t byfield on Mon, 24 Aug 1998 05:34:18 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Monsanto PR front in Europe


>From Agent Orange to tampered genes: Monsanto's
life cycle

But the company is spending #1m to convince
British consumers it is green. Alexander Garrett

Sunday August 23, 1998

The high profile campaign to persuade people that
genetically-modified food is safe suffered a fresh
setback last week with a decision by the
Vegetarian Society not to endorse products
containing such ingredients.

The decision will hit several products containing
soya beans produced by Monsanto, the US company
behind a #1 million advertising campaign to win
the hearts and minds of UK consumers.

Although the debate surrounding GM foods has been
well-aired, little is widely known - on this side
of the Atlantic, at least - about Monsanto itself.

Monsanto is not the only company seeking to foist
GM foods on the public, but it is the most
aggressive by far. Based in St Louis, Missouri, it
used to be very big in chemicals. But it has been
rapidly reinventing itself in the last few years
as a "life sciences" company, specialising in the
fast-growing business of biotechnology.

With sales of $10.7bn last year, and a market
capitalisation of $22bn, it dwarfs the many tiny
biotech start-ups that are competing for a slice
of this new market.

But it is a company which also has a number of
skeletons in its closet, including Agent Orange,
the defoliant used 30 years ago by the US
government to impose a scorched earth policy in

The lethal cocktail is blamed by thousands of
veterans for a litany of health problems including
cancers and birth defects in their children - and
helps explain why Monsanto's efforts to paint
itself as a green company have met a credibility

Monsanto's attempt to become the world's
pre-eminent "life sciences" company is the latest
chapter in a corporate tale that began across the
Atlantic at the turn of the century.

Founded in St Louis in 1901 by Edgar Queeny - and
named after his wife, whose maiden name was Olga
Mendez Monsanto - its first product was saccharin,
supplied exclusively to the youthful Coca-Cola
company. After the First World War, Monsanto moved
into chemicals, first buying the Commercial Acid
Company of Illinois, then the RA Graesser Chemical
Works at Ruabon in North Wales.

In the Twenties it became an important producer of
aspirin, and in the ensuing decades it mowed
through a swathe of new product areas, including
detergents, plastics, fibre products, machine
controls and silicon wafers.

For the last decade, the name Monsanto has been
mainly synonymous with two blockbuster products:
the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet and the
herbicide Roundup.

Nutrasweet was acquired as part of the takeover of
pharmaceutical company GD Searle in 1985; Roundup
is the most successful product to come out of
Monsanto's agriculture division, started in 1960.

In the mid-Eighties, Monsanto's then president
Richard Mahoney decided to turn it into a life
sciences company. That meant focusing on three
areas: food ingredients, medicine and, most
importantly, agricultural products.

Mahoney started selling off everything that didn't
fit into that strategy, culminating in the
spin-off of the remaining chemicals business into
a new company, Solutia, early last year.

Bob Shapiro took over as president in 1993, and
started buying again with a vengeance. His target
was seeds. Over the last 12 months he has paid
$4bn for two companies that were involved in
creating new varieties, DeKalb Genetics and Delta
& Pine Land, then added another $1.4bn for the
international operations of leading producer

That could have left Monsanto seriously extended,
even vulnerable to a takeover. So Shapiro
engineered a $33bn merger with the much larger
American Home Products, a drugs company that
numbers slimming drugs and contraceptive devices
among its products. Unveiled in June, it was one
of the largest deals in American corporate

Finally, in early July Monsanto splashed out
another #320m to take UK-based Plant Breeding
International from Unilever.

Dan Verakis, a Monsanto spokesman who has been
drafted in from St Louis to help sort out its
image problems, says the PBI acquisition marks the
end of its spending spree. "We're now involved in
the areas and crops we want to be in," he said.

Critics claim Monsanto already has a potential
stranglehold on a large slice of the world's food
production, particularly in grains such as soya,
corn and wheat. They claim that its target is to
own the genes that boost productivity, the
distribution of seeds and the seeds themselves,
which farmers are not allowed to re-sow without
paying Monsanto.

Verakis rejects that analysis. "There are 1,500
seed companies out there, and at the most, the
companies we own have less than 10 per cent of the
global seed market," he said.

He outlines Monsanto's utopian vision: it believes
that biotechnology is set to unleash three waves
of products beneficial to mankind.

The first consists of genetically modified crops
which are resistant to insects and disease, or
tolerant of herbicides. These will allow farmers
to meet the growing demand for food from a
population set to double in size over the next 50

The second wave, due to begin in five years' time,
will see genetically-induced Rquality traitsS in
food, such as high-fibre maize, or high-starch
potatoes, some of which will help doctors to fight

And in the third wave, plants will be used as
environmentally-friendly RfactoriesS to produce
substances for human consumption.

It is a vision that many environmentalists believe
is deeply flawed, but has proved seductive to
investors, who have boosted Monsanto's share price
almost 600 per cent over the last five years. That
valuation depends heavily on Monsanto's ability to
win the argument about genetically-modified

Its current financial health is difficult to
discern: the disposal of Solutia, new acquisitions
and "research" write-offs of $455m all skewed the
figures last year, but Monsanto ended up making a
profit of $294m on its continuing operations in
1997, compared with $413m the previous year.

Things are about to become even more muddied with
the AHP merger, which will see the Monsanto name
disappear and the dawning of a new company with
control split between the managements of the two

One thing is clear: Monsanto is not the sort of
company to retire meekly when things get bloody.
It has demonstrated its stomach for a fight on
numerous occasions. In 1988, it withdrew union
rights from its UK workers, and a couple of years
later, it fought back successfully when doubts
were raised about Nutrasweet. It has also waged an
aggressive campaign to promote its milk-boosting
hormone, Bovine Somatrophin, which has
nevertheless been banned by the European Union
until the end of next year. The UK licence for
that product has now been sold to another US drug
company, Eli Lilly.

In the next month or two, it is expected to unveil
its latest weapon in the propaganda war: an
advertising campaign in which some 49
representatives of countries around the world
exhort Europeans not to be selfish by resisting
biotechnology. The line of the campaign is "Let
the Harvest Begin".

Liz Hosken, of the Gaia Foundation, a
non-governmental organisation that promotes
bio-diversity in the developing world, said: "I
see it as emotional blackmail."

Jim Thomas, a campaigner at Greenpeace, accuses
Monsanto of "irresponsibility - for producing a
technology that is inherently uncontrollable and

Monsanto portrays itself as a company whose green
credentials are second to none, but Hosken fears
its approach will replicate many of the mistakes
made in the so-called Green Revolution 30 years
ago, when small farmers across the developing
world got hooked on the products of the West's
agrochemical industries, and then sank into debt.

Verakis says this is illogical. "We have a great
self-interest in all this. The more farmers we put
out of business, the more we would harm
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