Monsanto: Innovative Destruction
Monsanto is an organization that has created controversies throughout its entire existence. This company’s operations in the agricultural industry are a source of major concern for society and the environment. In this paper, I will give an overview of the history of Monsanto and analyze their unsustainable practices as an agricultural company through the breakdown of sustainability ethics laid out in David Orr’s Hope Is an Imperative the Essential. These points of sustainability analysis include the crisis as a result of economic growth, the urge to dominate nature, evolutionary wrong turn, and the human condition. Many argue that Monsanto is a positive enforcer in our environment, as they contribute to economic growth, technological advances, and are helping to feed our rising population. Some even argue a positive environmental contribution as Monsanto reduces the need for additional weed and insect repelling measures and chemicals. The truth of the matter, however, is that Monsanto has a monopoly over our food industry and their products have a large negative impact on the present and future of our environment and economy.
Monsanto was formed in 1901 as a chemical company in St. Louis, MS and had a history of negative impacts on the environment. One of the most successful chemical producers of all time, Monsanto was known for producing a number of widely used chemicals such as Agent Orange, aspartame, bovine growth hormones, and PCBs, that created severe health and environmental issues. One example of such chemicals, Agent Orange, was a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. This chemical was toxic to humans and resulted in disease, deformities, and birth defects for the local populations as well US soldiers. In 1949, an explosion occurred in their Nitro, WV plant resulting in 228 diseased workers and Monsanto still faced no serious repercussions. The main controversy around this chemical was whether or not Monsanto had tested its toxicity and knew the effect that it would have on humans.
Another chemical that Monsanto was infamous for was its production of PCBs. These products, used as coolants and lubricants in mechanical equipment in factories and households proved to also be incredibly toxic to human beings. A disaster that occurred in Anniston, Alabama was a direct example of the affects that PCBs can have. This town is still suffering from the aftermath of the pollution from a plant that has long since closed down. This Monsanto plant was viewed only as a valuable source of jobs and the town felt reassured that it was a positive addition to their community. Little did they know, however that for nearly forty years this plant was depositing untreated PCB waste directly into their landfills and local water ways, particularly in the central Snow Creek. Anniston residents learned of this pollution in 1996 although Monsanto had been aware of it for decades (Grunwald 2002). Monsanto halted the production of PCBs in Anniston in 1971, and five years later, the Toxic Substances Control Act ruled that PCB production was banned due to its correlation with cases of cancer. The damage was done, however, in Anniston. This community that blindly trusted Monsanto never suspected that the corporation was aware of the thousands of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS) that were entering their environment each year and the potential toxicity of these chemicals. “We cannot afford to lose one dollar of business” states one Monsanto document that discusses the dangers of this chemical (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). Their destruction of this town ended up costing 700 million dollars in damages from 15,000 civilian lawsuits filed by those affected by PCBs in Anniston, but was still only a small number compared to the large sums of profits they made off this production (Grunwald, 2002).
In 1960, Monsanto began its transition to an agricultural company with the formation of the Agricultural Division. After the research and production of many herbicides, it was not until the 1970s that Monsanto created their most well known product Roundup that now accounts for 40% of its revenue (Monsanto, 2014). The chemical used in Roundup, glyphosphate, is a harsh herbicide that destroys all plants that it comes in contact with. Due to the strength of this herbicide, originally it was necessary to make sure that the chemical only made contact with weeds and did not reach the crops. This was a labor-intensive process that involved large quantities of the Roundup product.
