As the world nears a population of 9.5 billion people by the year 2050 and the world’s climate continues to become more volatile, Monsanto aims to work with farmers in the long run to ensure that the world’s resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible in order to feed the world. Although Monsanto’s work in the agriculture industry has been important to the industry’s growth and success, there are ethical dilemmas surrounding Monsanto’s business practices and safety of its products. These ethical issues include mistreatment of farmers through investigations into saving seed and possible safety concerns surrounding herbicides and genetically modified seeds. This paper is an analysis of these two ethical dilemmas, setting aside the larger factors and implications of government and policy. These two ethical dilemmas bring about an important conversation, but when speaking about feeding the world, I argue the consequentialist view is more realistic than the deontologist view.
Monsanto is a sustainable agriculture company that produces seeds for crops like corn, cotton, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables. The majority of Monsanto’s seeds are Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds, which consist of biotechnology traits that the company researches and develops in order to help farmers produce healthier and higher yielding crops. Monsanto also produces herbicides like Roundup, which it sells to farmers, normal consumers and lawn-and-garden professionals. Most of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds contain traits that provide resistance to and enable a crop to grow in the presence of its herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto is one of the few companies that focus on seeds and plant biotechnology traits. Monsanto is a Fortune 500 Company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. The company employs about 21,100 employees at 404 facilities in sixty-six countries, including about 10,200 employees at 146 facilities in thirty-three states in the United States (Who).
Rise to Power
Monsanto’s scientists were the first to genetically modify a seed in 1982 and were the first to get its genetically modified seeds approved for use in the United States (Company). Under Chief Executive Officer Robert Shapiro, Monsanto set out to do good for the environment. In 1997, Shapiro in an interview said, “So in the best case, we have the same amount of land to work with and twice as many people to feed. It comes down to resource productivity” (Heal 145). In figure 1 we can see the adoption of genetically modified seeds Monsanto and its competitors were able to achieve in the United States from 1996 through 2014. Over the eighteen-year period, genetically modified corn and soybeans soared to eighty-nine and ninety-four percent respectively of the total planted acres of corn in the United States (Fernandez-Cornejo). Monsanto was the leader in driving this massive adoption of genetically modified seeds and received more approvals to test its products on fields than its competitors (Figure 2). Monsanto performed strategic acquisitions and spent billions of dollars on research and development over this time period, which enabled them to become a leader in the industry.
Patent Protection & Public Relations
One of Monsanto’s biggest problems is its public relations, and one of Monsanto’s biggest public relations issues is its perceived treatment of farmers. Monsanto actively protects its intellectual property through investigations and lawsuits when necessary. United States law prohibits farmers from saving seeds. When a farmer purchases seed from Monsanto, he is allowed to plant those seeds. Crops that are produced from genetically modified seeds also contain genetically modified seeds. Laws are broken when farmers take the new genetically modified seeds from their genetically modified crops and use these seeds for the next growing season instead of purchasing new seeds from Monsanto.
Monsanto has a process to handle farmers that save seed, which begins with an agreement that farmers sign that says they will not save seeds. Monsanto has a sales support center that answers incoming calls from anonymous people who wish to report farmers who are saving seeds (Farmers). If the claim looks like it has some support based on sales records, Monsanto sends investigators to gather further information. The investigators need to gain video evidence of the people and actions involved before approaching the farmer (Seed). If there is enough evidence against the farmer, investigators will confront the farmer in the fall. Most farmers will admit to their saving seeds and settle with Monsanto in order to preserve an ongoing business relationship. Other times, Monsanto will have to file a lawsuit against a farmer. Monsanto has only sued farmers 147 times since 1997 out of the 325,000 farmers it does business with in the United States every year. Of those 147 farmers, only nine cases have gone to trial, and Monsanto has won all nine cases (Settling).
