For decades, the company once known as Monsanto has dominated U.S. agriculture. Famous for its Roundup Ready system—which consists of the herbicide Roundup, made with glyphosate, and seeds genetically modified to resist it—the global corporation became the largest seller of seeds in the world by the 1990s. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company that bought Monsanto in 2018, now faces a number of high-profile lawsuits related to glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential as well as the failures of the Roundup system.
In his new book Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future, historian Bartow J. Elmore uncovers Monsanto’s record of producing not only Roundup, but also many of the chemicals that make up our modern world: the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in electrical equipment, the defoliants in home-garden herbicides and the Agent Orange used for chemical warfare during the Vietnam War, and the herbicide dicamba.
Elmore traces the company’s record of misleading regulators and the public about the dangers of such chemicals to human health and the environment and explains how the chemicals themselves have become deeply ingrained in our economy and agricultural system for the foreseeable future.
Civil Eats spoke with Elmore about how Monsanto came to have so much influence over our food system, the damage the company’s products have had on farming communities, and whether Bayer will ever pivot away from chemical-intensive agribusiness.
How did Monsanto got into the chemical business?
We think of Monsanto as a seed business. But when you go back to its founding in 1901, they’re not in the seed business at all. They don’t own a single seed company until the ‘80s. The book traces just how many things this company made over time. Caffeine was one of its most profitable products early on, sold mainly to Coca-Cola; without Coke’s contracts, Monsanto probably wouldn’t exist. Then it started diversifying: plastics, synthetic fibers, artificial rubber, compounds like PCBs. Some of these are toxic, and internally Monsanto knew by the ‘60s that they were really problematic.
“Monsanto made almost everything that made the modern world. I wanted not just to tell the story of agriculture, but to go back to these other compounds that are still with us today and that still affect our environment.”
Chemical pesticides and herbicides became a big part of their business in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s: chemicals like 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D—wonky names for sure, probably meant to make consumers not ask too many questions. Agent Orange was made up of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and Monsanto was the largest producer of Agent Orange by volume during the Vietnam War. [2,4,5-T was] contaminated with a chemical called dioxin; Dow Chemical Company wrote to Monsanto in 1965 and said that [dioxin] was “the most toxic compound they have ever experienced.”
Monsanto made almost everything that made the modern world. I wanted not just to tell the story of agriculture, but to go back to these other compounds that are still with us today and that still affect our environment.
Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018, and it seems that they want to shift away from its chemical past. Could you talk about the pivot they’re making?
It’s unclear what that pivot is going to look like. I got the chance to interview Bob Shapiro, who was the head of Monsanto in the ‘90s. I really thought that Shapiro believed in what he was doing; he seemed to be motivated by good values. His belief was that these genetically engineered crops—specifically Roundup Ready technology and Bt technology, which [uses the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium and] allows plants to produce their own pesticides—would not only increase crop yields dramatically, but would also radically reduce our petrochemical inputs.
That proved, in the short term, slightly true for Bt technology. But herbicides now represent a much bigger amount of the petrochemical inputs [on farms] because of a dramatic rise in the amount of herbicides being used since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in 1996. So that promise of reducing our dependency on petrochemicals—which had some logic to it—did not prove true at all.
Now we’ve seen older chemicals coming back [to battle herbicide-resistant weeds]. By spraying consistently that amount of chemicals, resistance is bound to emerge.
You compare Monsanto’s attempt to control information about the safety of their products to the tobacco industry trying to sow doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer. Could you give an example of how they were “gatekeepers” of information?
I was able to get access to internal corporate records, largely through court documents that were released either during the trials against Monsanto or Bayer or via archival documents. I had permission to use the corporate records of Monsanto in St. Louis.
If you look at some of these documents, it’s very clear that they’re doing their own internal studies of their products. In one document, for example, it says that the problem about the toxicity of PCBs is “snowballing”—they know it’s a global contaminant, and they’re writing this down very clearly.