Agent Orange and Monsanto

April 27, 2009

Agent Orange - The conversation stopper

Click here for background on Monsanto’s Involvement in Agent Orange

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched my colleagues engage in a number of discussions on this blog and others.  Many of those conversations typify the spirited debate over biotech and sustainable agriculture:  Are biotech crops safe?  Is the higher yield from biotech crops really enough to feed the world?  Can a person be a supporter of both biotech and organic farming?  As an observer, it’s pretty cool to see people with opposing viewpoints respond to each other with facts, theory and vigorous discourse.  What’s disappointing to see is when an intelligent debate about yield or herbicides or sustainability come screeching to a halt when Monsanto’s critics throw out Agent Orange as a subject-changer.

For those who haven’t heard about Agent Orange, here’s a primer:  During the Vietnam War, guerilla troops used their knowledge of the South Vietnamese jungles to ambush American and Allied soldiers.  The U.S. government, under the Defense Production Act, directed seven companies – including Monsanto, which was then primarily a chemical company – to manufacture the material.  The government specified how it would be produced and controlled how it was used in the field, including application rates.  It is impossible to quantify exactly how many soldiers were saved by the use of Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam, but the fact is that a lot of lives were saved.

Since the Vietnam War, both scientific and public concern has arisen over a by-product of the manufacturing process, present in trace amounts in Agent Orange – the dioxin compound 2,3,7,8-TCDD.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed lower federal court rulings to stand, which had dismissed claims by Vietnamese civilians and U.S. veterans that the manufacturers should be held responsible for the occurrence of health problems in the plaintiffs. The lower courts had ruled that the manufacturers were government contractors and protected by the government contractors defense. It has been Monsanto’s position all along that the claims by the Vietnamese were best handled in government-to-government discussions.

Although Monsanto is now entirely focused on agriculture, Monsanto is still involved in litigation regarding Agent Orange.  We will be providing updates on Agent Orange cases both in For the Record and in future blog posts.

John is a Manager of Public Affairs at Monsanto.He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. He has worked in government on the federal, state and local level. Immediately prior to coming to Monsanto, he worked at a local public relations firm. John has an extensive background in Internet communications and looks forward to writing about a wide variety of issues, especially intellectual property, corporate ethics and biofuels.

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16 Responses to “Agent Orange and Monsanto”

  1. Gregg Says:

    I agree that legitimate debate in this country gets stopped when, to use Perry Masonese, “facts irrelevant and immaterial” to the case are introduced. As a VietNam veteran, I concur that the loss of American troops in that confict was reduced by defoliation. Anyone who has wandered around in a secondary growth forest here in MO could see the issue of not being able to see more that 3 feet in any direction. Thanks for bringing to light that when emotion rules the debate, there is no debate. To cite another old TV series, when David Banner becomes green, then “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!”

  2. John Q Says:

    John, sorry, I hadn’t noticed we had an “official” blogger named “John”. You may well get blamed for some of my responses! ;^)

    Starting with this post I’ve changed my name to “John Q”, but I don’t have the ability to change past posts. Is that something the moderators can do for us, to minimize confusion?

    • Kathleen Says:

      John Q,

      I changed all of your comments to have the “Q” on the end. Hope this helps everyone!


  3. elisamarie Says:

    Thank you for this blog. One thing that drives me crazy is that Monsanto critics don’t acknowledge that the Monsanto that produced Agent Orange is not the same Monsanto of today. Today’s Monsanto is trying to feed the world and are investing in the success of the farmers.

    So let’s keep the conversations on track and stop the argument about who Monsanto used to be and debate who Monsanto is today. You may not agree with what Monsanto does today as agriculture company, concerned with helping farmers produce more by conserving more. That’s ok; but let’s keep on track.

  4. replicant Says:

    Since in politics we’re discussing whether or not torture was effective, since after all the end justifies the means, then I’m pleased to see Monsanto is sanctioning biological warfare against any peasant farmer so long as it saves American soldiers lives.

  5. Deborah Rubin Says:

    I think a company is ethically responsible for any product they make. In my mind, Monsanto is responsible for manufacturing Agent Orange and those consequences.

    But I honestly believe the US government also should be legally responsible for the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese and Americans. Ultimately the government authorized the use of Agent Orange and made that policy.

    I have a friend who was exposed many times to Agent Orange. He signed up for service and was not drafted. But he in no way appreciates the effects that Agent Orange has had on his health. He feels like he was considered completely expendable.

    I have not found out the government figures into this legal battle. Have they been sued as well? Did the US government know that Agent Orange contained a dioxin? If not, they should have before they sprayed people and large areas with it. Even spraying people with 2,4-D seems barbaric. What would we think if another country did this to us–even during war? It’s inhumane. But war, by definition, is inhumane, IMO.

