Big Corporations: Whose Interests Are At Heart?- Part 1

From Dr. Janet Starr Hull

Did you know that Monsanto Chemical Company owned both saccharin AND aspartame? Interesting little tidbit, huh?

Here's another one - Monsanto Chemical Company's first product in 1901 was saccharin, and their first customer was the brand-new Coca-Cola Company.

I think that it is important to learn about the companies that play such influential roles in our lives and the lives of our children. So, who are the sweetener giants and armchair generals controlling this sweetener war going on today?


Monsanto Chemical Company was the company that first brought us saccharin in 1901, and then aspartame in the form of NutraSweet/Equal®. But, Monsanto did not invent aspartame; G.D. Searle Pharmaceuticals accidentally stumbled across it while searching for a new ulcer drug in 1965. Because of aspartame's toxicity, aspartame had a difficult time getting FDA approval from 1965 until 1981 when the FDA finally, yet most questionably, approved it as a tabletop sweetener only. In 1983, the FDA then approved aspartame for carbonated beverages, and this created serious competition for Monsanto's saccharin. So after four generations of the Searle family owning and operating G D Searle Pharmaceuticals, in October 1985, Monsanto bought Searle for $2.7 billion, making Searle a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto.

This made Monsanto owner, manufacturer and marketer of both saccharin and NutraSweet/Equal.

Monsanto's background is most attention grabbing and diverse. Monsanto Chemical Company is a leading provider of agricultural products and incorporated "solutions" for farmers. They make Roundup®, the world's best-selling herbicide, as well as other herbicides. Monsanto produces leading seed brands, including DEKALB® and Asgrow®, and they provide farmers and other seed companies with biotechnology traits for insect protection and herbicide tolerance. They also are responsible for the creation and distribution of the Bovine Growth Hormone (BST), and have deep-rooted connections to the soft drink industry through the manufacturing of both saccharin and NutraSweet.

What are the underpinnings behind this powerful company and how did it acquire such dominant world influence and diversity?

Monsanto Chemical Works opened its doors in St. Louis in 1901. In 2001, Monsanto celebrated its 100th anniversary as a business enterprise.

After 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry, John Francis Queeny, still an employee of Meyer Brothers Drug Company, sank his savings and monies borrowed from a Chicago soft drink supplier into a new company to produce products for the food and pharmaceutical industries. He named the company after his wife, whose maiden name was Olga Monsanto. The corporate papers were filed on Nov. 29, 1901.

In 1902, Monsanto gained its reputation manufacturing saccharin, the company's first product. From 1903 to 1905, their entire saccharin output was shipped to the growing soft drink company in Georgia called Coca-Cola. In 1904, Monsanto introduced caffeine and vanillin as products for the escalating soft drink industry. Initially, vanillin was produced by extracting a chemical from cloves purchased from the Sultan of Zanzibar, who insisted that the leftover spices be returned to him. Cloves had an important religious significance for the cremation of bodies, so there was importance in shipping them back to Zanzibar instead of disposing of them as waste in the United States.

By 1915, Monsanto's sales surpassed the $1 million mark. Two years later, the company began the production of aspirin. Monsanto remained the largest U.S. producer of aspirin until the 1980s.

In 1917, the U.S. government filed suit over the safety of saccharin. Filed at Monsanto's request as a test case, the suit was dismissed in 1925, ending the government's unsuccessful attempts then to prove saccharin harmful. In 1981, saccharin was again questioned as a carcinogen, but no conclusive scientific proof was ever presented. In 2001, the cancer warning was removed from saccharin products as saccharin was shown, once again, to be safe for human consumption.

Despite saccharin's cancer "propaganda" in 1981, in 1985 Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle & Co., taking the company deeper into pharmaceuticals and the sweetener industry. NutraSweet, saccharin's competitor, was now owned and marketed by the same company.

World War II brought Monsanto and the American government closer together as Monsanto became involved in research on uranium for the Manhattan Project, which led to the first nuclear bombs. Later, Monsanto operated the Mound (Ohio) Laboratory as a nuclear facility for the Federal government until the late 1980s, and their Dayton Laboratory was used as a research facility for nuclear-based and other government-funded projects.

Monsanto was in the petroleum business by 1955, having acquired Lion Oil primarily to provide themselves petrochemical raw materials. Lion Oil also put the company into the fertilizer business, and brought to Monsanto hydrocarbon technology, oil and gas reserves, and a retail gasoline business. The refinery and service stations were sold in 1972.

In 1977, Monsanto established a joint petrochemical venture with Conoco Oil Company at the Chocolate Bayou plant. They were eventually bought out and the money from the acquisition fueled their drive to acquire a pharmaceutical company.

In 1981, G.D. Searle & Co. had succeeded in getting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to finally approve NutraSweet (aspartame), and Monsanto prepared to purchase them in 1985. Now, saccharin and NutraSweet were under the same umbrella. When Monsanto sold its sweetener business in 2000, including the NutraSweet brand sweetener, it brought Monsanto $440 million.

By 1998, Monsanto started buying seed companies and genetic laboratories. In December 1999, Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn announced plans to merge the two companies. Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn completed their merger on March 31, naming the new company the Pharmacia Corporation. The agricultural operations within Pharmacia retain the Monsanto name - the company renown for Roundup, the Bovine Growth Hormone, multifarious seed companies, saccharin and NutraSweet.

Monsanto Chemical Company is the first company to apply for FDA approval of genetically engineered wheat for commercial use. This will have far-reaching effects on farmers, consumers, and the environment all over the world, and I have great concerns with genetically engineered (GMO) grains products for the following reasons:

  • Organic farmers may face genetic cross-contamination;
  • Conventional farmers may lose the freedom to save their seed, as Monsanto will have the right to enforce its patents;
  • Farmers may also lose overseas markets because genetically engineered grains aren't accepted in most foreign countries;
  • Prices will probably fall, as have already occurred with corn.

So what's in Monsanto's future? The company has formed a wheat industry advisory committee to provide advice and counsel on how best to bring forward biotechnology products in wheat. They have begun posting product safety information for their current agricultural biotechnology products. Along with Round Up, they are marketing with widespread availability the drug, L-DOPA, used today for the treatment of Parkinson's disease. And they have placed the first U.S. corporate order to General Motors for pick-up trucks that use ethanol-based E85 fuel, part of a larger initiative to focus new research to enhance the use of bioenergy.

Consumers not only need to learn more about the products they use, but it is important to learn more about the backgrounds of the companies providing those products. Next month, I look at Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Splenda®.

Posted February 2010 | Permanent Link

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