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Monsanto and smallholder farmers: a case study in corporate


social responsibility

Dominic Glover
Post Doctoral Fellow
Technology and Agrarian Development Group
Wageningen University
PO Box 8130
6700 EW Wageningen
The Netherlands

Email: dominic.glover@wur.nl

Author posting. © Taylor & Francis, 2007.

This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Taylor & Francis
for personal use, not for redistribution.

The definitive version was published in Third World Quarterly, volume 28 Issue 4, June
2007.
doi: 10.1080/01436590701336739 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436590701336739)

[NB: In accordance with copyright, this is the pre-peer review version as originally submitted
to the journal for consideration]

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Monsanto and smallholder farmers: a case study in


corporate social responsibilityi

Abstract

This paper explores the case of the Monsanto Smallholder Programme (SHP), an
initiative implemented by the US-based transnational biotechnology, agri-chemicals and
seeds company, Monsanto, between 1999 and 2002. The programme was intended to
provide a package of agricultural extension support to ‘smallholders’ in selected developing
countries. Based on empirical research in the USA and India, this paper examines why
Monsanto came to undertake such an initiative, and how the company designed and
implemented the programme. The paper traces the evolution of the SHP over time and
discusses the reasons why it was terminated in 2002. Drawing on insights from the literature
on corporate social responsibility (CSR), the paper argues that the SHP represented an
attempt to ‘mainstream’ the values and principles of sustainability into Monsanto’s
operations, but that this led to the distinctive philanthropic and developmental aspects of the
programme being undermined by competing commercial and financial pressures.

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Introduction

The Monsanto Smallholder Programme (SHP) was an initiative undertaken by the


transnational biotechnology, chemicals and seeds company Monsanto between 1999 and
2002. The SHP had the stated purpose of providing ‘resource poor’, ‘smallholder’ farmers
with a package of agricultural extension services, including technical advice, chemicals,
improved seeds and genetically modified (GM) traits, as well as other forms of support.

This paper, based on recent empirical research in the USA and India, examines why
a transnational company like Monsanto came to undertake such an initiative and how the
company designed and implemented the programme. The paper traces the origins of the
programme, explores how it evolved over time and discusses the reasons why it came to be
terminated at the end of 2002. The case of the SHP sheds light on the role of the private
sector in relation to agricultural change and rural development in the South.

In common with the other papers in this issue, the discussion in this article is framed
in terms of the concepts and perspectives of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR). In
particular, this paper seeks to look beyond the handful of high-profile corporate philanthropic
projects and public–private partnerships which attract much attention, towards the domain of
companies’ ‘business-as-usual’ operations. The case of Monsanto’s SHP is an important
illustration of the efforts made by one particular company to grapple with the business
implications of the sustainable development and CSR agendas, and to effectively integrate
these concerns into its regular operations. Through an exploration of this case study, the
paper contributes to the wider debate about the potential to ‘mainstream’ the values and
principles of CSR into the routine operations of large transnational companies.

As the paper shows, the SHP was strongly shaped by the conflicting demands being
placed upon it, by investors, other stakeholders and biotechnology critics, which were
difficult for the company, through the decisions and actions of its officers and business units,
to reconcile. The study exposes the difficulty of reconciling competing imperatives in
practice, and delivering ‘win–win–win’ outcomes that simultaneously benefit shareholders,
stakeholders and the environment. Over time, commercial pressures came to dominate and
steadily undermined the more philanthropic and ‘developmental’ aspects of the Smallholder
Programme. The paper therefore raises questions about whether CSR can be effectively
‘mainstreamed’.

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CSR and international development

From its beginnings in sustainable development debates, the concept of CSR is increasingly
discussed in the field of international development. However, attributing a prominent role to
the private sector in international development is controversial because of the power that
many large and transnational firms have, whereas their governance structures mean that
they are not democratically accountable and are responsive primarily to the concerns and
demands of their shareholders.ii

Arguably, consumers exercising choice in the market enforce a kind of discipline on


companies, encouraging them to take into account the socio-economic and environmental
impacts of their activities. However, not all companies and sectors are equally exposed to
this type of pressure. A question also arises concerning the unequal capacity of
stakeholders in North and South to exercise this kind of power. Corporate codes of conduct,
for example, ‘are heavily concentrated in sectors where brand-reputation and export
orientation are important [and often focus on] development concerns that have a higher
profile in the richer industrialized countries’.iii

Notwithstanding these concerns, the CSR agenda has been enthusiastically


embraced by some advocates and business leaders. Authors such as John Elkington and
Simon Zadek and corporate groups like the World Business Council for Sustainable
Development have argued that engaging with social and environmental issues is in fact
central to competing successfully in the ‘new economy’, because it helps firms to innovate,
identify future opportunities, manage risks, recruit and retain employees and secure a ‘social
licence to operate’, as well as gaining reputational and branding advantages among
consumers. This has been termed the ‘business case’ for sustainable development.iv

The ‘business case’ for CSR

Business advocates of CSR contend that voluntary and market-based mechanisms are the
most appropriate instruments for encouraging ‘best practice’ behaviour and good ‘corporate
citizenship’. For critics, however, a key weakness of the voluntarist approach is that it allows
firms to define for themselves what they mean by ‘social responsibility’ or ‘good citizenship’,
to determine what standards of behaviour they will adhere to, and often to monitor
themselves for compliance.v In the process, the concept of CSR has been shaped – some
would say ‘undermined’ – by conventional norms, concepts and practices of corporate
management.vi For example, business champions of sustainability have freely reinterpreted
the term ‘sustainable development’ using language like ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘sustainable
competitiveness’.vii As Blowfield argues,

