– 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.
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.
I think it would be worth saving.
What did I learn at Monsanto? Keep asking questions.