Last November, Rev. Nate Walker, the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, wrote a sermon that was an open letter to Monsanto, voicing concerns based on his research about the company. He Fed-Exed a copy to Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation. What followed was a series of ongoing conversations and visits between Rev. Nate and Monsanto. Rev. Nate would like to see this company adopt an oath to “do no harm” and play a leadership role in getting the entire field of biotechnology to adopt a similar oath. This process led to a dialogue this past Thursday evening at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, between two senior directors of Monsanto, about a dozen leaders within the congregation and a few others like me, who are particularly interested in and knowledgeable about food issues and environmental justice. We came from a range of backgrounds, including an organic chemist and a ministerial candidate who focuses on issues of food justice.

Monsanto, as a large corporation that genetically modifies seeds and produces pesticides and fertilizers, carries a mixed reputation. Some look at their tainted past involvement with DDT and Agent Orange, and others focus on their development of RoundUp, a widely-used, glyphosate-based pesticide that has drastically reduced the need for labor-intensive weeding. I came in with a reasonably strong grounding in the negative rhetoric about Monsanto found in my progressive, social justice circles and in movies like Food, Inc. Rev. Nate shared with us three spiritual practices* to help us productively and openly engage with Monsanto. He asked us to:

1) Plant a seed of doubt within ourselves and challenge the assumptions we were coming in with. How sure are we about where we were coming from?

2) Engage in deep listening and loving speech, using our words to inspire confidence and open up conversations instead of shutting each other down.

3) Use imagination as tool. To truly imagine where someone else is coming from, invoking deep empathy.

These practices really challenged and enabled us to live out the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” as part of that responsibility is in truly listening to all possibilities openly before discerning how to move forward. We had four 20-minute rounds, in which two people would have an opportunity to pose a question and dialogue with Monsanto, while the rest of the group could listen attentively.

I shut my mouth and tried to open my ears and my heart as wide as I could, recognizing the presumptions I was bringing with me into the room. I was very impressed with the level of sharing that kind of openness invoked and was keenly aware of how scary that was for me as well. Through the dialogue, one thing that emerged for me was our commonality. The world views of the directors of Monsanto were really not so different than mine–concerns about the future and how 9 billion people can be fed. Concerns about the impact pesticide run-off has on streams and waterways. Concerns about human rights–getting education for women and children and lifting people out of poverty. They could give you a story to demonstrate their commitment to each of those things.

Where we sometimes differed was in the path to getting there. For example, it sounded like they see population growing, standards of living rising, and thus meat production and consumption rising. Problem? Getting enough feed for all those animals. Solution? Increase crop production on same quantity of land. In my view, part of the problem is how much meat we consume, so increased productivity of crops isn’t really a solution to that problem. Meat production uses a lot of energy to produce and animals add a great deal of methane to the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change.

At the end of the evening, one of the directors shared with us one of her deepest fears, something that keeps her up at night–the movement of people that think the answer is to only grow organic crops. She is worried that it wouldn’t be sustainable, realistic, or even possible to feed the world that way. She’s worried that the world isn’t prepared for feeding 9 billion people without increasing seed yields and productivity.  She’s worried that there won’t be enough food without genetically modifying seeds to have traits that make them more drought-resistant, especially when climate change is expected to make weather patterns more severe. Monsanto currently has been giving, yes donating, drought-resistant seeds to 5 African countries, with the goals of helping people get enough food, reducing labor costs, increasing incomes, thereby theoretically allowing more kids to go to school and get an education. Education helps lift people out of poverty and population growth is directly tied to income level.

I worry about her concerns as well and appreciate that some peoples’ lives have improved. I also worry about potential loss of biodiversity, as I believe nature is more creative than we will ever be.  The saying goes, “many heads are better than one,” and I wonder if that can be expanded to say, “many species are better than one.” I worry about distributive justice–even if Monsanto has the best intentions, would it be possible to get the seeds into the hands of the people who most need them?  And an even more important question, would they want them?

Rev. Nate and several members of the group present for Thursday’s meeting with Monsanto would like to see Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations adopt an oath to “do no harm,” like the oaths that doctors and other professional do, who are entrusted with caring for life. Bioengineers are changing and modifying life itself by adding specific traits to seeds. There is real potential for creativity, which can be used for good or for harm, and an oath would hold them to a higher moral standard, above and beyond the policies of the company for which they work.

I don’t know what the answers are to these tough questions around genetically-modifying life, or whether Monsanto’s work is ultimately on the best possible path. I don’t know if we can know that. What I do know is that the practice of deep listening has forced me to re-examine my knowledge as I seek for truth and justice. Rev. Nate’s demonstration of these practices in his conversations with Monsanto has given him, has given us, an opportunity to dialogue about ethics and sustainability with the leaders of one of the most powerful and influential agricultural companies in the world, who have the power to make real change. It has been amazing to see how far a conversation can go when one listens deeply with an open mind.

Rev. Nate Walker’s Sermons on Monsanto (Read/Listen/Watch):

Minster asks Monsanto CEO Seven Moral Questions (11/9/2009)

Monsanto’s 21st Century Oath: Do No Harm (1/11/2010)

Ministry with Monsanto (7/18/2010)

*More information on the three spiritual practices mentioned can be found in Rev. Nate’s July 18th sermon.

About the Author
Rowan Van Ness


  1. michael luce

    While I commend any effort to influence corporations to act for the ultimate benefit of humanity and the world, there is a fact in law which I always come back to. It is the concept of fiduciary responsibility. As I understand it, this essentially means that any publicly traded company has as its first duty to increase the wealth of its owners i.e. those who have stock in that company. Should the board of directors be faced with a choice of two actions, one of which will ultimately cause harm or loss to the larger society but increase the stock value and the other which will benefit society but fail to increase the stock value or even lower it by costing the company revenue, they must take the former action. If they don’t, they are subject to a shareholder lawsuit. I could cite all manner of examples but I think you get the point. No matter what the chairman or whoever may feel in their conscience they are bound by this fact. Am I wrong in my understanding?

  2. Anita

    Um…yes, you do have it wrong. Fiduciary responsibility means directors have the obligation to put the corporation’s interest above their own personal interests. They have to act in good faith and with a reasonable degree of care, and they must not have any conflicts of interest. As a Certified Association Executive, I’ve studied and been tested on the duties of members of the board of directors, among other things.
    If you can, indeed, cite all manners of examples, please do.

  3. Mildred M. Obrien

    Due to over population man is making a huge impact on the planet. Many contributors simply say ‘all fossil fuel is bad’ and that its use must be stopped. This is not a solution that can be immediately implemented. This simpleton version of a cure is ‘stupid’, impractical, and unworkable. Most people would like a means to preserve their food (refrig), drive their auto, and maintain their homes and jobs. A practical solution is to minimize the risks of ‘natural gas’ and use it as a transitional fuel while new ‘clean’ technologies are being developed. Every US citizen must do all they can to minimize their use of energy while this transition is taking place. ‘Ask not what fossil fuels can do for you, but ask what you can do about using less fossil fuels’. Quit blaming oil companies and use less energy. The oil companies are not the problem, you are the problem, you create the demand.


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