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[w]hat has been sold … is the “business case”, that is, that a company can
prosper while or by having positive non-financial gains… What the business case
gives no guidance on is what to do when prudential self-interest and benefits to
the poor are not aligned… [I]n some instances important responsibilities have
been ignored by companies because the business case cannot be made.viii

In practice, therefore, CSR often has a profoundly discretionary character. On one


hand, this is reflected in the ability of companies to avoid addressing the social or
environmental consequences of their operations unless they threaten the financial bottom
line. On the other hand, where they do respond to the demands placed upon them,
companies are criticised for interpreting their responsibilities in particular ways which do not
seriously challenge their conventional practices. Critics argue that firms approach CSR and
sustainability issues from the narrow perspective of risk management or public relations
rather than in a sincere effort to address their responsibilities.ix Blowfield notes that

Many companies have made CSR the responsibility of their HR or Corporate


Affairs teams, but it is highly questionable whether this is the right place to
establish what some envision to be a “transformative agenda”.x

Companies are often criticised for treating social responsibility as a source of ‘good
PR’, drawing attention in glossy publications and attractive websites to isolated examples of
‘good practice’ arising out of particular flagship projects or partnerships. The problem with
focusing on a few isolated examples highlighted by a company – no matter how encouraging
they may be – is that the impact of such projects may be many times outweighed by the
impact of the routine operations of other industrial plants and supply chains operated by the
same company. Large and transnational businesses may have profound and far-reaching,
direct and indirect impacts on development outcomes and the opportunities available for
people living in the communities and countries where they operate. Against this
background, the concern is sometimes expressed that the values and principles of CSR
should be ‘mainstreamed’ into companies’ ‘business-as-usual’ (BAU) operations.

CSR and ‘business as usual’: ‘mainstreaming’ CSR?

Companies do not need much encouragement to begin exploring new business


opportunities in the developing world. As C K Prahalad has documented, many large
companies are gearing up to exploit the potential in undeveloped, especially rural, markets in
the South. These zones represent a vast new frontier for business expansion and new
entrepreneurship in a globalising economy. But Prahalad’s focus – and that of the firms
whose experiences he describes – is primarily on the poor rural consumer and, at times, he
seems to regard an increased capacity to consume as the primary indicator of ‘development’

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itself.xi This implies the empowerment of poor rural people to be ‘users and choosers’ but
not necessarily ‘makers and shapers’ of the goods and services they receive – able to
exercise a limited kind of accountability through the market but not much more than that.xii

These issues are pertinent in the agriculture sector in the global South. In many
countries, public agricultural extension services have suffered from neglect, indifference and
poor management. In search of affordable and effective ways to inject new energy and
dynamism into the sector, some countries have looked at privatisation as a way forward.
Pakistan is one example, documented by Davidson and Ahmad.xiii In India, a number of
large agribusiness companies are exploring the market for private, fee-charging agricultural
extension services; the clearest example of this type is Mahindra & Mahindra’s Shubhlabh
enterprise.xiv But many agricultural input manufacturers and suppliers also claim to offer
agricultural extension advice and support alongside the products they sell. However, as staff
acknowledge, this advice is inflected towards their self-interest in marketing their own
brands.

From the perspective of CSR, what are the implications of these regular BAU
operations? The Monsanto Smallholder Programme represents an interesting case through
which to explore this question. The remainder of this paper will examine the Monsanto
Smallholder Programme in the context of debates about CSR and development. The paper
will show how the SHP was more than a philanthropic gesture, because it was linked to a
wider effort to grapple with the concept of sustainability and integrate it into Monsanto’s
business strategy and operations. To this extent, it cannot be easily dismissed as merely a
tokenistic exercise for the sake of public relations. To some degree, it represents an attempt
to ‘mainstream’ sustainability principles into corporate ‘business as usual’.

However, the case also shows that the philanthropic intent or CSR aspirations that
motivated some of the people involved with the programme, especially in its early stages,
were vulnerable to competing commercial pressures, which became dominant over time. To
a significant degree, this momentum can be attributed to the structural dominance of sales
and marketing imperatives within a commercial organisation. The SHP story therefore
suggests that the integration of a CSR initiative into the mainstream commercial operations
of a firm may actually undermine its philanthropic, developmental or social aims.

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Monsanto and ‘sustainability’

When Robert Shapiro was appointed as Monsanto’s new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in
April 1995, he embarked on a programme to re-orient the company’s business around the
concept of ‘sustainability’. He elaborated his interpretation of sustainability in a number of
by-lined op-ed articles, profiles and interviews during his tenure at the head of Monsanto.xv
His conceptualisation of the sustainability challenge linked two distinct elements: the urgent
need to grow enough food to feed a growing population; and the ecological harm that would
be entailed in trying to do so with existing technologies and agricultural practices. This
conceptualisation implicitly involved the farmers and consumers of the developing world as
key stakeholders and important players in fulfilling Monsanto’s sustainability vision.

Shapiro established seven strategic teams to explore sustainability issues and their
implications for the company’s future business; one of these was the ‘Global Hunger Team’,
which studied ‘how Monsanto might develop and deliver technologies to alleviate world
hunger’.xvi A ‘Sustainable Development Business Sector’ was established to operationalise
the sustainability strategy. The Sustainability Sector included a ‘Smallholder Team’ which
was ‘charged with developing products, services and partnerships to meet the needs of
rural, small-scale farmers in developing countries’.xvii Monsanto’s agriculture division had
already begun to focus on developing country markets in the early 1990s, towards the goal
of ‘transforming agriculture’ in a number of developing countries, a target that became
known as the ‘developing country goal’.xviii Developing country farmers assumed, therefore,
a central place in Monsanto’s strategy for market development and competitiveness as well
as Shapiro’s vision of sustainability.

