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Synthesis/Regeneration 18   (Winter 1999)

Monsanto's Public Relations Boomerang

by Andy Zimmerman, Westchester (New York) Greens

Nineteen ninety-eight was a hell of a year for Monsanto and for Monsanto watchers. The company that environmental activists love to hate rolled out a worldwide blitz designed to put a happy face on agricultural biotechnology. But its clumsy efforts often seemed only to further fuel anti-Monsanto anger.

Trumpeting its new slogan, "Food-Health-Hope," Monsanto paraded its new garb as a "life sciences" company. Old catch phrases like "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible" were dropped. The makeover extended even to Monsanto's corporate structure. Having already spun off Solutia, and with it many of the company's embarrassingly polluting chemical factories, Monsanto tried to merge with American Home Products, which produces some of the more familiar brand-name drugs. The merger collapsed amid speculation that AHP was uneasy with the pace of Monsanto's headlong bolt into biotech.

But evidence of the same old corporate nastiness behind Monsanto's smiley mask was easy to find. The "Terminator" technology, by which seeds are genetically engineered to be sterile in the second generation, became a public relations black eye. So did the company's persecution of farmers who dared to save seeds from Monsanto's crop varieties for planting the following season.

Most shocking were the company's heavy-handed attempts to silence critics.

Most shocking were the company's heavy-handed attempts to silence critics. As part of Monsanto's five-million-dollar advertising campaign promoting genetically engineered food in Britain and France the company avowed "we believe that food is so fundamentally important, everyone should know all they want to about it." (1,2) In an ostentatious show of fairness, the ads went so far as to publish the phone numbers of groups opposed to biotechnology. But several incidents cast doubt on the company's true willingness to engage in debate.

The story of the firing of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson from a Florida television station after their brave efforts to expose the hazards of Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone is told elsewhere in this issue. Another case was that of the book Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food by Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey. According to the authors, the book contract was canceled after the publisher received a threatening letter from Monsanto in March 1998, and the copies, which had already been printed, were destroyed. (3) Fortunately, Against the Grain, which is packed with useful information, is now available from a new publisher, Common Courage Press.

Similarly, the entire press run of the September/October 1998 issue of the British magazine, The Ecologist, which was entirely devoted to Monsanto's misdeeds, was pulped by its printer, Penwells. Though Monsanto denied any responsibility for this act of vandalism, and Penwells would not go on the record about its motives, The Guardian newspaper said that the printer was afraid of a libel suit if the issue was published. (4) After a new printer was found, mysterious problems cropped up in getting the magazine distributed in the UK. (5)

These incidents of suppression of essential knowledge about biotechnology must he seen in the context of Monsanto's long fight against labeling of genetically engineered foods. Even voluntary labeling of rBGH-free milk has run a gauntlet of opposition from Monsanto's lawyers and political operatives. How seriously, then, can we take the protestations that this is not your father's Monsanto?

Had the USDA's December 1997 organic food regulations taken effect in their original form, genetically engineered food could even have been labeled organic. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton predicted the attempted use of the organic label to greenwash unsustainable farming practices in their 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You. [See review in S/R 11.]

Featuring the Miss Milan No-Till beauty contest, the event promotes the company's toxic Roundup herbicide and genetically altered Roundup Ready soybean seed.

There has also been a big effort to recruit respected personalities to flack for biotech. The best known is Jimmy Carter, whose careers as nuclear engineer, agribusiness executive and politician have prepared him for the job. Carter's recent New York Times op-ed piece, in which he referred to critics of biotech agriculture as "extremists," had the sickly sweet aroma of corporate PR about it. (6) His relationship with the biotech industry remains to be investigated.

Monsanto's cynical use of public figures from poor countries to guilt-trip Americans and Europeans into accepting the company's agenda has only backfired. In the summer of 1998, Monsanto got a roster of African politicians to sign on to a statement declaring, "Slowing [biotechnology's] acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford." Twenty-four African delegates to a United Nations agriculture conference replied, "We...strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us." (7)

And Monsanto's partnership with the Grameen Bank, which pioneered financial help for poor women in Bangladesh, was called off weeks after its initial announcement. Apparently, the Grameen Monsanto Centre for Environment-Friendly Technologies ran afoul of sentiments like those of Vandana Shiva, the fiery Indian activist, who wrote to Muhammad Yunus, founder of the bank, "I am sure you will not want your efforts to be hijacked as a marketing strategy by Monsanto." (8)

The Monsanto-Grameen deal is part of a pattern whereby the company offers payoffs to non-profit institutions, in return for reflected prestige, and, perhaps, at least tacit approval of its point of view. For instance, Monsanto gave a grant to the Hastings Center, a well-known think tank, to study the ethics of biotechnology. (9) It is also financing a program for children under the auspices of the 4-H Club called "Fields of Genes: Making Sense of Biotechnology." (10) And in Milan, Tennessee, Monsanto sponsors a yearly No-Till Field Day in partnership with the University of Tennessee. Featuring the Miss Milan No-Till beauty contest, the event promotes the company's toxic Roundup herbicide and genetically altered Roundup Ready soybean seed.

