Monsanto is the kind of mustache-twirling corporate genius everyone loves to hate—for fair reason. The conglomerate brought genetically modified fare onto our plates, fills the world with herbicide-resistant superweeds, and promises to end rural hunger while suing farmers out of their last pennies for regrowing Monsanto seeds. But did the biotech giant start with good intentions, as in most scientist-turned-villain tales? Not quite. Here’s a look at how Monsanto morphed into the leading purveyor of crops that nature didn’t quite come up with.
1901: Pharmaceutical company agent John F. Queeny launches Monsanto to produce saccharin, an artificial sweetener then only manufactured in Germany.
1907: The USDA investigates whether replacing saccharin with sugar violates the Pure Food and Drug Act, a consumer protection law. President Theodore Roosevelt, a saccharin consumer, objects to the investigation.
1911: The USDA proclaims foods with saccharin “adulterated,” thus banning it except for use by medical patients who must avoid sugar.
1914: World War I starts, and sugar shortages prompt the government to lift saccharin restrictions.
1915: With caffeine and vanillin added to Monsanto's product line, and Coca-Cola as a chief customer, sales reach $1 million.
1917: Monsanto begins producing aspirin, becoming the top producer in the U.S., a title it held until the 1980s.
1928: Queeny passes on the company to his son, Edgar M. Queeny. Monsanto flourishes under the protection of high U.S. tariffs.
1933: Expanding, the company renames itself the Monsanto Chemical Company. One of its products, styrene, will become critical to the U.S. during World War II.
1964: The variety of product offerings prompts the group to rebrand as the Monsanto Company.
1964–69: As a government contractor, Monsanto manufactures Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to clear jungles and starve North Vietnamese soldiers.
1974: The company introduces Roundup herbicide, now among the world’s most widely used herbicides.
1982: Monsanto’s scientists are the first to genetically modify a plant cell. Later, the company acquires the Jacob Hartz Seed Co., which is known for its soybean seed.
1984: Vietnam veterans settle a lawsuit with Monsanto for its role in exposing troops to Agent Orange, receiving a payout of $180 million, but the company doesn't admit to liability. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. military exposed 4.8 million people to the herbicide, causing 400,000 deaths and disfigurements and birth defects in 500,000 babies.
1985: Monsanto buys pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle & Co., maker of the NutraSweet artificial sweetener.
1994: Monsanto begins commercial production of BST (bovine somatotropin), a synthetic supplement for dairy cows.
1996: It introduces Roundup Ready seeds, which Monsanto genetically engineered to tolerate its Roundup herbicide. Roundup Ready soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops have since dominated every market in which they’re sold. The company also signs contracts to license corn and soybean seeds from DeKalb Genetics and buys the cotton and biotech company Agracetus.
1998: Under the leadership of lawyer and former urban affairs professor Robert Shapiro (former head of NutraSweet operations), the company spins off its chemical operations. Monsanto then commits to biotechnology, with the official goal of helping people “lead longer, healthier lives, at costs that they and their nations can afford and without continued environmental degradation.”
1999: After an $8 billion licensing and buying spree, Monsanto becomes the foremost producer of genetically modified crops.
2002: Monsanto becomes a publicly traded company.
2010: After a devastating earthquake, Haitian farmers reject GMO seeds donated by Monsanto. The National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay calls the company’s charity “a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on Creole seeds…and on what is left of our environment in Haiti.”
March 2011: The Public Patent Foundation, which consists of 60 farmers, seed businesses, and organic agricultural organizations, files a lawsuit challenging Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed.
September 2011: Monsanto collects $85,000 from Vernon Bowman, an Indiana soy farmer, for patent infringement.
September 2012: A highly contested study finds that Roundup herbicide and genetically modified maize cause tumors and organ damage in rats.
October 2012: A television spot opposing Proposition 37, California’s genetically engineered food labeling initiative, is pulled. It features a research fellow from a conservative think tank posing as a Stanford University professor and a founding director of the FDA Office of Technology.
November 2012: Prop. 37 is defeated in California.
April 2013: President Obama signs the Monsanto Protection Act, which requires the USDA to approve genetically modified crops even if courts have ruled against them.
May 2013: Nine Supreme Court justices award a patent case to Monsanto against Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman, ruling that patent exhaustion doesn’t apply to Roundup Ready soybean seeds. According to The New York Times, “The ruling has implications for many aspects of modern agriculture and for businesses based on vaccines, cell lines and software.” Later, zombie wheat reports in Oregon prompt Monsanto to issue a “We’re here to help!” statement.
June 2013: Connecticut passes the nation’s first GMO labeling law. Three weeks later, Monsanto EVP and chief technology officer Robert T. Fraley wins the World Food Prize (the “Nobel Prize of food”), along with two other scientists who work on GMOs. The company is one of the award’s biggest donors.
October 2013: Monsanto expands weed-management incentive programs, which come with cash, for farmers.
November 2013: Washington state’s GMO labeling initiative is defeated. A year after it ran, the journal that published the study linking GMOs with cancer in mice, Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracts the paper.
February 2014: The Natural Resources Defense Council petitions the Environmental Protection Agency to review its rules for glyphosate use to save plummeting monarch butterfly populations.
March 2014: Monsanto partners with MIT researchers to form Preceres LLC, a company that will develop new biological products for pest, virus, and weed control.