Monsanto CEO frustrated over ‘polarized’ GMO debate

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NEW YORK – Monsanto’s CEO is troubled by the public debate on genetically modified food. In the past, the heated rhetoric has threatened the company’s reputation, but now it could hurt the bottom line.

“The thing that drives [me] a little bit nuts, and is the frustrating piece in this, is it’s such a polarized debate and I don’t think it should be,” Hugh Grant said in an interview with CNNMoney at the company’s St Louis headquarters.

Until recently, the company focused almost exclusively on its relationship with the direct buyers of its products. For the last three years, however, Monsanto has been trying to reach a broader audience, and influence public perception about the controversial technology that allows Monsanto’s scientists to tinker with the DNA of top selling corn and soybean seeds.

Grant says Monsanto wants to do a better job of communicating with end consumers who want to know more about the source of their food and how it’s produced.

“That’s not easy for us,” he said. “We’re so far removed, but I think that’s a piece of how we solve the conundrum of our reputation.”

As one of the largest producers of genetically modified (GM) seeds in the country, Monsanto has been vilified by activists who describe GM products as ‘frankenfood.’

In addition to raising questions about the risks of eating GM food, the mainstream elements of the anti-GM camp say the real threat lies in the way products made with GM organisms (GMOs) are treated. The Environmental Working Group claims farmers use higher doses of pesticides on GM seeds than on non-GM fields, and that those chemicals end up in the environment, including the water supply.

The scrutiny of GMOs has intensified. In March, the EPA Office of Inspector General said it “launched an examination into whether the EPA has the appropriate controls to, in part, monitor and manage any human health or environmental risks from approved pesticides for use” on certain GM crops.

The Environmental Working Group points to the government inquiry as evidence that the public should be skeptical.

But some well known brands are adding to the anti-GM sentiment.

Chipotle, for example, made a splashy announcement last year, saying it would become the first national restaurant chain to go GMO-free. Whole Foods also joined in, proclaiming itself the first national grocery chain “committed to providing GMO transparency.” The retailer also said it’s working to stock more non-GMO items.

Whether or not these companies intend to raise concerns about GMO products, their decisions to ban or reduce GMOs adds to negative public perception of the technology, says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who wrote a book titled “The GMO Deception” in 2014.

But Monsanto asks the public to consider the track record.

“These products have now been in the marketplace for 20 years, and there’s not been a single food or feed safety issue ever associated with the technology,” said Robert Fraley who helped invent GMO technology and is Monsanto’s chief technology officer.

In response to criticism, Monsanto says it’s working to solve the biggest problems in agriculture. For example, company scientists reengineered the chemical makeup of a corn seed so that the crop needs less water to grow. CEO Grant goes one step further, claiming the world can’t produce enough food without GMOs.

“There’s an inexorable rise in population and global warming, and water consumption, and those three things are all happening at once,” said Grant. “I think the GMOs, they’re not a silver bullet, they’re not a panacea, but they’re an important part of this.”

But that hasn’t stopped efforts to label GMO foods. Vermont’s governor signed a law in 2014 that requires manufacturers to label food that contains GMO ingredients. That law goes into effect in July and as a result, many manufacturers, including Mars, Kellogg’s and General Mills, have decided to label their GMO ingredients nationwide.

Monsanto has lobbied instead to standardize labels across the country.

But critics, including Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, say Monsanto and others are being disingenuous in their quest for a federal system. That’s because the proposed national program could be voluntary, unlike Vermont’s mandatory state laws that force companies to make the disclosure.

But Monsanto keeps fighting state labels, saying they “confuse” consumers and might make their grocery bills rise.

State labels may add “$400 or $500 to the grocery basket [per year] when you start looking at the complexity and the expense of filling cans of soup state by state,” said Grant.

By Cristina Alesci