For decades before its merger with the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer in 2018, Monsanto was the company environmental activists loved to hate. There were good reasons for this antipathy, we learn from historian Bartow J. Elmore’s authoritative new book, “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future.”

In addition to manufacturing some of the most toxic substances known to science, the St. Louis-based concern unleashed a firestorm of controversy when it introduced genetically modified crops on a massive scale in the mid 1970s, together with the herbicide glyphosate, which it sold as Roundup.

Elmore, an associate professor at Ohio State University, details how the herbicide became the best-selling agricultural chemical in history, dousing the corn, soy and cotton fields of middle America for decades. Farmers liked the fact that they could use it as many times as they needed without damaging the crop, which had been genetically modified to withstand multiple sprayings of the herbicide.

Monsanto claimed that Roundup was “safer than table salt,” “environmentally friendly,” even “biodegradable.” It turned out to be none of the above. In addition to being deemed a “probable human carcinogen,” Roundup was shown to be a threat to bees, butterflies and aquatic organisms. Predictably, the weeds that the “miracle herbicide” was designed to kill soon developed a resistance to it — though the company attempted to suppress this troubling news at first.

The failed agrochemical turned out to be a public relations disaster for another reason, as well. The author reveals how Monsanto hired a small army of Pinkerton detectives and former Canadian Mounted Police to prevent farmers from saving the proprietary seeds their crops produced in an effort to force them to purchase new “Roundup Ready” seeds from the company every year. These strong-arm tactics did not sit well with farmers (although the Supreme Court upheld the company’s rights to its patented seed.)

Worse still for its bottom line, Monsanto was engulfed in a veritable tsunami of litigation from which it never fully recovered. Bayer is currently paying off over $8.8 billion in Roundup-related health damage claims and is likely to face additional liability in the future. Yet Roundup is still sold in U.S. stores.

The history is well documented here, but familiar. What the author adds is historical context which demonstrates that the Roundup debacle was part of a larger pattern of unleashing half-baked chemical solutions to problems — solutions which, all too frequently, created even bigger problems down the line.

The story begins with Monsanto’s founder John Queeny, a tenacious bulldog of a man, the son of Irish immigrants who sold miracle elixirs and quack cures to wholesalers along with bona fide pharmaceuticals.

Queeny soon set up his own manufacturing plants to produce the recently developed artificial sweetener saccharine as well as caffeine, which he marketed to the Coca-Cola Company in the early 20th century. Later, under the leadership of Queeny’s son, Edgar, Monsanto expanded its offerings to include plastics, fibers, food additives and detergents — all of which were synthesized from newly discovered reserves of coal tar, phosphorus and other fossil remains.

Chemistry allowed for an almost magical kind of conquest of nature “wrested from nature’s hidden stores,” Edgar Queeny effused, that would thoroughly transform modern life. “What he failed to anticipate — and was slow to recognize — is how many of these new “wonder” substances posed mortal threats.

The company’s roster of bestsellers sound today like a toxicologist’s fever dream. Monsanto was an early purveyor of the insecticide DDT and PCBs (which were used in electrical insulation), both of which are potent environmental poisons that were eventually banned in the United States. It was also the largest producer of the notorious Agent Orange, a dioxin-based defoliant used to clear forests during the Vietnam War, dubbed “the Darth Vader of toxic chemicals,” because it lays waste to so many biological systems in the body.

Elmore paints a damning portrait of a corporation that was slow to investigate the dangers of the chemicals it sold and attempted to discredit the work of the scientists who had the temerity to reveal those dangers. “Just as cigarette company executives would do in their battle to deny links between smoking and cancer,” Elmore writes, “Monsanto officials wanted to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the public.”

They also routinely denied culpability when employees on the production line sickened or died. The firm’s medical director, R. Emmet Kelly, blamed “uncooperative and worthless workers” for their own illnesses. Increasingly, however, the courts ruled otherwise, saddling Monsanto and now Bayer with their gargantuan debt.

Equally troublesome for Bayer is the fear that Monsanto’s legacy of genetic engineering will sully the brand, especially in the European Union, which banned GE crops in 2005. Bayer’s troubles with genetic technology continue with its dicamba herbicide, which has a tendency to drift over neighboring farmers’ fields and damage their crops, creating yet another growing crop of lawsuits.

While he pulls no punches in telling this quintessential story of the results of corporate hubris, Elmore resists the temptation to make it a morality tale with clear-cut villains. He introduces us to Bob Shapiro, a politically progressive Monsanto CEO and personable manager who, Elmore says, sincerely believed that genetic engineering, by manipulating the information in an organism’s genome, would increase crop yields, lessen dependence on poisonous agrochemicals, even eliminate famine and malnutrition.

Sadly, herbicide use increased rather than decreased after Roundup’s introduction, and yields remained stagnant. Genetic engineering also failed to create more nutritious crops or to develop varieties that would resist drought and be better adapted to climate change, as enthusiasts including Shapiro had promised. GE technology, Elmore concludes, “was more about selling chemicals than about investing in real solutions to our food problems.”

The author’s point is not that genetic engineering is evil, as some of its critics contend, or even that it doesn’t work. In the right hands, Elmore says, new genetic tools such as Crispr gene editing might indeed help generate something like the agricultural revolution that Monsanto promised, but never delivered.

That may be true. Still, one wonders if a corporate system that sees no higher value than increasing quarterly earnings can be trusted with our food future.

Seed Money

Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future

By Bartow J. Elmore

W.W. Norton. 400 pp. $30