In the comment streams on my blog posts there is a recurrent theme from one segment of the respondents – they have a deep distrust in the large companies that are involved in modern agricultural technology. They don’t believe these companies will behave ethically because they are for profit entities “only answerable to their shareholders.”
I’d like to speak directly to this as a long-time Ag industry insider whose experience does not support these suspicions. I know that some will dismiss this perspective assuming I am biased, but one has to balance potential for bias with actually having first-hand experience from which to speak. Over the last 32 years I’ve work for or with most of the companies, large and small, that provide agricultural technologies. Fourteen of those years have been as an independent consultant so I get to know what is going on inside of many companies in a given year. I have still only had direct knowledge of a subset of what happens, but in all of that exposure I’ve never witnessed an unethical decision or action – not even the consideration of one. I’ve seen certain decisions that were short-sighted. I’ve sometimes seen decision-making processes that are more driven by fear than by opportunity. I’ve seen missed opportunities because vision was lacking. I’ve occasionally seen failures to take advantage of synergies that could have been realized between divisions of large organizations. I’ve seen problems, but I believe that some level of dysfunction is inevitable in any organization involving people. Still, unethical behavior isn’t something I’ve seen so I disagree that it is automatically likely just because of the characteristics of the company.
On balance I’ve also seen these organizations, large and small, frequently make important contributions to society in terms of the productivity and safety of our food supply. I’ve seen these companies continue to do that in an environment of constant activist attack and very limited public understanding because so few people farm.
Real Examples of Ethical Lapses
Of course unethical things have occurred in the history of the food and farming industry. There are definitely examples – but they trace back to particularly unethical individuals and are not linked to scale or to a particular kind of technology (as is often alleged). For instance, back in the 1970s the rules for Organic certification had to be worked out because there was widespread fraud even in that tiny market. The melamine milk scandal in China was epic. The Peanut Corporation of America stands out on the spectrum of unethical for knowingly shipping Salmonella and Aflatoxin contaminated nuts to some of its hundreds of customers.
The Case of “Organic, Not”
There was a notorious, recent fraud case in the Organic industry – a realm that my commenters may believe to be more ethical. There have been several small organic fertilizer companies that were caught selling liquid fertilizers supposedly made from fish and feathers that were actually spiked with synthetic ammonium sulfate. The story has actually been extensively covered in the Sacramento Bee and by my favorite produce industry blogger, The Perishable Pundit. It turns out that much of the Organic produce sold over the past several years didn’t really qualify and technically speaking all those farms should have to go through another 3 year transition to be strictly Organic according to the rules. In reality, no one was hurt by this (to a plant, nitrogen is nitrogen) except that the consumers and farmers were paying a substantial premium and the fertilizer companies were pocketing the dough. I’m not saying the Organic industry is any more or less ethical than others, this is just one example.
Reasons Big Companies Might Actually Behave More Ethically
So, we see that ethical lapses are something that is associated with certain individuals independent of their type of business or the scale of their company. In fact, large publically held corporations are under more intense scrutiny by shareholders, NGOs, regulators, and activists, not to mention lawyers who are always attracted to the “deep pockets.” I would argue that these companies people love to hate, have less, not more, potential for unethical activity. People are people, but its not like we don’t have some checks and balances in our society. I know some people believe that there is something intrinsically unethical about making a profit (I’ll address that in the next post), but I’m not quite sure how they imagine to have a functioning modern society without for-profit entities.
“What About Patents?”
I know many people think it is intrinsically unethical to patent a specific variety of plant or a certain gene, but their argument is with a broader principle. For one thing, plants could be patented before there was ever biotech. The patent system was designed to encourage investment through provision of a temporary “monopoly” while driving innovation through the requirement that the patent “teach.” It is sometimes not a pretty process, but overall it works and has served us well. Potential for patent coverage is encouraging investment in alternative energy and other conservation technologies so we still need the system.
The Role of Myths
I think some of the “unethical” reputation comes from Urban Myths. There was one that emerged last June and lead to a huge spike in Google Searches for “Potatoes and flu.” The story began with an article on a site called Macedonia Online. It apparently (the link is now blank) said that Russian scientists had given a secret report to Putin showing that the reason people were dying from the H1N1 flu was that they were exposed to an enzyme from GMO potatoes.
OK, is it just me, or is there something intrinsically fishy about that story? Wouldn’t an adult want to check on that one before spreading it around? Apparently not! you can still find site after site breathlessly repeating this myth in full conspiratorial splendor – “McDonalds is killing us!”
The reason I can easily dismiss this as a myth is that there don’t happen to be commercial, GMO potatoes of any kind in the markets where people have been dying (e.g. Mexico, the US, Canada...) and the specific trait they cited, resistance to Potato Virus X, has only ever been experimental. Potatoes are not grown from seed (they are cloned = vegetatively propagated) so the trait could not have “escaped and contaminated all the world’s potatoes.” Yet I fully expect this “event” to make its way into the lexicon of anti-GMO myths and many innocent folks will be frightened by it and further lose their trust in the companies that actually help get the world fed. Hm, what are the ethics of being a naive Blogger who facilitates that process?
So if you have a non-mythical example of unethical activity, please share it.
You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me a firstname.lastname@example.org
Oragami Dollar Image from cmpalmer