  6. Chris H. Says:

    replicant, if you give John’s post the careful reading it deserves, you’ll see that Monsanto didn’t sanction anything. Rather, it was the US government that determined the application and targets (which were not farmers).
    Regarding ends justifying the means, that seems to be a philosophy regularly employed by the opponents of Monsanto and biotechnology, as I alluded to in my post about Marie-Monique Robin.
    Finally, let’s keep in mind that decisions about the use of Agent Orange were made nearly 40 years ago, long before most of us were in the workplace or some of us were even born.

  7. Arnie Says:

    Hello, thanks for the blog, it is definitely a good venue for Monsanto to speak up in the face of all of the misinformation that swirls around the internet.

    I’ve been reading about it recently, and would be interested if anyone would make a comment on the studies from the early 1980s on Dioxin exposure by Zack and Suskind. Were the findings generated because error, fraud (as it has been alleged) or something else? I’m generally interested in any comments related to Monsanto’s previously defined stance on Dioxin and human health, and where the company stands today. I understand this might be impossible to answer given the ongoing litigation, but I suppose it is worth a try.


    “spraying continued unabated even though, according to military records, it apparently was
    having minimal effects on the enemy. A series of memoranda uncovered in the National Archives,
    and now declassified, indicate that defoliation itself was successful but had little effect on military
    operations. Col. John Moran, chief of the Chemical Operations division of MACV, wrote a
    memorandum dated October 3, 1968, titled “Advantages and Disadvantages of the Use of
    Herbicides in Viet Nam” that provides some key insights into the results of the defoliation
    program: “The effect of defoliation on the enemy, in itself, is of little military value. Its military
    potential is realized only when it is channeled into selected targets and combined with combat
    power … The herbicide program carries with it the potential for causing serious adverse impacts
    in the economic, social, psychological fields.” Ecologically, according to the memorandum,
    “Semi-deciduous forests, especially in War Zones C and D [mangrove forests] have been
    severely affected. The regeneration of these forests could be seriously retarded by repeated
    applications of herbicide.” ”
    ^I dont consider this the final word on the subject, but its at least interesting I suppose.

    And to clarify, would Monsanto have any ethical opposition to manufacturing Agent Orange today for use by any nation on a civilian population and associated ecosystem?

    Also, does anyone have any statistics on how much dioxin was in Agent Orange?

    This source claimed:
    “Three million acres of South Vietnam were sprayed with 50,000 tons of Agent Orange and other herbicides, containing over 500 pounds of dioxin.”

    Although who is to know if that is accurate.



  8. Ewan Ross Says:

    Gives dioxin levels of between 1.77ppm and 13.25ppm for agent orange tested from surplus that the USAF had after spraying had stopped. (there appears to be a lot of confusion around average levels, and slightly more concerning is that other less known “agents” appear to have been more heavily contaminated (my guess is they were either less used, or their names arent as cool as “agent orange” and therefore they havent embedded in the public psyche quite as well : – “Comparatively small amounts of Agent Purple and Pink sprayed in Vietnam between 1961–1965 may have deposited a large percentage of the total dioxin.” from the paper (although nomenclature probably isnt that important as I assume the same companies who were ordered by the government to produce agent orange were also ordered to produce the other agents utilized))

    If the lower bound is correct 50,000 tonnes of agent orange would contain ~215lbs of dioxin, for the upper figure this would be significantly higher at 1616.5lbs of dioxin – so the 500lb figure rests squarely between these two figures -assuming that 50,000 tonnes of Agent orange was dropped of course – the actual figure would be a portion of this 50,000 (as it is all herbicides) and the accuracy of the 50,000 may not be that great (could well be more or less)

  9. Deborah Rubin Says:

    Would anyone consider this a weapon of mass distruction? An atrocity?

  10. LKMiller Says:

    No, and no.

  11. scared stiff Says:

    I love the argument.
    It was the government that made me do it!!! They told us to make it!! I swear it wasnt our fault.
    THIS is the argument of the great mansanto.

    YOU were paid to make that crap!!! By the truckload you were paid!!!!!!!
    This company wouldnt be where it is now if you hadnt been paid a butload of money
    to…….kill people and plant life.
    Here is an idea. Does mansanto want to tell the truth about agent orange then let us see the original contracts for said products so we can see just exactly how you profited and what other government contracts were allocated to mansanto per the terms of making the agent orange. I am willing to bet that by taking on this contract mansanto was able to secure massive funding and massive future contracts for the distribution of their future products in countries worldwide.
    How belittling to the public to make such an argument the government made me do it.
    What a very weak way to pass the buck. This is a democracy right??? Your government does not control you and does not tell you what to do. You make those decisions ( in your case) on what is most profitable.
    AND by the way it is impossible to tell how many Americans and Vietnamese that were killed by your disturbing product. ANd that is not just during the war but for generations to come!!!
    Dioxin is one nasty chemical and it is yours. As would any good parent would tell a child, own your mistakes dont blame your bad judgements on others.
    Also, how exactly is mansanto wholly focused on agri. when you still make massive amounts of pesticide which is harmful to the environment and to people and full of your favorite dioxin.
    Seems like you still make killer chems to me.

    Or am i just gonna be told im crazy…….??????

