Monsanto is the kind of mustache-twirling corporate genius everyone loves to hate—for fair reason. The conglomerate brought genetically modified fare onto our plates, fills the world with herbicide-resistant superweeds, and promises to end rural hunger while suing farmers out of their last pennies for regrowing Monsanto seeds. But did the biotech giant start with good intentions, as in most scientist-turned-villain tales? Not quite. Here’s a look at how Monsanto morphed into the leading purveyor of crops that nature didn’t quite come up with.
1901: Pharmaceutical company agent John F. Queeny launches Monsanto to produce saccharin, an artificial sweetener then only manufactured in Germany.
1907: The USDA investigates whether replacing saccharin with sugar violates the Pure Food and Drug Act, a consumer protection law. President Theodore Roosevelt, a saccharin consumer, objects to the investigation.
1911: The USDA proclaims foods with saccharin “adulterated,” thus banning it except for use by medical patients who must avoid sugar.
1914: World War I starts, and sugar shortages prompt the government to lift saccharin restrictions.
1915: With caffeine and vanillin added to Monsanto's product line, and Coca-Cola as a chief customer, sales reach $1 million.
1917: Monsanto begins producing aspirin, becoming the top producer in the U.S., a title it held until the 1980s.
1928: Queeny passes on the company to his son, Edgar M. Queeny. Monsanto flourishes under the protection of high U.S. tariffs.
1933: Expanding, the company renames itself the Monsanto Chemical Company. One of its products, styrene, will become critical to the U.S. during World War II.
1964: The variety of product offerings prompts the group to rebrand as the Monsanto Company.
1964–69: As a government contractor, Monsanto manufactures Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to clear jungles and starve North Vietnamese soldiers.
1974: The company introduces Roundup herbicide, now among the world’s most widely used herbicides.
1982: Monsanto’s scientists are the first to genetically modify a plant cell. Later, the company acquires the Jacob Hartz Seed Co., which is known for its soybean seed.
1984: Vietnam veterans settle a lawsuit with Monsanto for its role in exposing troops to Agent Orange, receiving a payout of $180 million, but the company doesn't admit to liability. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. military exposed 4.8 million people to the herbicide, causing 400,000 deaths and disfigurements and birth defects in 500,000 babies.