How Monsanto Went From Selling Aspirin to Controlling Our Food Supply
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The company did not shift its focus from chemicals to genetically engineered seeds overnight. In fact, it was another 12 years before it commercialized the first genetically engineered product, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH), a controversial hormone used to make dairy cows produce more milk. And it was not until 1996 that it first brought genetically engineered seeds, Roundup Ready soybeans, onto the market.
By 2000, the company had undergone such a sea change from its founding a century before that it claims it is almost a different company. In Monsanto’s telling of its own history, it emphasizes a split between the “original” Monsanto Company and the Monsanto Company of today. In 2000, the Monsanto Company entered a merger and changed its name to Pharmacia. The newly formed Pharmacia then spun off its agricultural division as an independent company named Monsanto Company.
Do the mergers and spinoffs excuse Monsanto for the sins of the past committed by the company bearing the same name? Lovera does not think so. “I'm sure there's some liability issues they have to deal with – their various production plants that are now superfund sites,” she responds. “So I'm sure there was legal thinking about which balance sheet you put those liabilities on” when the company split. She adds that the notion that today’s Monsanto is not the same as the historical Monsanto that made PCBs is “a nice PR bullet for them.”
But, she adds, “even taking that at face value, that they are an agriculture company now, they are still producing seeds that are made to be used with chemicals they produce.” For example, Roundup herbicide alone made up more than a quarter of their sales in 2011. The proportion of their business devoted to chemicals is by no means insignificant.
Monsanto’s pesticide product line includes a number of chemicals named as Bad Actors by Pesticide Action Network. They include Alachlor (a carcinogen, water contaminant, developmental/reproductive toxin, and a suspected endocrine disruptor), Acetochlor (a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor), Atrazine (a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor), Clopyralid (high acute toxicity), Dicamba (developmental/reproductive toxin), and Thiodicarb (a carcinogen and cholinesterase inhibitor).
Roundup: The Benign Herbicide?
Defenders of Monsanto might reply to the charge that Roundup is no Agent Orange. In fact, the herbicide is viewed as so benign and yet effective that its inventor, John E. Franz, won the National Medal of Technology. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, kills everything green and growing, but according to Monsanto, it only affects a metabolic pathway in plants, so it does not harm animals. It’s also said to break down quickly in the soil, leaving few traces on the environment after its done its job.
Asked about the harmlessness of Roundup, Lovera replies, “That’s the PR behind Roundup – how benign it was and you can drink it and there’s nothing to worry about here. There are people who dispute that.” For example there is an accusation that Roundup causes birth defects. “We don’t buy the benign theory,” continues Lovera, “But what’s really interesting is that we aren’t going to be having this conversation pretty soon because Roundup isn’t working anymore.”
Lovera is referring to “ Roundup-resistant weeds,” weeds that have evolved in the past decade and a half to survive being sprayed by Roundup. Nearly all soybeans grown in the United States is Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready variety, as are 80 percent of cotton and 73 percent of corn. Farmers spray entire fields with Roundup, killing only the weeds while the Roundup Ready crops survive. With such heavy use of Roundup on America’s farmfields, any weed – maybe one in a million – with an ability to survive in that environment would survive and pass on its genes in its seeds.