Sowing the troubling seeds of Monsanto’s past, present and future

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Monsanto, the chemical company with outsized influence and impact on our agricultural practices, is often in the news. Its genetically modified Roundup Ready crop seeds were introduced 25 years ago, and have changed how many of us both eat and think about our food. With immense detail and care, historian Bartow J. Elmore tells the troubling story of the company's past, present, and future in his new book "Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future."

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

KCRW: Where is Monsanto at right now, in terms of any lawsuits and their fallout?

Bartlow J. Elmore: I never saw any of this coming. It shocked me to the core as I was writing. ... Monsanto is no more, because Monsanto was gobbled up by Bayer, the German life sciences pharmaceutical company, in 2018. And there's a certain irony there, because when Monsanto was founded, the whole point of Monsanto was to be this American chemical company that would be independent of German firms like Bayer. ... After that merger, the first Roundup case — [Roundup] is an herbicide that Monsanto created that was very popular — went to trial and the plaintiffs won. It was a $280 million-plus verdict, finding that a gardener who had been exposed to Roundup, that his cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was linked to that. 

Subsequently, two other cases went against Bayer, with juries, again, finding that Roundup exposure was linked to those plaintiffs' cancers. And there has also been a series of other cases that have happened in the interim. Various states across the United States — Delaware, Washington, among many others — have begun filing suit against Monsanto, now Bayer, for PCB contamination, another chemical that Monsanto produced decades ago that is still affecting folks, even today. And then lastly, there's another herbicide called dicamba that has been causing a lot of problems out in farm country. And there are farmers that are also filing suit against the company for that. And as a result, Bayer stock price has plummeted. And there's a real question as to what the future of this company is going to be, given all those liabilities. 

When all those court decisions came down, many of the shareholders, who are German, issued a vote of no confidence against their CEO and the board of management, because they were baffled: How is it that this company could have made the decision to buy a company with [such] extensive liabilities? That had never happened in the history of the DAX, the German exchange. Monsanto had always wanted to be separate from Bayer. It wanted to be this American chemical company. But in some ways, the guy who started Monsanto, John Queeny, may have gotten what he wanted. He may have finally defeated this German firm because they've kind of swallowed a poison pill, in a way.

It's sort of like a bellwether of poor decision making in relation to externalities or unintended consequences.

Yeah, I really went into this knowing full well that a lot of people refer to Monsanto as “mon Satan,” that it had this reputation. You could see it in polls as being listed as one of the most hated companies in history. And I really wanted to, as a historian, try and tell a human story as much as I could about what happened. Were people in this company just bad? Or are there stories of good people who were in the firm, who are trying to create certain products that then have these consequences that they didn't see coming? And I saw both, really, in the story. 

I saw well meaning people like Bob Shapiro, who was the head of the company. I really believe he thought that some of the GMO seeds they would produce would feed the world and have these really outsized influences, in a good way. On the other hand, I also found documents, like one related to PCBs, where an executive sitting in 1969 in a confidential meeting, deciding what to do about this toxic compound, literally wrote in his own handwriting, “One of the alternatives is that we could sell the hell out of those PCBs as long as we possibly can,” even knowing how toxic it was. 

I definitely started to see that there was a kind of toxic culture at times within the firm, in which profits were held out as more important than people. … And that was really deeply disturbing to come across. I remember when I saw that particular document, it was jaw dropping, because “sell the hell out of them” — I mean, he went back and actually put in a little indentation to put “the hell out of” it. It was not like it was an afterthought.

“I really went into this knowing full well that a lot of people referred to Monsanto as Monsatan,” says Bartow Elmore, who approached researching the company in the hopes of telling its history from a human perspective. Photo by Jonathan Zadra.

“I really went into this knowing full well that a lot of people referred to Monsanto as Monsatan,” says Bartow Elmore, who approached researching the company in the hopes of telling its history from a human perspective. Photo by Jonathan Zadra.

Tell us more about John Queeny and when he started Monsanto.

Monsanto was started in 1901, going into the Progressive Era. Queeny was not a chemist, and really knew very little about chemistry. He was a drug salesman who had come from Chicago to St. Louis. He was 40 years old when he started this company, naming it after his wife, Olga Monsanto. But he had two kids at the time, and was really somebody just struggling trying to make it on his own. He had actually tried to build a factory in the late 19th century in St. Louis, and it had burned down. And you can see this picture of him in the book, where he's got his family all around him, and I think he's not very happy. And part of that is, I think, the stress of the time. 

That says something about the early years of Monsanto. There's a kind of haste to the process,  trying to produce these chemicals as fast as you can, and at times at the expense of the workers. The first products they made were ultimately saccharin, artificial sweetener, and caffeine, of all things, which is how I came to the project, because I had been writing a book about Coca Cola. And I had been trying to trace the ingredients that go into Coca Cola. And it brought me to Monsanto, because Coca Cola was the sole buyer of all of Monsanto’s saccharin and caffeine. Without Coca Cola, there would really be no Monsanto.

