This article orignially appeard in The Ecologist, September/October 1998 and translated and reprinted in Courrier International (France), Global Økologi (Denmark) and other international publications.
Monsanto’s high-profile advertisements in Britain and the U.S. depict the corporation as a visionary, world-historical force, working to bring state-of-the-art science and an environmentally responsible outlook to the solution of humanity’s pressing problems. Whether one is concerned about population growth, the future of agriculture, the quality of our food, or the health needs of an aging population, we are assured that Monsanto will find the answers.
But just who is Monsanto? Where did they come from? How did they get to be the world’s second largest manufacturer of agricultural chemicals, one of the largest producers of seeds, and soon — with the impending merger with American Home Products — the largest seller of prescription drugs in the United States? What do their workers, their customers, and others whose lives they have impacted, have to say? Is Monsanto the “clean and green” company its advertisements promote, or is this new image merely a product of clever public relations? A look at the historical record offers some revealing clues, and may help us better understand the company’s present-day practices.
Headquartered just outside St. Louis, Missouri, the Monsanto Chemical Company was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny. Queeny, a self-educated chemist, brought technology to manufacture saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, from Germany to the United States. In the 1920s, Monsanto became a leading manufacturer of sulfuric acid and other basic industrial chemicals, and is one of only four companies to be listed among the top ten U.S. chemical companies in every decade since the 1940s.
By the 1940s, plastics and synthetic fabrics had become a centerpiece of Monsanto’s business. In 1947, a French freighter carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer blew up at a dock 270 feet from Monsanto’s plastics plant outside Galveston, Texas. More than 500 people died in what came to be seen as one of the chemical industry’s first major disasters. The plant was manufacturing styrene and polystyrene plastics, which are still important constituents of food packaging and various consumer products. In the 1980s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed polystyrene as fifth in its ranking of the chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste.
In 1929, the Swann Chemical Company, soon to be purchased by Monsanto, developed polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were widely praised for their nonflammability and extreme chemical stability. The most widespread uses were in the electrical equipment industry, which adopted PCBs as a nonflammable coolant for a new generation of transformers. By the 1960s, Monsanto’s growing family of PCBs were also widely used as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, cutting oils, waterproof coatings and liquid sealants. Evidence of the toxic effects of PCBs appeared as early as the 1930s, and Swedish scientists studying the biological effects of DDT began finding significant concentrations of PCBs in the blood, hair and fatty tissue of wildlife in the 1960s.
Research in the 1960s and seventies revealed PCBs and other aromatic organochlorines to be potent carcinogens, and also traced them to a wide array of reproductive, developmental and immune system disorders. Their high chemical affinity for organic matter, particularly fat tissue, is responsible for their dramatic rates of bioaccumulation, and their wide dispersal throughout the North’s aquatic food web: Arctic cod, for example, carry PCB concentrations 48 million times that of their surrounding waters, and predatory mammals such as polar bears can harbor tissue concentrations of PCBs more than fifty times greater than that. Though the manufacture of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1976, its toxic and endocrine disruptive effects persist worldwide.
The world’s center of PCB manufacturing was Monsanto’s plant on the outskirts of East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis is a chronically economically depressed suburb, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, bordered by two large metal processing plants in addition to the Monsanto facility. “East St. Louis,” reports education writer Jonathan Kozol, “has some of the sickest children in America.” Kozol reports that the city has the highest rate of fetal death and immature births in the state, the third highest rate of infant death, and one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the United States.
Dioxin: A Legacy of Contamination
The people of East St. Louis continue to face the horrors of high level chemical exposure, poverty, a deteriorating urban infrastructure, and the collapse of even the most basic city services, but the nearby town of Times Beach, Missouri was found to be so thoroughly contaminated with dioxin that the U.S. government ordered it evacuated in 1982. Apparently the town, as well as several private landowners, hired a contractor to spray its dirt roads with waste oil to keep dust down. The same contractor had been hired by local chemical companies to pump out their dioxin-contaminated sludge tanks. When fifty horses, other domestic animals, and hundreds of wild birds died in an indoor arena that had been sprayed with the oil, an investigation ensued that eventually traced the deaths to dioxin from the chemical sludge tanks. Two young girls who played in the arena became ill, one of whom was hospitalized for four weeks with severe kidney damage, and many more children born to mothers exposed to the dioxin-contaminated oil demonstrated evidence of immune system abnormalities and significant brain dysfunction.
