States v. Monsanto: 6 Legal Battles that Shook Big Ag


Monsanto is the unofficial king of Big Agriculture. As the world’s largest seed company, their impact on the food we eat and even the quality of the water we drink is unparalleled—especially when their products are unsafe.   

As a Fortune 500 company, it is no surprise that Monsanto has friends in high places. Investigative research like the Poison Papers show cozy relationships between Monsanto and the U.S. EPA—an organization which is supposed to protect the American people over corporate interest.

Where federal regulations have failed to adequately protect the health of consumers and the environment, some states have tried to step in. We take a look at the key legal battles between U.S. states and Monsanto, and show how the corporation has fought regulations every step of the way.

1. Roundup Cancer Warnings 

In July 2017, California listed glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular Roundup weed killer, as a probable carcinogen under their Prop 65 law. This classification may eventually require warnings on every Roundup product sold in the state.

California recognized glyphosate as a probable carcinogen after the International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research arm of the World Health Organization, declared it as such. This classification should raise alarms since Roundup is the most applied herbicide ever. Some farmers have even filed lawsuits against Monsanto alleging the herbicide caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Monsanto has since attempted to discredit the IARC, arguing that their conclusions were based on faulty research and therefore California’s classification of Roundup is misguided. They point to agencies like the U.S. EPA which have given the chemical a clean bill of health, even though internal documents allege that EPA officials conspired with Monsanto to publish conclusions that favored glyphosate’s safety.

In February 2017, a judge overturned Monsanto’s attempt to block the classification from going into effect. On November 15, Monsanto filed another lawsuit, but this time they enlisted help from agricultural organizations like the National Association of Wheat Growers. Plaintiffs now allege that the state’s actions are equivalent to “unconstitutional forced speech” and violate the First Amendment.

Attorneys General from 11 states have submitted amicus briefs siding with Monsanto, including: Missouri, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. 

This isn’t the first time other states have ganged up against California’s regulations. In 2016, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against California over their law regulating the sale of eggs from caged chickens. A federal judge dismissed it, claiming they didn’t have the authority to sue another state.

2. GMO Labeling

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and herbicides go hand in hand. Monsanto, for example, produces Roundup Ready seeds that are genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup, allowing farmers to spray the herbicide in great quantities without killing their crops. 

More than 90% of U.S. citizens favor GMO food labels, but legislation has been lagging, thanks to Big Ag’s political influence. 

According to a New York Times poll, more than 90% of U.S. citizens favor GMO food labels that disclose whether or not ingredients have been genetically modified. But legislation requiring labels has been lagging, thanks in part to Big Ag’s political influence.

When California introduced Prop 37 in 2012, a bill which would require companies to label genetically modified ingredients in food products, Monsanto spent more than $8 million to oppose it. For perspective, the leading donor in support of Prop 37 was the Organic Consumers Fund who donated a little more than $1 million. Not surprisingly, the bill failed to obtain enough votes in its favor.

When similar GMO bills have passed, Monsanto hasn’t been afraid to sue. Vermont passed the first GMO labeling rule of its kind, requiring that all products sold in Vermont grocery stores label GMOs effective July 2016, otherwise food companies would be fined.

Just one month after Vermont’s GMO labeling victory, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an association that represents Big Food companies like Monsanto, sued the state.The lawsuit was eventually made moot when Obama’s administration passed S. 764, the Roberts-Stabenow GMO bill, the first federal GMO labeling law.

The law has been nicknamed “Deny Americans the Right to Know,” or the DARK Act. Unlike Vermont’s law, the federal law allows companies to print QR codes and phone numbers that consumers must scan or call to learn if the product contains GMOs. These exceptions make the information less accessible, particularly to lower income consumers who may not own smartphones that can scan QR codes. Not surprisingly, the Roberts-Stabenow GMO bill was backed by Monsanto.

3. Milk Hormone Labeling 

It isn’t just food labels that Monsanto has fought states over. They also challenged labels from dairy farmers that advertised that their milk was hormone free.

In the early 1990’s, Monsanto began manufacturing Posilac (rBST), or “recombinant bovine somatotropin,” a growth hormone used to increase milk production in dairy cows. In 2008, they sold it to Eli Lilly, but not before they waged war on dairy labeling throughout the country.

Milk from cows treated with rBST may include higher levels of insulin-like growth factor-1(IFG-1), which can increase the risk of breast and prostate cancers. The growth hormone is banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Monsanto partnered with dairy associations and created fake “grassroots” groups to introduce legislation banning hormone-free dairy labeling.

In 1994, soon after rBST was first available, Vermont tried to mandate labeling of milk from cows treated with rBST. The Grocery Manufacturers Association sued Vermont claiming that the law violated the First Amendment. A federal court sided with GMA, and the law was overturned.

The labeling issue reemerged roughly a decade later when consumers became more concerned about what was in their food. Dairies like the Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine started to label their milk as free from growth hormones. Monsanto hit them with false advertising lawsuits claiming that all milk contains natural hormones. During this time, Monsanto filed complaints with the U.S. FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in an attempt to get a nationwide ban on hormone milk labeling.

When a nationwide ban failed, Monsanto fought at the state level. They partnered with dairy associations and created fake “grassroots” groupslike the Monsanto-backed American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technologyto introduce legislation banning hormone-free dairy labeling at the state level. Monsanto tried this in Kansas, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but all of these bills failed to pass or were defeated in state courts.   

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