In 1998-99, Monsanto’s plans for the commercialisation of GM crops ran into


problems, especially in Europe. Anti-GM activists there had been campaigning against the
technology since the first attempt to import GM grain into European ports in 1996. In the
Autumn of 1998, an ill-conceived advertising campaign triggered a backlash by European
consumers and soon European food retailers were pulling foods containing GM ingredients
from their shelves. Within months, the European Union had imposed a de facto moratorium
on further approvals of GM crops. Surveying the scene, in the summer of 1999, analysts at
Deutsche Bank issued a market analysis that declared ‘GMOs are Dead’.xix

Both the controversy over so-called ‘terminator’ sterile seed technology and the
consumer rejection of GM crops were linked in part to issues of international development
and global hunger. Activists and development campaigners raised the alarm over the
possibility that ‘terminator’ sterile seed technology could be used to prevent Third World

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farmers from saving seeds and make them more dependent on biotechnology and seed
companies. Monsanto’s advertising campaign provoked an outcry partly because it explicitly
asserted the capacity of biotechnology to ‘feed the world’.xx

As this account shows, the concerns of developing countries and smallholder farmers
were already part of Monsanto’s strategic positioning as a business, and they were also
among the factors that triggered the crisis which engulfed the company in 1998 and 1999.
The image of smallholders and developing country agriculture were also invoked by
Monsanto as part of its strategy for tackling the crisis. There were two important reasons for
this. With Monsanto’s progress in European markets stalled, developing country markets
took on greater significance; the company urgently needed to expand the market for its GM
crops internationally. In addition, the images of smallholder farmers and poor consumers in
developing countries assumed a weighty symbolic importance in global disputes about the
merits and risks of GM crops.

The ‘New Monsanto Pledge’

In 1999, as part of its response to the crisis, Monsanto adopted the ‘New Monsanto Pledge’,
which committed the company to a ‘new way of doing business’. In CSR terminology, the
Pledge can be understood as Monsanto’s corporate code of conduct – a public statement of
the values which it claimed would inform its behaviour and, crucially, the responsibilities
which it regarded as applying to its activities. In this charter, poor farmers were clearly
constructed as prominent potential beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology. The Pledge
effectively portrayed Monsanto as a provider of technology to resource-poor farmers and an
important contributor to sustainable agriculture and food security (see Box 2).xxi

Box 1: The New Monsanto Pledgexxii

The New Monsanto Pledge was announced on 27 November 2000. It incorporated the
following five major commitments:xxiii

‘Dialogue: We commit to an ongoing dialogue with all interested parties to


understand the issues and concerns related to this technology.

‘Transparency: We commit to transparency by making published scientific data and


data summaries on product safety and benefits publicly available and accessible, and we
commit to working within the rigorous science-based regulation as required by appropriate
government agencies around the world.

‘Respect: We commit to respecting the religious, cultural and ethical concerns of


people throughout the world…

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‘Sharing: We commit to bring the knowledge and advantages of all forms of


agriculture to resource poor farmers in the developing world to help improve food security
and protect the environment.

‘Benefits: We commit to work for and deliver benefits for farmers commercially as
well as environmentally’.

Three parts of the original Pledge statement are particularly relevant here.
Developing country farmers were expressly invoked in the ‘sharing’ section, which declared
Monsanto’s commitment to ‘bring the knowledge and advantages of all forms of agriculture
to resource poor farmers in the developing world’.xxiv Developing country agriculture is also
evoked in one of the sub-clauses beneath the ‘respect’ pledge, in which the company
‘underscor[ed] our commitment not to pursue technologies that result in sterile seeds’. The
inclusion of this commitment can be attributed directly to the concerns raised by international
development campaigners and academics about the rights of farmers in developing
countries to save seed. Finally, poor farmers were also implicitly constructed as potential
beneficiaries of Monsanto’s activities in the ‘benefits’ part of the Pledge – this time in the
shape of customers of Monsanto.xxv

It is worth noticing the degree to which the terms of the Pledge may be reconciled
with Monsanto’s pre-existing interests and strategies as a business. For example, the
‘transparency’ section underlines Monsanto’s determination to robustly defend the ‘safety
and benefits’ of GM crops. It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘benefits’ pledge –
‘delivering benefits to farmers’ – essentially restates Monsanto’s raison d’être as a business,
to produce and sell agricultural inputs. Finally, the terms of the ‘sharing’ pledge clearly
endorse Monsanto’s interest in marketing its products to poor farmers and expanding the
market for its technologies in the developing world.xxvi

At the same time as he announced the Pledge, Monsanto’s new CEO, Hendrik
Verfaillie, revealed that the new Smallholder Programme had been created (see Box 2). The
SHP brought together a number of disparate projects that had been implemented in a
piecemeal and ad hoc manner by different Monsanto business units around the world.
These had been initiated largely on a philanthropic basis, led by individual Monsanto
employees working in a personal and often voluntary capacity, with a view to using
Monsanto’s knowledge and technology to support agricultural and social development in
developing countries.

