The World According to Monsanto: Part I by Marie-Monique Robin
The World According to Monsanto: Part I describes Monsanto’s history of creating evil products, including PCBs, dioxin, Agent Orange, Roundup, and rBST.
In this episode, we discuss:
Julia's awkwardness when recording a podcast by herself
Health coaching certification through Wellcoaches
Rock climbing at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky
Common causes and remedies of constipation, including enemas
Reducing blue light exposure before bed
Pesticide companies made their biggest fortunes during wartime
For more, read Trust Us, We're Experts by Sheldon Ramptom and John Stauber
Who is Marie-Monique Robin?
Marie-Monique Robin is a badass. She is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who has worked all around the world and investigated topics ranging from torture and toxins in our food supply to the West’s obsession with endless growth. In The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply, an Investigation into the World’s Most Controversial Company, Marie-Monique exposes Monsanto’s limitless capacity for creating products that are terrible for the health of people, animals, and the planet. In Part I, she discusses polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, Agent Orange, Roundup, and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).
The PCB story
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals with simple chemical structures consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine. Because these chemicals are hydrophobic, they do not dissolve in water but do dissolve in fat. Since half of all PCBs ever created have leached into the environment (and at least 10% of PCBs remain today), we have all been exposed, and we all likely store PCBs in our fat tissue and livers. PCBs were created in 1929 until 1977 (and were banned in 1979) for use in many products including electrical equipment, flame retardants, pesticides, and insulation. PCBs have been linked to skin problems like chloracne, lung and liver cancers, reproductive and other hormonal issues (like early puberty), and stomach and thyroid injuries.
PCBs are intimately linked with the city of Anniston, Alabama. The city was the site of a Monsanto plant manufacturing PCBs between 1929 and 1971. During those 40 years, Monsanto dumped tons of toxic byproducts into Anniston Creek and open-pit landfills. Residents experienced unexplained health problems for years, including cancer, child mortality, reproductive deformities, asthma, and learning disabilities. Monsanto knew just about the entire time it was releasing these chemicals that they were dangerous. It had conducted several studies of their safety and found as early as 1936 that PCBs could cause cancer. In one study of Snow Creek, researchers dropped fish into the water and watched as they died within 3.5 minutes. Their skins melted off their bodies like they had been dipped in acid. Not only did Monsanto not tell anyone about these effects, it also didn’t stop dropping toxic chemicals in local waterways and didn’t create methods to filter the water. Among other lawsuits, Abernathy v. Monsanto ended in a settlement in which the petitioners were awarded some $600 million.
The evil of dioxin
We love this book. It is a solid reminder that most major companies do not care about the health of individuals, society in general, animals, or the environment. Monsanto’s goal is to make money for Monsanto, period. It creates evil after evil and bullies anyone who tries to argue for a less polluted and chemical-dependent world.
Part I center on the stories of four chemicals in particular, including those used in war and rGBH, arguably the most dangerous food additive ever created. This book is invaluable because Robin outlines how Monsanto knew its products were poisonous but did nothing to prevent their usage—quite the opposite, in fact. It covered up damning data, silenced reporters and whistle blowers, and intimidated anyone who tried to speak out against the company. It also infiltrated regulatory agencies in the government, so the very groups that should have been overseeing Monsanto’s actions and curtailing them were signing off on anything the company wanted. It even drafted legislation that directly impacted its products!
Please read this book if you don’t understand GMOs, think they’re harmless, or plan to spend even 1 second of your time defending a company that honestly couldn't care less if you lived or died—and won’t be paying you any money any time soon.
Similar to PCBs, dioxin is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine, but it also includes oxygen. It is produced naturally in forest fires, but most dioxin is man-made. In Monsanto’s case, dioxin was largely used in defoliant herbicides. The effects of dioxin are similar to those of PCBs: liver problems, disrupted thyroid function, chloracne, cancers, and death. In 1976, a plant producing dioxin (not owned by Monsanto) near Seveso, Italy erupted, releasing dioxin into the air over the town. Right away, thousands of small animals started dying, and people suffered from “nausea, blurred vision, skin lesions and...severe chloracne”. This was the first time humans learned definitively that dioxin caused severe health problems in humans.
