Letter from Washington — From the September 2015 issue

Weed Whackers

Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species

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The Monsanto Company could not have put it better. This was not surprising, since Raven (who retired in 2010) and Monsanto were close, both geographically and financially. The Missouri Botanical Garden was located just a few miles from Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, and it owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a “life sciences company” — one heavily invested in GMOs. In April 1996, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro joined Raven to break ground for the Monsanto Center, a four-story structure designed to house the garden’s unique collection of botanical books and dried plants. Monsanto had contributed $2 million toward the center’s construction, and had also donated the land and $50 million for the Danforth Plant Science Center, another GMO-intensive research facility.

“Monsanto loved Raven,” a former senior executive at the company told me. “They were always showing off the Missouri Botanical Garden, bringing important visitors down to meet him, having him give tours, talks. He was definitely our showpiece.”

For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs. The company’s grand scheme was to genetically modify crops — particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton — to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops. Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic nonengineered plant obviously about to expire. “Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability,” Raven told an interviewer in 1999. “There is nothing I’m condemning Monsanto for.” (In his conversation with me, Raven defended his former patron even more stoutly, noting Monsanto’s many civic philanthropies and absolving the company of any ill intent: “They obviously have no interest in poisoning everybody or doing something bad.”)

I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn’t clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology. “What’s natural anymore?” he replied. “If we’re going to play God, we might as well be good at it.”

While Monsanto played God during the 1990s, the Clinton Administration had its back — a policy consistent with its corporate-friendly approach to environmental issues. When, for example, the French balked at allowing GMO corn into their country, the president, the secretary of state, the national-security adviser, and assorted U.S. senators pleaded Monsanto’s cause. (The French finally caved when Gore himself phoned the prime minister to lobby on the corporation’s behalf.)2 In addition, Washington’s revolving door whirled many Clinton Administration officials onto the Monsanto payroll, while the president’s committee of science and technology advisers included Virginia Weldon, the corporation’s senior vice president for public policy.

2 For years, Monsanto’s MON810 corn was the only GMO crop cleared for cultivation within the European Union. In May 2014, however, the French parliament reversed its earlier policy and banned the crop as a threat to the environment.

The Raven panel’s recommendation to join battle with invasives got rapid traction. “The invasion of noxious weeds has created a level of destruction to America’s environment and economy that is matched only by the damage caused by floods, earthquakes, wildfire, hurricanes, and mudslides,” cried Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when the report was released. Within a year, Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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