This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Monsanto or MonSatan? How—and Why—a St. Louis Startup Became a Hated Herbicide Giant, first released on May 3, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CHORUS: Monsanto is the devil, cast him out. We gotta cast him out. Monsanto is the devil! Cast him out.
PODCAST HOST: Glyphosate has emblazoned Monsanto with an aura that makes people refer to them as Mon-Satan.
PROTESTOR: Just say no to Monsanto!
CYNTHIA GRABER: For a lot of people around North America and around the world, Monsanto has become a bad word.
NICOLA TWILLEY: For those of you who are not familiar, Monsanto is the biggest herbicide company in the world. They sell the stuff that farmers use to kill weeds all over the globe
GRABER: We’ve talked about weeds before on Gastropod — and by the way that is indeed what you’re listening to, this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. In our first weed episode, Buried Treasure, we told the story of the world’s longest-running plant biology experiment, the Beal Seed experiment. It’s designed to show how long weeds can survive in the soil and the answer is: basically forever.
GRABER: In the episode, we also took a more philosophical and historical look at what weeds are, and how humans have both decided what constitutes a weed and also kind of created them over the millennia.
TWILLEY: That episode we told you that weeds have been the bane of farmers’ lives for centuries. But although weeds were definitely a pain in the arse back when the Beal Seed experiment started in the late 1800s, since then we’ve managed to turn them from a familiar frustration into a truly wicked problem.
GRABER: This episode, we’re telling the story of the dawn of the age of herbicides, the dawn of the chemicals we’ve created to wipe those weeds out all together. Or so we thought.
TWILLEY: It’s a tale that involves contaminated cranberries and the Vietnam War, but also, at heart, it’s the story of a scrappy startup that has become one of the most hated companies in the world.
GRABER: But is Monsanto really evil? Are the herbicides they make toxic—are they bad for us as well as weeds—or are they miracle chemicals, something we truly need to feed the world?
TWILLEY: Answers to all that and more this episode, which is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: Back in the late 1800s, at the time Professor Beal was burying his bottles, when it came to weeds, farmers basically had nothing.
FRANK TELEWSKI: In those days, they didn’t have large cultivating machinery like we do today, where you can go out and, you know, cultivate between the rows of crops to remove the seeds or spraying herbicides and doing herbicide treatments.
GRABER: Frank Telewski was one of the stars of our first weed episode — he is the senior scientist at Michigan State University on the Beal Seed weed experiment.
TELEWSKI: Things were done pretty much by hand, or by horse and hand. And so it took a long time. You know, the old saying, “it’s a long row to hoe,” basically means, you know, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you if you’ve got a long row to hoe.
TWILLEY: Getting rid of weeds meant physically pulling them out of the ground. At first by hand and then with tools and machines. People experimented with adding salt to the ground, or compounds like copper sulfate and arsenic, but they weren’t very useful — they typically either killed everything, including the crop, or nothing.
GRABER: This all changed about eighty years ago, and the roots of that change go back to the dawn of the chemical era. In the late 1800s, especially along the Rhine river in Germany, scientists were playing with the leftover tar waste from the coal industry. They were synthesizing and creating new chemicals from it, chemicals they could use for drugs, or dyes, or even flavors. It seemed like the opportunities were limitless.
BART ELMORE: And that was kind of how these folks thought about it. Wow. This coal tar, this by-product of the fossil fuel industry can produce all these magical things.
TWILLEY: This is Bart Elmore, he’s an environmental historian at Ohio State University and the author of the new book Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past, and Our Food Future.
ELMORE: The giants in that moment in the early 1900s were in Germany, they were companies like Bayer, or Bayer as we say in the United States. Or, you know, other German companies, Swiss firms like Sandoz. These were the big giants of the chemical age at that time.
GRABER: All the innovation may have been happening in Europe, but there were still drug companies in America selling these European chemicals and drugs, and they had salesmen. And one of those salesmen was a man named John Queeny.
TWILLEY: John was the eldest son of immigrant parents, and when his family lost all their money in the Great Chicago Fire, he had to quit school at the tender of 12 and go out to work. And the job he got was in drug sales.
GRABER: As John grew up, got married, and kept working in the drug business, he decided he wanted to build a chemical company of his own — and he wanted it to be a truly American one.
ELMORE: His goal was to liberate American firms from the stranglehold of European concerns. To be the kind of American producer of chemicals on American soil.
TWILLEY: And obviously get rich doing it.
GRABER: John kept his day job while he got started: he hired chemists from Europe and built a factory. It wasn’t easy — his first factory burned down — but he eventually got a production process going and he quit to run his start-up full-time.
ELMORE: Saccharin is what he decided to make first. And the reason he’s interested in saccharin, which is an artificial sweetener that is some 500 times more sweet than sucrose that comes from sugar cane, is because there’s a booming demand for this.
TWILLEY: Because the other thing that was booming at the turn of the century was fizzy drinks — Pepsi and Coca Cola and all kinds of sodas were brand new and super popular, and of course they required a lot of sugar.
ELMORE: Coca-Cola I believe by the 19 teens was the largest consumer of sugar on the planet.
ELMORE: So if you could provide a sweetener to a firm like that at lower costs than sugar, they’re going to buy it.
ELMORE: And sure enough that’s that was the contract that really sealed Queeny’s fate. Coca-Cola bought their entire stock of saccharin in those early years.