Initially, the packaging for Roundup included the term “biodegradable”, but due to numerous studies and lawsuits, this was removed from further packaging (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). Studies done by Robert Belle at the French National Center for Scientific Research found that Roundup promotes cell division dysfunction. Put in simpler terms, this means that Roundup provokes the first stages that lead to the formation of cancer (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). These studies, however, remained widely unpublicized due to the large hand that Monsanto began to play in the agricultural industry. This large hand was due to their production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Roundup Ready Soybeans were the first GMO that Monsanto produced, and were first commercialized in 1996. The term “Roundup Ready” means that these crops have a genetic resistance to the Roundup brand of herbicide and will remain intact if sprayed with the chemical. This innovative technology removed the need for plowing of the fields and allowed the farmers to spray the entire field with Roundup without destroying their crops. Monsanto also claims that these new genetically altered crops have a higher yield than their generic counterparts (Monsanto, 2014). While Roundup Ready Soybeans were the first genetically engineered crop approved in the US, other crops such as alfalfa, corn, cotton, spring canola, sugarbeets, and winter canola were also developed by Monsanto to contain the gene for in-plant tolerance to Roundup. “This means you can spray Roundup agricultural herbicides in-crop from emergence through flowering for unsurpassed weed control, proven crop safety and maximum yield potential” (Monsanto, 2014). Now, over 90% of the GMOs on the planet belong to Monsanto, and due to their success and breakthrough innovation, the US is a leader in the agricultural industry (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). Roundup Ready crops are the linchpins of Monsanto’s business and according to Bear Stearns generated a revenue of around $470 when studied in 2002 (Pollack, 2003). This new technology was highly appealing to farmers, and they were willing to pay the higher price for the altered seed. This was very strategic of Monsanto, as every farmer who purchased their seemingly superior seeds needed to also purchase large quantities of their patented Roundup herbicide. The paired sales skyrocketed and soon enough Monsanto controlled the agricultural and food industries.
There are many reservations and concerns about GMOs and Monsanto has managed to quell all of their opposition due to their power. The law permitted the production of GMOs as all concerns were swept under the rug in order to maintain the strong advantage the US was gaining due to this multinational corporation. Dan Glickman, Clinton’s Agricultural Secretary from 1995-2000 stated that if you were not on board with GMOs, you were perceived as anti-science (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). Fewer tests were required of these plants due to the large level of investments put into their production. The Principle of Substantial Equivalence was a concept that arose in the political documentation by the FDA that stated that food products with GMO components were, by nature, the same as their unaltered counterparts. That term, along with “generally recognized as safe” were abound in these legal documents where there had been few studies cited and no scientific evidence to back these claims. It has even been found in FDA documents that the department ignored GMO safety warnings from its own scientists (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). The USDA also invests $1-2 million in biotechnology per year and only 1% of those funds are allocated to research on risk assessment (Altieri, Rosset 1999). Due to this lack of regulation, now 70% of food in US stores contains bioengineered elements and these products are not required to be labeled. In Europe, consumers are able to make an informed decision as there is required labeling on GMO products due to the rising environmental and health concerns surrounding the products, but the US has not followed their lead.
There are many sustainability concerns surrounding Monsanto’s operations, particularly their production of Roundup and Roundup Ready crops. Using Orr’s analysis of “The Problem of Sustainability”, Monsanto’s unsustainable practices are made clear. First, Orr’s approach to sustainability as a crisis of economic growth is crucial in the analysis of Monsanto. Orr discusses the unavoidable truth that today in our industrial societies, economic growth is the most accepted form of measuring success despite the affect it may have on our environment. In an interview with the CEO of Monsanto, Robert Shapiro, he states, “’We can’t expect the rest of the world to abandon their economic aspirations just so we can continue to enjoy clean air and water. That is neither ethically correct nor likely to be permitted by the billions of people in the developing world who expect the quality of their lives to improve.’” (Magretta 1997, 79). As we grow beyond the limits of our natural world, society waits for technology and ingenuity to help surpass what is seen as an obstacle to growth. Monsanto is an example of a corporation that is helping to adapt to and foster this growth as opposed to addressing the issue of the growth itself. As our population rises exponentially, Monsanto is able to capitalize on the fear of our resources not being sufficient to feed our populations. “Human ingenuity is the ‘ultimate resource’ (the title of Simon’s book) and will enable us to overcome constraints that are merely biophysical” (Orr 2010, 78). As the globe faces what is perceived as a food crisis, Monsanto provides agricultural systems worldwide with a solution. They claim that Monsanto seeds produce a higher yield and ensure a more stable crop supply. It is not, however, sustainable to enter these self-maintaining agricultural societies and implement this new industrial method of farming. While Monsanto poses their system as a solution to hunger and an underdeveloped economy, it can actually lead to the destruction of the economy and environment. Monsanto will promote these seeds and sell them to local farmers, eventually leading to control over the entire agricultural industry. An example of this is Monsanto’s business activities in India. Monsanto purchased India’s largest seed supplier and began to produce and sell BT cotton. BT cotton is a crop is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide. However, as these crops became widespread, Boll worms developed an immunity to the BT cotton’s pesticide and therefore farmers still had to spray an additional pesticide on the crops. Monsanto’s high prices for these seeds (40% more than what farmers had previously been paying) had put all other cotton seed producers out of business so now this GMO that showed no increase in yield was the only option for farmers. “It is not about food security anymore—it is about Monsanto profits” (The World According to Monsanto, 2008). It is commonly believed that “growth is necessary to improve the situation of the poor” but this has proven to be false (Orr 2010). Farmers are going broke in seasons of poor crop yields due to the newly high costs of farming, environments are being degraded by the use of excess herbicides and pesticides, and social systems are being destroyed.
