Building Community At America's Table

Meal Six: Monsanto

- written by Grant

I mentioned to a chef friend that we’d gone to Monsanto.

He looked incredulous.

And he asked in a rather shocked way, “WHY?!” He went on to say, “I could never spend the day with those people.”

So why did we go to Monsanto? Surely we did not expect them to roll over and say, “You know, you’re right that our company practices are not fair and do not have the greater good in mind. We should change.”

We did not expect them to change by talking with us, although I will say they were very genuinely interested in our viewpoints as part of the “disturbed consumer group” out there that dislikes, ok, the word is hates, Monsanto. They listened a LOT to us because after all, they are trying to figure out how to communicate better with unhappy consumers. Most people in the room with us were public relations people after all. Communicators.

Nor did we go because we were thirsty for Kool-Aid. We are thirsty for genuine, civil conversation about our food system, whatever that means.

Briefly, the day went like this: we were met at the Chesterfield Campus by Gary Barton who is one of their regular tour guides and a former Monsanto public affairs employee. He and Janice Person showed farmers Mike Haley and Ray Prock and Ellen and me around the facility – growing rooms, greenhouses, DNA testing equipment and such. Leaving aside any biases you may have, man’s ability to invent stuff and push technology forward is amazing. Our space program is amazing; car manufacturing plants are amazing; Monsanto’s technology is amazing.

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We talked about Monsanto’s history and their move from being a chemical company to being a seed company. Yes, one-third of their revenue comes from chemicals like Roundup, but 95% of their research budget is now devoted to seeds (GM and non-GM seeds) and trait selection. We then drove to their corporate headquarters and had lunch in a boardroom with a bunch of additional employees: Rick a food scientist, Wendy a dietitian, Paulette a plant breeder and Carly in public affairs. Lunch was a catered-looking affair set out just for our group and there were also a few items that featured use of their new Vistive Gold® soybean oil that you’ll read about below.

I began to see Monsanto as what it is, a large corporation. Leave aside the question of their being in the food business for a minute and name one mega-corporation in this country that has a triple bottom line approach to running their business. Name one for whom things like social justice and general good citizenship is truly a big part of what they do. Let’s face it, our (supposed) free-market economy encourages and rewards big, successful businesses and they get that way thanks to government regulations going their way and consumers buying what they’re selling.

In the case of food, we’ve bought into the ideas of low cost and convenience. We apparently like flavorless tomato slices on our sandwich in January and we like a meal that costs a dollar. That is a paradigm that big business has marketed to us – and that is their job, after all – and we’ve bought the bill of goods. We let this happen. I am not sure we can blame big business like we tend to do. I’m not saying I like it, but I am hesitating to place blame. There is nothing about our market economy that requires or even much encourages triple bottom line business. Read David Katz on the subject! At best, we have government dietary guidelines – more on that in a minute.

Let’s look at a new food product that is trying to get approval for sale in the US – the non-browning Arctic Apple. The genetically modified non-browning apple. A lot of folks on the big ag side like to say that they offer choice and that it is the consumer demand that drives this choice. In the case of this new apple, I’m not so sure I’ve heard a lot of consumers speaking out and demanding a non-browning apple. I think it is more accurate to say that big food producers look for new marketable food items and suggest and convince the consumer that they have value. The demand does NOT precede the supply. Marketing creates demand for what the producer is supplying. The question worth considering is, in what way could ethics influence the supply?

Enter dietary guidelines.

One major thing I learned at Monsanto is the degree to which governmental dietary guidelines drive new food products. Here is Wendy:

“Dietary guidelines significantly affect what food companies do.”

And as Rick spoke, he kept coming back to the word guidelines. Look at trans fats as an example. Government guidelines recommended we remove trans fats from our diets. Our fast food chains used to fry in trans fat laden oils. If guidelines restrict that, food companies need to develop new oils that are stable at high temperatures and don’t have trans fats. Enter products like Monsanto’s Vistive Gold® – a low-saturated, hi-oleic GM soy oil. Check out this bullet point from their promotional postcard for Vistive Gold®. It is telling:

“When used in food, Vistive Gold® has the ability to reduce saturated fat intake, helping food companies meet dietary guidelines to reduce solid fat in the diet.”

I underscore, guidelines drive food innovation.

Now you could say, “Hey, our model is broken. We do not need “healthier” oil to fry in. We need to fry less.”

True. If you believe that, eat less fried food and convince your friends of the same. I am right there with you, but at the end of the day, there is a HUGE market in this country for french fries and companies like Monsanto are in business to be in business and they are going to supply that product. They are even doing what they can to make the oil healthier than it used to be.

I am beginning to think that barking at Monsanto will not change our food supply because it is not in their financial interest to do so. Business is about money.

The GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot in California, Proposition 37, brings up an interesting question I have for Monsanto and big food though. If you argue that business responds to consumer demand and aims to MEET that consumer demand, why are the big food companies spending millions to defeat the mandatory labeling initiative? (As of this writing, Monsanto has invested over $7 Million to defeat the measure.) You would think they’d see this as market analysis they did not need to pay for. Go back to that non-browning apple. Suppose you’re developing that product. You’d do some focus groups and check in with consumers to see if enough of them would buy it to make it worth your while, wouldn’t you? You’d do extensive market testing and analysis to determine demand, right? Well, in the case of this labeling initiative, and combine it with consumer interest in Vermont that was squashed, I’d propose to big food that there is some major market analysis right under their noses and they’re trying to defeat it rather than learn from it.

Why defeat it? At Monsanto we asked and got these responses:

  • We are confident that the science is clear and GM foods are safe.
  • If labeling were being suggested for a health reason, then perhaps we’d support it.
  • Monsanto does not control the labeling on foods in the grocery store, food companies do. We are a seed company and we DO label our seeds as GM when we sell them to farmers.

If millions of moms in focus groups said, no, we’re not interested in a non-browning apple, would that food company proceed with the product? No. So why proceed with GM crops and fight GMO labeling when millions are standing up against it? You in big food may be right. Perhaps it is safe, but you are ignoring free market research to the contrary. I guess the consumer is always right … unless he or she is wrong.

These moms I am imagining in focus groups brings up my last point. Surely we can all agree that consumers are engaged with their food and its source in huge numbers right now. Farmers market shopping is on the rise; new farmers markets are opening; an unprecedented number of young farmers are stepping up to be farmers; more and more local organic foods are available; terms like Know Your Food, Farm-to-Table, Farm-to-Bar and Whole-Animal are ubiquitous. People are engaged with their food! That seems wonderful of course. But unfortunately, like in politics, these two very different food systems, local and organic on the one hand and large commodity farming on the other are in tension.

Ellen and I admire our friend Mike Haley, a conventional farmer from Ohio who is working hard to diffuse this tension. He wrote recently about defining sustainability and his point was largely that of course farmers of all stripes must work to achieve sustainability. All farmers take care of their land and animals – it is their livelihood, after all. And Janice from Monsanto put it like this:

“We think we have similar definitions of sustainability but we have different ways to get there.”

I believe we are all dancing around this word sustainability and given that we as a country have one environment to protect and probably should have one set of animal rights to uphold and one set of farm worker rights to uphold, I wonder if it is right and fair for us all to be pursuing sustainability in widely divergent manners.

On the one hand I agree with Kris Travis that each farm has to make its own determination about what sustainable means to it. The Transition Movement argues that too, pushing for decentralized, local decision making that “models the ability of natural systems to self organize“. But on the other hand, I also think that a better shared conscience about the sustainability goal we as a country have is important. We need a north star, a set of guidelines, an agreed-upon definition of sustainability that keeps us all on track together. Working separately and tailored to each farm, but with a national conscience in mind. And of course sustainability is a holy grail we will never actually achieve, but like the north star, it guides us. When someone says that for them, sustainability means caring for the land, what does that mean? Is putting synthetic nitrogen on it “caring” or is companion planting/crop rotation/animal grazing “caring”? Does caring for the land extend to ALL our land? ie: do farmers care for the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or only their land?Defining sustainability is crucial and mercurial. It could be the way we as a country move forward in agriculture without anger. It supposes government guidelines and regulations, I guess, but it strikes me as the only way to reach shared goals…by actually agreeing on and sharing them! The word sustainability is also on the fast-track to being another worthless word like organic and natural.

I think it would be worth saving.

What did I learn at Monsanto? Keep asking questions.

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11 responses

  1. Honored to have been there walking side by side with you guys for this trip.

    October 9, 2012 at 11:12 am

  2. You guys are awesome… wonderful information. I am very proud to tell everyone I know about one hundred meals. Keep up the Great work.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm

  3. Thanks Grant for the write up. I agree, Food is a complex system. We are also engaged in doing some neat things around taste improvements, etc — would love to have you meet a sensory scientist who works in our vegetable group. He blows me away! Your key learning — to keep asking questions — is one I share too. Don’t think anyone has all the answers and only through better understanding others points of view will we make progress.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  4. Ray, Sean, Janice, thanks so much for reading and being a vocal part of the food community!

    Janice – interesting you mention taste improvements. Many would say, and I talked a little about it in this post, that “Big Food” has removed taste from the consumer’s decision-making process when you talk about whole foods. I’m thinking of the flavorless tomato that is now our standard, or the red delicious apple which is, well, um, not remotely delicious. What IS delicious are all the fascinating heirloom apples and heirloom tomatoes that have fallen into the history books because they don’t meet Big Food’s needs to ship well and look purdy. I do understand business’ needs to ship, be uniform size and look nice, but at the expense of taste? Maybe no one likes to eat fruits and vegetables because, well, they don’t have any taste at all anymore. Why is that?

