Within a span of one month, Monsanto won a court case, lost a PR battle and wound up at the center of a controversy over illegal genetically modified wheat. It's all money in the bank for the ag giant.
In a month that began with a decisive court victory to protect its priceless plant patents, May could not have ended more badly for Monsanto Co., the $56 billion St. Louis biotech giant.
In fact, Monsanto’s May is a snapshot of the clinically cold, emotionally hot relationship U.S. consumers have with genetically modified food and the global firms that promote it. Love it or hate, most Americans eat it.
On May 13, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that growers could not use patented crop seeds to create new seeds they then could use without paying royalties to the inventor.
The case, Bowman vs. Monsanto, was a huge win for Monsanto and other firms that specialize in “self-replicating” technologies like GMO seeds. The victory is worth, literally, tens of billions of dollars.
Monsanto praised the win but the terms it used shows just how mindful it is of the public’s split loyalties. The Court’s ruling “was crucial for innovations that deliver benefits to millions of Americans,” the company explained, and it “ensures… breakthrough 21st century technologies that are central to meeting the growing demands of our planet and its people.”
The PR babble-speak is clear: keep your eyes on the ball we’re tossing up—“growing demands” of a hungry planet—and not on our company’s profits or controversial technology. It’s about you, not us.
The corporate apple, however, didn’t shine long after that polishing. Twelve days later more than 2 million people in 52 countries and 436 cities turned out to “March Against Monsanto.” The global event was both a protest against GMO-based foods and a promotion to label food that contain GMO ingredients.
(Monsanto responded to the protests with its assertive greenwashing: While the company “respects people’s rights to express their opinion… (our) seeds help farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy.”)
The big hammer blow fell two days after Memorial Day, May 29, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that an unapproved, genetically-modified wheat was found growing “wild” in Oregon.
It was a remarkable discovery not only because GMO wheat has never been approved for commercial use in the U.S. but also because field trials for the Monsanto product had concluded in Oregon in 2005 and, in fact, Monsanto itself had dropped the tests and the product—so it claimed—shortly thereafter.
So how does an approved, essentially illegal wheat pop up eight years—others say 12 years—after its last, legal use in a key wheat-producing state well-noted for its foodie culture?
If anyone knows, no one is saying.
GMO critics say the obvious explanation is, well, obvious. GMO germplasm—pollen, plants, seed—escaped from the experimental, Roundup Ready wheat grown during field trials conducted by Monsanto from 1994 through 2005 in 16 states.
If so, that “escape” likely isn’t singular or just in Oregon, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, told the Washington Post May 30. Finding it “means it’s been sitting there in the environment” for almost a decade and “it’s doubtful that it’s just on one farm.”
America’s export customers suspect the same thing.
That same day, Japan, the biggest buyer of U.S. wheat, reportedly suspended all American wheat imports on fears the GMO wheat—unwanted in its domestic markets—may be found elsewhere. It also canceled the purchase of one shipment of white wheat, a wheat used mostly in noodle-making.
The European Union, which bought almost 40 million bushels of American wheat last year, is, according to the Post, “following developments ‘to ensure E.U. zero-tolerance policy (for GMOs) is implemented.’”
And yet, Monsanto’s rough end of the month has not rattled either its investors or chief client, American farmers, who continue to buy, plant and promote GMO seeds and technology at record prices and a record pace.
And why wouldn’t they; unlike consumers in Japan and Europe, Americans say little to nothing about the GMO ingredients found in an estimated 70 percent of the food they buy.
More than not, that acceptance means Monsanto’s bad end to May will fade as quickly as the headlines.
Its big beginning, though, will be taken to the bank for decades.
Ag journalist Alan Guebert lives in central Illinois.