Another analysis of Monsanto’s unsustainable operations is Orr’s example of the crisis as the result of the urge to dominate nature. Monsanto’s production of genetically modified organisms is the perfect example of the modern human need to take control of its natural surroundings. By using scientific means to alter a natural process, Monsanto is able to control the undesirable factors of nature. Science and technological innovation are viewed by many as inherently good and should not be impeded due to ecological concerns. It is the unpopular view to discourage innovation that could be detrimental to our environment. This is apparent in the lack of studies that have been done on the environmental and health impacts of GMOs and the absence of government regulations. In the excitement of new breakthrough technology, it is not ideal to point out the issues and problems that may delay this progress. Governments, businesses, and scientists alike have ignored questionable evidence and avoided crucial studies to ensure the growth of industries and profits. “Failure to pursue technological developments, regardless of their side effects, places a corporation or a government at a potential disadvantage in a system where competitiveness and survival are believed to be synonymous” (Orr 2010, 85). Monsanto is driving forward in their domination of the food system while the impacts of their operations are going largely unrecognized.
One other aspect of Orr’s analysis of sustainability that is applicable to a study of Monsanto is the crisis as the result of an evolutionary wrong turn. This is most evident in the modern western civilization and Monsanto is a prime example. Monsanto views industrial agriculture and these innovative technological solutions as the superior model of agriculture. Western society has evolved so far from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that it is viewed as primitive and inferior while many aspects of this model should be used to solve our crisis of sustainability. The environmental crisis began at the emergence of agriculture thousands of years ago and has only been exacerbated since the industrial revolution. Monsanto’s operations are ensuring that more countries adapt to the mass-production of crops, which is a highly resource-intensive process. In the documentary “The World According to Monsanto”, Mexico is presented as a culture that was resistant to the implementation of industrial agriculture and Monsanto’s GMOs. Their existing system was self-sustaining and highly effective, reusing the seeds each year to maintain the best crop yield without the use of pesticides or chemicals. While outlawed in Mexico, the American GMOs made their way into Mexican agriculture, through cross-pollination, which is referred to as “transgenic contamination”. The local farmers, many of whom were only producing crops for subsistence farming, were then forced into the use of pesticides and herbicides in order to keep their crops healthy. This led to the degradation of their land due to the uniformity of their crops, emergence of more resistant species of insects, and the pollution of their land and water supplies from the now necessary chemicals (The World According to Monsanto, 2008).
Lastly, Monsanto epitomizes Orr’s analysis of the crisis of sustainability and the human condition. Orr surfaces the issue of immorality in modern society and the fact that little attention is paid to issues beyond self-interest. Monsanto is a greedy, dishonest corporation that has blatantly concealed the truth of the effect they have on the environment throughout their years of operation. “’A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Orr 2010, 88). Withholding information from towns such as Anniston who were suffering from their pollution proves that Monsanto has a lack of empathy for those they are affecting and a disregard for the health of the environment. Furthermore, Monsanto markets itself as a highly sustainable corporation despite blatant evidence to the contrary.
Monsanto is now beginning to acknowledge the impact of their products and industry, and are therefore making efforts to improve their image. They have reported making efforts in the field of sustainability and their website highlights the environmental improvements that they are making. Is this just further deceiving their consumers and stakeholders or will they actually work to lessen the severity of their impact? Monsanto is a corporation that provides the supplies for the inherently unsustainable industry of mass production agriculture. Their dishonesty is unavoidable and their processes and products have been detrimental to the health of populations as well as the environment.
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