  12. Alan Says:

    Scared stiff, you are not crazy. There are a lot of companies that voluntarily contracted or were commandeered for war-time efforts and made a lot of money in the process.

    Mitsubishi made airplanes that killed a lot of people. Today they make good cars. Likewise BMW.

    DuPont got it’s big start making gunpowder for the military. My kitchen has a Corian counter top they make today.

    Volkswagen was practically a Nazi symbol, but also a favorite of the peaceniks and judging by the bumper stickers 95% of today’s VW owners voted for Obama. Does that make Obama the new Hitler? Hardly.

    GE makes a lot of components for deadly stuff, but we use their appliances to feed our families, do laundry, keep fresh food cold and lots of other good things.

    Bayer and BASF were part of Hitler’s industrial war complex. But the makers of Zyklon B gas used to kill Jews brought us aspirin–a miracle drug in its own right.

    So no, you are not crazy. There are a lot of companies out there that have been involved in a lot of rotten stuff over the years. But in the end, they are just corporations. It’s the people who run them and what they do for the world that counts now and in the future.

    If you don’t like genetically modified crops, you wont’ approve of Monsanto even if their corporate record was spotless.

    But if you are just looking for reasons to hate a company that’s around for the last century, you’ll probably find plenty. By that measure, lots of companies are evil and you could make the case to boycott their products. But companies are simply legal constructs that can be redirected to do constructive things no matter what is in their past.

    I don’t think Monsanto’s current products contain any dioxin. As far as owning mistakes, I don’t think any of the companies mentioned above have rank and file employees out blogging about unfortunate chapters in their corporate history and allowing dissenting posts. I am frankly baffled that Monsanto is putting company resources into doing this site and giving you a platform to criticize them.

    It’s disarmingly clever in a way.

  13. scared stiff Says:

    Of course it is clever but my theory is that they have to try and do something to garner some support being that there is a huge movement and lots of people and countries that are becoming aware of the potential risks of monsanto.

    But that in no way relates to to my last post. The original post very clearly states that monsanto only made toxic agent orange because the government made them do it.
    Clearly this is an excuse and not at all factual.
    And like I said before, why not be the transparent honest company that they so claim to be and really show us. You see like I said before monsanto not only made huge profits off of agent orange(which means that not only did they get paid to kill vegetation, they were also directly paid because of said product to kill Vietnamese and american soliers). ANd yes there are lots of companies(corperations) that have created many many deadly and irresponsible products. But that isnt who we are talking about here and by posing such an argument you are simply deflecting from the original statement and not addressing any of the issues.
    ANd companies are not simply legal constructs. Most of these major companies dont follow any sense of the law. A corporation by definition only has one purpose to create profits for shareholders. And how often do said companies get redirected to do something constructive it has nothing to do with being constructive it has to do with how much money can be made.

  14. Alan Says:

    Scared stiff wrote: “they were also directly paid because of said product to kill Vietnamese and american soliers”

    If the U.S. government paid Monsanto to create a product to kill U.S. soldiers, I’ll be first to say there is a huge problem. Call me naive, but I thought it was a defoliant used to protect GIs by removing vegetative cover the enemy used to evade and ambush patrols. It turned out to be gnarly stuff, but no one set out to make money by poisoning our boys over there. I’m also guessing they would not have made it if the DOD hadn’t been in the market for a chemical that would kill back the jungle. Same fundamental reason those other companies got into the war machine/materials game. They got an offer they couldn’t refuse from the government.

    I agree that corporations exist to make their shareholders money. Companies that don’t follow the law aren’t long for this world and most shareholders avoid them like the plague. Nothing like massive human injury claims to wipe out an investors’ stake.

    If you believe Monsanto (or any other company) is breaking the law, sell the stock or risk losing your money.

  15. Len Aldis Says:

    I’m sorry to read some of the comments on the issue of Agent Orange and one of its makers Monsanto. The effects of AO has been proved by scientists of international repute and includes Americans.

    It was the reseach carried out by the Stellman’s who went through all the pilots logbooks and established where the AO was sprayed (not dropped as one writer stated) over the areas of South Vietnam, and Cambodia. They also confirmed the amount used 80 million litres.

    Clearly the use of AO was horrendous and a war crime. Not only did it destroy thousands of acres of forest and the animal life within, it was sprayed directly onto the people and their hamlets of the country.

    It entered the food chain and the result can be seen today in the hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and the homes of the victims. For the past 20 years years I have travelled to Vietnam and met many of the victims of all ages, but the war crime as yet unpunished is the legacy left to the children born many years after the spraying stopped in 72 and the war itself in 75.

    Monsanto and other chemical companies settled out of court in 1984 to the amount of $180 miilion to the US Veterans seriously affected by AO. Many are still suffering as are their children. The number of US victims is increasing.

    In Vietnam with over 3.5 million victims, the effects has gone into the third generation. it is time that the US Government and the chemical companies accepted their responsibility and make compensation not only to the Vietnamese victims of AO but also to their families.

    Len Aldis. Secretary
    Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society
    london. UK

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