Monsanto's False PR Campaign On Public Radio

Driving home from work following winding wooded backroads amid some isolated farms, I often listen to Marketplace from American Public Media (“APM”), my evening news staple. The commentary is a mix of typical daily business news that is insightful and generally balanced. This said, it was a jarring surprise to hear this recent announcement from the program’s corporate sponsors, i.e. an ad, in between the usual number crunching:

Marketplace is supported by Monsanto, committed to sustainable agriculture, creating hybrid and biotech seeds designed to increase crop yields and conserve natural resources. Learn more at ProduceMoreConserveMore.com.

Take a moment and let the words sink in. The boldness of the statement has been ringing in my head ever since and I just cannot get away from the pure rottenness of it.  Granted, public radio needs to survive and it does that through corporate sponsorship, but that need is counterbalanced by a duty to maintain the program’s integrity.  After all, the purpose and the attraction of public radio is its commitment to journalism in its pure sense, i.e., journalism for the sake of journalism, a commitment to getting the facts free from corporate influences.

But one must also admit that Monsanto’s PR did an amazing job at confounding the truth. In fact, the reality of agriculture a la Monsanto is everything but sustainability. Monsanto is a company that is at once the flagship of the industrial-scale argi-business and the public enemy #1 for many environmental and anti-globalization groups. The corporation has a dark environmental past and present, yet, it brands itself as a sustainability leader on air and on its web site.  This ad is nothing but a bold-face lie intended to confuse the public and hide the environmental wreaking ball that Monsanto has been swinging for decades, locally and globally, against anything living in our fields and against consumers and farmers, all the while backed by misleading marketing and aggressive legal and political tactics that conceal human and animal suffering and environmental degradation.

While the old Monsanto manufactured chemicals and pesticides, including the “great” environmental “hits” like PCBs, dioxins, DDT and Agent Orange and was tied to at least 50 Superfund sites, the new company has refocused solely on becoming an agricultural giant.  Monsanto is now focused on pesticides, with RoundUp being its flagship product, and on hybrid and genetically modified (“GM”) seeds.  An increasingly large portion of Monsanto’s business portfolio includes development of either seeds for plants modified to “naturally” produce a pesticide from all parts of the plant or seeds for plants that are modified to tolerate pesticides or herbicides, such as, for example, RoundUp. But genetic modification has been evolving.  Nowadays, Monsanto and other biotech companies are aggressively pursuing stacked traits in seeds, i.e., combining more than one genetic modification in a single plant to achieve several “enhanced” traits such as simultaneous resistance to multiple herbicides and pesticides.  Stacking of traits is already popular among biotech companies and in 2007, for example, 63% of biotech maize (corn) in the United States contained two or more stacked traits.  Today, as weeds and pests rapidly develop resistance to RoundUp and other pesticides, the rush to stack more genes is on.  Monsanto’s most recent quarterly report, for example, shows that the company is shifting more of its research and development towards stacked traits pushed by falling RoundUp sales.

That Monsanto is ahead of the agri-biotech pack should be of no surprise to anyone.  After acquiring other seed companies and actively patenting life forms it has, in a sense, attained a permanent seat at everyone’s dinner table.

Indeed, Monsanto now controls 90% of genetically modified seed market and has, as a result,  single-handedly changed the make-up of our food ingredients in a little more than a decade, since the first GMOs were approved for cultivation in the U.S. Increasingly these GMOs are penetrating the human food supply. A brief look at our recent article discussing  the Center for Food Safety’s guide to avoiding GM foods at the supermarket demonstrates exactly what a mine-field eating has become. What’s worse is that we are told to accept Monsanto’s word, not contradicted by government, that our food with GM ingredients is safe.  This transformation, nay, revolution of our food supply, occurred without any public awareness and without a single significant legislation being passed on the subject since 1992, when the US government lowered the bureaucratic threshold for approving the growth and cultivation of GMOs.

