Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Monsanto's Past and Our Food Supply

Updated January 2017

As most of us are aware, Monsanto is a major supplier of the world's food through its corn, cotton, canola and soybean seed (germplasm) business and is currently looking to merge with Bayer which would create a massive agribusiness.  On its own, Monsanto had net sales of $13.502 billion in 2016 and net income of $1.336 billion and has set a long-term target of doubling its earnings-per-share by the end of fiscal 2019, an issue that could be complicated by its dropping net sales which are down from $15.85 billion in 2014.  The company is the largest biotechnology seed company in the world.

Here is a chart showing Monsanto's major businesses:

Monsanto's seeds are marketed to every agricultural region in the world and, in countries where they have received approval, Monsanto markets its genetically modified seeds including its Roundup Ready soybeans, canola, corn (under the DEKALB brand) and cotton seeds, plant varieties that allow farmers to apply more of Monsanto's famous herbicide on their crops without the fear of killing the genetically protected seedlings and plants.  In 2016, Monsanto spent $1.512 billion on research and development, up from $1.725 billion in 2014.  As an aside, it is interesting to note that Monsanto's patent on Roundup Ready soybeans expired in 2014.   

Monsanto spent years buying up America's seed companies in an effort to control the world's seed business.  The company's 2005 purchase of Seminis earned Monsanto a 40 percent share of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world's total seed market in one transaction alone.  Seminis supplied the genetics for 55 percent of the lettuce found on the shelves of U.S. grocery stores along with 75 percent of the tomatoes and 85 percent of the peppers plus a substantial portion of beans, cucumbers, melons, carrots, squash, zucchini and watermelons.  According to a report by Food and Water Watch, in 2009, Monsanto's products were in use on 282 million acres worldwide and on 40 percent of U.S. agricultural land.

From this video, we get the first glimpse of how Monsanto's business model began to change in the 1980s:

With Monsanto's modern day focus on the agricultural industry, we tend to forget about the corporation's past.  Monsanto was founded in 1901 as a small chemical company by John Francis Queeny.  Its first product was saccharin, a sugar substitute that was supplied to Coca-Cola.  As the years passed, Monsanto's product offerings expanded to include aspirin, sedatives and laxatives.  When John Queeny's son, Edgar, took over in the late 1920's the company's product line expanded to include industrial chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides including DDT and Agent Orange.  It was also producing a chemical that had the trade name of Aroclor which is better known to most of us as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.  These chemicals were widely used as coolant fluids in electrical equipment as a replacement for flammable mineral oil and were manufactured at Monsanto's Anniston, Alabama facility among others.  I can recall working with pole-mounted electrical transformers filled with PCB coolant in the early 1970s when I worked for a utility company.  The use of PCBs was ubiquitous until it was banned by the United States Congress in 1979 because of its environmental toxicity and persistence in the environment.  In a trial in 2001, Monsanto claimed that first found out that PCBs were harmful to human health and the environment back in 1966 when scientists in Sweden discovered PCBs in human hair, fish, birds, eggs and pine needles and that the company began to take steps to curb the problem at that point in time.  In fact, this is not the truth as you will see in the remainder of this posting which speaks volumes about Monsanto's corporate culture.

Here is an internal memo dating from October 11, 1937 where it is noted that experimental work with animals showed that prolonged exposure to both PCB vapour and liquids led to toxic effects:

As well, this internal document dating from December 1947 from instant to the Celanese Corporation states that experiments with Aroclor in the 1930s led to liver damage in rats and that the "...vapors of the other Aroclors (other than Aroclor 1268) are toxic and should be avoided.":

An additional internal document that outlines handling instructions for Aroclor notes that "...prolonged and repeated exposure to such fumes may, in addition to causing irritation, interfere with the normal skin functions and result in physiological disturbances."  It also recommends that a gas mask is required when dealing with Aroclor fumes and that cold cream should be applied to the skin to prevent since particles of Aroclor from entering pores.  Workers who had contact with Aroclor were to change their work clothes daily and not wear them outside the plant.  Before changing into street clothes, workmen were to bathe with plenty of soap and warm water.  It was noted that failure to follow these precautions could result in skin infections, ill health and discomfort.