ELMORE: And but for that contract, I don’t think there would be any Monsanto.
GRABER: Yes John’s scrappy chemical startup was called Monsanto. He named it after his wife Olga Monsanto who came from money in Spain and Germany. She was high society. Clearly he had high hopes for his new company.
TWILLEY: Coca-Cola saved the baby Monsanto company from ruin. So John’s next product was another chemical that the soda companies relied on.
ELMORE: Monsanto would basically take the garbage of the tea industry, the waste and broken and dirty tea leaves that no one was using, sweep that up and turn that waste into caffeine for Coca-Cola.
ELMORE: It was a great system and profitable because again, it’s a waste product. So it was cheap to get the raw materials.
GRABER: But by the 1920s and 30s, Monsanto’s scientists had a new American waste product to experiment with to create new chemicals. It was from oil instead of coal or even tea leaves.
ELMORE: It’s much like that coal tar. It was like this storehouse. People were realizing, wow, this waste of the oil industry has all these compounds that, if we manipulate them, we add a chlorine here, add this. They can have all these different functions
TWILLEY: Monsanto was a leader in this new American chemical era. By the time the Second World War broke out, it made all sorts of different chemicals, chemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber, and chemicals for plastics, and pharmaceuticals, and detergent.
TWILLEY: And of course, when the war started, Mosanto turned its attention to chemicals that might be useful in combat.
GRABER: Monsanto did chemical research that contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project’s director said their war efforts wouldn’t have been as successful as they were without Monsanto. Many people consider that a huge black mark today, but at the time this was considered a success.
TWILLEY: But what about the weeds? All these new chemicals, and nothing for farmers. At the start of the 1940s, there were still basically no commercial chemicals that could effectively kill weeds. Monsanto didn’t make any, and nor did anyone else.
GRABER: But one was coming down the pike. Scientists were trying to aid the war effort by experimenting with a chemical that killed plants. It was called two comma four dash D, otherwise known by its more catchy name, 24D. Some researchers wanted to use this chemical to kill food crops in Japan and Germany. And then there was another potential benefit—
ELMORE: The experimentation with a lot of these herbicides was happening in the forties in part to see if we could eliminate dense jungle environments that might provide camouflage to the enemy overseas.
TWILLEY: Weirdly, the backstory of 2,4-D involves one of Charles Darwin’s least known but most awesomely titled books: the Power of Movement in Plants.
TWILLEY: In the last few years of his life, Darwin got obsessed with what makes plants climb towards the light. A Dutch researcher read Darwin’s book in the 1920s, and then isolated the chemical responsible — it was a plant hormone called an auxin.
GRABER: Scientists synthesized this auxin, and they discovered that small amounts of it could encourage a plant to grow, but large amounts would lead to uncontrollable growth and then death. But not for every plant.
TWILLEY: This was very exciting. 2,4-D despite its incredibly boring name was the first modern plant killing chemical. And what’s more, it was selective. It only killed what botanists call broad-leaved plants, not grasses.
GRABER: That meant it wouldn’t have killed the rice and wheat that were critical to our enemies at the time, the Japanese and the Germans, but it did kill weeds in the rice and wheat fields, which was great news for farmers!
TWILLEY: Which was exactly how 24D was introduced when all the soldiers came home and all the chemical companies needed to stop making war chemicals and start selling to the consumer market again.
GRABER: As soon as the war was over, the USDA approved the use of 2,4-D as a weedkiller and Monsanto started producing it.
ELMORE: From a business perspective, they saw it, right? Holy cow. You know, it’s one thing to put saccharin into some soft drinks. But it’s another thing to think about spraying millions and millions of acres with chemicals.
GRABER: There were a lot of other changes going on at the time on American farms. Farmers were mechanizing with newfangled tractors, the farm labor pool had shrunk because a lot of men either didn’t come home from the war or didn’t want to go back to work on the farm. And the business of farming was just totally transforming. It was becoming industrial.
ELMORE: You’re trying to find ways to think about this as a business instead of having to go out and maybe weed fields or till fields.
ELMORE: You can now turn to chemicals as this kind of easy fix.
TWILLEY: Easy, and seemingly environmentally friendly too — because farmers no longer needed to till their soil to get rid of weeds.
TWILLEY: This was a big deal because in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl, 1.2 billion tons of topsoil had blown away from the Great Plains. Not digging up the soil to remove weeds would help keep that super valuable topsoil, whatever was left, in place.
GRABER: And on top of all this, American farmers were being encouraged to produce as much as was physically possible, basically to overproduce, because after the war people in Europe were going hungry. And killing weeds helped create these new over-producing monocultures of staple crops in the US.
TWILLEY: But farmers were not the only ones embracing the magic of chemistry to kill weeds. The USDA demonstrated how useful 2,4-D could be to anyone struggling with weeds by spraying it on the National Mall to kill all the pesky dandelions.
ELMORE: You know, forties, fifties culture, we’re going to start seeing the suburban landscape becoming this kind of middle-class ideal. And the perfect green lawn, that can have no weeds in it.
ELMORE: That obsession is also a market that is now wide open.
GRABER: Even though World War II was officially over, these chemicals that were the legacy of war — they were now going to help us win a new war against our home-grown weeds.
