A history of Monsanto and its toxic legacy


BOOK REVIEW — “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future,” Bartow J. Elmore (W.W. Norton, 400 pages).

Bartow J. Elmore’s “Seed Money” chronicles the seed giant’s relentless quest to transform American agriculture.

When your main character is Monsanto, the former name for a St. Louis chemical company that, at least in some circles, is seen as evil incarnate (nickname: “Monsatan”), the Hollywood treatment calls for a rabble-rousing attorney who exposes it all. Unfortunately, environmental history and epidemiology rarely proceed along such neat narrative arcs.

Bartow J. Elmore’s book, “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future,” opens like a typical blockbuster. Corporate suits in dark SUVs pull up outside a small-town court in America’s heartland. The case involves a farmer who claims he’s been done in financially by dicamba, an herbicide sold by Monsanto and German chemical company BASF, that is especially prone to drifting from field to field. The farmer’s crusading attorney claims the chemical has been illegally sprayed on a neighbor’s crop, damaging his client’s peach trees. But then the narrative quickly cuts to San Francisco, where a groundskeeper’s attorneys attribute a cancer diagnosis to a lifetime exposure to Roundup, the most popular Monsanto-branded herbicide. The plaintiff wins big, and the multimillion-dollar settlement soon spawns over 120,000 lawsuits.

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The cast of “Seed Money” soon swells, almost overwhelmingly so, with sketches of Monsanto’s founders and the chief architects of its shifting business model, as well as farmers, seed dealers, researchers, and the people who say their bodies were wrecked by an ever-growing list of products sold by Monsanto, or its current owner, Bayer, which folded the company into its holdings in 2018.

In tracing the firm’s roots, Elmore, who teaches environmental and business history at The Ohio State University, attempts to wring the juiciest bits out of a fairly dry corporate history. In the late 1800s, prior to founding Monsanto, John Queeny bought drugs for large pharmaceutical wholesalers, including snake-oily patent medicines, eventually ending up at the Meyer Brothers Drug Company; he may have calmly accepted the news that a fire ravaged his sulfuric acid plant the very day it opened, and the plant’s failure maybe “drove him to the saloon many mornings, where he downed nickel beers and sandwiches with his boss, Carl Meyer.”

There, the author speculates, Queeny and another colleague conceived of Monsanto’s foundational move: making artificial sweeteners, namely saccharin. Elmore notes the irony that, early on, Monsanto apparently backed government regulation, even garnering support from Harvey Wiley, so-called founding father of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that Monsanto’s rise was predicated on freeing Americans from German chemical cartels, including Bayer.

Monsanto’s foundational strategy was to become a wizardly handmaiden to industry rather than going direct to consumers. The product that made the firm profitable was caffeine, launching production a few years after the opening of the plant in 1902 and selling primarily to their “milk cow,” Coca-Cola (the subject of Elmore’s first book, “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism”). As the economy expanded into petrochemicals, so did the deleterious effects of Monsanto’s increasingly toxic line of chemicals: PCBs, DDT, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (the latter two both herbicides and active ingredients in Agent Orange), the list goes on, followed by catastrophe, contamination, and litigation brought by people suffering from serious health problems.

It’s an unrelenting accumulation of algal blooms and skin lesions; there’s catastrophe, contamination, and litigation brought by people suffering from serious health problems. In describing remote manufacturing sites in Idaho and West Virginia, Elmore writes, “these workers’ bodies had stories to tell.” He sifts through the wreckage, deftly drawing out vignettes from primary court documents, newspapers, and scholarly journals.

The plot rarely deviates far from the trajectory one might expect: Monsanto behaving abominably in pursuit of profit. By the late 1970s, for instance, when company officials sensed a controversy brewing in West Virginia, they commissioned a study intended to disprove the health problems. Later, in the 1990s, while looking for genes for what became the company’s next pivotal product, researchers probed the heavily contaminated soil around a former Monsanto site. “In essence,” Elmore writes, “the firm was hoping to find a profitable innovation by mining its own pollution.”

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