GMOs were already the future 20 years ago. They had been successful with insulin and had saved the rainbow papaya in Hawaii when breeding techniques, land management, and chemicals could not. It made sense to help corn and soybeans use less pesticides, grow better, and help us all benefit from environmental strain.
But Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant says in an interview that in hindsight they made avoidable mistakes.
“Hubris and naivety. They are sort of opposite sides of the same coin. We did really cool science and we worked within global regulatory requirements. From where we were the conversation with consumers was an abstract.”
“[But] we were so far removed from that supermarket shelf, that was never something we gave a lot of thought to. We never thought about our place in the food chain.”
That's honesty, and absolutely correct. No one out there wants to see slides about yield for farmers when anti-science groups who wrap themselves in the halo of "non-profit" are screaming about Frankenfood. Instead, we have to realize that food as a cheap commodity - thanks to science - makes it a values issue.
Grant now seems to get that. You never see this kind of honesty from environmentalists, who paint everything in black-and-white, good and evil terms - ironically, environmentalists are more George Bush than George Bush is.
Some of it the controversy was anti-American, there is no point in denying that. By creating a legal definition of a GMO that nicely matched what Monsanto was doing, Europe blocked a competitor of Europeans companies doing legacy genetic modification - mutagenesis. GMOs are far more precise than putting seeds in chemical and radiation baths but mutagenesis has been used for decades, there are now thousands of plants created that way.
Every single one of them qualifies as organic.
So Monsanto was harmed by an arbitrary distinction but that was aided by their own hubris, their belief that if they had science and governmental affairs on their side, the rest did not matter.
Former anti-GMO activist turned science supporter Mark Lynas still can't stand the company itself, and to be honest the company makes itself easy to dislike. He believes the path for Monsanto is to get rid of chemicals and focus just on seeds, which means if a Syngenta acquisition happens spinning off the chemical parts of both companies into their own brand.
I am not sure that alone would do it. Anti-science activists are in a war of extinction and those attacks will just change. But the public have all heard of Monsanto by then and they don't like it. No matter what the product is, it will take a generation of environmentalists dying of old age before that changed.
And instead of even doing that, Monsanto has told regulators it would spin off the seeds. Given that shocking lack of judgment, it may be better for science if Monsanto were to be acquired by some company with a better handle on the pulse of culture.