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The good earth: Despite a failed bid to place a food-labeling initiative on the November ballot, Sonoma organic grower Bob Cannard is still cultivating a consumer revolution.

Slice of Life

From silicon byproducts to Terminator seeds, Monsanto has laid toxic waste to the landscape

By Mary Spicuzza

TWO YEARS AGO, few would have believed that a seed could inspire international controversy. Certainly not the Monsanto Co., a multinational food, pharmaceutical, and chemicals manufacturer that had set its sights on Delta & Pine Land Co. Scientists at Delta & Pine had orchestrated a molecular makeover that forced mature plants to produce their own seed-sterilizing toxin.

For researchers it represented a major breakthrough in genetic control. For Monsanto, it meant profit potential. The new seed would prevent farmers from growing crops that could produce fertile seeds, forcing them to buy new seeds from a Monsanto every year.

Just as Monsanto joined forces with the sterile-seed pioneers, the century-old chemical company adopted the slogan "Food, Health, Hope" to celebrate its evolution from a plastics and herbicide leader to a biotechnology industry pioneer.

It envisioned the new seed as a linchpin of a worldwide agricultural revolution, offering nearly $2 billion to buy out the company that patented the creation.

But genetic-engineering skeptics didn't share Monsanto's optimism. They quickly dubbed the gene involved in sterile-seed technology the "Terminator" gene, inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger's classic role as a robotic killing machine. Protesters rallying in the streets of Seattle outside last fall's gathering of the World Trade Organization adopted the seed as the poster child for the high risks involved in genetic engineering.

Facing frenzied international criticism, Monsanto has agreed not to commercialize the gene at this time. But it made no promises about limiting future market possibilities for "gene protection" technology.

The infamous Terminator seed is just one of thousands of genetically altered crops born from the booming biotechnology industry. Others include strawberries made with fish genes, soybeans and tomatoes made with bacterial genes, and potatoes made with moth genes.

Despite a temporary moratorium on growing and importing genetically modified crops throughout the European Union, more than 100 million acres of transgenetic crops have already been planted throughout the world. And the fertile fields of Northern California have been a popular testing ground for these new breeds of fruits, vegetables, and seeds--a fact that worries some members of the agricultural community.

"Traditional food crops can become contaminated by Monsanto's seeds," says Robert Cannard, an organic farmer in Sonoma. Cannard, who spends most of his days in the field, says experimental seeds can travel in the wind and via birds to countless traditional crops throughout the state. He recently led an unsuccesful statewide push for labeling laws, called the California Right to Know Initiative, which would have required stores and food manufacturers to disclose whether or not foods contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Cannard and other skeptics point to Monsanto's past offerings such as saccharin, Agent Orange, and Posilac bovine somatropin (the milk-inducing bovine growth hormone) as evidence of the company's spotty track record on matters of human health and the environment. Industry watchdog web sites have taken it one step further and nicknamed the company "Monsatan."

But if more critics knew of Monsanto's track record in Silicon Valley, they might be even more worried.

E-mail to Metro, April 20, 2000

Thank you for contacting Monsanto.com. Feel free to e-mail your query to me and depending on the subject matter I will forward that to an appropriate person in our public affairs operation.Thank you for contacting Monsanto.com.

--Jay Byrne, Monsanto Co.

Michael Stanley-Jones knows how dirty the high-technology industry can be. As a senior researcher at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, he helps monitor 23 active Superfund sites--toxic hot spots so severe that the federal government has tagged them for high-priority cleanup efforts. Silicon Valley has more of them than any other place in the nation.

Stanley-Jones says that most local hot spots can be traced to the computer industry, as all but one of the area's Superfund sites lie on corporate land.

What most local toxic and biotech watchdogs don't realize is that the valley's high-tech revolution would never have been possible without Monsanto's three decades as a world leader in the silicon business.

