Farmers who grow apples, berries, cherries, potatoes, and more are facing more intense and frequent heat, and struggling to adapt their practices to protect their crops.
December 20, 2021
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.
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.
In another document, a Monsanto employee was coaching people how to talk about this PCB problem: “Do not offer information, don’t let too much out.” Another document says, “Sell the hell out of them as long as we can.” That was one of those jarring moments, seeing a toxic culture where profits were being put before people and human health.
One other example that comes to mind was related to dicamba, the herbicide that has become very popular in the last five years because [it kills] Roundup-resistant weeds. We’re going back to this chemical created in the 1960s. The problem is dicamba drifts [on the air]. So if you don’t have Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant seeds, this chemical can drift onto your land and affect your crops. Monsanto tried to control public-university testing of their specific formulation of dicamba—“VaporGrip”—to prevent testing on its volatility and vaporization. They knew that if universities test it, they’re going to find this problem. That’s what I mean by being an information gatekeeper.
Oftentimes Monsanto was able to control the information flow in ways that resulted in harm. There’s no other way to put it to farmers who were ultimately affected by this dicamba drift.
This collaboration between Monsanto, the U.S. government, and research universities created the system of large-scale agriculture that we know today. Does Bayer still have the support of people who make U.S. agricultural policy? Do they have the same vision for the future of the food system?
Yes. By the ‘30s and ‘40s, the logic of chemical-intensive agriculture was unquestioned within the major federal agency overseeing agriculture. In this book, I document a revolving door between some of the people regulating these companies and Monsanto. So, if we think that the federal government is necessarily going to step in and stop these problems, this book shows that that’s not the case. There’s an acceptance of this style of agriculture, even though we’re seeing problems on the ground.
I just talked to an organic farmer in South Dakota. He stopped his combine to talk to me about his problems with dicamba drift. This was a person who had previously sold Roundup-ready technology, who saw what happened with this technology and decided to go organic. He said, “I have no protection from this. It seems like we’re getting no regulatory relief when it comes to farmers like myself.”
The Ninth Circuit Court temporarily halted the use of dicamba in the United States in 2020, and they said that because it spreads off target, that “tear[s] the social fabric of farming communities.” I think that’s true for this way of using genetic-engineering technology. There can be smart ways [to use it]—I don’t know what’s down the pipeline—but the way that we’ve seen it used over the past 25 years has been really problematic and we’re going to have to pivot very strongly. I don’t know if Bayer is ready to do that.
Originally, chemicals like Roundup were sold with the idea that it would set farmers free or give them more choices. Do you see that kind of language used to sell these chemicals today?
Yeah, it’s totally recycled. I went back to the Wayback Machine and looked at old 1990s Monsanto webpages: “Roundup Ready technology, the system that sets you free.” But now—that farmer I just talked about—does that really set him free?
I should be clear, there are some who haven’t had as much of a resistant [weed] issue. Farmers aren’t stupid; it wasn’t like they made this choice because they were pushed into it, necessarily. They were told you didn’t need any other herbicides, and that was supposed to reduce your cost and labor. This was going to be a great system!
Now they’re actually paying more for seeds that have multiple traits; some have been proposed to the EPA that resist five different herbicides. If you’re someone who cares about having fewer chemicals in your food system, that’s not the way to go. It’s a great business model for Monsanto, but it doesn’t solve the problem for the farmer.
You said that this is tearing apart some of the fabric of society. Can you say more ?
Another way Roundup was not setting [farmers] free was the surveillance system that their products created in the ‘90s. Farmers had to sign technology-use agreements when they bought seeds from Monsanto that prevented them from saving or selling their seeds after harvest. Monsanto started hiring detectives and even using helicopters to enforce those agreements. Farmers and neighbors turned against one another; you can still dial 1-800-ROUNDUP right now to report someone. It just seems like there’s something wrong when that’s the world we live in. That’s not a system that creates community.
The last section of your book talks about the overseas markets that Bayer is pursuing in Brazil and Vietnam. Those places are experiencing some of the same problems with the Roundup-resistant weeds that farmers in the U.S. have. What is Bayer’s international market like now, after some of the Roundup lawsuits that they faced here?
It’s an absolute mess. When Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018, the first Roundup case they faced right after that was a $287 million verdict. It was just one case out of 120,000 sitting in the wings. Within a year, Bayer’s value had dropped by over 30 percent, and they were worth the same amount of money that they had used to purchase Monsanto in the first place. It was so bad that the shareholders issued a vote of no confidence for the CEO and the board of management. They have maybe temporarily staved off the worst of this by saying that they’re going to agree to a $15 billion settlement to deal with glyphosate cases.
Bayer is trying to expand into Brazil and Vietnam and continue their operations in other foreign countries. Incidentally, Vietnam is where Agent Orange was used. It’s still there. The dioxin contamination is still in the ground, as farmers are now spraying Roundup Ready technology over top. There are these layers of history—we haven’t really left.
We just haven’t reckoned with that past yet. I went to the Bayer shareholders meeting virtually during the pandemic. They mentioned that they have a great new herbicide coming out and I thought to myself: They’re not getting it. I don’t think they’re seeing that it’s a systemic issue that has been built into the technology itself. We’re going to need real innovative thinking to get out of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was also updated on December 21, 2021 to correct that only 2,4,5-T was contaminated with dioxin, not 2,4-D as well.
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