There are only a number of cases that make headlines, and those tend to be the most sensational. In one well-known case, Monsanto investigators approached Gary Rinehart at his store in a small town of just over 300 people. Mr. Rinehart became angry and made the investigators leave the store (Faires). Monsanto was forced to take legal action because Mr. Rinehart was not cooperating (Gary). Monsanto later discovered that Mr. Rinehart’s nephew, Tim Rinehart was responsible for the saved seed on their shared land. The investigators had originally asked Gary Rinehart’s son who to speak to about the seeds, and the son directed them to his father (Gary). When the investigators realized their mistake they dropped the lawsuit against Gary Rinehart and reached a settlement with his nephew who never ended up paying his settlement.
Safety of Monsanto’s products is another ethical concern affecting Monsanto’s public perception. Mistrust of Monsanto’s products began in 1961 during the Vietnam War. The United States Military sprayed over 19 million gallons of herbicides over 4.5 million acres of land between 1961 and 1975 (Agent). During this period of spraying, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange was the strongest and the most commonly used defoliant (Agent). Health officials later found that herbicides used during the Vietnam War caused serious health problems, including tumors, birth defects, rashes and psychological issues in United States Veterans and their families, and the Vietnamese people (Agent). As a result of the defoliation program during the Vietnam War, Vietnam has reported that over 400,000 people were killed or maimed, 500,000 children were born with birth defects and 2 million people suffered from cancer (Agent). Monsanto was one of the major producers of Agent Orange during the United States’ defoliation campaign in Vietnam.
Following its production of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, Monsanto changed its focus and literally became a different company. After 1975, Monsanto conducted a number of acquisitions that helped grow their seed business. Around the turn of the century, Monsanto went through a series of mergers that had the company as a subsidiary of Pharmacia, which was a part of Pfizer (Company). Eventually Monsanto was spun off as a brand new company that was to be completely different from the old Monsanto and was comprised solely of the old Monsanto’s agriculture business (Company). The new Monsanto was to focus on feeding and clothing the world’s population.
The new Monsanto produces herbicides containing the chemical glyphosate, which is considered to be much safer and environmentally friendly. Glyphosate is now the most commonly used chemical in herbicides, including Monsanto’s best-selling Roundup herbicide (Figure 3). Many of Monsanto’s best selling genetically modified seeds have a trait that makes the plant resistant to glyphosate. On March 20, 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), released a study that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Lancet). However, “The IARC looks at a very narrow question: whether a substance or behavior might cause cancer under some circumstances, even if those circumstances are unlikely to occur. It does not weigh the benefit versus the risk of a chemical, leaving that up to national regulators” (Pollack). The IARC also classifies alcoholic beverages, tobacco, arsenic, asbestos, working the night shift or being a hair dresser as having the same classification as glyphosate (Pollack).
The study was received with a combination of praise and disappointment from the scientific community. A number of scientists thought the study brought to light an important scientific and ethical question on herbicide safety while other scientists were disappointed with the lack of evidence given in the study. The study cited a few peer-reviewed papers on glyphosate’s affect on mice as well as very limited data on long-term human exposure to glyphosate (Guyton). Monsanto was especially critical of the study and called for a meeting with the WHO as well as an immediate retraction of the study. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the herbicide regulating body in the United States. Ultimately, the study can only influence the EPA’s scheduled reassessment of glyphosate’s safety, but the WHO Agency’s classification has further fueled the debate whether chemicals in herbicides like glyphosate are safe to use.
The consequentialist approach to ethics centers on finding the best overall outcome. While there are a number of variations of consequentialism to fit to certain circumstances, the most basic form of consequentialism says, “Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences” (Haines). Consequentialism weighs the different stakeholders in a situation and the outcomes for each of those stakeholders. The most important part of consequentialism is the overall outcome. In agriculture, the best overall outcome is that we are able to feed the world. Ideally, we are able to feed the world in a manner that spreads happiness and relieves suffering, creates as much freedom as possible and promotes the survival of our species (Haines). Consequentialism allows a certain amount of harm to come to people as long as the overall consequence is positive.