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Box 2: An overview of the Monsanto Smallholder Programme

According to company literature, the Smallholder Programme provided smallholder farmers


with ‘a package of existing commercial technologies, including improved seeds,
biotechnology traits where approved and applicable, conservation tillage practices, crop
protection products and other inputs, as well as training and technical assistance’. The
company also claimed that the programme provided support for ‘self help group formation,
… the creation of other income generating activities [and] access to microcredit, as well as
linkages to grain traders and processors who purchase surplus crops’.xxvii

In 2001, the SHP was reported to encompass 21 projects in 13 countries, reaching


more than 320,000 small farmers.xxviii However, a company briefing dated January 2002
indicates that Monsanto was directly involved in just a handful of smallholder projects, in
Mexico, India, Indonesia, Kenya and South Africa.xxix In India, the company claimed to be
reaching 35,000 farmers in 415 villages.xxx SHP projects were implemented in the states of
West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.

The ‘Monsanto Meekosam’ (‘Monsanto for you’) project was initiated in Vizianagram
District of North Coastal Andhra Pradesh, India, in 2001. The project was managed by the
local Territory Sales Manager (TSM). A Project Co-ordinator and ten Project Officers (POs)
were recruited. Each PO was required to live in a village; premises were rented for a
residence as well as a focal point for the project at village level. The POs conducted a
programme of farm visits, product demonstrations, and farmer training meetings across
several villages, as well as responding to farmers’ requests for help.

The project was initiated with a survey of local farmers and agricultural practices in
order to identify technology ‘adoption gaps’. The project organisers then ‘developed a
specific package of practices for five or six specific crops’ that were relevant to the local
agricultural systems, including rice, maize, cotton and some horticultural crops. The project
promoted particular products and technologies, notably Monsanto’s maize hybrid seeds and
range of herbicides. It also included some promotional activities for transgenic, insect-
resistant Bt cotton.xxxi

A good summary of the basic SHP model appeared in a Monsanto publication,


Growing Partnerships for Food and Health (emphasis added):

[D]emonstration plots and farmer trials enable smallholder women and men to
witness the value of technology packages that include improved seeds, crop
protection products, fertilizers and conservation tillage practices. Training
sessions provide the knowledge they need to use the new package safely and
effectively. Micro-loans help them get started on their own farms, and market

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access assistance helps them sell their surplus crops to generate income for their
families. Farmers who adopt the new technologies first help expand the effort by
teaching others in their community.xxxii

One of the central features of the model was the concept of the recommended
‘package of practices’, incorporating particular technologies such as herbicides. For
Monsanto, the adoption of new technologies and scientifically informed practices was a
central feature of a concept of development through which farmers would make the transition
from a subsistence mode of farming to a more commercial agriculture. This technological
and commercial transition was in fact central to their image of what ‘development’ was all
about.

‘Development’: technology transfer and market transition

The SHP was conceptualised by Monsanto executives as part of an ‘intermediate’ or


‘transitional’ strand of the company’s operations that fell between the core business of the
firm on one hand, and the company’s philanthropic activities (represented by the Monsanto
Fund) on the other. This ‘three strands’ idea appears to have been current among
executives at different levels within the Monsanto hierarchy. The notion of the ‘transitional’
strand, lying between philanthropy and ‘business as usual’, carried with it consciously
articulated expectations about helping farmers to make the leap from one realm to the other
– as one senior SHP executive put it, ‘from the subsistence to the commercial world’, ‘from
subsistence to market’.xxxiii

The essence of the ‘transitional’ strand is that it expresses the notion of farmers
making a transition from non-commercial (perhaps ‘pre-commercial’) subsistence farming to
commercial agriculture. The key event which demonstrates this transition is the farmers’
adoption of new technology. According to this conception, non-adoption or slow adoption of
new technology is a key signifier of underdevelopment, and the act of technology adoption
represents development taking place. Hence, transferring technology into the hands farmers
comes to appear as a development intervention and an indicator of development occurring.
At the same time, technology adoption represents the farmers’ transition to a new economic
mode of farming: commercial agriculture, in which the purchase of external inputs is a key
feature.

From this perspective, there is an essential link between technological upgrading and
market development. Successful transfer of technology represents the central project goal,
whether it occurs through specialised smallholder projects or regular market development
programmes. In this conception, poor farmers assumed a dual identity as both potential

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beneficiaries and potential customers of the company’s technology. But were small farmers
the primary beneficiaries of the SHP projects?

Targeting smallholders?

Monsanto’s Pledge literature emphasised the company’s engagement with ‘smallholders’.


However, it is not clear that smallholders, strictly defined, were the primary target group.
The company appeared to define smallholders as those farming less than five hectares of
land (12.4 acres)xxxiv – which is not particularly small; in India, small and marginal farmers
are commonly defined as those cultivating areas around one acre.xxxv However, a St Louis-
based Monsanto marketing executive told me ‘I’m not sure we had a real clean definition’ of
smallholders, noting that the meaning of the concept would vary from place to place.xxxvi He
preferred to think in terms of a rule of thumb which took into account the ‘size’ and
‘economics’ of the farm but also – crucially – its ‘long-term potential’ and the ‘objectives of
the farmer’.

Monsanto executives talked about selecting ‘ignored’ areas in which to implement


SHP projects, where they felt the company could ‘make a difference’ or ‘have an impact’. In
fact, however, they used the terms ‘undeveloped areas’ and ‘high potential areas’
interchangeably. In effect, when they used the term ‘undeveloped’, they were talking about
the market potential for modern agricultural technologies. For example, for the SHP project
in Rajasthan, the company chose an area that was the largest maize-growing district in
India, but where modern commercial hybrids made up only 10–15 per cent of the market.

It is clear that the SHP projects were not targeted exclusively at smallholders. Some
smallholders certainly participated in the projects, but the size of a farmer’s landholding was
not used as a criterion for entry to the programme. For Monsanto, the key was the
perceived attitude of the farmer – his or her willingness to experiment with new technology
and to shift his/ her farm onto a more commercial footing, including taking on loans to pay for
more expensive inputs. In practice, both small and large farmers participated, but larger and
more prosperous farmers were given special attention, in the expectation that their example
would influence other farmers.

