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Monsanto is dead. Now what?

The lightning rod for resentment won’t be there to kick around anymore

It seems Monsanto is finally out of its misery. Arguably the most detested company in the world, it will likely cease to exist with Bayer’s acquisition.

Monsanto’s own attempt to acquire Swiss-based Syngenta not only failed, but also was received with extreme prejudice. But now with Bayer’s acquisition of the St. Louis-based company, Monsanto, or at least its brand, will slowly disappear into the sunset.

Many suspect that it was indeed Monsanto’s intended objective — to kill the brand and leave the environmentalists looking for a new foe. After many years though, Monsanto came to the realization it had to become someone else’s prey rather than the hunter.

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We have seen several acquisitions in recent months, but this one is different. Such an acquisition creates an agricultural behemoth. Combining both companies makes it the market leader on three major continents, North America, Europe and Asia. Both companies are of significant size and both generate revenues from different streams. The deal comes after months of discussions between the two companies.

From a business perspective, the acquisition makes sense. New markets can be developed for Monsanto’s current products while Bayer gains access to incredible intellectual property. This acquisition gives Bayer a comprehensive portfolio to help farmers increase yields. Bayer’s brands will likely dominate the portfolio as it is hard to see how Monsanto’s brands will survive over the long term.

Obviously, there is some risks with this acquisition, but many argue that the Bayer-Monsanto marriage has a better chance in success than the proposed deal between Monsanto and Syngenta last year. In the Monsanto-Syngenta attempt it was North America buying GMO-hating Europe, which was likely politically impossible to get through regulators. In fact, in the offer last year, Monsanto added billions to cover litigation fees should the offer to Syngenta have been accepted. However, with Bayer purchasing Monsanto it’s the other way around.

A backdrop to all of this was the ever-increasing public outcry against Monsanto. Monsanto has thought for many years its science-based approach has been good enough and would help validate what it was trying to achieve. Monsanto never bothered to engage with the public until it was much too late. For years, Marches Against Monsanto across many countries were evidence that the company’s risk communication scheme over the years had failed miserably. Gatherings around the world aimed to raise awareness about Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, GMO labelling and potential health risks caused by the use of unwanted herbicides. With the help of social media, opposition only gained steam. As a result of all this, since July 1 of this year Vermont made GMO-labelling mandatory, while other states are now considering the same. This is the legacy of Monsanto’s resolve to pretend that the collective rejection of its model was not real.

Given the compelling science behind genetically modified crops, movements were not really about GMOs but rather about Monsanto. In the past societal optics were never really considered by the company, at least not seriously. After all, Monsanto hires thousands of PhDs and researchers. Science was king, and why not. The company thought that by having science on its side, there was no need to tackle concerns which originated from what it considered flawed scientific studies.

Yet contradicting this unshakable confidence in scientific authority, adversaries of Monsanto’s business model have been successful in recognizing that trust, the golden rule in risk communications, actually has more currency than science. The extent and amplitude of criticisms in the public realm have caused Monsanto to recognize fairly recently that it has lost control over how it is perceived publicly.

Gaining its social licence became impossible for Monsanto. In fact, over the years the company has inadvertently polarized the issue of generally modified crops, to its detriment. It is likely the worst risk communication strategy in the history of mankind. Accepting Bayer’s offer makes a case for Monsanto’s recognition that its position couldn’t be salvaged.

Monsanto’s end will come with environmentalists’ delight. But now, it is time we have a rational conversation about biotechnologies.

Science deserves some attention of course, but consumers should remain part of the conversation moving forward.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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