I have often wondered whether a company can truly be evil. Not a company run by evil people, but a place where decades of evil have seeped right into the corporate fabric.

Almost ten years ago, at a Business for Social Responsibility conference in Los Angeles, I attended a presentation by Monsanto. The company made the case that genetically modified foods would cure world hunger. GMOs, Monsanto asserted, would spark the next green revolution. I walked out of the session depressed and upset, wondering why Monsanto had been given a platform at the BSR event. I didn’t renew my membership.

Monsanto got its start making saccharin. In 1948, the company started making a powerful herbicide; a by-product of the process was the creation of a chemical that would later be known as dioxin.

On March 8, 1949, a massive explosion rocked a Monsanto herbicide plant. Court records indicate that 226 plant workers fell ill. In the 1960s, the factory manufactured Agent Orange, which later became the focus of lawsuits by Vietnam veterans contending that they had been harmed by exposure.

Monsanto has manufactured plastics, resins, rubber goods, fuel additives, artificial caffeine, industrial fluids, vinyl siding, anti-freeze, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides before deciding to leave the world of chemicals and instead become a life-sciences company. But Monsanto’s history still haunts us: left in its past is the potential responsibility for more than 50 Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites and dozens of toxic chemicals that most likely are still circulating in our bloodstreams.

Today, Monsanto, according to a report in Vanity Fair (Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear), has moved on to harassing farmers who (they believe) refuse to abide by an agreement not to collect any of the seeds generated by plants that Monsanto considers its intellectual property:

“Ever since commercial introduction of its G.M. seeds, in 1996, Monsanto has launched thousands of investigations and filed lawsuits against hundreds of farmers and seed dealers. In a 2007 report, the Center for Food Safety, in Washington, D.C., documented 112 such lawsuits, in 27 states. Even more significant, in the Center’s opinion, are the numbers of farmers who settle because they don’t have the money or the time to fight Monsanto. “The number of cases filed is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Bill Freese, the Center’s science-policy analyst. Freese says he has been told of many cases in which Monsanto investigators showed up at a farmer’s house or confronted him in his fields, claiming he had violated the technology agreement and demanding to see his records.”

As if it’s not already difficult enough to survive as a farmer. The dairy industry, according to the article, gets similar treatment:

“Jeff Kleinpeter takes very good care of his dairy cows. In the winter he turns on heaters to warm their barns. In the summer, fans blow gentle breezes to cool them, and on especially hot days, a fine mist floats down to take the edge off Louisiana’s heat. The dairy has gone “to the ultimate end of the earth for cow comfort,” says Kleinpeter, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Baton Rouge.”

But Monsanto doesn’t like the label on Kleinpeter Dairy’s milk cartons: “From Cows Not Treated with rBGH.” Giving consumers that information has stirred the ire of Monsanto. The company contends that advertising by Kleinpeter and other dairies touting their “no rBGH” milk reflects adversely on Monsanto’s product.

In light of the article, Monsanto’s pledge, “Growth for a Better World,” makes for curious reading:

“We want to make the world a better place for future generations. As an agricultural company, Monsanto can do this best by providing value through the products and systems we offer to farmers.
With the growth of modern agricultural practices and crops that generate ever-increasing yields, we are helping farmers around the world to create a better future for human beings, the environment, and local economies.”

I doubt that many farmers would agree. Is Monsanto evil? I’m not sure that there is enough evidence to convict, but it’s certainly a candidate for my list of the world’s 10 worst companies.

Click here to read the full story in Vanity Fair.

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