Nevertheless, Monsanto found it useful and important to project its work with
smallholders to a wide audience. Since the adoption of the New Monsanto Pledge in 2000,
Monsanto has published a series of reports documenting its progress in implementing the
Pledge. In these reports, as well as a number of other booklets, Monsanto has sought to
publicise its work with smallholders to a wide audience.xxxvii Smallholders had assumed a
particular symbolic importance in global arguments about transgenic crops. Through the

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Pledge Reports and other channels, Monsanto has made great efforts to highlight positive
stories about the benefits of GM technology for smallholders. Indeed, in 2000 Monsanto
launched a specific programme to encourage and facilitate, directly and indirectly, research
by independent academics into the economic and social impacts of Bt cotton.xxxviii The
company has created a special section of its Pledge website devoted to highlighting the
positive findings of such studies,xxxix which complements special websites promoting the
advantages of agri-biotechnology, such as the ‘Biotech Knowledge Center’xl and
‘Conversations about Biotechnology’.xli

By reporting the experiences of small farmers, Monsanto clearly hopes to influence


the global debate about GM crops, and in particular to demonstrate or even ‘prove’ to the
wider world the value and appropriateness of transgenic crops for developing countries.
Against this background, the Smallholder Programme can be seen to have had a role to play
in ‘winning the argument’ for agricultural biotechnology at the global level. To some extent,
therefore, the SHP was certainly exploited for its public relations value, but this is no more
than one would expect. Underlying the stories of social responsibility portrayed in company
publications, however, a shift was taking place in the substance of the Smallholder
Programme.

Shifting focus

The SHP underwent a gradual shift of focus in which the original philanthropic and
developmental aims of the programme became less important relative to the goal of market
development. A key practical cause of this change was the degree to which the SHP was
closely integrated with the operational arms of Monsanto. This applied equally in St Louis, at
Monsanto India’s headquarters in Mumbai and at ‘field level’. At all levels, the small SHP
team depended rather heavily on the cooperation of their colleagues in sales and market
development to help implement their projects. Sales and market-research data were used to
identify potential areas for SHP projects, and the final choice of particular villages was
influenced by local sales staff. As one senior SHP executive put it, ‘we were guided by our
marketers’ to areas ‘where they thought we could contribute the most’.xlii Sales staff were
also directly involved with the day-to-day management and supervision of SHP projects.

This organisational structure could be seen as a practical way to integrate or


‘mainstream’ Shapiro’s sustainability vision and the principles of the Monsanto Pledge into
the company’s regular business operations. However, as time passed, this structure also
had a profound effect on the design and content of the Smallholder Programme. In the early
days of Monsanto’s engagement with smallholders, the miscellaneous projects that had

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been taken up on an ad hoc basis by different business units and staff working on a
voluntary basis were not oriented towards marketing Monsanto’s products. This approach
was sustained in the early projects of the SHP. A former head of the programme in India
asserted that the projects were oriented around the farmers’ needs rather than promoting
company sales – staff were told ‘“Don’t link it with commercial [operations]”’ and ‘not a single
word was uttered on Monsanto products’.xliii Similarly, several senior executives argued that
the promotion of Monsanto’s transgenic traits was not originally part of the conception for the
SHP.

Once the smallholder projects were scaled up and institutionalised within Monsanto’s
organisational structure, the more ‘philanthropic’ aims that had motivated Monsanto staff to
initiate the projects in the early days began to give way to a demand that the projects should
contribute more directly to market development and the financial bottom line. Throughout
the life of the SHP, its staff found that they had to continually explain and ‘sell’ the
programme to operational colleagues, who were sometimes sceptical or even hostile. SHP
staff increasingly justified the programme as a means of developing experimental ‘models’
for future marketing efforts to the smallholder sector. Over time, this undoubtedly shaped
perceptions of what the programme was for, and also fostered the expectation that the
programme would have a finite life-span. Meanwhile, at ‘field’ level, pressure on SHP
project staff to promote sales conflicted with, and undermined, previous guidance to avoid
pushing Monsanto products and focus on the needs and priorities of the farmers.
Consequently, as time passed, business imperatives came to dominate over the more
philanthropic goals of the programme.

Financial and market pressures also helped to bring about the end of the
programme. At the international level, Monsanto was under great pressure to begin realising
a bigger return on its investments in GM technology and was going through a difficult period
as a business.xliv Meanwhile, the rationale for sustaining the SHP had dissipated to the point
that senior managers no longer regarded it as such a key initiative. For example, reflecting
on his experiences with smallholder projects, one senior executive argued that

One of the conclusions that I’ve come to is that 99.9 per cent of our impact
[among smallholders] is through our business activities. Even if we stopped [the
philanthropic programmes], we’d still be achieving the 99.9 per cent.xlv

This argument illustrates that way that the Smallholder Programme had come to be
seen as an inherently time-limited initiative in that, once it had successfully developed and
tested viable marketing models, it could be wound up. Another senior manager agreed,

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arguing that the smallholder projects, having demonstrated their value as viable market
development models, had in a sense become ‘victims of their own commercial success’; the
projects could then be ‘handed over’ to the sales and marketing operation, after which
‘obviously, these programmes [operated by the sales and marketing arms of Monsanto] are
more commercial’.xlvi

These attitudes help to explain the decision in 2002 to cut central corporate funding
from the global headquarters for the SHP. This had a decisive impact on the programme.
The global-level SHP manager described how