While Monsanto has consistently denied any connection to the Times Beach incident, the St. Louis-based Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) uncovered laboratory reports documenting the presence of large concentrations of PCBs manufactured by Monsanto in contaminated soil samples from the town. “From our point of view, Monsanto is at the heart of the problem here in Missouri,” explains TBAG’s Steve Taylor. Taylor acknowledges that many questions about Times Beach and other contaminated sites in the region remain unanswered, but cites evidence that close investigations of the sludge sprayed in Times Beach were limited to those sources traceable to companies other than Monsanto.
The cover-up at Times Beach reached the highest levels of the Reagan Administration in Washington. The nation’s environmental agencies during the Reagan years became notorious for officials’ repeated backroom deals with industry officials, in which favored companies were promised lax enforcement and greatly reduced fines. Reagan’s appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was forced to resign after two years in office and her special assistant, Rita Lavelle, was jailed for six months for perjury and obstruction of justice. In one famous incident, the Reagan White House ordered Burford to withhold documents on Times Beach and other contaminated sites in the states of Missouri and Arkansas, citing “executive privilege,” and Lavelle was subsequently cited for shredding important documents. An investigative reporter for the Philidelphia Inquirer newspaper identified Monsanto as one of the chemical companies whose executives frequently hosted luncheon and dinner meetings with Lavelle. The evacuation sought by residents of Times Beach was delayed until 1982, eleven years after the contamination was first discovered, and eight years after the cause was identified as dioxin.
Monsanto’s association with dioxin can be traced back to its manufacture of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, beginning in the late 1940s. “Almost immediately, its workers started getting sick with skin rashes, inexplicable pains in the limbs, joints and other parts of the body, weakness, irritability, nervousness and loss of libido,” explains Peter Sills, author of a forthcoming book on dioxin. “Internal memos show that the company knew these men were actually as sick as they claimed, but it kept all that evidence hidden.” An explosion at Monsanto’s Nitro, West Virginia herbicide plant in 1949 drew further attention to these complaints. The contaminant responsible for these conditions was not identified as dioxin until 1957, but the U.S. Army Chemical Corps apparently became interested in this substance as a possible chemical warfare agent. A request filed by the St. Louis Journalism Review under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act revealed nearly 600 pages of reports and correspondence between Monsanto and the Army Chemical Corps on the subject of this herbicide byproduct, going as far back as 1952.
The herbicide “Agent Orange,” which was used by U.S. military forces to defoliate the rainforest ecosystems of Vietnam during the 1960s was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D that was available from several sources, but Monsanto’s Agent Orange had concentrations of dioxin many times higher than that produced by Dow Chemical, the defoliant’s other leading manufacturer. This made Monsanto the key defendant in the lawsuit brought by Vietnam War veterans in the United States, who faced an array of debilitating symptoms attributable to Agent Orange exposure. When a $180 million settlement was reached in 1984 between seven chemical companies and the lawyers for the veterans, the judge ordered Monsanto to pay 45.5 percent of the total.
In the 1980s, Monsanto undertook a series of studies designed to minimize its liability, not only in the Agent Orange suit, but in continuing instances of employee contamination at its West Virginia manufacturing plant. A three-and-one-half-year court case brought by railroad workers exposed to dioxin following a train derailment revealed a pattern of manipulated data and misleading experimental design in these studies. An official of the U.S. EPA concluded that the studies were manipulated to support Monsanto’s claim that dioxin’s effects were limited to the skin disease chloracne. Greenpeace researchers Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno describe the outcome:
According to testimony from the trial, Monsanto misclassified exposed and non-exposed workers, arbitrarily deleted several key cancer cases, failed to verify classification of chloracne subjects by common industrial dermatitis criteria, did not provide assurance of untampered records delivered and used by consultants, and made false statements about dioxin contamination in Monsanto products.
