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"This is the way the world ends," wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem, the Hollow Men. "Not with a bang but a whimper." So it is with our own unsustainable world as well. There's no magic switch to hit. No watershed event on the way. We're not going to wake up one morning to newspaper headlines trumpeting a future suddenly arrived. Instead, the change we seek will come through a series of small and often unnoticed steps. The latest of these was taken last week as genetic engineering giant Monsanto put its bovine growth hormone business up for sale.
rBGH, as its called, is a fairly famous (read: notorious) genetically engineered product that makes cows produce more milk. As bad as it for bovines, it’s considered worse for people. And so the battle over this technology has raged for years with Monsanto vociferously fighting rBGH labeling efforts and regulatory action with a take-no-prisoners zeal that tells us their investment here was huge. Now, however, as supermarket chains refuse to carry milk from rBGH cows, they’re waving the white flag of surrender.
Coming after all the money the company has spent to develop and defend rBGH, this is an extraordinary change of heart, and hiding inside it is a tremendous victory for public health, right-to-know labeling, and a sustainable world. Monsanto won’t say it, but clearly they’ve read the handwriting on the wall, and it says this game is over. Yes, the company is simply selling its rBGH business and whoever buys it will at least for a while continue to engage in this bit of mad science, but few companies have the clout of Monsanto or the budget to wage such massive legal and legislative war on consumer choice and food safety. So while rBGH may remain on the market, we’ll now always be able to avoid it and can watch as now largely uncontested consumer objections rule the day.
That Monsanto would give up after such a long and bitterly contested battle for public rBGH acceptance is yet another remarkable development in a series of subtle but telling shifts that are slowly but inexorably changing the way things are. It joins recent news about phthalate bans and phosphate phase-outs as yet another nail in the coffin of an unsustainable world. But the symbolism here may be our biggest yet. Because Monsanto’s defeat (and let’s be clear: PR bluster aside, the rBGH sale represents an unprecedented drubbing) tells us that we consumers can win the big battles and that companies aren’t automatically endowed with an inalienable right to make our decisions for us. Life doesn’t need to be the way corporate bullies tell us it’s going to be. When we push back, our families and our kids will get the world we want for them.