corn field

At Syngenta, corn apparently trumps male genitalia.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv did a great investigative piece on the tactics Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta (once part of Novartis) has used to discredit scientists – UC Berkeley’s Tyrone Hayes in particular – whose studies show their products to be harmful to amphibians and, probably humans.

The European Union has banned atrazine; they sell about $300 million of the chemical in the United States still. Study after study – except those done by Syngenta scientists, of course – show it to deform the privates of boy frogs or change them into girl frogs outright. Atrazine is clearly an endocrine disruptor. The story cites an epidemeological study showing baby boys conceived in the late spring and early summer months, when atrazine gets sprayed on our nation’s corn crops, have a high incidence of undescended testicles and undersized penises. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because of a law passed in during the George W. Bush administration, is having a hard time getting it banned here.

Aviv’s story shows the extraordinary lengths companies will go to cast doubt on scientists whose findings might impact their bottom lines, and the lack of humanity they can embody in these cases. Just as Ford did cost-benefit analyses relating to exploding Pintos back in the day, Syngenta sacrifices little boys and innocent frogs so they can pad their Swiss bank accounts (they don’t care much about bees, either, apparently). The subpoenaed notebooks of Syngenta’s public-affairs lady were particularly chilling. Lesson: the Swiss make good chocolate and have lovely mountains, but can be total scum.

Predictably, Syngenta is calling into question what will doubtless prove to be bullet-proof reporting. Merchants of doubt.

The implications here extend well beyond Syngenta – clearly a bad actor in this case, but not alone. The company is not inherently evil, but incentive structures drive behavior that is evil: money over people. Or more accurately, our people (our executives, employees, and shareholders) over the people. The company then has the advantage of deep pockets, dedicated employees and friendly legal-regulatory frameworks to advance the interest of the our over the the.

These kinds of revelations make further mockery of the catastrophic Citizens United case declaring corporations to be people. Corporations are made up of people, but they are just machines people build and inhabit to limit liability and operate in perpetuity with the inexorable goal of capturing profits. Often, they do so in generally beneficial ways and use acceptable tactics. Cases like this demonstrate the darker side, one that shows corporations to be beasts in need of restraint. Banning atrazine in the United States would be a good start.