Listening to the Women of Monsanto

BlogHer Original Post

Monsanto recently made the headlines when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to uphold the company's patent on its genetically modified seed. This technology is in high demand by farmers, but it also makes Monsanto a lightning rod for controversy. I wondered: What's it like for the women who work at this Fortune 500 Company? What would they want other women to know?


Janice Person, social media director for Monsanto (R), with blogger Megan Brown in one of Monsanto's research plots. Image credit: Janice Person.

Some background: Monsanto is one of the world's largest agriculture companies. It sells seed and chemicals to farmers and licenses technology to other biotech firms. Biotech seed is genetically engineered to produce certain traits in plants -- for example, Monsanto's popular Roundup Ready seed produces plants that are tolerant of glyphosate, a herbicide considered less toxic to the environment than other pesticides. Glyphosate kills weeds without harming plants that have the trait. Farmers who plant the biotech seed may not have to treat their fields as often or with additional herbicides. Controlling weeds is important to farmers because weeds decrease crop yields and quality by competing for resources like water, sunlight, and soil nutrients. Similarly, Monsanto has genetically engineered seed to grow plants that produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring soil bacterium that's sprayed by some organic farmers as a pesticide. Bt is toxic to worms that eat farmers' crops, but harmless to fish, birds, people, and other vertebrates.

Critics of Monsanto voice a number of concerns. Some say the company forces farmers to use their seed, although farmers like Brian Scott disagree with this assertion. Other critics worry that organic crops could be contaminated and organic farmers sued for patent infringement if pollen from Monsanto's biotech crops drift into their fields. However, last year a New York federal judge dismissed a case brought by some organic farmers, ruling they "overstated the magnitude of [Monsanto's] patent enforcement." Others say GMOs (genetically modified organisms) cause health problems, but groups like the World Health Organization report that biotech foods on the market today have been thoroughly tested and are unlikely to present human health risks. Other critics say Monsanto's technology breeds superweeds, causes cotton farmers in India to commit suicide, and infiltrates organic maize in Mexico. The list goes on and on.

I realize food is an emotional issue. We all have to eat, and we all have different needs and budgets. If you're an organics-only consumer, I respect your choice to do what you believe is best for your family. I trust you'll extend the same courtesy to me and many others like me, even if our choices are different from yours. This post isn't meant to argue whose choices are better, and Monsanto isn't paying me to write this. I don't work for Monsanto and neither does my husband, although he did have a college internship there. Later, we lived in St. Louis where the company is headquartered. We got to know Monsanto employees personally as friends and neighbors. Many of them are smart, ambitious, well-educated, successful, female executives. Some are working moms, too. They've built their careers at Monsanto. There are reasons they stay.

What They Wish We Knew About Their Work and Their Company

I asked four women who work at Monsanto what they'd like other women to know.

“I love what I do, I get to work with incredible people, and we make a positive contribution to agriculture every day,” said Janice, a social media director for Monsanto. "When I go down the hall at work for a meeting, I’m in the room with a stats genius whose parents are still running the family farm down the highway, or the marketing guy who takes vacation to help his dad plant crops, or a scientist from Ethiopia who wants to help feed the hungry in her hometown."

Agriculture has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but 30 percent of Monsanto's senior management are women. NAFE (National Association for Female Executives) named Monsanto one of the Top 50 Companies for Executive Women for 2013.

"Monsanto isn’t a building or a company. It’s a group of more than 20,000 employees—people with parents, children, spouses, and friends. People who live in and care about local communities," said Kelly, a director of corporate strategy. "I'm a daughter, a wife, and most importantly, a mother to three wonderful girls who are my world. And I’m proud of what I do here in my professional life. I feel supported by my employer in having a happy home life."

Nancy, a scientist and the mother of two, agrees.

"I think it's important for women to know that Monsanto is made up of people just like them," she said. "We are moms and sisters and grandmothers and best friends, people who maybe vote the way you do and people who maybe don’t. But we’re all people who want to make this world better for ourselves and our families."

Nancy helped develop a drought-tolerant corn plant that uses water more efficiently. The technology was used in last year's record drought conditions by farmers in the western drylands and plains of the United States.

"The way the technology works is that it helps the corn plant use water more efficiently and 'bank' it during earlier wet weather to give the plant more reserve for later drier weather," said Nancy. "From the weather estimate, it looks like more areas will be experiencing drought conditions this year, so this technology is going to help to more farmers manage dry periods."

Monsanto is donating this technology to drought-stricken areas in sub-Saharan Africa as part of the WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) program in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"It’s exciting to be able to contribute to sustainable agriculture in developing regions and know that we’re helping farmers around the world improve agriculture," said Nancy.

Natalie, another scientist and mom who works for Monsanto, leads the company's efforts to partner with non-profit hunger relief groups. Her team also helps ensure corporate social responsibility, including compliance with the United Nations Global Compact. Much of her work focuses on developing countries in Africa where up to 80 percent of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood and the majority of farmers are women.

