Many articles that circulate the internet today referencing the mega-corporation Monsanto and the many injustices that have been associated with their name. However, despite the controversy and bad press, Monsanto continues to operate successfully from a financial perspective, dominating its industry and all rivals.
Let’s take a moment and look back on the long history of this multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical and agricultural company.
The company was first founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny. The company was named after Queen’s wife Olga Mendez Monsanto. The initial capital for the company was earned from Coca-Cola, and in 1902 the first product that the company brought to market was ‘saccharin,’ an artificial sweetener which they sold to the Coca-Cola company. The company then expanded their product line to include vanillin and caffeine.
Even in these early stages, the health and safety of the Monsanto products were being called into question, and the company was sued in an attempt to stop the manufacturing of saccharin. Unfortunately for those that were trying to stand up against the company, the lawsuit was lost in court allowing the company to continue its operations unchanged.
Throughout WW1 the company faced difficulty in the import of chemicals from Europe, limited by the war efforts. In response, they began to manufacture their own industrial chemical products, another corner of the industry in which they would see great success.
The incredible success of the company extended into the 1920s when they became the world’s largest manufacturer of acetylsalicylic acid, better known as aspirin. The company also began the production of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly controversial chemical, starting in 1929. While many countries have banned PCBs in the 1970s and 1980s, this harmful chemical is still found in various water bodies to this day. A known carcinogen, it has also been associated with autoimmune system disorder, birth defects and can be deadly with a high enough rate of exposure.
In the 1930s the company expanded once again, this time introducing its first hybrid seed corn. It also began to manufacture and market soaps, detergents, industrial cleaning products, synthetic rubbers, and plastics.
From 1939 to 1945, the company was involved in research that focused on uranium. During this time, they were involved in the creation of the first nuclear bomb as part of The Manhattan Project.
Their involvement in the war efforts over the years also extended into the development and production of chemical weapons which were used against troops and Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War. This included the chemical Agent Orange, manufactured by the Monsanto Company from 1965 to 1969, which they state was only produced for government use. This would once again lead them to court trials when, in 2002, a number of internal memos were uncovered revealing that they were aware of the deadly effects of the chemical on the environment, and the ongoing contamination for those that would be exposed in later years. Some veterans of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese locals would report side effects of contamination for the rest of their lives. The trials were later thrown out after the Monsanto Company produced their own independent research stating the chemical was safe.
In 1968 Edgar Queeny, the son of John Queeny, died without any heirs to hand the family business. Instead Edward J. Block, a man that had originally joined the Monsanto Company as an engineer would take control and the company’s president.
While some hoped that this would change the company’s propensity to poison the world around us, they would quickly find themselves disappointed. Despite the banning of DDT in 1972, the company wasn’t finished their efforts in the market of agrichemicals. In 1973 they developed the glyphosate molecule which was found to be effective in the killing of pests and weeds, a chemical which is still marketed in Roundup today. In fact, the sale of Roundup helped to boost Monsanto’s sales approximately 20% throughout the 1980s and 1990s, accounting for 45% of the company’s income.
In 1985, the Monsanto company bought the Searle Company, a well-known producer of aspartame, the artificial sweetener regularly used in carbonated beverages. The safety of aspartame consumption has long been a heated debate. Although its use is regulated by the FDA, research into better understanding its impact on our health and well-being is still ongoing, with many scientists and researchers warning us to avoid consumption.
Throughout the 1990s the company would become even more involved in the area of agriculture, drawing criticism from many for their involvement with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Stating that they were focusing on ‘feeding the world hunger’, the company would invest a great deal of time and finances into their efforts in biotechnology. In fact, they would even invent a genetically modified crop that would be resilient to their own powerful herbicide, Roundup. They would dominate the GMO market buying up seed companies around the world and marketing their genetically modified seeds known as GMO canola, GMO cotton, and GMO corn.
Today the company is still heavily protested and criticized for their involvement in agrichemicals and their potential risks for our overall health and well-being, as well as the impact of their operations on the environment. However, the impressive size of the company makes it difficult for efforts to protest and retaliate to be effective. Today the company is the world’s 5th largest agrichemical company, and over 80% of the worldwide GMO crops are believed to carry at least one genetic trait of the Monsanto herbicide tolerance.
We have to ask ourselves, are these advances truly in our favor? What impact does this carry for future generations and the world that we live in?