Building Community At America's Table

Posts tagged “Genetic engineering

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.


GMO Labeling Is More Than The Label

– written by Grant

The debate rages in this country about whether we should have mandatory GMO labeling or not. It comes up for a public vote in California this fall and much attention is focused on that outcome. In fact, here is an indicator of the attention Big Food is focusing on labeling:

“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.'”  [from Huffington Post article]

I’ve been challenged by folks like geneticmaize and noteasy2begreen to explain the reasoning for labeling and oddly, it’s been difficult. In my gut, labeling seemed right. Then when I think about it, I realize it would be very expensive to implement and monitor in a way that would be trustworthy. Another common argument against labeling is that a consumer who wants to avoid GMOs simply has to do a quick Google search on it and take two minutes to learn – you can avoid GMOs by avoiding a short list of foods, especially most packaged and processed foods and be sure to choose things labeled Certified Organic as they do NOT contain GMOs.

These arguments have been hard for me to debate. I found myself relying mostly on emotion and saying things like, “It doesn’t matter whether labeling is a good idea or not, consumers want it.”

I’m surprised to find the answer in a book about slaughter.

I just finished reading Timothy Pachirat’s book, Every Twelve Seconds – Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Pachirat is a political scientist who surreptitiously took a job in a slaughter house in order to research and write a book about conditions there. This was in a time when there was no “ag gag” law against such things. His was a risky move to be sure, but not an illegal one, as it is now in many states.

He describes systemic food safety infractions and animal abuse, yes, but the real thrust of his book is his explanation of the ‘politics of sight’, and it now helps me understand GMO labeling.

We want to “know” our food. Ag gag laws, pink slime, meat glue, animal cages, e. coli on spinach, rBST etc are hidden from us, both literally and figuratively. As Pachirat describes, “hiddenness” and lack of clear “sight” and knowing is power. It is power held over us by the person, the company, the industry that is doing the hiding. The call for labeling is the populace in our country seeking transparency. We seek transparency because not having it, as we feel is the case now, means we are powerless.

The suggestion that we should simply buy organically labeled foods to avoid GMOs does not satisfy. It does not address this power struggle. In fact, it is a concession to it because we are then offered only a very limited choice of foods and most importantly, we are being offered those because all the others are hidden from us. Organically labeled foods are fine, but the problem we have is with the power held in the other mysterious foods. We seek transparency of those foods too.

We look around at our populace’s health issues, our environment’s health issues, our farm workers’ health issues and focus our anger on Big Food. Labeling is the line in the sand we can draw that says we want food manufacturers to tell us “What’s in there?” “What are you feeding us?” Stop hiding.

This was interesting to hear on NPR – Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malhalm Jr. of Insight Labs were talking not about food but about voting and democracy. They made the point that the newer generations have different viewpoints and different paradigms than generations past:

“Personal agency is paramount in a democracy simply because people want the feeling that they have control over their own destinies. Voting was the ultimate symbol of agency in the United States for many years, but now that the very nature of agency is changing in light of technological advances that give us an unprecedentedly high degree of personalization and freedom over our own lives, voting seems quite antiquated. Why would the younger generation buy into designating leaders by proxy when their lives are ruled by themselves?”

Younger generations want “agency” or control and power in their own lives in a very different way than generations past. And the internet and social media tools empower them. Upset? Launch an online petition. Want to be a filmmaker? Shoot a video with your phone and put it on youtube. Although I have a great deal of respect for farmers and their knowledge base, they often fall into the trap of insisting that the ill-informed public should stay out of farming decisions. Take gestation crates as one example – the backbone of most arguments in favor of crates often seems to hinge on the ranchers saying they “know what’s best” for their animals and we outsiders can’t know and shouldn’t be meddling.

This stance won’t fly with a generation who wants, no, who is taking agency and power.

It is a bigger question than GMOs – we want more transparency in our food system. We want to feel like we are part of our food system. That we have some power and control over our food system. Being on the receiving end is not enough; purchasing power is not enough – we want to have joint control of the food system.

Small farms and small local food producers offer transparency. They are simple, open and have short ingredient lists. They share power.

Big Food needs to learn from that. Be transparent. Cede some power.

We will still need to eat – done right, ceding power will not mean ceding profit.


Field Trip: A Tour of Monsanto (yeah, you read that right)

written by Ellen

So, as part of the One Hundred Meals project, Grant and I are field-tripping to Monsanto next week. Wait, the WHAT? I mean, really? MONSANTO? YES! We’ll be infiltrating enemy lines!!!!

No, in all seriousness.

You don’t have to stretch your mind too much to realize the shock we both felt when someone with an email address that ended with “@monsanto.com” was actually emailing us, inviting us to travel to St. Louis and tour the facility, have some meetings and, hopefully, have time for a meal at Niche restaurant! And if nothing is going to test the boundaries of our willingness to be open to learning and listening, arriving at Monsanto with a notebook and commitment to being unbiased is it.

It’s where our feet are held to the fire and we have no choice but to decide once and for all that we are going to do with this project what we set out to do — report on the facts as honestly as we can. And really, I know we can do this.

Because we believe that while we don’t need to convert — and really, likely we will not — we do in fact believe that we all need to have a productive, respectful dialog about food if we are going to move forward as a community and thrive.

And really, we very, very much believe that for this meal, we need to be respectful guests with lots of smart questions.

Of course, this is going to take a lot of learning up front about the issues, products and track record of Monsanto. Right now, my knowledge of the company is so limited and skewed I feel like an ignorant asshat. “Monsanto: Hate.” is about the extent of my range.

So, we’re reaching out in this post to anyone and everyone who might help us prepare by sending us:

  1. Links to articles and scholarly papers that serve as good, unbiased introductions to GMOs and Monsanto in general. (OK, nothing is unbiased, likely, so just send it all and we’ll try to take good notes for both sides.)
  2. Titles of good books or documentaries we can absorb (I read insanely fast, so pour it on.)
  3. Questions you have that you haven’t been able to find a solid answer for (and for which you have actually tried to find an answer). We don’t, for instance, wanna ask about the lawsuits against farmers who are sued by Monsanto for illegally growing GMO crops. It is a dead issue and if you take some time to learn about the facts, you’ll understand that to be true. We do, though, want to ask about contamination of organic fields from pollen sources and how they are dealing with that.

I think, personally, it is awesome they Monsanto is opening the door for us. Sure, they’re gonna tell their story their way — but you know, I tell my story my way and you tell your story your way. We get that. We’ll be listening for that. But the truth is, a person I respect actually once told me she believes that Monsanto will answer any question honestly, even if it makes them look bad. I find that astounding and wanna see for myself. And, really, if it’s true, I wanna know why.

Ours is a small project on a small scale. We aren’t some big news outlet with eyeballs from here to kingdom come. We’re just a couple of people who want to find out what is really going on in our food supply. And I think it is significant that Monsanto is taking the time to invite us in and answer our questions.

I can only hope more Big Ag folks take this open-door stance. Personally, I think it would do a lot to help them in their own quest to be understood.