No new chemical wonders until they clean up the old ones
John Peterson Myers
The Keene Sentinel
Keene, New Hampshire
1 July 2000

Monsanto, 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 wrong.

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 without assistance.

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.