ELMORE: These chemicals in them and the kind of advertising that surrounds this is very much about annihilating pests, and much in the same way that we’re annihilating our enemies overseas.
ELMORE: And that kind of language of war and even imagery of war is brought into the early marketing in the forties and fifties of these products.
VOICEOVER: If you really hate bind weed and wanna stop losing yield.
VOICEOVER: Start getting even this fall with Banvel Herbicide.
VOICEOVER: Terminate field bindweed.
MICHELLE MART: So herbicide products have names like weed be gone. Weed done. End o’ weed.
GRABER: Michelle Mart is an associate professor of history at Penn State Berks and she’s the author of the book, Pesticides, A Love Story: America’s Enduring Embrace Of Dangerous Chemicals.
MART: And the labels and the copy emphasizes how you just have to sprinkle this stuff around, and poof.
MART: And then on the other hand, the other part of the label is talking about how deadly and brutal this product is.
MART: And I always get amused by that. Because usually you don’t think about, being a brutal killer as being so easy and fun.
MART: but that’s the type of language that appealed to many different Americans.
TWILLEY: In just a few years, the age-old war against weeds was totally transformed. The farmers hoeing their rows in Professor Beal’s days couldn’t have even dreamed of such wonders.
TWILLEY: This was the dawn of a new era, the era of herbicides. 2,4-D was quickly joined by its cousin, another synthetic auxin called 2,4,5-T and a whole new family of chemicals that blocked photosynthesis called triazines.
ELMORE: You know, this becomes the norm in terms of how people are dealing with their weed, weed problems
GRABER: Hearing about how enthusiastically everyone embraced dumping chemicals that killed things on their farms and on their lawns, you all might be wondering whether anyone was concerned about potential human health impacts. But at the time nobody was really looking into it.
ELMORE: The approval process for getting these herbicides to market was super streamlined.
TWILLEY: The USDA was in charge of that approval process, under something called FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, and that law only really concerned whether the chemical was effective at killing the thing it said it would.
ELMORE: The FIFRA law in the forties, really did not look at the systemic wholesale ecological effects of the application of these herbicides.
ELMORE: Nor did it look at length at the human health, potential human health effects of many of these compounds.
ELMORE: So you have this whole slate of chemicals that are going to be used in agriculture, and during this period in forties and fifties, that has a very loose pathway to being approved by the USDA for use.
ELMORE: And I would say that the USDA and government agencies are heavily in favor of these compounds. It’s not an antagonistic relationship.
GRABER: So the government was cool with these new herbicides, the farmers loved them, and homeowners loved them. But some of the workers in the Monsanto factories started to suffer.
ELMORE: You can see inside these plants that Monsanto knows that there are problems with these compounds.
TWILLEY: Bart says that, as early as the 1950s, some of the men who worked on Monsanto’s herbicide production lines were experiencing horrible skin problems and other health issues.
ELMORE: People will say, well, you know, it was a different time then, they really didn’t know that these things were problematic.
ELMORE: Well, if you go to the plant where they produced 2-4-5,T, Monsanto did in 1949, you can see some pretty horrific stories.
ELMORE: The problem is that these companies are kind of gatekeepers of knowledge.
GRABER: Monsanto didn’t want anyone to know that the workers at their factories were suffering, They blamed the problems on a small explosion that had happened in 1949, and they said it was a one time deal.
ELMORE: And instead of stopping operations. You see this 2,4,5-T manufacturing continuing to go. Why is that? Well, the market’s so big. It’s just such a profitable industry for the business.
ELMORE: The plants keep humming.
GRABER: Monsanto knew quite well that something in their production process was poisoning workers — Bart says that they even conducted internal studies showing that, at the high doses its workers were exposed to, some of these chemicals had serious health effects. They just chose to keep that information to themselves rather than risk being shut down.
TWILLEY: But despite Monsanto’s silence on the subject, some people outside of the company had begun to suspect that these magical chemicals might actually have a downside.
MART: So in the late 1950s, you start to hear a few different biologists and scientists who are sounding some alarm bells about the overuse of both insecticides and herbicides and various chemicals all over American fields.
GRABER: People started to notice that birds, and frogs, and fish were dying, and they connected that to all these chemicals. Which made them worry: Were humans being poisoned too? This came to a head over a news story about cranberries.
CHORUS: Cranberry, cranberry blues,
ROBERT WILLIAM: (singing) The brand new worry all over the nation
WILLIAM: All cranberries are contamination
WILLIAM: You want to be sure to not get sick?
WILLIAM: Don’t touch a cranberry with a ten foot stick
MART: What ends up happening, in 1959, is that cranberries get contaminated with a herbicide right before harvest time.
MART: So there was widespread alarm and many Americans are determined that they are not going to eat these cranberries.
WILLIAM: (singing) I went to see my friend but he was sick in bed
WILLIAM: He said don’t eat a cranberry or you’ll soon be dead
TWILLEY: You might think that this is the wake up call, the moment that Americans realized that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to douse their fields and food and lawns in chemicals that kill things. But no.
[00:29:31] MART: Here you have this scary event. People are worried. But it’s one cranberry crop.
TWILLEY: The Secretary of Health told Americans they had better not eat that year’s cranberry harvest. But Vice President Nixon was on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, a big cranberry state, and he promptly tucked into four helpings of cranberry sauce to show how safe it was.
