Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

A few other things the agrichemical industry doesn’t want you to know about them: crimes, scandals and other wrongdoing

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 15, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

The agrichemical industry’s six major firms, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and BASF, have been involved on so many reprehensible activities that documenting them all would require an entire book in itself. In fact, entire books have been devoted to the wrongdoing of two of these companies, while an extensive website documents the misdeeds of a third one.[1]

Following is a brief sketch of the crimes, wrongdoing and other reprehensible acts of these companies.

BASF

BASF is the world’s largest chemical company.

On September 21, 1921 a BASF fertilizer silo in Oppau exploded, killing at least 550 people.[2] It was one of the worst chemical disasters in history.[3]

The companies BASF, Bayer, Hoescht and three smaller companies founded IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) in 1925. The war crimes of IG Farben are so heinous as to be impossible to capture in a short space. Following the Nuremberg Trials, thirteen of its executives were imprisoned for Nazi war crimes, for producing Zyklon B, the asphyxiating gas used to kill countless Jews and others during the Holocaust, and the use of tens of thousands of slave laborers at Auschwitz, and conducting involuntary “medical” or “scientific” experiments on prisoners.[4]

On July 28, 1948, an explosion at the BASF plant in Ludwigshafen killed more than 200 people, and injured up to 3,000.[5]

In 1999, BASF pled guilty to a criminal conspiracy charge and agreed to pay a $225 million fine for helping to coordinate cartels to illegally fix prices of vitamins in the 1990s.[6] Joel Klein, then chief of the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, called it “the most pervasive and harmful criminal antitrust conspiracy ever uncovered.”[7] Gary Spratling, head of criminal enforcement of antitrust laws at DOJ, explained “Simply put, the vitamin cartel was as bad as they get. Nothing was left to chance — or, more accurately, to competition.”[8] In 2001, the European Union fined BASF $260 million for the same price fixing scheme. “This is the most damaging series of cartels the commission has ever investigated,” said Mario Monti, who was the EU’s competition commissioner at the time.[9]

In 1997, another BASF subsidiary, Knoll Pharmaceutical, paid $98 million to settle a class-action lawsuit from approximately five million patients over suppressing publication of a study about its drug Synthroid. The study “concluded that health-care costs could be cut by $356 million a year if cheaper equivalents were used instead of Synthroid.”[10]

Bayer

In 1898, Bayer began selling a new medicine called “Heroin.” Bayer promoted it as a cold, cough and “irritation” remedy for children as late as 1912.[11] According to Kenaz Filan’s history of the poppy, “Believing (incorrectly) that heroin produced less respiratory depression than codeine, Bayer presented heroin as a safer children’s cough suppressant. It was also touted as a cure for morphine addiction and a panacea against, among other things, depression, bronchitis, asthma, tuberculosis and stomach cancer.”[12]

The companies BASF, Bayer, Hoescht and three smaller companies founded IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) in 1925. See BASF profile above.

In the early 1970’s, Bayer’s fungicide Baycovin (diethylpyrocarbonate) was used as a preservative for wine, beer and fruit juices. However, Baycovin was found to produce a potent carcinogen, urethan.[13] The FDA banned Baycovin in 1972.[14]

In April, 2003, Bayer pled guilty to a criminal charge and agreed to pay $257 million in fines and damages for defrauding Medicare in a scheme to overcharge for its antibiotic, Cipro. At the time, it was the largest Medicaid fraud settlement in history.[15]

Bayer is a major producer of neonicotinoid pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bee populations. These pesticides were banned for two years in Europe.[16] Bayer has mounted a massive campaign to keep its pesticides on the market, in part by using the classic tobacco industry strategy of pretending to care. “Bayer is strictly committed to bee health,” a Bayer spokesperson told the New York Times. Hans Muilerman of Pesticide Action Network Europe explained that Bayer does “almost anything that helps their products remaining on the market. Massive lobbying, hiring P.R. firms to frame and spin, inviting commissioners to show their plants and their sustainability.”[17]

Dow Chemical

In 1957, a catastrophic nuclear meltdown nearly occurred at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, near Denver. At the time, Dow Chemical operated the facility for the U.S. Department of Energy.[18] The DOE has ranked Rocky Flats as the “most dangerously contaminated site in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.”[19]

In the 1960’s, as many as 70 inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia were given large doses of dioxin, a highly toxic chemical, in experiments for Dow Chemical. The dioxin was spread on the inmates’ skin.[20] Nearly 300 inmates sued Dow and others, but courts found that the statute of limitations had expired.[21]

In 1965, Dow Chemical Co. began producing the incendiary agent napalm for use during the Vietnam War. Napalm is akin to jellied gasoline. It sticks to skin, and often burns its victims to death in great pain. For years, Dow was the sole supplier of napalm to the Department of Defense.[22] Photos and other descriptions of the impact of napalm horrified Americans, and in response to nationwide protests and boycotts, the company stopped producing napalm in 1969.[23]

