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Is Monsanto Evil?


GMOs get a bad rap, as much for their perceived violation of what is “natural” as for misinformed fears over their safety. But drought-and pest-resistant crops also get a bum rap because of the company that holds so many of the patents for their seeds: Monsanto. Just saying the company’s name will send an environmentalist’s blood pressure spiking—the massive corporation has become a real-life example of the faceless corporations that dot dystopian landscapes of science fiction.

But, like anything else, the truth is far less interesting, and we get a glimpse of it in David Friedberg’s fight against Monsanto misinformation in a New Yorker piece from earlier this month, in which the young executive of the data-amalgamating Climate Corporation defends the decision to sell the company to Monsanto for a cool $1 billion:

When I shared the news with my dad recently, his first reaction was “Monsanto?! The most evil company in the world?! I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?”…I was not prepared for the sort of reaction I got from him. In fact, it hurt to hear this from my close family—especially after all of the work needed to get to this point and with so much excitement about what was ahead; to be chastised for this exciting decision was really really hard. […]

Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth.

Generally, things that are big or revolutionary are the easiest targets. I think this is because, ultimately, people can feel out of control in the face of very new and very big things. This is especially true for new technologies delivered on a large scale. […]

[A] lot of the “bad things” being said about Monsanto are simple truths about the nature of doing business at scale. On the list of top lobbyists on payroll in DC, Monsanto is not even in the top 50. The “Monsanto Protection Act” is actually called the “Farmer Assurance Provision” and was drafted and written by a number of farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers, and others, to help ensure farmers aren’t denied the right to grow crops that are approved and regulated by the Federal agencies, protecting them from emerging state propositions that aren’t based on science or research.

It seems to me that innuendo, anecdotal evidence, and out of context facts are used to support a simple statement—“the company is evil”—and are rooted in a lack of understanding and fear of the unknown.

If you’re at all interested in a first-hand account of a green leader nuancing his opinion on big, “evil” Monsanto, you should read the whole thing. We doubt this will be enough to sway the majority of the green base, frothing at the mouth for some actively evil agent on which they can blame the world’s environmental ailments. But the green movement needs smart thinkers, capable of reevaluation, and it looks like it has one in David Friedberg.

[Photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Anthony

    If a company was paying me one billion dollars for something, I’d be singing their praises too!

    • Corlyss

      Agreed. The young man should have said to his dad, “It was a business deal, not a religious conversion.”

  • Reticulator

    “[A] lot of the “bad things” being said about Monsanto are simple truths about the nature of doing business at scale.”

    Yup. In other words, Monsanto is evil. (I’m agnostic about the GMO issue. But see Ford Dennison’s book, “Darwinian Agriculture: How understanding evolution can improve agriculture,” where he explains how GMO’s don’t gain us much when it comes to feeding the world.)

    • Corlyss

      “GMO’s don’t gain us much when it comes to feeding the world.”

      Just off the top of my head, I don’t see how that is possible when you consider the Green revolution started by Norman Borlaug. You’d have to show me proof that the Green Revolution was all a clever lie.

      • Reticulator

        For one thing, the Green Revolution came and did its thing long before GMOs.

        Denison’s books cites an estimate of a yield gain of 2 percent for GMO pesticide resistant crops. He points out that the study he cites isn’t peer-reviewed, so maybe isn’t good, but this is a very small improvement compared to the increases needed to support population trends. And he says there is no increase in yield for herbicide resistant GMO crops. Those seeds are used for reasons other than increased yields.

        Here’s a quote: “Decades of unfulfilled promises from biotechnology advocates and practitioners bear a striking resemblance to vaporware.” In other words (my words) the GMO advantages are similar to those of ObamaCare.

        Dennison thinks that any simple improvements in yield efficiency are unlikely, although there are a couple of approaches that might do some good. But to learn about that, you should read his book. (Very readable, I thought.)

        • Corlyss

          Thanks for the info, but just out of curiosity, what do you think the Green Revolution was? It’s sine qua non was GMO cereals.

          • Reticulator

            Well, I agree with you that in a broad sense, humans have been doing genetic modifications for many millenia.

            But in general, Borlaug’s revolution is based on cross-breeding of plants (as well as pesticides and fertilizers) while most of the fuss over GMOs is about genetic engineering of plants using gene manipulation technology. It’s not the same as breeding, even though the difference isn’t quite what the anti-GMO crowd imagines it to be.

  • wigwag

    Monsanto has done more to alleviate world hunger than any company in the history of the world. It’s the “Apple” of agriculture; it’s the “Google” gastronomic plenty.

    For a variety of reasons, people have enormous cultural biases about the food that they eat. In Japan this accounts for the plethora of small and inefficient farms, the presence of which distorts the entire Japanese economy. In France, it causes grape growers to shout sacrebleau if an American calls sparkling wine made with California grapes, champaign.

    A particular odious example of this conceit is now running rampant in places like the Upper a West Side of Manhattan, Brookline, MA, Austin, TX and Berkeley, CA; its horror at what is dericively called “factory farming.” Major evangelists for this boneheaded movement include Mark Bittman who writes for the New York Times and Michael Pollan, the best selling author.

    These dimwits are merely retreads from the 1960s “small is beautiful” movement. They literally think that elitist chefs like Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame) have more to teach the world about ending hunger than Monsanto does.