[t]hey cut off the funding for my projects… They cut my budget in Asia, in
Mexico… The only reason I had leverage was the budget…. My leverage was
gone, I had to go round practically begging for time with [country] managers.xlvii

Responsibility for the SHP was devolved to the respective country managers. The
costs of running the SHP looked very different to Monsanto India managers in Mumbai
compared with the perspectives of their colleagues in St Louis. The dozen project workers
assigned to the Meekosam project in Vizianagram District far outnumbered the three Market
Development Officers assigned to the two neighbouring Districts, whose salaries were
similar and whose purpose was also perceived to be essentially the same. Hence the key
reason why the SHP in India was not sustained appears to have been that its
‘developmental’ aspects were not valued highly enough to justify the extra expense involved;
all the more so because the distinction between the SHP and regular market development
activities had come to seem more blurred over time.

Summary and conclusions

A cynic might conclude that the Monsanto Smallholder Programme was little more than a
public relations exercise. It is not hard to put together a story that confirms that view.
Alongside the revamping of the Monsanto Pledge, the SHP was clearly a key element of the
company’s crisis-management response to the consumer and activist backlash against GM
technology that erupted at the end of the 1990s. But, naturally, Monsanto also had a self-
interest in exploiting new market opportunities for its products in the South; the company’s
focus on ‘transforming’ developing country agriculture predated the new Pledge and the
SHP. It is also true that Monsanto has used the SHP as a source of favourable PR stories,
in a slew of publications, websites and press releases.

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The new Monsanto Pledge can be seen as an example of a corporate code of


conduct that primarily addresses the anxiety of concerned publics in the North, rather than
stakeholders in the South. Rhetorically, the Pledge responded to the concerns of Northern
critics by invoking the interests of a different stakeholder group – resource-poor smallholders
in developing countries. Symbolically, it sought to establish resource-poor farmers and
consumers in the developing world as the legitimate arbiters of whether GM crops should be
judged a desirable and beneficial technology. Seen in this light, the company’s commitment
to ‘sharing’ and ‘bringing the benefits’ can be regarded not so much as a defence against
Northern criticisms, but – by reiterating the company’s conviction that its technology would
be valuable to resource-poor farmers and confirming its determination to commercialise GM
crops in the South – more as a way of rebutting them. The Pledge and the Smallholder
Programme can therefore be seen as key elements of a strategy to influence public debates
about biotechnology. But is that all they were?

There was more than one dimension to the SHP. Monsanto has in fact been quite
open about the mixture of self-interest with other motives underlying its ‘sharing’ commitment
and engagement with small farmers:

Our motivation and commitment to share is based on a variety of factors, including


philanthropic interests, humanitarian concerns, employee initiative, good public
relations and new business opportunities. Through our collaborative activities, we
gain valuable insights about agricultural needs and markets around the world

In the long term, sharing offers us other important business advantages as well.
By participating in partnerships that introduce new agricultural products,
technologies and training to developing countries, we are helping farmers realize
tangible economic benefits. As these farmers become more able to afford the
seeds and products that will maintain their newfound agricultural productivity, we
hope they will remain our customers.xlviii

This excerpt neatly summarises the way in which Monsanto staff conceptualised the
SHP as part of the ‘intermediate’ or ‘transitional’ strand that blended commercial and
philanthropic aspects of the company’s operations. This conceptualisation contributed to a
view that saw the transfer and adoption of modern farming technology, together with the
transition to commercial agriculture, as key expressions of ‘development’, such that
‘underdevelopment’ could be interpreted in terms of both socio-economic development for
farmers and market development opportunities for Monsanto.

The need for farmers to adopt new technologies and commercial approaches to
farming were regarded as axiomatic, so that their role in Monsanto’s implicit vision of
development was essentially a passive one: to be consumers of the company’s know-how

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and technological products, and to take their place in Monsanto’s scheme for sustainable
agriculture in the twenty-first century – the vision of ‘transforming agriculture in developing
countries’. This unproblematic reconciliation of commercial purposes with philanthropic and
sustainability goals allowed Monsanto staff to see these competing imperatives as
compatible and complementary aims. It meant that the SHP could be accommodated fairly
easily within the company’s regular operations, without fundamentally challenging
conventional ways of conducting its business.

Nevertheless, there was real substance and a distinct identity to the SHP. The
programme was established as a special initiative with a dedicated team of staff, and a
number of functioning projects were set up in various locations in several countries. The
programme had its own organisational capacity independently of Monsanto’s corporate
affairs or public relations departments. At the same time, the SHP was to some degree
integrated with regular commercial operations, because of the direct and indirect
involvement of sales and marketing staff in the planning and management of the
programme. This organisational integration might be interpreted as an example of effective
‘mainstreaming’, but it can also be seen as a source of weakness. The SHP’s dependence
on sales and marketing staff, and the continual need to explain and justify the programme as
a vehicle for developing marketing techniques for the smallholder segment, meant that the
special characteristics of programme were steadily undermined.

These special characteristics were genuine. Arguably, the SHP projects have a good
claim to ‘additionality’, in that they were serving areas of the market that wouldn’t ordinarily
be reached. For example, the Meekosam project was first implemented in an area that was
widely regarded as an ‘undeveloped’ (but also ‘high potential’) market, which wouldn’t
normally have been targeted by sales operational staff. As the former ‘Global Lead,
Smallholder Agriculture’ observed, the commercial operations staff ‘were dealing with the
low-hanging fruit; we were dealing more with the second tier’.xlix For their part, farmers in
Vizianagram District credited Monsanto with offering them services which no other agency
was providing. The farmers held the Meekosam Project Officers in high esteem and
expressed gratitude for the work they did.