GRABER: Senator John F. Kennedy was running against Nixon at the time — he came from a cranberry-producing region, and he decided to take a stand on the topic, too. He drank two Cape Codders that day, cranberry and vodka.
TWILLEY: A true hero.
GRABER: Despite that reassurance, cranberry sales were way down that holiday season — but they bounced back the next year. And farmers kept on spraying their cranberries, just not so late in the season, so there wasn’t so much herbicide left on the berries at harvest.
TWILLEY: More importantly, Michelle says that this focus on cranberries and late spraying was actually kind of a distraction from the fact that basically *all* our food was being sprayed with chemicals that might have long term health effects that we didn’t know about.
MART: And I think there were so many other examples in the history of American pesticide use in the modern era where people are alarmed, they focus on a terrible thing.
MART: And either that terrible crisis is solved, resolved.There’s some change made. Or it’s crowded out by something else and they move on.
GRABER: After the cranberries, another red alert was the publication of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson is probably the most famous critic of these killer chemicals — she focused on DDT, which killed bugs, not weeds. But for years, she’d been noticing problems with all the pesticides and herbicides we were spraying and she immortalized her concerns in Silent Spring.
GRABER: The book depicted a world where DDT had silenced fish and birds and even young children. Her book was so popular that the outrage it inspired led to the creation of the EPA.
TWILLEY: But what it did *not* do is put a dent in the enthusiasm of Americans for herbicides. DDT was banned, the EPA was created, but herbicide sales kept on going up.
GRABER: It was like Americans focused all their fears on the very worst of the bunch. In this case it was DDT. All the other chemicals we were using were better than DDT, so they were okay.
TWILLEY: The next thing that should have made us concerned about herbicides once again had to do with war.
(SOUNDS OF GUNFIRE)
BILL KURTIS: In 1968, us troops were fighting against the full fury of the Tet Offensive.
MART: Agent orange was part of a campaign to defoliate or try to kill off trees and bushes that Vietnamese fighters might be hiding in.
ELMORE: The idea was to annihilate the vegetation in Vietnam. To ensure that that was kind of a scorched earth kind of operation
KURTIS: It was a mixture of herbicides that had been used in the United States for some 30 years. 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, very common weed killers.
KURTIS: Everyone also thought they were harmless. So when the Air Force decided to spray the jungles of Vietnam, they gave no warning of danger to the men who applied it or who were under it. And they took no apparent precautions in mixing it.
ELMORE: That mixture was 50% 2,4-D and 50% 2,4,5-T. But in, in high concentrations.
MART: So agent orange was dropped on Vietnam for nine years. It scarred the countryside. It killed tremendous amounts of vegetation.
MART: And it scarred the Vietnamese people.
MART: It killed Vietnamese people and it caused tremendous numbers of birth defects that are still happening now.
TWILLEY: Agent Orange still contaminates Vietnam today, and it also caused lasting harm to the American soldiers who had to handle it. The specific chemical to blame, dioxin, was actually a contaminant that was created as part of the production process for both chemicals, but it was found at higher levels in the 2,4,5-T.
GRABER: You might be wondering, as we were, why something that was so incredibly disastrous to fields and forests and people in Vietnam seemed to be relatively safe here at home. One of the reasons was like Bart said, Agent Orange was hundreds of times more concentrated than what was being sprayed here.
TWILLEY: But also Monsanto already knew that people who were exposed to high levels of this dioxin-laced 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were in trouble. And they’d known it for more than a decade
ELMORE: You know, you have workers whose faces are being peeled off inside your plant as early as 1949, early 1950s.
ELMORE: Decades before this stuff is going to be deployed overseas. And the US military are going to be exposed to this. Vietnamese citizens are going to be exposed to this.
GRABER: But even after Americans learned about the horrors of Agent Orange, they still didn’t turn against herbicides overall. Once again, just like with DDT, they just focused on one scapegoat, the worst of the bunch. In this case it was 2,4,5-T. That was banned in 1979.
MART: So 2,4-D got this reputation as being the good part of Agent Orange, the good herbicide, because it wasn’t as bad as 2, 4, 5-T.
MART: So for me, this is a perfect example of how, when we focus like a laser on one really, really awful thing, like dioxin, the chemical that’s not so bad people acquiesce to.
TWILLEY: And not just acquiesce. Americans kept spraying 2,4-D with merry abandon. Until something better came along. You know it today as RoundUp. That story, after the break.
CAREY GILLAM: So, yeah, I, you know, had a jug of RoundUp in my garage for many years. I don’t anymore. But yeah, I guess I would say I was a fan.
GRABER: Carey Gillam is a journalist and she’s the author of a couple of books about Monsanto, one is called Whitewash and the second is The Monsanto Papers.
TWILLEY: RoundUp is Monsanto’s brand name for a chemical called glyphosate. Unlike 2,4-D, glyphosate isn’t made from petrochemical waste, it’s made from phosphate, which is a mineral you can mine out of the ground.
TWILLEY: Glyphosate was first created by a Swiss pharmaceutical company when they were playing around with phosphate in the 1950s, but they couldn’t really figure out a use for it.
GRABER: Monsanto owned phosphate mines to provide the raw material for a bunch of their products, including phosphate-based detergents. But Bart says people had started noticing that those detergents were causing problems in rivers and lakes, basically they were leading to algae blooms that suffocated other creatures like fish and frogs that lived in the water.
