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“Welcome to the Lion’s Den”: Meeting Big Ag

April 20, 2011 •  no comments.

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“You caught me on a really bad day” is how my meeting with Syngenta Seeds began.

“Oh?” I mustered (wondering what in the world I’d been thinking to even agree to a meeting with the North American head of this division and thought back to a presentation I’d given in Chicago to biotech farmers at which I’d been greeted at the door by one of them saying, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den”).

“Yeah,” said the Syngenta farmer. “ I’ve just spent the week with people like you in DC at EPA meetings about atrazine. You see, people like you think it causes all kinds of weird things in frogs. We’re getting away from science based decision making and into all of this emotional stuff, and it messes things up.”

I stood there. Took a breath and listened.

“We’ve been using this stuff for 60 years. We wouldn’t use it if it caused harm. The science is good,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. “The science is good” and he continued on.

And as I listened to him vent his frustrations, I began to hear something else. Something other than the words that were pouring out of his mouth. I heard the insult.

Because before me stood a fourth generation farmer whose family had dedicated their lives to feeding our country for over 100 years, not some evil doer, chemical wielding mad scientist in a lab coat. And as he spoke about his family’s dedication to the land, I realized that he was insulted by the recent attack on his trade, his livelihood, his family. The affront on farming was personal, and it hurt.

So I listened to him speak of these injuries and asked what his family knew. And he spoke about a stewardship of the land, learned at his grandfather’s knee. He spoke of what he called “A Dance with Mother Nature,” saying “She always leads, man, you can never forget that. She always leads.”

And he spoke of “Sustainability” and what it meant to him, saying, “Responsibility. It is our responsibility. We have to get this right. Everything depends on it. Our food. Our health. Our soil. We have to get this right. It’s not a choice – it’s survival.”

And I nodded in complete agreement.

And then I responded, “You must feel insulted when people attack farming and modern day agriculture, especially as a fourth generation farmer whose family has fed our nation for over 100 years.”

He nodded. Without speaking.

“I am so sorry,” I said. And with that, he came into the conference room, and we all sat down.

And so began my afternoon at Syngenta Seeds.

And as we sat at the table together, we began to share stories and exchange insight. And we realized that there was far more that united us than divided us.

We spoke of the food system and Monsanto’s monopoly over the seed supply. We spoke of the licensing fees, trait fees, patents and technology agreements that Monsanto now has in place in farming – and questioned what his grandfather would have thought of the privatization of agriculture and the patenting of the food supply. We spoke of the distribution of nicotinic acid in wheat, of gluten and of Celiac Disease.

We spoke of the declining health of the American children (“I have kids, too,” he said), the urgent need to address their disrupted immune systems, and we spoke of declining farm incomes and the need to address the associated debt loads. We spoke of predatory practices in agriculture and in the food system, of agrichemical corporations “too big to fail” and of the need for the regulation of competition and of monopolies,of leverage over pricing and innovation and of the unintended consequences on progress if we fail to fix our food system.

And we spoke of industry funded science, both in the world of biotechnology and genetically modified proteins and in the food allergy world.

“Did you know that Monsanto has been funding our nation’s leading allergists?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t” he said. As his colleague added, “But man, we see that in our parts, too. Bayer started funding Ducks Unlimited a while back.”

And we all nodded. Not a word spoken, yet understanding the heavy implications on all levels.

For three hours, we shared stories, insights and expertise. I learned more about technology fees and the new cost structures associated with biotech farming, and I shared information about how industry funded science can be detrimental to the health of our families.

“Sometimes it just gets depressing,” he said. “It just seems like too much. I mean, what can one person do?”

“You can do a lot,” I said. “Look at what we are doing now.” And with that, I asked for a tour of their facility.

And with pride, the fourth generation farmers of Syngenta Seeds showed me their greenhouse, their wheat testing facility and their bread baking kitchen. They showed me how their warehouse recycled enormous amounts of water, preserving natural resources, and spoke of how no-till technology sequestered carbon (capturing several times over the equivalent of global fossil fuel usage).

They shared how it takes 8-10 years to develop a grain (as long as I have been a mother) and we laughed over the emotional investment involved in both.

And as we walked through their warehouse, I shared the concern of parents whose children now have autism, cancer and allergies. And they nodded, in complete agreement, as parents, too.

And as our afternoon drew to a close, we hesitated to separate, knowing all too well that it had been a rare day – one in which we’d come together as stewards of our children’s food supply, sitting down at the table together. And there was a touch of sadness knowing that these occasions were too few and far between.

And as I turned to go, I asked, “Would you like a copy of my book?” and quietly, the Syngenta team said, “Yes.”

And with that, I inscribed:

To the Syngenta Gang,
Thank you for the important dialogue.
With inspired hope for the health of our children,
Robyn O’Brien

And I turned and left, with inspired hope for the health of our children.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~Winston Churchill

This article was written by Robyn O’Brien and originally appeared on the AllergyKids Foundation site on July 24, 2010

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