Unfortunately, the additional effort involved in delivering the SHP proved to be


vulnerable when Monsanto faced financial pressure. So long as the company had resources
available for the smallholder projects, they were able to continue. However, when the
company faced a more difficult financial environment, the programme was abandoned. This
suggests that the firm’s accountability to its shareholders and creditors trumped the
competing claims of other stakeholders, including those of the supposed ‘beneficiaries’ of

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the smallholder projects. This conclusion echoes that of Bill Vorley in his account of Ciba-
Geigy’s Farmer Support Team, a story which contains numerous striking similarities with the
history of the Monsanto Smallholder Programme. Summing up the tale, Vorley writes that
‘[t]he struggle to protect and “mainstream” the Farmer Support Team is after all a small story
in a large company. Except for occasional star billing in company literature, the world of
Ciba-Geigy hardly noticed the team’.l His overall conclusion might apply equally to both
cases:

[A] general vision for sustainable development that excludes the majority of its
workforce and does not challenge the underlying theory of the company is itself
unsustainable. Such a vision cannot survive internal or external shocks, such as
a merger or the loss of key products.li

This conclusion represents a serious challenge for those seeking the ‘mainstreaming’
of CSR values and principles into the core of companies’ commercial operations. It
suggests that philanthropic or developmental goals, and the interests of the most vulnerable
poor farmers, cannot be neatly or simply reconciled with the fundamental interests of profit-
oriented transnational companies. It implies that the ‘underlying theory’ of the corporation
needs to undergo radical transformation if companies are to move beyond the
implementation of a few small philanthropic projects at the margins, and truly bring the
values and principles of CSR into the mainstream of their activities.

Endnotes
i
The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Economic and Social
Research Council and the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and
Accountability (www.drc-citizenship.org). An earlier version of this paper was presented at
the Development Studies Association annual conference, University of Reading, UK, 11
November 2006. This article is based on a longer paper ([XXXXDetails to be added after
peer review] IDS Working Paper XXXX, 2007, Brighton, UK: Institute of Development
Studies).
ii
M Blowfield, 'CSR and Development? Is business appropriating global justice?'
Development, 47(3), 2004, pp. 61-68; UNRISD, 'Corporate Social Responsibility and
Business Regulation', UNRISD Research and Policy Brief 1, March, 2004, UNRISD; P
Newell, 'From responsibility to citizenship? Corporate accountability for development', IDS
Bulletin, 23(2), 2002, pp. 91-100; P Newell and S Bellour, 'Mapping Accountability: Origins,
Contexts and Implications for Development', IDS Working Paper 168, 2002, Brighton, UK: Institute of
Development Studies.
iii
UNRISD, 'Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Regulation', p. 1; See also J
Bendell (ed.), Terms for Endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development, 2000,

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Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf; D F Murphy and J Bendell, 'Towards Civil Regulation: NGOs and
the Politics of Corporate Environmentalism' in P Utting, (ed.), The Greening of Business in
Developing Countries: Rhetoric, Reality and Prospects, 2002, London: Zed Books.
iv
J Elkington, 'The triple bottom line for twenty-first-century business' in J Mitchell, (ed.),
Companies in a World of Conflict, 1998, London: RIIA / Earthscan; S Zadek, The Civil
Corporation: The New Economy of Corporate Citizenship, 2001, London: Earthscan; C O
Holliday, et al., Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development, 2002,
Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf.
v
Newell, 'From responsibility to citizenship? Corporate accountability for development';
Garvey and Newell, 'Corporate accountability to the poor?'.
vi
Blowfield, 'CSR and Development? Is business appropriating global justice?'.
vii
See, for example, Holliday, et al., Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable
Development.
viii
Blowfield, 'CSR and Development? Is business appropriating global justice?', p. 64.
ix
Christian Aid, Behind the mask: the real face of corporate social responsibility, 2004,
Christian Aid.
x
Blowfield, 'CSR and Development? Is business appropriating global justice?', p. 62.
xi
C K Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Eradicating Poverty through
Profits, 2005, Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Wharton School Publishing (Pearson
Education).
xii
A Cornwall and J Gaventa, 'From users and choosers to makers and shapers:
repositioning participation in social policy', IDS Working Paper 127, 2001, Brighton: Institute
of Development Studies.
xiii
A Davidson and M Ahmad, Privatization and the Crisis of Agricultural Extension: The Case
of Pakistan, 2003, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
xiv
See http://www.mahindra.com/mahindras/FARM_EQUIPMENt/mssl/mssl.htm#MSSL (accessed
19 May 2006).
xv
M Scott, 'Interview: Robert Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto, Co.: Monsanto's Brave New
World', Business Ethics Magazine, January/February 1996; R Lenzner and B Upbin,
'Monsanto v. Malthus', Forbes, 10 March 1997; J Magretta, 'Growth Through Sustainability:
An Interview with Monsanto’s CEO, Robert B. Shapiro', Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb
1997, pp. 79-88; R B Shapiro, 'Trade, Feeding the World's People and Sustainability: A
Cause for Concern', The CEO Series 22, April, 1998, St Louis, MO, USA: Center for the
Study of American Business, Washington University in St Louis; R B Shapiro, 'How genetic
engineering will save our planet', The Futurist, vol. 33, April 1999, pp. 28-29.
xvi
Magretta, 'Growth Through Sustainability', p. 86.
xvii
E Simanis and S Hart, 'The Monsanto Company: Quest for Sustainability', 2000,
Washington, DC: World Resources Institute Management Institute for Environment and
Business, p. A7.
xviii
Interview, Monsanto executive, St Louis, 20 June 2005. My source could not recall the
exact terms of the developing country goal, including the number of countries targeted for
agricultural ‘transformation’.

