Is it better to feed the poor and make money, or appease Greenpeace (search) and do neither?
Biotech giant Monsanto's (search) management faced that very question this week and opted to cave in to Greenpeace. It's another example of craven shortsighted corporate managers surrendering to pressure from anti-business activist groups to the detriment of corporate shareholders and the public.
Monsanto announced this week that it was "shelving" plans to commercialize its genetically engineered wheat (search). The company denied succumbing to activist pressure in scrapping plans for the first biotech wheat, claiming instead that hard-nosed business calculations forced the decision. Monsanto's spin was that the initial market targeted (spring wheat acreage in North America) had shrunk by 25 percent since research on biotech wheat began in 1997 and that its grower-customers are divided on whether to use the technology.
Greenpeace had a quite different take on Monsanto's decision. "It's a hard-won victory for every environmental group, every consumer, every cyberactivist who has said 'no' to genetically engineered foods. The decision fits a pattern of industry retreat set last month by Bayer CropScience's (search) decision to withdraw GE maize from the UK," said Greenpeace.
Some growers may indeed be concerned about biotech wheat -- but only because Greenpeace and the rest of the anti-biotechnology/anti-business axis did a better job of scaring farmers, food processors and consumers about the technology than Monsanto did in selling it. After all, there are no health, safety or ecological reasons for concern about biotech wheat. It was headed for regulatory approval. Now it's headed for the scrap heap as development has been "deferred for four to eight years," according to Monsanto management.
Biotech wheat wasn't the only beneficial technology canned by Monsanto this week. The company also decided to close down its genetically modified canola (search) operations in Australia -- once again thanks to anti-technology fear mongering. Greenpeace anti-GM campaigner Jeremy Tager celebrated by telling Australian media, "Effectively there is not going to be a commercial release of GM canola and to have defeated that is pretty extraordinary."
Whatever short-term gains Monsanto management thinks it may reap from its retreat on biotech wheat, they do not outweigh the long-term damage done.
First, agricultural biotechnology (search) is a key component of any serious plan for feeding our planet's ever-growing population. Biotechnology can help produce more and better quality agricultural products in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner. But Monsanto's corporate management has just sacrificed two new and beneficial agricultural technologies simply because of its own stunning failure to defend its product against pressure from the lunatics at Greenpeace.
Such appeasement only encourages anti-technology activists, whose goal is not to ensure that only "safe" biotech crops are developed, but to make sure that no biotech crops are planted at all. Don't think that Greenpeace's anti-technology activism is limited to agricultural biotechnology. They oppose many technologies, including, of all things, plastic intravenous (IV) bags because of the chemicals used in their production.
Monsanto's decision on canola "certainly puts us behind the eight-ball and sends a bad signal to anyone wanting to invest in new technologies ... ," the head of the Grains Council of Australia (search) said to Reuters.
It used to be that all technologies had to do to achieve societal acceptance was to work and work safely. Do they also now need to be approved by activist groups whose basic premise is that technological advances are bad? Who appointed them as guardians of the public good? The activist-to-corporate management decision-making route is also alarming because of its backdoor nature -- it circumvents our public political and regulatory processes.
If Greenpeace and Monsanto's wobbly-kneed management get to decide what agricultural biotechnology can be commercialized, then why have a Food and Drug Administration, an Environmental Protection Agency or a Department of Agriculture? There is no doubt that regulatory agencies have their own set of problems, but at least they can be accountable through the political process.
Make no mistake that Monsanto's appeasement sets a terrible precedent for other biotech companies who want to develop new products. It empowers the activists. It intimidates investors. It creates a chilling effect throughout corporate America with management cowering at the prospect of being the next company to be targeted by a baseless activist campaign.
Regulation through aggressive activism coupled with wimpy corporate management doesn't bode well for our political system or our economy. It will hamper our ability to innovate and create jobs. It's a threat to our entire free enterprise and free market system -- precisely the targets of the left-leaning activists groups like Greenpeace.
Monsanto's shareholders can strike a blow for free enterprise by sending a sharp message to CEO Hugh Grant -- "stand up for our company's products and stop kowtowing to Greenpeace, or find a new job."
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).