"Monsanto produced silicon from 1959 to 1989," confirms Monsanto spokesperson Bryan Hurley, with a tangible degree of pride. "Our silicon production was of ultra-pure silicon for electronics. Monsanto was one of the leaders in the United States and the world at one time." Monsanto Electronic Materials Co. in Palo Alto, with additional plants around the country, served as a cornerstone of the semiconductor and chip-making industries. Semiconductor makers etch circuits into silicon-layered wafers to make computer chips.

When Monsanto sold its operation in 1989, it had fallen to sixth in the world's ranking of silicon makers, but was still supplying nearly a third of the $400 million-a-year U.S. demand for silicon. At the time, critics of the sale mourned it as a nail in the coffin of the American electronics industry, calling Monsanto the Fairchild of the silicon industry.

E-mail to Metro, April 24, 2000

I've just read through all of the questions--I can certainly provide you with some of the answers today, but given the specific nature of some of the questions and the dates some of this information centers on, I can't get a lot of this today. If you can give me a couple of days, I can try to pull some of this for you.

--Bryan Hurley, Monsanto Co.

A year before Monsanto announced the sale, the state's Department of Health Services cited the company as one of those responsible for a toxic plume seeping into Matadero Creek and private wells in Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood. Located at the Stanford Research Park, the plume, which included the dangerous chemicals trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), dichlorbenzene, and Freon, seeped into the soil, groundwater, and private drinking wells.

"TCE and other industrial solvents like PCE are suspected of causing birth defects and cancer," Stanley-Jones says. "Freon has been the leading greenhouse gas in California. They don't go away."

Known as the Hillview-Porter Superfund, this site was named by health department officials as one of the most complicated in the state, owing to the number of chemicals and point-sources of contamination involved.

AT MONSANTO'S Hillview Avenue address, which it shared with General Instruments, inspectors found TCE, PCE, solvents, and Freon in the groundwater. The same chemicals were found in the soil, in addition to acetone and ethyl benzene.

Monsanto and 13 other companies agreed to help clean up the hot spot and began work about a decade after the toxic plume was discovered. According to its Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Environmental Protection Agency now considers the risks from groundwater contamination to be within safe limits. Department studies say deeper groundwater contamination should be cleared up in 30 years.

Monsanto wasn't alone in its Silicon Valley high-tech chemical contamination woes. Other companies tagged with cleanup at various sites around the valley during the same period included Intel, Fairchild, and IBM, to name a few. But even after Monsanto got out of the silicon industry and started to clean up its mess there, it still had some explaining to do to the EPA in Washington, D.C.

In 1990, EPA chemists charged Monsanto scientists with "fraudulently manipulating" a 1979 study to show that dioxins don't cause high cancer rates in humans.

EPA chemist Cate Jenkins, saying that Monsanto altered the results of a study of cancer among workers exposed to dioxins, urged the EPA to re-examine its own regulations. Dioxins can be traced to countless sources, most often linked to industrial and commercial incinerators. But computer manufacturing and medical waste incineration are both major sources.

"It is a commonly bandied adage that dioxins have not been demonstrated to have caused cancer in humans, despite documented exposures," wrote EPA chemist Jenkins in a 1990 internal memo uncovered by Cox News Service. "Perhaps this may now be seen as yet another 'old industry tale' in light of the fraud allegedly committed by Monsanto in conducting its 'research' on its workers exposed to dioxins."

E-mail to Metro, April 24, 2000

Can you help me understand a little more about what you are looking to accomplish--some of this seems unconnected and outdated, so I'm having trouble figuring out the direction.

--Bryan Hurley, Monsanto Co.

Today a 25-acre site on the corner of Lafayette Street and Walsh Avenue in Santa Clara, formerly owned by Monsanto Chemical Co., looks identical to the surrounding industrial sprawl. At the Lafayette Industrial Park, crisp Cisco Systems buildings sit next to offices and loading docks of Applied Materials, and a local post office rests just a gravel-covered parking lot away. After one lap around the lot with Stanley-Jones, neither of us sees anything hinting that the site has hosted a decade-long toxic cleanup.