The court case, in which the jury granted a $16 million punitive damage award against Monsanto, revealed that many of Monsanto’s products, from household herbicides to the Santophen germicide once used in Lysol brand disinfectant, were knowingly contaminated with dioxin. “The evidence of Monsanto executives at the trial portrayed a corporate culture where sales and profits were given a higher priority than the safety of products and its workers,” reported the Toronto Globe and Mail after the close of the trial. “They just didn’t care about the health and safety of their workers,” explains author Peter Sills. “Instead of trying to make things safer, they relied on intimidation and threatened layoffs to keep their employees working.”
A subsequent review by Dr. Cate Jenkins of the EPA’s Regulatory Development Branch documented an even more systematic record of fraudulent science. “Monsanto has in fact submitted false information to EPA which directly resulted in weakened regulations under RCRA [Resources Conservation and Recovery Act] and FIFRA [Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act] . . .” reported Dr. Jenkins in a 1990 memorandum urging the agency to undertake a criminal investigation of the company. Jenkins cited internal Monsanto documents revealing that the company “doctored” samples of herbicides that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hid behind “process chemistry” arguments to deflect attempts to regulate 2,4-D and various chlorophenols, hid evidence regarding the contamination of Lysol, and excluded several hundred of its sickest former employees from its comparative health studies:
Monsanto covered-up the dioxin contamination of a wide range of its products. Monsanto either failed to report contamination, substituted false information purporting to show no contamination or submitted samples to the government for analysis which had been specially prepared so that dioxin contamination did not exist.
New Generation Herbicides
Today, glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup account for at least one sixth of Monsanto’s total annual sales and half of the company’s operating income, perhaps significantly more since the company spun off its industrial chemicals and synthetic fabrics divisions as a separate company, called Solutia, in September of 1997. Monsanto aggressively promotes Roundup as a safe, general purpose herbicide for use on everything from lawns and orchards, to large coniferous forest holdings, where aerial spraying of the herbicide is used to suppress the growth of deciduous seedlings and shrubs and encourage the growth of profitable fir and spruce trees . The Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) reviewed over forty scientific studies on the effects of glyphosate, and of the polyoxyethylene amines used as a surfactant in Roundup, and concluded that the herbicide is far less benign than Monsanto’s advertising suggests:
Symptoms of acute poisoning in humans following ingestion of Roundup include gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, clouding of consciousness, and destruction of red blood cells. Eye and skin irritation has been reported by workers mixing, loading and applying glyphosate. EPA’s Pesticide Incident Monitoring System had 109 reports of health effects associated with exposure to glyphosate between 1966 and October, 1980. These included eye or skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, blurred vision, fever and weakness.
It is important to note that the 1966-1980 dates represent a time period well before Roundup came to be widely used.
A series of suicides and attempted suicides in Japan during the 1980s using Roundup herbicide allowed scientists to calculate a lethal dose of six ounces. The herbicide is 100 times more toxic to fish than to people, toxic to earthworms, soil bacteria and beneficial fungi, and scientists have measured a number of direct physiological effects of Roundup in fish and other wildlife, in addition to secondary effects attributable to defoliation of forests. Breakdown of glyphosate into N-nitrosoglyphosate and other related compounds have heightened concerns about the possible carcinogenicity of Roundup products.
A 1993 study at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health found that glyphosate was the most common cause of pesticide-related illness among landscape maintenance workers in California, and the number three cause among agricultural workers. A 1996 review of the scientific literature by members of the Vermont Citizens’ Forest Roundtable — a group which successfully lobbied the Vermont Legislature for a statewide ban on the use of herbicides in forestry — revealed updated evidence of lung damage, heart palpitations, nausea, reproductive problems, chromosome aberrations and numerous other effects of exposure to Roundup herbicide. In 1997, Monsanto responded to five years of complaints by the New York State Attorney General that its advertisements for Roundup were misleading; the company altered its ads to delete claims that the herbicide is “biodegradable” and “environmentally friendly,” and paid $50,000 toward the state’s legal expenses in the case.
