The Biggest Corporations You’ve Never Seen: Monsanto

Monsanto is one of the world’s leading providers of agricultural products and is the largest seed company in the world. The corporation has been at the center of controversy due to its aggressive licensing and marketing of genetically modified crops to farmers. Additionally, Monsanto has had a history of maintaining powerful connections with the United States government, leading corporate watch groups to believe that the company has directly influenced United States policy to expand corporate patent rights, deregulate the agricultural and biotechnology industries, and prematurely approve its products for market sale. Revelations about Monsanto’s business practices add to the controversies surrounding the company. In January 2011, a report released by the Associated Press exposed confidential licensing agreements and business tactics Monsanto uses to exert control over the seed industry, which may violate U.S. antitrust laws. The corporation has also attracted controversy over its history in the chemical industry. Monsanto has been subject to a variety of lawsuits over its production of Agent Orange and improper disposal of the harmful pollutant PCB. Within the agricultural industry, the corporation has drawn ongoing scrutiny over its marketing of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) for cow milk production and a powerful herbicide branded as Roundup, despite warnings from physicians and scientists regarding the carcinogenic effects of consuming rBST-derived dairy products and exposure of Roundup to human beings.

Monsanto’s product portfolio includes over 30 different agricultural seed brands, genetically modified crop technologies, vegetable seed brands, and herbicides. Monsanto provides genetically modified agricultural seeds for such crops as corn, soybean, cotton, alfalfa, and sugarbeets. The company produces over 20 different vegetable seed products including cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, spinach, peas, carrots, and watermelons. Monsanto’s genetic modification technologies modify plants to produce higher yields, resist adverse weather conditions and weed-killing herbicides, and naturally secrete pesticidal toxins.

History

In 1901, John Queeny founded Monsanto as an agricultural and industrial chemical producer and marketer. By the 1920s, the company had grown to become a leading manufacturer of sulfuric acid and aspirin, and had diversified its portfolio to include vanillin, caffeine, and drugs for laxatives and sedatives. Once John Queeny’s son, Edgar Queeny, took the helm as president of Monsanto in the late 1920s, the company began a successful campaign of expansion into producing and marketing synthetic products including plastics, anti-freeze, and safety glass. By the 1970s, Monsanto began investing heavily in biotechnology while distancing itself from its controversial chemical heritage involving PCB and Agent Orange production and mismanagement. This rebranding of Monsanto continued until 2002, when the company re-incorporated and declared itself a purely agricultural company. It refers to its history in the chemical industry as the “Original Monsanto Company”.

In 2010, Monsanto employed 27,600 employees worldwide.  The corporation’s net income was reported as 1,109m USD in its 2010 Annual Report for investors. The same report also mentioned technologies Monsanto is currently developing, including new strains of drought-tolerant corn, high-yield corn, and insect-protected soybeans.

Recent controversies

Skepticism over the safety of Monsanto’s synthetic hormone rBST, also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), has been ongoing since the product first underwent safety trials over two decades ago. When administered, this synthetic hormone increases milk production in cows by up to 20%, but is known to increase the rate of 16 different medical conditions in cows, including mastitis, an infection of the udders which infuses pus into milk secretion and contributes to farmers’ need for antibiotics to control bovine infections. Moreover, scientific research has established conclusive links between human development of cancer in relation to rBST-derived milk consumption. Treating cows with rBST causes a significant increase in the amount of Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) in milk. Long-term disruption of natural IGF-1 concentration in the human body contributes to the development of colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.

In 1983, Genentech, a biotechnology corporation, sold to Monsanto the rights to commercialize rBST. A decade later, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Monsanto’s exclusive right to market rBST under the brand name Posilac, acting on safety evidence provided by Monsanto-developed human and animal studies on rBST treatment and exposure. However, scientists, farmers, physicians, consumers, and third-party organizations continued to call into question the validity of the tests. Recombinant bovine growth hormone skeptics cited concerns over inadequacies of the safety studies conducted, negligent practices of the FDA in reviewing the reports, Monsanto’s involvement in producing the trials, and the scientific community’s failure to reach a consensus on the safety of rBST.

