If there is one manufacturing behemoth that has been a US household name for over a century, it is Monsanto. Originally known as Monsanto Chemical Works, John F. Queeny founded the company in 1901.
Queeny was a wholesale drug company’s purchasing agent at the time, and he established Monsanto to manufacture saccharin (a sweetener only produced in Germany back then). In case you’re wondering what inspired Queeny to name his company “Monsanto,” it was his wife’s maiden name.
Like other companies of the time, Monsanto expanded during the First World War. However, it was not until Queeny’s son, Edgar M. Queeny, took over in 1928 that the company turned into an industrial giant. Queeny’s son renamed it Monsanto Company in 1964.
Great renown was in store for the latter half of the 20th century as Monsanto stepped into sustainable agriculture. The two most widely known ‘achievements’ of the company include genetically-modified seeds and Roundup weed killer.
Today, the entity no longer exists, having been acquired by Bayer in 2018. This was an interesting move, but not a surprising one to many. Was Bayer simply trying to carry forward Monsanto’s great legacy? Many believe the acquisition was an attempt to weed out aspects of a sinister brand’s dark past.
In this article, we will explore whether Monsanto was really a visionary or a product of clever public relations.
The PCB Cover-up
The sad reality of this incident starts in the late 1920s with Monsanto’s acquisition of Swann Chemical Company. The latter had developed Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), a group of highly stable and non-flammable chemicals.
These chemicals were used by the electrical industry as coolants for transformers. But, by the 1960s, PCBs were widely used in hydraulic fluids, liquid sealants, cutting oils, etc. Within two decades (1960s and 70s), PCBs’ health and environmental repercussions came to light.
The National Library of Medicine holds records of PCB studies where health outcomes like dementia, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer were observed. The chemicals can also reduce fertility and pass on birth defects to the offspring.
As for the environment, it was found that PCB bioaccumulation is hazardous for wildlife, both on land and the sea. The impact was highest in the area housing Monsanto’s PCB manufacturing plant, located just on the outskirts of East St. Louis.
The area was found to be “thoroughly contaminated,” with domestic animals and wild birds dying in hundreds. Besides, the residents also suffered from severe health conditions, including cancer and fertility issues. What caused the mess?
Historical proportions of PCBs in the soil (as found in testing samples) from Monsanto’s plant. Even then, Monsanto claimed that it had no connection whatsoever with this incident.
The Agent Orange Catastrophe
This incident takes us back to the two decades (1955-1975) when the Vietnam War waged between Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. During the war, chemical manufacturers had to produce a powerful herbicide called Agent Orange.
It was primarily used to remove dense foliage that may hide enemy combatants. The two names that led the pack in Agent Orange production were Dow Chemical and Monsanto. Under the US Defense Production Act (1950), the use and storage of Agent Orange were strictly controlled by the government.
Both companies have stated that the government itself has dismissed legal claims against them as it authorized Agent Orange’s production. They have further claimed that there is no causal link between the herbicide and serious illnesses like cancer.
However, veterans from the Vietnam War filed lawsuits against the two companies for health injuries. Monsanto was the chief defendant because its herbicide had higher levels of dioxin than Dow’s.
Later, the US Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that Agent Orange causes some serious conditions, including bladder cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple myeloma, and more. Even children born to surviving veterans suffered from birth defects.
Did Monsanto later settle the Agent Orange case with the victims? Yes, but only the US victims. The lawsuit was filed by residents living close to the Nitro manufacturing plant in West Virginia. In 2012, Monsanto established a 30-year medical screening program (worth $63 million) and offered another $21 million for medical testing. Additionally, professional contamination cleanup services were funded with $9 million.
As for the Vietnamese victims, they’ve been fighting a losing battle for half a century. To this day, Monsanto remains guilty until proven innocent (despite no real legal action against it).
The Roundup Disaster
Even before one tragedy was evaded, Monsanto began cooking up another (roughly around 1974). It launched its glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup to kill unwanted weeds around crops. Roundup was originally used as a non-selective herbicide but it failed to garner attention due to crop damage.
It was only after the emergence of glyphosate-resistant soybean (1996) that Roundup found a rapidly expanding market in the US. That sounds like creating a disaster just to follow it up with a solution to appear as the hero. However, it worked and Roundup soon became the highest-rated herbicide in the world.
Just one year into its popularity and concerns surrounding Roundup’s health implications started rising. It was believed that heavy Roundup use gradually manifested itself as inflammation in the body, later turning into cancer. A meta-analysis found a compelling link between glyphosate and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).
Interestingly, the first-ever Roundup lawsuit (filed in 2016 and taken to trial in 2018) was a case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The lawsuit was filed by Dewayne Johnson who had a history of Roundup use. Johnson received $250 million in punitive damages and an additional $39 million as compensatory damages.
Since then, thousands of similar lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto/Bayer. By May 2022, Monsanto had settled 100,000 Roundup lawsuits with $11 billion. The latest Roundup lawsuit update is that the company has even settled a false advertising lawsuit with $6.9 million. This lawsuit was filed by New York’s State Attorney General for violations of ethical advertising laws.
Despite all this, there are still 30,000 pending lawsuits awaiting settlements. When will they be settled? According to TorHoerman Law, future settlements may take several more years since the litigation is currently in the appeals process. Plus, the statute of limitations for this lawsuit is two to three years from the date of diagnosis.
This means more lawsuits could be filed against Monsanto/Bayer. To avoid further legal hassles, Bayer has decided to take off residential formulas for Roundup from the market. However, the herbicide will still be available for commercial farmers.
A Shameful Record of False Advertising
In each of the above-mentioned tragedies, Monsanto maintained its stand of being a “clean-and-green” company. It is important to mention here that the cracks in Monsanto’s advertisements were not hidden for long.
The world did recognize the company for what it is – the poster child for corporate manipulation and corruption. One example is the March against Monsanto started in 2013 to protest against genetically-modified seeds and the non-disclosure of ingredients.
As early as 1999, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemned Monsanto’s £1 million campaign for genetically modified food. The industry watchdog found the campaign to be “unproven, misleading, wrong, and confusing.”
It does seem like the devious believe in confusion when they fail to convince. A similar charge was brought against Monsanto’s advertisements for Roundup weed killer. It marketed Roundup as safe for the environment, also stating it carried no health risks for humans. It was outrageous for people to find the word “natural” on Roundup’s labels.
Bayer simply removed the word from Roundup’s labels, whilst developing a five-point action plan to close the lawsuits. With the recent false advertising lawsuit settlement (which happened surprisingly fast), Bayer has demonstrated its lack of empathy. To the company, this was just another litigation it could easily close with its inexhaustible resources.
The Bottom Line
Given Monsanto’s dark legacy, it is unlikely that Bayer can redeem its name simply through an acquisition. Another similar incident happened at one of the company’s facilities on Maui Island in Hawaii. Monsanto even pleaded guilty to spraying research crops with a banned pesticide called Penncap-M.
It almost seems like Monsanto takes culpable pleasure in disregarding the law and conducting inhumane experiments with its products. Could it be anything other than clever PR that kept it afloat (and thriving) for over a century?
Even now, Bayer ranks among the world’s coveted Fortune 500s. This is a stark reminder of how money and power can easily drown the voice of reason and cries for justice.