Monsanto’s Legacy: A Brief History of Corporate Strongarm Tactics in Favor of Poisonous Products

Well-dressed man extending his open hand

The pesticide industry, like Big Oil and Big Tobacco before it, has for decades used deception to sell the message that its products are safe and necessary to expand world food production. But global studies prove otherwise. Pesticides, the blanket term that includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, pose a deadly threat to human health and biodiversity. These agricultural chemicals have contributed to crop loss and heightened tolerance for weeds and pests.

Four companies control 62 percent of the global market for agrichemicals and 51 percent of the commercial seed market, according to ETC Group. One of them is Bayer Ag after its acquisition of Monsanto in 2018. With its purchase, Bayer continues to wage a product defense campaign for its glyphosate-based herbicides, offered commercially under the brand name Roundup, and to systematically shoot down threats of regulation. Because of the proliferation of lawsuits claiming Roundup causes cancer, Bayer is redesigning the product for the residential market in 2023, although the glyphosate-based formula will continue to be sold for agricultural, industrial, and other commercial uses, including school grounds and city parks.

Bayer, the largest purveyor of commercial seeds, has also, like Monsanto, promoted and defended genetically engineered crops (GMOs), most of which have been developed to tolerate glyphosate and herbicides.

But it is Monsanto’s legacy of poison, profits, and disinformation that is responsible for Bayer’s position today, bringing in billions in revenue from glyphosates and GMOs. Monsanto systematically worked to:

  • Shape the scientific and regulatory records behind glyphosate by paying for influence
  • Paid universities and professors to promote and defend glyphosate and herbicide-tolerant GMO seeds without revealing the relationships to the public
  • Partnered with third-party influencers to oppose regulations for pesticide industry products using public relations messaging delivered by Monsanto and its advertising firms, including partnering with the non-profit Independent Women’s Forum in a series of lectures disparaging moms who buy organic food
  • Engage allegedly pro-science front groups like the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health to discredit the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer researchers, and others reporting glyphosate’s cancer-causing properties, including tracking 200 journalists, scientists, politicians, and others until a whistleblower exposed the surveillance
  • Used front groups to dominate online messaging defending glyphosate, gathering intelligence military style in a Bayer Fusion Center, a brainchild of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and using non-existent people on social media, as well as planting favorable news articles, four out of ten in Google searches on October 21, 2021, derived from the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a Bayer front group

Glyphosate’s Rise

A Monsanto chemist in 1970 discovered glyphosate, previously used as a descaling agent, was even more valuable as an herbicide. The company patented it that year and began selling it under the trade name Roundup in 1974. In the 1990s, Monsanto discovered that genetically engineered crops were resistant to glyphosate, revolutionizing the way farmers raise them. Formerly, they had to be careful not to spray crops with pesticides. Monsanto introduced Roundup-ready soybeans in 1996 and corn in 1998, two of the most popular crops in the U.S. GMO corn and soy resulted in a 3,100 percent spike in glyphosate use from 1990 to 2014, when it is estimated 94 percent of soybeans and 92 percent of corn acreage was Roundup ready.

Today, glyphosate is the top agricultural chemical in the world and has infiltrated the environment and human body at an alarming rate. In June 2022, the Centers for Disease Control found traces of it in the urine of 80 percent of children and adults tested. Glyphosate has also contaminated 86 percent of rain samples taken across the U.S.

The Link to Cancer

As early as 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency linked glyphosate to cancer. In March 2015 it was publicly classified as a probable human carcinogen after findings by WHOs International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The agency found solid evidence of genetic mutations within cells, which may lead to cancer, and the probability that glyphosate is associated with cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Since IARC’s pronouncement, more than 125,000 people have sued Monsanto and now Bayer, alleging Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides caused their non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Bayer recently allocated about $14 billion to cover Roundup cancer claims after losing the first three trials. Litigation and settlement talks continue.

Reacting to Bayer/Monsanto’s Disinformation Campaign

Monsanto and Bayer have employed deceptive methods to protect glyphosate and discourage public scrutiny, transparency, regulatory oversight, and independent scientific verification of the impact pesticides have on human health and the world’s ecosystems. Abundant proof exists that Bayer/Monsanto and others knew about the untenable risks that pesticides cause, including paraquat, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids, and organophosphates. Still, they rallied around discrediting the science and continued their disinformation campaigns.

One Bayer PR executive described directing the narrative by telling employees, “Put your words in somebody else’s mouth.” Decades later, what can be done to reign in pesticide companies to take their places next to Big Tobacco and Big Oil? To start, citizens should be aware of and understand these egregious PR campaigns and speak out against them whenever possible. Recent investigations have already exposed much of the inner workings used by pesticide companies to further their deceit. These companies are now marketing themselves as a solution to climate change with their pitch to adopt sustainable methods, all the while expanding industrial farming heavily reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, a top climate-polluting product.

Protecting Scientific Literature

Bayer/Monsanto and others have resorted to ghostwriting articles or influencing journal writers and owners in other ways. In a 2018 paper downplaying the risk of eating food containing residual pesticides, published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, four of the five co-authors did not declare their employment with Bayer as a conflict of interest.

Holding media responsible for what they publish is also essential. In 2017, two dozen public interest watchdog groups wrote to USA Today with concerns its science columns were written by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) without clarification that ACSH is a corporate front group that often spun science in ways favorable to corporate benefactors, including Monsanto. Although USA Today did not change its policies, it is important to accumulate these challenges to wrongly spun narratives.

Transparency in University Funding

Large food and chemical companies and others nurture symbiotic relations with universities and professors, who rely on corporate sponsorship for research funding. In exchange, they assist these companies in defending the disinformation associated with products like glyphosate, boosting profits and their research grants at the expense of public health.

The medical community, since 2013, has had to divulge on public websites payments and other items of value received from medical companies, a model that would further transparency in the pesticides industry.

Hold Public Relations Firms Accountable for Pesticides Disinformation

Transparency is also being pushed for public relations firms since they have been integral in the lies formulated about Big Oil and Big Tobacco products, and now for pesticides. Some watchdog groups believe PR agencies should, out of integrity, refuse to build ad campaigns for pesticide companies.

Support Independent Investigative Journalism

The proliferation of public relations firms has now overtaken journalism as a means of communicating a message. For every journalist in 2018, there were six public relations professionals. One glimmer of hope comes from the new nonprofit newsrooms springing up, including ProPublica, The Intercept, and U.S. Right to Know. There is a critical need to support independent research and media groups fighting corporate disinformation.

Lawsuits accusing Bayer of being complicit in marketing cancer-causing glyphosate products continue to snake through the justice system, just as the European Union is mulling whether to reauthorize the chemical in 2023. The public can expect more product spin from Bayer to deny the science in favor of outstanding profits. If you represent a client who was harmed by Monsanto, reach out to our team to discuss how we can expedite your medical records request.