In recent years, no company has been more associated with evil than Monsanto. But why?We have so many posts on Monsanto it is borderline ridiculous. Some of the stories:
The house was raised above the ground, like a mushroom or a white ray gun, its rooms radiating out like spokes of a wheel. It was 1957 and this was the “House of the Future,” a prototype modular house created by Monsanto, in collaboration with M.I.T. to help solve the housing crisis baby boom America was in the middle of. Not coincidentally, the house was made of plastic, one of Monsanto’s products at the time.
“They imagined fast subdivisions of this house, like Levittown,” says Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture and design at the M.I.T. Museum.
While that never happened, Walt Disney did select it as an exhibition at his new Disneyland. For 10 years, until it was torn down, the chemical giant’s creation stood peacefully in The Happiest Place On Earth, where millions of people marveled at it.
It is safe to say that if Monsanto’s pod house were erected there today, it would not be such a happy home.
Over the past decade, Monsanto has become a pop cultural bogeyman, the face of corporate evil. The company and its genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds have been the subject of muckraking documentaries (“Forks Over Knives” and “GMO OMG“), global protests, and assaults by everybody from environmental activists to “The Colbert Report.” Facebook and other social media are awash in memes (here’s a blog devoted to the topic) and hashtags like #monsantoevil. And it seems everyone, from your plumber to your mother, has an opinion about the company. This past year, when Monsanto bought a weather data company called the Climate Corporation for about $1 billion, David Friedberg, the company’s CEO, found himself bending over backwards justifying his decision to sell. (As if the money wasn’t enough reason!) Friedberg told the New Yorker that even his father disapproved: “His first reaction was, ‘Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?’” (Friedberg also felt compelled to write a letter to his entire staff, laying out his rationale for Monsanto’s aptness as a new owner.) In short, you don’t need to have a degree in marketing and communications to see that Monsanto has a PR problem.
Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”) Monsanto is not a consumer facing company, and its actual biotechnological workings are mystifying to the average person. Yet somehow it manages to serve as a focal point for popular fear and rage about everything from political pandering to globalization. Why?
The answer, of course, is complicated but numerous experts point to a fuse: the bungled launch of GMO seeds in Europe in the late ‘90s that progressed into a vicious war of disinformation that shows little sign of abating.
If you set aside for a moment from the usual debate about whether GMOs are bad or good, a curious fact emerges. For a rich and powerful company that seems to excel at nearly everything it does, Monsanto sucks in one important aspect: spin control.
Let the record reflect
Before Monsanto became the face of industrial agriculture, it courted controversy in other ways — namely, as a chemical company. Founded in 1901, Monsanto was one of a handful of companies that produced Agent Orange, and its main poison, Dioxin. It sold DDT, PCBs, the controversial dairy cow hormone, rBGH, and the cancer-linked Aspartame sweetener.
Starting in the ‘80s, however, Monsanto shed its chemicals and plastics divisions, bought up seed companies, invested in bio genetics research, and ultimately reincorporated itself as an agricultural company. Its first GMO product, the patented Glyphosate-resistant, “Round-Up Ready” soybean, was approved by the USDA in 1994. But most Americans hadn’t heard of Monsanto until it tried to sell the seeds to Europe. That’s when things turned sour.
In 1996, the U.K. was reeling from the Mad Cow disease epidemic, in which the British Government insisted the highly dangerous disease posed no risk to human health, while people were dying. Brits had gotten a fast education in the modern farm system and were primed to be suspicious of GMOs’ supposed safety. Although the seeds were approved by the European Union, consumers rebelled in England. Grocery store chains pushed back, tabloids printed stories about “Frankenfoods” and environmental groups such as Greenpeace swung into action with high-profile campaigns. Even Prince Charles, a longtime supporter of organic farming, wrote a newspaper editorial opining that genetic engineering “takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”
This reaction caught Monsanto execs off guard. As Dan Charles writes in his book, “Lords of the Harvest,” Philip Angell, the head of Monsanto’s corporate communications at the time, bemoaned that the Brits were the “sad sacks of Europe” for their suspicion of GMOs. But Monsanto believed it could overcome the problem....MORE
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