s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 33 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Biodevastation 7

War, Globalization and the Demise of Monsanto

by Brian Tokar, Institute for Social Ecology

As people were arriving from across the country in May 2003 for the Biodevastation 7 events countering the World Agricultural Forum, the local St. Louis press revealed some interesting news. Since 1998, the case of Canadian wheat and canola farmer Percy Schmeiser has drawn attention to Monsanto’s practice of suing hundreds of farmers throughout North America for allegedly “pirating” the company’s genetically engineered (GE) seed varieties.

Many, like Schmeiser, swore they had never planted GE seeds on their farms, and that if Monsanto’s “gene police” detected DNA from the company’s patented varieties, it was a result of contamination from neighboring farms. Unlike Schmeiser, whose case will be heard this coming winter by the Canadian Supreme Court, the vast majority of these farmers settled out of court to avoid the expense of a protracted legal battle.

The company’s continuing influence in Washington is a product of political connections far beyond its financial standing…

What was revealed in St. Louis this spring was that Monsanto has an entire department, with a staff of 75 people and an annual budget of $10 million a year, devoted exclusively to suing farmers. This was a surprising revelation, especially for the daily press in Monsanto’s home town. It followed on the heels of the very first instance of a farmer being jailed in a Monsanto “intellectual property” case, after allegedly having saved seed and then burned the evidence. It underscored the company’s tremendous vulnerability in the present economic and political climate. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Monsanto staked its future on genetic engineering and, with the continuing worldwide rejection of this technology, the com-pany has had to resort to increasingly desperate and invasive measures to survive.

The Monsanto company is much smaller and far more specialized today than it was in its heyday. Much of the company’s value to shareholders was stripped away in the late 1990s, first as its industrial chemical divisions were spun off as a new company, known as Solutia, in 1997.

Solutia also took with it Monsanto’s legal liability, resulting from decades of toxic chemical production, from PCBs to organochloride weed killers, including the notorious Agent Orange.

Then, at the end of 1999, Monsanto announced its merger with the pharmaceutical giant, Pharmacia (formerly Pharmacia and Upjohn).

Pharmacia absorbed Monsanto’s highly profitable drugs division, R.D. Searle (Donald Rumsfeld was the president of Searle in the 1970s), and created a new “Monsanto” as its agrochemical and agbiotech subsidiary.

Monsanto has an entire department…devoted…to suing farmers.

From the beginning, Pharmacia failed to sell off as much Monsanto stock as it had promised its shareholders, but when Pharmacia in turn was absorbed by the much larger Pfizer in 2002, full divestiture of its Monsanto holdings became a precondition for the deal. In August 2002, Monsanto once again became a stand-alone company, this time spe-ializing in three product areas: the Roundup family of herbicides, seeds and genetically engineered seed traits, and animal drugs, specifically its genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

Since 2000, Monsanto has been what one investment analyst calls “the toxic waste of stocks.” Its share value has fallen by half over the past two years, despite a stable financial outlook and very low indebtedness. Says Sergey Vasnetsov of Wall Street’s Lehman Brothers, “It is not an issue that the company is financially in trouble. It’s strategically in trouble.” That is, Monsanto produces nothing of overarching value, and has no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.

Its 2002 losses were 36% of total sales. When the New York Times did a story last winter on the growing problem of weeds developing resistance to Roundup, the paper quoted Idaho agronomist Charles Benbrook saying he had been approached by investment bankers considering a purchase of Monsanto in order to break it up. The company’s continuing influence in Washington is a product of political connections far beyond its financial standing or economic importance. Cabinet secretaries Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Thompson and Veneman all have historic ties to the company, either as officials of companies absorbed by Monsanto or as frequent recipients of large campaign contributions. The Bush administration’s dogged advocacy for GE agriculture in various international forums can justly be seen as a payoff for these past ties.

Monsanto, like most of the major players in agrochemicals and agricultural biotech today, had its origins in profiting from war. Founded in 1901 to bring the manufacture of the artificial sweetener, saccharine, to the United States, Monsanto first became a major player in the US chemical industry during World War I. As a leading manufacturer of phenol and nitric acid—the main precursors for that era’s high-tech explosive, TNT—Monsanto’s profits increased 100-fold during the war.

