Monsanto publishes sustainability report

Company "surprised" by hostile European reaction to modified soya, pledges "greater engagement"

US-based life sciences firm Monsanto has publicly reviewed its progress towards sustainable development for the first time, in a document published alongside its latest annual corporate report. In abandoning its previous approach of producing an annual environmental review, Monsanto has joined a small but growing number of firms reporting on the so-called "triple bottom line" of environmental, economic and social performance (ENDS Daily 10 December 1997).

Monsanto committed itself to sustainable development as "an operating principle," in 1995, setting up units to develop indicators, eco-efficiency modelling, and full-cost accounting methods. By the end of this year, it intends to have a plan to integrate sustainable development criteria and goals into all key business decision-making processes.

In the 1997 report, just published, Monsanto describes the beginnings of the company's "sustainability evaluation" work, which identifies and quantifies environmental impacts from raw material to product use. The company describes this work as still in an "elementary phase" but expects to complete the evaluation for three major products during 1998.

In an introduction to the report, Monsanto's vice chairman Nick Reding states the company's aim: "when compared to alternatives, our products must make a superior contribution over their whole life cycle to sustainable development." Using the company's Roundup herbicide as an example, he concludes "while it takes resources and creates wastes to manufacture Roundup herbicide, the net impact of providing the product for growers' use is, on balance, strongly beneficial".

The report also discusses the current European controversy over genetically modified crops, in which Monsanto is deeply embroiled. A soya variety engineered to resist the Roundup was one of the very first modified crops to receive EU marketing approval and has become a focus of widespread consumer mistrust of genetically modified foods.

"The intensity of the controversy was unexpected by many Monsanto people," the report notes. Monsanto's president for Europe-Africa, Bernard Auxenfans says that had the company devoted more resources earlier to promoting public dialogue "opinions might still have differed, but less anxiety and confusion would have existed in the discussion".

Monsanto blames low public confidence in regulatory authorities as well as confusion about biotechnology for the controversy, but concludes: "the company is reviewing its responsibilities for engaging the public as biotechnology-improved crops are introduced around the world."

Monsanto says it is open to the option of labelling foods to indicate not only safety, composition and nutritional quality, but also how they are made "provided it includes a credible system to ensure the truthfulness and fairness of the...information."

Follow Up:
Monsanto, tel: +1 314 694 1000.

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