I don’t do many sponsored posts. I bristle against it, actually; I feel that there’s an inherent tendency—if only internally—of expected positive reciprocity when someone (a person, brand, company, etc) offers something for “free” if I’ll write about it here in my microscopic corner of the web.
Last year I was excited to be asked if I’d like to go to Chicago to learn more about farming, pigs, and how our food makes its way to our tables. Hello—Chicago? Only my most favorite place ever? Sure, I’ll go. I didn’t write about that trip, though I tweeted/Instagrammed, and talked about what I’d learned with friends.
This year when I was asked if I’d like to join a road trip to Missouri, I was a bit less excited. No offense, St. Louis, but Chicago is an awfully tough act to follow. Still, I jumped at the chance because any opportunity I have to learn something new excites me.
The rub is this: one of our stops was Monsanto. Yes, that Monsanto. The one with the storied history and the protests and the hate. The one that produces the pesticide that my dad talks about. The one led by a CEO who makes oodles and oodles and oodles of money when the company’s mission statement says it’s all about the farmers and feeding folks who are hungry.
Sponsored posts are required to contain a certain level of transparency. *Disclosure: this was a sponsored trip. I contributed nothing monetarily to the transportation, lodging, or food that kept us going for the duration of the trip. The majority of the trip was paid for by a grant from United Soybean Board. Kansas Farm Bureau covered the cost of the meals. The trip was organized by a partnership between Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Soybean and Kansas Pork, who collectively took very good care of us. They fed us exceedingly well. There was wine. There was addictive kettle corn. I had the most fantastic pasta I’ve had in a very long time.
There were perks along the way. At Merck, our first stop, we were given ball caps, a nice journal and pen, a book, a cool, flat koozie, a very nice Webster grill utensil, and food. At Monsanto we were fed lunch and given seeds to plant and collateral that aimed to answer basic questions about GMO. At Maschoff’s Family Foods we were given lemonade and iced tea. At Central Missouri Meat and Sausage we sampled bacon and summer sausages courtesy of Central Missouri Meat and Sausage, and we were each given an all-natural beef summer sausage, courtesy of Kansas Pork. Delicious, by the way, and full of not only beef but beets and celery. Central Missouri Meat and Sausage was my favorite part of this trip; Cory was honest and said some things people don’t want to hear (he won’t eat meat that was raised without antibiotics, because of what he’s seen when he butchers those animals). His facility is eat-off-the-floor clean and he’s putting local folks who want to work to work, and providing training for a valuable trade along the way. I have mad respect for him and what he’s doing.
But there are other disclosures that are necessary if I’m going to write with a clear conscious. Disclosure: I have mixed feelings about Monsanto, big business, and how the food that I feed my family comes to my table. I’m from a small town in Kansas and know good folks—my dad among them—who have worked tirelessly their entire lives to farm. There’s never a shortage of blood, sweat, tears, anxiety, uncertainty, and loan interest at the family farms I know. The family farmers I know don’t make what Hugh Grant makes. To be fair, they also don’t face the same challenges he does as the CEO of a company like Monsanto, and Grant doesn’t know what it’s like to toil in the soil for a living. At least I don’t think he does; I could be wrong. I haven’t read much about Mr. Grant.
I went into Monsanto with questions, but to be honest I hadn’t yet put those questions into words. I knew I fell on the not-a-fan-of-Monsanto side, though I wasn’t necessarily anti-Monsanto. I feel there’s a place for advancement, for better living through science, and for research. As with so many things in life, I found myself in the gray.
Where I tripped up is in the conversation, specifically the language we use.
Two weeks after our trip, that’s still what sticks with me from our tour of Monsanto. See, when Monsanto says “GMO” it doesn’t always mean “GMO.” That’s what our tour guide told us. Sometimes it means transgenic; sometimes it means biotechnology.
Monsanto uses “GMO” because, it says, that’s the word the public knows. Monsanto is trying to speak our language as they try to educate us on what it’s doing and why. At least, that’s what our community outreach liaison and our tour guide–who holds a master’s degree in science– told us.
And I have a problem with that.
It’s a terrible oversimplification, but if my kids mix up their, they’re and there, I correct them. I don’t let them use the wrong word in the wrong way simply because it’s what they know and what makes sense to them at the time. I’m doing them a disservice if I don’t correct them and teach them the proper word and its meaning.
We can’t educate someone if we don’t speak a common language. We also can’t educate someone if we don’t respect them enough to think they can learn something new. I get it; GMO is a scary term, and it’s the term that has caught on in the media. I’m certain there are real hurdles to using the right words all the time, many of which I’m not privy to. And some people—raising hand here—aren’t science-minded and have a hard time following detailed discussions about all things biology/chemistry/etc.
But if the goal genuinely is to educate me—not to pacify me—then to truly communicate to me why you’re doing what you’re doing and why that’s good, you have to respect me enough to use the right words, and trust that I’ll learn them.
This shouldn’t be a one-sided conversation. If I’m asking you to trust me, I have to rise to the occasion, too. I have to read up on what those different terms mean, and even if my initial instinct is that nature is better than “GMO,” I have to keep an open mind and acknowledge that maybe, in some instances, I’m wrong.
I learned during our tour that carrots haven’t always been orange. Sweet potatoes are a naturally transgenic food crop. Papayas are delicious and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy them if we didn’t tinker with nature.
Bottom line is this: I walked away from Monsanto knowing there are genuinely good people working there. They are ridiculously smart and passionate about whatever their focus is; I sat with a scientist at lunch who specializes in bell peppers, and I can’t adequately express how much I appreciate the transparency and honesty of the community outreach person who took care of us. She didn’t shy away from my question about money, and she answered some tough questions about intentions, profits, and mistakes Monsanto has made.
I wished we had more time there because a few hours barely scratches the surface of the conversations that need to happen. I wish they’d had someone from the business end present during our Q&A so we could talk specifics about profits, the CEO’s enormous compensation package, and how they reconcile accumulating those profits on the backs of hardworking, sometimes can’t-make-ends-meet farmers. I wished we’d talked about more than seeds, since that’s only part of how Monsanto makes its money.
Am I pro-Monsanto after this visit? No. Do I think they’re making progress in the conversation? I’m not sure. I think we all need to step up our game a bit. We as consumers need to ask intelligent, reasoned questions. We need to do our own homework and find non-biased, independent sources. We need to acknowledge there’s rarely a clear black and white when we’re talking about complex and nuanced issues (note: there ARE exceptions, like understanding and respecting that some folks have real issues and business being accountable for mislabeling/not taking responsibility for their actions). We need to agree there’s almost always common ground in the gray. We need to respect each other enough to trust we’ll listen to each other talk, and react to more than soundbites or clickbait headlines. We need to talk…really talk, even about issues that make us uncomfortable. Finally, sometimes we need to agree to disagree, without demonizing either side as we do.
This post was written after a tour sponsored by Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Soybean Association, and Kansas Pork Association. All opinions are my own.
*Note: this post has been edited because I incorrectly attributed sponsorship. That information has been corrected.