    They’re nuts and they’re dangerous.

    World hunger is plunging and Monsanto is one of the reasons why. The company is far from perfect, but so what? What company is?

    Genuine progressives as opposed to faux-progressives would be thanking Monsanto, not excoriating it.

    • Corlyss

      Amen! I do have reservations about Monsanto’s jackbooted thuggishness when it comes to the way their draconian enforcement of their patents against hapless indirect contamination by forces beyond the control of the farmers they sue, but not in their food improvement operations. Humanity has been eating GMO foods since the first farmer who discovered and capitalized on the benefits of an accidentally crossbred grains. It’s Luddite-ism and general scientific ignorance (replete in the Green and organic food and back to nature movements) that keeps people fretting unnecessarily about GMOs.

  • Fred_Unger

    My father worked in an industry that many of my environmentalist friends abhor. He started out washing test tubes in a lab and ended up managing worldwide research in agricultural chemicals for Rohm and Hass Company, which during his career was one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers. When I was a young idealist in the early seventies, Dad’s work inspired my youthful rebellion and my choice to get as degree in environmental science. Back in the day, we had a few fights about his work. Later, I came to appreciate the huge contribution to humanity that he made through his work and have become both very proud of that contribution and humbled by it.

    When Dad was a student, he was as fervently idealistic as any environmentalist I ever met. Hundreds of millions of people were starving in India and China. He and other idealists like him saw technology as the solution to this and many other serious problems in the world. The pragmatism that those idealistic technologists brought to their careers in the fifties and sixties saved the lives of millions of people, along with creating many positive technology advances of modern civilization. The wealth and prosperity they created provided the opportunity for many of the social advances we take for
    granted in the US today. In large part thanks to the “Green Revolution”inspired by Norman Borlaug and supported by modern agricultural practices Dad and many other idealists like him spent their careers on, today India and China have the fastest growing economies in the world and are lifting millions out of poverty. Now they too are beginning to be able to afford cultural luxuries like environmentalism, that historically most poor societies have not been able to sustain.

    I vividly recall one of the most important lessons Dad ever taught me, though I was too stubborn and ideologically foolish to recognize the value and truth in what he was telling me at the time. Having studied biological pest control in school, I passionately argued that in his career position, he should refocus research on such solutions. He responded that with the tens of millions of dollars and decade long
    regulatory gauntlet required for the approval of agricultural pest control products, only very large companies could play in the game and those companies could only afford to consider solutions with billion dollar markets. The huge costs and risks created by very well intended health and environmental protection regulations made it economically impossible to consider solutions that didn’t promise such huge returns.

    While those regulations addressed some very real existing and potential problems with agricultural chemicals, an unintended consequence of the regulations was to concentrate influence over agricultural technology in a few large corporations. Despite environmental advocates clear intent to the contrary, those regulations also had the effect of driving the trend toward mono-cropping to
    maximize the effectiveness of the relatively few solutions that get through the regulatory hurdles. Similar unintended consequences of very well intended policy can be seen in every sector of the economy.

    As I came to better appreciate the effective idealism of my father and his generation of technology pioneers, Monsanto, another large chemical company at the time, embraced the criticisms of my fellow environmentalists and recognizing the promise of biotechnology, transformed themselves from a chemical company to a biology company. Monsanto embraced the promise of biological controls that I and other environmentalists had passionately argued for and bet the future of the company on creating biological solutions at sufficient scale to seriously address the worlds need for food while minimizing the use of potentially hazardous chemicals. Through biotechnology, they invented new varieties of crops which both resisted insects and diseases themselves and which were resistant to low toxicity but highly effective herbicides. In return, Monsanto earned the wrath of the environmental community, recently being declared the most evil corporation in the world by many of the politically correct crowd for creating genetically modified food. (Do a Google search for: Monsanto Evil Corporation)

    The current “Green Revolution” of environmentalism is not like the idealistic truly progressive and creative endeavor that Borlaug led. Rather than embracing science, technology, engineering or practical economics, too many environmentalists show little respect for such fundamental building blocks of progress. Too many seem to feel that idealistic good intentions alone are sufficient.

    The challenging realities of feeding almost seven billion people seems to be lost on my idealistic friends who argue for economically and technically unrealistic ideas such as vertical urban agriculture. It seems as if the economics and scale of the challenge are sometimes not clear to them. Unfortunately, we can’t feed the world or address the challenges of modern agricultural systems through idealized notions. We need real solutions, both technically and economically suitable for the scale of the challenges at hand.

  • Matt B

    As an employee of another well-known “Evil Empire”, Mr. Friedberg has my sympathy. It’s funny how some corporations are pilloried, while others (which may be truly nefarious) have a halo of goodwill.

    It all comes down to brand management.

  • AriTai

    Interesting to chart the progress of nations and the quality of life of their poor against the percentage of the population living on the land. No wonder China is building entire new cities in anticipation of either forcing or seducing their own population off the land. Perhaps they’ve noticed that South Korea is just now completing its third major rebuild of its infrastructure, cleaving mountains and building new cities of high-rises as the last third of their population is moving off the land. Where the move of the previous third marked a country wealthy enough to rid itself of the terrible smog I’d find in Seoul – and worse.

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