Monsanto is dangerously re-engineering America’s food supply.

Robert Shapiro is the sort of guy who calls himself just plain “Bob” in the pages of his glossy annual report. Down-home. Direct. Just-folks. Dressed in a casual shirt and sweater, no tie.

He’s in the business of serving humanity, saving the planet, getting more food for people to eat, making them healthier and happier. His goal, he says, is simple: “To help people around the world lead longer, healthier lives, at costs that they and their nations can afford, and without continued environmental degradation.” Pretty noble, that.

He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Monsanto Company.

No, not that Monsanto — you haven’t been paying attention. The old Monsanto was a chemical company, and had been since 1901, but its chemical division was spun off into a separate company in 1997. The new Monsanto is, as it puts it, “a life sciences company,” which means that it is interested in creating, controlling, patenting and profiting from life. Of course, it uses chemicals to do that; you wouldn’t expect anything different. One of them is Roundup, at $2.2 billion a year the world’s bestselling herbicide. Another is NutraSweet, at $725 million a year the world’s bestselling fake sugar. Plus Celebrex, an arthritis drug; and Ambien, Arthrotec, Daypro and other pharmaceuticals; Harness and Lasso herbicides; all the Ortho poisons in lawn-and-garden stores; and the controversial bovine growth hormone POSILAC.

But you have to understand that this doesn’t really make Monsanto a chemical company. It just deals with… well, life, and how everyone’s can be better by buying the stuff it produces. “Biology is the key science shared among the company’s agriculture, food and health businesses,” one of its official reports says, “to create new, integrated ways to improve human health and well-being while protecting the environment and natural systems.” Got it?

Of course, not everyone is quite as sanguine about Monsanto’s operations as Bob Shapiro is. Not everyone has bought into the idea that all the “life products” it sells are really so benign. Bovine growth hormone, though it has been adopted by enough dairy farmers in the United States to make it a profitable line, is still resisted by many farmers and consumers, and Ben & Jerry’s has won a lawsuit allowing it to label its products rBGH-free. NutraSweet had to go through rigorous tests over and over again before the Food and Drug Administration agreed that it did not cause cancer, and there is still lingering opposition. And Monsanto’s attempt to blithely introduce its genetically altered soybeans into Europe in 1996 without any food labeling (it sees itself “as a provider of biotechnology-improved seeds to farmers, rather than as a producer of finished food products”) caused a storm that led three countries to ban such foods and flared up again last year in a round of boycotts, lawsuits and direct-action field sabotage from Scotland to Italy.

After enough such protests, Monsanto began to catch on to the idea that messing around with the genes of life, altering seeds and foods and drinks and drugs, is something that just simply scares a lot of people — reasonable people. It began to understand that using the powers of technology to interfere in life, heretofore generally thought of as the province of Nature, or God, and manipulate it at the basic genetic level so as to change its character, raises deep-seated doubts and worries.

And so now, clever people that they are, company gurus have come up with a propaganda campaign that seeks to redeem their image and reassure the public everywhere that there are only advantages, only upsides, to genetic engineering — and in fact to persuade you that genetic engineering is the essential key to a better, richer, happier and “sustainable” planet. Part of that campaign is a sophisticated European advertising blitz-including a $1.6 million slice for Britain alone this past summer — whose smarmy products (“Biodiversity…matters to Monsanto”) are now appearing in this country, too. Part of it is their support of an American Soybean Association, which sends people around the world to calm consumer fears about how their soybeans are grown and processed. And part of it is a very smooth and clever special “Report on Sustainable Development” that they issued last year and have tried to spread around to consumer and environmental groups since then.

You’ve got to hand it to the Monsanto people: The report is slick, intelligent, modest and, for many no doubt, persuasive. Just-folks Bob Shapiro acknowledges that the company “can’t report any breakthroughs” in rescuing the environment and admits that “some of what we’re doing — especially in agricultural biotechnology — raises questions in the minds of many people.” He even says that “we’ll continue to listen to all points of view… and to engage in honest and respectful communications.” There is a two-page section on the 1996 soybean controversy in Europe, including statements from a couple of critics — one from the German Friends of the Earth — that take Monsanto to task.