In 1995, Greenpeace released a report arguing that Dow is the “world’s largest producer of chlorine and chorine-based products” and that it is “likely the world’s largest root source of dioxin,” which is a highly toxic chemical.[24]

In 2001, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide,[25] which was responsible for the Bhopal poison gas disaster. On the night of September 2-3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in Bhopal, India, releasing over 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas. It was the world’s worst industrial disaster. According to Philip Bowring in the International Herald Tribune, the disaster “immediately killed some 2,250 people, and affected as many as 500,000 more. Of that number, it is estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 people subsequently died as a consequence of the accident and tens of thousands of others remain sick.”[26] Much of the toxic waste remains in Bhopal, despite the profitability of Dow Chemical.[27] For the last thirteen years, Dow has rejected any responsibility for the survivors and victims of the Bhopal disaster. It has repeatedly failed to appear or to respond to Indian court summons for legal proceedings about the Bhopal disaster.[28]

In 2005, DuPont Dow Elastomers, a subsidiary of both Dow Chemical and DuPont, pled guilty and paid an $84 million criminal fine for an “international conspiracy to fix the prices of synthetic rubber.”[29]

DuPont

In 1995, Federal District Court Judge J. Robert Elliott fined DuPont $115 million for concealing evidence in a 1993 trial about damage to plants from its fungicide, Benlate. “‘Put in layperson’s terms,’ Judge Elliott wrote, ‘Du Pont cheated. And it cheated consciously, deliberately and with purpose. It has committed a fraud against this court.’”[30]

In Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, a DuPont munitions plant “left behind a trail of lead and mercury, contaminated soil and water and a plume of toxic vapor still capable of leaking into at least 450 houses.” According to John Sinismer, a former mayor of Pompton Lakes, “DuPont will try to get away with as much as they can get away with anytime they can.”[31]

In 2005, DuPont Dow Elastomers, a subsidiary of both Dow Chemical and DuPont, pled guilty and paid an $84 million criminal fine for an “international conspiracy to fix the prices of synthetic rubber.” [32]

On September 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that DuPont and Atlantic Richfield Co. would pay about $26 million to clean up lead and arsenic contamination of the Calumet residential neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana.[33]

Monsanto

The list of reprehensible conduct by the Monsanto Corporation is the subject of a book-length treatment by Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto.[34] What follows is merely a brief recounting of a few key events.

Monsanto began producing the pesticide DDT in 1944, along with about fifteen other companies. In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, her seminal book on DDT. Carson told the story of how DDT decimated some bird species such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons, because it made the birds’ eggshells too thin, so they would break prematurely. EPA banned DDT in 1972, because of its impacts on the environment and human health. With minor exceptions, in 2004, it was banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Monsanto has thrice been found to have produced false advertising related to Roundup and its genetically engineered crops. In 2009, France’s highest court upheld two lower French courts convicting Monsanto of falsely advertising that its herbicide Roundup is “biodegradable” and that it “left the soil clean.”[35] In 1999, the UK Advertising Standards Authority condemned Monsanto for issuing “wrong, unproven, misleading and confusing” claims in its advertising.[36] In 1996, the Attorney General of New York State fined Monsanto $50,000 for false advertising regarding claims that Roundup is “environmentally friendly” and biodegradable.[37]

In 1999, in a notable instance of public relations trickery, Monsanto helped to pay protesters to conduct a counter-demonstration in support of genetically engineered food. The protest was held in Washington DC, in front of an FDA hearing on genetically engineered crops.[38]

Recent articles by the Associated Press raised questions about the health risks of Monsanto’s Roundup as it is used in Argentina. According to AP, Argentine “doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide applications could be the cause of growing health problems…”[39] In response, Monsanto “criticized the AP report as lacking in specifics about health impacts,” the Associated Press reported, “though the story cited hospital birth records, court records, peer-reviewed studies, continuing epidemiological surveys, pesticide industry and government data, and a comprehensive audit of agrochemical use in 2008-11 prepared by Argentina’s bipartisan Auditor General’s Office.”[40]

Syngenta

Syngenta produces atrazine, one of the most widely used pesticides in the United States. Atrazine was banned in the European Union in October 2003, over concerns about whether it is carcinogenic and an endocrine disruptor.[41] According to the New York Times, atrazine “has become among the most common contaminants in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water” and “Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems.”[42]

Syngenta is also a major producer of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been blamed for sharp declines in bee populations across the planet. Europe has banned these pesticides for two years due to their destruction of bee populations.[43] According to a 2014 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, neonicotinoids are “causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial invertebrate species and are a key factor in the decline of bees.”[44]

