Monsanto Gets an Earful From Tucsonans

TUCSON (CN) — Monsanto’s plan to grow seed corn on the outskirts of Tucson, and seek tax breaks to do it, has roiled area residents, who delivered a clear message to the company Monday: Stay away.

“This is a public health threat,” said Nicolas Guillermo, one of many who spoke at a community meeting protesting Monsanto’s plan to build a 7-acre greenhouse on 155 acres it has purchased in unincorporated Pima County.

Citizen opposition has simmered since Monsanto announced in August last year that it would invest up to $100 million on the project. The county postponed a November vote on whether to back a foreign trade zone for Monsanto, to grant tax reductions and other benefits under federal and state laws.

Even so, the county says Monsanto’s presence would be an economic boon to the area.

The packed meeting was the first of five the county has scheduled before a Feb. 21 vote. The U.S. Department of Commerce will make the final decision.

Although officials stressed that Pima County has no authority to stop the project, outraged residents warned that local officials will be held accountable if the greenhouse for genetically modified and conventional corn seed proves harmful to people’s health and the environment.

Speakers bombarded Monsanto representative Amanda McClerren with concerns – and sometimes accusations – over the potential use of pesticides, cross-pollination of organic crops and dire consequences of putting the greenhouse close to a high school.

They criticized the company’s search for tax breaks on a project that will provide some 50 jobs with an average salary of about $40,000.

Many expressed distrust of the much-maligned company for its spread of genetically modified foods.

McClerren, product strategy leader for Monsanto, tried to quell worries about a project she said will “deliver products that help our customers be more sustainable.”

The state-of-the-art greenhouse will allow Monsanto to grow corn seed year-round in Arizona’s mild climate, she said.

McClerren said research has demonstrated that genetically modified foods are “unequivocally safe.”

When critics referred to an active ingredient in Monsanto’s agricultural herbicides as a carcinogen, McClerren countered: “Glyphosate has a 40-year history of safe use.”

Be it glyphosate or food made with genetically modified organisms in plants and animals, the divide between McClerren, a biologist, and most of her audience reflected the split of the nation on this subject.

In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 9 of 10 scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science deemed GMO-produced food “generally safe” to eat. But 57 percent of the general public called them unsafe.

In Pima County, Monsanto’s undisclosed plans for the rest of the land it owns, as well as the company’s history, are among the reasons resident Tom Snyder worries about the greenhouse. Alluding to a December lawsuit that Washington State filed against Monsanto over pollution from PCB chemicals, he said applying history to “current situations is a big concern.”

Monsanto has said the lawsuit has no merit. McClerren, without addressing the litigation directly, said misinformation about her company abounds.

Although clearly in the minority, farmer John Post was in McClerren’s corner. He began farming in the 1990s, he said, and was forced to spray pesticides frequently to control insects. After a “huge” crop failure, he decided to switch to insect-resistant GMOs.

“Their products truly do work,” he said of Monsanto.

Nothing Tucson resident Dru Heaton heard at the meeting changed her mind about Monsanto – which she called a threat to “the life and food sovereignty” of people in Southern Arizona.

“All we have to do is look to the company’s history,” she said.