The non-consequentialist view would be Donaldson’s deontological approach to ethics, which focuses on the idea that multinational corporations have minimal duties that they must fulfill and maximal duties that go beyond the required. A multinational corporation’s minimal duties “are mandatory and allow no discretion as to when or how they are performed” (Donaldson 141). On the other hand, a maximal duty “is one whose fulfillment would be praiseworthy, but not absolutely mandatory” (Donaldson 141). Donaldson stresses that maximal duties of multinational corporations should not be the concern and that the minimal duties are the most important. These multinational corporations have a set of rules they must follow depending on the country in which they do business. Donaldson is interested in a list of international rights that multinational corporations must secure for its stakeholders. He puts together a list of ten fundamental international rights that must be guaranteed by multinational corporations.
One of Donaldson’s ten international rights that multinational corporations must guarantee is the right to ownership of property. Donaldson might want to make the argument that Monsanto is depriving farmers of the right to property in the way that it manages the intellectual property of its genetically modified seeds. Farmers are supposed to purchase seeds from Monsanto and never use those seeds again. The plants that grow from those seeds produce new seeds, which Donaldson might argue are the farmer’s property. Donaldson would make the argument that crops are the farmer’s property and therefore the farmer should be able to reuse the seeds he gets from his crops. Donaldson would argue that the lawsuits that Monsanto brings upon farmers are a violation of their right to ownership of property.
The consequentialist would argue that the farmers couldn’t claim their saved seeds as property because Monsanto would not be able to make money. Monsanto spends billions of dollars each year on research and development in order to produce the products possible. In order to finance its operations, Monsanto needs to bring in revenue. If they were not able to make money on their products, Monsanto would not be able to spend on research and development. If Monsanto were not able to spend money on research and development then the world would not have state of the art agricultural tools to feed the world’s growing population. Figure 4 shows reasons that farmers have switched to genetically modified seeds, demonstrating the effectiveness of the seeds in improving yield. The consequentialist would argue that we should overlook the farmers’ possible right to property in order to help Monsanto provide continued solutions to help feed the world.
Another one of Donaldson’s ten international rights that multinational corporations must guarantee is the right to physical security. Donaldson would require that Monsanto know the safety of its products to humans. Monsanto has always insisted that its products, including its herbicides containing glyphosate, are safe. The company uses thousands of peer-reviewed studies as well as approvals by regulating agencies as its proof that its products are safe. However, the WHO Agency’s recent study on glyphosate as a possible carcinogen raises questions about glyphosate’s safety. Donaldson would argue that Monsanto now has reason to doubt the safety of its herbicides. If Monsanto knows that its products have the probability to infringe upon farmers’ right to physical security, Donaldson would insist that Monsanto stop selling them.
The consequentialist would argue that Monsanto’s herbicides and genetically modified seeds are necessary to feed the world’s population. The world’s population will continue to increase as total farming acreage continues to decrease. Monsanto’s former CEO Robert Shapiro said in a Harvard Business Review interview: “It comes down to resource productivity. You have to get twice the yield from every acre of land just to maintain current levels of poverty and malnutrition” (Shapiro). Monsanto’s herbicides and genetically modified seeds are integral to farmers’ ability to increase the yield of their fields. Figure 5 demonstrates Monsanto’s predictions for corn and soybean demand as well as the change in farming acreage and necessary yield. Even if the WHO Agency’s report were accurate in claiming that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic, Monsanto should still sell glyphosate. Glyphosate is not proven to be harmful to humans, and the one recent study that suggests it is harmful to humans is based on little evidence. The study also suggests that glyphosate is only really harmful to humans after long-term exposure to the chemical. As a result, the consequentialist would conclude that the possible harm glyphosate would cause to farmers after long-term exposure would be worth our ability to feed the world.
What is the correct view: deontologist or consequentialist? Modern international society has become increasingly interconnected and complicated to a point that decisions that are all good or all bad are rarities. Moving into government and policy factors that I wish to explore in the white paper, I think that consequentialism is more relevant to the issue of feeding the world. The deontologist view is too narrow minded when considering an issue of this importance worldwide. I think the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency understand the importance of herbicides and genetically modified seeds to the future of agriculture. These agencies understand the importance of Monsanto’s enforcing patent law. Although herbicides may be harmful over the long run to farmers and communities with direct exposure to these chemicals, these agencies realize that it will be easier to help those people avoid contact with the chemicals than it will be to feed the world without these technologies.
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