But then the bulk of the report goes on to press its argument that with the expected growth in human population and increased demand for improved diets, the world will have to expand farmland from 6 million square miles to 15 million square miles if it uses current agricultural methods, and that would deplete resources, destroy biodiversity and increase pollution. If it went toward genetically engineered agriculture, however, dramatically increasing crop yields per acre, it could feed the expected 10-12 billion people at Western levels of consumption on present croplands, with less energy use, waste and pollution. That would be, the report asserts, “sustainable development.”

And that’s where Monsanto comes in. It makes Roundup, a herbicide that is so effective at killing weeds that it can allow a farmer to plant seeds without plowing up the soil, using a little one-row seeder that Monsanto also makes, thus reducing the loss of topsoil (25 billion tons is lost every year). It also makes soybean seeds (and cotton and canola seeds) it calls Roundup Ready, which, thanks to a little gene splicing, just happen to be able to grow in spite of that herbicide while weeds die all around it — and which would be killed by any other herbicide. The combination of Roundup and Roundup Ready, the company says, has increased crop yield by about 5 percent over soybeans treated with traditional herbicides, and the combination can now boast of more than 35 million acres in toxic cultivation.

So, you see, everyone benefits. The farmer increases the soybean yield per year without tilling. More people (or animals) are fed from the same acreage. The earth is not dug up in planting and laid bare to wind or water erosion. And Monsanto — well, Monsanto assures itself a bunch of beholden farmers who not only have to buy seeds from it every year (farmers are warned against saving or selling the seed for replanting) but have to use its pesticides, and only its pesticides, year after year. And Monsanto makes a bundle of money, earning a record $3.1 billion from its agricultural products division in 1997.

That is why Monsanto crows loudly that “there is financial value… in new market opportunities created by a world pursuing sustainable development.” If soybeans and cotton and canola and cow’s milk and corn and potatoes and tomatoes, all of which Monsanto has genetically altered, then why not every crop in the world? The international database of genetic building blocks that science can manipulate has reached more than 2 billion and is doubling every one to two years, allowing biotech companies to mess with an amazing array of crops and products. There’s every reason to suspect that in time almost every crop in the world can be — will be — genetically altered and patented by some company or other. All in the name of sustainability, of course.

Does that prospect send chills down anyone’s spine? Not the 22,000 people employed by Monsanto, apparently. Not Bob Shapiro, who declares he’s “never seen anything as exciting as the possibilities that these new biological technologies create.” Not, it seems, the dozen environmental organizations Monsanto lists in its report as sharing “the company’s interest in environmental improvements and sustainable development,” including the Nature Conservancy and Amory and Hunter Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute. Not even Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in Monsanto’s home city of St. Louis and a renowned ecologist, who has given his name and advice to the company, which he says is one of those “making profound contributions to defining sustainability.”

But some people. The Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, for example, an eighty-nine-market operation that requires suppliers to guarantee that none of the products they sell to it have gene-altered ingredients. And the Foundation on Economic Trends, in Washington, DC, whose spokesman Jeremy Rifkin has warned against “the wholesale reseeding of the Earth’s biosphere with a laboratory-conceived Second Genesis.” And a variety of consumer and environmental groups that last fall mounted a loud campaign against the Agriculture Department’s attempt to allow genetically altered food to be labeled organic and eventually forced it to back down. And, according to the New York Times this past July, most of the consumers of Europe, who are “in open revolt over the prospect of a future in which nature has somehow been altered by people holding test tubes.”