    And I know Monsanto is only indirectly involved in processed foods we eat, but in terms of taste, Americans now like sugar and salt thanks to the ready availability of cheap sugar and the need to amp up flavor in packaged foods. I am not pointing blame, but our society likes fast, easy, cheap food and the food industry has obliged. Where does that end? When do we as a society say cheap, processed foods should maybe be a special occasion treat not part of every meal?

    And per the post and what I learned about packaged foods (and trait selected veggies) that strive to meet “guidelines”, are we as a nation satisfied with this model?

    Anyone reading want to jump in on this?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  5. I was going to comment on the post, that was great by the way. However after reading the comments my mind is spinning in a different direction.

    What is the future of food? It’s hard to tell, I know in the past American food was mostly driven by the need for food security. While there are still people that do not have easy access to food in the world for the most part America is not hungry. Because of this I think we are only on the brink of a food movement that explores the billions of tastes and textures of food. Janice mentioned some work that Monsanto is doing on increasing the taste of foods, this to me shows that the movement is not just small scale and will have many different shapes and sizes. To me the key in all this is that we explore our foods more and more we must to also strive to make sure that those who are not as fortunate have access to HEALTHY foods, as this seems like it will always be an endless goal.

    Keep up the good work!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    • elliecm

      I agree with the healthy food thing, Mike. That’s the goal, methinks.

      October 14, 2012 at 7:36 pm

  6. terrilawton

    Grant,

    I really like how you go into the complex areas of something like sustainability.

    I think that the dietary guidelines you heard folks referring to are a type of centralized goal.

    I think that the government set up these guidelines to help protect the health interests of Americans.

    You also call for “a north star, a set of guidelines, an agreed-upon definition of sustainability that keeps us all on track together.”

    I like having a dietary guideline because it gives large companies explicit direction toward producing foods that will help Americans make healthy food choices. But it also leaves lots of room for Americans make and buy many types of foods.

    I agree that less fried food would probably be better, and that is generally how I eat, but can I rightly force my food choices on others? I don’t want people to force their choices on me. Food choice is really important to me because our family farm harvests and sells raw milk from grass-fed cows. Imagine if we couldn’t choose to buy our produce from a specific farmer? I think food choices are great.

    I think the role of non-browning apples would fit as a pre-cut, pre-packaged food available as a convenience item. But it probably isn’t valuable for a food purist, or local food enthusiast. And that is okay with me.

    My son loves to eat McDonald’s food. In his Happy Meal, he prefers the apples to the French Fries, which I think is great! I also know that the apples have edible chemicals sprayed on them to keep them from browning. If the apples were brown, most mothers would think they were bad; my son probably would not eat them. If a GM apple was approved by the FDA which made those edible chemicals unnecessary, I would prefer that.

    In terms of centralized guidelines on sustainability? I don’t know if many people are satisfied with how it went with centralizing the guidelines on the word “organic”

    Thanks for your courageous honesty Grant!

    October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

  7. Terri,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It’s great to hear from you and your comments continue to prove something I’m learning more and more – our food system and the choices people make within it are broad. And here I must also admit that to me they are often bewildering. You are a perfect example. You’re a raw milk farmer who takes your child to McDonald’s and would welcome a GMO non-browning apple. Wow! To me that does not compute – those components don’t seem to fit together.

    Don’t get me wrong – I completely respect your decisions, but I confess I don’t understand them.

    Speaking of the food decisions we all make, I hope you read our next post where Ellen talks more about just that! http://onehundredmeals.com/2012/10/14/meal-six-at-monsanto-i-learned-i-am-the-problem/

    October 14, 2012 at 7:18 pm

  8. Jody

    Grant,

    I think there is a growing issue in this country that considers only 2 veiws. Side A likes organic, raw, non-gmo, and is interested in healthy foods. Side B likes pesticides, fried food, gmos and is not interested in healthy foods.

    Your thoughtful posts show that you understand how complex this is and is the reason that you find people that enjoy organic food and can see biotech as part of the same solution.

    I hope that positive discourse like this blog and subsequent comments will spread and continue so that we can all gain a better understanding of our food supply.

    November 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm

  9. Thanks Jody and sorry for the delayed response. You are right and I would just add that one thing I’m learning is that this idea of having a more open mind is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT (and painful). Now that I know that and am working through it, I do have an empathetic side of me that understands why people aren’t rushing to change, rushing to be more open minded.

    It is hard.

    December 6, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  10. Pingback: The Local Beet: Chicago » What’s In A Name? Support Food Transparency! Join the GE Labeling Campaign In Chicago

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