The new Monsanto has clearly come to dominate the American food chain with its genetically modified (GM) seeds. It’s a master at enforcing its 674 biotechnology patents, using tyrannical and ruthless tactics against small farmers. This new Monsanto has also moved into the production of milk with it artificial growth hormones, seeking to dominate the dairy industry as effectively as it has the seed business. Has this new corporate image made us forget about the old Monsanto’s decades long history of scorched earth and toxic contamination?
An article in the May, 2008 edition of Vanity Fair chronicles the history of Monsanto from its beginnings to its efforts to shed itself of the image of toxic environmental and human threat.
A short history
Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny who had an idea to make money manufacturing saccharin, an artificial sweetener then imported from Germany. He called his company Monsanto Chemical Works. The German cartel then controlling the market for saccharin tried to force Queeny out of business, but his persistence and the loyalty of one steady customer, Coca-Cola, kept the company going. Vanillin, caffeine, sedative drugs, laxatives and aspirin had been added to the arsenal of products when supplies were cut off from Europe during World War I, forcing Monsanto to manufacture its own, and positioning it as a leading force in the American chemical industry.
In the 1920’s, Queeny’s son took over and built Monsanto into a global powerhouse, extending into the production of an astounding array of plastic, rubber and vinyl goods, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
In the 1970’s Monsanto moved into biotechnology. By 1982 it had become the first to genetically modify a plant cell, making it possible to introduce virtually any gene into plant cells to improve crop productivity. According to Vanity Fair writers Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Monsanto sought to portray GM seeds as a panacea for alleviating poverty and feeding the hungry.
During the late 1990’s, Monsanto spun off its chemical and fibers businesses into a new company called Solutia. It then reincorporated itself and emerged as an agricultural company.
Company literature refers to Monsanto as a “relatively new company” with the primary goal of helping “farmers around the world in their mission to feed, clothe and fuel” the planet. The listed corporate milestones are from the recent era. There is no mention of the old Monsanto’s potential responsibility for more than 50 Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites. And it does not mention that the reason for the formation of Solutia was to channel the bulk of the mounting chemical lawsuits and liabilities into the spun off company, keeping the new Monsanto name tarnish-free.
But keeping the new corporate image polished may be a tough task. For many years Monsanto produced two of the most toxic substances ever known –- polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, and dioxin. Several court proceedings regarding these substances remain unresolved.
In the town of Nitro, West Virginia, Monsanto operated a chemical plant from 1929 to 1995, making an herbicide that had dioxin as a by-product. The name dioxin refers to a group of highly toxic chemicals that have been linked to heart and liver disease, human reproductive disorders, and developmental problems. Dioxin persists in the environment and accumulates in the body, even in small amounts. In 2001, the U.S. government listed dioxin as a “known human carcinogen”.
In 1949, at the Nitro plant, a pressure valve blew on a container of this herbicide, producing a plume of vapor and white smoke that drifted out over the town. Residue coated the interior of buildings and those inside them with a fine black powder. Within days, workers experienced skin eruptions, and many were diagnosed with chloracne, a long lasting and disfiguring condition. Others felt intense pains in their chest, legs and trunk. A medical report from the time said the explosion “caused a systemic intoxication in the workers involving most major organ systems.” Doctors detected a strong odor coming from the patients they described as men “excreting a foreign chemical through their skins”.
Monsanto downplayed the incident, saying that the contaminant was “fairly slow acting” and only an irritant to the skin.
Meanwhile, the Nitro plant continued to produce herbicides, In the 1960’s it manufactured Agent Orange, the powerful herbicide used by the U.S. military to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War, and which became the focus of lawsuits by veterans contending they had been harmed by exposure to the chemical. Agent Orange also created dioxin as a by-product.
