All About Monsanto

By Maria Stevens, January 2010


The Monsanto Company is a U.S.-based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation. It is the world’s leading producer of herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup. It is also the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seed; Monsanto provides 90% of the world’s GMO seed.  In other words, it has a monopoly on the GMO market.[1]


Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny, a 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry. The company’s first product was the artificial sweetener, saccharine, which is sold to Coca-cola. It also began producing caffeine and vanillin. Monsanto entered the European market, by producing canillin, salicylic acid, aspirin, and rubber.

Most Famous Products:

By the 1940s, Monsanto was a leading producer of plastics, polystrene, and synthetic fibers (basically plastic, styrofoam, and things like carpets). It is also the developer of herbicides 2,4, 5-T, DDT (an insecticide), the highly carcenogenic Agent Orange (used widely in Vietnam), aspartame (an atrificial sweetener widely used in soft drinks), and BST (bovine growth hormone). Monsanto is also reported to have involvement at the research level of the Manhattan Project, for the development of the first nuclear weapons[2].


For years, Monsanto produced aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, NatraTaste, Canderel).  On May 25, 2000, Monsanto sold it to J.W. Childs Equity Partners II L.P. Aspartame is a controversial chemical sweetener added to things like soft drinks.  It is approved by many Food and Drug Administrations around the world, as it comes in “acceptable and safe” levels of intake in products.  In other words, as long as a level is low-enough, it is not considered poisonous.

Studies conducted by Monsanto find that aspartame is safe.  In general, many studies conducted by Monsanto are tossed out by the scientific community on the basis of poor-design.[3] The majority of independent studies find aspartame to be highly toxic, even at relatively low levels.[4] No longitudinal (measured over a long time) study, however, has been conducted on human beings tracking the adverse effects of low doses (such as in soft drinks).  To this day, no causal links to adverse health effects can be attributed to aspartame, due to a lack of “control” groups.  In other words, even though there is a large community of people who have consumed low levels of aspartame in soft drinks over 30 years, there is no group of people who haven’t done so, and therefore no control gruop from which to draw conclusions.

Symptoms of aspartame toxicity include: Headaches/Migraines, Dizziness, Seizures, Nausea, Numbness, Muscle spasms, Weight gain, Rashes, Depression, Fatigue, Irritability, Tachycardia, Insomnia, Vision Problems, Hearing Loss, Heart palpitations, Breathing difficulties, Anxiety attacks, Slurred Speech, Loss of taste, Tinnitus, Vertigo, Memory loss, Joint Pain.

The more serious concern is the long-term nervous system damage, immune system damage, and irreversible genetic damage known to be caused by aspartame’s metabolite (a metabolite is a by product of metabolization), formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde can cause severe health problems at exceptionally low levels of exposure.

DDT Insecticide:

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is one of the most well known synthetic pesticides.

DDT is toxic to a wide range of animals in addition to insects. It is highly toxic to aquatic life, including crayfish, sea shrimp and many species of fish. It is less toxic to mammals but cats are very susceptible.[5] DDT may be moderately toxic to some amphibian species, especially in the larval stages. Most famously, it is a reproductive toxicant for certain birds species, and it is a major reason for the decline of the bald eagle, brown pelican, peregrine falcon, and osprey.[6]

In humans, it is an endocrine disruptor (the endocrine system is the gland system of the body).  Human epidemiological (the study of epidemics) studies suggest that DDT exposure is a risk factor for premature birth and low birth weight, birth defects, and may harm a mother’s ability to breastfeed[7].  It has been shown to have xenoestrogenic activity, meaning it is chemically similar enough to estrogens to trigger hormonal responses in humans and animals.  A 2007 study documented decreases in semen quality among South African men from communities where DDT is used to combat endemic malaria.[8]

Today, DDT is banned in many countries as an agricultural pesticide, but is still used widely to combat malaria.

Glyphosate (Roundup):

Glyphosate is a chemical that kills weeds. Roundup is the brand name of a systemic, broad-spectrum herbicide produced by the U.S. company Monsanto, and contains the active ingredient glyphosate. Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the USA, and Roundup is the number one selling herbicide worldwide since at least 1980. As of 2009, sales of Roundup herbicides represent about 10% of Monsanto’s revenue. Now there is competition from Chinese producers of other glyphosate-based herbicides.  The overall Roundup line of products (which includes GM seeds) represents about half of Monsanto’s yearly revenue.[9]

Human beings exposed to toxic levels of glyphosate (this occurs widely, especially in developing countries, which lack stricter regulations for herbicide implementation) can suffer from: gastrointestinal corrosive effects with the mouth and throat; renal impairment; respiratory distress; impaired consciousness; pulmonary oedema; infiltration on chest x-ray; shock; arrhythmias; dermal irritation; skin burns. Inhalation is a minor route of exposure, but spray mist may cause oral or nasal discomfort, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, tingling and throat irritation. Eye exposure may lead to mild conjunctivitis.  Glyphosate has also been found to be an endocrine disruptor (the endocrine hormonal system is an information signal system much like the nervous system).  In another study, a group of scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen in France found that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup at concentrations lower than the agricultural use. This, they suggest, could explain the high levels of premature births and miscarriages observed among women farmers in the US using glyphosate.

