Creating a Monster? Proposed Monsanto Merger with Swiss Chemical Giant Raises Troubling Questions
by Brian Gumm, 8/21/2015
UPDATE (8/31/2015): At the end of August, Monsanto dropped its effort to merge with Syngenta. Monsanto had increased its offer to nearly $47 billion (from an earlier bid of $45 billion), which Syngenta's board rejected because it "significantly undervalued the company and was fraught with execution risk." This potential merger continues to bear watching, however, since nothing is stopping Monsanto from pushing an offer again should conditions become more favorable in the future.
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Farmers and scientists intimidated. Groundwater contamination. Human health risks. The decimation of one of America's most iconic wildlife species. These are just some of the problems we've seen thanks to Monsanto, the world's dominant producer of genetically modified crops, and Syngenta, a Swiss chemical company that manufactures controversial agricultural poisons. As an NPR story noted on Aug. 17, Monsanto wants to merge the two companies, a proposal that raises troubling questions about industry influence and impacts on our health and natural resources.
Monsanto first approached Syngenta with a merger proposal in 2014, but the talks fell apart when Syngenta backed away over antitrust issues. So far in 2015, Syngenta has resisted merger overtures because company officials don't think Monsanto is currently offering enough money to make combining forces worthwhile.
A Monsanto-Syngenta merger would further concentrate corporate power.
Allowing the two companies to become one might not create an instant agribusiness monopoly, but it would likely give the merged corporation unfair advantages over competitors and drive others to pursue mergers of their own. It would also allow Monsanto to avoid at least $1.5 billion in U.S. taxes if it chose to "invert" and reincorporate in Syngenta's home country of Switzerland.
Monsanto claims it would sell off some parts of the merged company to competitors like Bayer, another chemical company, but it's unclear how this would reduce concerns over the concentration of corporate power, especially in the chemical industry. Monsanto is already known as a corporate "bully," demanding royalties on its patented, genetically modified seeds and reserving the right to sue farmers if the company's crops inadvertently contaminate neighboring fields (although Monsanto claims it would never do this).
Syngenta, too, has a reputation for pushing people around. For example, it was accused of trying to silence a researcher who has raised concerns about atrazine, Syngenta's most widely used herbicide and a common groundwater contaminant in the United States.
The two corporations don't only throw their weight around in the courts and through campaigns against scientists. Between 2010 and 2014, Monsanto spent more than $31 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, and Syngenta spent roughly $6.5 million lobbying during that time. A combined company would almost certainly continue pouring money into our political process and pressuring agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on U.S. chemical policy.
Both companies market products that may put human health at risk.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, was recently deemed a "probable" cancer-causing chemical by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. Syngenta's atrazine is a known hormone disruptor, though its human health impacts remain unclear.
It's unknown how the two companies' chemical products interact with each other or with other pesticides when present in the body at the same time. However, scientists are increasingly raising the alarm about the potential cumulative effects of repeated exposure to multiple toxic chemicals.
Merging Monsanto and Syngenta would create a massive company with major environmental problems.
Poisoning pollinators and other beneficial insects
Both Monsanto and Syngenta make pesticides that may be wreaking ecological havoc. In the U.S., agribusiness, state and local governments, and homeowners spray Monsanto's flagship pesticide, Roundup, on crops and lawns. Roundup kills broadleaf plants, meaning it targets most weeds. However, it can also decimate native wildflowers that are crucial to pollinators like wild bees and butterflies. Pollinators help us grow important crops, so this is a significant concern.
Roundup is used on an immense scale. Crops like Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soybeans are designed to withstand weed killers. This means that agribusiness operations can spray chemicals like Roundup to fight weeds but not kill crops. Plants like these dominate croplands: roughly 89 percent of all the corn grown in the United States in 2014 and 2015 was genetically modified so it could be sprayed with weed killers. The same was true of 94 percent of the soybean crop.
One iconic pollinator, the monarch butterfly, is suffering striking losses in part because weed killers like Roundup are killing the only food source for its caterpillars, milkweeds. The monarch migration is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in all of North America, but in the past 20 years, the butterfly's eastern overwintering population has fallen by 90 percent. Its reproduction in the spring and summer months also dropped 81 percent between 1999 and 2010. Scientists suspect these declines are being driven by fewer available milkweed plants because of herbicides like Roundup, as well as habitat loss in the U.S. and Mexico.
Pollinators may also be falling victim to another type of pesticide, known as neonicotinoids, made by Syngenta and other companies. Plant seeds are often infused with neonics, as they're commonly known, and the chemicals can spread throughout the plant as it grows, including pollen. This may be harming beneficial insects like butterflies and bees, and the chemicals may also be poisoning predatory insects like beetles that are part of nature's defense system against pests.
Industry and its lobbyists generally deny the existence of these problems.
The rise of the superweeds
Widespread use of pesticides can also spark something called pesticide resistance. Not all weeds or insects are killed when sprayed with chemicals, and the ones that survive pass on their genes to later generations. Because weeds and pest insects often reproduce quickly, pesticide resistance can increase rapidly. In the case of plants, this can give rise to what are known as "superweeds." Such pesticide-resistant weeds now infest 70 million acres of U.S. farmland.
In the end, pesticide resistance makes it more difficult to control pests and can lead to a chemical arms race, with companies developing ever-more-toxic substances in an effort to protect crops and gardens.
This Big Ag mega-merger would be bad for America – for our health, our environment, and our politics.
We've seen an increasing concentration of corporate power over the past several decades, both in the United States and around the world, to the detriment of our politics and our pocketbooks. Allowing powerful agribusiness and chemical companies to merge would add to these problems and would be bad for our health and our environment.
Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are powerful and influential enough – they don't need to hold even more sway in our society. Environmental and antitrust agencies like the EPA and the federal Department of Justice should join together with the American people and just say no to this ill-conceived merger if the companies decide to move forward.
Image in teaser by flickr user dixie wells, used under a Creative Commons license.