations of parts per trillion. Dioxin was created as a byproduct of Agent Orange’s manufacturing process, and both American veterans and Vietnamese people suffered health problems from the herbicide’s use.
Monsanto’s fortunes changed forever in 1982, when it genetically engineered a plant cell. The team responsible, led by Ernest Jaworski, consisted of Robb Fraley, Stephen Rogers, and Robert Horsch. Today, Fraley is Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. Horsch also rose to the level of vice president at Monsanto, but he left after 25 years to join the Gates Foundation. There, he works on increasing crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa. Together, the team received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1998.