In March of 1998, Monsanto agreed to pay a fine of $225,000 for mislabeling containers of Roundup on 75 separate occasions. The penalty was the largest settlement ever paid for violation of the Worker Protection Standards of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). According to the Wall Street Journal, Monsanto distributed containers of the herbicide with labels restricting entry into treated areas for only four hours instead of the required 12 hours. This is only the latest in a series of major fines and rulings against Monsanto in the United States, including a $108 million liability finding in the case of the leukemia death of a Texas employee in 1986, a $648,000 settlement for allegedly failing to report required health data to the EPA in 1990, a $1 million fine by the state Attorney General of Massachusetts in 1991 in the case of a 200,000 gallon acid wastewater spill, a $39 million settlement in Houston, Texas in 1992 involving the deposition of hazardous chemicals into unlined pits, and numerous others. In 1995, Monsanto ranked fifth among U.S. corporations in EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, having discharged 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land, water and underground.
Biotechnology’s Brave New World
Monsanto’s aggressive promotion of its biotechnology products, from recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), to Roundup Ready soybeans and other crops, to its insect-resistant varieties of cotton, is seen by many observers as a continuation of its many decades of ethically questionable practices. “Corporations have personalities, and Monsanto is one of the most malicious,” explains author Peter Sills. “From Monsanto’s herbicides to Santophen disinfectant to BGH, they seem to go out of their way to hurt their workers and hurt kids.”
Originally, Monsanto was one of four chemical companies seeking to bring a synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone, produced in E. coli bacteria genetically engineered to manufacture the bovine protein, to market. Another was American Cyanamid, now owned by American Home Products, which is in the process of merging with Monsanto. As Jennifer Ferrara describes elsewhere in this issue, Monsanto’s 14 year effort to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bring recombinant BGH to market was fraught with controversy, including allegations of a concerted effort to suppress information about the hormone’s ill effects. One FDA veterinarian, Richard Burroughs, was fired after he accused both the company and the agency of suppressing and manipulating data to hide the effects of rBGH injections on the health of dairy cows.
In 1990, when FDA approval of rBGH appeared imminent, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Vermont’s agricultural research facility released previously suppressed data to two state legislators documenting significantly increased rates of udder infection in cows that had been injected with the then-experimental Monsanto hormone, as well as an unusual incidence of severely deforming birth defects in offspring of rBGH-treated cows. An independent review of the University data by a regional farm advocacy group documented additional cow health problems associated with rBGH, including high incidences of foot and leg injuries, metabolic and reproductive difficulties and uterine infections. The U.S. Congress’ General Accounting Office (GAO) attempted an inquiry into the case, but was unable to obtain the necessary records from Monsanto and the University to carry out its investigation, particularly with respect to suspected teratogenic and embryotoxic effects. The GAO auditors concluded that cows injected with rBGH had mastitis (udder infection) rates one third higher than untreated cows, and recommended further research on the risk of elevated antibiotic levels in milk produced using rBGH.
Monsanto’s rBGH was approved by the FDA for commercial sale beginning in 1994. The following year, Mark Kastel of the Wisconsin Farmers Union released a study of Wisconsin farmers’ experiences with the drug. His findings exceeded the 21 potential health problems that Monsanto was required to list on the warning label for its Posilac brand of rBGH. Kastel found widespread reports of spontaneous deaths among rBGH-treated cows, high incidences of udder infections, severe metabolic difficulties and calving problems, and in some cases an inability to successfully wean treated cows off the drug. Many experienced dairy farmers who experimented with rBGH suddenly needed to replace large portions of their herd. Instead of addressing the causes of farmers’ complaints about rBGH, Monsanto went on the offensive, threatening to sue small dairy companies that advertised their products as free of the artificial hormone, and participating in a lawsuit by several dairy industry trade associations against the first and only mandatory labeling law for rBGH in the United States. Still, evidence for the damaging effects of rBGH on the health of both cows and people continued to mount.
