Monsanto, CCODP divided on the value of local, organic foods

Our economic actions always have moral implications, said Pope Benedict XVI.

Our economic actions always have moral implications, said Pope Benedict XVI.

December 1, 2014
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Charina Umagat has been an involved, engaged parishioner at St. Emile Parish in Winnipeg for 20 years. The last thing she expected to find in her pew on a Sunday was a pamphlet casting moral doubt on her job and her employer.

The pamphlet was part of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace's Sow Much Love campaign highlighting economic justice, agriculture and environmental issues. Umagat works for biotechnology giant Monsanto Canada.

The Development and Peace pamphlet asked Umagat to go to her local grocer and ask the store manager to stock more local and organic products. It asked her to pledge to eat local and organic foods.

Though the Development and Peace campaign never mentions Monsanto, the dominant multinational that generated $15.8 billion last year in global revenues from sales of its Roundup herbicide and a wide variety of genetically modified seeds (some engineered to be resistant to Roundup), Umagat concluded that her Church development agency holds her employer in low esteem.

"I work for a biotech company but I'm also a Catholic. So what do I feel now?" asked Umagat. "Should I not feel welcomed because I work in an industry that we, the Catholics, are not supporting?"

"We don't condemn in any way the people working for Monsanto, earning their living," said Ryan Worms, Development and Peace's deputy director of in-Canada programs. "Nor do we blame farmers in Canada or elsewhere in the world who are using the products of agro-industry companies.

"We know what Canadian farmers have to face. It's difficult work. . . . What we are against, and what we denounce in the campaign, is the system."

By the system, Worms means a world food production and distribution system that puts large corporations in the driver's seat and leaves poor, small farmers – who produce 70 per cent of the food in the developing world – barely able to feed themselves.

"Pope Francis said in his address for World Food Day last year that we denounce slavery to profit at all costs," said Worms. "Pope Benedict explained in Caritas in Veritate that purchasing is always a moral and not just an economic act."

A Filipino immigrant whose family and friends were small farmers when she was growing up, Umagat supports the Development and Peace call for consumers to support small and local farmers.

"I came from a country of mostly small farmers as well. So I kind of understand how important that is," she said.

But Umagat is mystified by the insistence on expensive organic products.

"Are we saying that all small farmers are organic? That's what I'm asking," Umagat said. "There are farmers who are actually big who are farming organic. It's almost missing the point."

"We encourage our members to buy organic and locally produced food knowing that not all families in Canada can buy that food. It's more a way to simply ask that we reflect on our choices as citizens and as consumers," Worms said.

"Organic because we think that's the closest way to how food is produced in the (global) South. It's also maybe a way that respects more deeply God's creation. The sustaining of creation is one of our responsibilities."

Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada's director of public and industry affairs, said an image of developing world subsistence farming tied to organic farming is out of touch with reality. The highest growth in use of biotechnology is in the global South.

"We work with small landholders all over the world both in a commercial sense but also in a philanthropic sense," Jordan said.

PHILANTHROPIC PROGRAM

Monsanto has provided drought-resistant hybrid corn seed to poor farmers in Kenya that has allowed them to produce crops despite extremely dry conditions. A philanthropic program Monsanto runs in Malawi which provides hybrid corn seeds has tripled the production of small farmers there, Jordan said.

Development and Peace partners in Ethiopia have fought off drought with locally produced, drought-resistant seed that can be freely shared and saved because it's not the proprietary technology of a huge multinational, said Worms.

Monsanto is in full agreement with Development and Peace's emphasis on local produce, but it objects to the idea that the corporation has somehow forced any farmers to adopt GMO seeds, or that its chemical herbicides and biotech seeds are damaging the environment.

EAT LOCALLY

"The whole issue of eat locally, impact globally – fantastic for people to eat locally. We would agree 100 per cent with buying local produce whenever you can," Jordan said.

"Does that produce need to be organic, and is organic a better choice than conventional? We would probably disagree."

Monsanto Canada is a major donor to Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a Winnipeg-based, ecumenical Christian organization that helps poor farmers worldwide. Development and Peace is one of Canadian Foodgrains Bank's contributing partners, representing Canadian Catholics on the Foodgrains board.

Jordan said it's time for Monsanto and Development and Peace to talk directly about their differences.

"What we're trying to get is to sit down and have discussions with people we disagree with," she said. "That's kind of hard when people come from kind of polar opposite viewpoints."