Book Review: A History of Monsanto and its Toxic Legacy


Monsanto Co’s Roundup for sale in Encinitas, Calif., June 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mike Blake / File Photo


  • Monsanto’s fundamental strategy was to become a magic handmaiden of the industry rather than going directly to consumers.
  • The product that made the business profitable was caffeine, starting production a few years after the plant opened in 1902 and selling primarily to Coca-Cola.
  • As the economy expanded into petrochemicals, the deleterious effects of Monsanto’s increasingly toxic line of chemicals: PCBs, DDT, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T also grew. .
  • The list goes on, followed by disasters, contaminations and disputes brought by people with serious health problems.

When your main character is Monsanto, the former name of a St. Louis chemical company that, at least in some circles, is seen as evil incarnate (nickname: “Monsatan”), the Hollywood treatment requires a rowdy lawyer who exposes everything. Unfortunately, environmental history and epidemiology rarely proceed along such sharp narrative arcs.

Bartow J. Elmore’s book, Seed Money: Monsanto’s past and our food future, opens like a typical blockbuster. Corporate suits in dark SUVs pull up outside a small town courthouse in the heart of America. The case concerns a farmer who claims to have suffered a financial loss due to dicamba, a herbicide sold by Monsanto and the German chemicals company BASF, who is particularly prone to drift from field to field.

The Farmer’s Crusade lawyer claims the chemical was illegally sprayed on a neighbor’s crop, damaging his client’s peach trees. But then the tale quickly travels to San Francisco, where lawyers for a gardener attribute a cancer diagnosis to lifetime exposure to Roundup, Monsanto’s most popular brand herbicide. The plaintiff wins big and the multi-million dollar settlement soon results in more than 120,000 lawsuits.

The cast of Seed money soon swells, almost massively, with sketches from Monsanto’s founders and the main architects of its changing business model, as well as farmers, seed merchants, researchers and people who say their bodies were destroyed by a list without Steadily growing products sold by Monsanto, or its current owner, Bayer, which incorporated the company into its holdings in 2018.

Tracing the roots of the company, Elmore, who teaches environmental and business history at Ohio State University, attempts to squeeze the juiciest chunks out of a fairly dry corporate history. In the late 1800s, before founding Monsanto, John Queeny purchased drugs for large pharmaceutical wholesalers, including patented snake oil drugs, eventually to the Meyer Brothers Drug Company; he may have calmly accepted the news that a fire had ravaged his sulfuric acid plant the very day it opened, and the plant failure perhaps “led him to the saloon several mornings, where he swallowed nickel beers and sandwiches with his boss, Carl Meyer ”.

There, the author speculates, Queeny and another colleague devised Monsanto’s founding movement: to make artificial sweeteners, namely saccharin. Elmore notes the irony that from the start Monsanto apparently supported government regulation, even garnering support from Harvey Wiley, the so-called founding father of the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the rise in Monsanto’s power was based on the liberation of Americans from German chemical cartels, including Bayer.

Monsanto’s fundamental strategy was to become a magic handmaiden of the industry rather than going directly to consumers. The product that made the business profitable was caffeine, starting production a few years after the factory opened in 1902 and selling mainly to their “cash cow”, Coca-Cola (the subject of the first book by Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism). As the economy expanded into petrochemicals, the deleterious effects of Monsanto’s increasingly toxic line of chemicals: PCB, DDT, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (the latter two being both herbicides and active ingredients in Agent Orange), the list goes on, followed by catastrophes, contaminations and disputes brought by people with serious health problems.

It is an incessant accumulation of algae blooms and skin lesions. Describing the remote manufacturing sites of Idaho and West Virginia, Elmore writes, “the bodies of these workers had stories to tell.” He sifts through the wreckage, deftly extracting vignettes from primary court documents, journals and scholarly journals.