Efforts to prevent labeling of genetically engineered soybean and maize exports from the United States suggest a continuation of the practices that were designed to squelch complaints against Monsanto’s dairy hormone. While Monsanto argues that its “Roundup Ready” soybeans will ultimately reduce herbicide use, the widespread acceptance of herbicide-tolerant crop varieties appears far more likely to increase farmers’ dependence on herbicides. Weeds that emerge after the original herbicide has dispersed or broken down are often treated with further applications of herbicides. “It will promote the overuse of the herbicide,” Missouri soybean farmer Bill Christison told Kenny Bruno of Greenpeace International. “If there is a selling point for RRS, it’s the fact that you can till an area with a lot of weeds and use surplus chemicals to combat your problem, which is not what anyone should be doing.” Christison refutes Monsanto’s claim that herbicide-resistant seeds are necessary to reduce soil erosion from excess tillage, and reports that Midwestern farmers have developed numerous methods of their own for reducing overall use of herbicides.
Monsanto, on the other hand has stepped up its production of Roundup in recent years. With Monsanto’s U.S. patent for Roundup scheduled to expire in the year 2000, and competition from generic glyphosate products already emerging worldwide, the packaging of Roundup herbicide with “Roundup Ready” seeds has become the centerpiece of Monsanto’s strategy for continued growth in herbicide sales. The possible health and environmental consequences of Roundup-tolerant crops have not been fully investigated, including allergenic effects, potential invasiveness or weediness, and the possibility of herbicide resistance being transferred via pollen to other soybeans or related plants.
While any problems with herbicide-resistant soybeans may still be dismissed as long-range and somewhat speculative, the experience of U.S. cotton growers with Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds appears to tell a very different story. Monsanto has released two varieties of genetically engineered cotton, beginning in 1996. One is a Roundup-resistant variety and the other, named “Bollgard,” secretes a bacterial toxin intended to control damage from three leading cotton pests. The toxin, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, has been used by organic growers in the form of a natural bacterial spray since the early 1970s. But while B.t. bacteria are relatively short-lived, and secrete their toxin in a form that only becomes activated in the alkaline digestive systems of particular worms and caterpillars, genetically engineered B.t. crops secrete an active form of the toxin throughout the plant’s life cycle. Much of the genetically engineered maize currently on the market, for example, is a B.t. secreting variety, designed to repel the corn rootworm and other common pests.
The first widely anticipated problem with these pesticide-secreting crops is that the presence of the toxin throughout the plant’s life cycle is likely to encourage the development of resistant strains of common crop pests. The U.S. EPA has determined that widespread resistance to B.t. may render natural applications of B.t. bacteria ineffective in just three to five years and requires growers to plant refuges of up to 40 percent non-B.t. cotton in an attempt to forestall this effect. Second, the active toxin secreted by these plants may harm beneficial insects, moths and butterflies, in addition to those species that growers wish to eliminate.
But the damaging effects of B.t.-secreting “Bollgard” cotton have proved to be much more immediate, enough so that Monsanto and its partners have pulled five million pounds of genetically engineered cotton seed off the market and agreed to a multimillion dollar settlement with farmers in the southern United States. Three farmers who refused to settle with Monsanto were awarded nearly $2 million by the Mississippi Seed Arbitration Council. Not only were plants attacked by the cotton bollworm,which Monsanto claimed they would be resistant to, but germination was spotty, yields were low, and plants were misshapen, according to several published accounts. Some farmers reported crop losses of up to 50 percent. Farmers who planted Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant cotton also reported severe crop failures, including deformed and misshapen bolls that suddenly fell off the plant three quarters of the way through the growing season.
