Monsanto: It’s true colour
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 24 Apr 2011 3 Comments

On 12 March 2010, the Justice Department and the United States Department of Agriculture held a meeting in Ankeny, a suburb of Iowa State, world’s “corn belt”, to probe into the alleged “competitive dynamics of the seed industry”. Outside, a huge coalition of families of farmers, consumers, and other critics of corporate agriculture, gathered, chanting “bust up big ag (agriculture)”, demanding an end to Monsanto’s stranglehold on the seed industry through unfair market manipulations.


Monsanto controls the US commercial seed market via unfair, and in quite a few cases, illegal practices. Our own experience in India is no different. Recently, Monsanto scientists admitted that Bolgard I has failed. It was pushed into the Indian market in 2002, through its Indian subsidiary Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) at an unheard of price of Rs 1950 for a packet of 450 grams, while the same was selling at less than US$2 (about Rs 100) in China. This helped the company garner a mind-boggling Rs 260 crores in one single cotton season, fleecing Indian farmers.


Now it transpires that the admission of “failure” is but a business ploy to push onto Indian farmers the even more expensive Bolgard II and Bolgard III. In the light of these devious ploys, it is educative to look into the history of a company that has held farmers across the world to ransom.  


Monsanto was created in 1901. Its first product was the artificial sweetener saccharin. In the 1920s, Monsanto expanded into basic industrial chemicals. During the Second World War, Monsanto contributed to research on uranium for the Manhattan Project, which led to the atomic bomb. Monsanto continued to operate a nuclear facility for the US government until the late 1980s. During the 1940s, Monsanto also became a leading manufacturer of synthetic fibres and plastics, including polystyrene - ranked fifth in the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) list of chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste. From the 1940s onwards, Monsanto was one of the top 10 US chemical companies.

Following the Second World War, Monsanto championed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture. Its major agrochemical products have included the herbicides 2,4,5-T, DDT, Lasso and Agent Orange, which was widely used as a defoliant by the US Government during the Vietnam War and which was later shown to be highly carcinogenic. The Agent Orange produced by Monsanto had dioxin levels many times higher than that produced by Dow Chemicals, the other major supplier of Agent Orange to Vietnam. This made Monsanto the key defendant in the lawsuit brought by Vietnam War veterans in the United States, who faced an array of debilitating symptoms attributable to Agent Orange exposure. Internal Monsanto memos show that Monsanto knew of the problems of dioxin contamination of Agent Orange when it sold it to the US government for use in Vietnam.

Agent Orange contaminated more than 3 million civilians and servicemen, and an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with deformities attributed to Agent Orange, leading to calls for Monsanto to be prosecuted for war crimes. No compensation has been paid to Vietnamese civilians. An EPA official discovered that Monsanto had apparently falsified the data in their studies on dioxin.


The success of the herbicide Lasso had turned around Monsanto’s struggling Agriculture Division, and by the time Agent Orange was banned in the US and Lasso was facing increasing criticism, Monsanto had developed the weedkiller “Roundup” (active ingredient: glyphosate) as a replacement. Launched in 1976, Roundup helped make Monsanto the world’s largest producer of herbicides.

The success of Roundup coincided with the recognition by Monsanto executives that they needed to radically transform a company increasingly under threat. According to a recent paper by Dominic Glover, “Monsanto had acquired a particularly unenviable reputation in this regard, as a major producer of both dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - both persistent environmental pollutants posing serious risks to the environment and human health. Law suits and environmental clean-up costs began to cut into Monsanto’s bottom line, but more seriously there was a real fear that a serious lapse could potentially bankrupt the company.”

Such a fear was not misplaced. By the 1980s, Monsanto was being hit by a series of lawsuits. It was one of the companies named in 1987 in a $180 million settlement for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange. In 1991, Monsanto was fined $1.2 million for trying to conceal the discharge of contaminated waste water. In 1995, Monsanto was ordered to pay $41.1 million to a waste management company in Texas due to concerns over hazardous waste dumping. That same year Monsanto was ranked fifth among US corporations in EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, having discharged 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land, water and underground. In 1997, The Seattle Times reported that Monsanto sold 6,000 tons of contaminated waste to Idaho fertilizer companies, which contained the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium.

Then in 2002, the Washington Post ran an article entitled, “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution, PCBs Drenched Alabama. Town, But No One Was Ever Told”. Today PCBs are considered one of the gravest chemical threats on the planet. Monsanto produced PCBs for over 50 years and they are now virtually omnipresent in the blood and tissues of humans and wildlife around the globe. EPA is quite emphatic about PCB as a cancer producing chemical in humans. But, the lure of money made Monsanto stay put with PCBs. Human life was no concern to its business interests. And thousands of pages of Monsanto documents -- many emblazoned with warnings such as ‘CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy’ -- show that for decades the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.

