Issue 38 Feature The Planet

The World’s Fifth-Most Hated Company Has A Soft Side

On the eve of Bayer’s $56 billion takeover of Monsanto, a food journalist reveals what it’s really like inside corporate headquarters by Jesse Hirsch

September 14, 2016

My first time on a panel, I shared the stage with DeeDee, Monsanto’s 2012 “Farm Mom of the Year.” She wore a necklace made of peanuts. I was her foil, a Brooklyn dandy in a bowtie, speaking on behalf of a sustainable farming magazine. 

Former CNN host Ali Veshi moderated; that day, he was on the payroll of the pesticide manufacturers who organized the event. My recollection of the banter: “Jesse, are you saying you can farm better than this experienced—and might I say lovely—farmer?” Dee Dee: “Oh Ali, you’re too much! All I know is, I’ve got acres of thriving soybeans and I’m not going to let some outsider tell me how to do my job.” 

Monsanto is one of the world’s most reviled companies—ranked just above Comcast and Halliburton in 2016’s Harris Poll for worst corporate reputations—and the face of the controversial genetically modified organism (GMO) biz. For all the money they’ve made (and that they surely pay their PR team), the company hasn’t yet figured out how to overcome its longstanding reputation for secrecy and preemptive litigation. 

Like a high school bully who later claims to find God, Monsanto has been softening its image.

Heck, I knew Monsanto was bad news before middle school. Family lore has it that they threatened to sue my dad. While getting a master’s in public health, he wrote a paper zeroing in on the company’s alleged contamination of a New England town. Poppa Hirsch claims Monsanto’s legal threats were relentless, a whiff of violence in every exchange.

The story doesn’t sound out of character for a chemical company with a track record for polluting several EPA disaster zones. A pivot to Big Ag in 1997 involved an herbicide called Roundup—and a patented Roundup-resistant GM soybean. The twinned products fostered a grudging dependence among farmers, made thornier by the 147 lawsuits Monsanto admits to bringing against those illegally using its seeds.

But like a high school bully who later claims to find God, Monsanto has been softening its image. Articles about the company’s organic efforts began appearing in respected magazines. They even hired the hunky “Director of Millennial Engagement” Vance Crowe in 2014. Then, last year, I joined 19 other journalists for a highly-curated tour of Monsanto’s Missouri research headquarters. 

With my history of familial antagonism, I imagined goons around every corner. When I spied an A/V room filled with lighting monitors and speakers, I demanded to photograph the sinister “surveillance station.” But I couldn’t help but be charmed by my handler, a good-natured mom who’d procured the Monsanto produce for lunch; all week, her basement had been “filled with watermelons.” (Yes, we ate GMOs and no, I didn’t sprout a tail). 

A kindly, retired man who gave Monsanto tours “just to get out of the house” shepherded us around the labs. When reporters pressed him on the lack of diversity in Monsanto’s workforce, my instinct was to hush them. All day, I’d witnessed demos and panels calculated to appease skeptics, but what got me were the people: Monsanto’s cold, faceless veneer replaced by, say, an endearingly awkward scientist, or an executive who sincerely believed the company could end world hunger. 

I steeled my resolve, continuing to write clear-eyed stories about Big Ag, but Monsanto’s folksy charm offensive had done a number on my psyche. Compounding my turmoil was the fear that I’d disappointed Dad by cavorting with the enemy. Was I betraying my own bloodline? It didn’t help that Poppa Hirsch had made a late-in-life career change from public health administrator to organic gardener. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I called him recently to clear the air. 

When reporters pressed our tour guide on the lack of diversity in Monsanto’s workforce, my instinct was to hush them.

“Dad? Do you still, like, hate Monsanto? Just curious.”

“I’m definitely anxious that all of our food sources could someday be controlled by a company whose primary motivation is money, not feeding people.”

Yes, that’s how he actually talks. I braced myself, then told him about my day at company HQ. I admitted to doing extensive GMO research and couldn’t discount the scientific consensus that they’re safe. My childhood bogeymans no longer squared with what I’d learned as a rational adult with a reporter’s instincts and an impulse toward mercy.

Though Poppa Hirsch expressed fears that I’d been “hoodwinked,” he also thought that “the whole GMO thing has gotten a bad rap, and [Monsanto’s] the fall guy for that. They’re employing smart scientists and have the power to do some real good in the world.”

Not only was I not disowned for dining with the enemy, I realized I come from thoughtful, open-minded stock. Monsanto may not be a monolithic entity, but neither, it turns out, are human beings.

Art by Ivana Arellanes

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The World’s Fifth-Most Hated Company Has A Soft Side On the eve of Bayer’s $56 billion takeover of Monsanto, a food journalist reveals what it’s really like inside corporate headquarters