Guess Which Company Wrote This Statement

“We’re committed to helping create solutions to these challenges [population growth, climate change, food insecurity] while helping to take care of our planet, our people, and the communities where we live and work.” Any guesses which company wrote these words? Would you believe Monsanto? It’s true – right on the first page of the company’s 2017 Sustainability Report, prepared in accordance with GRI Standards.

GRI, or the Global Reporting Initiative, has been publishing guidelines for corporate social responsibility reporting since 1997. The latest revision to its reporting guidelines, called the GRI Standards, came out in October 2016. These guidelines are similar in scope to the guidelines they are replacing but are designed to be much easier to understand and use. This sounds like a good idea, since sometimes companies resist implementing standards or earning certifications because the amount of time and resources required to do so.

GRI operates on the premise that the first step in improving operations is to measure what a company is currently doing. To meet all the reporting requirements in the Standards, companies need to collect data from their entire supply chain. They need to understand where the products and materials that they are buying come from and what they are made of. They need to understand what happens to their product or their waste once it leaves their facility, whether it is purchased by a customer (business or consumer) or delivered to some processing facility to be recycled, discarded, or burned.

The GRI Standards cover a range of environmental aspects.

  • ·Materials: All materials used to manufacture and package the company’s products, divided into renewable or nonrenewable as well as virgin or recycled
  • Energy: Energy consumption both within and outside the organization, including fuel, electricity, heating, cooling, and steam; energy intensity per unit of output (# products, revenue, etc.)
  • Water: Total volume of water used and its sources (lakes, rain water, municipal water, etc.); amount reused or recycled
  • Biodiversity: Geographic location, type of facility, direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity for sites near “protected areas and areas of high biodiversity value”
  • Emissions: Emission of greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting gases, various categories of hazardous pollutants; emissions intensity per unit of output
  • Effluents and waste: Volume of planned and unplanned water discharge; weight of hazardous and non-hazardous waste generated, and how it is disposed of; details on any spills; transportation of hazardous waste
  • Environmental compliance: Fines and penalties associated with any noncompliance with environmental regulations
  • Supplier environmental assessment: Percent of suppliers assessed, number and percent of suppliers with negative environmental impacts

Monsanto is one of those companies that so many people love to hate. It stands as an example of what is wrong with large-scale, commercial agriculture: overuse of pesticides, no crop rotation, lack of crop diversity, development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But is Monsanto really an evil menace? Or is it possible that the company is turning over a new, healthier leaf?

Monsanto, like many companies, has adopted a feel-good slogan. Theirs is “Growing Better Together.” Who can argue with the goal of feeding more people using fewer natural resources? Monsanto has announced a commitment toward promoting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, with particular focus on addressing water use, climate action, poverty, and hunger. The report gives data on greenhouse gas emissions reduction, waste diverted from landfills, and money invested in environmental causes. The company is clearly making progress toward its goals. But do Monsanto’s positive efforts mask a hidden agenda?

Deep into Monsanto’s Sustainability Report, I found a page titled, “Are GMOs Safe?” Not surprisingly, the company answered the question with a resounding “yes,” mentioning the hundreds of scientific studies supporting that conclusion. But how many of these studies were conducted by Monsanto employees or by scientists funded by Monsanto? Without knowing the answer to that question and reading the studies, I’m not completely convinced. Still, at least Monsanto is being more transparent by admitting that it funds university research.

I believe that Monsanto is working to improve its environmental reputation and engage in activities that do improve life for millions of people. But its commitment to profits means that despite turning over a new leaf, the company remains deeply invested in pesticides. Phrases like “Roundup Ready” make me uneasy. Monsanto notes that, in October 2017, the EPA approved enhancements to their label for a pesticide designed for Roundup-resistant crops, which reads as giving farmers a license to use it more freely. I can’t help but think that the 2016 EPA might not have approved Monsanto’s proposal.

I do not think that Monsanto is inherently evil. But it seems there should be a better way to achieve the goals of higher yields of edible crops per acre, without resorting to spraying fields with pesticides and breeding crops that can survive the assault. Regular crop rotation, for example, can naturally create healthier soil over the long term because each crop takes different ratios of nutrients from the soil. Can a pesticide-free approach be economical for farmers? That I do not know.