The question was recently asked here whether a company that pursues an unsustainable activity as its primary mission could ever be considered sustainable itself. While the answer is clearly no, there are some useful distinctions that can be made among these companies. Considering that corporations are comprised of people (and, in fact, are people according to certain oligarchs, including our present Supreme Court), then, like people, they should be expected, to display inconsistent and contradictory behaviors; not unlike a great philanthropist indulging in extra-marital affairs, or a ruthless despot who treats his aging grandmother with great tenderness. The one behavior does not nullify the other, despite what those with axes to grind, friendly or otherwise might argue.
Thus, there might be some range of characterizations that could extend from, “not at all,” through, “ a little,” to “as much as they possibly can be, given the constraints that they are operating under.” This last would, of course, include the need to provide enough revenue to pay its employees and satisfy shareholders. Realistically, it could only extend as far as aggressively setting out on a course that would transition the company towards a new means of generating revenue in a sustainable manner at some point in the future. To go beyond that (e.g. for an oil company to simply stop selling oil, without a reasonable substitute) would be economic suicide.
The report portrays the company as a provider of technology enabling farmers to meet the challenge of feeding a rapidly growing world population. They talk about helping to “create an agricultural system that provides the food we need today while preserving [the] resources our children [will] need tomorrow.” The company lists an impressive number of alliances for sustainable agriculture that they have been participating in, including: Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture,” the Sustainability Consortium, and the Global Harvest Initiative.
From an internal operations perspective, the company reported a 2.5% decrease in Greenhouse gas emission and a 2.1% reduction in water consumption. When taken on a per unit production basis, these become increases of 0.8% and 1.2% respectively. Waste and raw material consumption also increased by 4.9% and 3.8% respectively, on a unit production basis. Nothing much to crow about here, except, of course earnings, which increased by 52%.
Of course most of the company’s footprint lies in the impact of its products and the consequences of their usage in the many countries where they are being deployed around the world. The report asserts that food yields must double by the year 2050 to meet growing demand.
The company claims that yields are indeed increasing. Since 2000, yields have increased 33% for canola, 20% for corn and 11% for soy in what they call the leading countries. These are the countries that “provide a policy environment that supports innovation and investment” across the so-called three yield growth drivers, which are agronomics, breeding and biotech. Of course, Monsanto is most well known in the area of biotech with their GMO seeds and their agricultural chemicals.
In that area there have been a number of unintended consequences both in the realms of the environment as well as in social justice. Environmentally, the Roundup Ready products have been tied to declines in pollinator populations. The emergence of herbicide resistant weeds and pesticide resistant bugs has led to an escalating spiral of chemical warfare. The company’s bovine growth hormone has contaminated the nation’s milk supply. And these are just a few examples.
When it comes to social justice, the company has received tons of bad press for their alleged bullying of farmers, prosecuting them for patent infringement, for saving seeds, a practice dating back to the beginnings of agriculture (as documented in the film. Food Inc.) as well as for “stealing their intellectual property” by being located downwind of a farm using Monsanto’s GMO crops. This is particularly problematic for organic farmers who must certify their products to be GMO-free.
The company also uses the same heavy-handed approach in its dealing with the government, where it has thrown its weight (and its wealth) around to extract what some might consider grotesque concessions from the USDA, the FDA and the US Patent Office. The company has amassed so much political power through a combination of lobbying, donations and revolving door appointments that they seem to be able to get away with just about anything. They continue to fend off any efforts to require GM foods to be labeled. But, the most recent and perhaps the most egregious example can be found in a rider buried in the House Agricultural Appropriations Bill, which proposes to “require – not just allow, but require - the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for the planting or cultivation of a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed.” This literally places the company above the law. The company has not received the same carte blanche in other countries, however. They recently lost a $7.5 billion judgment, in a lawsuit filed by more than 5 million farmers in Brazil. None of these things are mentioned in the report.
Reading the sunny, earnest language of their CSR report, about “protection of natural resources, incorporating the social dimension into business strategy” and “collaboration of stakeholders,” you would not know that this is the same company that has been doing all these things. The cognitive dissonance is nearly deafening. It's almost like there are two different companies here.
That is because the report is, in essence, a charade. The company wants to present itself as a sustainable agriculture company, when, in fact, it is a chemical company that just happens to sell most of its chemicals to farmers. The expansion into biotech, may have originated with this vision of enabling abundance and ending world hunger, but at this moment in time, what it mostly does is sell more herbicide.
Going back to the opening discussion, then, selling agricultural poisons is a fundamentally unsustainable activity for any number of reasons. An honest evaluation of Monsanto on this spectrum from “not at all” to “doing as much as they can,” described earlier, would have to put them near the bottom today.
That could change, of course. If Monsanto decided to become that company in the glossy brochure, it would not be easy. But if they really wanted to transform the agricultural system into the one they describe in the report’s early pages, the one that ends world hunger while preserving resources, they would need to start to look at the entire system and not just the slice of it that is profitable for them.
If we were to look at the 12 leverage points described by Donella Meadows as the places to intervene in a system to try and change it, I believe we would find Monsanto at #12, the first step in the journey. Item 12 is Numbers. It is concerned with measuring and setting targets. Monsanto’s CSR report is full of numbers and targets, primarily aimed at increasing agricultural yield, which is the part of the problem they have been working on. But most experts who have studied world hunger as a system problem, say that poverty, inequality and distribution are the root causes. There is enough food being produced right now, to feed everyone, if we could just get it distributed. In fact, we produce 17% more calories per person today than we did 30 years ago, despite the increase in population. Why then, do we need to double production when the population is only growing by somewhere around 28%?
Moving up the ladder of leverage points, we get to Buffers(11) and Stock and Flow Structures (10), both of which in this case refer to storage and distribution of food. If Monsanto wants to end world hunger, they’ll need to understand this. The next item is Delays. When a new GMO seed is introduced into the field, it appears to meet all of its objectives. But there is a delayed response as the natural systems they are addressing begin to counteract the move, as in a chess game, by evolving resistant varieties. In the bigger question of world hunger, delays in food delivery can lead to starvation and death. To become the company they say they want to be, Monsanto needs to set down their solutions for a while and just focus on understanding the problem. That might just mean broadening their focus to include not only farmers, but the world surrounding the farms including the ultimate consumers of the food the farmers grow.
Items 7&8 both refer to balancing and reinforcing feedback loops, which would look at economics, soil fertility, climate change and many other factors. The other points are: Information Flows, Rules, Self-organization, Goals, Paradigms, and Transcending Paradigms. I don’t pretend to understand world hunger well enough to explain how each of these points apply. But a lot of this analysis has been done, in detail, by the Sustainable Food Lab.
There will certainly be some paradigm shifts required, including moving away from a mass production model to a more nuanced approach that comprehends the unique requirements of each geography. Other paradigm shifts involve working with nature rather than fighting against her, comprehending the need for agricultural species diversity, and, of course, as mentioned earlier, the notion that boosting production might be the right answer to the wrong question.
Can Monsanto transform itself, and set out on a new course that would transition them towards a new means of generating revenue in a sustainable manner at some point in the future? Certainly, they have the resources. And if we can believe anything in their CSR report, they have the inclination. But considering how profitable their current approach has been, it’s going to be a tough sell.
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.