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Sustainability/Social Responsibility And GMO Corn & Carrots

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2008

Trying to get our hands around what “sustainability” and “corporate social responsibility” mean isn’t easy. When we published Tim York’s letter in A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability And Social Responsibility Initiative, we also announced plans for a conference that will help the industry work through these issues.

One of the reasons the definitions get so slippery is because everyone recognizes that there has to be a different definition than charity. In other words, only successful business practices can actually be sustainable and it is silly to think of practices that will lead to bankruptcy as socially responsible.

Yet it is also true that we don’t want to fall in the trap of saying that everything we would like to see happen is automatically a win for everybody. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development formulated a vision for sustainability by saying it could help companies protect the business, run the business and grow the business.

One of the hot concepts in this arena is epitomized in a book entitled, The Triple Bottom Line, by Andrew W. Savitz with Karl Weber. The book is focused on helping companies achieve economic, socialand environmental success. It builds on a people, planet, profit model articulated by John Elkington in 1994 and expanded on in his book Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line Of 21st Century Business.

Savitz points to Monsanto and its failure to work with stakeholders in planning the introduction of its GMO products as an example of a neglect of corporate social responsibility that also hindered its business success:

Protecting the business includes reducing risk of harm to customers, employees, and communities; identifying emerging risks and management failures early; limiting regulatory interventions; and retaining the explicit or implicit license to operate granted by government or by the community at large.

Biotechnology giant Monsanto made a concerted push into the field of bioengineering crops in the mid- to late 1990s. Monsanto‘s genetically modified (GM ) seeds were supposed to offer farmers enormous competitive benefits-corn containing natural insecticides , and soybeans able to withstand potent weed killers . Monsanto had a powerful sweet spot proposition: that its pioneering efforts would give the company a leading position in a major new marketplace and provide a powerful new weapon in the battle against world hunger. “Monsanto is in a unique position to contribute to the global future,” declared biodiversity advocate Peter Raven .

But Monsanto executives … failed to work with stakeholders in their development of the new initiative — a core principle of sustainable business. Monsanto dismissed early critics of GM products as antitechnology fanatics and failed to mount a concerted effort to educate consumers about the science behind genetic engineering

Monsanto consequently found itself beset by a variety of attacks. A British scientist claimed that rats eating GM potatoes failed to grow properly, and a Cornell university study published in 1999 appeared to show that monarch butterfly caterpillars died after ingesting pollen from bioengineered corn. The accuracy of both claims was quickly challenged, but public fears about “Frankenfoods” now seemed to be bolstered by science.

Several European supermarket chains as well as American natural-food retailers announced that they would remove GM foods from their shelves, and major food companies, such as baby-food maker Gerber, vowed to keep their products free of GM ingredients. Embarrassingly, even the staff canteen at Monsanto’s own UK headquarters announced it would ban GM food from its menu “in response to concern raised by our customers.”

Nonengineered soybeans began to sell at a premium over their modified counterparts — a sign that the market was rejecting GM foods. By the end of 2000, the stock market valued Monsanto’s $5 billion-a-year agricultural business unit at less than zero, despite billions the company had invested in highly advanced science over the previous decade.

Today the entire biotech industry is still struggling to win acceptance for bioengineered products in Europe and around the world — largely because of Monsanto‘s early failure to consider the demands of sustainability before launching this major business initiative.

In other words, one of the points that makes wrestling with this whole social responsibility arena difficult for many businesspeople is that one of the recognitions coming out of the work is that, often, businesses get constrained in what they can do by either government or private action. In many cases, these actions are prompted by stakeholders and so a prudent business strategy involves dialogue with lots of different players.

Just a few days ago, the President of France acted to ban GMO corn in his country — the only GMO seed that had previously been permitted. The headline: French Government Move To Ban Monsanto GMO Draws Fire. It was controversial decision and likely will not stand up to World Trade Organization scrutiny.

It was even a bit ironic as The Wall Street Journal ran a piece in 2006 pointing out that French farmers had become allies for Monsanto as they wanted to grow corn competitively:

In a country with strong and often romantic ties to food and the land, and amid this bucolic landscape of neat vineyards and village butchers, U.S. biotech companies have found an unlikely ally in their battle to bring genetically modified crops to Europe — French farmers.

More French farmers are sowing the one genetically modified seed permitted in the European Union, called transgenic corn, saying they want cheaper, better protection from pests….

The business question: Would an effort to engage in dialog with customers, employees and communities have avoided much of the opposition to GMA crops?

Possibly, Monsanto made the decision that its first GMO products would lower the costs of farmers or increase yield. Although these benefits could trickle down to consumers, they were distant benefits and many saw risk without any benefit.

What if the first genetically modified items were designed to cure disease, solve important nutritional deficiencies or directly help people in another way?

The Baylor College of Medicine just came out with a study pointing out that a small genetic modification can make carrots a much better source of calcium:

Genetically modified carrots provide more calcium

Genetically modifying carrots to express increased levels of a gene that enables the transport of calcium across membranes of plant cells can make the vegetables a better source of calcium, said researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University. Their report appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Slightly altering the gene (sCAX1) to make it a more active transporter allows for increased bioavailable calcium in the carrots,” said Dr. Kendal Hirschi, professor of pediatrics-nutrition and principal investigator of the study conducted at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at BCM in cooperation with Texas Children’s Hospital.

Greater calcium absorption

In an initial study in mice, researchers found that those which were fed the carrots with the altered gene could get the same amount of calcium as those which ate twice the amount of normal carrots. In a study in 30 human adults, those who ate the modified carrots absorbed 41 percent more calcium than did those who ate the unmodified carrots.

“These carrots were grown in carefully monitored and controlled environments,” said Hirschi. “Much more research needs to be conducted before this would be available to consumers.”

Hirschi emphasizes that there is no magic food that will solve all nutritional problems, and that proper food and exercise are still necessary. However, further developments in this area of research could allow for more nutrients in fruits and vegetables and lead to improved health.

Osteoporosis, one of the world’s most prevalent nutritional disorders, is a disease that reduces bone mineral density in the body. Doctors usually prescribe more calcium and better calcium uptake as one solution to treat the disease. Increasing levels of calcium absorption from foods would have a significant global impact on this disease.

Vegetable-based diets

With physicians and nutrition experts recommending a vegetable-based diet for health, increasing the calcium that can be absorbed from plant-based food will become increasingly important, Hirschi said.

Others who participated in the study included Jay Morris, Keli M. Hawthorne, Tim Hotze and Dr. Steven A. Abrams, all of BCM.

Funding for this research came from the National Institutes of Health, the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University and the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Pundit’s kids just are not big milk drinkers — but they love carrots. A product such as this might have appeal.

Efforts to grow and market a Golden Rice in Asia that would contain enough Vitamin A to avoid the childhood blindness that often results from a deficiency have attracted interest.

All these efforts, though, struggle in an environment of anti-GMO sentiment that is difficult to overcome.

Would a different attitude by Monsanto have been more sustainable? Might it have led Monsanto to do things differently and in a way that might have led to greater success?

Do sustainability and social responsibility enhance the financial bottom line?

E-mail us here to participate in the organization of our industry conference on sustainability and social responsibility.

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