One of the most arguably controversial names ever known to the global economy is about to disappear — or at least that’s what its stakeholders want you to believe. As of June 7, the name Monsanto was for all intents and purposes “discontinued” by its parent company in favor of uniting operations under a single brand.
That “new” brand name is Bayer, which purchased the well-established entity for $66 billion in 2016 — and by all public indications, those well-established operations are still the same.
As a pioneering agrochemical giant and leading producer of conventional pest control products, Monsanto has maintained a stronghold on its ever-expanding markets for the better part of a century. But after years of public outcry and being dealt an unprecedented legal blow earlier this month, the Monsanto machine is making rapid efforts to shed its now-infamous identity.
INDUSTRIAL INNOVATION: A HISTORY OF HARM
Founded at the turn of the 20th century, Monsanto began as a small chemical company that produced food additives like saccharin sweetener (the synthetic sister of cane sugar), caffeine and artificial vanilla. Under the brand name NutraSweet, saccharin became a household staple during the latter part of the century
The business expanded into Europe in 1919 and, like many industrializing leaders of the time, built out an empire based on innovative ideas with unfortunate side effects.
By the 1920s, Monsanto was producing industrial-grade chemicals including sulfuric acid and polychlorinated biphenyl (commonly known as PCB). The latter was commonly used as a coolant and heat transfer liquid before its production was officially banned in the US during the 1970s. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PCBs are highly toxic pollutants with likely carcinogenic properties that can cause cancer in both animals and humans. PCB pollution of rivers and public lands, including schools and parks, remains an environmental hazard today.
In the mid-1940s, Monsanto moved into the pest control industry as a leading producer of the chemical DDT. A mosquito repellant marketed to protect against malaria-carrying insects, DDT surged in popularity as both an agricultural and household pesticide.
A public backlash against the chemical began to take effect in the early 1960s — triggered by the publication of mounting evidence that DDT and other pesticide products were highly toxic to the environment, extremely hazardous to wildlife and likely to cause cancer or other ill health effects in humans.
The US banned production of DDT in 1972, marking the beginning of the environmental movement and public outcry against the use of toxic pesticides. That was nearly half a century ago.
Monsanto also became one of eight companies to produce the extremely toxic herbicide Agent Orange — later used in mass chemical warfare against Vietnam from 1961-1971. That usage exposed millions of people on both sides of the conflict, including hundreds or thousands of US soldiers, to its highly carcinogenic and neurologically devastating effects.
Resultant legal and legislative action, spanning the course of two decades, ultimately held Monsanto and six other AO suppliers recklessly negligent in its production and weaponization.
In 2004, Monsanto released a statement denying responsibility or any wrongdoing despite having paid out roughly half of the total settlements awarded in AO personal injury cases.
Chicago March Against Monsanto, Image Licensed for Reuse via Flickr
A NEW WAY TO GROW & THE BAD SEED EFFECT
Monsanto went on to spend the next several decades developing agricultural and consumer products that promised to keep lawns lush and green, pest control methods more effective than ever and crop yields indestructibly abundant.
The development and production of aggressive pesticides became the major focus of Monsanto’s business model during the 1990s. That period also marked the advent of the company’s genetically engineered (GE) crops. Monsanto claimed that their genetic alterations were designed to produce higher yields and reduce the need for pesticide usage by making plants were more naturally resistant to ecological predators.
Industry data later revealed that Monsanto’s modified seeds were, in fact, intentionally engineered to have an increased resistance to pesticides — thus producing the opposite effect of their claims. GE crops were deliberately created as part of a scheme to sell more pesticides and toxic pest control products than ever before.
Another of the company’s most profitable endeavors centered around the development and patenting of glyphosate (brand name: RoundUp), which became a major source of revenue. RoundUp made up as much as ten percent of Monsanto’s earnings before its patent expired in 2000. The widely touted “weed killer” has remained a common household herbicide despite longtime concerns expressed by the environmental and medical science communities.
To date, more than 800 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients have sued Monsanto, claiming that its key ingredient, glyphosate, was responsible for their illness. It was only earlier this month that a California plaintiff won his personal injury lawsuit, resulting in the first ever ruling against RoundUp and its manufacturer.
The landmark victory and $289 million judgment against Monsanto was handed down by a San Francisco Supreme Court and awarded to former school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson. The jury’s decision that exposure to RoundUp contributed to Johnson’s terminal cancer marks a turning point in the hotly contested global pesticide debate.
The product label for RoundUp Weed & Grass Killer, Image Licensed for Reuse via Flickr
THE ROUNDUP COVER-UP & CONSEQUENCES OF EXPOSURE
In that game-changing verdict, the court held Monsanto responsible for knowingly and deliberately deceiving the public about known carcinogenic and toxic properties of RoundUp. According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), methods of deception utilized by Monsanto include:
Bribing scientists to publicly lie about the active chemical’s reported safety
Ghostwriting false or misleading “independent study” papers that claimed the product was harmless
Cultivating deep relationships with EPA officials, many of whom worked for the company directly at one time, in an effort to bypass regulatory action
Persistently lobbying lawmakers to avoid placing restrictions on the chemical, despite clear and convincing evidence that it was toxic to humans and animals
Spurred by increasing momentum of the organic and environmentalist movements, Monsanto has developed a public relations response and massive rebranding effort to distance the company’s new owners from its truly toxic reputation. In addition to dropping the name, Bayer is directly confronting and disputing a pattern of patently unethical behaviors by Monsanto. Those acts of reckless endangerment have culminated over more than a century and involve at least a dozen branded products.
According to the Monsanto website: “Ensuring each product is safe and effective is core to our values. Our role is to be a partner with farmers around the world. Customers receive guidelines, advice, and access to consultation to encourage better stewardship of natural resources. We make product safety information accessible and understandable whenever possible.”
Those words do little to counter decade upon decade of documented deception and reckless disregard for the wellbeing of people, pets, and our planet.
Monsanto-Bayer’s disappearing act seems to be just another one of the countless strategic maneuvers made by an unscrupulous operation desperate to evade the wrath of public opinion. No matter how the entity brands itself or under what assumed name it registers, Monsanto will remain a glaring epitome of corporate greed and grotesque corruption.