Bill Liebhardt asked whether folks had thoughts on the current
Monsanto situation in Europe, the corporation is spending big money
promoting bioengineering to audiences that have resisted it.
First, there was a comment made on SANET recently deriding people's
interest in Monsanto's role in global biotechnology, and their
concerns about the power of corporations to determine research
agendas, agricultural technology choices and adoption, etc.
Those of you who feel this is not a pertinent big picture sustag
issue might want to read the rBGH and rotational grazing technology
assessment that Bill edited:
/The Dairy Debate: Consequences of Bovine Growth Hormone and
Rotational Grazing Technologies/, Davis, CA: UC-SAREP, 1993
It looks to me like Monsanto has been re-engineering itself for some
time...spinning off pesticide subsidiaries that it acquired in the
80s and 90s and recasting itself as a "life sciences" corporation.
Its new motto is "Food * Health * Hope."
Monsanto appears to view itself as as source of technical fixes
(bioengineered crops, vertically integrated farming systems,
bioengineered pharmaceuticals) to social problems (like population
and technological patterns that outstrip the carrying capacity of
the land, and health problems caused by war, consolidated control of
land/food/settlement, and previous, poorly considered choices of
agricultural and food technologies [including pesticides]).
I.e., hope involves buying something the corporation has to sell.
I'd like to see historical evidence that technology per se can fix
social problems without generating more, and often worse ones. If
you want to heal/fix something, find out what made it sick/broken in
the first place. And remove that. Reminds me of that old joke. "DAMN,
but it hurts when I keep hitting my thumb with the hammer!!!"
There are times when technical fixes *are* needed and fitting...but
humans seem to go quickly to those solutions, even when they're
inappropriate for the problem at hand, and especially when the winds
of profitability turn the boat in that direction. It's as though
corporations forget how to set sail to tack, and hold to course;
naaah, let the wind decide where we go, not the stars. So the
evolution of a big-picture social mindset to solve big picture
social problems seems to be slow in coming. And is ridiculed
sometimes even by some people in sustainable ag.
In its corporate communications, Monsanto trumpets its goal of
*environmental sustainability*. I'm in no position to judge how well
the corporation meets that goal or what it means. At the same time,
it doesn't appear to me that Monsanto is considering other kinds of
sustainability, like that of indigenous cultures, naturally evolved
biodiversity, etc. Environmental sustainability--yeah, well, who
wouldn't want it? ("Oh no thanks, I have as a goal for my
farm/corporation/family the degradation of the environment, in the
hopes that it will be unfit to sustain life after I'm gone.")
It strikes me as exquisitely manipulative. Monsanto's profitability
and market-building strategy appears to use the fear of pesticides
and past environmental damage caused by those chemicals to now
justify its, Monsanto's, experiments in genetic engineering. Yet
*Monsanto itself* has been partly responsible for that environmental
damage, being one of the corporations to have introduced that
untested, poorly understood technology into earth's living systems.
And to have profited richly from it.
Now that science is catching up with technology in being able to
demonstrate the health effects of these chemicals, it's a good time
to spin off pesticide subsidiaries from a profitability (liability?)
standpoint. Let somebody else clean up the mess; and go clean up
I also see Monsanto's corporate communications campaigns subtly (or
not) evoking people's fear of famine (most pressing in Southern
Hemisphere, Eastern bloc, and Asian nations) to soften them to accept
whatever food system model the corporation asserts, and to turn to
the corporation for solutions, rather than to themselves.
I see no dialogue in Monsanto's corporate communications, no
assessment of alternatives; just the message that the corporation
knows what the problems are and knows how to fix them. And of course
that requires Product and Money and Contracts and Intellectual
Which wouldn't be a problem if those who didn't wish to go along with
that system were allowed alternatives. But we saw what Monsanto's
legal division did when Swiss Valley's farmers decided they wanted
consumers to know that they, the farmers, felt it important to let
consumers know they decided not to use a Monsanto product in their
milkstream. That whole rBGH labeling issue continues to remind me of
Molly Ivins' story about how she got fired by Abe Rosenthal at the
/New York Times/.
The upshot is that the corporate communication and marketing of
products take the place of local cultural memory and problem solving.
Control over food, health, and hope moves from those who have
everything to lose...to those who stand to profit much but lose
little. If things threaten corporate profitability, spin em off and
do something else.
This is BRILLIANT STRATEGY. At this point in history, a lot of
consumers in wealthy nations take food completely for granted and are
seeing the health care system fail many people. Billions can't take
food for granted and are desperate. And one thing they may have in
common is resignation to being told that someone else holds their
fates in their hands.
Many people have had such massive experiences of trauma in this
century that their sense of empowerment is shaky or nonexistent;
think of the hundreds of millions of war deaths *alone* in the 20th
century--in living memory for many people; never mind the maimings,
rapes, loss of home and heart and land...and health...and hope.
So imagine how many people are already wired to buy or to sell
themselves for fixes, rather than envision and then engineer their
own solutions. Kindly note the word "fix," in all its connotations.
There is incredible dark genius in this. If I were wired differently,
I'd admire it. And Monsanto is far from the scariest example of this;
when I look under the bed at night, I'm finding Novartis there.
I'm not saying that Monsanto's leaders are cynical in doing this; I
don't know what their motives are. They may well believe that they
are saving the world and feeding and healing people, just as the
proponents of the Green Revolution and doctors who professionalized
OB-GYN once did.
I think of Murray Bookchin's comment in the 70s about developing an
alternative agriculture that has a "non-Promethean sensibility"
toward land and society. Big picture stuff, and a willingness to be
told by the gods that maybe humans aren't ready for fire.
I reflect on my years at Penn, right across Locust Walk from the
Wharton School; and my time working in blue-collar trades
(sandblasting, landscaping, contract painting, mechanicing), farming,
and large corporations (Sun Oil Transport, Scott Paper, duPont); my
years in educational communications; and my nine years in legal
action against Johns Manville and other asbestos companies in the
matter of my father's death.
In my experience, it's not like corporate CEOs and CFOs and CCOs and
their lawyers get where they are by being big-picture, deep-spirited
people who know when enough is enough, who walk without fear, or who
have grown beyond the need to protest their own mortality.
I feel sad that such incredible human energy and social resources go
to bolstering consumption as a solution to overconsumption. And
production as a solution to overproduction. I think of the ouroboros,
the ancient symbol of the snake devouring its own tail.
These opinions are mine and are not intended to reflect anything
other than that. Golly, why doesn't that disclaimer make my sharing
these thoughts, under the First Amendment and as a staff member of a
university center devoted to retaining an open mind about ag and
food systems, feel any less risky?
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet
and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'
--the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky
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