Dioxin, and other chemicals similar to it, acts like a synthetic version of hormones found in plants. When these chemicals are sprayed on plants, the plants prematurely lose their leaves, which causes them to die. Dioxin was one of the chemicals used in Agent Orange, which was sprayed on agriculture fields during the Vietnam War. In addition to the horror that happened in Vietnam, American soldiers experienced numerous health issues including “cancer, skin disorders, liver disorders, neurological defects, autoimmune diseases...gastrointestinal diseases...melanoma, prostate cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, hypertension, respiratory disease, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma”. Exposure continues to affect new generations of people and people who were never directly exposed to the chemical.
Roundup is the absolute worst
Roundup is Monsanto’s most (in)famous herbicide. As Robin writes, pesticides include an active ingredient and “numerous inactive ingredients, such as solvents, carriers, emulsifiers, and surfactants, the purpose of which is to intensify the physiochemical properties and biological effectiveness of the active ingredients”. In the case of Roundup, glyphosate is between 14.5 and 75% of the mixture “with the rest of the formulation including a dozen principal additives whose ‘composition has been kept secret’”.
Robin describes the regulatory process that companies undertake to ensure their products are safe to use and sell. Agencies that grant permissions to chemical companies to sell pesticides and herbicides rely on studies conducted by the companies themselves. This conflict of interest manifests in manufactured and manipulated data that unsurprisingly find that the products are harmless. Robin lists one such doctored study as being unbelievable because scientists hired by Monsanto had used tissue from the “uterus of male rabbits”.
Glyphosate and PEOA are also evil
In addition to doctoring studies, Monsanto also fails to study the effects of Roundup as a whole, but rather uses glyphosate by itself. Glyphosate cannot enter cells to interfere with reproduction without the rest of the chemical cocktail in Roundup so studies of the effects of glyphosate alone on cells are useless when considering the safety of Roundup. (Of course, glyphosate has been shown to be dangerous on its own.) One cause for the increased toxicity of Roundup could be polyethoxylated tallowamine (PEOA), which has been shown to be 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate. Other additives of Roundup can’t even be independently studied because Roundup refuses to disclose them, saying they are “trade secrets”.
One groundbreaking study that showed the deleterious effects of Roundup is Robert Bellé’s study of Roundup on sea urchin embryos. His research team wanted to study various pesticides’ effects on embryos and planned to use Roundup as a control because the researchers believed it was harmless. After seeing that Roundup affected the embryos the most, they switched their research to looking at the effects of Roundup alone. They put fertilized sea urchin eggs “in diluted solution of Roundup...well below that generally used in agriculture”. What resulted is that Roundup interfered in a critical stage in cell division: when cells are copied poorly, they should be destroyed through a process called apoptosis, but in the presence of Roundup, mutant cells continued existing. These cells are what give rise to cancer later on.
Gilles-Eric Séralini found similar results when he put embryonic cells in diluted Roundup. WIthin minutes human embryonic and placental cells were dead in concentrations below those recommended for agriculture. At even lower levels, he found that cells’ sex hormone production was halted, ‘which is also very serious, because those hormones enable the fetus to develop its bones and form its future reproductive system”.
Infuriatingly, Roundup continues to be manufactured and sold, and regulatory agencies and most governments are reluctant to do anything to reduce its use. (Plenty of places have banned its use, however.) Glyphosate has been found in breakfast cereals, oatmeal, and granola bars, which means that the other “inactive” ingredients in Roundup (including PEOA) are present as well.