Despite these problems, Monsanto is advancing the use of genetic engineering in agriculture by taking control of many of the largest, most established seed companies in the United States. Monsanto now owns Holdens Foundation Seeds, supplier of germplasm used on 25-35 percent of U.S. maize acreage, and Asgrow Agronomics, which it describes as “the leading soybean breeder, developer and distributor in the United States.” This past spring, Monsanto completed its acquisition of De Kalb Genetics, the second largest seed company in the United States and the ninth largest in the world, as well as Delta and Pine Land, the largest U.S. cotton seed company. WIth its Delta and Pine acquisition, Monsanto now controls 85 percent of the U.S. cotton seed market.
The company has been aggressively pursuing corporate acquisitions and product sales in other countries as well. In 1997, Monsanto bought Sementes Agroceres S.A., described as “the leading seed corn company in Brazil,” with a 30 percent market share. Earlier this year, the Brazilian Federal Police investigated an alleged illegal importation of at least 200 bags of transgenic soybeans, some of which were traced to an Argentine subsidiary of Monsanto. According to Brazilian law, foreign transgenic products can only be introduced after a period of quarantine and testing to prevent possible damage to native flora. In Canada, Monsanto had to recall 60,000 bags of genetically engineered rape (“canola”) seed in 1997. Apparently the shipment of Roundup-resistant seed contained an inserted gene different from the one that had been approved for consumption by people and livestock.
While Monsanto’s herbicides and genetically engineered products have been focuses of public controversy for many years, its pharmaceutical products also have a troubling track record. The flagship product of Monsanto’s G.D. Searle pharmaceuticals subsidiary is the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand names Nutrasweet and Equal. In 1981, four years before Monsanto purchased Searle, a Food and Drug Administration Board of Inquiry consisting of three independent scientists confirmed reports that had been circulating for eight years that “aspartame might induce brain tumors.” The FDA revoked Searle’s license to sell aspartame, only to have its decision reversed under a new commissioner appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
A 1996 study in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology has renewed this concern, linking aspartame to a sharp increase in brain cancers shortly after the substance was introduced. Dr. Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit cites a series of reports from the 1980s linking aspartame to a wide array of adverse reactions in sensitive consumers, including headaches. blurred vision, numbness, hearing loss, muscle spasms and induced epileptic-type seizures, among numerous others. In 1989, Searle again ran afoul of the FDA, which accused the company of misleading advertising in the case of its anti-ulcer drug, Cytotec. The FDA said that the ads were designed to market the drug to a much broader and younger population than the agency had advised. Searle/Monsanto was required to take out an ad in a number of medical journals, which was headed “Published To Correct a Previous Advertisement Which The Food And Drug Administration Considered Misleading.”
Given this long and troubling history, it is easy to understand why informed citizens throughout Europe and the U.S. are reluctant to trust Monsanto with the future of our food and our health. But Monsanto is doing everything it can to appear unperturbed by this opposition. Through efforts such as their £1 million advertising campaign in Britain, their sposorship of a new high-tech Biodiversity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and many others, they are trying to appear greener, more righteous and more forward looking than even their opponents.
In the U.S. they are bolstering their image, and likely influencing policy, with the support of people at the highest levels of the Clinton administration. In May of 1997, Mickey Kantor, an architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign and United States Trade Representative during Clinton’s first term, was elected to a seat on Monsanto’s Board of Directors. Marcia Hale, formerly a personal assistant to the president, has served as Monsanto’s public affairs officer in Britain. Vice President Al Gore, who is well known in the U.S. for his writings and speeches on the environment, has been a vocal supporter of biotechnology at least since his days in the U.S. Senate. Gore’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor, David W. Beier, was formerly the Senior Director of Government Affairs at Genentech, Inc.
Under CEO Robert Shapiro, Monsanto has pulled out all the stops to transform its image from a purveyor of dangerous chemicals to an enlightened, forward-looking institution crusading to feed the world. Shapiro, who went to work for G.D. Searle in 1979 and became the president of its Nutrasweet Group in 1982, sits on the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations and served a term as a member of the White House Domestic Policy Review. He describes himself as a visonary and a Renaissance Man, with a mission to use the company’s resources to change the world: “The only reason for working at a large company is that you have the capability of doing things on a large scale that really are important,” he told an interviewer for Business Ethics, a flagship journal for the “socially responsible business” movement in the United States.
