Answer by Franklin Veaux:

I used to believe Monsanto was evil.

Seriously. I’ve never been impressed by the hysterical anti-GMO rants; they’re as uninformed and anti-intellectual as antvaxxers. But I did still buy into the “Monsanto is teh eeeeebil” propaganda. In fact, I wanted to blog about how evil Monsanto was. But, because I like being thorough and citing my sources in my blog posts, I started researching the company’s history.

And I learned that Monsanto totally is not the company I believed.

First, I thought it was enormous. It’s not. As corporations go, it’s actually not all that big. It’s about the same size as Whole Foods. It’s smaller than Starbucks and The Gap. It’s way smaller than UPS and 7-11. [1]

Then I read the company’s history, and learned that people who talk about things like how Monsanto made Agent Orange, they’re showing ignorance of a simple fact I also used to be ignorant of: there are two Monsantos.

The first Monsanto was Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured food additives, industrial chemicals, and plastics. This Monsanto no longer exists. In the late 1990s, it developed the drug Celebrex.[2] Pfizer bought this Monsanto in 2002.[3]

The other Monsanto is Monsanto the seed company. In 1996, Monsanto (the chemical company) bought an agricultural company. In 2002, when Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company), they weren’t interested in the agribusiness, so they spun off the agricultural company as Monsanto (the seed company).[4][5] Monsanto (the seed company) was distinct from Monsanto (the chemical company), with its own bylaws, a different board of directors, and different management from Monsanto (the chemical company). Monsanto (the seed company) kept the name “Monsanto” because they felt it would be expensive to change. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost $40 million.[6]

I bet they regret that decision now.

Was Monsanto (the chemical company) evil? Certainly they were ruthless. A lot of things they’re accused of, though, aren’t necessarily true–at least the way people say they are. For instance, the Agent Orange thing. Agent Orange wasn’t invented by Monsanto.[7] It was invented by the DoD. The primary manufacturer wasn’t Monsanto. It was Dow Chemical.[8] When Dow couldn’t manufacture it fast enough, the government turned to overflow suppliers, including Hercules, the Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Uniroyal (the tire manufacturer), Thompson Chemical Company, and, yes, Monsanto (the chemical company).[9] But strangely, only Monsanto gets blamed for it–you never see folks boycotting Uniroyal tires over Agent Orange! That seemed weird to me, so I kept researching.

Monsanto (the chemical company) was only incidentally interested in agribusiness. Monsanto (the chemical company) developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970.[10] The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company).[11] Pfizer wasn’t interested in making herbicides, so Monsanto (the seed company) kept the glyphosate business. They still make glyphosate, but they’re not a huge manufacturer–because the patent has expired, most glyphosate manufacturer these days is in China.[12]

So what about Monsanto (the seed company)? I keep reading tons of stories about how evil it is, but when I go to validate those stories, they tend to turn out not to be true.

A lot of folks fear GMOs, for the same reasons a lot of folks fear vaccines–there’s a lot of bad info out there. Some of it (like “GMOs aren’t tested” or “GMOs cause cancer”) is demonstrably false. But that conversation is outside the scope of the question.

Monsanto gets a lot of its bad reputation on the basis that it makes GMOs and people are frightened of GMOs. A lot of other companies also make GMOs, but Monsanto is singled out for special hate, even though it’s not the biggest company in the GMO business (ConAgra (correction: Syngena), for instance, is bigger).[13][14]

A lot of folks don’t like that Monsanto patents seeds. That’s just ignorance. All seed companies, including organic seed companies, patent seeds. A seed does not have to be GMO to be patented.[15] The first seed patents were issued in the 1800s, long before GMOs existed.[16]

A lot of folks don’t like that farmers aren’t allowed to save seeds from GMO crops. Well, farmers also can’t save seeds from patented organic or conventional crops either. Or from hybrid crops (seeds from hybrid crops don’t tend to breed the desired traits reliably).[17][18] But I grew up in a farm town, and I’ve never met a farmer who wants to save seeds. It’s bad for business. Seeds are one of the cheapest parts of running a farm.[19] Farmers who save seeds have to dry, process, and store them. Farmers who buy seeds get a guarantee that the seeds will grow; if they don’t, the seed company will pay them.

People say that Monsanto is evil because they sue farmers for accidental contamination of their fields. I looked, but I couldn’t find any court cases of this. I did find court cases where farmers denied stealing seeds and said it must be contamination, but in all those cases, a jury or the court found they were lying.[20][21] (If someone inspects your field and 98% of the plants growing on it are a patented variety, that’s not accidental contamination.)

And some of the claims I kept reading about Monsanto’s evil were just…weird. Like a web site I found that said Monsanto’s neonicitoid-coated seeds kill bees. Well, I mean, yes, neonics might be harmful to bees, but…er, um…

…that technology was developed by Bayer[22], not Monsanto! Bayer is a totally different company that’s a competitor of Monsanto.

Or the idea that Monsanto controls the world’s food supply (I’m sure they’d love to, but they don’t own more than about 35% of the market in any of the products they make).[23] Or that Monsanto has paid off all the world’s scientists to engage in a vast conspiracy to say GMOs are safe when they’re really not. Look, ExxonMobil is enormous compared to Monsanto, and with their vast piles of money they can’t pay off all the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing! If ExxonMobil can’t afford to pay off scientists, how can a company that’s smaller than Starbucks?

So after looking into it, I was forced to change my mind and conclude that Monsanto (the seed company) isn’t particularly evil, at least not in a way that other corporations aren’t. ConAgra actually seems more evil, if you look at biotech companies. Monsanto (the chemical company) seemed more evil, and it’s perhaps appropriate it was bought by Pfizer, which is definitely evil. But Monsanto (the seed company)? Not so much.

[1] Source for this chart: Public annual reports for all the companies listed, 2013.
[2] Monsanto, Pfizer celebrate Celebrex – St. Louis Business Journal
[3] Pfizer: One of the world’s premier biopharmaceutical companies
[4] Crops, Shmops. Pharmacia Spins Off Monsanto
[5] Monsanto-Related Matters for Pfizer (PFE)
[6] Why the Climate Corporation Sold Itself to Monsanto – The New Yorker
[7]   Zierler, David, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Vietnam War (2011)
[8] Vietnam Women’s Union Speaks Out Over Dow Chemical Sponsorship of Olympics
[9] Agent Orange
[10] John E. Franz
[11] US Patent Expiry of Roundup Creates Uncertainty in Glyphosates
[12] Research and Markets: Research Report on Global and China Glyphosate Industry, 2013-2017
[13] Genetic Engineering Companies
[14] Syngenta: Key Facts
[15] Understanding Utility Patents and Plant Variety Protection Page on johnnyseeds.com (Note: Link is PDF)
[16] Bioethics and Patent Law: The Relaxin Case
[17] Modern hybrid corn seed generally can’t be saved
[18] You Bet Your Garden
[19] Costs of commercial production of corn: Page on iastate.edu (note: link is PDF)
[20] Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser
[21] BOWMAN v. MONSANTO CO. ET AL Page on supremecourt.gov (note: link is PDF)
[22] Bayer: 150 Years Old And Still Inventing
[23] Monsanto: International Seeds Of Growth Page on seekingalpha.com (note: link requires free registration)

Is Monsanto evil?

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