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  Sunday, November 1 2:44pm PST

Saatchi & Saatchi
 
A conversation with ... Robert Shapiro
 
 
 
SWF News Team journalist Alastair Thompson talks to Monsanto's CEO
 

Alastair Thompson: Monsanto is obviously attracting a great deal of controversy at present. How does the company feel about that? 

Robert Shapiro: We don't seek controversy, but obviously it has been thrust on us. It is a direct consequence of a role we have chosen. And it is a role which we can blame only ourselves for. We have chosen to be the leading firm in the application of biotechnology to agriculture. We have done that because we believe this is good technology, and that it will serve the world well. But we realize that with any new and powerful technology with unknown, and to some degree unknowable - by definition - effects, then there necessarily will be an appropriate level at least, and maybe even more than that, of public debate and public interest. And this will include both hope and concern.

So we have chosen this role and we believe it is a good role for us. We view ourselves essentially as a technology supplier to global agriculture. We regret that the necessary concomitant of that is that we are embroiled in a fair amount of discussion about this technology and its applications.

Thompson: To some extent it has almost become Monsanto versus the environmental movement. There appears to be a public fear of genetic technology. Do you understand where that fear is coming from?

Shapiro: There isn't a single source. It obviously has something to do with the novelty of a new technology that promises to make changes to things like crops that are so important to us, and which historically have been so important to us for the last 10,000 years. There are a variety of bases for a range of reactions, some of which contain more fear than hope, and some of which contain more hope than fear.

Some of those bases are religious or quasi-religious. The notion of tinkering with the natural order of things. My guess is that for most people who have concerns about this, their concerns are based on the question of whether we are going to use these technologies wisely. Whether we have the wisdom to keep up with our scientific capabilities.

And there have been enough precedents when humanity has at best muddled through the application of new technology in ways that are sometimes frightening. Nuclear technology being the most obvious example.

So there are a number of sources of concern.

The question is how society as a whole can have appropriate discussion and debate on subjects of assessing technology and its proper applications. And how it can come to some, at least tentative, conclusions on what terms new technology will be permitted. With what degree of oversight and by whom, and what degree of monitoring and by whom. I think all of those things will test the creativity of our social and political institutions in enabling these technologies to reach their promise - which is very real - and at the same time reassure the public that the technology won't be abused.

Thompson: The protestors would probably say you have hit the nail on the head there, but would go on to say that they are not happy with the current degree of monitoring and control. And they would go on to say that Monsanto is too politically involved to ensure safety?

Shapiro: Well I would categorically reject that last assumption. We view our role as providing to the institutions of society - particularly government - the information that is requested in order for those institutions to make the judgements they are chartered to make.

It is not our role in dealing with government to do anything more than that. And we do not in fact do anything more than that. We do talk with government, we try to present information to them. We have a point of view, just as all citizens do. And we try to express those views.

I would add by the way, that the degree to which the public has some reasonable degree of confidence that its governmental institutions are operating in an honest and competent way - and are asking the right questions - varies very much from country to country. It probably has something to do with the experiences of those countries in the ability of their governments to assess risks properly and take appropriate steps.

Thompson: One of the leading edge arguments in the area of genetic modification is the issue of food labeling. Some countries have instituted labeling regimes already, while the majority of countries are clearly following the U.S. policy of not labeling unless there is a significant difference in the end product. But there is an argument that the reason public want labeling is that it would assist them to be sure the monitoring methods are safe. Does Monsanto have a view on that?

Shapiro: Not really. One can make a reasonable argument that consumers and citizens have a right to know anything they wish to know. It is they who are choosing these products and it is they who are choosing and judging their governments. So it is almost impossible to make a case that information should be withheld from consumers.

At the same time, the label as a vehicle for conveying information has its limitations obviously, of space if nothing else. There is a finite number of things one can say on a label. And certainly you can't address all concerns about food through a labeling policy.

The question therefore seems to be one of public policy for government agencies to decide. And the question is, how you balance the realism of providing information on one hand, and the appropriateness of the label on the other, with consumers', in my view unquestioned, right to know anything they wish to know about the products they consume.

Thompson: Then you are saying that if consumers want labeling - which does appear to be the case at present going by the polls -then they should have it?

Shapiro: It is a question of the reliability and meaning of polling data when they are asked questions like that. If I ask consumers if they want anything on the label, the answer is always yes. If I ask if whether a product is manufactured in a place where workers are exploited, then should that be reflected on the labeling? People say yes.

Whatever you ask people it is almost impossible for them to answer, "no that is not of relevance to me." But these are ultimately balancing questions and it is not my role, or Monsanto's role, to decide these things. It is society's role to decide those questions after appropriate debate.

Thompson: So you are open to labeling being introduced then?

Shapiro: Yes. Of course.

Thompson: Terminator technology has been in the news a lot lately. It seems arguable that terminator technology is as much a safety technology to prevent the unwanted spread of genetically modified crops as it is a technology to protect copyright.

Shapiro: As of this point in time we have nothing to do with terminator technology. It happens to be a project that was worked on by a company we are in the process of acquiring for other reasons. It is not at all clear to me at this stage that the technology either works or will work, now or at any point in the future. In any case it is many years away even if it is promising.

Its purpose as I understand it -when it was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture - was to create some protection for the originators of novel traits in crops. This is where the risk is that you introduce the trait into a crop and then farmers perpetually save that seed, using it again and again, as they have had every right to do with non-genetically modified seed. If that is the case then you can only sell the seed once, and you either have to charge an enormous amount for it, in order to be paid for the cost, or alternatively you stop doing the research.

It is very much like the issues of software piracy or CD copying. At the end of the day if someone could develop a technique for protecting CDs from being ripped off that would be a way of ultimately reducing the cost of CDs to consumers. This is because it would enable the originator of the intellectual property to be compensated on an ongoing basis.

