Organic Articles: Going Steady…with Hugh Grant?

The Organic Consultancy

Going Steady…with Hugh Grant?

by Simon Wright

This article originally appeared in the October 2001 edition of Organic Business.

The first stirrings were back in 1999 when Monsanto held initial talks with the Soil Association to discuss the environmental impact of GM. Next came Monsanto UK’s Charlotte Waliker, who made a courageous presentation to a hard-core Natural Products conference in April 2000. Monsanto aimed to further engage with the organic sector through a keynote presentation to be given by Vice President Kate Fish at the Organic Business 2001 conference in Amsterdam. Sadly this conference was cancelled, but now Hugh Grant (not that one) CEO of Monsanto will be debating the motion “Time To Put GM Back On The Shelves?” with Soil Association Director Patrick Holden in London on December 4th. What is it with Monsanto and organics?

The UK organic sector provided some of the earliest and best-informed critics of GM in general and Monsanto in particular. When the media-fuelled criticism of GM lead to the effective withdrawal of GM products from European supermarket shelves the pro-GM lobby realised that they had made the mistake of entering the market with products such as GM-soya and GM-corn that delivered no appreciable benefit to consumers. A change of tactic was called for, hence the development of second-generation GM crops such as Golden Rice which would be vitamin enriched and allegedly cure nutrition-deficiency blindness. Monsanto could do with some positive PR, and cuddling up to the organic sector would be one way of achieving this.

There is a second, less cynical possibility that goes beyond such corporate “greenwashing”. Charlotte Waliker suggested that the long-term future for Monsanto could lie in its knowledge of crop plant and animal genomics, that is their detailed genetic make-up. She pointed out that this information could be very useful to the organic sector, who could use it to breed particular varieties of plants and animals optimally-suited to organic agriculture. There would be no need to use GM techniques – traditional breeding could be used throughout. Surely the organic sector would not wish to turn down such an opportunity?

The debate on December 4th will be fascinating. The impact of GM on the organic sector has been double-edged. Consumers who wished to avoid GM have started buying organic and the GM debate has rekindled consumers’ interest in how our food is produced. However the spread of GM crops has made it more difficult every year to provide consumers with GM-free organic products. In last month’s Organic Business Michael Paske of the NFU reckoned “In time the organic movement will look at GM in a different light – there could be tremendous benefits from GM technology for organics”. Currently Monsanto and the other GM agribusiness companies have a lot to live down to. It’s Good To Talk – but can Monsanto offer the organic sector more than Sweet Nothings?