Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Monsanto and DuPont - Public Perception

Public perception is a curious thing. 

Two companies can do many of the same things, and yet one will take a much larger amount of flack and criticism for it. Or, as the Seattle Organic Restaurants website says, “the difference between a rainforest and a jungle is that a rainforest has a PR agent”. 

To that end, I find it very interesting that Monsanto is one of the most-hated companies on the planet, with the internet and social media full of stories and passed-around memes that declare it to be one of the worst companies in the world. And yet, DuPont is just as big in genetically-modified seeds and agricultural chemicals, and pursues largely the same policies as Monsanto with respect to pricing, IP enforcement, and so on.

So it merits the question – Why is Monsanto evil, but DuPont isn't?

Similar Unpleasant Histories

One of the most commonly-circulated bits on Monsanto in the social media space appears to be a piece that takes Monsanto to task for a long corporate history of developing dangerous products. In prior corporate incarnations, Monsanto did indeed produce Agent Orange, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), DDT, and artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame. While there is still vigorous debate about the safety of artificial sweeteners, nobody disputes that Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT are bad news.

But let us have a look at DuPont's history.

DuPont started as a virtual monopoly manufacturer of gunpowder, making money hand over fist during the U.S. Civil War and then expanding into various other military explosives. Unlike Alfred Nobel, who felt so guilt-ridden about his invention of dynamite and its subsequent use in warfare that he established the Nobel Prizes, the DuPont family was apparently more interested in arranging marriages between cousins to maintain the family fortune. 

DuPont was also involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Later, DuPont developed synthetic materials like nylon and polyester that will, in many cases, still be on this earth for a long, long time. Likewise, DuPont has had its share of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals include coatings like C8. By the way, DuPont also manufactured Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs … just like Monsanto did.

The point is, it's difficult to be a large player in the chemicals industry and not eventually produce a dangerous product and/or experience a significant industrial accident. Many of the chemical companies large enough and old enough to be around at the time (including Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow made products like Agent Orange, DDT, PCBs. Likewise, investors and those worried about the environment ought to be at least as worried about the neonicotinoid insecticides made by the likes of crop science companies Bayer and Syngenta  that have been implicated in colony collapse disorder affecting honeybees.


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