Monsanto is trying very hard to reassure such people, but of course it doesn’t like to address certain unpleasantries that these critics level. Such as the fact that Roundup is, after all, a poison so lethal that it kills almost all herbaceous plants and is toxic (“very low” but measurable) for humans if touched or ingested; that its active ingredient remains in the soil for three months or more; and that the long-term effect of its widespread use is unknown — a University of California study calls it the third most common cause of pesticide illness among farm workers. It seems strange to call “sustainable” the vast destruction of plants to make way for a monoculture crop like this, but the company plans to carry this anti-biodiversity scheme to nearly 300 million acres around the world when the product reaches its full “growth potential.”

And the fact that, in making its products, Monsanto uses an enormous amount of energy — 17.2 million giga-joules in 1996 — and emits an enormous amount of pollution: 33.1 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and 2.8 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in 1996, not counting certain unspecified amounts of emissions at some of its jointly owned processing plants. And as of December 1997 the company was named by the Environmental Protection Agency as the “potentially responsible party” for no fewer than thirty-one Superfund toxic sites in the United States, and that doesn’t include the sites it contaminated when it was merely a chemical company before 1997.

And the fact that its POSILAC bovine growth hormone, which it has now pushed on a fair number of American farmers, has been shown to have dangerous health side effects in many of the cows it is injected into — particularly a higher rate of mastitis — and that’s just in the short run. (The Canadian government would not approve the hormone and said the studies that led to its approval in the United States were flawed.) Besides which, its intended effect, increased milk production, is quite unnecessary in a world that already has a milk glut and will only drive milk prices down and smaller dairy farmers out of business.

And the fact that Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton seeds, genetically fixed to be poisonous to the bollworm — and sold to farmers with a “technology fee” that brought in an extra $51 million — actually failed to halt bollworm attacks in 1996, according to Science. The infestations in some areas were up to fifty times the level that usually triggers pesticide spraying. In 1997 Monsanto increased Bollgard acreage to 2.5 million in the United States, but at least a quarter of that land had to be sprayed with conventional insecticides to get rid of the pests; there is widespread suspicion that the bollworm may be developing resistance to the altered plant.

And the one overriding fact that Monsanto is in the business of playing God. Even if technological intrusion into and manipulation of the environment had not left a lengthy and frightening record of unintended disasters in the past century or so, there would be no reason to have any faith that Monsanto was so wise and foresightful that it could predict with any certainty what the consequences of its genetic intrusions would be — and that they would always be benign. Thomas Midgely Jr. didn’t mean to destroy the ozone layer when he introduced chlorofluorocarbons for refrigerators and spray cans half a century ago; the champions of nuclear energy didn’t mean to create a deadly hazard with a life of 100,000 years that no one knows how to control. And now we are talking about life — the alteration of the basic genetic makeup of plants and animals. A mistake here might have unimaginably horrible consequences for the species of the earth, including the human.

Jerry Mander, a California technology activist, has taken a long hard look at the biotech industry and the “bugs” it is creating daily. He concludes, “If I were a betting man, I would take the long odds and put my money down that within the next few decades a bug will get loose, will survive, and will cause one hell of a lot of unexpected, possibly catastrophic problems.”

It may not come from Monsanto’s laboratories, of course. This is a colossal and growing business, with thousands of universities and companies, and hundreds of thousands of employees, fiddling with life. But it may: Monsanto scientists around the world are altering genes this way and that to make cotton plants that grow with colors built in; food additives designed to manage diabetes; super-firm potatoes that are easier to fry; artificial enzymes that increase nutrients in animal feed; and new forms of sugar beets, wheat, rape, tomatoes, rice and a hundred other creations not found in nature.

Not one of these projects is designed to go wrong. Not one of them can be guaranteed not to. That is what worries anyone sentient enough to remember Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, Sandoz, Exxon Valdez, DDT, acid rain, Kepone, thalidomide, the Dalkon Shield, PCBs, DES, Love Canal… and the Titanic.

No amount of slick “sustainability” from Bob Shapiro can do away with that.