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xix
Simanis and Hart, 'The Monsanto Company: Quest for Sustainability'; D Charles, Lords of
the Harvest: Biotech, big money, and the future of food, 2001, Cambridge, MA, USA:
Perseus.
xx
Charles, Lords of the Harvest; Simanis and Hart, 'The Monsanto Company: Quest for
Sustainability'. For an example, see Christian Aid, 'Selling Suicide. Farming, false promises
and genetic engineering in developing countries', 1999, London: Christian Aid.
xxi
Monsanto, 'Monsanto Chief Executive Outlines Commitments on New Agricultural
Technologies in the ‘New Monsanto Pledge’', Press release, 27 November 2000, St Louis,
Missouri: Monsanto.
xxii
Nowadays known simply as ‘The Monsanto Pledge’. The Pledge was originally labelled
‘new’ at the time when the company’s management was seeking to establish the ‘new
Monsanto’ as a specialised agricultural business, distinct from the ‘old’ Monsanto Company
as it had existed prior to the merger with Pharmacia Corporation in 1999. The word ‘new’
also recognised the fact that the document emerged from an original Monsanto Pledge,
adopted in 1990, which was ‘a statement of environmental responsibility’ (Ibid.).
xxiii
Subsidiary commitments were included, which elaborated on the five headline pledges.
xxiv
Later versions of this pledge more explicitly underpin the company’s ‘technology co-
operation’ agreements – as opposed to the smallholder projects – through which it licensed
its proprietary technologies for non-commercial exploitation in the developing world
(Monsanto, 'Fulfilling Our Pledge: 2000–2001 Report', 2001, St Louis, Missouri: Monsanto).
xxv
Monsanto, 'Monsanto Chief Executive Outlines Commitments on New Agricultural
Technologies in the ‘New Monsanto Pledge’'.
xxvi
Ibid..
xxvii
Monsanto, 'Backgrounder: Monsanto Small Holder Program', Briefing document, January
2002, St. Louis, Missouri: Monsanto.
xxviii
J E Austin and D B Barrett, 'Monsanto. Technology Cooperation and Small Holder
Farmer Projects', Harvard Business School case study, 19 November, 2001, Cambridge,
MA, USA: Harvard Business School.
xxix
Monsanto, 'Backgrounder: Monsanto Small Holder Program'. According to the same
document, Monsanto was indirectly involved in projects in a larger number of countries,
through its support for projects implemented by Winrock International in ‘West Africa and
Indonesia’ and by Sasakawa Global 2000 in ‘Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and
Mozambique’. A former ‘Global Lead, Smallholder Agriculture’ described this arrangement
as ‘more like aid’ (Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005).
xxx
http://www.monsantoindia.com/monsantoin/humsafar/humsafar2.html (accessed 21 May 2004).
xxxi
Information compiled from interviews with Monsanto India managers, Meekosam project
staff and local farmers between October 2004 and December 2005.
xxxii
Monsanto, 'Growing Partnerships for Food and Health: Developing Country Initiatives in
Agricultural Product and Technology Cooperation', Company publication, Undated, St Louis,
Missouri: Monsanto. The document itself is undated. However, two inserts, tucked into a
pocket in the flyleaf at the back of the document, are dated January 2002. The packet was
given to the author by a Monsanto executive in St Louis in May 2002.
xxxiii
Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005.
xxxiv
Monsanto, 'Growing Partnerships', p. 4.

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xxxv
From St Louis, of course, almost all Indian farmers would be considered very small.
xxxvi
Interview, Monsanto executive, St Louis, 23 June 2005.
xxxvii
Monsanto, 'Fulfilling Our Pledge: 2000–2001 Report'; Monsanto, 'Commitments to Our
Stakeholders: 2001–2002 Monsanto Pledge Report', 2002, St Louis, Missouri: Monsanto;
Monsanto, 'Backgrounder: Monsanto Small Holder Program'; Monsanto, 'Growing Options:
Monsanto Company 2004 Pledge Report', 2004, St Louis, Missouri: Monsanto; Monsanto,
'Seeding Values. 2005 Pledge Report', 2005, St Louis, Missouri: Monsanto; Monsanto,
'Growing Partnerships'.
xxxviii
Monsanto, 'Fulfilling Our Pledge: 2000–2001 Report'.
xxxix
http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/layout/our_pledge/socioeconomic (accessed 23 February
2006).
xl
http://www.biotechknowledge.monsanto.com (accessed 6 September 2006).
xli
http://www.monsanto.com/biotech-gmo/index.htm (accessed 6 September 2006).
xlii
Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005.
xliii
Interview, Monsanto India executive, 11 January 2005.
xliv
The Economist, 17 August 2002; A Barrett, 'Rocky Ground for Monsanto?' Business
Week 12 June 2000; Interview, Wall Street stock analyst, New York, 5 July 2005.
xlv
Interview, Monsanto executive, St Louis, 20 June 2005.
xlvi
Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005.
xlvii
Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005.
xlviii
Monsanto, 'Growing Partnerships', p. 10.
xlix
Interview, Monsanto executive, USA, 29 June 2005.
l
W Vorley, 'Reconciling shareholders, stakeholders and managers: experiencing the Ciba-
Geigy vision for sustainable development' in K Jansen and S Vellema, (eds), Agribusiness
and Society: Corporate Responses to Environmentalism, Market Opportunities and Public
Regulation, 2004, London: Zed Books, p. 35.
li
Ibid., p. 39.

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