Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The agrochemical company Monsanto left a long trail of harm in its wake. Now owned by German pharma giant Bayer, Monsanto has been criticized for causing environmental damage and impairing the health of people around the world.
For one, Monsanto was one of the companies that manufactured Agent Orange for the Defense Department during the Vietnam War. The toxic chemical was used for deliberate environmental degradation, which led to cancer and a litany of other diseases and birth defects that remain a serious problem for Vietnam’s population today. Just last year, a jury found Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” in its ruling that the company was responsible for a groundskeeper getting cancer because of his exposure to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.
Now, the city of Baltimore is bringing a lawsuit against Monsanto for damages the company caused when using PCBs, toxic chemicals used to manufacture products such as paints and electrical equipment. The chemicals are extremely difficult to remove once they contaminate an area and have been linked to severe health risks in humans and animals. Because of this, PCBs were banned in 1979 — but the city claims they’re still present in nearby waterways.
The suit — along with other similar ones being brought by different cities and states — alleges that Monsanto used the chemicals despite knowing the risks, and that contamination would be extremely difficult to mitigate. There is evidence to back this up: Internal documents suggest that Monsanto was aware of PCBs’ risks but continued to sell the chemicals regardless.
In response to Baltimore’s suit, a Bayer spokesperson simply said the company no longer uses PCBs and government agencies are effective at cleaning up such chemicals if necessary, though she noted that Bayer believes the allegation to be “without merit.”
Of course, any comments made by the company should be treated with skepticism. But even in its own response, Bayer admitted to a troubling approach to addressing social problems caused by big business. The spokesperson insisted the cost of cleaning up chemicals produced by the company — most likely with full knowledge of their effects — should be shouldered by government agencies. Implicit in Bayer’s response is the idea the government bears the responsibility of literally cleaning up the messes made by for-profit corporations.
The private sector acts as if it’s unaccountable when it damages society at large — instead, it passes the buck along to taxpayers. Corporations should be regulated enough that they aren’t permitted to cause widespread environmental destruction, but they’re also responsible for their actions even if those actions weren’t explicitly prohibited at the time.
Monsanto’s previous use of PCBs, for example, continues to harm people and the environment even though the company no longer uses those chemicals. Especially because officials at the company probably already knew of the chemicals’ effects, Bayer — because it acquired Monsanto — should foot the bill for all clean-up efforts. That would certainly be a more socially optimal way of allocating resource than, say, spending millions of dollars every year lobbying the government to further deregulate the industry.
Efforts like Baltimore’s lawsuit are greatly needed, especially at a time when environmental protection is of paramount importance. Companies like Exxon Mobil — which has for years increased greenhouse gas emissions while sewing confusion in the public about climate change — must be made to correct the damage they have caused. In Baltimore, this means funding cleaning of contaminated sites. For Exxon and other polluters, that could mean redistributing their resources toward efforts to combat climate change.
Whether its products caused harm because of military aggression in Vietnam or the contamination of domestic waterways, Monsanto remains a major detriment to society. In any way possible, it should be held responsible for its actions.
Zachary Jablow is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.