The giant U.S. agribusiness Monsanto was found guilty on Monday Feb. 13, after being sued by a small farmer from Charente who had been poisoned by a herbicide. This event is a first in France. On the scale of the history of the one-hundred-year-old multinational, this sentence constitutes just one more episode in an already long record of court procedures.
PCBs, Agent Orange, dioxin, GMO, Aspartame, growth hormones, herbicides (Lasso and Roundup) ... a number of products that have made the fortune of Monsanto, have been marred by health scandals and trials sometimes leading to their prohibition. But nothing has so far hindered the irresistible rise of this former chemical giant who converted back to biogenetics and has mastered the art of lobbying. Portrait of a multinational multi-recidivist.
A chemical giant ...explosive
Since its creation in 1901 in St. Louis, the small producer of saccharin that became one of the leading seed producers on the planet, has continued to make headlines. After the Second World War, the accidental explosion of a Monsanto plastics factory caused by a French freighter loaded with nitrate, which caused 500 deaths in Texas City in 1947, has remained in history as one of the first disasters of the chemical industry.
Two years later, it was the turn of a second plant of the firm, in Nitro, Virginia, to go up in smoke. This time, the responsibility of the company was engaged. More than two hundred workers developed chloracne, a skin disease as rare as it is severe, says Marie-Monique Robin, winner of the Albert Londres Prize, in her documentary The World According to Monsanto.
The accident reveals that the flagship brand, the herbicide 2,4,5-T, contains high levels of dioxins, highly toxic and carcinogenic, a composition comparable to that of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The first study suggesting the potential danger of dioxin was known to Monsanto in 1938: the commercialization of herbicide would continue for nearly another forty years before it was banned in the 1970s.
Monsanto, who led the Nitro plant between 1934 and 2000, has also been the subject of a legal action filed in 2007 by 77 people in Virginia suffering from cancer, who accused the company of having dumped dioxins "illegally" in the vicinity of the plant.
PCBs: the trial of shame
In 2001, 3,600 inhabitants of the city of Anniston, Alabama, attacked Monsanto for PCB contamination. According to a report, declassified by the U.S. Agency of Environmental Protection (EPA), Monsanto for almost forty years dumped thousands of tons of contaminated waste in a stream and an open garbage dump in the heart of a black neighborhood in the city.
The way The Washington Post reported the story is instructive:
"Monsanto documents -- many emblazoned with warnings such as "CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy" -- show that for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew. In 1966, Monsanto managers discovered that fish submerged in that creek turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water. They told no one."
In 1975, a study conducted by Monsanto showed that PCB causes tumors in rats. The multinational decided to change the terms of "slightly tumorigenic" to "does not appear to be carcinogenic." "We can not afford to lose a single dollar " -- thus ends one of the memos by The Washington Post .
Monsanto was finally convicted in 2002 of having polluted "the territory of Anniston and the blood of its people with the PCB" . The firm was ordered to pay $ 700 million in damages and to guarantee the cleaning-up of the city. No legal action was brought against the company officials.
In February 2007, The Guardian revealed that the agrochemical giant applied the same methods on multiple sites in Britain between 1965 and 1972. The newspaper had access to a government report showing that 67 products, including Agent Orange, dioxin and PCBs, have been identified in a quarry in Wales. In France, the manufacture and use of PCBs have been banned since 1987.
Agent Orange: convinced of "poisoning"
During these same years, between 1961 and 1971, Monsanto produced Agent Orange, made up from the herbicide 2,4,5-T, whose dangerousness has been widely known ever since the explosion of the Nitro plant. This defoliant was massively dumped by U.S. aircraft over Vietnamese forests during the war. The consequences are still felt today, with many cancers and birth defects occurring in Vietnam, as well as various effects felt by many U.S. veterans.