At the Nitro plant, dioxin waste went into landfills, storm drains, streams, sewers, into bags with the herbicide, and then the waste was burned out into the air. Dioxin from the plant can still be found in nearby streams, rivers, and fish. Residents have sued Monsanto and Solutia for damages, but Monsanto claims “the allegations are without merit” and promises to vigorously defend itself. The suit may drag on for years. Monsanto has the resources to wait; plaintiffs usually don’t.
From 1929 to 1971, the Anniston, Alabama plant produced PCBs as industrial coolants and insulating fluids for transformers and other electrical equipment. PCBs became central to American industries as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, and sealants. PCBs are highly toxic members of a family of chemicals that mimic hormones, and have been linked to damage in the liver and nervous system, as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive disorders. The Environmental Protective Agency (EPA), and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of Health and Human Services, classify PCBs as “probably carcinogens”.
Today, after tons of contaminated soil have been removed in an effort to reclaim the Anniston site, the area around the old Monsanto plant continues to be one of the most polluted spots in the U.S. While the plant was in production, excess PCBs were dumped in a nearby open-pit landfill or allowed to flow off the property with storm water. Some were poured directly into a creek running alongside the plant and emptying into a larger stream. PCBs are contained in private lawns fertilized with soil from the plant.
The people of Anniston have breathed air, planted gardens, drunk from wells, fished in rivers, and swum in creeks contaminated with PCBs without knowing the danger. As public awareness grew in the 1990’s, health authorities found elevated levels of PCBs in houses, yards, streams, fields, fish –- and people. The cleanup is now underway, and will take years, but once PCB is absorbed into human tissue, it is there forever.
Monsanto closed its PBC plant in Wales in 1977. In recent years, residents of Groesfaen, in southern Wales, have noticed vile odors emanating from an old quarry outside their village. As it turns out, Monsanto dumped thousands of tons of waste from its nearby PCB plant into the quarry. British authorities have identified the site as one of the most contaminated places in Britain.
What did Monsanto know about the potential dangers of the chemicals it manufactured? Information from court records indicates Monsanto knew quite a lot. The evidence that Monsanto refused to face questions about the toxicity of PBCs is clear.
In 1956, the company tried to sell its PCB containing hydraulic fluid, Pydraul 150, to the navy. Monsanto supplied the navy with test results from the product, but the navy decided to do its own testing. As a result, navy officials informed Monsanto that they would not buy the product, saying that “application of Pydraul 150 caused death in all of the rabbits tested” and indicated “definite liver damage”. According to an internal Monsanto memo divulged during a court proceeding, “no matter how we discussed the situation, it was impossible to change their thinking that Pydraul 150 is just too toxic for use in submarines”, stated Monsanto’s medical director.
In 1966, a biologist conducting studies for Monsanto in streams near the Anniston plant submerged test fish. He reported to Monsanto that, “All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds and all were dead in 3 ½ minutes.”
The company swung into action to limit the PR damage when the Food and Drug Administration found high levels of PCBs in fish near the Anniston plant in 1970. An internal memo entitled “Confidential –- F.Y.I. and Destroy” from a Monsanto official, reviewed steps to limit disclosure of the information. One aspect of the strategy was to get public officials to fight Monsanto’s battle: “Joe Crockett, Secretary of the Alabama Water Improvement Commission will try to handle the problem quietly without release of the information to the public at this time,” according to the memo.
The plant manager of Monsanto’s Anniston site “convinced” a reporter for The Anniston Star that there was nothing to worry about. An internal memo from Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, summarized the story that subsequently appeared in the newspaper: “Quoting both plant management and the Alabama Water Improvement Commissions, the feature emphasized the PCB problem was relatively new, was being solved by Monsanto and, at this point, was no cause for public alarm.”
The real truth is that there was huge cause for public alarm for the harm done to the public by Monsanto. But that was the old Monsanto, not today’s shiny new Monsanto. Today’s Monsanto says it can be trusted –- that its biotech crops are “as wholesome, nutritious and safe as conventional crop”, and that the milk produced from cows injected with its artificial growth hormones is identical to the milk from untreated cows.
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using “alternative” treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.