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“”It is not possible to assert publicly that Monsanto is anything other than venal without being accused of being a sellout, a fraud, or worse.
The Monsanto Company was a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation. It is the inventor and primary producer of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as RoundUp®, and the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds (over 65% of the GM seed market and 25% of the global seed market share overall).
In September 2016, Bayer announced its intent to acquire Monsanto for US$66 billion. After gaining US and EU regulatory approval, the sale was completed on June 7, 2018.
A bit of tedious corporate history
The company "Monsanto" actually refers to two different entities:
- The original Monsanto, a chemical manufacturing company. This was renamed to "Pharmacia" after the acquisition of the Swedish pharmaceutical company of the same name in 1999, and later sold to Pfizer.
- The biotechnology Monsanto, spun off from Pharmacia in 2000. It consisted of many seed and biotech companies acquired during the 1990s, as well as original Monsanto's agrichemical manufacturing facilities.
During the restructuring, execs decided to save around $40 million by reusing the Monsanto brand for the new, only weakly related agriculture company, since it was already well known to farmers. In hindsight, that was probably the costliest $40 million they had ever "saved".
In 2016, Monsanto has been taken over by Bayer (the inventors of heroin) for an accorded price of $66 billion. One guesses that Monsanto's really bad image is included on the package and will go to the former company.
What is all the fuss about?
Monsanto suffers from a very bad public image. It is often singled out as being the company that produces GMOs, even though it is actually just a market leader and competes with several other companies. Detractors ascribe a variety of unacceptable actions and business practices to it. However, upon closer inspection, it turns out that many of those accusations are false or even deliberately fabricated by organizations and individuals that promote organic food and similar nature woo. When the thick layer of disinformation is peeled off, there is little that can be considered uniquely unacceptable about Monsanto, unless one subscribes to some form of pseudoscience about GMOs. Therefore, the position of "I am not against GMOs, I am against Monsanto's business practices" to which some anti-GMO advocates often retreat when confronted by the scientific consensus is very disingenuous.
Some practices of Monsanto, such as its highly successful use of existing patent law to its advantage and its lobbying activities, can only be considered problems through special pleading, since they are generally viewed as acceptable when other companies with better public image use them.
- "Variety GURT" or V-GURT (which received the lion's share of publicity) — it is a process which makes the second generation seed of GM crops sterile. This means that GM traits cannot spread in the environment and has a few other potential benefits, such as preventing sprouting in warm and wet conditions, but also, that seed from the harvest cannot be saved for the next year. It would also represent a method of enforcing the legal agreement signed by all customers of Monsanto's GM seeds, which states that farmers are not allowed to replant saved seed.
- "Trait GURT" or T-GURT — it involves inhibiting the genetically engineered traits in a plant unless an activator compound is applied. This would mean that farmers can save seed, but to benefit from GM traits, they must spray their fields each year with the activator bought from the seed company.
Effectively, GURT is a form of "plant DRM." If introduced, the issues posed by these GM seeds would not be new. Plants grown from traditional hybrid seed, used since the 1920s, do not produce true copies in the second generation and have to be bought from seed growers each year; otherwise, there is a sharp reduction in yield.
In the end, due to public backlash, neither variant of the terminator technology was commercialized, Monsanto has promised to never use terminator seeds, and there are no "terminator seeds" on sale anywhere in the world. Despite this, both organic and GM crops still have patents.
Overall, it is doubtful that farmers would want to save their seeds anyway -- because it's cheaper/easier to buy new seeds and because inbreeding ultimately removes the value of the GM over time. Also, when they buy seed, they get a guarantee that it will grow, and the seller will pay them if it fails. Saving seed means losing this safety net.
Interestingly, Monsanto wasn't the company to first look into terminator seeds -- that was the Delta and Pine Land Company, later purchased by Monsanto.