ELMORE: And so Monsanto was sitting there saying, okay, shoot. There’s all these regulations coming down the pipeline that are going to prevent us from putting phosphate into detergents. What are we going to do?
ELMORE: And so they’re playing with phosphate, trying to figure out what other products they can create. And it turns out that upon experimentation, they discovered glyphosate.
GILLAM: And one of Monsanto’s scientists was able to determine that this compound glyphosate had a really unique ability to very effectively and efficiently kill weeds. It had an herbicidal property to it that was unlike many of the other herbicides that were currently on the market.
ELMORE: You know, they had all this phosphate and phosphate material. And now, instead of putting it into detergents they could put it into this new herbicide, that’s going to become a blockbuster: glyphosate.
ELMORE: And that’s kind of how it happened.
GRABER: Monsanto scientists were thrilled about their discovery. Their new herbicide used a different pathway to kill weeds than 2,4-D did, one that seemed to guarantee that this herbicide would be super safe.
ELMORE: Glyphosate or Roundup inhibits an enzyme in plants called the EPSP enzyme.
ELMORE: It’s an enzyme that’s critical for the production of amino acids. And so when glyphosate binds with this enzyme, it prevents plants from producing these basic building blocks of life.
ELMORE: Simple enough.
TWILLEY: But fortuitously, humans do not have this enzyme, and nor for that matter do fish, birds, insects — in fact, only fungi, bacteria and plants have this particular enzyme.
ELMORE: This seems like a win-win, it’s a very effective weed killer, and it’s going to be a weed killer that’s not going to have outsized environmental effects.
GRABER: And both Monsanto and their distributors shouted the benefits of RoundUp from the rooftops.
GILLAM: People would say, oh, it’s safe enough to drink, safe for people and pets. Don’t worry about it.
GILLAM: There, you’ve seen commercials that Monsanto made where you have people out in flip-flops and you know, no protective gear whatsoever spraying this around their yard and their kids are playing and their dogs are playing.
HUSBAND: I’m a loving husband and a real good dad.
HUSBAND: But weeds just make me rattlesnake mad.
HUSBAND: Now RoundUp has a new sharpshooting wand.
HUSBAND: I’m sending those weeds to the great beyond.
CHORUS: (singing) RoundUpppp
GILLAM: The scientists at Monsanto won awards for this and, and in the scientific community, at least and weed management, it certainly was heralded as quite a breakthrough.
TWILLEY: One downside of this otherwise fabulous new glyphosate is that it wasn’t selective. 2,4-D was selective—it only killed leafy plants, not grasses, so you could spray it on wheat fields and only kill your weeds.
GRABER: Glyphosate was a full-spectrum herbicide, it killed everything. This was great on one level, it was really effective, but farmers did have to make sure that their crops wouldn’t die, so they’d only spray at the very beginning or very end of the season.
[00:09:41] GILLAM: Farmers would use this just as anybody else would use it, you know, very judiciously, very carefully because you want to kill weeds, but you don’t want to kill what you don’t want to kill, you know, crops.
TWILLEY: Using glyphosate judiciously is great, but what that also meant was that farmers carried on using the other, older, selective herbicides during the growing season — things like 24D and its friends. Glyphosate wasn’t a one stop shop.
GRABER: Until Monsanto introduced their newest invention, genetically modified crop seeds that were RoundUp Ready. RoundUp couldn’t kill these seeds or the growing crops, so there was no longer any need to be judicious about spraying.
TWILLEY: This was quite a shift for Monsanto. Suddenly a chemical company was selling genetically modified seeds. Carey says that Monsanto suddenly became a biotech company in part because they had to, or risk losing their biggest source of revenue.
GILLAM: Their patent was expiring on glyphosate. You know, they introduced it in 1974 and, they were getting up in the 1990s. And the patent was to expire in the year 2000.
GILLAM: And Monsanto was really striving to find a way to hold on to that market share, grow that market share.
GILLAM: So it really was a brilliant move, to do the research and to come up with this technology that could make these crops develop this tolerance to glyphosate.
GILLAM: And, you know, no one else really had done that.
GILLAM: I was a brilliant move. And uh, it made them billions and billions of dollars.
TWILLEY: This time period — the mid 1990s — was the dawn of commercial biotechnology — the very beginning of GMOs. It had taken more than a decade of research — as early as 1979, Monsanto’s scientists had begun searching for a bacteria that was resistant to glyphosate.
TWILLEY: Surprise surprise, the waste pipes at their glyphosate factory turned out to be full of them. And then they took that little bit of DNA that made the bacteria resistant and spliced into first corn, and then soybeans.
GILLAM: So a farmer could go out into a field of growing soybeans and could spray the entire field with Roundup, with glyphosate based herbicides, and the weeds would die, but the crops would continue to grow.
GILLAM: And this was sort of a very magical, (laughs) you know, event.
ELMORE: And it was, if you talked to the farmers, as I have, have gone around Ohio and other places where I live and interviewed a lot of people, they describe it and the quote keeps coming up as magic.
ELMORE: And the farmers always said it was visual to them. They would drive by another farmer’s field who had Roundup ready traits. And they’d see how clean it was.
ELMORE: They say clean, right. There’s the weeds are gone and it’s like, wow.
