Glyphosate?! Won an award?! Everyone knows sales of Roundup have skyrocketed ever since it was released. How does something that bad end up winning one of the U.S.’s highest honours, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation? Did Monsanto use the profits to buy off the jury?
Turns out the jury didn’t cost Monsanto one cent. Here’s why:
THE HIDDEN VILLAIN
Originally hired as Monsanto’s resident chemist, John E. Franz has over 800 patents to his name. He started with a series of safer fire retardants, but he was motivated to join the agriculture division because it had a stated “emphasis on publishing, academic contacts, and the freedom to pursue ideas.”
Applied Science has immediate applications. That means businesses can deduct those Research and Development expenses against the profit that’s created when we buy and use the products made from the invention. But Pure Science doesn’t have an obvious purpose, so it makes businesses understandably nervous. It tends to be expensive and they can never be sure they’ll get the money back. Despite that reality, many important practical discoveries have been made when surprises occurred when doing Pure Science.
John Franz respected that any company needed to make a profit to pay the salary that paid his mortgage and bought his food. But he had great ideas and he wanted to work in one of those rare places that also respected the full value of science. It’s likely ironic to many of us that Monsanto turned out to be that place. With the freedom to explore, among many other things, Franz’s findings lead him to–at 41 years old–discover/invent glyphosate. And we can bet he was pretty happy about it too. It was not only going to make his boss extremely happy, but also, as a scientist, it was likely the most important discovery/invention that he’d ever make.
WHY DO FARMERS EVEN USE PESTICIDES?
For the same reason the plants make their own. Remember: nature’s not peaceful, it’s a daily war for survival. Bugs and diseases don’t heed Keep Out signs, so both organic and conventional farmers know that without pesticides plants can sometimes be defenceless against the competing species that will consume or overtake them.
A good example in nature is the magic mushroom. The magic is psilocybin, which is a chemical that deters some of the bugs that would otherwise destroy the mushroom. And yes, that means that kids at music festivals are getting high on an organic pesticide designed by a fungi to protect itself from insects. It’s literally an organic psychedelic fungi bug-spray.
Farmers use pesticides because humans are competing with bugs and animals and diseases and invasive species that also want the energy in our food supply. All creatures protect the tools used to get their food. Porcupines have spikes to protect the body they forage with; squirrels hide their nuts, lions and cheetahs protect their claws because those are their vehicles, weapons, butchers and chefs. Humans need large amounts of food, so our most trustworthy method of protecting our food is to use safety-tested pesticides and only when all other measures fail. No one likes using them, plus they’re expensive, but there is no way for us to escape our participation in nature’s battle for survival. Even pulling weeds makes us a pest to the invasive species we are attacking.
BUT WHY GIVE AN AWARD FOR GLYPHOSATE?
Farmers live on the land with their families so no one is more concerned about toxicity than them. They also want something effective or they have to pay too much for pesticide plus the costs of the fuel and time to spray it. To sell product, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, BASF, and Bayer are all competing by trying to better each others products. The products that sell are the ones that combine cost-effectiveness with safety. After all, an incorporated family farm is a small business whose products do the work of feeding the world, but it’s also still someone’s home.
It’s a simple fact: for all of us to eat, farmers need pesticides. But the safety margins are extremely large and organic or conventional, no one’s using things that are unsafe when properly applied. Copper Sulfate is one of the most popular pesticides used in organic farming, and it has an LD50 of 30mg/kg, which is extremely safe. You’d need to eat a fair bit of it right out the container and still you’d have a 50/50 shot at surviving. That’s ridiculously more than might be on your food. Riding in your car is far far far more dangerous. But still, considering you’re safe with an L50 of 30, you can imagine why people were still excited about the glyphosate invention. Glyphosate is quick to biodegrade, it does not bio-accumulate, and its LD50 is 5,600 mg/kg! 186 times less toxic and yet extremely effective. That’s how you sell a lot of pesticide.
In the end the answer for glyphosate’s huge sales are entirely logical. It’s simply a reflection of the fact that it is safer to humans and to bees than almost every organic or synthetic pesticide used before its invention. Our parents generation were dealing with much worse chemicals.
Once one knows the facts it’s easy to see that Monsanto didn’t need to buy John E. Franz the National Medal of Technology and Innovation because he won it–and the Perkins and Carrothers Awards for chemistry–fair and square. Far from the shadowy, evil, behind-the-scenes villain of modern ‘Monsatan’ lore, John E. Franz is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame precisely because his work managed to simultaneously help the environment all while also making farmers and consumers safer.
A good portion of the world lives off of the achievements of people like Franz. No matter where he ended up working, his invention was a step forward for both mankind and the environment and for that we should all be grateful.