Monsanto: More Saint than Sinner

By Ross Pomeroy

Monsanto is the Devil Incarnate, a ruthless corporation hell bent upon forcing their unnatural food down our open gullets. The soy and corn they sow are more likely to transmogrify us into imps than sustain us.

At least that's what a lot of people seem to believe these days.

Receive news alerts

Poring over Monsanto's well documented past, the company's haters might have a point. The company was instrumental in manufacturing the much maligned insecticide DDT as well as the herbicide Agent Orange. The latter may have caused as many as 400,000 deaths in Vietnam from its use by the U.S. military as a chemical warfare agent. Moreover, the company has been criminally complacent in many cases of environmental pollution, including a sinister occurrence in Alabama in which the company "drenched" a town in toxic industrial coolants for 40 years.

Yes, Monsanto has done some bad things, and unfortunately for them, their relentless dedication to being a successful company has stifled public forgiveness.

Monsanto showers politicians with contributions and employs a cadre of well-connected lobbyists. These actions recently secured passage of what's been misleadingly dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act," which simply prevents unpredictable court decisions from restricting the sale and distribution of genetically modified seeds. Right or wrong, this provided its critics with more ammunition.

Moreover, Monsanto mercilessly defends its intellectual property. Since the mid-1990s the corporation has filed suit against 145 individual farmers for patent infringement, never losing a single case.

This trend continued on Monday, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against an Indiana farmer who attempted to circumvent Monsanto's rules. The small-time farmer now must pay the multibillion-dollar company a sum of $80,000. This surely won't endear any new fans to the controversial company, instead providing more material to the Monsanto hatemongers, who have littered the Internet with tales of treachery and diatribes against supposedly insidious genetically modified organisms. 

But their story is far from the whole story.

Back in 1970, Monsanto chemist John Franz invented a herbicide called glyphosate. In the half-century that has since passed, the substance has been heralded as a "once-in-a-century herbicide," leading to substantially higher crop yields without damaging the environment. Scrutiny over the years has revealed the herbicide to be less acutely toxic than Tylenol and to degrade quickly in the soil. In order for farmers to make full use of the herbicide, Monsanto engineered strains of various crops to be immune to glyphosate. Now, American farmers average 160 bushels of corn per acre each year, up from 109.5 in 1979.

Monsanto has also been key to the development of golden rice, a genetically modified strain which provides a significant amount of Vitamin A per serving. Vitamin A deficiency plagues many parts of the developing world, resulting in as many as one million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness annually (PDF). If widely planted, golden rice could very well abate this tragedy.

Monsanto's noble efforts have garnered the adoration of numerous, notable do-gooders, including philanthropist Bill Gates and agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose dwarf wheat revolutionized agriculture, saving an estimated one billion lives from starvation. Before he died in 2009, Borlaug extolled Monsanto's use of genetic modification, believing science to be the best hope for feeding a growing world population.

"We've been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time. Long before we called it science, people were selecting the best breeds," he said in an interview with Houston Chronicle.

Let's be honest, Monsanto is simply the "evil corporation du jour." Microsoft, Nike, Wal-Mart, and McDonalds have all taken turns.

Monsanto has certainly done some sinful things, but the good they've wrought far outweighs the bad. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't be in business.

Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of RealClearScience. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.