It’s November, 2011 and I’m standing in front of a “Millions Against Monsanto” table at a local vegan fest. The person stationed there is yelling about me: “DON’T LISTEN TO HIM, HE’S CRAZY, CRAZY!” I wasn’t aware of the gathering crowd of rubberneckers up until then. Now the table-er was in full-out fanatic mode, eyes bulging, spittle spraying. The conversation we were sharing somehow gained enough steam to jump the track and continue on without me. All I did was to ask a few harmless questions about the anti-GMO materials but she kept invoking “Monsanto” and the evil they do.
I get it, I really do. Early in my activist days that was me behind a similar table passing out fish-strawberry anti-GMO fliers. I heard about Monsanto persecuting farmers, something something chemicals, pesticides, food monopoly, all that. It’s a well-known story in my vegan tribe and there wasn’t a need for further scrutiny. But being outed for questioning the anti-GMO narratives shook me loose from the anti-Monsanto-ism. If this person was wrong about GMOs, maybe they were also wrong about Monsanto being evil.
Two years later I’m in staring up at a huge statue of the Monsanto logo within their campus headquartered in St. Louis. A five hour road trip from Chicago but I just had to visit. Instinctually I snap a picture realizing too late I never asked permission. I’m spotted and a person rushes out from inside the building. It’s Janice Person1, Monsanto’s Social Media Director and she was expecting me. We share a nervous giggle over the transgression and she welcomes me in.
I’m there to crash a customer tour Monsanto offers, well, I was kinda invited. You see, there are farmers who buy Monsanto’s seeds, willingly! Farmer Brian Scott is just one such farmer. Luckily this farmer maintains an online presence and talks about his expertise in growing food. When I saw him and Janice arranging a visit over Twitter I butted in and got an official tagalong invite that I just couldn’t resist.
The tour was a whirlwind of plant science which sorta surprised me. I almost expected them to lean heavy on selling or justifying their products. But their products ARE science and they are quite proud of the innovations they’ve achieved. It did feel like I was Charlie in the Chocolate Factory as we walked from room to room full of scientific high tech wonders. Naturally I thought the trip would make a good blog post. But somewhere along the way down I took my activist blogger cap off. What was more important to me though, I think, was to feel out the vibe of the place and the people I met. It didn’t help that the science was fascinating enough to side track me a bit. But here I was meeting real people at the real place. It was evident enough, through the tiny peek I was able to snag, that that the people there were…people. I mean they were passionate, friendly, and smart people but no different than anybody else at any other company. I do regret a bit not being more fastidious with my note taking, but, no fear, Brian Scott detailed the visit better than I could have ever anyway so if you’re interested please check that out here.2
But let’s try to unravel a little bit about this Monsanto business. The rabid fervor it has managed to inspire in a small but vocal minority is surreal. There has to be something to it, right? To find out I asked the antiMonsanto-ites online about their gripes just to be sure I was current in my understanding. I watched the movies, crawled through the websites, and saw the tweets and memes.3 To keep this post a reasonable length I’m going to defer many of the specifics to my cites. So this will be more of a distillation. Before you snap at me in the comments be sure to read those.
Monsanto’s customers are farmers, like Brian Scott.4 Monsanto does pretty well. Ya know why? Because their customers like their products and buy them.5 It’s as simple as that. Capitalism 1-0-freakin’-1, bro.
The story though is that Monsanto is using egregious unfair business practices with farmers. How? We’ll get to that in a moment. But for now lets say that Monsanto makes a good product that farmers willingly choose to buy (and steal). But let’s maybe not be so quick to assume farmers are a bunch of idiots being conned. Buying good products, we are all doing it.
Monsanto “patents life,” those monsters! Well, patents are a means to protect and encourage inventions. Whether it’s the best system is a fine debate to have. Patents mean that inventors have to make their inventions public. In exchange, there’s a time limit for which the inventor can exclusively profit. Once that limit is up it’s free for everybody to exploit. It sounds kinda scary to think that somebody could patent a seed, but breeders have been doing that since before GMOs were ever around.6
I think this though is where one of the biggest fears resides: in idea that Monsanto could use patents to sue a farmer for unintended crops or cross pollination in their field. This is something farmers already manage regardless of GMO, patent or not.7 It doesn’t stop the myths though. There still hasn’t been a single case of that ever happening. Sure Monsanto protects its products from piracy but so does every company. Frivolously suing the customers would make for bad business. In fact, a buncha Organic farmers sued Monsanto preemptively to protect themselves from that. When asked to show evidence they couldn’t and lost the case. Not even in court could they demonstrate historical precedent.8 Patents, we are all doing it.
Chemicals are scary stuff eh? Agent Orange is probably a good reason why too. Indeed the Monsanto from the 60’s was one of the companies who made the Agent Orange defoliant during the Vietnam war. But there’s lots of tragedies, mistakes and regrets in war and past policies (or lack thereof) so I don’t mean to minimize this point.9 But if the Monsanto of today is accountable so too are we. We (our government) contracted companies to make the stuff to our specifications. Is Monsanto evil for making Agent Orange or are you for paying and telling them how to make it? History, we’re all as accountable.
