Monsanto is a transnational corporation based in St Louis, Missouri, which markets products ranging from acrylic fibres to lawn furniture, from herbicides to Nutrasweet artificial sweetener and oral contraceptives. In 1996 it employed 28,000 people in 100 countries1 with a net income of $885 million. This year Monsanto will become two separate companies: a $5.3 billion life-sciences company and a $2.7 billion chemical company.
Monsanto has spent nearly two billion dollars on agricultural biotechnology in the last two years. Genetically engineered wares include Bollgard cotton, New Leaf potatoes and Yieldgard corn, all of which are designed to be resistant to specific insects. They also include the bovine growth hormone Posilac and the highly publicized Flavr Savr tomato, produced by Calgene, which is part-owned by Monsanto.
The corporation is strengthening its position in the market by buying up additional biotechnology companies. These include seed companies, especially cotton and maize; Agracetus, a major agricultural biotechnology company and Biopol Business which has genetically engineered plants to produce plastic. These acquisitions may be a means of securing worldwide dominance for its genetically engineered products. For example, Monsanto owns Stoneville Pedigreed, the second-largest cotton-seed company. In November 1996 Monsanto and Delta & Pineland announced a joint venture with the Chinese Hebei Provincial Seed Industry Group to plant 500,000 acres of Monsanto's Bollgard Cotton in China by 1998. China is the world's second-largest cotton producer. This process, in the words of Monsanto's Robert Fraley, is 'not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain'.
Monsanto spent some $500 million to develop the Roundup Ready soya beans which contain foreign genes from a virus, a petunia and a bacterium. The beans are designed to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, the world's best-selling herbicide, which contributes 15 per cent of the company's total sales and 40 per cent of its operating profit. Two per cent of the US soya-bean crop was Roundup Ready in 1996 some ten million acres' worth. The company has projected that this figure could increase to as much as 33 per cent in 1997.2
Monsanto developed and produced the Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam war, as well as a substantial proportion of the world's polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a group of chemicals recognized as so hazardous that the US Congress took the unique decision to ban their production in 1976.3 Monsanto also has the dubious honor of being one of the top US polluters. In 1992 it was responsible for approximately 5 per cent of the 5.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals which were pumped into the US environment.
The company 'went green' towards the end of the 1980s, announcing its aim of reducing toxic discharges to the environment by 90 per cent in the early 1990s. Monsanto's proclaimed vision for a 'sustainable environment' includes the pledge to 'reduce all toxic and hazardous releases and emissions, working toward an ultimate goal of zero effect'. Unfortunately these worthy sounding goals sidestep the reality that it is the company's products, perhaps more than its wastes, which threaten human health and environmental stability. Monsanto promote themselves as part of the answer to the world's food and environmental problems, claiming that 'sustainable agriculture is only possible with biotechnology and imaginative chemistry'.4 But with a track record like theirs, is it any wonder that some find this 'Planetary Patriotism' a little hard to swallow?
*Compiled by Lindsay Toub
1 Headquarters outside the US are in Brazil, Hongkong, Singapore, China, Belgium, Australia. 2 Greenpeace: Not Ready for Roundup, executive summary. 3 Rachel's Hazardous Waste News #144. 4 Schneiderman, H A and Carpenter WD, Environmental Science and Technology, Vol 24 No 4, 1990.
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