“…business is business! And business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”– Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
In India, a cotton farmer drinks a liter of pesticide, killing himself to escape the ruinous combination of his debts and a poor yield. In America, a pediatrician observes improvement in the symptoms of autistic children when they stick to a purely organic diet. In France, farmers burn fields of genetically modified crops. In Paraguay, a politician tells the media that Monsanto was behind the ouster of a democratically elected president. On May 25, 2013, the mainstream media generally ignores millions of protesters in hundreds of cities across the globe rallying against Monsanto and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). All of these seemingly disparate events flow from a single source: the business model of one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most aggressive corporations on the planet.
Monsanto is a virtual monopoly that exploits various business, legal, communications and political techniques to control its business environment and to force dependency on its main products, Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs. I will analyze this Monsantopoly over the course of this five part series. In Part 1: Sowing Dependence, I will demonstrate how the company’s strategy is evidenced by its development and history. Part 2: Corrupt to the Core will show that Monsanto shuts down normal oversight, regulation and criticism by cultivating vast influence over every branch of the government, academia and the media. In Part 3: Seeds of Destruction, I will explore the effects of Monsanto’s products on the environment. Part 4: Harvesting Disease, will display scientific evidence of the threats posed by Monsanto’s products to various species up and down the food chain, particularly humans. In Part 5: Rounding Up Globalism, Democracy and You, I will discuss Monsanto’s influence around the world, how various countries have responded to Monsanto and GMOs, and what you can do as a citizen and a consumer.
The story of Monsanto begins in the auto industry. In the early 20th Century, Henry Ford defined contemporary industrialism. In the business model of Fordism, the company automates production, mass-produces a reliable, standardized product and pays its workers a living wage, enough that they can afford to buy the product. Beginning in the 1920s, this model was challenged and eventually eclipsed by a different business model developed by General Motors Corporation (GM). GM President Alfred P. Sloan believed that the corporation’s goal should not be a cycle of production-wage-consumption, as Ford had built. The corporation’s goal should be very simple: profit. The business model of Sloanism relied on planned obsolescence, evolving fashion, and a product line for “every purse and purpose.” GM hooked the consumer to regularly purchasing an ever-changing product.
As documented by Peter Drucker in his 1973 book Management: Tasks,
Responsibilities, Practices, GM built on this strategy by teaming up with Standard Oil of New Jersey to launch a joint venture: Ethyl Corporation, which produced leaded gasoline to cure the ‘knocking sound’ made by GM cars. In this way, although GM was not a chemical company, it made money on both its cars and the gas that consumers poured into them. Drucker notes that “GM, in effect, made money on almost every gallon of gasoline sold anyplace by anyone.”
Here in Washington, D.C., I sat down with business historian Alan Loeb, who told me, “Professor Drucker pointed out that GM’s strategy for marketing tetra ethyl lead – the lead additive GM developed for use in gasoline – set the product up so its consumer would be dependent on it, and that by doing this GM and its partners made money not only on the sale of cars GM built but on the sale of leaded gasoline to every car on the road. In the end, between this strategic innovation and the chemical discovery, it was the strategy that was the more valuable. Charles Thomas and Carroll Hochwalt, two chemists at GM who worked on developing the lead additive, left to set up their own lab and ultimately ended up as President and Vice-President of Monsanto, respectively, where the same strategy then appeared in its agriculture business. In a sense, Monsanto inherited the strategic innovation developed first at GM.”
People who were instrumental in developing the business model of Sloanism, and the strategy of locking the consumer into dependency on products that require each other, migrated from GM to the top of Monsanto. One can easily see similarity between the GM cars and leaded gasoline of nearly a century ago and Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready GMOs of today. Throughout its history, Monsanto has developed chemical products which have eventually become controversial or been banned, including DDT, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, and PCBs. DDT was used for decades as an insecticide even though its effect on humans was not well understood. Monsanto insisted it was safe, but it was revealed to be highly toxic and was banned. Agent Orange is a highly destructive defoliant, most famous for being used extensively in Vietnam. Decades later, it continues to cause health problems, birth defects and ongoing soil damage. Bovine Growth Hormone was designed to spur cows’ milk production. It caused painful udder inflammations and infections which got into milk. PCBs are a highly toxic chemical used as a coolant. Documents demonstrate that Monsanto knew of the threat posed by PCBs for many years and sought to cover up the danger it posed, while continuing to expose people and the environment to the chemical. Many people have had serious health problems in the town of Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto dumped PCB waste.
Recently, Monsanto has formed a partnership with a pharmaceutical company. If Monsanto’s history and the GM model are any indication, could it be that Monsanto’s business strategy going forward is to profit from creating reliance on products that make people sick and reliance on the drugs used to treat their illnesses?
Apart from aggressive marketing of shady chemicals, its government relations have played an enormous role in its development. Monsanto President Charles Thomas was tapped to run the Dayton Project, part of the Manhattan Project, which designed the triggering mechanism for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This project, along with Monsanto’s marketing of DDT during WWII and Agent Orange during Vietnam, reveal another facet of Monsanto’s business strategy: develop government dependency on Monsanto in wartime. This also creates the norm that the government clears red tape for Monsanto’s business. Even during peacetime, this norm sticks.
Monsanto has demonstrated an interest in avoiding regulation since its founding, when, in 1926, it incorporated its own town, Monsanto, Illinois. Monsanto set up shop in its eponymous town at a time when businesses were largely regulated locally.
And it was through deregulation that Monsanto entered a new phase of its history in the 1980s. The Reagan Administration sought to clear away regulations like health and environmental safety testing that they claimed hindered big business’ growth. In one telling vignette, Vice President George H. W. Bush visited a Monsanto laboratory in 1987. Footage of the visit shows someone from Monsanto pointing at a GMO crop and saying the USDA was testing the crop. He said he wasn’t complaining about the USDA, but he then joked that if they had to wait until September for approval, he might say something different. He then laughs with Bush Sr., who replies, “call me, we’re in the ‘de-reg’ business.”