Did somebody say “evil?“10 It never fails to get uttered when the subject of Monsanto comes up. So much so it’s become a new logical fallacy dubbed as “Appeal to Monsanto.”11 Just like “Godwin’s Law”12, it attempts to short circuit any argument by association with something bad. But Monsanto is hardly Hitler, c’mon now. According to their record of awards and recognitions13, Monsanto or its employees don’t seem so evil. There’s an interesting letter the CEO of the Climate Corporation wrote to his employees.14 In selling his company to Monsanto he was diligent in evaluating the claims of evil. His letter is a smart business-insider’s perspective that deflates myths and offers context. With the growing list of people who become complicit with the supposed evil of Monsanto it becomes a conspiracy on too grand of a scale.
I hate to sound like a corporate defender15 or apologist16. What a weird position I find myself in. The worst of Monsanto’s offenses may be the sum of its parts17 and that’s always been a problem of big business. We should be wary and resolute in business ethics. But lets not cry wolf18 lest that wolf finally sneak past us. If Monsanto IS doing something nefarious, I would really like to know. If there’s any conspiracy maybe it’s this noise that could allow a company to better hide in plain sight. Otherwise people are wasting their time fighting a cartoon villain.19 Shouldn’t we find the real criminals and bring them to justice or change the system that would allow injustice to flourish? Let’s do that in a more just and rational manner. Business, we are all doing it.
This is just getting into 9/11 truther territory now. None of the charges levied against Monsanto are unique, inherent or evil. Just the same with the vilification of GMOs. Huh, imagine that. Others are discovering the same and sharing their stories.20 We don’t have to throw Monsanto under the bus in order to reach out to the GMO haters. Let’s not be complicit in fanning the flames of yet another conspiracy theory. Instead we can use this as a critical thinking exercise. If basic assumptions of Monsanto are shown to be myths, what else could be wrong? Monsanto may be the patsy for the ills of business, society and/or history but it comes down to an inevitable conclusion for me. Monsanto, we are all Monsanto.
Here’s the part where people might accuse me of being a “Monsanto shill.” It’s happened many times before. Obviously the company bought me off (with all my influence) as a PR stunt. But since this visit I wish I could honestly say I was never paid or influenced in any way. Here’s where I come clean.
- Upon my visit to Monsanto, they made me a special vegan lunch in their cafeteria. So yes, guilty, they fed me a meal (quite directly this time!)
- A little bit after my visit I got an email offering me $40 worth of stuff from their online corporate merchandise shillswag store. I saw through their ruse though, I knew they just wanted me to write something positive about them. Forty bucks should about do it too.
I’m kidding, of course. At first I refused their swag, paranoid about receiving any sort of gift. As I realized the conclusion of this post I thought it would be a pertinent opportunity. Instead of pocketing the merch myself I could pass along the shillness to you, dear reader. So I ordered forty bucks worth of the coolest Monsanto caps from them. If you share this article with hashtag #WeAreAllMonsanto
I will send you, completely free of charge, your very own Monsanto cap Caps are all gone but please do continue to share and REPRESENT!
Oh and BTW, what happens when I visit the anti-Monsanto tables at vegan fests nowadays?
They think I’m number one! I must be doing something right.
- Thoughts on How I Want to Tell My Story | Janice Person ↩
- Visiting Monsanto | The Farmer’s Life ↩
- Why Does Everyone Hate Monsanto? – Modern Farmer ↩
- I Occupy Our Food Supply Everyday | The Farmer’s Life ↩
- Farmers Speak Out | Vegan GMO ↩
- A Defense Of Plant And Crop Related Patents | Biology Fortified, Inc. ↩
- Genetic Contamination May Not Mean What You Think It Means | Biology Fortified, Inc. ↩
- Monsanto, Patents and Seeds – Part 3 | FrankenFoodFacts ↩
- Misuse Of A Vietnam Era Tragedy | Biology Fortified, Inc. ↩
- Speak of the devil | Cosmos Magazine ↩
- Argumentum ad Monsantium | Skepticblog ↩
- Godwin’s law | Wikipedia ↩
- Awards and Recognition | Monsanto ↩
- Why the Climate Corporation Sold Itself to Monsanto | The New Yorker ↩
- What if a corporation isn’t evil incarnate? A progressive’s dilemma. | The Progressive Contrarian ↩
- The Corporation Conundrum: Why Consumers Hate Monsanto, But Love Their iPhones | Real Agriculture ↩
- Monsanto’s Business Model: Ethically Less than the Sum of its Parts | Biotech Ethics ↩
- Biotech is a very small industry | Jim’s Kitchen Lab ↩
- How to Really March Against Monsanto | Fancy Beans ↩
- Recommended reading/watching:
Meal Six: At Monsanto, I Learned I Am the Problem | One Hundred Meals
My Biotech Weekend | Sleuth 4 Health
An Organic Farmer Walks Into Monsanto…And This is What Happened | Real Agriculture
▶ I Love Monsanto! | Cult of Dusty – YouTube
▶ Monsanto Myths | The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe – YouTube
Marc Brazeau’s Monsanto is Not Evil Starter Kit | SkeptiWiki
‘Natural’ illusions: Biologist’s failed attempt to defend organic food | Iida Ruishalme, Genetic Literacy Project ↩