by Donella Meadows
— March 18, 1999 —
To my knowledge only one other company — Microsoft — has managed to be so hated that its CEO — Bill Gates — has been hit in the face by a cream pie. The pie that hit Monsanto’s CEO Bob Shapiro at an environmental forum last fall was made of tofu, in protest against the company’s genetically engineered soybeans.
In India there’s an uprising going on under the name “Operation Cremate Monsanto.” Country people are going out and torching the company’s test plots of genetically modified cotton.
In England protesters pull up plots of transgenic potatoes and corn. In Japan and the European Union there are energetic political movements to ban gene-spliced foods altogether.
In Canada Monsanto sends Pinkerton detectives out to do DNA tests on canola crops. It maintains a hotline so farmers can turn in their neighbors for replanting Monsanto seed rather than buying it from the company. Farmers claim Monsanto’s patented genes travel into their fields through pollen. If that’s true, ecologists are rightfully worried about the uncontrolled spread of engineered traits into the wild. If it’s not true, Monsanto will have to protect its property rights by suing its own customers.
The threat of stolen seeds won’t last long, though. The next trick to be bred into crops will be the ability to kill their own seeds, so farmers will be forced to return to the gene-splicers every year. Called the “technology protection system” by its developers (including our own Department of Agriculture) and the “terminator” by its opponents, the suicidal seeds are being denounced all over the world, especially in developing countries, where farmers have saved and bred and honed the traits of their own seeds for millennia.
Monsanto is widely blamed for the “terminator” idea, which is unfair, because it doesn’t own the patent (though it is working on acquiring the company that does). It’s also unfair because hybrid seeds, which also require going back to the breeder every year, have been widely used without protest for decades. Probably the strong reaction against the “terminator” has less to do with corporate control of the seed supply than with an instinctive moral revulsion against breeding death into a seed.
American consumers, Monsanto claims, accept gene-spliced foods happily, but the company must know better, because it fights aggressively against any label on them. In a recent Time magazine poll, 81 percent of respondents said transgenic foods should be labeled, and 58 percent said they wouldn’t buy them. Probably 100 percent have actually done so without knowing it.
If you’ve eaten McDonald’s fries or most commercial brands of potato chips, you’ve ingested a potato with a spliced bacterial gene that produces its own pesticide. You’ve probably eaten baked or fried goods or salad oil made from corn or soybeans or canola with genes modified so they alone, of all the green plant kingdom, can grow in a field saturated with Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up. The pork or chicken on your plate was almost certainly fed with gene-altered corn or soybeans.
The genetic revolution has engulfed agriculture with unbelievable speed. In 1996 virtually no transgenic crops were planted. In 1997 they covered 19 million acres in the United States; in 1998 50 million acres. Last year more than half the world’s soybeans and one-third of the corn contained genes pasted in from other forms of life.
Isn’t that great? say Monsanto scientists, several of whom I know. Pesticide-containing potatoes can been grown with fewer harmful sprays. Round-Up resistant soybeans can grow in unplowed fields, the weeds controlled by the herbicide. There’s no need to turn the soil, so there’s less tractor fuel used and less erosion.
The Monsanto folks honestly see themselves as helping to feed the world. They have taken a public stand for environmental sustainability. They’re working hard to cut their toxic emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Many of them are sincere; it’s more than a public relations ploy. So it’s especially maddening to those of us who also want the world fed and the environment sustainable to see this company get pie in its face, literally and figuratively, again and again. And to deserve it.
As near as I can tell, one trouble with Monsanto is that it is full of brilliant geneticists with no sense of ecology. So serious concerns about the effects of transgenic crops in nature — the inevitable development of resistance, the possible spread of traits that should not spread — are waved away.
Another trouble is that, like every big organization, its right hand may not know what its left hand is doing. I’m told that corporate headquarters didn’t know about the spying on the canola fields of Canada.
There are other problems. One is a culture of power, an inability to listen, a habit of imposing the company’s will on others and on nature that is common throughout the corporate world. Other problems are particular to Monsanto: a defensiveness that derives, I guess, from a bad environmental history, and a certain desperation, because Shapiro has bet the company on genetic engineering, and the bet is a long way from paying off.
Narrow expertise. A size that makes coordination and thoroughgoing integrity impossible. Power wielded with arrogance. Defensiveness edging toward desperation. I’m not sure whether any human organization should “own” the codes for life, manipulate them at will, and spread the results throughout nature. If one should, those would not be the characteristics I’d choose for it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999