White bottles of roundup weedkiller on a shelf.

Book Review: A History of Monsanto and Its Toxic Legacy

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.

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

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. 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.”

“Seed Money” hits its stride in documenting what is perhaps the best-known iteration of Monsanto in its “new era in American agriculture” phase that took shape in the 1990s under Robert B. Shapiro, its chief executive at the time — someone who, Elmore argues, should be a household name. Shapiro preached a do-good message and ushered in the “first commercial launch of genetically engineered (GE) seeds for major commodity crops,” beginning in 1996 with Bollgard cotton seed and quickly followed by soybeans and canola.

In the end, Elmore writes, “Though executives liked to talk about how the ‘new’ Monsanto was very different from the old, the truth was that the firm’s future was still tethered to its chemical origins — to scavenger capitalism.”

“Today, whether you are a tofu-eating vegan, a corn-fed beef lover, or a high-fructose drinker,” Elmore writes, “it’s almost certain that you’ve downed grain containing the DNA of a Shapiro successor first bred in a Monsanto lab.”

According to Elmore, Shapiro pushed the firm to become more like Microsoft, licensing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” seeds like software. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is still the most widely used herbicide, covering 90 percent of all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S., and has been compared to wonder drugs like penicillin.

Roundup Ready seeds became part of a patented system that enabled farmers to spray the herbicide at will. Over time, however, weeds evolve and develop a resistance to Roundup, and its overuse has undermined its relative effectiveness. Despite trying to distance itself from a legacy focused on manufacturing chemicals for industry, Monsanto found that, even with its genetically engineered products, it still could not divorce itself completely from its unrelenting “quest to sell more chemicals,” Elmore writes. One of Monsanto’s final acts, before being acquired by Bayer, was to revive dicamba, an old-school chemical and a sort of booster shot to extend the phenomenal profitability of the world’s best-selling herbicide.

In his acknowledgements, Elmore writes that he got permission to examine company archives. Suffice it to say, though, “Seed Money” does not read like a sanctioned history. Nor does it sizzle with prosecutorial zeal. There are journalistic touches; Elmore’s research takes him to many places (Brazil, for instance) and he appears to meet many sources in person. But the shoe leather doesn’t always result in cinematic action on location. Details get squirreled away in extensive footnotes, lending the work, which is peppered with multisyllabic jargon, a rather scholarly air.

With the ongoing Roundup litigation, Bayer has attempted to defend itself, in part, by arguing that science is on its side. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Chemicals Agency, among other regulators, have determined that the herbicide does not cause cancer. The World Health Organization, however, classifies it as a probable human carcinogen. Several juries have reached the same conclusion — Elmore acknowledges that jurors in a 2018 case “did not need irrefutable scientific evidence of the link between glyphosate and cancer.” Rather, in court, it seems the most convincing story wins.

Seed money, of course, is the term for an initial round of funding, and the book delivers an implicit indictment of how the funding of research bends “to the demand of the corporations.” Monsanto also excels at seeding doubt, sponsoring research that undermines accusations about the dangers of its products.

Despite a subtitle promising to deliver a message about “our food future,” “Seed Money” never really delivers on that score, keeping its focus instead on the toxic legacy that fueled Monsanto’s transformation into an agricultural and biotechnology giant, and providing a thorough chronicle of the ideology and context in which its ubiquitous chemistry came to be.

In the end, Elmore writes, “Though executives liked to talk about how the ‘new’ Monsanto was very different from the old, the truth was that the firm’s future was still tethered to its chemical origins — to scavenger capitalism.”

“Roundup,” he continues, “derived from phosphate ore mined from ancient seabeds that drained millions of years ago produced half the firm’s revenue by 2001. Monsanto, in other words, could never fully break free of the chemical economy it helped create.”

Peter Andrey Smith is a freelance reporter. His stories have been featured in Science, STAT, The New York Times, and WNYC Radiolab.

Peter Andrey Smith is a senior contributor at Undark. His stories have also been featured in Science, STAT, The New York Times, and WNYC Radiolab.