Biotech companies like Monsanto have a special relationship with government agencies — so special that one wonders if the agencies are there to protect the public or to aid the biotech companies’ bottom lines.  For example, reports have come out exposing how biotech companies regularly provide flawed scientific studies to government agencies, studies which minimize or omit the safety and environmental impact of GMOs, when seeking approval or permitting for their seeds.  Based on flawed studies permits are granted with little or no media attention being paid to the conduct of the either the biotech companies or the regulatory agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of our health and the environment. It often requires a lawsuit to generate attention to both the government and biotech practices.  For example, recently a California District Court Judge rejected a permit granted by the USDA for planting of GM sugar beets because no environmental impact studies were conducted by the agency although such an assessment is necessary prior to permitting.  A similar ruling by a U.S. court has blocked the planting of GM alfalfa based on comparable findings, namely, that the USDA has failed to properly carry out its regulatory mandates.

But let’s go back and analyze Monsanto’s slogan: “Produce more, Conserve More.”

The promised production increases do not always stack up against conventional, gm-free growing practices in the short term, and, in the long term, farmers are required to use increasingly more pesticides and herbicides to achieve the same production levels.

Moreover, a farmer must plant a homogeneous crop which is a threat to biodiversity and when combined with superbugs and superweeds that grow as a result of farmers’ contractually mandated extensive applications of pesticides and herbicides, designed to eliminate all non-gm growth through brute force, Monsanto’s “conservation” leaves something else to be desired.  Furthermore, while Monsanto already promotes their “Water Use Efficient” products and talks about the promise of GM crops to reduce water use for agriculture and improve salt-tolerance, any actual water conservation is years away and comes with a hefty price.  As GMO cultivation increases, so does pesticide and herbicide resistance requiring farmers to resort to more toxic pesticides and herbicides to control weeds and pests.  As farmers revert to using larger doses of more potent and by far more dangerous compounds, like 2.4D, as opposed to Bt compounds or even RoundUp, the damage to ground water and air pollution is only going to increase.  While Monsanto’s water “conservation” phantom claims are really a prognostication of their future products, which, even if they are true, are years away, the superweed and superbug trends that result from Monsanto’s current products, and the degradation to the environment from the over use of toxic pesticides, is here with us today.

Similarly, another touted GM crop benefit is lower fuel usage with the “no till” farming method.  But since that too requires more pesticides to be dumped into the soil to render it sterile before seeds can be dropped, Monsanto’s “conservation” claims cannot be taken at face-value.

While promising to “produce more”, Monsanto conveniently omits from its marketing material that only few of their current GM seeds are engineered for higher yields. As reported in a comprehensive  University of Kansas study and confirmed by a Monsanto spokesman, most seeds are genetically modified to make growing easier for a large business that depends on volume to extract profits.  In fact, the Kansas University study found that when compared to non-gm soy yields, the GM soy yields were lower by 6-11%.  Monsanto admits that genetically modifying their seeds for higher yields, Monsanto’s overly optimistic but unrealistic solution to an escalating world population problem, is years away, depends on “trial and error” research and global acceptance.  In the meantime, conventional non-gm breeds already exist that produce higher results with less pesticides and herbicides.

There is little question that GMOs, pushed aggressively by the companies that make them, concern human and animal health, environmental integrity, political stability, globalization, domestic and international policies, and morality and ethics. And yet public debate on the issues is lacking in America.  Which is why the airing of Monsanto’s ad, combined with an unchallenged interview by AMP of Monsanto’s CEO, which legitimized Monsanto’s practices and its PR campaign, is particularly troublesome.

Back on August 27, 2008, the “Corner Office” segment featured an interview of Monsanto’s CEO, Hugh Grant, by APM’s Kai Ryssdal. The segment was called “Using technology to grow more food” and “Seeding markets for food, fuel and feed.” One of the immediate questions was this soft-ball: “There’s a satisfaction I imagine in essentially helping to feed the world. But it’s not all altruism. You guys make a lot of money doing it.”  That’s it?!

Not a single question was asked about the human, animal or environmental impact of GMOs, the questionable government oversight, lack of labeling, GM gene pollution, or the consumer and farmer backlash that Monsanto has seen in Europe, India, South America, Africa, and elsewhere.  All interview questions, in fact, appear to be based entirely on the glowing PR message from the Monsanto’s corporate web site.  When even the more insightful news outlets, like Marketplace, are too timid to ask CEOs the tough questions, it is no wonder that public debate on this issue is lacking in America.

It is a crying shame that corporate money claims the truth even in the sphere of public radio.