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Poor Monsanto

Last fall at a prestigious environmental forum in San Francisco the small group of terrorists who throw gooey pies in the faces of offensive corporate executives pulled off a direct hit on Monsanto's CEO, Bob Shapiro. The pie 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." People are torching the company's test plots of genetically modified cotton.

In England, protesters pull up plots of transgenic potatoes and corn. In other EU countries and Japan, there are energetic political movements to ban gene-spliced foods altogether.

In Canada, Monsanto sent Pinkerton detectives out to do DNA tests on canola crops, and maintained a hotline so farmers could turn in neighbors for keeping and replanting gene-spliced seed, rather than buying it each year from the company as their contracts require. Outraged farmers claimed that Monsanto's patented genes appeared in their fields not through replanting, but through pollen from neighboring fields.

American consumers, Monsanto claims, have accepted gene-spliced foods—but the company must know better, because it fights aggressively against any labeling for gene-spliced products. In a recent Time magazine poll, 81 percent of respondents said transgenic foods should be labeled; 58 percent said they wouldn't buy them.

The transgenetic revolution has engulfed agriculture with unbelievable speed. As of 1996, virtually no transgenic crops had been planted. In 1997 they covered 19 million acres in the United States; in 1998, 50 million acres. In that 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 and like. Pesticide-containing potatoes can be grown with fewer harmful sprays. (But not with no sprays, because, so far, the spliced potato can only fend off one of its many pests.) Soybeans engineered to resist Monsanto's herbicide, Roundup, can grow in uncultivated 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. "Food. Health. Hope." is their new company motto. 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; this is more than a public-relations ploy. So it's especially maddening to those of us who also want the world fed and the environment sustained to see this company get pie in its face, literally and figuratively, again and again. And to deserve it.

Like every big organization, Monsanto's right hand doesn't always know what its left hand is doing. I'm told that corporate headquarters found out about the spying in the canola fields of Canada only when the story hit the press, and has now put a stop to it. Monsanto has other problems. One is a culture of power, common throughout thecorporate world—a habit of imposing the company's will on others and on nature, a habit of not listening to people and/or not respecting them. Of assuming, for instance, that if people don't want to eat genetically engineered food, they must be ignorant. Assuming that a few million bucks' worth of reassuring ads will bring them around.

Other problems are particular to Monsanto: a defensiveness (that derives, I suppose, from a nasty environmental history), and a desperation, because CEO Bob 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 on a massive scale. But if one should, I wouldn't choose an organization with Monsanto's characteristics for the role.

Gut-Level Ethics

My most fundamental reason for viewing Monsanto's corporate direction with concern is ethical. It is one I can hardly articulate, because it's the philosophical, gut-level instinct that made me an organic grower in the first place. It is so hard to talk about worldviews. It's like trying to see the lenses of one's own eyes, trying to bite one's own teeth, trying to explain one's language without using that language. It has to do with what is proper and improper for people to do to other living things.

But here's the best I can do in expressing where I'm coming from. I love science and rationality but I hate the basic premises of the industrial revolution. Donald Worster, in his 1988 book, The Ends of the Earth, describes those premises

this way:

"The capitalists...promised that, through the technological domination of the earth, they could deliver a more fair, rational, efficient and productive life for everyone....People must...think constantly in terms of making money. They must regard everything around them—the land, its natural resources, their own labor—as potential commodities that might fetch a profit in the market. They must demand the right to produce, buy, and sell those commodities without outside regulation or interference."

All agriculture involves forcing human will onto natural ecosystems. But organic agriculture is at least about doing so from a position of respect for what nature does and how it does it. It's about learning from nature, dancing in harmony with it; using natural forces with gratitude and for generous purposes, to further the health of people and ecosystems. At least so far, organic growing is based on interaction, caution, humility.

Chemical agriculture, monoculture, big-time farming, global markets, money calculated in millions and billions, all that stuff looks like hubris, greed, way too much power administered with way too much self-confidence despite a historic trail of grievous damage to people and to nature. Genetic engineering looks like more of the same, ratcheted up one more step in power, and therefore in danger.

The funny thing is, the people who do it, in my experience, aren't greedy, aren't reckless, aren't arrogant. When I asked my Monsanto friend whether, in engineering his potato, he felt like he was playing God, he smiled—he's a gentle person—and said, no, it just felt like he was going to the lab and working on challenging scientific puzzles. I believe him; that's his passion, a passion I once shared, and one that can indeed serve generous purposes, furthering the health of people and ecosystems.

