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Dinner with Monsanto

A minister is planting the seeds for a code of ethics for bioengineers, starting with Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically modified seeds.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Winter 2010 11.1.10

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illustration of shopper, farmer, and scientist

(© Anne Horst/i2iart.com)

On a steamy summer evening in Philadelphia, two senior executives from Monsanto Company walked up the stone steps of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia to attend a potluck dinner.

There was classic church supper fare: trays of vegetarian lasagna, bowls of salad, a galvanized tub of iced wine and soda, and chocolate cupcakes lined up in a row. Church members mingled, each with an interest in ethical food production and sustainable agriculture, and all armed with a packet of questions to pose to the executives of Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seeds and a leading manufacturer of agricultural chemicals.

It was an unusual combination of dinner guests: nine Unitarian Universalists in casual summer dress and two polished corporate spokeswomen in tailored suits and pearls. The Rev. Nate Walker floated among them, with a wide smile and welcoming hugs, making introductions.

Since November 2009, Walker has been engaged in an unlikely ministry. This minister of a 220-member urban Unitarian Universalist church has cultivated a public dialogue with the $44 billion multinational public corporation, posing complex ethical questions and listening carefully as the company answers. At Monsanto’s invitation, he flew to the company’s St. Louis headquarters, toured its facilities, and met with executives and scientists. He attended Monsanto’s annual meeting and has brainstormed about ethical food production with religious leaders from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. And with this dinner, the conversation was expanding to include his congregation.

Walker’s goal is to inspire Monsanto to adopt a sort of Hippocratic Oath, akin to a doctor’s pledge to “do no harm.” Ultimately, he’d like executives from DuPont, Bayer, and Syngenta, the nation’s other leading producers of bioengineered seed, to sign the oath, too. The oath is a two-sentence, fifty-three-word pledge to protect people and the environment. The language will be familiar to any Unitarian Universalist, echoing the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Seventh Principle. It reads:

I promise to use my expertise to help and not harm people, animals, and the environment. I promise to practice responsibly the ancient ethic of stewardship and the modern principle of sustainability by affirming distributive justice as a moral obligation to benefit the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

As the dinner guests gathered, Walker’s blue eyes gleamed with anticipation. For months, he had been planning the occasion at which congregants and Monsanto executives would break bread together, talk, and listen to one another. “This conversation is the best of Unitarian Universalism, where we each out of consciousness develop our perspectives,” he said. “A minister dreams to see so many thoughtful people in a room engaged in the moral issues of our time.”

One year ago, on November 1, 2009, Walker preached a sermon about Monsanto’s corporate practices that drew the attention of environmental activists, scientists, and, somewhat to Walker’s surprise, of Monsanto itself.

The sermon sprouted from Walker’s preparations to teach a class at his church on ethical eating. Like many congregations, First Unitarian is exploring how individual food choices affect local communities and the greater world, following the UUA General Assembly’s decision in 2008 to adopt “ethical eating” as a Congregational Study/Action Issue for four years.

Walker wrote his sermon, called “Sovereign Seeds,” as an open letter to Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s chairman, president, and CEO. In the sermon, Walker challenged Grant to respond to seven “moral questions” about Monsanto’s relationships with farmers, consumers, media, academic scientists, governments, and creation, and about Grant’s relationship with his own conscience. Walker’s questions reflected many progressives’ and environmentalists’ critiques of Monsanto’s practices.

Walker hoped that the sermon would plant a seed that, he wrote, “if grown collectively, can heal some of the most critical relationships of our time.”

Walker expressed concerns about Monsanto’s “strained” relationships with farmers, who have come to depend on Monsanto’s genetically modified herbicide-resistant seeds, but who have sometimes bristled at the company’s restrictive licenses or expressed concerns about the side-effects of genetic engineering. “From the reporting about your company,” Walker said, “it is clear to me that farmers have questions about the science of seeds, they have concerns about business agreements, they have apprehensions about the political process, and they have anxiety about potential litigation. These complexities damage not only your reputation but also the historic role farmers have played in society.” He asked how Monsanto would repair these relationships.

With regard to consumers, Walker’s sermon posed this question: “How will you support the creation of a system to label all genetically modified foods so that consumers can understand not only how our food is made but also its impact on our health?”

