Though it shouldn’t, this editorial feels like “True confessions.” Yes, I did it … I went into the “Belly of the Beast” (as some in the "foodie" community think) … I went to Monsanto at the end of April, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.
Why I showed up at the Monsanto front door might be as intriguing as the fact that I went (so fun to tell secrets, right?): Because I was invited. Oh, sorry that’s a little more benign than you might have thought.
Well, maybe it’s about how important this is to me in my role as Arizona Farm Bureau’s communication, education and marketing director. First, Arizona Farm Bureau represents all types of agriculture: small, medium and large, conventional and organic and everything in between. We celebrate it all; it’s all good.
The diversity of the agriculture industry is more pronounced, I believe, than many industries because we’re able to grow such a diverse set of agriculture products for all types of markets. But right now in one segment of agriculture the public is being told that not only is “big Ag” bad; “GMO Ag” is evil.
In stone pillars leading up to one of the main buildings, you found the word "Science" spelled out in various languages. On facing pillars was the word "Life" or "Vida" depending on the language.
So, did I do evil planting modified cotton in the mid-1990s when it first came on the market? (Murphree Farms planted biotech cotton for years until we retired from farming in 2005.) Another way to ask this question: Are all the farmers currently growing biotech crops evil, misguided or exploited? The way it’s discussed in the public arena, you’d have to conclude one of the three. Again, some would contend that’s the case. As cotton farmers, we never felt, nor do we feel, that way. Our biotech farmers have nearly as much knowledge of the science and value of the technology than many wearing the lab coats.
As journalists, we’re taught to go to the source. So I went to the source of much of today’s “GMO” controversy. And, by the way, I’m reading, talking and studying this issue from all sides. But there’s no way I can feel comfortable discussing the biotech issue unless I go to the place where most of the stones are being thrown.
For Brief Background
Begun in 1901, the modern-day Monsanto is quite different from its beginnings when John F. Queeny and his wife, Olga Monsanto Queeny, launched the company. Their first product was saccharine. They really were not in the agriculture business until 1960 when an agriculture division was established. Biotech efforts begin in 1975 with a cell biology research program established in the Agricultural Division. And by 1982, scientists working for the original Monsanto are the first to genetically modify a plant cell.
The original Monsanto spins off its industrial chemical and fibers business as Solutia, Inc., in 1997. And then, over the years through mergers and acquisitions, Monsanto eventually becomes singularly “focused on agriculture and supporting farmers around the world in their mission to produce more while conserving more.” In the company’s literature and on its web, a core tenant becomes, “We’re an agricultural company.”
Reflections on the Visit
Every company has history; every company has people. And while I’m not quite sure what my initial expectations were except that I wanted to learn lots about biotech and Monsanto’s operation, I wanted to meet the people. Would people work for an “evil” organization? Would people conspire to advance profit over positive health?
Those questions are certainly easy for detractors to answer in the negative if they use words like “coerce,” “force,” “manipulate,” and “threaten.” But how sustainable is that as a business model over the course of a 100+year history?
The visit for me ended up being about the people, much more than the science. People like the Ph.D. from Ethiopia that after obtaining her education looked to her future and targeted a cure for HIV or eradicating hunger from the planet as her two primary goals. She chose feeding her people and found a home at Monsanto. Or, the tour guide who is actually a retired Monsanto employee but still comes and gives plant breeding tours and describes the company’s “Chipping Technology” as something that Q from the James Bond Series would invent. There’s also Monsanto’s Chemistry Stewardship Lead (with the last name of Farmer) that’s more excited about stewardship and sustainability than most environmentalists I’ve ever visited.
Yes, I’m wading into the biotech topic full throttle and excited to do so since our various audiences are asking about it. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be talking about Monsanto and the biotech issue in general. I owe it to my audiences that ask me the questions, and I owe it to myself, loving and previously living the agriculture life.
Future articles on what I learned and biotech in general will appear in azfb.org’s “The Voice” and Julie’s Fresh Air.
Most of all, we owe it to ourselves because I personally believe we don’t need to be afraid of this thing called biotech.
Full Disclosure: This trip was not underwritten in any way by Monsanto. Oh, wait, one of their employees did pick up my lunch in their cafeteria one day. My invitation to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis came from Janice Person, who helps spearhead social media for the organization. I greatly appreciate her invitation and look forward to other opportunities to learn more about biotechnology in agriculture.