ST. LOUIS – Hugh Grant, chairman and CEO of Monsanto, reacted positively Jan. 28 to the idea of company scientists promoting bioengineered ingredients through media outlets.
Justin Danhoff, representing the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research, brought up the idea during Monsanto’s annual shareholders meeting in St. Louis. Danhoff wanted to know if scientists might speak on talk radio shows, appear on television and answer questions from the public.
“Yes, I think it’s a really good idea,” Grant said.
He added company executives have discussed how scientists increasingly need to be better communicators. Grant apologized for the company’s past inability to explain bioengineered ingredients to the public.
“When I look back over the last several decades, I realize that our business has done a really good job of engaging with the science community, the agricultural chain and our farmer customers,” he said. “We simply haven’t engaged enough at the level that we should have with all the audiences, and for that, we apologize. I apologize myself.”
David Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now, said members of his organization, which is made up of more than 650,000 farmers and citizens, could discuss the safety of bioengineered ingredients with Monsanto scientists.
“You pick three people from your team, and we’ll pick three from ours, and we’ll have a real debate on this topic,” he said at the meeting.
Murphy is in favor of mandatory labeling of bioengineered ingredients in the United States, calling it a matter of consumer choice.
“It is a vote in favor of free market,” he said. “It is a vote in favor of capitalism. It is a vote in favor of democracy and, more importantly, a vote in favor of freedom.”
Grant said Monsanto will continue to support voluntary labeling, but not mandatory labeling, in the United States. Mandatory labeling might imply food products containing bioengineered ingredients are inferior or unsafe, he said.
“The food companies are already providing this type of choice today for consumers who prefer to purchase non-GM [genetically modified] foods through organic offerings or by voluntary labeling systems — by labeling their products as non-GM,” he said.
The annual meeting also involved a proposal asking Monsanto’s board of directors to prepare a report addressing the actual and potential material, financial and operational risks to the company related to bioengineered products. An advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 27 was in favor of such a report and was paid for by members of SumOfUs.org, a global consumer advocacy organization, in partnership with Monsanto shareholders, Harrington Investments and Green Century Capital Management, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Pesticide Action Network, and Food & Water Watch.
Margo McMillan, a farmer from Missouri representing John Harrington and Harrington Investments, spoke at the annual meeting. She said she worried younger farmers would abandon bioengineered technology and instead use seeds from Monsanto’s competitors. General Mills, Inc. promoting its original Cheerios as “GMO free” also might steer more consumers away from bioengineered ingredients, she said.
Grant said, “This proposal was also carefully considered by the board of directors, which has concluded that an additional report, as suggested by the proponent, would be redundant and provide no meaningful additional information to shareowners.”
The Securities and Exchange Commission already requires Monsanto to report risks or potential impacts to shareowners, he said.