ELMORE: That visual spectacle was big for people. That’s the magic that they spoke of, you know, that they saw it in their neighbor’s fields and said I want that.
GILLAM: I mean, I talked to so many farmers who said, my gosh, this saves me so much time and I can just treat the entire field.And then I, I can go get another job
GILLAM: Farmers were seeing great wealth from this. They were taking second jobs because they had so much extra time. They were going on vacations, you know, during growing season. It really was something that they embraced that they welcomed
GRABER: Monsanto deliberately started with the biggest bang for the buck, because corn and soybeans were so huge — and they made oodles and oodles and oodles of cash.
ELMORE: By the end of the 20th century, I think it’s making up more than half of Monsanto’s revenue. That’s one metric by which you can say this was successful.
TWILLEY: RoundUp became and still is the most used herbicide in the world and RoundUp Ready seeds became and still are the most widely grown seeds.
GILLAM: Yeah, well, I mean, RoundUp glyphosate-tolerant, corn and soybeans now make up, you know, more than 90% of those planted acres. You know, 90% or more of our corn, of our soybeans, they have this trait.
GILLAM: So, you know, you can see that Monsanto essentially cornered the market.
GRABER: Monsanto hasn’t managed to corner the market on all the commodity crop seeds. There’s no Roundup ready wheat, for instance. So you might think, phew, okay, there’s no Roundup being sprayed on fields of wheat. But you’d be wrong.
GILLAM: Monsanto came up with a brilliant idea that wheat farmers could desiccate their crops, which is to spray them right before harvest with Roundup and that would essentially stop the growth and dry the plants out.
GRABER: This is useful to farmers because it’s a reliable and cheap method to make sure all the wheat is dry, rather than cutting it and letting it dry for days in the field, all the while hoping that it doesn’t rain—wheat has to be dry when it’s harvested or else it sprouts and rots.
TWILLEY: So Roundup is really being sprayed on basically everything at this point. But Monsanto said that its new system — Roundup Ready seeds combined with Roundup herbicide — it would reduce herbicide use over all.
ELMORE: That was a big deal.
ELMORE: Most farmers were using a kind of cocktail of different types of herbicides prior to that. They were spraying this and that, this and that to try and kill weeds.
ELMORE: When Roundup ready comes out, Monsanto says, all you need is glyphosate. Just spray glyphosate, it’ll kill all the weeds. Your crops will survive and that’s all you need.
GRABER: That was the promise, and part of it was true, farmers didn’t have to buy different kinds of herbicides. But herbicide use in general didn’t go down. In fact, even though the herbicide in question was mostly just Roundup, the amount overall kept increasing, some estimates said it even doubled. Farmers could and did spray it all season long.
TWILLEY: Here we are in the 21st century, after Silent Spring, after Agent Orange, and yet somehow we’re spraying more herbicides on our fields than ever before. You could be forgiven for being a little concerned about that.
GRABER: But Monsanto said from the beginning and kept on saying that there was no cause for alarm — glyphosate was safe in every way. It wouldn’t cause weed resistance, that is, weeds wouldn’t be able to evade it. It wouldn’t cause environmental harm. It wouldn’t hurt animals in the fields or in neighboring rivers and lakes. And it wouldn’t hurt us humans.
TWILLEY: So this is where the rubber hits the road. Is any or all of that actually true, or was Monsanto being economical with the truth again? Let’s find out, after this break.
GRABER: So about those promises Monsanto made that glyphosate was basically a miracle herbicide that wouldn’t harm anything but weeds – let’s start with the claim that non-human creatures wouldn’t get hurt.
TWILLEY: In the lab, researchers have found that glyphosate causes harm to some creatures — amphibians, earthworms, and especially — yes, you can drink, but mournfully: microbes.
GILLAM: What they have found is that when you have this sort of repeated application of glyphosate to soil, it remains in the soil and it can impact the very important microorganisms that exist in the soil.
GILLAM: You’re weakening the system that you need to be strong to grow your food.
GRABER: That is certainly concerning. But what seems to be the biggest environmental impact scientists have seen so far is that Roundup kills plants that animals depend on, and this in turn can kill animals.
GRABER: Scientists have connected glyphosate and losing particular plants like milkweed to the loss of different species of birds and butterflies. It’s not pretty.
TWILLEY: When it comes to humans, the impact is even harder to untangle. But there are signs Roundup is not a tonic.
TWILLEY: There’s been independent research all round the world that seems to paint a picture of glyphosate as an endocrine disruptor, meaning it messes with hormone regulation. Other research has tied glyphosate exposure to reproductive problems, liver and kidney diseases, and various cancers.
GILLAM: But the fact of the matter is. It’s difficult to ever assign, you know, one cancer or one health impact to one chemical, to one exposure in one individual, because we’re not laboratory mice that are locked in a cage where you can control what we’re exposed to. Right?
GRABER: Just as part of daily life, humans are exposed to thousands of different chemicals. And scientists obviously can’t put humans in a lab and just expose one group to glyphosate to see what happens, that wouldn’t be ethical.
TWILLEY: So instead they rely on tests in labs, on cell cultures and on animals, and they also do what are called epidemiological studies where they use data and statistics to try to tease out the impact of different exposures at a population level.
GILLAM: But if you’re talking about a long term, you know, accumulation of different sorts of pesticides and chemicals and compounds, it really depends on so many different factors, you know, your own genetic disposition, your own personal habits.
