Why the Monsanto brand getting retired is a good thing for the GMO debate

Monsanto has become a kind of shorthand, a way for consumers to express frustration about their own disempowered eating. But that became an excuse to avoid more difficult conversations.

On Thursday, Bayer AG is expected to complete its $60-billion-plus acquisition of Monsanto, following the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) approval last week. This merger of two of the world’s largest and most impactful agribusiness companies will likely prove to be a watershed moment in the evolving history of food production. By pairing Monsanto’s expertise in traditionally bred and genetically modified seeds with Bayer’s robust portfolio of herbicides, fungicides, and soil nutrition treatments—not to mention consumer health brands from Alka-Seltzer to Dr. Scholl’s and Levitra—the resulting company may prove to have unprecedented influence over the way food is designed, grown, and sold.

As I wrote in my primer on the deal in September of 2016, data from ETC Group, an ag industry watchdog, showed the resulting company will sell 29 percent of the world’s seeds and 24 percent of its pesticides.

What exactly will be the outcome of all this consolidation? For now, that’s hard to say. It’s early, and the new company still needs to divest $9 billion in assets as a condition of its deal with U.S. anti-trust regulators. Meanwhile, news that broke Monday morning suggests the most immediate repercussion will be more cultural than agricultural: Namely, that Bayer intends to “retire” the Monsanto brand.

Bayer will remain the company name,” the company wrote in a press release. “Monsanto will no longer be a company name. The acquired products will retain their brand names and become part of the Bayer portfolio.”

By sunsetting the name “Monsanto,” Bayer is depriving vocal anti-GMO advocates of their most potent rallying cry.
The decision will in no way affect the Monsanto products that are currently sold all over the world, which will continue to be sold. But as a marketing and public relations gesture, its significance should be profound. For years, Monsanto has been one of the nation’s most feared, reviled, and protested companies—and, in some quarters, one of its most ardently defended. Its very name, fairly or not, has become synonymous with environmental destruction and unrelenting corporate greed. The company has become a powerful, almost mythic figure in the American imagination, the archetype of a corporation willing to do anything in the name of money—pollute, poison, or play god.

By sunsetting the name “Monsanto,” then, Bayer is depriving vocal anti-GMO advocates of their public enemy #1, and their most potent rallying cry. Which means that, across the country, activist groups like March Against Monsanto are going to have to go through rebrands of their own.

Some of us saw this coming. I’ve long thought the merger would prove to be a critical rebranding opportunity for Monsanto, the best method it had to leave its baggage in the past. “If the acquisition goes through,” I wrote in this magazine in 2016, when news of the merger first broke, “it may be Monsanto’s best, least awkward chance to shed its biggest liability—its name.”

Though critics will no doubt accuse Monsanto of greenwashing its products under the less-familiar Bayer brand, I’d like to argue that the nominal end of Monsanto is a good thing. Perhaps more than any other company, Monsanto became the emblem of distrust in the American food system, a stand-in for a range of anxieties about the roles technology and commerce play in determining what we eat.

We can’t continue to let a fixation on one company overwhelm the conversation.
The problem with this was that, too often, invoking Monsanto was used as an easy way out. The brand became a kind of bogeyman, used to stoke fear, revulsion, and division, rather than to encourage meaningful debate. And that was never good for the public discourse about genetically modified food, and the attendant ethical and environmental questions that surround it.

We need to be having more substantive conversations. Food technology is evolving rapidly. The climate is changing. Industries are consolidating. The only thing that’s for sure is that nothing is going to stay the same. And so as we continue to hurtle into 21st century, we can’t continue to let a fixation on one company overwhelm the conversation.

It will be a good thing when one single company—whether construed as steamrolling innovator or master behind-the-scenes manipulator—can no longer be a de facto argument for or against a particular approach to producing food. There are too many other questions that must be asked, and debated. Questions about land use, intellectual property, and income inequality. Questions about environmental stewardship, corporate consolidation, and scientific responsibility.

Monsanto became a kind of shorthand, a way for consumers to express frustration about their own disempowered eating. Ironically, though, the company that came to symbolize our lack of say also became an excuse to avoid more difficult conversations. It’s that abdication of responsibility—a refusal to take, as a culture, a thorough inventory of the difficult choices we face about how to feed ourselves—that has weakened the American consumer more than any individual company could.

Hopefully, without Monsanto in the mix, we’ll be able to do better.

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.