I believe that there are certain situations where the question isn’t whether one can do it, but whether one should do it, and that goes for corporations as well.
The controversies of bygone days still haunt Monsanto. For example, in 1984, Monsanto and Dow Chemical agreed to pay a $180 million settlement to American Vietnam War veterans who complained of long-lasting physical effects from the use of Agent Orange.
The two companies were the largest producers of the pesticide-turned-chemical-warfare agent.
However, the controversy is still noted in Monsanto’s SEC filings — Vietnamese and Korean lawsuits have also been filed, and while most have been dismissed, in January 2006, the Seoul High Court ordered that Monsanto and Dow Chemical pay $62 million in compensation to approximately 6,800 people. The plaintiffs may still appeal. (Two lawsuits originally filed in 1999 sought more than $4 billion in damages from the companies.)
Monsanto’s pharmaceutical business, Pharmacia, is now part of Pfizer and its chemicals business was spun off as Solutia. (You can read this article for details on how Monsanto and Solutia share a legacy — and payments — regarding environmental remediation related to PCB pollution, an ongoing issue.)
Today’s Monsanto comprises the agricultural business alone.
The split didn’t free Monsanto from controversy, though. Note their primary business now – Genetic Modification / Genetic Engineering.
Such products are touted as increasing agricultural productivity and yields. Some say such solutions from companies like Monsanto will feed the world. However, if you ask some farmers and most environmentalists, you’ll get a different story.
Monsanto is embroiled in quite a few lawsuits. It takes quite some time to read through them all in regulatory filings.
It agreed to pay $100 million in royalties to the University of California, which claimed Monsanto violated its patent on bovine somatotropin, or Posilac, a hormone that increases milk production in cows.
90 Texas farmers alleged that Monsanto failed to warn them about a defect in its Genetically Modified cotton product, resulting in widespread crop loss.
Monsanto’s most obvious controversy is the Genetically Modified hot button.
A group of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists recently sued the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, alleging that it is improperly allowing Monsanto to sell an herbicide-resistant alfalfa seed without examining the health, environmental, and economic ramifications.
Monsanto isn’t just the defendant in many lawsuits. Part of its business is being the plaintiff as well.
For example, Genetically Modified alfalfa is expected to easily contaminate old-school alfalfa crops, which could result in Monsanto lawsuits against farmers for royalties if traces of its own patented Genetically Modified alfalfa get into such farmers’ crops even by accident.
Alfalfa is easily cross-pollinated by bees and the wind. That seems not only an ethical issue, but an antitrust issue as well.
Many farmers and environmentalists contend that Monsanto is gearing up to have an agricultural monopoly, and they’ve filed suits related to antitrust issues.
Furthermore, many people are still unconvinced that Genetically Modified products like Monsanto’s won’t end up being harmful to human health or the environment in the long run.
The European Union has had a long-standing reluctance to approve Genetically Modified products, and many companies, including Monsanto, have been fighting to get GMO wares into the European market.The World Trade Organization recently made a preliminary ruling against the EU, which may eventually force a more open approach to GM foods. (The EU has been approving the products on a case-by-case basis, requiring labeling and traceability.) Europeans believe Genetically Modified foods are dangerous.
Their concern isn’t surprising, given food-supply health and safety issues in recent years. Consider the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) situation. The adverse effects of using meat and bone materials in animal feed weren’t known for many years, until mad cow disease emerged and made the leap to human infections, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Genetically Modified products are alive and well in the United States, however. Monsanto has a cache of high-profile food company customers here. Kellogg, which now uses Monsanto’s Vistive to lower the trans-fat and saturated fat content of certain foods — and since there are no labeling requirements, most Americans are eating Genetically Modified foods whether they know it or not.
Whole Foods Market has been a major advocate of clear Genetically Modified labeling, (bear in mind that organic food is understood to be GM-free). In fact, Whole Foods’ stance on environmental matters is probably one of its biggest selling points with its customers.
Monsanto does not deny that everyone is contaminated with PCBs. They argue instead that since they have contaminated the entire planet they are innocent of all liability: Monsanto’s internal documents, many of which are being posted for the first time for the world to see, uncover a shocking story of corporate deception and dangerous secrets.
If Monsanto hid what it knew about its toxic pollution for decades, what is the company hiding from the public now?
This question seems particularly important to us as this powerful company asks the world to trust it with a worldwide, high-stakes gamble with the environmental and human health consequences of its genetically modified foods.