GILLAM: The epidemiology is always extremely difficult. Because tying exposure to a specific type of a cancer in a specific individual is a really high hill to climb.
GRABER: Speaking of cancer in particular, right now THIS is the biggest and strongest accusation against Monsanto, and it’s coming from farmers and others who work closely with RoundUp.
GRABER: They’ve claimed in lawsuits that their non-hodgkins lymphoma was caused by exposure to Roundup, and Monsanto has lost some of these lawsuits. Juries found the evidence convincing.
TWILLEY: So here’s where that evidence — the research on the Roundup cancer connection — is at right now.
GILLAM: The International Agency For Research On Cancer looked at the epidemiology, looked at the toxicology. And their best pronouncement was that when you put it all together, it’s a probable human carcinogen.
ELMORE: And that was a blockbuster moment. Because up to this point, as we said, there had been discussions about the health and environmental effects of Roundup. But that finding kind of alarmed the world,
TWILLEY: Probable human carcinogen is scientist-speak for yes, we have enough evidence to say this causes cancer in animals, but, although there is strong evidence that it can cause cancer in humans, that evidence isn’t conclusive yet. More research needed.
GRABER: So you’d maybe expect the US government to take a position on all of this, especially after what Bart called that blockbuster pronouncement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
GRABER: Maybe they’d recommend at least limiting the amounts that can be sprayed or something — after all, they’re the ones who decide whether or not farmers can use a particular chemical, and whether or not it might harm the environment, animals, humans.
TWILLEY: But there are some weaknesses in how the EPA judges that harm.
GILLAM: I mean a big problem, that many people have identified, is the fact that our regulators typically rely on data, safety studies and research showing the safety of a product that comes from the company that wants to sell the product.
GILLAM: Right? So you have an inherent conflict of interest.
GILLAM: But you know, this is the way it works. This is the way we do it. And it does make sense to a degree because this research is extremely expensive to do, you know, it can take a long time.
GILLAM: It isn’t something that really, our government or our taxpayer structure is set up to fund.
GRABER: Of course, we could set up a system where companies pay into an independent trust that can fund independent research into the impacts of these chemicals.
GRABER: But as it is today, when companies fund studies, even by what look like independent academics, it’s clear the academics depend on that money and there’s clear grounds for concern that the companies can bias the results.
GILLAM: Then there is a lot of influence, of course, from the companies to explain the data, to say, this is the analysis. This is how you interpret it.
TWILLEY: Carey has seen this play out, when she’s requested copies of the correspondence between the EPA and Monsanto.
TWILLEY: In her book, she has this one example where the EPA was looking at a study that found tumors in mice that were exposed to glyphosate, and they said, hey this looks really bad, and Monsanto told them no, you’ve misunderstood.
GILLAM: So this became a battle back and forth between Monsanto and the EPA scientists and eventually Monsanto prevailed.
GILLAM: And eventually the EPA shifted from the recommendation of its scientists, to say that this looked like it might be able to cause cancer, to the recommendation from Monsanto that said, this does not cause cancer.
GILLAM: And that’s been the position of the EPA ever since, you know, the late 1980s and the early 1990s. That these glyphosate herbicides are not likely carcinogens.
GRABER: Monsanto has consistently claimed that any study showing harm is flawed in some way and doesn’t show anything significant — the whole point is to sow an element of doubt. And they have a great model for this kind of behavior.
MART: Certainly the most prominent example of this that we’re all aware of are cigarette companies that for years and years, decades, kept indicating and sowing doubt about the research.
MART: That they would hire their own scientists, that they would sponsor research that was sympathetic to them, that they would help to create think tanks that looked like it was another scientific voice to counter the research that was harmful to them.
TWILLEY: Big tobacco, the oil companies, Monsanto: they all have the same playbook. Sow doubt, divert attention, keep selling.
MART: Meanwhile, most people are just too overwhelmed with the story of the day or other issues to pay close attention until there’s another crisis, until there’s some other bombshell.
GRABER: Part of the problem is, even though there’s quite a bit of evidence that Roundup is harmful to humans and the environment, the science is still emerging. There’s a lot we don’t know.
GRABER: Like how much glyphosate remains as a residue on our foods — the FDA refused to measure that for years. We’ve saved that story for our special supporters newsletter.
TWILLEY: But even though the science is still emerging, Bart, Carey, and Michelle all think we are right to be concerned.
ELMORE: So we’re at this point, I think where people like myself, for example, having looked at this closely, yeah, I’m deeply troubled by the, the, the, the volume of glyphosate that’s being used.
ELMORE: And, by the kind of potential for this to be a really big, human health issue,
GRABER: And what’s even more troubling is that we’re all exposed to glyphosate at this point. You can reduce your exposure by buying organic, but there are very few people who do that 100 percent of the time.
GRABER: Plus it’s ubiquitous — it’s also in drinking water and soil and even rainfall.
GILLAM: So it really is pretty hard to avoid it. You know, even if you don’t use it, you don’t buy it and you don’t use it. You still are likely exposed.
GILLAM: And if you get your urine tested for it, which you know, is becoming a thing, you probably will find that you have this chemical in your, in your urine,
GRABER: In fact when a group of 48 European parliament members tested their urine, they were shocked that they all tested positive for glyphosate. Though again, we don’t even know whether eating glyphosate is a health issue, or if so, how much glyphosate in our food might be a problem — as we just said, the FDA wasn’t even measuring residues on our food until recently.
