John Francis Queeny was a 30 year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry when he started the Monsanto Corp in St. Louis, Missouri in 1901. He named the company Monsanto after his wife who was of the wealthy Monsanto family from Puerto Rico. Although Queeny's father-in-law was an influential and rich sugar cane financier in Puerto Rico, he used his own money to start the company.
The company's first product was saccharin, the artificial sweetener. The Coca-Cola Company couldn't wait to get their hands on this sugar substitute, and when Queeny added vanilla and caffeine to the company's product line, Monsanto became one of Coca-Cola's main suppliers.
Monsanto decided to enter the European market in 1919 so they joined forces with Graesser's Chemical Works in Wales. The merger started producing aspirin, vanilla, rubber and salicylic acid for Europe. During the 1920s Queeny's son, Edgar, took over and was the catalyst that made the company the leading manufacturer of synthetic fibers, plastics and polystyrene in the United States. Products like DDT, Agent Orange and aspartame (NutraSweet) made Monsanto a household name during the next 40 years. The company also developed a bovine somatotropin (BST). Somatotropin is a synthetic growth hormone that helps develop muscle and bone growth when an HGH deficiency exists.
Agent Orange, developed by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, was used during the Vietnam War years, 1961 to 1971, with a devastating impact on the country as well as the world. DDT produced mosquito relief as a defoliant but its toxicity made it a dangerous pesticide. DDT was banned in 1972 thanks to efforts of environmentalists. The Vietnamese government has estimated 400,000 people were killed or maimed and 500,000 children were born with birth defects, and 10 million hectares of agricultural land were destroyed. In the United States, lawsuits and Department of Veterans Affairs reviews are ongoing.
But, during the 1940s Monsanto continued to operate the Dayton Project as well as Mound Laboratories for the Manhattan Project, which got the company involved with the first nuclear weapon, and later with the Atomic Energy Commission.
During the 1950s Monsanto and Bayer together formed Mobay, which marketed polyurethanes in the United States. Optoelectronics was another pioneering venture for the company in 1968. Monsanto was the first company to start production on light emitting diodes (LEDs) using the chemical gallium arsenide phosphide. Sales doubled in two years and by the end of 1970 LEDs from Monsanto became the standard for digital watches, calculators and digital clocks.
Monsanto scientists became the first group to modify a plant cell in 1982, and five years later they were conducting field tests on genetically engineered crops. At the end of the 20th century Monsanto began the transition from a chemical company to a biotech company. Today, Monsanto is the leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate, which is better known as "Round Up," linked to birth defects. The company has stated, "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA's job."
"Terminator seeds," which are sterile and thus cannot replicate, have been distributed to farmers around the world, particularly by groups such as US Agency for International Development (USAID), leading to massive demonstrations against the practice. Haiti is a recent (2011) case in point. Farmers who rely on saving seeds season to season are forced to purchase new seed each year when terminator seeds are used, leading to increased poverty and hunger.
Monsanto's development and marketing strategy of bovine growth hormone and genetically engineered seeds as well as its political lobbying practices, and strong arm tactics in the seed industry, has made the company a prime target for environmental groups as well as the alter-globalization movement. The company was identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a "potentially responsible party" for 56 Superfund (contaminated) sites in the US, and has been sued repeatedly for detrimental health effects to employees.
The company has a history of aggressive litigations, unusual business practices and chaotic licensing agreements. The US Justice Department began a Monsanto investigation in 2009, which made a slight impact. Revenue was down to $10.5 billion in 2010. Operating income fell to $1.6 billion and net income was down to $1.19 billion. The impact was like water rolling off a duck's back.
The 21,400 employees worldwide are still producing incredible, but controversial, products that make a positive as well as a negative impact on human lives and the environment.