From 1952, here is an internal document that outlines an agreement between the United States Public Health Service and the manufacturers of chlorinated hydrocarbons (including PCBs) about labelling requirements for Aroclor:

Stunningly, the document makes note of a rather unusual proposed use for Aroclor....as a chewing gum additive!  The memo goes on to note that Aroclor is not designed with the intention that people would bathe in it.  It also notes that there have been few deaths associated with use of the product but that there have been a relatively large number of cases of skin irritation including those cases transmitted by workers to their wives at home.

Here is another internal document from 1955 in which Monsanto's Medical Department recommends that company employees at its Krummrich Plant not eat lunch within the confines of the Aroclors Department because "...in any case where a workman claimed physical harm from contaminated food, it would be extremely difficult on the basis of past literature reports to counter such claims.":

Lastly, here is a document outlining the reasons why the United States Navy was not using Pydraul 150, a hydraulic fluid that contained Aroclor in its submarines:

In its own toxicity tests, the Navy found that all rabbits tested were killed and that there was definite liver damage after inhalation of Pydraul.

By the later 1960s, Monsanto was fielding increasing questions about its product from a number of its Aroclor customers and struggling with pollution problems at its aging Anniston, Alabama plant.  By 1969, the global Aroclor business had grown into a $22 million a year business, generating healthy profits of $10 million.  Obviously, Monsanto needed to protect its investment so it created a committee whose job was to protect the sales and profits generated by Aroclors, to permit the development of new uses for Aroclors and to protect the image of the Organic Division and Monsanto as a whole as shown in this confidential memo:

What is particularly frightening is that during the 1960s, Aroclor was very widely used; it was a component of highway line marking paints (one million pounds were used annually) which were likely leaching into watersheds and were used in rubber-based paints and surface coatings that were used to coat the interior walls of potable water storage tanks and swimming pools. 

Now, let's get to Monsanto's bottom line as shown in this memo from February 16, 1970:

Note the first sentence of the last paragraph which states "...we can't afford to lose one dollar of business.".  Also note that customers who were asking questions about Monsanto's Aroclor/Pydraul hydraulic fluid products were to be given verbal answers only and that no written answers were to be provided.  As well, no fluids were to be taken back from customers, rather, newly formulated fluids that were less damaging to the environment were to be sold to the customer.

PCBs are now found globally and have been linked to cancer, effects on the immune, reproduction, nervous and endocrine systems according to the EPA.  Since PCBs are not naturally occurring substances, all occurrences in the environment can be attributed to manmade sources.  PCBs are found around the world which suggests that PCBs are transported in air.  The highest concentration of PCBs in air are found indoors, particularly in buildings that were constructed using PCB-containing rubber sealants.  It is currently assumed that most of the world's population receives its major exposure to PCBs through the food chain because PCBs are lipohilic (fat-loving i.e. they dissolve in fat).  Foods of animal origin are an important source of exposure for humans whereas, plant-based foods generally contain much lower levels of PCBs, often just above the detection level for these chemicals.  PCBs are also found in human milk, particularly in individuals that consume large amounts of contaminated food such as fish.

While Monsanto transformed itself into an agricultural and biotechnology company by divesting of its interests in its chemical business between 1997 and 2002, it has a heritage that is unforgettable.  What should be of concern to the world's consumers is that the same company that brought us PCBs, one of the world's most persistent and widespread chemical contaminants, is now attempting to gain a monopoly on our food through "better science".


  1. it has a heritage that is unforgettable. I think you meant to say Monsanto has a heritage that is unforgivable. Anyone with a functioning mind should think about where this company came from and why in the hell should anyone trust them to modify our food supply...

  2. And we spend all our time worrying about GMOs and carbon dioxide when we need to deal with REAL environmental pollution and dangerous chemicals. the companies must love these red herrings. Monsanto was a minor producer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. Dow Chemical was the main one and when they could not keep up, it was farmed out to others including Monsanto, but for some reason we only remember Monsanto.
    The notion that businesses and industries will police themselves is not only ludicrous but dangerous. IF governments had engaged in proper oversight, with laws with TEETH, including fines and prison sentences, the concentration of power in Monsanto's hands would not have happened nor would the PCBs and so many other horror stories. Government MUST fund research and conduct lab analysis in situations completely independent of both corporate and political pressure