RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

No Democracy at Monsanto Corporate Headquarters

We’re here. We’ve driven up the driveway and entered the campus—acres of dull, grassy landscape. A few shaggy peacocks wander forlornly about, dragging their tails in the snow. There are concrete parking lots, concrete buildings, concrete walkways and signs declaring buildings as “A”, “B”, “C” and on. Out front, by the concrete Monsanto sign, a protest is happening. The protestors are the most colorful things in view.

We park in the shareholders’ lot. In the dull, grey, extremely cold landscape, there are dull, grey, ruddy-faced security guys. One little knot of them stops us as we go to visit protestors. “The shareholder meeting is this way,” one cop insists, pointing, “are you here to protest or to go to the meeting?” He didn’t want to be blamed for letting protesters park in the lot, you see.

We say we want to check out the protest and invite the security guys to come along. They would have enjoyed the speeches, which brought a kind of holiday mood to the scene, but they couldn’t leave their posts. They kind of shrug, and for the first time, but not the last, I get the feeling Monsanto employees know the reputation of their company.

The protest is led by Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now, a non-profit out of Clear Lake, Iowa, where they know a thing or two about what industrial ag does to farms. Besides knocking over homesteads, removing fence rows, filling ponds, and covering the prairie with miles and miles of corn and soybeans, the industry has sprayed countless tons of Roundup, an herbicide made mostly of glyphosate. The glyphosate stays in the land, until rain washes it into ditches and creeks. Weeds are immune to glyphosate now, and farmers are using more dangerous chemicals. It has been a disaster for organic farmers, or any that want to raise food without chemicals.

I am at the meeting to speak for a resolution — Resolution 2—filed by John Harrington Associates of Napa, California, a grape-growing region. Harrington is a stockbroker, but there’s a tie-in with his viney neighbors. Vineyards will be particularly under threat as Monsanto moves to its new seeds which will resist 2,4D and dicamba, herbicides especially lethal to grapes. Here in Missouri, taxpayers have spent a lot of money rebuilding our historic wine industry. There will be huge increases in use of 2,4D if the new Monsanto seeds are introduced. In fact, Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of 2,4D, has modernized a factory to produce lots more of this herbicide that will devastate vineyards everywhere.

At the protest, Dave Murphy makes an excellent speech on behalf of Resolution 1. It’s a blustery January day and we are all practically frozen. We manage a bit of hoopla, then trek to Building A and register. Such warm welcomes from the staff! Our names are on the list! Our name tags are prepared! Our cookies and coffee are waiting on the table. Thanks, no. We’ll just have water.

Opening the meeting, CEO Hugh Grant introduced farmers using Monsanto seeds. There were five or six corn grower-type couples. Hostages, they seemed to me, aware of the problems but tied up with debt. I felt sorry for them.

Just as there’s a long, sluggish path for a bill becoming a law, there’s a short, slick path for a shareholder resolution to become dead. First, the resolution is filed by a shareholder. Then, the company responds and sends out a ballot. Then, shareholders vote yay or nay. If shareholders don’t vote, it’s assumed they are against the resolution. At the meeting, the resolution is presented. Next minute, management announces the percentage of votes that it got.

Get it? The vote’s made before the resolution is presented. That’s like voting for a lawmaker before you meet the candidate, and here’s the clincher: In the case of many companies, including Monsanto, much of the stock is owned by mutual funds — Fidelity and Vanguard being the leading two owners. And mutual fund owners don’t vote on their stock holdings at all!

So we only got 6% of the vote. And you might think that the day was a bust. It wasn’t.

First of all, there were the aforementioned signs — “tells” as poker players call them—unconscious nods and smiles from employees as we chatted, that told me there are a percentage of workers that agree the company is behaving unfairly and even dangerously. These are smart folks, and the day of the meeting the New York Times ran a front-page article on new Monsanto strategy to use RNA interference to kill corn rootworms. The Times quoted the National Honey Bee Advisory Board: “To attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more naïve than our use of DDT in the 1950s.”

Monsanto workers are smart. Some of them, surely, read the Times.

Second, there were the handshakes and exchanges among speakers as we spotted kindred spirits. We will continue to be in touch.

Last, there are examples from other companies of resolutions that failed but made enough sense to eventually become policy. Adopted by management rather than voted in by shareholders. Of course, these would not have made it if consumer support had not been with the changes.

So, there you have it, a few hours at Monsanto headquarters.

Make a note: shareholder activism is another tool in the toolbox to repair corporate power.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2014

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