There are a lot of things that describe me. PhD scientist, husband, father, biophysicist, biochemist, blogger, history buff, platform lead, poet, Monsanto employee and political progressive. The last two things on that list are a source of great conflict, at least for me recently.
Those that know me well know that my political leanings lie far to the left and they also know that I make no apologies for it. As a result, I read Daily Kos daily. I have met some wonderful progressive activists through that blog and participated in activities that are aimed at making our corner of the world a better place. For those non-political geeks, the dictionary defines progressive in the context of politics thus:
1 a: one that is progressive b: one believing in moderate political change and especially social improvement by governmental action
It is the end of that definition that I identify with most. It is one of my core beliefs that government can be used as a tool to enact social change.
So, what about this conflict? It should come as no surprise to most of you that Monsanto is not a favorite among much of the progressive crowd. Perhaps the opposition to GM crops in Europe spearheaded by Greenpeace is the most well known example of progressive opposition. Over the last couple of years, the local food movement has blossomed in the U.S. The term locavore is now heard regularly in the news and on the Internet. One focus of the local food movement is food security – the availability and access to food. Perhaps now you can start to connect the dots to see how the local food movement – a progressive movement – might be at odds with Monsanto.
As you might imagine, the patenting of seeds is seen by many in the movement as an attempt to control, monopolize even, the access to food. And of course, our attempts to enforce our legal patent rights are also seen in a negative light. In this context, hardly a week goes by without a diary on my favorite progressive blog bashing Monsanto for the work we do. You can see them in the link to this search.
Pick a few of those diaries and read them. Then go and read the comments. I assure you it will be enlightening. You will learn that Monsanto employees are stupid. We’ve been hoodwinked by our employer. Why else would we work here? Not only are we stupid, we’re evil. You must be evil to want to control the world’s food supply. You might also learn that Monsanto employees are still working on Terminator technology. Did you know that we put animal genes into plants? Did you know that pollen from our genetically-modified crops will magically migrate into another farmer’s field and contaminate his crop? When that happens, big bad Monsanto will forcibly move onto that farm and confiscate the crop. Our goons will go and put that small organic farmer out of business. That’s what the evil Monsanto does. As any reasonable blog entry will have links, go check them out. Most of them link to pseudo-science sites or other blogs.
If you can’t tell by now, those particular diaries really make my blood boil. But it isn’t only about anger, it’s about hurt. Because I suspect that those diarists and I will probably agree on more issues than we disagree. Some of those same folks might be standing beside me volunteering at the food bank, organizing online for AIDS relief for Africa, or bringing attention to the restoration of the poor parts of New Orleans after Katrina by lobbying our representatives. So, when those people, MY people call Monsanto evil, call Monsanto stupid, they’re calling ME evil and stupid. And they’re calling other employees evil and stupid. And just as I have a bond with those political progressives, I have a bond with those employees who come to work every day and bust their backsides trying to discover the latest yield gene, or those who sweat their backsides off in a hot Iowa cornfield sampling plants in the summer, or those on the sales force that go the extra mile to make a customer feel like the only customer we have.
We are not stupid and we are not evil. It is not evil to develop drought-resistant maize for Africa. It is not evil to help stop child labor in India. We are not evil for improving the working conditions of migrant farm workers. The Monsanto Pledge is not a bunch of words that make us sound good. In fact, this:
With the growth of modern agricultural practices and crops that generate ever-increasing yields, we are helping farmers around the world to create a better future for human beings, the environment, and local economies.
Sounds pretty darn progressive to me. There’s nothing incompatible with the work we do every day and a progressive vision. And THAT is one of the reasons that I come to work here every day. Those folks in the food security movement would call me stupid for saying it, but we’re just as progressive as they are. Well, they’re going to call me stupid anyway.
I wrote this mainly as a way to vent. I could not write responses to all of the Monsanto bashing that occurs on my favorite progressive blog. First of all, it would take too much time. Second, the people that do try to inject reasoned science into the discussion are dismissed as “evil corporate shills” and ridiculed. Sadly, because of the transparency that we advocate, I would probably not wish to subject my family to any possible fallout from some of these people – and that is rather sad to me given our common progressive ideology.
However, I don’t think that Monsanto as a company can ignore these people or this movement. If we do, I fear it might be at our own peril. A look at the growth of the locavore movement over the last two years tells you that this grassroots movement is gaining in popularity and clout. Recall that such a grassroots movement just elected the first African-American president of the United States. It would behoove us to develop a coherent, reasoned response to this movement and let our side of the story be heard.
I will not abandon my progressive brothers over this issue just as I won’t abandon my colleagues. I hope someday we’ll all be able to work together to make this world a better place.
Jeff is a Senior Research Scientist at Monsanto where he currently leads the Protein Design Platform. Prior to joining Monsanto he was a Robert A. Welch Fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Jeff received his PhD in Biochemistry from Texas Tech University. His career at Monsanto has been devoted to both understanding the biological activities of Monsanto’s proteins as well as optimizing proteins for the product pipeline. He is the co-author of 9 peer-reviewed publications, 1 book chapter, and 2 United States Patents.
Jeff is also keenly interested in politics, social justice, and early-American history. He continually draws inspiration from his political hero, Robert Kennedy.