What Monsanto missed

Andrew Leonard has an insightful analysis of the WTO ruling on genetically modified organisms in Salon (if you’re not a subscriber, you have to watch a brief ad to access his post).

There’s a big difference between the days of the Green Revolution and now. Back then, governments, academic researchers and philanthropic institutions took the lead in the research and deployment of new technologies for boosting food and crop production. Today, the private sector, globally dominated to an extraordinary degree by one single company, Monsanto, sets the pace.

This fact alone has to be profoundly disturbing to anyone who cares about issues of transparency, informed debate and the decision-making process. Monsanto is not particularly interested in developing crops that address the direct needs of poor and hungry small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The vast bulk of its profits derive from the production of just four crops — soybeans, maize, cotton and canola — whose harvests are not generally consumed as food by humans. And yet, Monsanto lobbyists are busy shaping (and weakening) national bio-safety laws all over the world. Who has the greatest incentive to introduce genetically modified organisms into the biosphere without taking the time to truly understand their long-term impact? Who is the least interested in upholding the so-called precautionary principle — a fundamental part of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity?

I think he has left out another important element.

Monsanto now is a far less powerful company than when it first tried to introduce GMOs into Europe. That’s because it didn’t understand the overwhelming public opposition to GMOs. I lived in Britain at the time and the government was — and remains — largely pro-biotech and pro-GMO. But all the government support possible couldn’t overcome the mass public dissent.

Some of that public dissent was ill-informed, I believe. Some of it was just a gut reaction against science and technology, an attitude that is far more widespread in Europe than in the US. Some of the reaction was because of an understanding that the precautionary principle had largely been overlooked. Importantly, another large factor in the reaction against GMOs was that Monsanto and the government were focused solely on the benefits to producers (higher crop yields, less use of expensive pesticides, etc) and didn’t make clear what, if any, benefits would accrue to consumers.

In Europe, I think it’s likely the result of the WTO judgment will be very little change. That’s because European consumers, rightly or wrongly, do not want products with GMOs, just as they don’t want American beef filled with hormones. As many of the news stories on the decision made clear, its effect will be felt largely in other parts of the world.

Incidentally, I think on balance GMOs will ultimately be a good thing for the world in terms of improved production, not least in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought-resistant strains will prove valuable; reduced use of pesticides; preservation of topsoil; and ultimately the development of functional crops that, for example, include added vitamins or valuable medicines (cholesterol lowering cereals, for example).

Before the GMO storm blew up, I interviewed Robert Shapiro, then CEO of Monsanto, about many of these issues. Shapiro was undoubtedly one of the most intellectually curious and thoughtful CEOs I have met. But he is long gone and the company he ran is a shadow of its former self. That’s largely because they completely failed to understand how the public viewed their products.

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