Shapiro harbors few illusions about Monsanto’s reputation in the United States, recounting with sympathy the dilemma of many a Monsanto employee whose neighbors’ children might wince when they find out where the employee works. He is anxious to demonstrate that he is in step with the widespread desire for systemic change, and is determined to redirect this desire toward his company’s ends, as he demonstrated in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review: “It’s not a question of good guys and bad guys. There is no point in saying, ‘If only those bad guys would go out of business, then the world would be fine.’ The whole system has to change; there’s a huge opportunity for reinvention.”
Of course, Shapiro’s reinvented system is one where huge corporations not only continue to exist, but exercise an ever-increasing control over our lives. But Monsanto has reformed, we are told. They have successfully cast off their industrial chemical divisions and are now committed to replacing chemicals with “information,” in the guise of genetically engineered seeds and other products of biotechnology. This is an ironic stance for a company whose most profitable product is an herbicide, and whose highest profile food additive appears to be making some people very sick. It is an unlikely role for a company that seeks to intimidate critics with lawsuits and suppress criticism in the media.
Monsanto’s latest Annual Report, however, clearly demonstrates that it has learned all the right buzzwords. Roundup is not an herbicide, it is a tool to minimize tillage and decrease soil erosion. Genetically engineered crops are not just about profits for Monsanto, they’re about solving the inexorable problem of population growth. Biotechnology is not reducing everything alive to the realm of commodities — items to be bought and sold, marketed and patented — but is in fact a harbinger of “decommoditization”: the replacement of single mass-produced products with a vast array of specialized, made-to-order products. This is Newspeak of the highest order.
Finally, we are to believe that Monsanto’s aggressive promotion of biotechnology is not a matter of mere corporate arrogance, but rather the realization of a simple fact of nature. Readers of the Monsanto Annual Report are presented with an analogy between today’s rapid growth in the number of identified DNA base pairs and the exponential trend of miniaturization in the electronics industry, a trend first identified in the 1960s. Monsanto has dubbed the apparent exponential growth of what it terms “biological knowledge” to be nothing less than “Monsanto’s Law.” Like any other putative law of nature, one has little choice but to see its predictions realized and, here, the prediction is nothing less than the continued exponential growth of Monsanto’s global reach.
But the growth of any technology is not merely a “law of nature.” Technologies are not social forces unto themselves, nor merely neutral “tools” that can be used to satisfy any social end we desire. Rather they are products of particular social institutions and economic interests. Once a particular course of technological development is set in motion, it can have much wider consequences than its creators could have predicted: the more powerful the technology, the more profound the consequences.
For example, the so-called Green Revolution in agriculture in the 1960s and seventies temporarily increased crop yields, and also made farmers throughout the world increasingly dependent on costly chemical inputs. This spurred widespread displacements of people from the land, and in many countries has undermined the soil, groundwater and social land base that sustained people for millenia. These large scale dislocations have fueled population growth, urbanization and social disempowerment, which have in turn led to another cycle of impoverishment and hunger.
The “second Green Revolution” promised by Monsanto and other biotechnology companies threatens even greater disruptions in traditional land tenure and social relations. In rejecting Monsanto and its biotechnology, we are not necessarily rejecting technology per se, but seeking to replace a life-denying technology of manipulation, control and profit with a genuinely ecological technology, designed to respect the patterns of nature, improve personal and community health, sustain land-based communities and operate at a genuinely human scale. If we believe in democracy, it is imperative that we have the right to choose which technologies are best for our communities, rather than having unaccountable institutions like Monsanto decide for us. Rather than technologies designed for the continued enrichment of a few, we can ground our technology in the hope of a greater harmony between our human communities and the natural world. Our health, our food and the future of life on earth truly lie in the balance.