Monsanto. It’s a company whose name is synonymous with genetically engineered food. Since the early 1990s, the company has aggressively marketed genetically modified seeds around the world, often attracting significant protests and outrage in the process.
Next Tuesday, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is hosting Kevin Holloway–head of animal agriculture at Monsanto–who will deliver a lecture titled “Monsanto: The Business of Feeding the World.” Holloway is speaking at an event in downtown Grand Rapids organized by the Seidman College of Business Alumni Association. Other than that, no further information on the particulars of the talk is available.
While working at Monsanto, Holloway–who formerly worked for Michigan based Dow Chemical–has played a key role in one of the company’s most controversial efforts–marketing milk containing the genetically modified growth hormone rBGH (also sometimes known as rSBT) which was sold under the brand POSILAC. The hormone, which was developed by Monsanto and approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, has been a lightning rod for criticism by consumers and health advocates. The United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission upheld a ban on the product in the European Union, while Canada banned the hormone.
Health related concerns about rBGH are numerous and fuel much of the opposition to the hormone. Critics argue that the hormone changes the chemical composition of the milk via the increased presence of a hormone called “insulin-like growth factor-1” (IFG-1). According to the Center for Food Safety, numerous studies now demonstrate that IGF-1 is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. The hormone is also harmful to cows, leading to increased instances of mastitis, contamination of the milk with pus, and a 50% risk of lameness due to hoof and leg problems.
Monsanto–who sold the POSILAC brand earlier this year–argued that the hormone greatly enhanced the efficiency of milking cows. According to a company website, “The benefit of POSILAC is its ability to increase milk production significantly and, in doing so, to lower farm fixed costs over units of milk produced.” The hormone yields an average of 10 additional pounds of milk per day, per cow according to Monsanto. Additionally, it can increase lactation.
However, while some farmers jumped at the opportunity to increase the “profitability” of their herd via POSILAC, consumers were more skeptical of the hormone. Aside from bans in Canada and the European Union, rBGH milk was dropped by several major retailers including Kroger and Wal-Mart. Moreover, consumers consistently supported labeling the milk–80% according to one Consumer Reports survey–much to the chagrin of Monsanto.
Kevin Holloway, the head of Monsanto’s animal agriculture division, played a role in the company’s efforts to fight against the labeling of milk. In response to dairies that labeled their milk as “rBGH-free,” Monsanto launched an aggressive campaign aimed at stopping the labeling. The company filed lawsuits and attempted to stop dairies from labeling milk. As part of this effort, Kevin Holloway frequently spoke out against labeling, arguing that the use of hormones was one of farmer choice and that labeling milk resulted in unfair marketing practices:
“This milk is positioned as a specialty product with labels that say things like ‘no hormones or antibiotics’, ‘not produced with rbST’ and a variety of other statements that imply it may be better than conventional milk.”
Holloway also argued that stores demanding rBGH-free milk should pay a premium to farmers:
“The point of this decision guide is that buyers of specialty milk should pay a premium if they want to limit dairy farmers’ choice to use safe, effective technology. At a minimum, this premium should be guaranteed to pay for lost profitability, handling and verification costs of specialty milk. This guarantee should last as long as a producer is required to give up the choice.”
Aside from efforts coming directly from Monsanto, the company also engaged in more shady campaigns aimed at winning consumer support for rBGH milk. Monsanto was instrumental in the creation of American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology a front group created by the PR firm Osborne & Barr to promote rBGH. According to Sourcewatch.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Osborne & Barr was hired to handle Monsanto’s POSILAC brand in 2006. In 2007, Monsanto and several key dairy organizations met via conference call to plan the formation of the faux grassroots group. Monsanto has admitted to funding the group. Monsanto has also attempted to silence journalists investigating rBGH.
For critics of Monsanto, the company’s rBGH milk is just one example of what is a very troubled history. Since its founding in 1901 as a chemical company, Monsanto has been dodged by controversy. It manufactured Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide that was sprayed by the US during the Vietnam War, contaminating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and US soldiers. Agent Orange is believed to be linked to birth defects in thousands of Vietnamese due to dioxin exposure from the chemical. The company also produced PCBs and DDT, both of which are highly toxic chemicals. Behind these chemicals is a legacy of pollution.
In recent years, Monsanto has attempted to position itself as an altruistic company, with its website emphasizing such virtues and values as “sustainability,” while making lofty statements about improving the lives of farmers and lessening the environmental impacts of agriculture through technology. For Monsanto, this technology has meant genetically engineered seeds–with the company making 90% of the world’s genetically engineered seeds.
Of these genetically engineered seeds, Monsanto’s most controversial is the “Roundup Ready” soybean, which is engineered with a gene to make it resistant to Monsanto’s “Roundup” herbicide. “Roundup Ready” soybeans can be sprayed with the herbicide and they will not die, while all weeds in the area will be killed. The genetically engineered food is rapidly entering the food supply, with some 60% of soybeans in the US being “Roundup Ready.” Monsanto has also been the target of criticism for pursuing and researching “terminator” seeds that are engineered to be sterile after the first year, making it impossible for farmers to save seeds.
Like it has with rBGH, Monsanto has aggressively campaigned to win public support for its “Roundup Ready” soybeans. At the same time, it has gone after farmers who attempt to save seeds or who’s fields unknowingly become contaminated with genetically modified crops. Monsanto has sued farmers and initiates investigations into potential violations of its licensing agreement by contracting with investigative firms to conduct samples of farmers’ fields.
In order to gain approval for genetically modified seeds, Monsanto has maintained a close relationship with the US government. Several government regulators that have been involved in approving Monsanto products have formerly worked for or consulted for Monsanto, raising questions about the scrutiny given to Monsanto’s products.
Monsanto has also aggressively marketed genetically engineered seeds in other parts of the world, although it has often met strong opposition than it has in the US. Still, several notable controversies have developed. In India, Monsanto has sold a form of genetically modified cotton called “BT Cotton” that has been aggressively marketed and is supported by the Indian government despite numerous problems. Moreover, around the world genetically modified crops are contaminating non-GMO crops, most notably in Mexico.
When Holloway speaks at GVSU next week, it’s likely that much of this controversy will be left out. Those attending the speech likely will be treated to a glossed over, PR friendly version of Monsanto’s past and present.