In the 1930s, Monsanto bought the company that invented PCBs, which were very quickly discovered to be highly toxic. Monsanto monopolized PCB production in the United States until this entire class of potent carcinogens was banned in the 1970s. As a result of the 1997 Solutia spin-off, that company, not Monsanto, is liable for most of the damages in the historic negligence suit by 3500 residents of Anniston, Alabama, one of two historic centers of PCB manufacture. Residents of Anniston were found to have the highest blood levels of PCBs ever recorded, triggering a decision under an Alabama law that sanctions behavior “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency.” Monsanto only becomes liable if the damages exceed Solutia’s ability to pay.

From the 1940s through the 1990s, Monsanto ranked as one of the 10 largest US chemical companies every year. In the 1940s, they became involved in the production of organochloride herbicides and DDT. During the 1950s, Monsanto discovered that a byproduct of its chlorinated pesticide production was causing severe skin rashes, joint pain and nervous disorders in its production workers. This mysterious substance turned out to be dioxin, and the US Army Chemical Corps soon became interested in its potential usefulness as a chemical warfare agent. The herbicide Agent Orange, which was used by US military forces to obliterate the dense jungles of Vietnam during the 1960s, was a mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Although seven different chemical companies had supplied Agent Orange to the US military, Monsanto’s formulation had as much as 1000 times the concentration of dioxin. Thus the company was ordered to pay more than 45% of the monetary damages in the famous $180 million Vietnam veterans’ settlement of the 1980s.

Monsanto has become an international pariah…

The 1970s saw the successful banning of DDT, as well as several of the most toxic chlorinated pesticides: aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane and heptachlor. By the mid-eighties, Monsanto had bet its future on Roundup and on the brand new technology of genetic manipulation. Having acquired a profound degree of control over agricultural practices in the US during the height of the chemical boom in the 1950s and sixties, Monsanto and other agrochemical companies saw this new technology as the means for sustaining that control. As Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate (Roundup) herbicides was about to expire in the late 1990s, the way to retain its hegemony over agriculture was to seek to control seed production. Monsanto spent over $8 billion in the late 1990s acquiring major commercial seed companies such as DeKalb, Asgrow, Holden’s, and their counterparts in India, Brazil and other countries.

The other so-called Gene Giants—international chemical companies now heavily invested in GE crop production (Du Pont, BASF, Hoechst, Bayer, and J.R. Geigy)—all have wartime histories comparable to Monsanto’s.

Monsanto’s own role in warfare continues to the present day, especially with the widespread use of a highly concentrated form of Roundup to eradicate coca and poppy crops in Colombia. Colombian agronomists have revealed the presence of a new additive that increases herbicide exposures to more than 100 times Monsanto’s usual recommended dosage. The aerial spraying of tons of Roundup over the Colombian countryside has led to the destruction of local subsistence crops such as manioc, bananas, palms, sugarcane and corn, as well as the poisoning of creeks, rivers and lakes and the destruction of indigenous fish populations.

With this history, it is not surprising that Monsanto has become an international pariah, far beyond its recent troubles on the stock market.

Its name is almost universally associated with toxic chemicals and the aggressive promotion of genetically engineered crops. Other biotech companies have criticized Monsanto for its overly aggressive promotion of GMOs during the 1990s, but they also credit the company with taking the fall for the public rejection of these products. Monsanto’s “FlavrSavr” tomatoes and Bt pesticide-producing potatoes were both pulled from the market due to widespread consumer rejection, and farmers throughout the Western plains are organizing to prevent the commercialization of Monsanto’s genetically engineered wheat. The European Union has strengthened rules for labeling GE ingredients and systematically tracing all GE-derived food constituents from their point of origin. More than 30 countries around the world have implemented significant legal barriers to the growing and sale of GE products.

…agribusiness and biotechnology play a…critical role in the imperial designs of the US administration.

When tens of thousands of people converged on Seattle in the fall of 1999 to disrupt the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization, the hazards of genetically engineered agriculture were among the issues foremost in many people’s minds. Since then, a host of pressing global economic concerns, the US war in Iraq, and an overarching desire to focus on the core institutions of global capitalism, have partly pushed GE issues into the background.

What Biodevastation 7 illustrated, reinforced by the massive protests in Sacramento, California just a month later, is that to confront the imposition of genetically engineered agriculture on an unwilling world is a crucial way to challenge environmental racism and global corporate hegemony. With the Bush administration’s suit against the European Union at the WTO, and its reckless effort to link African AIDS relief to the acceptance of GE food imports, it is becoming clear that agribusiness and bio-technology play a far more critical role in the imperial designs of the US admininstration and its corporate patrons than many people had realized before.

[14 dec 03]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 33 Contents