But as we have learned over and over (as science should have learned from the atomic bomb, if nothing else), one has to be aware of the purposes, overt and latent, of the larger systems within which one works. Monsanto isn't uniquely bad, as its critics claim it to be. The system of which it's a part—industrialism, capitalism—isn't uniquely bad either. (Consider, as we all said in the Cold War days, the alternative.) But the industrial/corporate system is, we all know, reckless, proud, driven by a never-satisfied need for more, more, more, and apparently unable to learn from its historic trail of grievous damage to people and to nature.

Stop All Genetic Engineering?

"I guess you're in favor of pesticides," concluded one of the Monsanto PR people, after a conversation with me.

"I guess you don't care if people starve," said a biologist I deeply respect, an environmental hero, who is fervently in favor of genetic engineering. He constantly accuses me of wanting to go back to the low-yield, tiny-farm agriculture of a century ago.

I tell the genetic-engineering proponents that there are alternatives to industrial agriculture, with its monocultures generating the hordes of pests that necessitate the pesticides. I show them data from organic farms getting yields as good as their chemical-doused neighbors. I point out that there is already enough food to feed the world, that hunger could be ended by sharing that food, and/or by sharing technologies that can raise lots of food without poisoning the earth and without invading the genomes that nature has evolved. I don't think this information even reaches their auditory nerves, much less their brains.

That kind of extreme failure even to hear an argument, much less process it, alerts me that this is not a rational discussion at all, not on either side, mine either. This is a paradigm gap, a worldview argument, a disagreement about morals and values and the deepest, most fundamental assumptions about how the world works.

Some people of my worldview would ban genetic engineering altogether as an act of hubris as extreme and dangerous as the development of the atomic bomb. I wouldn't go that far. Heck, I was trained as a molecular biologist. I think this is cool science, which could lead us to understand so much; to have, within my worldview, even deeper respect for the biosphere in which, somehow, staggeringly, all life evolved—including (and not ending with) one critter that actually has the ability to begin to understand the very genetic, evolutionary processes that produced its own species.

I wouldn't stop genomic and tissue-culture science. I would probably, with great care, go along with some commercial applications of the science. I can't see any problem, for example, with the use of gene-spliced bacteria in vats, turning out inexpensive insulin for diabetics—though I'd want to know how the spent vats are emptied into nature. Some day I would hope gene-repair therapies could ease a lot of human suffering. I would hope we would never use this technology to design our kids or our crops.

But I shouldn't be the one to choose; that's my main point. Nor should poor Monsanto. Nor should the frightened Monsanto-demonizers. Gene-manipulation decisions are more than present-day life or death; they are long-term-future life or death—they determine the course of evolution. The decisions (including "ownership" of the genes and/or technologies) should be firmly in the hands of the most knowledgeable and ethical people we can find. For that role I nominate the public, the whole public, and nothing but the public.

Should you think the public an inadequate safeguard, let me share some genetic-technology guidelines recently formulated by a group selected to represent "average" Australian citizens:

1. Regulation should be developed by a Gene Technology Organization (GTO), a statutory authority with well-balanced representation and commercially significant sanctions. Its deliberations should be public.

2. No new commercial releases or unlabeled importation of genetically modified foods (either whole or processed) should be permitted until a) the GTO is in place, b) a clear Australian position on the Biosafety Protocol has been established, and c) an all-encompassing labeling system has been introduced.

3. Decisions by any regulatory body should take into account more than just science. The overriding principles when drafting legislation should be the environment and the physical, mental, and social health of individuals.

4. Australia should support a regulated and precautionary approach to trade in relation to GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms].

5. Environment and Health Departments should develop strategies to prepare for any health or environmental problems from GMOs—for example, an adverse-reactions register.

6. Independent assessment of the viability and impacts of choosing non-GMO options should be carried out, and this information communicated to the public.

7. Ethicists should be included in all GMO policy-making.

8. There should be an inquiry by the ACCC (Consumer and Competition Commission) into multinational monopolies in the food industry.

9. Government should embrace a commit-ment to bring together all stakeholders to reach agreement on mutually beneficial solutions, rather than the way different interests now compete to lobby government.

I'd suggest even stronger safeguards, at least until my own government finds its way back from plutocracy to democracy, but I consider that Australian draft a better start than anything I've heard from Monsanto, or from anyone else.