With such shameless acts against human and animal life in the background, Monsanto later metamorphosised into a biotechnology company and the launch of the herbicide “Roundup” (Glyphosate) – world’s largest selling herbicide by volume of sales – saw Monsanto’s coffers filling and brimming once again.

Biotechnology was increasingly seen not just as a valuable complement to Monsanto’s chemical technology but as a way of enabling it to further expand into agriculture and secure its “cash cow”.

As Monsanto had moved into biotechnology, its executives had the opportunity to create a new narrative for the company. They began to portray genetic engineering as a ground-breaking technology that could contribute to not only feeding a hungry world, but, preserving the commercial life of Monsanto’s most important product, Roundup, in the face of the challenges Monsanto would face once the patent expired, which was to by 2000. Thus began its foray into GM products. And India was chosen as a main target in Asia for its ware, starting with the Bt cotton in 2002.

Monsanto eventually achieved this by introducing into crop plants genes that give resistance to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). This meant farmers could spray Roundup onto their fields as a weedkiller even during the growing season without harming the crop. This allowed Monsanto to significantly expand the market for Roundup and, more importantly, help Monsanto to negotiate the expiry of its glyphosate patents, on which such a large slice of the company’s income depended. With glyphosate-tolerant GM crops, Monsanto was able to preserve its dominant share of the glyphosate market through a marketing strategy that would couple proprietary “Roundup Ready” seeds with continued sales of Roundup. The “Round Up Ready Soybean” is the classic example of this strategy.

Although the first of Monsanto’s biotech products to make it to market was not a GM crop but Monsanto’s controversial GM cattle drug, bovine growth hormone - called rBGH or rBST, Monsanto’s corporate strategy led them for the first time to acquire seed companies. During the 1990s, Monsanto spent $10 billion globally buying up seed companies - a push that continues to this day. As a result, Monsanto is now the world’s largest seed company, accounting for almost a quarter of the global proprietary seed market. The strategy was clear: Control the seed (read food) market and control global agriculture. No wonder, the company forayed into Bt brinjal - India’s most favourite vegetable.

Monsanto’s biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for almost 90% of the total world area devoted to GM seeds by 2007. Today, over 80% of the worldwide area devoted to GM crops carries at least one genetic trait for herbicide tolerance. Herbicides account for about one-third of the global pesticide market. Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant (Roundup Ready) seeds have reigned supreme on the biotech scene for over a decade - creating a near-monopoly for the company’s Roundup herbicide - which is now off patent. Roundup is the world’s biggest selling pesticide and it has helped make Monsanto the world’s fifth largest agrochemical company. The Round Up Ready Flex (RRF) for Bt cotton, now proposed by Monsanto for Bt cotton in India meshes well into this long range strategy. 


This concentration of corporate power drives up costs for farmers and consumers. Retail prices for Roundup have increased from just $32 per gallon in December 2006 to $45 per gallon a year later, to $75 per gallon by June 2008 - a 134% price hike in less than two years. Because gene technologies can be patented, they also concentrate corporate power. The average price for soybean seed, the largest GM crop in the US, has risen by more than 50% in just two years from 2006 to 2008 - from $32.30 to $49.23 per planted acre.


Patenting also inhibits public sector research and further undermines the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds. “Gene Use Restriction Technique” (GURT) used by Monsanto, where the seed from one season cannot be used in the following season because of sterility onset at maturity (thus deviating from the Indian norm), will make the Indian farmer a slave to the multinational for perpetuity, if allowed. Monsanto devotes an annual budget of 10 million dollars to harassing, intimidating, suing - and in some cases bankrupting - American farmers over alleged improper use of its patented seeds. This will become the norm for India as well, if things go the way New Delhi wants them to go!

Recent food price hikes have taken place in the context of a global food crisis marked by rapid food price inflation, which has exacerbated extreme poverty and hunger, and increased social tensions in many parts of the world, India included. The World Bank attributes 75% of this global food price inflation to “biofuels”, and Monsanto has been at the very heart of the “biofuels” lobby, particularly the lobby for corn ethanol. Monsanto has been accused of both contributing to and benefitting from the food crisis, while simultaneously using it as a PR platform from which to promote GM crops as the solution to the crisis.


In 2008, the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations condemned corporate profiteering: “The essential purpose of food, which is to nourish people, has been subordinated to the economic aims of a handful of multinational corporations that monopolise all aspects of food production, from seeds to major distribution chains, and they have been the prime beneficiaries of the world crisis. A look at the figures for 2007, when the world food crisis began, shows that corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, which control the cereals market, saw their profits increase by 45 and 60 per cent, respectively.”  


Very troubling words indeed. Tragically, or willingly, New Delhi does not seem to learn from these historical facts. Where will the aam admi go from here?


The author is a former international agricultural scientist 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top