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Why GMO labeling could be good for Monsanto

With the Just Label It and Right2Know non-GMO campaigns building steam, GMO labeling still remains a topic of debate. Adam Eidinger, organic food activist and organizer of last year's Right2Know March, recounts his recent experience of speaking at Monsanto's shareholder meeting, and explains why GMO labeling may become a reality.

When you visit the Monsanto website, you’ll be greeted with phrases such as “Improving agriculture, improving lives,” “Let’s end world hunger,” and “Sustainable agriculture: Producing more. Conserving more.” You can watch a promotional video featuring verdant green fields, brilliant sunsets and illusionary phrases like “Stand in the Amazon or the arctic and you’ll see ancient rainforests and majestic shelves of ice disappearing.” Monsanto—the world’s largest biotech seed company—urges readers to “realize a vision for sustainable agriculture,” and most peculiarly, regards transparency as one of its eight pillars of corporate responsibility.

To those unschooled in the realities of Monsanto’s work, it would appear the company seems on par with an organization whose mission includes alleviating world poverty, raising the quality of life for small farmers and fostering third-world education. But for those in the know, Monsanto is far removed from philanthropic endeavors.

A look inside Monsanto headquarters

Last Tuesday, Adam Eidinger, organic food activist and arguably the most “in the know” individual, appeared at the Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis during a shareholders meeting to present a proposed study of the “material and financial risks or operational impacts” associated with its chemical products and genetically modified crops. Eidinger, who coordinated the 15-day, 313-mile Right2Know March from New York City to the White House to encourage lawmakers to label GMOs, prepared the resolution along with Harrington Investments, a shareholder advocacy firm concerned about the financial implications of consumer disdain over Monsanto and its leading GMO seed products.

While shareholders rejected the study at a 94.3 percent majority, Eidinger had the unique opportunity to gain insight into the inner gears of Monsanto—a venture into the belly of the beast.

“Right2Know coalesced around the issue of labeling GMOs in the U.S. as it is mandatory in Europe. But I don’t think Monsanto understands there is a big nuance there when you talk about labeling versus banning biotech entirely,” Eidinger said. “In order for labeling to pass it needs to be a win-win situation. I think Monsanto realizes that by focusing efforts on labeling GMOs rather than eliminating, it is a huge compromise on our part.”

It’s certainly commendable that Monsanto permitted Eidinger to speak at all, considering non-GMO supporters were simultaneously protesting on company property. But Eidinger stresses there are discrepancies between activist and shareholder mentalities. “It is not a viable business plan to ignore what is happening in the marketplace. The bottom line is that consumers want to know what they are eating. Non-GMO is one of the fastest growing third-party certifications in the natural foods space."

Indeed, sales of products containing the Non-GMO Project Verified label fetched $1 billion in sales from October 2010 to October 2011, according to SPINS. And as shoppers grow savvier over the possible dangers of GMOs—including the environmental impacts of heavy herbicide and pesticide use—both farmers and manufacturers will amplify actions to avoid GMOs in their products.

Monsanto on track to alienate thousands of consumers

In his shareholder testimony, Eidinger cited the impending possibility that Monsanto will alienate consumers. “No human safety studies have taken place, even as the industry, including Monsanto, is moving on to breed resistance to ever more toxic herbicides including 2,4 D, the main ingredient in Agent Orange, and Dicamba, a potent neurotoxin listed as a 'bad actor' by the Pesticide Action Network. The failure of this technology is on the wall, and widespread public rejection is imminent." In essence, Monsanto is fueling consumer backlash through its lack of transparency, Eidinger argued.

This is a novel and compelling way to approach the issue of GMOs. While previous efforts have concentrated solely on consumer rights, Eidinger offers an economic argument for Monsanto to support the labeling of its products. Over half a million citizens have signed Just Label It’s petition, and states such as California and Washington are making initial movements to include state-mandated GMO-labeling ballots on dockets. How much money is Monsanto willing to spend in order to combat this legislation? And what legal costs are at stake to compensate for contamination?

In a statement, CEO of Harrington Investments John Harrington said, “The unfortunate reality facing American farmers right now, is that genetic drift from GMO crops is contaminating their conventional and organic crops. This can be disastrous because many GMO crops cannot be sold to important markets, such as Europe, China and Japan. The potential legal implications for Monsanto are staggering.” When placed in this context, for the first time Monsanto has an incentive—however fledgling it may be—to label GMOs.

International role models

Most recently, this worldwide animosity towards GE plants was exemplified in France. In 2008, the French government decried a three-year ban on the sale of biotech seeds. Despite a November 2011 revocation of the law, which would legally allow Monsanto to resume sale of its products, anti-GMO activists spurred Monsanto’s decision to announce it “considers that favorable conditions for the sale of the MON810 [a genetically modified type of corn bred to resist insects] in France in 2012 and beyond are not in place.”

Pete Riley of GM Freeze, the chief organization largely responsible for France’s non-GMO movement stated, “The decision by Monsanto not to market MON810 seeds in France in 2012 is yet another sign that Monsanto has failed to convince the public or policy makers that there is any benefit to growing GM crops.” And with one fell swoop GMOs are practically eradicated from the country.

France's success in expelling GMOs from their markets is an excellent roadmap the United States can follow. So vehement was citizen outrage at the government’s decision to revoke the previous rule that Monsanto recognized it would have no monetary achievement. While many U.S. citizens remain confused over what GMOs are, let alone their potentially harmful effects, as people become more interested in where their food comes from, passion over the issue will grow exponentially.

As other countries make marked success in the fight against GMOs, and notable figures such as Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Mark Bittman, and Ziggy Marley conjure massive consumer support for the non-GMO movement, the horizon glows with a light—however distant—of a GMO-labeled (and potentially free) future. 

Want to support the movement? Sign the Just Label It petition and tell us how you combat GMOs in the comments.

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