new chemical wonders until they clean up the old ones
John Peterson Myers
The Keene Sentinel
Keene, New Hampshire
1 July 2000
a company that desperately needs to convince the public that genetically
modified organisms represent a boon and not a bane for humanity,
had an opportunity recently to demonstrate its good intentions
regarding another of its products. Unfortunately the corporation
did nothing, leaving the world to wonder whether its pretensions
of good citizenship are fiction.
When delegates from around the world gathered in Bonn, Germany,
last month under the auspices of the United Nations to continue
negotiations toward eliminating toxins known as persistent organic
pollutants, or POPs, they considered twelve chemicals that have
been identified through decades of research to present serious
harm to health and the environment. No credible public health
authority argues that these compounds are safe. The newest science
has revealed that even low levels of these compounds can undermine
normal development of the fetus, with potentially serious long-term
consequences from infancy into adulthood. Fertility may be impaired,
immune systems compromised, and intelligence undermined.
Long prior to its recent metamorphosis into a bioengineering company,
Monsanto was among the largest manufacturers in the U.S. of one
of the twelve targeted compounds, PCBs. While banned for production
and use in the United States in 1976, PCBs remain in the environment
in large quantities and even now still leak from old products
and waste sites. New Yorkers need only look to the Hudson River
to witness intense PCB contamination--and intense legal wrangling
over whose responsibility it is to clean up the mess. The Hudson,
however, is only one of many highly contaminated sites around
the country and around the world. Indeed, the chemical truth is
that decades after being manufactured, Monsanto's old PCB molecules
still are wafting about the earth through a repeated cycle of
evaporation, wind transport, condensation and re-evaporation.
They now can be found almost anywhere on the planet, entering
the food chain and, ultimately, lodging in fat tissue.
Now Monsanto and its fellow bioengineering companies are asking
us to trust them, to believe they are responsible corporations,
good citizens. They want us to believe that bioengineered products
are safe, even as they must acknowledge there is no scientific
certainty about this conclusion because there has been neither
the testing nor the experience to be sure. What if they are mistaken?
The reassurances about the safety of PCBs were certainly dead
Part of the deal of being a good citizen is accepting responsibility
for one's mistakes and shouldering the burden for fixing them.
So if Monsanto, now a part of Pharmacia Corp., wants to show it
takes responsibility for its actions and wants the public even
to begin taking its assurances about bioengineered products seriously,
it can begin by showing it doesn't walk away from messes it has
already helped create.
First, Monsanto can publicly apologize and accept responsibility
for the damage already done. After all, if the President can apologize
to African Americans for slavery and if the Pope can ask for forgiveness
for the sins of Catholics over centuries, surely Monsanto can
apologize for dusting the planet with toxic pollutants.
More concretely, Monsanto can bring its financial and political
resources to bear on cleaning up the POPs mess. Unfortunately,
the corporate profits made on PCB production are as widely dispersed
into shareholder pockets as are Monsanto's PCB molecules around
the globe. In its current financial condition, the company might
credibly claim that financial compensation at a scale commensurate
with the problem is beyond its reach.
Instead, it could lend a political hand. Rather than opposing
Congressional ratification of a strong international POPs treaty,
Monsanto (and its chemical brethren) should be active proponents
of an agreement that would include financial mechanisms for underwriting
toxic clean-ups, especially in developing countries, where the
problems caused by these pollutants are virtually insurmountable
The treaty should also explicitly embrace the "precautionary principle,"
a step the U.S. is currently opposing. This commonsense "better
safe than sorry" measure acknowledges that when there is plausible
risk of significant harm, scientific uncertainty should not used
as an obstacle to taking steps protecting public health.
And the treaty should contain sensible provisions for adding new
pollutants to the POPs list, provisions that--unlike those the
U.S. now advocates--don't place unrealistic standards in the way
of additional protections.
Of course, if Monsanto were to weigh these steps, it might ultimately
decide that acknowledging the liabilities created for the company
through its historically relentless marketing of toxic products
would be so great as to outweigh the benefits. That position would
send a strong signal into the debate on bioengineered food products
that one of the biggest players was willing to accept near-term
profits but walk away from long-term responsibilities. By doing
nothing to aid the toxic chemical negotiations in Bonn, Monsanto
may already have shown its hand.