Controversial Monsanto Cancels Talk at Keck Science, Community Discusses Open Dialogue

The "Thank You" slide of a Monsanto presentation is displayed in front of students.
Haley Land-Miller • The Student Life

A recent visit to the 5Cs by a representative of Monsanto Company, an agricultural and biotechnology corporation that has received criticism for its environmental and ethical practices, became controversial when some students expressed concern, leading to a cancellation of one of the two scheduled talks.

Dr. Christina Lawrence, the representative from Monsanto, was scheduled to speak at Harvey Mudd College’s Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design on Nov. 18, at Keck Graduate Institute on Nov. 19, and at Keck Science Department on Nov. 20. However, the Nov. 20 event was cancelled after the Dr. Lawrence spoke as scheduled at HMC.

When the events were first announced, a group of students, mainly from Pitzer College, started expressing concern about the events and Monsanto’s controversial practices. In an open letter to Harvey Mudd College, Adin Bonapart PZ ’16 wrote, “As the most hated corporation on Earth, Monsanto and its subsidiaries should NOT be allowed at the 5Cs. Monsanto has a toxic track record of political and social corruption, environmental degradation, and fraudulent science.”

Bonapart’s open letter also called for HMC to either rescind its invitation to Dr. Lawrence or invite her back as a “panelist alongside knowledgeable academics and a more diverse set of voices.”

“A discussion about innovations in sustainable agriculture must include a more balanced blend of perspectives, especially ones that are academic and aren’t associated with private interests from monopolistic corporations,” Bonapart wrote.

Srebotnjak wrote in an email to TSL before the HMC event that she was “not surprised to hear critical voices from across the Claremont Colleges” and that she is aware of Monsanto’s controversial practices involving chemical pesticides, genetically-modified crops and seed patents.

Students, including Bonapart, also criticized Monsanto’s capitalist-leaning practices that emphasize proprietary ownership of seed biologies and vertically-integrated research.

“At the same time, I strongly believe in the importance of civilized intellectual and academic discourse,” Srebotnjak wrote. “While the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design was not involved in the initial planning of Dr. Lawrence’s visit, we agreed to help organize a talk by [the representative] at Harvey Mudd College because we think that it is relevant to our students to hear about the scientific and technological research being conducted at Monsanto.”

Srebotnjak said that she does not want to discourage students like Bonapart from speaking out.

“I would always encourage students to critically question what they hear and learn in College (and beyond),” she wrote. “I believe that Harvey Mudd College provides a safe place for discourse and for exploring the often-complex pathways in which science is intertwined with social, economic and environmental issues. However, it also requires us to be responsible actors within that space.”

Students in a classroom, some with their hands raised.
Haley Land-Miller • The Student Life

Following the Nov. 18 visit by Dr. Lawrence, Monsanto canceled its plans to hold a seminar at Keck on Nov. 20.

“We understand that folks have different opinions about topics relating to food and agriculture, and we welcome opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue where those points of view are shared,” Monsanto spokesperson Charla Lord wrote in an email to TSL. “However, there didn’t appear to be a desire for a constructive dialogue on Friday amongst some student groups.”

Kevin Moore, a physics professor at Keck, wrote in an email that he is “disappointed that the seminar at Keck was cancelled.”

“Our community lost out on an opportunity to learn more about a topic that’s not only very important, but also rife with ideologically-driven misinformation,” Moore wrote.

Moore went on to explain that he believes that discussion about Monsanto overemphasizes ideology and rhetoric and urged students to value open discussion and scientific understanding.

“If we want our students to enter the ‘real world’ being able to make informed decisions, then having a strong grasp of where the facts lie is a necessary prerequisite,” he wrote. “Public discourse on scientific issues such as these should be driven by the best available science, not by ideology, and we should always strive to better our understanding of such issues even if we think we already have an informed opinion.”

Some students, however, celebrated Monsanto’s withdrawal. In emails disseminated via Pitzer Student Talk, including a back-and-forth with Moore, some students supported the cancellation of Friday’s event, citing Monsanto’s agricultural and chemical monopoly, unethical practices involving the suppression of independent research, and use of monocultures and gene patents.

Some students expressed concern over the talk’s cancellation, however.

“I am all for giving Monsanto the finger, but we ought to do it with our science and critical thinking skills, not our tantrum-throwing skills,” Austin Zimmerman PZ ’18 wrote in an email to TSL.

Zimmerman wrote that he feared the students who ousted Monsanto from campus did so by preventing meaningful dialogue.

“Our goal should be to promote discourse, and we could have accomplished that by meeting Monsanto at the gate with relevant facts and pointed questions for both sides,” he wrote. “Those who sought to prevent a one-sided discussion have, instead of bringing our side to the table, knocked the other side out of their chairs and taken their places.”

In lieu of the canceled Monsanto seminar, a discussion on discourse and exchange of ideas will be held at 11 a.m. in Burns Lecture Hall on Nov. 20.

Alexa Strabuk PZ ’17 contributed reporting.

Correction: Bonapart’s open letter was addressed to Harvey Mudd College, not Srebotnjak. An earlier version of the article also misspelled Srebotnjak’s name and did not mention that Lawrence gave a talk at Keck Graduate Institute on Nov. 20.

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