Particular attention was paid to ties between the FDA and Monsanto during the approval of rBST, prompting allegations against the FDA based on conflict of interest. Among the individuals investigated was Margaret Miller, Deputy Director of Human Food Safety in the Office of New Animal Drug Evaluation. Miller had previously worked as a senior research biologist at Monsanto and was a key researcher in developing the corporation’s rBST safety trials. Her involvement with rBST safety approval and human food safety evaluation at Monsanto and the FDA have led some to conclude that she essentially approved her own report on the safety of rBST for human consumption. Contrary to public skepticism, the FDA maintained that Miller had not worked on the FDA review of Monsanto’s rBST application. In 1992, investigations into the conflict of interest by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Government Accounting Office deemed the FDA safety analysis of rBST was legitimate.

In 1994, Monsanto began selling rBST to American dairy farmers under the brand name Posilac, advertising the product as a way to help dairy farmers improve their operational efficiency and enhance the sustainability of milk production. Posilac sales grew steadily since its release. By 1999, it had become the largest selling dairy animal health product and one of the best-selling animal pharmaceuticals in the United States. One third of all dairy cows in the United States were kept in herds supplemented with rBST. Around 13,000 dairy farmers were using the product, supplementing over 50% of their herds with rBST on average, while experiencing a 5 to 15 pound increase in milk production per cow, per day.

Despite the approval of rBST by the FDA, consumers remained wary of the safety of dairy products derived from cows treated with the synthetic hormone. In an attempt to profit from the uncertainty, many dairy farmers began labeling their milk to demarcate their products as rBST-free. Monsanto claimed the use of such labels wrongfully implied that rBST derived milk was not safe or inferior to naturally produced milk. In order to establish legal guidance on labeling issues, the FDA released a report recommending farmers add “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST treated cows” to their rBST-free labels. The report is signed by Michael R. Taylor, then holding the newly created position of Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the FDA. In becoming Deputy Commissioner in 1991, Taylor had left his previous position at the law firm King & Spalding, where he worked to establish the food and drug law policies for Monsanto. Though the FDA maintained that there was no conflict of interest in appointing Taylor to this position, corporate watch groups and consumers skeptical of rBST safety doubted the FDA’s statements.

Controversy over rBST was sustained throughout the decade as contradictory reports on the safety of the hormone continued to be published. Furthermore, reports began to surface from within the FDA indicating the government ignored or misrepresented data from Monsanto’s confidential studies on the safety of rBST for human consumption and application to cows. In 1997, journalists Jane Akre and Steve Wilson began work on an investigative report for television on the safety of rBST and its prevalence in the national milk supply on behalf of WTVT, a Fox Broadcasting Company station in Tampa Bay, Florida. Shortly before WTVT was to air the story, Monsanto faxed the station a letter threatening dire consequences if the story was broadcasted. In order to avoid legal action from Monsanto and continue receiving ad revenues from the company, Fox News asked Wilson and Akre to falsify and dilute the content of the story in a way Monsanto would approve of. The journalists were staunchly opposed to such alterations, and struggled with Fox News over the content of the piece until the story was dropped and Akre and Wilson were fired without cause. In response, Wilson and Akre filed a whistleblower lawsuit against WTVT. The journalists won the case, but Fox News appealed the decision. Three years later, a Florida appeals court threw the case out by denying Akre and Wilson whistleblower status. The appeals court found that while falsifying news is against Federal Communications Commission policy, it is not against the law, thereby rendering the case irrelevant to a whistleblower claim.

Amongst mounting public skepticism of the safety of rBST and the proliferation of scientific reports indicating substantial health concerns over rBST-derived food consumption, many food retailers and producers have begun pledging their dairy products as rBST-free in order to capitalize on this shift in consumer opinion. Since 2007, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kroger, and several other companies have announced their products are rBST-free. In 2008, Monsanto sold the technology and brand name Posilac to Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical company, in response to declining sales of the synthetic hormone.

As of 2010, approximately 40% of milk in the United States contains rBST according to the Center for Food Safety. In September of 2010, a federal court struck down a ban on dairy products labelled as rBST free in the state of Ohio. The federal court decision was made on the understanding that rBST significantly changes the composition of milk, thus overturning assertions by the FDA and Monsanto that rBST milk is chemically identical to non-rBST milk. However, despite the court ruling, the FDA continues to stand by its 18 year old declaration on the safety of rBST.

What’s your take on Monsanto? Should collaboration between government regulators and corporations be reevaluated? Should telling the truth be part of FCC law, as examined in Jane Akre and Steve Wilson’s lawsuit against the Fox News Company?

–Mohammed Ali

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