Dec 092002

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What happens when farm leaders meet agri-business?

(Monday, Dec. 9, 2002 — CropChoice news) —

ARTHUR SCHAFER, Winnipeg Free Press, 12/08/02: Main Street, Moose Jaw, is a long way from Wall Street, New York City. And the Manitoba Canola Growers Association doesn’t have a lot in common with Merrill Lynch Securities.

Nevertheless, the ethical issue currently dominating the attention of corporate America — conflict of interest — is now stirring controversy across the Prairie provinces. It has come to light that a number of Western farm leaders *have financial ties to the multinational chemical giant Monsanto. Because these leaders are accepting money and travel from Monsanto at the same time they serve as board members of leading farm organizations, they have been accused of being in a conflict-of-interest situation.

* [Reader inserted.  Except for Dave Sefton formerly of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, all the other Monsanto panel members  initially exposed by CBC as having signed the agreement, besides being involved in many different organizations have at least one common element to all of them. Each of them is involved with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers association, in many cases having held positions at the national or provincial executive level.  ]

First, some background to this story. Monsanto is spending a lot of money to persuade the federal government that it should license genetically modified (GM) wheat. A big part of Monsanto’s campaign hinges on persuading western farmers to support the introduction of GM wheat to Prairie agriculture. This is proving to be a tough sell. Many western wheat farmers fear that licensing GM, or “Roundup Ready” wheat would destroy Canada’s most valuable wheat, export markets. Europeans, for example, won’t touch the stuff. Since there’s no safe and sure way to segregate GM wheat from conventional wheat, all Canadian wheat runs the risk of being banned from Europe.

Understandably, feelings on this issue are passionate. There’s a lot at stake.

Some Manitoba farmer leaders, such as Ernie Sirski and his wife, have accepted Monsanto-funded travel (Winnipeg Free Press, Dec. 14). The Sirskis were treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to Spain last year to attend the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture. Mr. Sirski is president of the Manitoba Canola Growers’ Association. Another board member *is a paid member of Monsanto’s grower advisory panel on Roundup Ready Wheat. He is paid $150 per day to advise Monsanto on how to win the support of his fellow farmers for the introduction of GM wheat. The Monsanto Roundup Ready wheat panel has four members from each Prairie province — all receiving similar benefits.

[*Reader Insertion:  Director and 2002 director candidate Bruce Dalgarno as well as  previous MCGA director Max Polon, now director on Seed Growers Association.]

Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries see nothing morally troubling about the situation. Mr. Sirski, for example, is quoted as saying: “It would take more than a trip to Spain to prostitute myself for a chemical company.”

In thinking about how best to respond to this issue, Canadian farmers could study not only the crisis of confidence now plaguing Wall Street, but also the record of the Canadian medical community, which is awash in such conflict-of-interest issues. ‘Big Pharma’ spends more than $20,000 annually per Canadian physician on gifts, including free meals, money to attend educational sessions, travel and consulting fees.

I have lectured across Canada on the ethics of doctors accepting gifts from drug companies. Interestingly, I have never met a doctor who admitted that he or she had been influenced in any way by drug-company generosity. When confronted on the issue, they invariably reply, as did Mr. Sirski: “I can’t be bought for… (fill in the blank: a fancy dinner, laptop computer, Caribbean holiday, whatever).”

Are doctors and farmers incorruptible in the objectivity of their judgment, as they insist? Or, could it be that the drug and chemical companies recognize something fundamental about human nature?

This is a rhetorical question. What drug and chemical companies understand is that much of social life is based on reciprocity. The need to return kindness for kindness, favour for favour, benefit for benefit, is a basic motivator in virtually every human society. It behooves us, therefore, to reflect upon the fact that every dollar of the millions that the drug companies invest in gifts to physicians and hospitals — and every dollar that chemical and food companies invest in gifts to universities, farm organizations and individual farmers — is viewed by the companies as an important part of their corporate strategy. They are buying goodwill. They are buying influence with people who have decision-making power.

To put this point in another way, every gift and payment from agri-businesses to farmers and their organizations comes with strings attached. Strings that are sometimes as heavy as an iron chain, even when the recipients don’t recognize that their chain is being jerked.

All farm-organization directors have an obligation to put the interests of their members first. They have a “fiduciary duty” to exercise their judgment impartially and objectively in the best interest of members. Money, however, has a tendency to influence people’s judgment. So, when board members accept money or other benefits from a private corporation (such as Monsanto) about whose products they must officially make evaluative judgments, no one can be certain that their judgment is not being influenced by their vested interest. They may bend over backwards not to be influenced, and sometimes they will succeed. Nevertheless, because human motivation is often complex, there is always a risk that this conflict-of-interest situation will result in a violation of their moral duty.

Farm leaders who accept benefits from agri-business have acquired a “vested interest” that has the potential to conflict with their duty to put the interest of their membership first. Consciously or unconsciously, their judgment may be skewed. With the Enron/Arthur Andersen scandal in the U.S., we saw that accountants’ conflicts of interest led to disastrous consequences for shareholders and employees. With the Olivieri scandal at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, we saw that when hospitals and universities solicit donations from drug companies, they can too easily lose sight of their primary duty, which is to protect research integrity and patient safety.

Farmers are discovering that they had better protect the independence and integrity of their own organizations, or they too could face disastrous consequences.

Professor Arthur Schafer is Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

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