Contrite GM firm pledges to turn over a new leaf
by John Vidal - The Guardian - 1 December 2000
Five years ago, Monsanto planned to flood the world with GM crops and reap the profits. Three years ago it received a bloody nose in Europe and had to apologise to the British for misunderstanding their hostility.
Now, in a feast of humble pie, the world's leading biotech company has admitted to the world that it has been arrogant, blind and insensitive and has formally pledged to be "honourable, ethical and open" in all its future actions.
The new Monsanto, said the corporation's president and chief executive Hendrik Verfaillie, is now outwardly very different to the one which promised to be part of the solution to world hunger and environmental problems only five years ago.
Instead of trumpeting "faith, hope and prosperity", the genetically modified line is now that biotechnology is a way to improve human health and that Monsanto is contrite, listening and leading world business into an ethical age.
"Even our friends told us we could be arrogant and insensitive," said Mr Verfaillie of the company, which has merged with the pharmaceutical giants Pharmacia and Upjohn.
"We were blinded by our enthusiasm," he told a Washington audience this week. "We missed the fact that this technology raises major issues for people - of ethics, of choice, of trust, even of democracy and globalisation. When we tried to explain the benefits, the science and the safety, we did not understand that our tone - our very approach - was arrogant."
Mr Verfaillie said he believed biotechnology was now "at a watershed" and that society everywhere had changed.
"The shift that started 40 years ago is approaching maturity," he said. "It is a movement from a 'trust me' society to a 'show me' society. We don't trust government - and thus government rulemaking and regulation is suspect. We don't trust companies - or the new technologies they
introduce into the marketplace. We were still in the 'trust me' mode when the expectation was 'show me'."
From now on, he said, the new Monsanto would be ethical and to prove it it had published a five-point pledge of new commitments which were, he said, unprecedented in the biotechnology industry.
"We commit to respecting the religious, cultural and ethical concerns of people," said Mr Verfaillie. "[Monsanto] will not sell grain products until they have been approved for consumption by both humans and animals; nor will [Monsanto] use genes taken from animal or human sources in our agricultural products intended for food or feed, or sell foods in which known allergens have been introduced." And he promised not to pursue technologies that resulted in sterile, or so-called
The company has been criticised for imposing GM farming on poor countries. No longer. The new Monsanto will, according to its chief, "bring the knowledge and advantages of all forms of agriculture to resource-poor farmers in the developing world to help improve food security and protect the environment".
To those who accuse Monsanto of having consistently evaded government regulations, he promised to work legally, probably a first in corporate history.
In response to critics who have alleged the company is secretive about sharing its research, he said it would now publish all scientific data and data summaries on product safety.
Yesterday the company's many critics around the world were congratulating it on its pledges but were mostly hoping it would pledge to go away.
"Sweet isn't it," said a Friends of the Earth spokesman. "Here's a company with its back to the wall and its technology going down the tube. We welcome its pledges but it must face up to the fact that people do not want its food."
"We have read the commitments," said an Indian anti-GM activist who has been marching with many thousands of small farmers against Monsanto and other giant companies. "They are very fine. But a tiger is not a pussy cat. If it has large whiskers it is probably still a tiger with a plan to gobble
you up even faster."
Monsanto, said its chief, had set up "a dedicated team to facilitate its pledges and share its GM technology with public institutions, charities and industry round the world".
Yesterday the Guardian asked the Monsanto HQ switchboard to be put through to one of the team. The call was met with an answering machine.