When did that happen? And how did the company begin to really dig into an agricultural product portfolio?

They were so far behind the Europeans, especially the Germans and companies like Bayer that they were trying to beat. But both World War One and World War Two are really key, because they cut off supplies of chemicals from overseas from these big powerhouses, and Monsanto, Dow, and these other big chemical companies in the United States had an opportunity to grow in part because of war. So you could say that war really made these companies and that there's a connection between the chemical industries and war. And in a very direct way, when it comes to agriculture. 

By the ‘40s, the US military is trying to find various defoliants, herbicides that can be used to help troops, and particularly the Pacific theater and other places where there are dense jungles. And two of the chemical compounds that comes out of that exploration are 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. These, incidentally, would become the key ingredients in what we know as Agent Orange that would be sprayed in the Vietnam War. And DDT was one of the other chemicals they were making at that time. ... So that's really the moment these insecticides and pesticides are becoming a much bigger part of their portfolio by the late 1940s.

In “Seed Money,” historian Bartow Elmore researches the story of Monsanto, uncovering handwritten documents showing concerns for profits over the welfare of people. Photo courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.

What about the ownership of plant genetics and their foray into seeds?

It comes much later. And how that happened was one of the key questions of the book. Going back to those chemical compounds, by the ‘50s and ‘60s, it's very clear that these compounds are toxic. By the end of the Vietnam War, veterans are exposing the public health effects of exposure to these chlorinated compounds. And Monsanto is actually trying to figure out how to make an herbicide that's not as toxic as Agent Orange. And thus is born, in 1970, Roundup — active ingredient glyphosate — that was a broad spectrum herbicide that could be sprayed on everything. We think of Roundup now as being tied to all these court cases, and according to the World Health Organization, potential links to cancer and things like this. But at the time, the whole point was that Roundup is the environmentally safe herbicide. And actually, Roundup becomes the first billion dollar herbicide in history. It becomes this blockbuster product for Monsanto. 

Beginning in the 1980s, Monsanto began heavily investing in genetic engineering to see if they can create crops that can resist or tolerate heavy sprayings of Roundup or glyphosate. Basically, during the growing season, you could grow your crops, and spraying your crops wouldn't hurt them, because they'd be genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup, but it would kill all the weeds. And the thing that was most exciting from the archives was why. The answer has a lot to do with the energy crisis. The archives say internally, “‘Uh oh, 80% of what we make in the 1970s, including a lot of these pesticides, were coming from petrochemical feedstocks” — from natural gas and oil. 

And in 1973 and ‘74, you have this OPEC oil embargo. And then you have the Iranian Hostage Crisis and disruptions in the Middle East oil trade in ‘79. And the oil prices are through the roof. And they say internally, “We couldn't keep going. We didn't have cheap hydrocarbons to make all these chemicals.” Almost no company has done something like that, right? Totally revolutionize themselves and become this biotech company. But I'll emphasize that, even as they did that, because they were so reliant on these billion dollar brands like Roundup, they brought those chemicals into that biotech beyond. These would be genetically engineered seeds that were sold by Monsanto, but they would become packaged with their most profitable herbicide, Roundup. And that's what we started seeing in the 1990s.

What a story. 

What was really startling when I was writing about Roundup was that I thought Roundup was going to be the really scary story. But the other chemical that came up in those conversations internally with folks was dicamba, an herbicide that's being sprayed on farmland today. Though many consumers probably don't know it. This is an older chemical that goes back to 1958. And it's been brought in to deal with weeds that have become resistant to Roundup. So we're now spraying a new herbicide, which is actually an older one, to try and deal with those weeds.And what happens when we spray dicamba is that it volatilizes, it vaporizes. So when you spray this chemical on a farm in hot temperatures, it “jumps,” that's what farmers will say. It actually will vaporize and then spread to farms nearby. 

Now Monsanto is selling dicamba-tolerant seeds. ... But if you don't buy Monsanto seeds, this vaporized herbicide can spread onto your farm and damage your farm. … I went to the court case in Missouri, where farmers who were hit by this vaporized herbicide filed suit against Monsanto saying, “How could you do this?” And as I sat in the gallery watching that court case, my jaw dropped as the internal documents were released. ... And sure enough, there's these internal emails that were released, in which they said, “We can sell protection from your neighbor” as a way to sell these dicamba-tolerant seeds. This was another one of those moments where you said, “That's not right.” That’s not right to have a system where the product is going to do something like that and force compliance with your seed system. And it really took me aback.



Evan Kleiman