Tax breaks and economic benefits. Conflicts of interest. A Science Commission and a Citizens Committee. Neonicotinoids and BT toxins. Honeybees and ladybugs.
These and many other topics came up at a public meeting Wednesday night on Monsanto Corp.’s request for support from Pima County to obtain a U.S. foreign trade zone designation for its planned Avra Valley greenhouse to grow corn. For three hours, numerous residents grilled county and Monsanto officials about the greenhouse, its potential environmental impacts and the related financial issues.
On Feb. 21, the Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to send the federal government a letter saying it has no objection to the trade zone designation, which would lower Monsanto’s property tax bill.
Here are some of the questions posed at the meeting and answered by county and Monsanto officials.
- First are questions from audience members to Patrick Cavanaugh, Pima County’s deputy economic development director, followed by Cavanaugh’s answers:
Q. If this were to happen, Monsanto would pay lower taxes. What positive tradeoff would come to Tucson and Pima County from that?
A: We see the foreign trade zone as a business attraction that we can offer. Companies that have export and import components, we want to see them located here.
(The benefits include) jobs, and about $100 million worth of capital investment. It affects the tax base in Pima County. Monsanto would be the biggest property taxpayer in Marana Unified School District. ... There would be more money coming in. You expand the tax base and there’s less demand for higher taxes and more money for governments to use.
Q. Does this open the door to more Monsanto development with the same tax advantages?
A: Yes, if they decide and build and manufacture on the acreage there, they get lower taxes there.
Q. Would this right transfer to a different owner if Monsanto sells the land?
A: They would have to go through the entire process with Sun Corridor Inc., the federal grantee that administers the foreign trade zone in Pima County.
Q. What is the process by which members of the county’s Monsanto Science Commission and Citizens Commission will be chosen?
A. They have been chosen. That was done by county administration. The way we approached it (with the Science Commission), we wanted to have specific categories. ... You have areas such as plant biology, public health, ethnobotany, toxicology. We tried to find experts in those areas. They are drawn from the UA, where scientists and researchers are. The Community Committee we proposed is on hold until we get the Board of Supervisors’ decision (on whether to send a letter of no objection on Monsanto’s foreign trade zone designation to the federal government).
Q. Is the Science Commission empowered to order independent tests of the effects of Monsanto activity on air, human health and soil?
A. We did require that Monsanto block out a specific amount of money for independent studies to be done through the UA.
Q. If the Board of Supervisors doesn’t approve sending the letter of no objection to the federal government, does that kill Monsanto’s FTZ application and its property tax break?
A. We have kind of a mixed bag. We have Marana Unified School District that has voted to go with a letter of no objection. JTED voted for no objection. Pima Community College is up in the air; its board voted earlier not to approve a letter of no objection. Pima County is up in the air. With that mixed bag, we can’t predict what they (the feds) are going to do. ... It’s a nebulous process.
Q. County Supervisor Richard Elías has requested a memo about the financial interests that the Agricultural Science Advisory Commission might have. When will the public see that?
A. It will be addressed in advance of the meeting of the commission. ... Certainly, UA has a very robust conflict-of-interest section. I assure you that we will be looking at that from the Pima County side.
Q. We can’t stop the Monsanto project from happening at this point?
A. There’s nothing in our toolbox that would stop a legally incorporated company from doing legal activity on private property they purchased.
- Here are questions posed by audience members at the public meeting, and answers from Amanda McClerren, Monsanto’s strategic lead official on the Avra Valley greenhouse, and Kyle Smith, a leader in Monsanto’s breeding activities:
Q. Do you plan to use BT technology and beneficial insects like ladybugs in the greenhouse? (BT is a controversial, natural soil bacterium, engineered into Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton and corn, containing a toxin that kills some insects).
A. Half of what we grow would be GMO. Half would be conventional. The GMO corn might use BT traits.
Q. What bugs are you targeting?
A. Whiteflies and thrips (small insects that feed on and can damage plants).
Q. You don’t want to hurt the ladybugs?
A. They are friends.
Q. There are a few studies that point to a BT toxin leading to increased mortality in ladybugs. It sounds nice to bring ladybugs into the greenhouse, but isn’t it a problem when research points to harm by BT commercial corn?
A. I’m not familiar with your studies. I’m willing to take a look at it. We don’t want to hurt ladybugs.
Q. Will the corn seed you use be coated or treated with neonicotinoids? (They are a class of insecticides that feed on sap-feeding insects, sparking scientific debate over whether they harm honeybees).
A. I think at this time, we don’t have plans to use any seed treatments.
Q. What herbicides are you working with?
A. It would depend on the type of weed we identify. I don’t know what kind. We don’t plan to use herbicides much if at all.
Q. You call yourself a seed company. Are you in the process of buying up other seed companies?
A. Monsanto got into the seed business in the late ’90s and early 2000s. ... That’s when the bulk of seed company purchases were made.
Q: From what I read, I get the impression Monsanto could end up with a monopoly on seeds. I don’t really have statistics. If a farmer wants to use your seeds, they have to buy new seeds every year. It’s not like they save the seeds and they’re replanted.
A. It depends on if the seed is patented. Then, the federal patent law would apply. That means the farmer would need to purchase the technology. ... There are about 200 seed companies in the U.S. I have to follow up to get statistics on how many of them Monsanto owns.
Q. I imagine greenhouses will get to 200 degrees in the summer. Obviously, you’ll have air conditioning. Will the power for the greenhouse come from solar?
A. It’s coming from electric. We’re also evaluating the opportunity to take advantage of solar as well. One thing I learned, it costs more in energy to light than it does to cool. That’s one reason Pima County was selected. The quality of light is the highest in the world. It was a strategic tradeoff to be more energy-conscious and reduce the amount of lighting we need.
Q. I’d like to send a strong message to Monsanto that there is also a great solar industry here. With climate change affecting this world, to reduce fossil fuel use would be great.
A. We are using multiple layers of retractable shade. The corn plant only needs a certain amount of sunlight. Shade on the exterior, that is one way we will cut down on fossil-fuel use.
Q. You never mentioned the fact that your goal in this project is to make as much money as possible. It’s capitalism.
A. The focus of this project is to deliver better products faster. If you do that, it creates value. We grow our company. We share our value with our customers.