Book Review: An Investigation into the World’s Most Hated Company


Once upon a time, a chemical company in St. Louis discovered that normal limits did not apply to it. Whether its products sickened an entire town in the Midwest or poisoned villagers in Southeast Asia, things seemed to break its way. Regulators seemed reluctant to regulate, and judges delivered stupefying decisions with straight faces.

Microsoft’s monopolistic behavior resulted in trial conviction, and heavy penalties. Top executives of Archer Daniels Midland went to prison for price-fixing. Meanwhile the corporation with the sweet Spanish name went on a global tear, flooding the American food supply with dubious genetics, seeding government agencies with sympathizers, intimidating opponents, buying the loyalty of scientists, and transforming the rural landscape in country after country, always for the worse. Only the European Union, resisted it with some success. Only one of its major projects, transgenic wheat, was blocked decisively.

Monsanto’s resilience is the mystery at the core of this tale.

True, there is the hubris of its goals (domination of the global seed market, among others), the serene arrogance of its rhetoric (appropriating the word “sustainable”), and the cruelty of its actions (suing farmers for using seeds that drifted in on the wind). All of these qualities inspire awe and fear. The prospect of a Monsanto lawsuit is enough to make a grown man tremble and sob. Marie-Monique Robin’s book relates a litany of dire events, all profoundly depressing, all deeply entwined with the fabulous success of this pervasive corporation.

She writes about the destruction of Times Beach, Missouri by dioxin, about the ethical failures in Washington, D.C., about yeoman farmers moved to suicide in India, and about Argentine children poisoned by glyphosate as industrial soybeans smother the countryside.

Many clues to the secret of Monsanto’s invulnerability emerge along the way. This is a company that knows how to spend money strategically. A study comes back from peer review and one of the reviewers turns out to be funded by the pride of St. Louis. A gray eminence of British science comes out in favor of genetic engineering, only to be revealed a little while later as the beneficiary of two decades on retainer to take-a-wild guess.

Most telling is the affair of the craven professors. A researcher at University of California’s Berkeley campus, Ignacio Chapela, discovers GMO contamination of corn varieties in Mexico in 2001. No one can refute his work, which is solid. His colleagues rise up against him and deny his tenure. Apparently the school that once gave birth to the Free Speech Movement is terminally infested with money from the biotechnology sector, and backing an honorable scholar is no longer practical.

“You have to understand why the study provoked the wrath of the unconditional promoters of biotechnology,” Chapela tells Robin. “It contained two revelations: the first concerned genetic contamination, which really surprised no one, including Monsanto, which always merely confined itself to minimizing the impact. But the second point of our study was much more serious for Monsanto and similar companies. In investigating where the fragments of transgenic DNA were located, we found that they had been inserted into different places into the plant genome in a completely random way. That means that, contrary to what GMO producers claim, the technique of genetic engineering is not stable, because once the GMO cross-pollinates with another plant, the transgene splits up and is inserted in an uncontrolled way.”

This was dynamite, because displaced DNA can create unpredictable effects. The blowback was severe; not only from Chapela’s biotech-dependent colleagues bu from an email smear campaign later traced to headquarters in St. Louis. Researchers from other universities piled on. The journal that published the original study, also dependent on industry money, ran an unprecedented disavowal of Chapela’s research. Awkwardly, it appeared a month after an article in another peer-reviewed journal confirmed the work. Eventually Chapela sued to get his tenure back and won. Now an infamous whistleblower, he can’t obtain funding for the work that interests him. He is alive but neutralized. All he can do is write and teach and talk to authors of books that a few thousand people will read, while millions eat the suspect transgenes every day.

That’s only seven pages, albeit seven crucial pages. Many of the stories in Robin’s book are more frightening because the impact upon ordinary people are much more direct and uncontrollable. The plight of farmers in South America whose small, diversified homesteads are ruined by clouds of Glysophate — if they haven’t already yielded to soybean empires empowered by glyphosate-tolerant GMOs — is especially deserving of pity.

Though other writers have done good work on Monsanto, this is the first book devoted to telling the whole story, from the release of PCBs early last century through the Agent Orange horror to the firm’s reinvention in the past 20 years as a “life sciences” corporation.

An indefatigable researcher and world traveler, Robin performs an invaluable service here. As it significantly expands on her television documentary of the same name — an effective though necessarily skeletal work — this book accomplishes two useful tasks. First, it is a compelling, fast-moving summary of Monsanto’s history, benefiting hugely from Robin’s willingness to report from remote locales and track down interview objects. (A compromised regulator she pins down for a talk can barely control his panic, blinking madly when she touches a nerve.) It also benefits from George Holoch’s terrific translation, and from the biting wit and urgency of Robin’s prose. The daughter of French farmers, this story is one she feels in her bones.

Second, and perhaps equally important, it will serve as a reliable map for future historians and journalists. Until now, grasping the decades of the Monsanto saga involved sifting dozens of scattered article, academic papers, and other documents. Whether you applaud Monsanto’s efforts or wish the company and all its works could be packed up and shot into the sun, there’s no denying that it is one of the most significant business entities of the past century. Thanks to Marie-Monique Robin, writers who want to grapple with one aspect or another of the story can use Robin’s work as a starting point.

Yet for all its virtues, The World According To Monsanto, still suffers from the sense of something missing. The hollow space behind the narrative is Monsanto itself. Veterans from deep inside the company who are willing to talk haven’t surfaced, no doubt bound by lifetime confidentiality agreements. Requests for interviews from people like Robin are routinely denied. The building in St. Louis contains many secrets, chief among them the truth of Monsanto’s uncanny survival despite its history.

After a shaky period around 2004, when transgenic wheat was stopped and its share price fell, Monsanto is now resurgent. Only one thing is certain. The global food regime it promotes is anything but sustainable, and a crisis is inevitable.