He asked how the company would make itself more transparent with the media. He asked how it will improve its relationships with governments, who worry that Monsanto and a small number of multinational corporations are coming to control the world’s seed supply. He asked about its relationship with universities, whose scientists have complained that Monsanto will not allow them to research the effectiveness and environmental impact of its genetically modified crops. Walker suggested Monsanto follow the lead of software developers who make their source codes accessible. “Imagine the transformation in your company’s image if seed-codes were open to peer-based collaboration and public research,” he said.

Walker questioned Monsanto’s impact on the environment in the past, including its role in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb; its part in developing DDT and Agent Orange; and its degradation of the environment in sites such as Anniston, Alabama, where the company dumped PCBs and mercury into creeks and agreed to a $700 million settlement with residents. “Will you make a public promise to guarantee the world’s citizenry that Monsanto will spend the next century healing, not harming, the environment; healing, not harming, animals and humans?” Walker asked Grant. (Starting in 1997, Monsanto sold off the divisions involved in these projects to concentrate on agricultural chemicals and seeds.) And further, Walker challenged Grant to take an oath based on the principles of biomedical ethics.

Lastly, Walker asked the CEO, “Will you take this opportunity to listen to the God of your understanding, to listen to your conscience, and to follow your moral compass? Monsanto needs a moral leader, not simply for the sake of the company but for the world community.”

The next day, Walker express-mailed a copy of the sermon to Grant, and uploaded the text and a podcast of the sermon to the church website and his personal website. For a month, he heard nothing from the corporation. But responses from around the country began to pour in. He received letters from Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, popular books that explore where today’s food comes from and its effect on people and the environment, and from Robert Kenner, director of the movie Food, Inc., a documentary that examines how the nation’s food supply is controlled by a handful of corporations. Walker also received letters from scientists and activists at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, and the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investment.

Then a letter from Monsanto arrived. It was from Diane B. Herndon, the senior director of corporate responsibility and sustainable agriculture, and it included an invitation to come to the company’s headquarters in St. Louis. Herndon and Maureen Mazurek, Monsanto’s director of human rights, were the company spokespeople who eventually came to Philadelphia.

Both Monsanto executives described Walker’s sermon as thoughtful. They watched his sermon on YouTube and found him “passionate.” “His sermon was earnest and respectful,” said Herndon. “And all of the things he suggested were things we were thinking about. We thought, ‘He probably doesn’t realize all that is taking place at Monsanto.’”

Mazurek added, “We felt like Rev. Nate was a key influence leader, but we felt he only had part of the story. We wanted to give him an opportunity to learn by inviting him here.”

Herndon, Mazurek, and Walker began planning Walker’s January 2010 trip to St. Louis. Though Herndon and Mazurek had watched him on YouTube, read his words, and spoken to him on the phone, they were still surprised by the man who showed up.

Walker’s words are forceful, but he is a gentle man who listens more than he talks, his eyes focused intently on the speaker, his hands still. A vegetarian since he was a child, Walker, 34, is trim, with close-cropped sandy blond hair. He grew up on an alfalfa farm in Nevada. A naturalist and an intellectual, Walker is pursuing an interdisciplinary doctorate in law, education, and religion at Columbia University.

“I’ve been with Monsanto for eighteen years, and people come here with their own agenda, not with their listening ears,” said Mazurek. “He came in a genuine way, with a willingness to share and have a dialogue.”

Walker said that he is not interested in “demeaning people.” Rather, he seeks to “make meaning.” He said he is guided by the practices of deep listening and loving speech. And he is inspired by the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, who speaks of planting seeds of consciousness by always asking oneself the question: “Are you sure?” Walker even shared this spiritual practice with Monsanto executives. “It was a meaningful conversation,” he said.

In St. Louis, he met with executives and scientists. Monsanto executives also invited him to attend a shareholders’ meeting as a guest, where Walker was briefly introduced to Grant, the CEO. Walker’s church is not a direct shareholder in Monsanto. First Unitarian’s endowment, however, does hold investments in mutual funds that include Monsanto stock. Walker listened to Monsanto executives and to shareholders, including members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which buys stock in public corporations so that it can influence policy through shareholder resolutions and by speaking directly with corporate management.

Walker, Mazurek, and Herndon agreed that the next step would be for Monsanto to continue the dialogue they had started with Walker’s parishioners in Philadelphia. They set the date for July.

Monsanto would not allow a reporter to attend the dinner. “We were (are) committed to continuing the dialogue with [Walker] and his congregation, but not opening it up to the point where it could become a ‘media event,’” Herndon wrote in an email. Herndon and Mazurek spoke with UU World before and after the dinner, but the dinner conversation itself was closed.

