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Monsanto’s Modified Crops Provide Food for Thought

Eco-Conscious Investment Firm Pushes Company for More Transparency


When people think of a cob of corn, they think of fields, farmers, and outdoor picnics, not laboratories or liability lawsuits. Harrington Investments Inc. (HII) has, and the firm would like some answers for the public and Monsanto shareholders.

HII, based in Santa Barbara and Napa, initiated the current tête-à-tête when the socially responsible investment and advising firm submitted a resolution requesting Monsanto publish a study on the financial risks and impacts of its genetically modified products (GM) in August 2011. GM products helped Monsanto earn a net income of over a billion dollars in 2010.

In 2007, HII submitted a binding bylaw amendment attempting to erode Monsanto’s ability to protect directors after they violated their legal or ethical duties in cases that negatively impacted the environment, public health, or human rights. That request was unsuccessful, but HII views its corporate dealings as a tug of war with a little give and, hopefully, a little get.

In August, HII submitted its current resolution requesting Monsanto publish the risks of GM organisms. Monsanto will make an offer based off of that request.

If HII’s request for a study stays on the ballot, HII’s Research and Advocacy Director Jack Ucciferri is confident the company will oppose it. “We’ll likely lose the vote at the shareholder meeting in January but make progress promoting the issue in the bigger picture,” said Ucciferri.

HII puts corporations through rigorous social and environmental screens to judge suitability for its clients. Monsanto did not pass this screening process and is not an investment option for the firm’s clients.

HII is, however, a shareholder. As a shareholder it can propose corporate changes like “changing corporate governance, studies of certain issues, taking risk assessments, signing onto industry standards, and special responsibility compacts,” said Ucciferri.

HII’s 2011 request highlights financial concerns over genetically modified crops. While environmental health and human well-being are underlying concerns, Ucciferri and HII are hoping Monsanto will help shareholders and citizens understand the financial risks associated with Monsanto products.

“Its major products — genetically engineered crops and the weed killer Roundup — have been implicated very directly in serious harms to farmers’ livelihoods, the environment, and health,” said Pesticide Action Network’s Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, an expert on genetic engineering. “The liability concerns associated with these problems pose real threats to Monsanto’s future viability, let alone its profitability.”

In terms of profitability, organic produce commands a markedly higher price than uncertified produce. And consumers are willing to pay. If material from GM crops drifts onto a field, the farmer could have difficulty getting organic certification.

While Monsanto’s Web site highlights its abundant testing, it does not discuss tangible risks. “While biotech crops undergo more testing and oversight before commercialization than any other agricultural products, including conventional crops, there are still those who question the safety of their use,” it says.

Monsanto’s annual report for shareholders, the 10K, does go over possible financial risks dealing with the environment. This discussion focuses on compliance but does not go into great detail on farmer, environmental, and health risks, or their associated costs. “Although the costs of our compliance with environmental laws and regulations cannot be predicted with certainty, such costs are not expected to have a material adverse effect on our earnings or competitive edge.”

HII wants more in-depth, actionable information specific to GM crops for shareholders and the public. “Let’s get a handle on what the risks are now,” said Ucciferri. “[Monsanto] won’t tell us, and they can’t be forced to without the resolution.”

The 2011 resolution comes shortly after 83 family farmers, family and small seed companies, and agricultural organizations filed suit against Monsanto to guard against charges of patent infringement if their land is inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified material.

Monsanto has a vivid history of charging farmers with patent violations, even if there were only trace amounts of patented material or if the material was inadvertently placed.

For example, in 2006 Monsanto charged between 2,391 and 4,531 parties with “Seed Piracy Matters.” These cases garnered Monsanto between $85,653,601 and $160,594,230. Monsanto stopped posting the documents used to obtain these totals in October 2007, according to the Center for Food Safety.



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