View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Businesses and charities – what’s the difference?


Anyone searching for the #gmo hashtag on Twitter could be forgiven for thinking that nobody in the world supports GM unless Monsanto pays them – I have even had a LinkedIn message from someone speculating that I might order Monsanto to ‘put a hit on him’. I believe this paranoid mistrust of business is damaging to an intellectual debate. In my what worries you about GM poll my vote was that I was very worried about the social/economic aspects of genetic modification in agriculture, and I also know that global businesses have committed serious crimes. But I think we need to remember that:

  • Charities have to make money just as much as businesses do
  • Some businesses bring us amazing things
  • Just because your primary motivation is to make the world a better place, it doesn’t mean that you don’t end up making things worse

In my recent post on what is evidence, I dismissed some charities and businesses as unreliable sources of evidence. Here are some of the reasons that I don’t see charities as owning the moral high-ground.

Charities talk about surplus, businesses about profit. It’s the same thing. Much more accurate than ‘not for profit’ is ‘profit for purpose’. But what is the purpose? Many agricultural businesses have vocal aspirations towards sustainability, even though we know this is sometimes in conflict with the purpose of making senior managers rich. If you look at the mission statement of a charity you won’t see ‘ensure stable jobs for our workforce’, but that’s something the chief executive is almost certainly aspiring to do (and so they should).

I was hearing from a former employee of a large environmental charity about how much money they received as a result of their stance on GM crops (which has since become more moderate). Even if the profit isn’t making it into individuals’ pockets, it’s a strong incentive.

You only need to see the battles between medical research charities and animal rights groups to know that just because somebody is fighting for what they believe it doesn’t mean they are benefiting society. These charities have mutually incompatible views.

Rob Wallbridge, the organic farmer who visited Monsanto, is a perfect illustration of how profit is not a businesses only motivation, but there are times when profit and other values may clash. He said: “With respect to farming, I’m not paranoid about genetic engineering and GMO crops, but I’ll continue to respect my customers’ choices and continue to abide by the organic certification standards I agree to follow.”

Even if he did believe that genetically modified crops could bring environmental benefits, he would be obliged to put profit first or he would be unable to survive as a ‘semi-organic’ farmer.

In addition to making money, he is presumably motivated by environmentally friendly farming and by providing people with the food they want. There are times when these things are perfectly aligned. Sometimes, however, these motives must be in conflict, and probably the connection between selling what people want and making profit means that will win out.

We must also remember that it is often the same individuals who work for both during their career. I am lucky enough to have worked for a Government-funded institution, private companies (albeit small ones) and a charity. There are a great many similarities, as well as some differences, and I could go on about them for much longer. But here’s a topical thought about charities.

When should you lose NGO status?

In Uganda anti-GM NGOs risk being de-registered following their radio advert campaign. The National Agricultural Research Organization want the campaigners to substantiate that claim that it is poisoning Ugandans with GMOs.

This sounds to me like a problem for advertising standards, though that is no doubt more difficult that it would be here. But there are situations where you can’t stop people expressing views which are unsubstantiated, so if NGOs are doing this in a potentially damaging way should they lose charitable status? And who decides? The Ugandan situation is worrying if an NGO opposing a government bill is de-registered by the government. But it’s equally worrying if you can have charitable status yet spread mis-information.

Banana wilt is a particular problem in Uganda, and it could potentially be tackled with GMOs.

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

3 thoughts on “Businesses and charities – what’s the difference?

  1. Pingback: Scientific research done by companies – please share your thoughts! | View from the fence

  2. Pingback: New GM potatoes resistant to blight | View from the fence

  3. Pingback: Industry funding of research isn’t ‘hidden’ or corrupt | View from the fence

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