Syngenta’s predecessor, Ciba-Geigy,[45] produced a pesticide called chlordimeform which was withdrawn from the market because it was a suspected carcinogen.[46]

Syngenta’s predecessor, Ciba, paid a $62 million fine, including $3.5 million in criminal penalties, for “illegally dumping laboratory wastes, polluting groundwater and filing false reports.” In 1992, in a much-polluted state, the head of New Jersey’s environmental prosecutions unit said “This is the biggest environmental case we’ve ever had.”[47] A New York Times op-ed by Robert Hanley described the “plume of poisons, about a mile square and between 30 and 100 feet deep” produced by Ciba-Geigy near Toms River, New Jersey.[48]

Ciba-Geigy’s promotion of the drug Ritalin, for which it was the main manufacturer, for use in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was questioned in a 2013 New York Times article on the “Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.”[49]

In 2005, EPA fined Syngenta $1.5 million for “selling and distributing seed corn that contained an unregistered genetically engineered pesticide called Bt 10.”[50] In 2004, The U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Syngenta $375,000 for selling the unapproved genetically engineered corn seed, Bt 10.[51]

Footnotes

[1] Jack Doyle, Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical and the Toxic Century. (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2004). Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption and the Control of our Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010). Regarding Bayer, see the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers website.

[2] Werner Abelshauser, Wolfgang von Hippel, Jeffrey Allan Johnson and Raymond G. Stokes, German Industry and Global Enterprise: BASF: The History of a Company. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 195-8.

[3] See, for example “Chemical Cock-Ups: The 1921 Oppau Disaster and its Aftermath.” BBC. BASF web page on its corporate history, 1902-24

[4] See, for example, Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. (New York, Pocket Books, 1978). Diarmuid Jeffreys, Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008.) F. López-Muñoz, P. García-García and C. Alamo, “The Pharmaceutical Industry and the German National Socialist Regime: I.G. Farben and Pharmacological Research.Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, February 2009. 34: 67–77. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2710.2008.00972.x

[5] Werner Abelshauser, Wolfgang von Hippel, Jeffrey Allan Johnson and Raymond G. Stokes, German Industry and Global Enterprise: BASF: The History of a Company. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 351.

[6]F. Hoffmann-La Roche and BASF Agree to Pay Record Criminal Fines for Participating in International Vitamin Cartel.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, May 20, 1999. USA v. BASF Aktiengesellschaft plea agreement, May 20, 1999. “Four Foreign Executives of Leading European Vitamin Firms Agree to Plead Guilty to Participating in International Vitamin Cartel.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, April 6, 2000.

[7] David Barboza, “Tearing Down The Facade of ‘Vitamins Inc.’” New York Times, October 10, 1999.

[8] Naftali Bendavid, “Vitamin Price-fixing Draws Record $755 Million in Fines.” Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1999.

[9] Paul Meller, “Vitamin Producers Fined $752 Million.” New York Times, November 22, 2001.

[10] Meredith Wadman, “$100m Payout After Drug Data Withheld.” Nature, August 21, 1997. See also Thomas H. Maugh II, “Drug Firm Suppressed Test Data for Years, Doctors Say.” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1997. “BASF Unit To Pay $98 Million To Settle Synthroid Suit.” New York Times, August 6, 1997.

[11] See, for example, Jim Edwards, “Yes, Bayer Promoted Heroin for Children — Here Are The Ads That Prove It.” Business Insider, November 17, 2011. See also Ian Scott, “Heroin: A Hundred-Year Habit.” History Today, Vol. 48, Issue 6, 1998.

[12] Kenaz Filan, Power of the Poppy: Harnessing Nature’s Most Dangerous Plant Ally. (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2011), p. 86.

[13] Jane E. Brody, “Drink Preservative Found to Produce a Carcinogen.” New York Times, December 21, 1971.

[14] 21 CFR 189.140.

[15] Melody Petersen, “Bayer Agrees to Pay U.S. $257 Million in Drug Fraud.” New York Times, April 17, 2003. “Bayer Agrees to Biggest Medicaid Fraud Settlement.” Reuters/USA Today, April 16, 2003.

[16] David Jolly, “Europe Bans Pesticides Thought Harmful to Bees.” New York Times, April 29, 2013.

[17] Danny Hakim, “Accused of Harming Bees, Bayer Researches a Different Culprit.” New York Times, December 11, 2013. See also Danny Hakim, “European Agency Warns of Risk to Humans in Pesticides Tied to Bee Deaths.” New York Times, December 17, 2013.

[18] Andrew Cohen, “A September 11th Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard About.” The Atlantic, September 10, 2012.

[19] Tamara Jones, “U.S. Vows to Lift 30-Year Veil of Secrecy at Weapons Plants.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1989.

