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