But a second loop reveals scattered telltale signs of remediation efforts.

"Look, monitoring wells," he says, quickly hopping out of his massive van. "They come out here and check contaminant levels, probably every three months or so."

Monsanto, owner of the site from 1950 to 1983, used eight acres for its plastics and resin manufacturing business and leased another chunk of land to Hunter Technology Corp., a circuit board manufacturer.

But documents obtained from the Regional Water Quality Control Board show that Monsanto also used the land for other purposes--as a dumping ground for liquid waste and a solid-waste burial site--leaving a legacy of toxins in the valley's soil.

"Monsanto discharged liquid waste--water with some salts mixed with amino and phenolic resins--in a two-acre backwash area west of the manufacturing area in the northern part of the property, from the mid-1960s to 1975," reads a water quality board report for the San Francisco Region dated Aug. 19, 1992. "Monsanto also buried solid waste--resins, construction debris, domestic refuse--in seven trenches west of the developed area."

Contaminants included the usual suspects for cancer and birth defects--TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride, and one of the most toxic substances known to humans, PCBs. But they also included extremely high levels of 2-hydroxy 5-methyl 1,3 benzenedicarboxylic acid, or HMBA, a toxic chemical catalyst.

Several years after Monsanto sold the property, state investigators found high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at concentrations up to 200 ppm. Monsanto, once a major manufacturer of PCBs, denies that it produced the chemical at the site.

Kimball Small Properties bought the property in 1983, and, after contaminants were found, the new owner went back to Monsanto for help with the cleanup. "All I can tell you is that we did buy a piece of property that was contaminated. It did take some legal haranguing to get the responsible party to remediate the cleanup. Then we ultimately sold the property," said Dave Small of Kimball Small Properties. The property was sold to Camsi IV.

Ted Smith of the Toxics Coalition was aghast that Monsanto had not received any additional penalties for dumping on the site. "If they were dumping this stuff in trenches, they should have been heavily punished," Smith says. "There was another site where the owner was caught dumping [these kinds of] toxins in trenches, and he died in jail."

Leo Kay, an EPA spokesperson, says that burying waste became illegal only in 1969, but he isn't sure when Monsanto stopped dumping.

Monsanto representatives refused to comment on the timing of the dumping. Monsanto paid for both soil excavation and groundwater treatment, but was never fined for its toxic trench burials, according to the water board's report. And the company's troubles in the Bay Area were far from over. In 1991, reporters researching California's poor tracking of chemical contamination investigated reports that Monsanto had shipped 45 tons of toxic waste from its Avon Plant in Martinez to an Idaho Superfund site.

MONSANTO spokesperson Bryan Hurley says that the company no longer owns the Martinez plant, and he did not respond to questions about its practice of shipping toxins to out-of-state Superfund sites. "I think the whole arena of chemical reporting has come a long way, even since 1991," EPA spokesperson Leo Kay says. He says he isn't sure whether Monsanto's shipping policy was illegal, and if so, whether the company was fined.

"We have a better grasp now, since the community right-to-know laws have been strengthened."

E-mail to Metro, May 1, 2000

These questions will take a long, long time to track down--can you give me a feel for the story itself? I know you said it's a story on Monsanto's history in the area, but is there a news hook or something to that effect? Is this part of a regular series you do? And, frankly, most of these questions have a bit of a negative slant to them--are there positives involved?

--Bryan Hurley, Monsanto Co.

While offloading its traditional high-technology businesses, Monsanto has established a firm foothold in California's high-tech farming industry. It acquired Calgene in Davis, long known as the nation's leading biotechnology research farm, which produced the first genetically modified tomato, the Flavr Savr. Monsanto later conducted field tests for another type of tomato: caterpillar-killing tomatoes at Hulst Research Farm Services near Modesto. Monsanto scientists inserted the gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the plants' seeds. They believe it kills pests without harming other living things.