[20] William Robbins, “Dioxin Tests Conducted in 60’s on 70 Philadelphia Inmates, Now Unknown.” New York Times, July 17, 1983. See also Allen M. Hornblum, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison. (London: Routledge, 1988).

[21] Joann Loviglio, “Albert M. Kligman, Dermatologist Who Patented Retin-A, Dies at 93.” Associated Press/Washington Post, February 22, 2010.

[22] See, for example, “Dow Chemical and the Use of Napalm.” PBS, September 22, 2005. Robert M. Neer, Napalm: An American Biography. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013)

[23]Dow Declares It Has Stopped Production of Napalm for U.S.” Associated Press/New York Times, November 15, 1969. See also Jack Doyle, Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical and the Toxic Century. (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2004). Charlie Cray, “Dow: Stealing Our Future.” Institute for Agriculture and Technology Policy, April 27, 1997.

[24] Jack Weinberg, ed.,“Dow Brand Dioxin: Dow Makes You Poison Great Things.” Greenpeace, 1995.

[25] Union Carbide Corporation web page on its corporate history.

[26] Philip Bowring, “Remembering Bhopal.” International Herald Tribune, June 16, 2012.

[27] Somini Sengupta, “Decades Later, Toxic Sludge Torments Bhopal.” New York Times, July 7, 2008. See also Suketu Mehta, “A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal.” New York Times, December 2, 2009.

[28] P. Naveen, “Dow Chemical a No-show in Court Hearing over Bhopal Disaster.” Times of India, November 13, 2014.

[29]DuPont Dow Elastomers to Plead Guilty and Pay $84 Million Fine for Participating in a Synthetic Rubber Cartel.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, January 19, 2005.

[30]Judge Fines Du Pont $115 Million for Concealing Trial Evidence.” New York Times, August 22, 2995.

[31] Peter Applebome, “Old Story of Pollution; New Urgency This Time.” New York Times, January 31, 2010.

[32]DuPont Dow Elastomers to Plead Guilty and Pay $84 Million Fine for Participating in a Synthetic Rubber Cartel.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, January 19, 2005.

[33]U.S. and Indiana Enter into Settlement for $26 Million Cleanup in East Chicago, Indiana.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, September 3, 2014. See also Lauri Harvey Keagle, “Health Concerns at Center of EC lead, Arsenic Cleanup.” The Times of Northwest Indiana, September 4, 2014.

[34] Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption and the Control of our Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010).

[35]Monsanto Guilty in ‘False Ad’ Row.” BBC, October 15, 2009.

[36] John Arlidge, “Watchdog Slams Monsanto Ads.” Guardian, February 27, 1999.

[37]In the Matter of Monsanto Company.” Attorney General of the State of New York, Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau, Environmental Protection Bureau, 1996.

[38] Melody Petersen, “Monsanto Campaign Tries to Gain Support for Gene-Altered Food.” New York Times, December 8, 1999.

[39] Michael Warren and Natacha Pisarenko, “Argentines Link Health Problems To Agrochemicals.” Associated Press, October 20, 2013.

[40] Michael Warren, “Monsanto Calls Glyphosate ‘Safe’ After AP Report.” Associated Press, October 22, 2013.

[41] See, for example, Jennifer Beth Sass and Aaron Colangelo, “European Union Bans Atrazine, While the United States Negotiates Continued Use.” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, July/September 2006, 12(3): 260-7.

[42] Charles Duhigg, “Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass.” New York Times, August 22, 2009.

[43] David Jolly, “Europe Bans Pesticides Thought Harmful to Bees.” New York Times, April 29, 2013. “Bee Survival in Europe.” New York Times, October 25, 2013.

[44]Systemic Pesticides Pose Global Threat to Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” International Union for the Conservation of Nature, June 24, 2014.

[45] In 1996, Ciba and Sandoz merged to form Novartis. In 2000, Novartis and AstraZenca merged their agrichemical businesses to create Syngenta. See Syngenta’s web page describing its company history.

[46] See, for example, “2 Companies Will Stop Sales of Pesticide Used on Cotton.” New York Times/Associated Press, September 8, 1988. Third World Network and Monitor staff, “Trouble Again” and “The Rap on Ciba-Geigy.” Multinational Monitor, 1988.

[47] Joseph F. Sullivan, “Ciba to Pay New Jersey For Illegal Waste Dumping.” New York Times, February 29, 1992.

[48] Robert Hanley, “Toxic Levels For an Aquifer Worry E.P.A.” New York Times, October 10, 1989.

[49] Alan Schwartz, “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.” New York Times, December 14, 2013.

[50]EPA Fines Syngenta $1.5 Million for Distributing Unregistered Genetically Engineered Pesticide.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency news release, December 21, 2006.

[51] Tom Wright, “U.S. Fines Swiss Company Over Sale of Altered Seed.” New York Times, April 9, 2005.