Monsanto is eager to assert the patents on its crops, and is a major force lobbying for stronger enforcement of plant breeders' rights. Farmers who collect and save seeds to use for the following year's crop have been sued, although, most farmers do not replant seeds anyways. Monsanto usually wins those cases, because before being supplied with seed, the farmer has to sign a contract that explicitly forbids saving seed. However, Monsanto isn't the only company that doesn't let farmers save their seeds; this is standard practice with many seed companies. Farmers started buying new seed every year long before Monsanto began selling seeds; however, it was due to the rise of commercial seed companies and not genetic engineering.
Another example is the suing of farmers who grew non-GM crops near GM fields, then selected for the GM traits, thereby acquiring GM seed without paying for a patent license. The best-known instance of this is the case of Percy Schmeiser. Anti-GMO activists often claim that Monsanto sues even in cases of accidental cross-pollination, but a lawsuit regarding this issue was dismissed when the activists were unable to provide evidence of this ever happening.
Although Monsanto is strongly involved in lobbying, it discloses a lot of information on these activities to the public. It shares the #3 spot with a 94.7% score in the 2015 CPA-Zicklin Index, which rates the transparency of political donations by S&P 500 corporations — meaning it publishes very thorough public information on where its lobbying money goes. It shares that place with seven other companies, including Intel, Qualcomm, UPS and Exelon. By comparison, Whole Foods has a dismal 10% score, which is a lot worse than Time Warner's and Exxon Mobil's score of 50%.
The company has also been involved in environmental damage in Anniston, Alabama. A Monsanto factory dumped mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl waste into local creeks for over forty years, including areas used in the local water supply. The company has also buried waste in the surrounding area. In 2003, Monsanto paid $700 million to settle claims by Anniston residents of contamination.
It should be noted that these incidents happened before the aforementioned 2000 restructuring.
During the Vietnam War, Monsanto was one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, a chemical formulation sprayed over a large area of Vietnam to destroy crops and defoliate forests. This was intended to deprive the guerrilla fighters of food and concealment. Agent Orange consisted of a mixture of two compounds: 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T:
- The first of these, 2,4-D, is a reasonably safe and non-persistent herbicide which is still in use worldwide.
- 2,4,5-T has properties similar to 2,4-D, but its manufacturing process unavoidably[note 1] contaminates the product with trace amounts of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), an extremely potent and persistent carcinogen. This resulted in widespread illness, cancers, birth defects and stillbirths in the affected areas of Vietnam.
Anti-GMO activists like to draw attention to Agent Orange as a proof that Monsanto is evil and should never be trusted. However, during the Vietnam War 2,4,5-T was in fact approved for use in the U.S. Monsanto warned the government as early as 1952 that 2,4,5-T contains a toxic substance, but this information was not acted upon. This would place the blame for the effects of Agent Orange primarily on the U.S. government. What's more, Monsanto wasn't the main producer; Dow Chemical was. When Dow couldn't keep up with demand, the government turned to a number of companies to make up the difference, Monsanto among them. Nobody vilifies the other companies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was thankfully created in December 1970, over half a year after the use of Agent Orange ended, and halted the domestic use of 2,4,5-T in 1979, four years after the end of the Vietnam War. The case of Agent Orange demonstrates the need for thorough toxicological assessments of agricultural chemicals before approving them for use, something which was not done back when 2,4,5-T was introduced.
The Dicamba debacle
In the early 2010s, Monsanto developed GM varieties of cotton and soybean seeds that were resistant to the herbicide dicamba. Dicamba is extremely volatile and, if applied haphazardly, can spread into neighboring farms and damage any crops growing there. So, at the same time, Monsanto developed a new formulation of dicamba with "vapor grip technology" that was far less volatile.
