For years, Monsanto has been the favourite whipping boy of activists opposed to genetically modified crops, and the seed company has typically shied away from going head-to-head with its critics.
People who are convinced you are the world’s “most evil corporation” and are to blame for everything from pesticide contamination to farmer suicides in India are not likely to have their minds changed.
But on Wednesday night, Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada’s director of public and industry affairs, walked onto the stage at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and took her seat next to Éric Darier, Greenpeace International’s senior campaigner on agriculture, for a discussion on genetically modified organisms.
Mr. Darier said in an interview beforehand that it was a “very rare” opportunity to face off against Monsanto. “Until recently, they had a communications strategy not to engage with opponents,” he said.
In the eyes of many in attendance, Ms. Jordan was on stage in the role of villain. Outside the venue, anti-GMO activists handed out pamphlets linking Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds to devastating environmental and health effects. Beside a photo of a mother kissing an infant, the pamphlet said GMO seeds require pesticides that threaten the health of pregnant women and young children.
Playwright Annabel Soutar, who organized the event and moderated the discussion, began by saying the evening was not simply a spectacle to see the participants “duke it out.” (Mr. Darier and Ms. Jordan were joined by University of Ottawa microbiologist Illimar Altosaar and Claire Pentecost, a Chicago photography professor whose work focuses on agriculture and bioengineering.) Ms. Soutar said the goal was dialogue and praised the panelists for taking “a leap of faith” and agreeing to discuss the issues with “people who disagree with you.”
For the next 90 minutes, though, there was a fair bit of sparring. “When you look at the overwhelming body of scientific consensus on the issue of agricultural biotechnology, it’s pretty clear that this technology is safe and useful,” Ms. Jordan began. “What has moulded my opinion around biotechnology is really farmers. Farmers have enthusiastically embraced this technology.”
Mr. Darier said farmers have not embraced the technology, they have essentially been enslaved by it. “You control most of the seeds all over the world,” he said. “There’s a huge corporate concentration around food, and we know those who control the food supply, whatever part of it, will control the rest of society. Who do we want to empower? The 1.2 billion farmers in the world who are now feeding us, or do we want to rely on large corporations?”
There’s a huge corporate concentration around food, and we know those who control the food supply, whatever part of it, will control the rest of society. Who do we want to empower? The 1.2 billion farmers in the world who are now feeding us, or do we want to rely on large corporations?
Ms. Jordan replied, “We control farmers? Ha!”
Ms. Pentecost said industrial agriculture “completely poisons the environment,” requires too much fertilizer and is a large consumer of fossil fuels. She said as weeds have become resistant to herbicides, industry has responded with “stronger chemicals, more deadly chemicals, the kind of chemicals that were in Agent Orange, which Monsanto also made.”
Mr. Altosaar, who supports the use of genetically engineered seeds, argued that they are not producing the Franken-foods the critics warn of. He used the example of Monsanto’s insect-resistant eggplant seed that is grown in India, which has eliminated the need for heavy spraying of insecticides. He said that by adding to the seed Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) — “a protein from the soil that’s in the room right now, crawling around on our boot soles” — insect larva are killed without the need for insecticides. “It’s biological, organic preservation of the eggplant, using a protein.”
One of the evening’s most cutting criticisms came from the floor. William Van Tasel, a grain farmer from Hébertville, Que., said he has been growing genetically modified crops since 1995. “I never saw anybody get sick. I never heard any documented case of it either,” he said. “Look at the issue of raw milk for cheese. There were deaths from listeriosis. How come you’re not talking about that? Why are you against GM? Is it because you’re afraid of new technology?”
Ms. Pentecost said the health effects remain unknown, but she has her suspicions. “If it is contributing to health problems, how would we know?” she asked. “Because we haven’t done scientifically based studies on that. There are different kinds of diseases that are on the rise, like auto-immune disorders and allergies.”
By the end of the evening, Ms. Jordan had heard enough. “We’re not talking about science here,” she said. “We’re talking about ideological positions. We’re talking about sociological viewpoints …. They’re making judgment statements that all corporations are bad, and Monsanto is the worst of them all, apparently.”
I don’t mind. I like engaging with people. I like people to ask questions
She accused Ms. Pentecost and Mr. Darier of telling farmers who are “working in a growing, vibrant, high-tech, innovative industry” that they don’t know what they’re doing. “I love this discussion. It’s interesting. It’s passionate. But it’s going exactly where all these discussions go, because people won’t listen to each other,” she said. “They want their own viewpoints of how the world should work.”
The evening was titled Bridging the GMO Divide, but even before it began, Mr. Darier said the gap separating him from Monsanto was too wide. “Their main business is to sell herbicides and to control farmers by supplying genetically engineered seeds to them and making sure they’re hooked on herbicides,” he said. “It’s totally contrary to where we should be going in terms of the future of food and the future of farming, so I don’t think we can bridge that gap.’’
The evening that started with anti-GMO pamphleteers outside ended for Ms. Jordan with students from the audience questioning her about why Monsanto is driving Indian farmers to commit suicide. Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has said the company is to blame for the suicides of farmers whose crops of Monsanto Bt cotton failed. Ms. Jordan said the suicides have nothing to do with Bt cotton and directed the students to a web site for further reading.
“I don’t mind. I like engaging with people. I like people to ask questions,” she said afterward. “They need to explore these issues. They just need to learn to read critically.”