"I believe that women’s empowerment is essential to achieve the peaceful world we all seek, and women’s empowerment depends on improving agriculture," said Natalie. "Maize is a staple in Eastern Africa, but their yields are about a tenth of what we achieve in the U.S.—and that's not for lack of trying."

Conditions for the women farmers in Africa are difficult. Many farm a piece of land the size of a suburban U.S. backyard and don't have access to the tools and markets they need to feed their families.

"These women prepare the fields, plant the crops, weed the crops often to the point of experiencing back deformities, harvest the crops, mill the grain, fetch the firewood, fetch the water, and prepare the meal," said Natalie, "And when there isn’t enough food in the household, it's the woman and her daughters who are the first to go hungry."

Natalie would like people to realize the vital role agriculture plays in addressing the issues they care about and to see that Monsanto is made up of women and men who care about those same issues.

"I’ve visited with women in Africa and seen them panic at the thought of how they will feed their many children—some their own and some the children of family members who have died of HIV—with a handful of poor quality seeds that they know will not yield nearly enough food for the year," said Natalie. "I can’t imagine the suffering they endure, but I’m inspired and humbled by their determination and feel privileged to work with them."

How the Women of Monsanto Respond to Questions and Criticism

I asked the women how they deal with a seemingly constant barrage of questions and criticism directed toward their company.

"I don’t mind the questions and I’m happy to engage in conversation with anyone who is willing to both speak their mind and listen to another point of view," said Kelly. "Producing food to feed our families and communities and ultimately the world’s population isn’t an easy task, and it creates all sorts of complex dilemmas. These issues can’t be explained or solved in single sound bite."

Kelly hopes those with questions about Monsanto will take the time to consider multiple points of view.

"Ask critical questions. Don’t just accept any one person’s opinion. Check your facts. Be informed," she said. "When something is reported in the media on any issue, I don’t take it at face value. I’ve learned to check facts myself and seek out multiple points of view."

Natalie agrees.

"The challenges facing our society and planet are so significant that we absolutely should be having candid conversations about how best to improve agriculture for future generations," said Natalie. "What's difficult is when misinformation clouds the discussion and distracts from focusing on the real issues."

Nancy recommends people who have questions about modern farming science and practices consult peer-reviewed scientific journals like Nature, independent scientific associations like AAAS American Association for the Advancement of Science), official governmental regulatory agencies like the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), and industry associations like ASTA (American Seed Trade Association) and NCGA(National Corn Growers Association). Most of us know documentaries by activists may not be reliable sources for scientific information. From my interview with Nancy, I learned there are also open access, pay-to-play science journals that publish anything for a price. This makes critical thinking all the more necessary on the part of readers.

Janice offers another suggestion. People with questions about food and farming can seek answers by connecting directly with farmers via social media.There are multiple ways to engage with farmers. Farms exist in all 50 states. Many farmers have their own blogs. The independent, non-profit AgChat Foundation hosts a weekly Twitter chat Tuesdays at 8 p.m. CST. Dialogue with farmers using the hashtag #agchat.

"I’d love for more people to understand agriculture and farmers, as well as Monsanto," said Janice. "Social media gives us amazing opportunities to dialogue, yet so many of us sit back and take what social media feeds us rather than engage in discussion. It takes work to hear both sides of something in today’s online environment, but taking that time makes me a better person."

Social media allows consumers to connect directly with companies online, too. Monsanto is accessible on Monsanto's Twitter, Facebook, website, and news blogs. Bloggers as diverse as rancher Megan Brown, culinary locavores Ellen Malloy and Grant Kessler, Arizona author Julie Murphree, and marketing aficionado Margie Clayman have written stories about their personal interactions with the company.

Why They Stay with Monsanto

Janice, Kelly, Nancy, and Natalie are at the top of their game. They're talented and accomplished. They could work anywhere. I wondered what keeps them at Monsanto.

"How could I leave?" said Kelly. "The world’s population is estimated to be expanding by more than 200,000 people each day, and farmers are on point to feed this growing population with limited land and resources. I’m motivated to work for a company that wants to be a part of the solution in the U.S. and in developing parts of the world."

"As a scientist I understand all the really great technology that we are developing, and as a mom I understand how important this work is as populations increase but worldwide arable land diminishes," said Nancy. "We need people who have the energy, the passion, and the vision to make the planet a better place for everyone. I want to be part of that."

"Farmers do really hard work," said Janice. "We support them by inventing products that improve foods and help conserve resources. To me, that’s what sustainability is all about, and that's a rush."

"I believe in the work we do here," said Natalie. "When the challenges and criticism become overwhelming, I spend some time with farmers, and I’m reminded that I'm part of something bigger than myself. I’m privileged to work with them."

A growing world population. The hope for better technology to help farmers produce more food on less land with less resources like water and fewer pesticides. The passion to do work that makes a difference. By listening to the women of Monsanto, I discovered they share concerns very similar to my own and perhaps to yours, too.

Aimee Whetstine ;blogs at everyday epistle. She and her family are thankful for farmers and the abundance of food choices they provide. 

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