In St. Louis, Monsanto's home turf, the company's grants to institutions like the Missouri Botanical Garden have made it difficult to challenge. Copies of Three Rivers Confluence, a local environmental paper, were removed from the garden's bookshop when the paper criticized Monsanto. (11)

By the end of 1998, a Monsanto-commissioned poll found an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and genetically modified foods" in Europe.

In New York City, the Green Party organized a protest at the American Museum of Natural History in October 1998 after Monsanto signed on as a co-sponsor for the museum's new hall of Biodiversity. (Coincidentally or not, the threat to biodiversity from genetic engineering is not mentioned in the exhibition.) A museum staffer explained, "Monsanto supports the museum; the museum doesn't support Monsanto." But when asked if her bosses would consider sponsoring a debate between proponents and opponents of biotechnology, she paused, smiled, and said "They'd shit bricks." (12)

Whatever its influence in the United States, Monsanto has clearly failed to convince Europe that, in the words of a Monsanto executive, "Biotechnology...provides wonderful tools to help feed a growing world population better food grown in a more sustainable way." (13) The company was not helped by comments such as those of Ganesh Kishore, its chief biotechnologist, who called Prince Charles, a biotech critic, "ill-informed." Kishore went on to say, "...all this talk about safety is utter nonsense." (14)

By the end of 1998, a Monsanto-commissioned poll found an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and genetically modified foods" in Europe. (15) There was open dissension in the ranks of biotech companies. An official of Novartis, the Swiss biotech giant, said, "An expensive failure can be made into an asset if you've learnt from it, but Monsanto still has some learning to do.... We're as fed up as some others with the Yankee-Doodle language that comes to our consumers." (16)

U.S. anti-biotech activists can also learn some lessons from the European battles. One is that the media is not necessarily the enemy. According to Monsanto's pollster, "[European] media elites are strongly hostile to biotechnology and Monsanto. They think the Government is being too lax and believe they must expose the dangers." Though the European media are part of the global corporate system-in many cases owned by the same corporations as the US media-they have been helpful to the anti-biotech cause. Even in the US, newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The New York Times have printed aggressive exposés of biotech agriculture in recent months.

Activists must be sure to counter corporate propaganda with solid information. It is important not to deserve biotech apologists' favorite epithets, such as Luddite, hysterical, emotional, irrational, and not science-based. The media as well as the general public will be listening to both sides and deciding which is more credible.

And, taking a leaf from Monsanto's book, activists should enlist support from respected authorities, including those who are not normally identified with politics. Greenpeace and Chefs Collaborative 2000 have provided a good example of this approach, signing up hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs in the struggle for a truly sustainable agriculture. (17) The word of these food professionals carries great weight with the American public.

Scientists can also play an important role. For example, a new study has found that the main breeding range of the monarch butterfly is almost identical with the central US grain belt. The New York Times reports that Chip Taylor, an ecologist at the University of Kansas and the director of Monarch Watch, is worried about biotech agriculture's effect on the butterflies. (18) These beautiful insects-and their protectors-can be our allies.

Maybe the reason is that the company's zealots believe their own rhetoric.

Monsanto always overreaches. Maybe the reason is that the company's zealots believe their own rhetoric. They try to speak the language of sustainability, without realizing how false it rings. In doing so, they have managed to help activists build a worldwide movement against them. In particular, Monsanto's attacks on freedom of speech seem almost guaranteed to arouse the media's ire, as shown by the recent ethics award given to Jane Akre and Steve Wilson by the Society of Professional Journalists. (19)

Monsanto's big lie strategy carries within it the seeds of its own comeuppance. More cautious corporations -- like Novartis and DuPont -- are waiting in the wings for Monsanto to stumble. For now, let activists take advantage of the fact that they have been granted a perfect enemy.


1. Wall Street Journal (Europe), 6/16/98
2. The Observer (London), 7/5/98
3. Center for Ethics and Toxics (www.cetos.org)
4. The Guardian (U.K.), 9/29/98
5. Campaign for Food Safety, 12/7/98 (www.purefood.org)
6. New York Times, 8/26/98
7. The Independent (London), 7/25/98
8. Open letter from Vandana Shiva, July 1998
9. Center for Ethics and Toxics (www.cetos.org)
10.Acres USA, April 1998
l1. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1/28/98
12. Personal communication
13. Acres USA, April 1998
14. Sunday Times (London), 8/30/98
15. Campaign for Food Safety, 12/7/98 (www.purefood.org)
16. New Scientist, (U.K.) 10/31/98
17. Campaign for Food Safety, 12/7/98 (www.purefood.org)
18. New York Times, 12/29/98
19. Campaign for Food Safety, 12/7/98 (www.purefood.org)

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