As many people know, Monsanto is a company that has attracted controversy over the years, from its production of Agent Orange and Aspartame to its current role in producing genetically modified seeds. Holloway opened his talk by explaining that Monsanto’s primary goal is to help solve the global food crisis, which it believes can only be solved through technology. Holloway said that this has brought attention from activists and others and that the company has occasionally been the target of activist campaigns and inaccurate news reports. He said that in response he would share resources at the end of the presentation for those who wanted additional information. When he shared those “resources,” it was simply a link to a page on Monsanto’s website that provides rebuttals to common criticisms of the company.
Following these remarks, Holloway showed a brief PR video produced by Monsanto that emphasized the company’s commitment to “sustainability.” The video had interviews with numerous farmers talking about higher yields from Monsanto crops and how their farming requires fewer resources due to Monsanto’s technology. The video emphasized the companies “responsibility” and painted the company as one that was motivated by altruism to tackle growing food demand.
Holloway said that Monsanto is now focused exclusively on agriculture and has a goal of sustainably confronting rising food prices. He acknowledged problems facing agriculture–rising energy prices, increased demand for food, global warming, and environmental concerns–and said that despite these, Monsanto is making a serious effort to help double worldwide food production in the next 50 years. He said that agriculture is currently inefficient and that farming methods are too demanding.
To remedy this situation, Monsanto is investing considerable money in researching seeds and creating genetically modified seeds. Monsanto spends $3 million per day on research and development according to Holloway. He said that the company’s research is directed towards three goals aimed at helping to feed the world’s population. The first goal is producing better food, which it is doing by producing seeds that will double yields in corn, soybean, and cotton by 2030. Second, Monsanto is seeking to produce seeds that require one-third of the resources that are currently needed. Lastly, the company wants to “improve farmers’ lives” by selling farmers better seeds. In speaking about this, Holloway also talked about a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at getting drought tolerant corn to African farmers for free (two former Monsanto executives work for the Foundation).
Holloway’s talk–like any talk by a corporate executive–was essentially a PR piece. It gave a flattering portrayal of Monsanto as a benevolent actor seeking to stop global food shortages and sidestepped controversy.
During the question and answer period, those asking questions tended to be a little skeptical of the company. There were questions focusing on alternative agricultural practices such as rotating crops or organics, the long-term health effects of GMOs, milk labeling, and initiatives in developing countries. As he did during his presentation, Holloway continued to portray Monsanto in a positive light and gave vague answers. He told a questioner that there are no known health effects from GMOs and said that such products–including Monsanto’s rBGH–are extensively tested. However, he did not go into the controversy surrounding these products and the policies that regulate them (for example, the government sees such foods as no different than traditional cross-breeding). Similarly, on rBGH–a milk hormone formerly produced by Monsanto under Holloway’s watch–he said that there are no adverse health effects. Critics have pointed to possible health effects, such as increased levels in certain hormones, but Holloway said that rBGH is simply a synthetic version of a hormone that is already found in milk. He also responded to Monsanto’s opposition to labeling milk as “rBGH free” by saying that they were opposed to inaccurate labeling and that the label allowed some milk companies to profit without passing the profit onto farmers.
He also told the audience that Monsanto has several initiatives aimed at developing countries. He said that they are developing a type of rice that would help overcome vitamin deficiency and are providing scholarships to students. Of course, the source of the funding probably wouldn’t help the company appease its critics. The funding comes from a program that allows farmers to turn in other farmers illegally using Monsanto’s seeds. Under Monsanto’s licensing contracts, farmers cannot use the traditional method of saving seeds.
Overall, while there was some lip service paid to concerns over Monsanto’s business practices and the larger questions surrounding biotechnology, Holloway’s talk provided a resoundingly positive portrayal of Monsanto.