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Commentary: Why Monsanto Should Change its Name

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“Or your name is mud” is a threat I heard quite often as a child. Usually it was preceded by an ultimatum like clean your room, or quit teasing your sister, or turn down that music. I had no idea what the phrase meant except that I was about to incur my mother’s wrath if I did not comply.   It was not until years later that I learned it referred to Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth after he shot President Lincoln. However, The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase to 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term first appeared in a British book, not an American one. It appears to mean: that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such. In either case, it refers to the fact that your name and reputation will be seriously besmirched.

Unfortunately, this is the fate of the good folks at Monsanto. Their name has become synonymous with unsafe food, corporate greed, farmer victimization, and a host of other things not even remotely connected to what they do.   Wackos worldwide use the Monsanto name as the evil against which they are fighting. If you want to make big bucks with a nonprofit organization, just say you are fighting to stop Monsanto and the dollars will pour in. You can even use the Monsanto name to impact economic development in your town.

The city of Greenwood, Indiana, has withdrawn a tax incentive offer to Monsanto which wanted to build a $29 million seed processing plant in an industrial park in the Johnson County town. Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers told the Daily Journal of Franklin that he decided to withdraw the tax break request after he and other city officials received numerous messages from residents opposed to the project. This was not some mega-complex with secret labs, but a warehouse that bagged corn and soybean seeds.  The office was expected to employ 6 to 10 fulltime employees making annual salaries in the range of $60,000 to $90,000 per year. Monsanto was seeking a 10-year, $1.6 million, personal-property tax abatement — a paltry sum as tax deals go.  The company would still pay more than $920,000 in personal-property taxes over the abatement period under the plan. On the surface, this certainly looks like a case of Monsantophobia.

This kind of thing happens a lot in agriculture. If an entrepreneur wants to build a CAFO, a name almost as despised as Monsanto, he is villainized and slandered in the community. If he wants to build a brewery, well, he is lauded as a hero. Last week, the State of Indiana, along with most of the major farm and commodity organizations in the state, announced a 10-year, strategic plan to grow the ag industry in Indiana. The goal is to get $3 billion in new investment in things like new ethanol plants; pork, poultry, and dairy processing plants; and hydroponic warehouses. Such a plan would create new jobs, generate billions in new revenue, and provide new and expanded markets for Hoosier farmers.  Yet, where will these plants be located?  It seems there are some aspects of agriculture with which public opinion is less comfortable.  We obviously need to improve the public image of industrial agriculture.

The mergers that are taking place represent a chance to make some name changes. Bayer has a much more positive name than Monsanto, so the folks at Bayer should deep-six the Monsanto brand. Both Dow and DuPont have names tied to giant chemical corporations, not the most ecofriendly reputation. As they merge, they should take off in a whole new direction that engenders trust and warm fuzzy feelings.  These days a name can mean a lot when it comes to public acceptance of what you are doing in agriculture. Thirty years ago, if we had called it warm pasteurization instead of irradiation, we might have a powerful, food safety tool in use today. When the media renamed finely textured beef as pink slime, it almost destroyed an industry. Activists have positioned phrases like “GMO” and “factory farm” negatively in the minds of consumers.

Dr. Mudd was eventually acquitted and released from prison, but his name has been forever tarnished. Monsanto’s upcoming absorption into the Bayer corporation will give activists a less visible target to smear.  Monsanto should also stop advertising their new dicamba technology on local commercial TV.  Marketing this powerful crop protection option to mothers who are watching the local weather is only making things worse. As my mother would have said, “Keep that up, and your name will be mud!”

By Gary Truitt