Mahoney deserves honorary degree
Recently, Wash. U. decided to award Richard Mahoney, former chairman and CEO of Monsanto, an honorary degree. This decision has ruffled a few environmentalists’ feathers, and some are calling for this decision to be revoked. I maintain that Richard Mahoney is as deserving of an honorary degree as one can possibly be, and there is no reason to object to the University conferring an honorary degree upon him.
Mahoney’s reign as CEO lasted from 1983 to 1995, and over those 12 years, he instituted practices that ultimately transformed Monsanto from a chemical company into the biotech giant it is today. He completely renovated its business model and was wildly successful in doing so. Over his career, he spent 10% of Monsanto’s research and development money on biotechnology, and his astute business decisions have resulted in the incredible success Monsanto has enjoyed in recent years. Importantly, the bulk of Monsanto’s environmentally controversial actions took place either before or after his regime; the herbicide Roundup was introduced in 1976, and genetically-engineered crops did not appear until Roundup Ready (i.e., resistant to) soybeans in 1996. Indeed, by moving Monsanto away from petrochemicals, Mahoney was arguably benefitting the environment.
By all measurements, then, Mahoney is an ideal candidate for an honorary degree. He was a brilliant businessman and didn’t engage in any disagreeable practices. The only charge that can be leveled against him is that, by setting Monsanto down its biotech path, he is somehow complicit in whatever naughtiness his former company has been guilty of since. This is a patently ridiculous claim, but, even if it were legitimate, I believe the 21st-century Monsanto to have done much more good than evil and to be the victim of an overly negative public image. Certainly, the Monsanto of today, engaged exclusively in agricultural research, is different from the heavy polluter of decades past or that which produced potentially harmful hormones to increase milk production or to increase leanness in swine.
Despite claims to the contrary, Roundup has a low environmental impact, as it quickly breaks down in the soil, and since Monsanto’s patent expired, it is far from being the herbicide’s sole producer. As far as impact on humans goes, Roundup targets an enzyme that is not found in mammals, in which it therefore has a very low toxicity. Yes, it has nominal potential to harm the environment, but Monsanto, conscious of the fact that constantly spraying herbicides and pesticides is not the most desirable option, has introduced Roundup Ready crops, which are unaffected by Roundup, an otherwise non-discriminating herbicide, with the effect of reducing other herbicides that tend to appear in runoff. Additionally, Monsanto has developed Bt corn, which produces a natural insecticide (Bacillus thuringiensis) that is not toxic to humans, with the result that fewer insecticides need to be sprayed onto crops. It goes without saying that all of these developments have supported the livelihood and wellbeing of countless farmers the world over.
Richard Mahoney is an exceptional individual. He set Monsanto on an entirely new course when it was experiencing financial difficulties, and nothing he did as CEO was particularly offensive. Detractors of Monsanto, however, deflate him and his company in the mid-’80s and ’90s with the biotechnology giant the latter has become, and are seizing upon his receiving an honorary degree to make a stand against the corporation. They should not. The man is not personally responsible for everything his company has done in the intervening years, but even if he were, the sum of what Monsanto has done is far from reprehensible.