As I read about the protests held against Monsanto worldwide recently, I found myself wondering: is Monsanto the appropriate target for these protests?
I know there are reasons people are unhappy with Monsanto. One is that during California’s most recent election Monsanto (along with other Big Ag and Big Food companies) contributed millions of dollars used to defeat Prop 37, a proposition which–if it had passed–would have required genetically engineered (GE) foods to be labeled in that state.
Prop 37 was a simple law designed to ensure that the long-standing American tradition of providing information on product labels so that consumers can know just what it is that they are (considering) purchasing would also apply to food products produced using the relatively new technology of genetic engineering. Currently, drugs produced using genetic engineering must be labeled as such in the United States but GE foods sold in grocery stores, or anywhere else, need not be. Prop 37 was meant to rectify that situation and give U.S. citizens the information that the vast majority of them, in poll after poll after poll, have said they want about the foods they buy and feed to their families.
I personally think that for Monsanto and other Big Ag companies to take a stand against labeling, thereby being less than completely up front and transparent about what their products contain and how they are made, is a mistake. I base my opinion, in part, on my experience with the first GE whole food, the Flavr Savr™ tomato, which was labeled and positively received by the public; in fact, those tomatoes–unabashedly labeled “Genetically Modified”–were initially so popular that Calgene Fresh, the company that marketed them, had trouble keeping up with the demand for them. Other scientists are starting to go public with their agreement with me on this point. Instead of going against public opinion on this issue, Big Ag companies could make labeling GE foods part of public relations campaigns designed to educate consumers about positive environmental, nutritional or organoleptic attributes of the ag biotech industry’s various GE products.
However, if companies in the U.S. want to spend tens of millions of dollars in support of misleading advertising campaigns on any side of any political issue in the USA, it is apparently legal for them to do so.
And Monsanto, like any other company, is likely going to do whatever it’s leaders think will have the best chance of resulting in it selling as many products and making as much money as it can.
After all, in a capitalist society like the United States, making money is a company’s primary job; in fact, publicly held companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to do so. On the other hand, companies have no legal responsibility to grant U.S. citizens the “right to know” about whether their products were genetically engineered or not. Nor are they required (generally) to protect the public good (unless there are specific laws that require them to do so). The primary function of a company is to make money. And that, I assume, is what Monsanto is primarily doing…it’s job.
The job of protecting the public good and responding to the will of the people in the USA? That job belongs to our democratic government.
And that’s why I believe that the appropriate target for protests related to lack of adequate regulation of GE crops and lack of labeling of GE foods–at least here in the USA–is our own government.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently does not require regulation of all GE foods. It should. And FDA currently does not require labeling of GE foods. It should. Foreign proteins have been added to most GE foods marketed to date; there are U.S. laws on the books for regulating food additives like these GE foreign proteins added to GE foods and FDA should require companies like Monsanto to follow them. After all, when “water” is added to a food product in the USA it must be listed on that food’s label; shouldn’t the Bt insecticides in GE foods (for example) be required to be listed as well?
So, perhaps the focus of future protests about GE foods should be the FDA.
Or, for those who want all GE foods labeled (even those with no GE proteins, i.e. food additives, that should come under the laws enforceable by the FDA), consider focusing on the USDA, the U.S. agency in charge of labeling organic food products. Organic farming is a process just as genetic engineering is a process. It therefore seems that an appropriate course of action would be to engage the USDA, as was done to create the standards for organic farming, about labeling foods created using the process of genetic engineering.
Focus could also be placed on President Obama himself, to get him to live up to the campaign promise he made to label GE foods. (Recent events suggest that more than a faulty memory contributed to the breaking of that promise.)
Monsanto does not have any (legal) responsibility to U.S. citizens who are not stakeholders in that company. The U.S. government does. Therefore, it could be more fruitful for U.S. citizens to focus their displeasure with the way GE crops and foods are being handled in their country on the entity that could be, and should be, doing something about it: their government.
I believe that people are focusing on Monsanto as opposed to the FDA because it’s an easier target to see clearly not to mention that many people are now well aware of the revolving door that’s existed between the FDA and Monsanto. It is also harder for you average person to accept that a government body such as the FDA does not have the peoples best interests at heart not so a corporation who’s, as you so rightly point out, sole interest is the bottom line and is quite openly taking an aggressive stance towards public opinion.
I however fully agree that the focus should be broadened there is however one inherent danger in this, spreading ones forces to thinly.
I imagine that if the FDA were a publicly elected organ of the government this whole situation would be somewhat different…
I agree with your assessment, including the revolving door issue and the problem of spreading too thin. But in spite of the latter, I’ll nevertheless point out one means of registering concern over GE foods that has been relatively successful in terms of results: petitioning individual food companies about their specific products. For example, in response to consumer concerns the companies that produce original Cherrios and various baby foods have agreed to make their products without GE ingredients. And after the StarLinkTM corn incident at the turn of the century, when that GE corn which was not approved for human consumption showed up in Kraft’s taco shells, that company even suggested on its web site that regulation of GE crops should be improved. Focusing on the companies closer to consumers might be more effective than focusing on companies like Monsanto whose customers are farmers, not consumers.