Let's certainly hope so, says Bob Scowcroft, director of the Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation. "Pollen carries the gene and can transfer it to other crops, resulting in another variety of corn with a man-made gene inserted in it. That has unknown environmental consequences, not to mention health and safety issues," says Scowcroft. "If it was discovered in their [an organic farmer's] supply, they would lose their business. Meaning transgenetics can have negative economic consequences as well."

What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain.

--Monsanto declaration, as quoted in a class-action suit against Monsanto, filed Dec. 14, 1999, Washington, D.C.

To follow Monsanto's shift from slick Silicon Valley electronics producer and chemical corporation to earthy life sciences leader, one need look no further than Disneyland. In 1957, Monsanto celebrated the many uses of plastic with its futuristic House of the Future.

That was only a couple of years after the company's Disney debut, the Hall of Chemistry, created to "demonstrate the wonders of chemicals, plastics and man-made fibers."

Over the years Monsanto has set up five different Disneyland exhibits, including "America, the Beautiful." But the company has replaced its plastic-laden exhibits with a new "Beautiful Sciences" exhibit, which opened at the EPCOT Center last fall. Complete with its hall of biodiversity, the exhibit highlights nature and innovation.

Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro introduced the exhibit with an ambitious mission statement.

"We believe in the promise of the life sciences, and in recent years, scientists have discovered the fundamentals of how life works, when it works well, and when it goes wrong," he said. "With that understanding, we have begun to invent tools and produce dramatically better outcomes."

"I began getting letters from kids and from parents of kids, mostly diabetics, who had never before been able to have something like Kool-Aid or Jello. And I realized what was going on. We were doing something important for people. It wasn't just making a handheld calculator, as we had done in my previous incarnation. This thing actually mattered."

--Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, quoted in The New Yorker, April 10, 2000

But Monsanto's image shift has hit rough times. Protesters outside meetings of both the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund rallied against Monsanto as a global tyrant. Earth Day 2000 named Monsanto one of the nation's top 10 "greenwashers," a term meaning environmental wolves in sheep's clothing, in its new "Don't Be Fooled" campaign.

MONSANTO has left traditional high tech behind for greener biotech pastures, but the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is once again stepping in to monitor its activities. "We're using the model of toxins and saying that genetically modified organisms should be treated the same," Stanley-Jones says. "They can modify, compete with, and destroy existing species. And the public has a right to know where they're being tested and released."

Stanley-Jones attended a meeting in London at which activists adopted the term "hazardous technologies" for genetically modified organisms.

"It's important for toxics activists to understand that computers are the driving forces of bioengineering and DNA research," he says. "So the coalition is dealing with high-tech toxins involved in both computers' design and now their application."

Yet Monsanto appears to be having some trouble understanding public concern. "If anything clearly emerges from this debate, it is that, when the venire [sic] of pious rhetoric is stripped from the anti-GM food claims, their argument is simply one of selfishly seeking to impose their own fetishes and New Age beliefs on society whatever costs to the rest of humanity may be," writes Monsanto defender Thomas R. DeGregori from the Institute of Economic Affairs. His article, titled "Genetically Modified Nonsense," was featured prominently on Monsanto's web page until last month.

Genetically modified crops are now believed to be ingredients in about 30,000 commercial products, including Kellogg's cereals, corn chips, chocolates, and vegetable oils. But there is no requirement that they are labeled as containing GMOs.

A class-action lawsuit heading for the courtroom may change all that. Filed in Washington, D.C., by the prominent law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, the complaint alleges that Monsanto has set up a global cartel to market its genetically modified seeds--without adequate health and environmental testing.

Elizabeth Cronise, an attorney for the firm, says, "We don't have records of a lot of the testing that was done because the industry has refused to release it. The industry says they've been doing these tests for 20 years, but we really have no idea what level of tests have been done, or where."

Monsanto has found one handy solution to the public-relations nightmare that has dogged it for years. It is merging with another pharmaceutical giant and changing its name to Pharmacia Corp. But chances are it will take more than a new name to win over public trust.


This story originally was published in Metro (San Jose).

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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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