Thompson: So then it is essentially a copyright technology?

Shapiro: Yes, it is in essence, I believe, an intellectual property issue. It happens to have, as you point out, the additional benefit of rendering sterile genetically modified crops. And to the extent one has a concern about the escape of genetically modified material, then it would be, in part, a solution to that.

Thompson: Clearly there are a lot of people with concerns about the escape of genetically modified material?

Shapiro: I must say that I can't give an overall simple answer to that question. You have to look at it trait by trait. If a herbicide-resistant strain were to out-cross, and it has been shown that the likelihood of that happening is remote, though it can happen under forced circumstances it is rather remote in nature, what would be the consequences?

Now some have suggested that it would create some sort of superweed that would be uncontrollable. But that simply isn't the case. It simply means that it would be resistant to that particular herbicide. There would be dozens of other ways to control that weed.

The real art is getting an appropriate balance of genetic traits and other agronomic processes that allow us to minimize the risk that anything harmful could occur as a result of an out-crossing incident. By and large, the agencies that have studied this have been satisfied that the risk is either very low, or slight. I do not mean to disparage the issue. I do not mean to say that it doesn't warrant attention. But it seems so far to be a highly manageable issue.

Thompson: Part of the reason that Monsanto has attracted a lot of controversy has been allegations of attacks by the company on press freedom?

Shapiro: Of what?

Thompson: Press freedom, specifically the destruction of the latest Ecologist magazine in the U.K?

Shapiro: I only remotely know the story from news clips. I don't know what it is we are supposed to have done. But I am reasonably confident that, whatever it was, we didn't do it.

My understanding is a printer destroyed a run of a magazine. As far as I know we had absolutely nothing to do with it. I don't really understand the allegation that well.

Thompson: In another allegation Fox News was said to have been about to broadcast a documentary on a growth hormone, and the documentary is said to have been pulled following pressure from your company?

Shapiro: We have, at times in the past, been very clear in our point of view where we think a media story isn't balanced and isn't fair. We have tried to express our point of view. Obviously we don't bully the media. If anything it is the other way around. We don't have the power to do that.

All we can do is express our point of view. And to the extent that there are legal remedies available, we can chose whether or not to avail ourselves of those. We have done that only rarely in the past.

Thompson: There is a fear among some people that genetic technology is already being used to such an extent in our food industry, that by the time the debate does reach a public level, and the labeling issue is decided, that it will be too late to have any great effect on the future of the technology?

Shapiro: It is uneven around the world so it is hard to generalize. In general the adoption of the first genetically modified products in the United States and in Argentina has been quite rapid. Farmers like the technologies. In most of the rest of the world there are very few, if any, crops being planted. Remember the first products in this technology only reached the marketplace in 1996.

Thompson: What specifically are the benefits in those crops?

Shapiro: It depends of course on the traits. But, for example, in insect resistant cotton the benefit is that you spray about half as much insecticide as you would otherwise use. And since cotton crops, in the U.S. at least, are very heavy users of insecticide, it is a very substantial reduction in the amount of pesticide being used. That is of benefit to farmers from an economic standpoint, and it is also of benefit to the environment. But each trait has its own set of potential benefits.

Thompson: There has been some suggestion that you might be appointed to the Food and Drug Administration?

Shapiro: I haven't heard that suggestion.

Thompson: That is not saying no. Had you heard the rumor, would you have said no anyway?

Shapiro: Yes. I think so.

Thompson: A futurist who visited New Zealand a short while ago said the public needed to have genetic technology introduced to them via their hearts, rather than their minds. At the moment if that is happening then Monsanto is being cast almost as the devil in a morality play over the use of genetic technology. How do you feel about that, both personally and from the point of view of the company?

Shapiro: I suppose you have to start with the fundamental proposition that we are here, each of us as individuals, to chose a life's work that we feel is meaningful and important. We at Monsanto feel that. We really feel that we are doing something quite useful. We think we are helping agriculture to move towards sustainability. That is not its characteristic today. There is no such thing today as sustainable agriculture.

We are working in the context of a world whose population of 5.8 billion, and which includes about a billion and a half people who are desperately poor, half of whom are on the point of starvation day to day.

We are going to add something between three and five billion people in the next 30 to 50 years. There is no more land. We can not move onto new land to grow food. The only possibility of feeding people is by employing new technologies that firstly make agriculture more productive, and secondly, that do it without the heavy use of chemicals we have come to rely on in this century.

The only technology that offers any promise of doing that is biotechnology. It simply is undoable in any other way. We therefore feel we are doing something that is useful and that we are the leaders in making that happen. We also feel that having invested a lot of our time and money in trying to develop these technologies, that our shareholders will ultimately be rewarded for that.

When we get criticism, we, like anyone else always feel that the criticism is unjust, but we try to listen. We try to engage in dialogue with people who agree with us and with people who do not. We try to learn from that process.

But sometimes we feel that we are being demonized for work that we regard as good work. There is some pain associated with that, but we have chosen to do this. If we had wanted a life without controversy we would have probably chosen something else to do.

Thompson: Outside the hotel today there is a group of protestors. What would you say to them if you were to speak to them?

Shapiro: I don't think there is any phrase or paragraph that I could present that would be likely to change anyone's mind. What I have tried to do is engage in discussion with people who are prepared to engage openly in discussion.

To the extent that there isn't any listening, and there is just shouting at each other, then that is generally not a good use of people's time. But I would invite people who have genuine concerns - who can sense the potential benefits of applying additional biological knowledge to agriculture, but who have a set of concerns about the way that is done and the way to control potential hazards - I would encourage as much discussion and dialogue with folks of that disposition as we can have.

Thompson: Thank you for your time.

 
 

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