Monsanto fights its corner in the GM debate, but fails to provide a balanced report
By Kristina Babbitt
It is rare for a corporate responsibility report to include footnotes. Grown for the Future, Monsanto’s 2008-2009 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report, contains 35. Most are references to scientific reports and research supporting claims Monsanto makes on the benefits of genetically modified seeds. The result? Grown for the Future reads less like a CR report and more like a policy document written to educate and influence the reader on GM practices.
The debate over GM food continues to polarise, and few companies invoke such strong feelings as Monsanto. It is after all the biotechnology agriculture company that produces the pesticide Roundup as well as GM seeds. And despite widespread acceptance in many parts of the world, GM remains highly controversial.
But there are plenty of people who believe in Monsanto’s work, reputable scientists and well-known philanthropists among them, who think GM technology is essential to feed the world. With Grown for the Future, Monsanto had an opportunity to address the controversy and position itself in the context of the larger debate. Unfortunately, it has missed the opportunity. Instead there is scientific data, figures and facts supporting the company’s stance but a seeming unwillingness to listen to others.
In the first section, Our Commitment, Monsanto states that it “aspires to find solutions for one of the greatest challenges of our time: feeding a growing world”. Monsanto’s approach is three-fold and its commitment is impressive: to help farmers double their yield of core crops by 2030 (from base year 2000); reduce agriculture’s use of key resources per crop unit by a third from 2000 to 2030; and improve farmers’ livelihoods, including five million rural poor.
The scope and breadth of data presented in this section is impressive. There are charts tracking the projected global demand for major crops by decade from 2000 to 2030; growth in corn yield among top producers by country; and the change in resources consumed and emissions per unit of output for US crops. But this data is primarily used to support Monsanto’s stance on GM, not track the company’s progress or performance, as should appear in a corporate responsibility report.
In the Our Products section, the benefits offered are discussed, but there is nothing on potential risk. This is counter-productive because it fails to address well-documented concerns, particularly around reproductive health.
Concerns about genetic modification are not completely ignored but Monsanto’s dismissive tone underscores that the report is a public affairs document with no interest in presenting a balanced view.
The report lacks meaningful stakeholder engagement, and certainly discusses no challenges. There are 10 “perspective” boxes throughout the report. Only three are external perspectives, which are all positive endorsements of Monsanto.
The section on Monsanto Pledge Awards highlights employees, projects and programmes that “exemplify their values”. It is a feelgood, soft section, but is a nice balance amid the hardline science that populates most of the report.
It is refreshing to see that Monsanto has implemented a robust human rights programme. This includes distribution of a human rights employee guidebook to nearly all of its 20,000 employees, along with 95% of those employees being trained on the issue. All new employees not only receive training, but must also pass a test.
Additionally, Monsanto’s commitment to safety, both on the job and, more impressively, off the job, is admirable. In addition to the over 650,000 hours spent training their own employees on safety, Monsanto spent another 14,500 hours training employees’ family members on issues such as first aid, emergency preparedness and vehicle safety.
At the end of the report suddenly lots of operational data is presented. Lack of context may make the charts confusing to some readers. Figures on chemical oxygen demand, acidification emissions and eutrophication, for example, would have been better off accompanied by definitions and relevance for the non-specialist audience.
For all of the talk of advance hybrid seeds and biotechnology, there is no photography of Petri dishes, test tubes or scientists. Instead, only photos of lush corn fields and soft cotton seeds populate the pages. Monsanto is, at its core, a science company, yet there is not a single image of anything scientific. While one understands Monsanto’s desire to distance itself from the Monsanto chemical company of old, it seems disingenuous for the visuals to pretend that science has no part in the company’s product line.
Not so long ago, Monsanto changed its logo. Now a hand-drawn rectangle surrounds a hand-drawn branch with hand-drawn leaves. Softer lines to reflect, one imagines, the desire for a softer image. Yet this report indicates the company isn’t there yet.
Follows GRI? Yes
Materiality analysis? No
Stakeholder input? Not enough
Seeks feedback? Yes
Key strengths? Backs up claims with reputable research.
Chief weakness? Largely ignores critics and a lack of engagement.
Pleasant surprise? Commitment to human rights and employee safety.