When the doors to the Parish Room opened after the dinner, an air of goodwill prevailed. Members described the meeting as “a learning process.” Anne Slater, secretary of the church’s board, said she was interested to hear the high standards that the company sets for itself. Another wondered why the company didn’t publish a magazine to tell the public about its good deeds, such as donating $4 million worth of conventional corn and vegetable seed to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Members described Monsanto’s commitment to increasing world food production for a growing population and how it was guided by its “Monsanto Pledge.”

Herndon described the meeting as “thoughtful, sincere, and constructive.” Walker said, “I feel really moved.”

The following morning, Walker held a meeting in his upstairs office with two church members who had attended the dinner, Ginni Stiles, co-chair with Walker of the church’s ministry leadership team, and Luana Goodwin, president of the church’s board of trustees, along with Rowan Van Ness, environmental justice program associate at the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth. Each reflected on the dinner and what the church’s next steps should be.

They responded positively to the dinner and the dialogue, but as they picked the meeting apart, areas for further discussion arose. Stiles was concerned that the congregants’ questions reflected philosophical ideas, while Monsanto “delivered corporation communication-type sentences.”

Van Ness said she was struck by Mazurek’s confession that what keeps her up at night are concerns about people who champion strictly organic food; the organic agenda, Mazurek had said, was not sustainable for a growing world population. (Van Ness wrote about her reactions to the conversation on the UUA’s “Inspired Faith, Effective Action” blog, July 20, 2010.)

Goodwin expressed uneasiness about pushing Monsanto to sign the oath Walker had drafted. “I have a problem with the oath concept. I see it as religion and telling people to express themselves in the way that we have found to express ourselves,” she said. “It’s the conversation that is important, not the end point.” Goodwin said she and the board of trustees would discuss becoming a direct investor in Monsanto so that the church could gain shareholder rights.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has been raising concerns with Monsanto as a shareholder for decades, both to change company policy and to educate other shareholders about environment, health, and patent issues. “Faith communities can have an influence,” said Margaret Weber, a board member of ICCR and corporate responsibility director for the Congregation of St. Basil, an international order of Catholic priests. “Nate’s sermon and letter are very significant,” she said. Although groups such as ICCR and its local affiliate, the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investing, have been active in shareholder discussions, Weber said that, “in the pews, it’s been pretty quiet on this issue. Nate’s public letter and his whole approach about doing no harm has been powerful.”

Monsanto’s “Pledge” contains seven policy commitments about how Monsanto will do business. The company’s corporate responsibility and sustainability report describes it as “a declaration that compels us to listen more, to consider our actions and their impact broadly, and to lead responsibly.” Herndon and Mazurek both say that it supplants any need for the oath that Walker has proposed.

Walker, however, sees the oath he is promoting as an important step toward developing a code of ethics for the field of biotechnology. “We have spent the last nine months conceiving an idea that could potentially give birth to a code of ethics that could inspire future generations of biotech professionals. Such an oath could help them feel connected to something larger than themselves, something larger than any company pledge, or any norms their worldview permits,” said Walker, in a sermon to the Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, where he preached the Sunday after the July Monsanto dinner. “We’re talking about planting the seeds of consciousness in future generations of practitioners.”

Walker said he is inviting Herndon and Mazurek to help him redraft the oath so that they feel comfortable signing it and recommending that other Monsanto executives sign it, too. Nine months after their initial conversations began, Herndon wrote Walker to tell him that an industry association, CropLife International, has a voluntary Plant Biotechnology Code of Conduct for members, and that Walker should work directly with that trade group instead. Herndon, however, was laid off in October.

Walker plans to approach executives at other agriculture biotechnology companies and ask them to help further hone an oath. And he envisions enlisting universities as well, so that students graduating with degrees in biotechnology can take a pledge to do no harm as they begin their professions. Walker also wants to inspire biotech companies to hire ethicists or ombudsmen who could hold a mirror up to their companies and continually ask whether company practices are in line with the ethical oath.

One day, anyone may be able to watch how it all unfolds. Walker is working with Dana Flor, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who is going to document the process of Walker working with the executives. The working title for the documentary is Sacred Seeds. Flor is preparing a summary of the film to pitch to outlets such as HBO and the Discovery Channel.

Throughout the process, Walker pledges to continue to listen to his own sacred seed, which asks him, “Are you sure?”

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