Monsanto’s Struggle with Ethics


Company History and Ethical Challenges     

            Monsanto’s business growth and product promotion create ethical challenges.  The Monsanto company has been embroiled in controversy since its earliest days at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Beginning as a chemical company producing artificial sweeteners, the company evolved their product lines over the years expanding into petroleum products, agricultural chemicals, and synthetics (Ferrell, 2017).  Their first brush with ethical notoriety was a result of Dioxin use or what has become infamously known as Agent Orange.  This chemical was used extensively in Vietnam during the war as a deforestation product.  It was later determined that Dioxin was carcinogenic resulting in settled lawsuits of $180 million with continuing litigation to this day (Ferrell, 2017).  The next ethical challenge as a result of their product choices was the catastrophe of the toxic waste poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that resulted in large scale environmental contamination and led to settlements of $700 million.  Monsanto produced this toxic waste and irresponsibly disposed of the waste form 1935-1979, knowing of its toxicity and danger (Yohannan, 2016). 

            Most recently, beginning in the late 70’ and 1980’s, the company once again focused their efforts on a new product that would arguably be more controversial with a legacy of ethical conflicts, genetically modified organisms, or more specifically, genetically engineered seeds.  The controversy of these genetic products was not a singular element but rather a progression of not only the product, but the legacy of ownership and contamination of other organisms that was resultant at every step and presented ethical challenges and crossroads.

Efficacy of Monsanto’s Ethical Culture

            The efficacy of the ethical culture within Monsanto can be evaluated as a matter of perspective.  The company is a publicly listed, successfully creating value for its shareholders.  It is also self-serving and financially prolific from the perspective of the employees and those stakeholders that benefit from the existence and actions of the company, which would include legislative politicians (H.R. 933, section 733, 2013).  Less immediate stakeholders such as regional communities benefit from the ethical culture of Monsanto by virtue of the number of benefits that are received directly from the company under the guise of social responsibility and sustainability (Monsanto Executive Summary, 1989).

            The efficacy of Monsanto’s ethical culture, though spotted with controversy from its actual products to the affects from its products, to the questionable marketing of its products, its declared legacy ownership of its products and subsequent environmental and physiological contamination from its products, appears to be successful in spite of ethical obstacles that never really dissipate.  This level of success underscores that profits will outlive malefaction.

Costs and Benefits of Growing GMO Seed

            The Monsanto company is known as a seed, pesticide, and herbicide producer.  The development of higher yielding foundation seeds was hailed as an answer to world epidemic hunger concerns.  The development of these foundation seeds (certified) progressed with genetically altered or modified seeds.  These seeds are genetically altered to be resistant to common (Monsanto produced) herbicides and insecticides (Ferrell, 2017).

            The exponential crop production of Monsanto’s products is undeniable, along with the increased food production and the resulting decrease in world hunger.  The problems with Monsanto’s products are very solidly in the ethical arena.  Monsanto has patented their foundation seeds such that farmers, who in the past might have saved a portion of their harvested grain for the next year’s crop planting, could no longer use that harvest as seed corn.  Monsanto’s patent made it illegal to use harvested seed to replant.  This constricted the choices for farmers as well as introduced new costs simply by using Monsanto seeds.  The lure that farmers found themselves in, was the increased yields obtained by using the Monsanto products.  As a result of this new relationship, the popularity of Monsanto seeds expanded their market share and power exponentially. 

            Farmers became dependent on using Monsanto products as a result of the increased yields and the requirement of yearly purchase of seed.  As Monsanto developed new GMO seeds, farmers were enticed with even greater yields from more efficient pest and weed control.  The ethical questions raised by the public as to what exactly was involved with the newly genetically engineered products and how they might affect both the environment as well as human consumption became confrontational.  Product labeling, advertising, health warnings are a few of the areas of concern that became problematic for Monsanto.  The European Union (EU) Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that GMOs would be indeed subject to stringent regulation as earlier legislation proclaimed (Christiansen et al., 2019).