TWILLEY: But maybe — maybe? — the exposure and the probable harms are worth it, if this is what it takes to feed the world. Right?
GILLAM: That is the question, right? That is their number one talking point that you can’t feed the world.
GILLAM: And for most people who are really informed about this and who study this with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, for instance, and other researchers, it’s a laughable, you know, it’s, it’s catchy, it’s propaganda, but it’s not supported by any data really whatsoever.
GILLAM: We have an abundance of corn here in the United States, for instance. We can’t figure out how to get rid of the corn that we grow.
TWILLEY: Yes, much of the world is still hungry, but that’s got a lot more to do with climate change, poverty, political instability, lack of infrastructure, the legacy of colonialism — take your pick.
GILLAM: There are a whole array of factors that go into creating scarcity of food around the world. A lack of glyphosate is not one of those.
ELMORE: I think the future of food when it comes to feeding the world is about much more than that. It’s about diversifying what we grow. It’s about questioning the commodity crop cultivation that we have currently.
ELMORE: And, those are things that a company that’s in the business of trying to maximize the sale of chemicals for commodity crop use is not necessarily as focused on. But they should be.
GRABER: After all, like Carey says, we already have a global corn surplus and people are still going hungry. Roundup is being used to grow commodities that aren’t really helping solve hunger.
TWILLEY: And what’s more, there doesn’t even seem to be good evidence that using herbicides necessarily boosts yields. One study published in Nature surveyed farmers growing wheat in France and found no relationship at all between crop yields and herbicide use. So it seems possible that we don’t actually need chemical weedkillers to feed the world.
GRABER: We started this episode asking whether Joe Queeny’s scrappy little St. Louis start-up deserved its reputation as Mon Satan. And Bart and Carey say that in some ways it does.
ELMORE: I would be wrong as a historian, not to call that out. To say that there were moments in this history where they make decisions that… there’s no other way to put it, were unethical.
ELMORE: Selling a chemical, for example, even though they knew it was, it was toxic and saying, we’re going to sell it, the hell with them as long as we possibly can. That strikes me as unethical.
GILLAM: You also have this, this just really deeply disturbing volume of evidence of the levels of deception that Monsanto engaged in to try to manipulate public opinion about this chemical and to try to manipulate regulators, and to try to suppress scientific evidence of the harms.
GRABER: Not a good look.
TWILLEY: But we also started out asking how our eighty-year romance with chemical herbicides had changed our relationship with weeds. And it turns out that the one thing RoundUp was indisputably amazing at — killing weeds — well, that’s not working out so well any more either.
GRABER: Scientists argued for decades that if farmers sprayed Roundup and only RoundUp all year round, year after year, weeds would develop resistance. Monsanto promised that they definitely wouldn’t. But, surprise, surprise—
ELMORE: So the, the cat’s out of the bag by the end of the 2000 early two thousands. .
ELMORE: And by that I mean, if they want to argue that weed resistance isn’t a thing, farmers are going to laugh at them because they can see it in their fields. Glyphosate is not having the same efficacy. Weeds are adapting.
LMORE: And so Monsanto knows the gig is up.
ELMORE: And it makes sense. You were spraying tremendous volumes of glyphosate, arguing that it was an easy fix, but it really wasn’t. It was creating a bigger problem down the road.
TWILLEY: To deal with these new glyphosate-resistant weeds, a few years ago Monsanto rolled out a new version of RoundUp that mixes glyphosate with an older herbicide that had a lot of problems of its own.
TWILLEY: They called this new and improved blend RoundUp Extend. And they engineered new and improved seeds that were resistant to the mix.
GRABER: And then guess what, weeds almost immediately started developing resistance to this deadly cocktail as well.
GILLAM: And farmers in certain parts of the, in the south, you know, in Missouri and Kansas, were seeing weeds that wouldn’t die now.
GILLAM: And they would spray their fields and the weeds would just keep on growing and they’d spray them again. And the weeds would keep on growing and.
GILLAM: I have a photo of a farmer and I was there. It was like a tree. You know, taller than I was, thick like a tree trunk around.
ELMORE: If you’re a farmer, you can see the writing on the wall. This is not a path towards freedom or a path towards less costly food production.
ELMORE: We’re headed towards a cul-de-sac, right? At some point, you’re going to create resistance in enough weeds with enough herbicides that is going to become very difficult to grow your crops.
TWILLEY: So what’s next? Is there another miracle molecule in the pipeline — or are we finally going to get off this herbicide treadmill, where as soon as we have a problem with one weedkiller, we just find another? Can we manage weeds without our chemical crutches?
GRABER: That’s the story we’ll be telling in the final episode in our three-part weed series: the battle of the superweeds. We’re going to be talking to people who are trying to find new ways to cope with weeds — to see whether we can really get off this herbicide treadmill once and for all. That’s coming later this year.
TWILLEY: Thank you this episode to Bart Elmore, his new book is called Seed Money, and Carey Gillam, her latest is The Monsanto Papers, and Michelle Mart, whose book is Pesticides: A Love Story.
GRABER: Thanks also to our awesome producer Claudia Geib, we will be back in just two weeks with a slippery tale full of unsolved mysteries of the eel! ‘Til then!