When the dicamba-resistant cotton and soybean seeds were ready to go to market in 2016, Monsanto sold them with a warning to use only their vapor-grip dicamba when spraying the field they were planted in. The problem? Vapor-grip dicamba was not yet ready to go to market. The right thing to do would have been to wait until both products were ready, and start selling them at the same time (or start selling the vapor-grip dicamba first). Instead, they sold the dicamba-resistant seeds first, and crossed their fingers and hoped the farmers would obey their "don't use your old volatile dicamba on these crops" warning.
You can guess how well that worked out.
Appeal to Monsanto
For many anti-GMO activists, Monsanto assumes the role of Satan in Christianity; a faceless corporation that is responsible for all harms supposedly caused by GM crops. The belief in the malevolent meddling of the company in all areas of science and politics is so strong that it is used as an escape hatch — a variation on the shill gambit called an "appeal to Monsanto," or "argumentum ad Monsantum." Any information that challenges the views held by anti-GMO activists can be disregarded by claiming that the source was bribed by the corporation. For example, when Mark Lynas changed his stance on GMOs, the Organic Consumers Association immediately accused him of taking kickbacks from biotech companies with no evidence whatsoever — listing Monsanto first.
There is a mountain of evidence that GM seeds, Monsanto's primary product, aren't any more harmful to health or the environment than traditional seeds. A review of 10 years of research on GM safety found that "the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops."
Ironically, it seems that Monsanto gained a near monopoly position in the GM seed market because of onerous regulation of GM crops, which effectively prevents any publicly funded research project or a small start-up from successfully navigating a product through the bureaucracy. These regulations were mainly brought about in response to public concern manufactured by anti-GMO groups. Monsanto is, therefore, a nemesis of their own making.
- At the time, manufacturing processes would contaminate 2,4,5-T with as much as 60 ppm of dioxin. Modern manufacturing techniques can reduce this to as little as 0.05 ppm with careful monitoring, but manufacturers are still avoiding 2,4,5-T.
- See the Wikipedia article on Monsanto.
- Gene Use Restriction Technologies, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
- Compromise sought on 'Terminator' seed technology, Nature
- Hybrid varieties and saving seed, Texas A&M
- World braced for terminator 2, The Guardian
- Down and Out in Covington,Memphis Daily News
- Monsanto Company v. Kem L. Ralph, FindLaw
- Seed Industry Structure Is Characterized by Growth and Consolidation, U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted, NPR
- Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, LexUM
- OSGATA v. Monsanto
- CPA-Zicklin Index 2015
- $700 Million Settlement in Alabama PCB Lawsuit, The New York Times
- Monsanto agrees to clean up toxic chemicals in South Wales quarry, The Guardian
- Carcinogenic Potency Database: 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (CAS 1746-01-6)
- "From Agent Orange to Pesticides and Genetically Engineered Crops. Why Not to Trust Monsanto", globalresearch.ca
- Peter H. Schuck, Agent Orange on Trial: Mass Toxic Disasters in the Courts, Harvard University Press, 1987, p.17
- EPA halts most use of herbicide 2,4,5-T, Science
- Kevin Folta and Cameron English, Lessons learned from the 2017 Monsanto dicamba herbicide fiasco, Genetic Literacy Project, 25-January-2018
- “Rachel, Rachel, We've Been Hearing:” Criticizing Carson's Silent Spring, Purdue University
- Argumentum ad Monsantium, SkepticBlog
- Argumentum Ad Monsantum: Bill Maher and The Lure of a Liberal Logical Fallacy, Scientific American
- "Thoughts from a 'Shill for Monsanto'"
- Because, you know, the best way to get money is to have a bunch of anons argue about it on the Internet.
- A. E. Ricroch et al.: Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2012, 50(3-4), 1134-1148
- GENERA: GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas — list of 600 scientific papers on GM risk assessment
- A. Nicolia, A. Manzo, F. Veronesi, D. Rosellini, An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research Critical Reviews in Biotechnology 2014, 34(1), 77-88. (Free PDF)
- Ingo Potrykus: Lessons from the "Humanitarian Golden Rice" project