            Monsanto products tend to exist along a continuum of ethic challenges.  The GMO products developed by Monsanto evolved into two other ethically challenging areas.  The first was when the herbicides (Monsanto products) were used on the genetically modified seed crops, there was at times a ‘drift’ of the application that would settle on neighboring fields and kill or thwart their crops.  Monsanto denied and denies any liability as they proclaim in their instructions of use that farmers should not apply herbicides on days where wind may cause drift.  This situation created by the genetically modified seed and subsequent action of farmers is resulting in litigation once again for Monsanto (Fatka, 2020).

            Monsanto’s GMO produce is also creating a new area of litigation, the claim of ownership.  Plants as they pollinate will produce pollen that may drift to another field and cross-pollinate with another strain, resulting in a strain that contains or partially contains the DNA modification that is protected by patent law, and thus ownership (Robaey, 2016).  As a result of this contamination, the second party farmer would have a protected product that could not be legally harvested, replanted, or sold, all of which occurs without intent, but clearly has possession of, and is owned by Monsanto.

Management of Harm to Plants and Animals.

Needed Actions

            The environment created by Monsanto’s products has also created accompanying quandaries.  As an example, there is agreement among concerned parties that research needs to be performed on GMO crops to better understand how they affect humans as well as the environment.  These research efforts are hindered due to threats of litigation from Monsanto.  They contend that any research on GMOs would need to be pre-approved by the seed companies.  It is also understood that any unflattering findings would then be blocked from public view (Keeney, 2014).  It is actions such as this that create an unethical veil that the public views Monsanto.  It is understandable how the public may not trust corporations.  There are numerous examples of profit motivated action that results in the diminished environment or concern for human health.  One would hope that these circumstances are fewer with government regulation, watchdog groups, and whistleblower protection, however, as in the case of Monsanto, when a company is large, powerful and has both financial and political connections, the consumer is at a disadvantage.


                        Stewardship may be the closest concept that not only identifies but instructs us in relation to ethical decisions and choices.  This holds true when managing or directing the course of a business.  How resources are used, cared for, and protected along with the careful approached to others and how they are affected and influenced are under the purview of stewardship.


            Ethical decisions are secondary to ethical dilemmas.  Situations created from choices that result in conflict or harm are often those decisions made with knowledge of their consequence.  Businesses more frequently are viewed positively or negatively based on their social responsibility, their consciousness, or sustainability.  This is often a measure of social benefits received, money passed for initiatives or programs that mask the severity of the initial cause.  There is a resulting ethical danger to the society…that of expectation of payment, benefit, or compensation.  “Favorability can be a measure of contributions toward improvements” (Monsanto Executive Summary, 1989).


Christiansen, A.T., Andersen, M.M. & Kappel, K. Are current EU policies on GMOs justified?. Transgenic Res 28, 267–286 (2019).

         Fatka, J. (2020). Thousands of farmers expected to join dicamba lawsuits. Corn and Soybean       Digest,     w%2F2364983243%3Faccountid%3D12085

         Ferrell, O. C., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2017). Business ethics: Ethical decision making and     cases (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. 

         Keeney, D. (2014). GMOS and Corporate Control of Agriculture. Great Plains Research, 24(2), 197-204.     w%2F1619303128%3Faccountid%3D12085

         Markowitz, G., & Rosner, D. (2018). Monsanto, PCBs, and the creation of a “world-wide            ecological problem”. Journal of Public Health Policy, 39(4), 463-540.  

         Robaey, Z. (2016). Gone with the wind: Conceiving of moral responsibility in the case of GMO   contamination. Science and Engineering Ethics, 22(3), 889-906. doi:10.1007/s11948-     015-9744-z

Robaey, Z., & Robaey, Z. (2015). Looking for moral responsibility in ownership: A way to deal with hazards of GMOs. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 28(1), 43-56. doi:10.1007/s10806-014-9517-8

Text – H.R.933 – 113th Congress (2013-2014): Consolidated and further continuing appropriations act, 2013. (2013, March 26). | Library of Congress.


Executive Summary – Center for Communication Dynamics. (1989). Toxic Docs.

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