Bovine growth hormone
The last chemical discussed in Part I and this episode is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Monsanto gets mad when people call it a hormone because it thinks that people will overreact and think it’s a problem. Unfortunately for Monsanto, recombinant bovine somatotropin is just another way to say growth hormone, so we’ll use the latter. The hormone is a synthetic version of somatotropin, which cows produce right after calving to encourage milk production. Naturally, cows stop producing somatotropin after a period of time, so rBGH is added to make cows produce way more milk than they ever should. From studies that Monsanto itself conducted, cows forced to take rBGH suffer from mastitis, have to take more antibiotics—one cow had to have 120 different treatments—and have reproductive problems, including infertility. In this study, 82 cows given varying levels of rBGH were slaughtered and dissected. The weights of cows receiving rBGH were lighter than those not treated with rGBH, but their organs were enlarged. And the sites of rBGH injection were blackened and dead.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone was approved for use in the food supply without any regulatory oversight. And Monsanto paid veterinarians to convince farmers to buy it. Opponents to rBGH, including Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tried to expose the corruption and lack of scientific evidence that rBGH was safe for human consumption through combing through Monsanto’s own documents and publishing articles. Along with Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumer Policy Institute, Epstein contradicted Monsanto’s and the FDA’s assertion that milk from cows treated with rBGH and milk from regular cows were nutritionally and chemically the same. Both bovine and human growth hormone produce insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which “stimulate[s] the proliferation of cells, thereby causing organisms to grow”. It is well documented that IGF-1 increases in milk from cows treated with rBGH, and it can be absorbed into the body through the gut when ingested, leading to cancer. Moreover, milk from rBGH cows and milk from regular cows differ because the former has a much higher somatic cell count on average, indicating a much higher incidence of infection. Somatic cell count measures the amount of white blood cells, aka pus, in milk due to a cow’s infected udders. So milk from rBGH cows is literally filled with pus.
Corruption at the FDA
The FDA refused to see anything wrong with rBGH and just wanted it approved as fast as possible so Monsanto could begin selling it. The connection between the supposed regulatory agency and biotech company was intimate and a perfect example of how the revolving door continually benefits Monsanto. The company managed to get the FDA to assert that milk from rBGH cows and milk from untreated cows are the same and back Monsanto when it sued dairy producers who chose to stop using rBGH. Monsanto’s claim was that labeling products as “rBGH-free” confuses consumers into thinking that there is something wrong with milk produced from cows who were treated with rBGH. Monsanto also sued farmers who spoke about the effects of rBGH on their herds because they had signed confidentiality agreements when they purchased the drug.
Meanwhile, when the FDA prematurely approved the drug (its commercial name is Posliac) for use, it stipulated that Monsanto include the drug’s 22 possible side effects, including “reduced fertility, ovarian cysts and uterine disorder, a reduction in gestation times and in the weight of calves, a higher rate of twins, an increase in mastitis and SCC, and abscesses of one to two inches and sometimes as much as four inches, at injection sites”. These side effects (and worse) came to pass in massive numbers. The Wisconsin Farmers Union established a toll-free number for farmers to call if they experienced problems with their cows after using rBGH. Robin gives a litany of examples of calls from farmers with terrible experiences: cows had mastitis and abscesses, couldn’t walk due to enlarged udders and wounds on their legs, gave birth to derormed calves, and even died suddenly. The FDA, of course, didn’t think anything was wrong.
In addition to silencing dairy farmers, Monsanto attempted to silence journalists covering the effects of rBGH. The major story tied to the rBGH scandal is that of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, reporters for a local news station in Tampa, Florida. After crafting a well researched expose of Monsanto’s actions regarding rBGH, Monsanto threatened the station’s parent company, Fox. After much back and forth with Monsanto, Fox forced the station to pull the story and fired the station’s general manager and news manager. The station also tried to fire the reporters, who then sued Fox for trying to silence their speech. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, which shows the power that big companies have when it comes to suppressing the truth and spreading lies.