When glyphosate concentrates in the environment, it has dramatic effects on surrounding ecosystems.  University of Pittsburg’s biologist Rick Relyea has found that Roundup is “extremely lethal” to amphibians.  Glyphosate is one of the most toxic herbicides, and is the third most commonly reported cause of pesticide related illness among agricultural workers.[10] Products containing glyphosate also contain other compounds, which can be toxic. Glyphosate is technically extremely difficult to measure in environmental samples, which means that data is often lacking on residue levels in food and the environment, and existent data may not be reliable.

In India, it is becoming a popular practice to commit suicide by drinking a litre of Roundup after an agricultural failure, often caused by GMO crops associated with Roundup.[11]

Genetically Modified Foods:

A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.

The use of GMOs has sparked significant controversy in many areas.Some groups or individuals see the generation and use of GMOs as intolerable meddling with biological states or processes that have naturally evolved over long periods of time, while others are concerned about the limitations of modern science to fully comprehend all of the potential negative ramifications of genetic manipulation.

In 1982, Monsanto became the first company to genetically engineer plant cells, and began conducting field tests five years later. Instances of cross-contamination were reported as early as 1990, when Monsanto GMO seeds started blowing into conventional fields from neighbouring farms. Through the early 2000s, Monsanto filed numerous lawsuits against Canadian and American farmers found to be cultivating Monsanto’s seed. Supreme courts favoured with Monsanto, claiming that cultivating a patented seed without license deprived developers full enjoyment of their patent rights.

Between 1985 and the present, through a series of spin-offs and mergers, Monsanto has changed the face of its company in order to focus primarily on GMO development.

Current GMO seeds being marketed by Monsanto (or companies acquired by Monsanto)[12]:

1        Corn (9 strains)

2        Cotton (3 strains)

3        Oilseeds: soybeans (3 strains), canola (1 strain)

4        Wheat (still in research and marketing stages)

Vegetables: aubergine, tomato, rootstock, cucumber, pepper, gourd, melon, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, carrot, leek, onion, beans, okra, peas, broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, radish, fennel, lettuce, spinach

All of these foods, especially in regions where GMOs and GMO cultivation are permitted, are suspect.

Influence in Government Policy:

Former Monsanto employees currently hold United States government positions in the Food and Drug Administration, Supreme Court, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Decisions and pressures from these individuals have largely contributed to the loosening of regulations and decision-making practices, directly benefiting the company.

Public officials formerly employed by Monsanto:

1        Justice Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto in the 1970s. Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 2001 Supreme Court decision J. E. M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.|J. E. M. AG SUPPLY, INC. V. PIONEER HI-BREDINTERNATIONAL, INC. which found that “newly developed plant breeds are patentable under the general utility patent laws of the United States.” This case benefited all companies which profit from genetically modified crops, of which Monsanto is the largest.

2        Michael R. Taylor was an assistant to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner before he left to work for a law firm on gaining FDA approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone (BST) in the 1980s. Taylor then became deputy commissioner of the FDA from 1991 to 1994. Taylor was later re-appointed to the FDA in August 2009 by President Barack Obama.

3        Dr. Michael A. Friedman was a deputy commissioner of the FDA before he was hired as a senior vice president of Monsanto.

4        Linda J. Fisher was an assistant administrator at the United States Environmental Protection agency (EPA) before she was a vice president at Monsanto from 1995 – 2000. In 2001, Fisher became the deputy administrator of the EPA.

5        Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield was chairman and chief executive officer of G. D. Searle & Co., which Monsanto purchased in 1985. Rumsfeld personally made at least $12 million from the transaction

Monsanto has a long track record of involvement in unethical environmental practices, and is cited by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a “potentially responsible party” for 56 contaminated sites (Superfund sites—abandoned hazardous waste sites). Monsanto has been sued numerous times, and usually settles out of court to pay damages.

Terminator Technology:

Monsanto currently owns technology called Terminator seeds. These are seeds that result in hybrid plants that cannot flower and cross-contaminate. While this may seem like a good technology in terms of preventing GMO strains from contaminating conventional fields, it can also be used as a very powerful tool to dominate seed markets, forcing farmers to rely on seed companies year after year for conventional seed provision. This is already the case with GMO seeds, particularly Roundupready Soybeans, which are partnered with Roundup, a product that kills everything but Roundup-ready Soybeans. This means that if farmers want to efficiently continue using the world’s most popular and effective herbicide, they must switch to Monsanto’s GMO soybeans. They are then reliant year after year on Monsanto as a seed provider, since saving seed is strictly prohibited.  June 1, 2007 Monsanto completed a takeover of Delta & Pine Land, bought for $1.5 billion, which holds three terminator patents with the USDA.  While Monsanto has not publicly declared its intention to commercialise Terminator seeds, the company states that as technology improves, it will re-evaluate this consideration.   Environmentalist’s fear that commercialisation of this technology will lead to cross-contamination conventional fields and stop reproduction of conventional seed strains.

