Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON) may have just planted as much ill-will and suspicion as it has at any point in its controversial corporate history dating back to 1901.
Organizers of "March Against Monsanto" boasted protests in 436 cities in 52 countries on Saturday, calling attention to the alleged dangers of genetically modified foods and a corporation that may have taken its influence in Washington one step too far.
For many protesters, it comes down to this slogan: "Either mankind will stop Monsanto or Monsanto will stop mankind."
For Monsanto, it comes down to saving the nine billion people expected to populate the planet by 2050.
Monsanto is the company that allows farmers to grow more food with less land, water and energy. But it is also the company that brought us products we now know were far more dangerous than advertised, including the insecticide DDT, the toxic industrial chemicals known as PCBs, and the Vietnam-Era defoliant Agent Orange, which poisoned our own soldiers with dioxins. Monsanto also brought us saccharine--sweet, yet artificial, and known to cause cancer in laboratory rats.
But that is the past. In 2000, after a series of mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs that helped contain mounting liabilities, Monsanto became a totally new company intent upon bioengineering the planet. If its latest products prove dangerous in the future, well, maybe Monsanto can reinvent itself again.
The problem Monsanto is trying to address is real: There are more people than ever and they all want to eat. The problem protesters are trying to address is real as well: We have no idea what this food will do to us or our planetary evolution over time, so it should at least be labeled.
For most people, parsing the science and all the highly politicized rhetoric is daunting, which is why this debate hasn't quite resonated with the mainstream public, yet.
If you go to Monsanto's website, you'll see so many boasts about "preserving the planet," "sustainability," and "social responsibility" you'll think they belong to the Green Party. The company talks about supporting human rights, feeding the world's poor, being a steward of the environment and saving everything from polar ice caps to the rain forest.
If you look up what protesters are saying, Monsanto is all about its "Frankencorn." As one protester's sign put it: "Still wondering how the zombie outbreak started? One word: Monsanto."
Here's a colorful sampling of the back-and-forth, culling quips from both sides:
Protester: "If you're so proud of your products, why don't you label them?"
Monsanto: "People will...prosper, through healthier diets, greater educational opportunities, and brighter futures fueled by more robust local economies."
Protester: "If bees die, we die."
Monsanto: "We will use sound and innovative science and thoughtful and effective stewardship."
Protester: "Control the food supply and you control the people."
Monsanto: "We will listen carefully to diverse points of view and engage in thoughtful dialogue."
Protester: "Congress is Genetically Contaminated...GMObama!" (GMO stands for genetically modified organism.)
Monsanto: "We're...focused on fighting rural hunger in America."
This chatter has been going on for years. But more people are engaged in it now as a result of what critics are calling "The Monsanto Protection Act."
Monsanto needs the U.S. Department of Agriculture's permission to release new GMOs into the biosphere. When the USDA signs off without conducting adequate research, activists ask courts to intervene.
Monsanto recently short-circuited this process by lobbying Washington lawmakers to slip a provision into a bill that President Barack Obama signed into law. It requires the USDA to ignore court rulings and permit planting of genetically engineered crops--even if courts deem them potentially unsafe--as the agency conducts further reviews.
Now, scientists can argue about whether GMOs are dangerous or not. It is, in fact, quite difficult for the average person to understand the nuances of this complex debate. But it is not hard for the average person to see what Monsanto is doing in Washington.
Imagine Boeing getting a law passed that allowed airlines to keep flying the Dreamliner while conflicted bureaucrats studied why its batteries caught fire in midflight.
Websites, social media, and even the streets in cities around the world are now filled with rage against Monsanto.
You can go with how one protestor put it: "If Monsanto needs a bill to protect them from legal action, then they must know what they are doing is illegal!"
Or you can go with Monsanto: "Integrity is the foundation for all that we do. Integrity includes honesty, decency, consistency, and courage."