The plot rarely deviates far from the course one would expect: Monsanto behaves abominably in pursuit of profit. In the late 1970s, for example, when company officials sensed that a controversy was brewing in West Virginia, they commissioned a study designed to refute the health concerns. Later in the 1990s, while searching for the genes of what would become the company’s next pivotal product, the researchers probed the heavily contaminated soil around a former Monsanto site. “Essentially,” Elmore writes, “the company was hoping to find a profitable innovation by harnessing its own pollution. “

Seed money hit its stride by documenting what is perhaps Monsanto’s best-known iteration in its phase of the “new era in American agriculture” that took shape in the 1990s under Robert B. Shapiro, its managing director at the time – someone who Elmore said should be a household name. Shapiro preached a wellness message and ushered in the ‘first commercial launch of genetically modified (GM) seeds for major staple crops,’ starting in 1996 with Bollgard cottonseed and quickly followed by soybeans and canola. .

“Today, whether you are a vegan eating tofu, a corn-fed beef enthusiast, or a high fructose drinker,” Elmore writes, “you have almost certainly swallowed grain containing DNA from it. ‘a successor to Shapiro raised for the first time in a Monsanto laboratory.

According to Elmore, Shapiro has made the company more like Microsoft, licensing genetically modified seeds tolerant to “Roundup Ready” herbicides like software. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is still the most widely used herbicide, covering 90 percent of all corn and soybeans grown in the United States, and has been compared to wonder drugs like penicillin.

Roundup Ready seeds are now part of a patented system that allows farmers to spray the herbicide at will. Over time, however, weeds evolve and develop resistance to Roundup, and its overuse has undermined its relative effectiveness. Although it tried to distance itself from a legacy focused on making chemicals for industry, Monsanto found that, even with its genetically modified products, it still couldn’t completely part with its “relentless pursuit.” to sell more chemicals, ”Elmore writes. One of Monsanto’s last acts, before being bought out by Bayer, was to revive dicamba, an old-fashioned chemical and sort of booster to prolong the phenomenal profitability of the world’s best-selling herbicide. world.

In his thanks, Elmore writes that he has obtained permission to examine the company’s records. Suffice it to say, however, Seed money does not read like a sanctioned story. Nor does he sizzle with zeal for prosecution. There are journalistic touches; Elmore’s research takes him to many places (Brazil, for example) and he seems to meet many sources in person. But the leather of the shoe doesn’t always translate into cinematic action on the spot. The details accumulate in numerous footnotes, giving the book, strewn with multisyllabic jargon, a rather learned air.

With the Roundup litigation ongoing, Bayer has attempted to defend itself, in part, by arguing that science is on its side. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Chemicals Agency, among other regulatory agencies, have determined that the herbicide does not cause cancer. The World Health Organization, however, classifies it as a probable human carcinogen. Several juries have reached the same conclusion – Elmore acknowledges that jurors in a 2018 case “did not need compelling scientific evidence of the link between glyphosate and cancer”. On the contrary, in court, it seems that the most convincing story wins.

Seed money, of course, is the term used for an initial round of funding, and the book makes an implicit accusation of how research funding bends “at the behest of business.” Monsanto is also good at sowing doubt, by sponsoring research that undermines accusations about the dangers of its products.

Despite a subtitle promising to deliver a message on “our food future”, Seed money never quite achieves this result, instead focusing on the toxic legacy that fueled Monsanto’s transformation into an agriculture and biotech giant, and providing an in-depth chronicle of the ideology and context in which its ubiquitous chemistry was born.

Ultimately, Elmore writes, “While executives loved to talk about how the ‘new’ Monsanto was so different from the old, the truth was that the company’s future was still tied to its chemical origins. – to scavenging capitalism. “

“Roundup,” he continues, “derived from phosphate ore mined from ancient sea beds that dried up millions of years ago, produced half of the company’s revenue in 2001. Monsanto, in in other words, could never completely free himself from the chemical economy he helped create. “

Peter Andrey Smith is a freelance journalist. His stories have been featured in Science, STAT, the New York Times and Radiolab WNYC.

This article was originally published on Darkness.

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