Bovine Growth Hormone:

Monsanto, producer of BST (synthetic bovine growth hormone), also know as rBGH or Posilac, sold the BST business in 2008 to Eli Lilly for $300 million plus considerations. BST sparked controversy because while the hormone (known as IGF-1 in its natural form) occurs naturally in mothers’ milk to be fed to their infants, it produces adverse effects in non-infants. It behaves as a cancer accelerator in adults and non-infants; it is associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer. Tests in dairy cows showed enlargement of reproductive organs and infection in mammary glands. Tests in rats showed aberrations in the digestive processes, and spiked responses in the immune system. A Monsanto-sponsored survey of milk, however, showed no significant different in rBST levels in milk produced with this hormone, and milk produced without.[13]

A pro-BST advocacy group, AFACT, made up of large dairy conglomerates closely affiliated with Monsanto, has engaged in large-scale lobbying efforts to prevent non-BST milk as being labelled as such, worrying that consumer fear will hurt BST-produced dairy profits. Milk labelled as hormone-free is enormously popular with consumers. Monsanto pushes the FDA to require that, at the very least, hormone-free milk contain further verbiage stating that BST milk has not been recognized by the FDA to have any difference.  In short, BST-milk producers don’t like that non-BST milk sells better.

Other Patents:

As of February 2005, Monsanto has patent claims to breeding techniques for pigs. Greenpeace argues this is far too broad a claim, and that Monsanto is trying to claim rights on ordinary breeding techniques. Monsanto claims the system enables tracking of pigs bred under its system, and furthermore that the system uses a specialized inseminating machine that requires less sperm.  In simpler terms, because some things are so blatantly obvious and common sense that no one would even think to patent them, they have been taken for granted; Monsanto is the first company to attempt to own common practices.

Legal History:

The fact that one company can be responsible so many products with so many negative externalities is shocking.

Among countless lawsuits, Monsanto has been sued (or fined) over:

1        The safety of saccharine[14]

2        The adverse effects of Agent Orange, by Vietnam veterans[15]

3        In class-action lawsuits (a lawsuit by numerous parties all affected by the same phenomenon) because of neighbourhood exposure to Superfund sites[16]

4        In anti-trust lawsuits for monopolizing the herbicide and seed markets.[17]

5        For false advertising, for claiming that Roundup was biodegradable[18]

6        For knowledge of GMO contamination in imported seed supplies.[19]

7        For bribing (which Monsanto called a “consulting fee”) government officials in developing countries, to avoid regulations[20]

Monsanto also serves as plaintiff in cases against:

1        Small farmers for patent infringement, either from saving seed, or from field-contamination[21]

2        Oakhurt Dairy, for claiming that its milk was BST-free. Monsanto held that his claim unfairly hurt the sales of BST-dairy[22]

3        Percy Schmeiser, for intentionally planting Roundup-resistant canola without license, and profiting from the patented seed. Case went to the Supreme Court, and Schmeiser won a partial victory by arguing that because he did not use Roundup on the crop, he did not profit from the Roundup-ready gene in the seed.[23]

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[1] South African GMO Crop Failure Highlights Dangers of Food Supply Domination,

[2] Monsanto’s Greatest Hits,

[3] Monsanto’s History of Lies and Toxicity,

[4] Aspartame – The Silent Killer,

[5] O’Shaughnessy PT (November 2008). “Parachuting cats and crushed eggs the controversy over the use of DDT to control malaria”. Am J Public Health 98 (11): 1940–8.

[6] DDT,

[7] Rogan WJ, Ragan NB (2003). “Evidence of effects of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system in children”. Pediatrics 112 (1 Pt 2): 247–52

[8]Aneck-Hahn, Natalie H. “ Impaired Semen Quality Associated With Environmental DDT Exposure in Young Men Living in a Malaria Area in the Limpopo Province, South Africa,” Journal of Andrology, Vol. 28, No. 3, May/June 2007.

[9] Roundup.

[10] Glyphosate Factsheet,

[11]Seeds of Suicide,


[13] Monsanto,

[14] Monsanto’s Greatest Hits< Metro, Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper. May 11-17, 2000.

[15] Vietnam’s War Against Agent Orange,

[16] Kemner vs. Monsanto,

[17] Monsanto’s Monopoly of Biotech Sector Spurs,

[18] “Monsanto Fined in France for ‘False’ Herbicide Ads”. Organic Consumers Association. Retrieved 2007-09-28.

[19] French Monsanto subsidiary found guilty of GMO contamination,

[20] “Monsanto fined $1.5m for bribery”. BBC. Retrieved 2007-09-28.

[21] Andy Meek, Memphis Daily News (22 June 2006). “Down and Out in Covington – Farmer struggles to re-emerge after $3 million judgment, prison term in Monsanto case”. Memphis Daily News. Retrieved 2009-08-20.

[22] Democracy Now, Headlines (14 July 2003). “Monsanto Sues Milk Producer For Advertising It Sells Hormone-Free Milk”. Democracy Now. Retrieved 2006-12-22.

[23] Monsanto Canada v. Schmeiser, 2001 FCT 256


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