Opinion: Five minutes with Monsanto
by Chuck Jolley
The phrase “Evil Empire” was a hard stone cast at the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan in 1983. Rage Against the Machine picked it up and used it to title their 1996 album. Steven Grasse used it as a title to his book which was subtitle,”101 Ways that England Ruined the World.” At its most vile, it’s a nickname hung on the hated New York Yankees by Mets fans everywhere.
Today, it’s a handy descriptor that unlettered foodies all across America are trying to make synonymous with Monsanto. Those two “Mother” magazines; Mother Earth and Mother Jones, often seem hell-bent on tattooing that title on everything related to Monsanto.
Wielding that pointy-tipped tattoo needle are people like Rick Paulus. A few days ago, he wrote this for KCET, which bills itself as Southern and Central California’s community television station. “You may have noticed that recently we’ve been ramping up our coverage of what the GMO supergiant Monsanto has been up to lately. Now, there are a few reasons for that.
First and foremost, they’ve simply been in the news more often as they continue their various international machinations and backdoor maneuvering in their attempt to dominate the burgeoning GM industry. These recent moves, as well as the fact that the question of whether GMO’s belong in our food has reached a fever pitch since the Prop 37 debate last year, have put the company in the spotlight.
The second reason is that looming on the calendar has been an event that finally gives people at home a chance to do something if they’re feeling antsy about Monsanto, DuPont and friends. This Saturday, October 12, marks the second March Against Monsanto protest rally. And folks, it’s going to be a doozy.
Wildly exaggerated claims were made about the first March Against Monsanto. If you are to believe the reports, millions of people in over 50 cities around the world showed their rage by participating. Of course, those reports came from the organizers so we might want to subtract a few zeroes from those numbers. Zealots often lose the ability to accurately count things.
Not that I want to give Monsanto a free pass; all companies play a lively game of stub toe from time-to-time. After reading many of the incredibly nasty stories about a monolithic and evil ag empire headquartered in St. Louis and bent on world domination, I thought a visit might be in order.
I contacted Janice Persons who does a lot of their social media for them. “Sure, come on down,” she said.
So I drove to their campus, half expecting to be greeted on a dark and stormy night by the offspring of an unholy union between Darth Vader and Dracula as I approached a medieval castle perched on top of a cloud covered mountain.
And campus is the best description; it reminded me of some of the nicer college campuses I’ve visited; lots of trees and well-maintained green spaces and more buildings than I could count. Enough people work there to comprise a nice-sized town. I half expected to see a line of fraternity and sorority houses on the other side of Olive Street. Already lost, I was staring at several buildings, trying to figure out which one was where I might find Persons when a nice employee asked if he could help. Instead of pointing and saying, “That building, stupid,” he walked me over to the security desk and explained to the guard that I needed help.
Of course, I was on the wrong side of the campus and had to drive to the other end where several other very courteous people helped me find the right building. So far, no storm troopers is Star Wars costumes, just people who seemed to have been hired based on their sense of “nice.”
Janice Persons met me at the door, bought me a cup of coffee and introduced me to
Dr. Gary Hartnell who has, at one time or another in his career, worked with almost every animal in the ag pantheon – “cattle, hogs, goats, water buffalo,” he said only slightly tongue in cheek. We sat down and began to talk. I had my questions researched and ready but threw them away. Rather than try to direct the conversation, I thought it was best left as a free form discussion.
Question: What are you doing now?
Persons: “Our year ends in August and we always look at our business. There’s always something we want to tweak. We’ll be looking at how we engage society. People hear a lot of things about us and it’s largely emotional. So we’re looking at how we should talk with people about Monsanto.”
Our ad campaign, America’s Farmers, will continue and a lot of SEO, too.
Question: A lot of reporters seem to be knee-jerk anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto. Will you be able to get a handle on some ingrained attitudes??
Persons: There have been some people calling on journalists to be journalists, not mouthpieces. Some publications are being a little more serious about reporting. There is a blurring of the lines between editorial content and commentary and people see something in the New York Times and are confused between the two.
If you’re truly an environmentalist, does it make sense to be anti-biotech? Have some people (reporters) taken the time to learn the science behind it? Are they serving the best interests of their audience if they automatically rubber stamp attitudes? Having that discussion makes sense to us.
Question: Are the talking points being set by just a few people or is everyone entering the discussion?
Persons: The people who are into this are a small portion of the population but they are very vocal so they guide the discussion. We’re making a change in how we talk with people about the subject. We’ve been highly science-driven, very fact-driven and we need to engage them on an emotional level, too. We have to say we personally care about this. We have to show people the complexities of the issues and the problems we need to solve. We have to give people the facts but be personal about it, too.
Hartnell: The arguments often come from a mother, and it resonates from her emotionally. We have to understand how the social side enters the conversation.
Question: But Monsanto is the big guy, the leader in the industry, by far. . .
Persons: I don’t think it’s a Monsanto issue, it’s an industry issue. It’s easy in agriculture to say Monsanto is an outlier and there is something (bad) there. We are the leader, though so we tend to be the lightning rod.
Question: Monsanto is ahead of the rest of the industry and many people want to remember farming or maybe even return it to that nostalgic small family farm: an old farm house with a red barn out back and a few chickens in the front yard, maybe 40 acres or so being worked by the immediate family. They don’t like the corporate farm image, even if that corporation was formed by the family that runs the business so the could reap some tax benefits. So where are we going with modern agriculture?
Hartnell: It’s about efficiency, doing more with what we have and still providing a living for the farmer. We have an obligation to them.
Persons: We can still provide products to the small farmer. It’s not like we serve just one side of agriculture. We have organic customers, too. We supply seed to them. It’s been five years since we’ve been advertising, “I am American’s Farmer” – print television, billboards. Debbie Lyons Blythe will be part of it this year, she was America’s farm mom last year.
Question: Let’s set aside the general public’s opinion for a few minutes. What do farmers think about you?
Persons: Call some farmers and ask them. I think most farmers appreciate our technology, they would like it cheaper. They understand why we do what we do. They understand the complexity of agriculture.
Question: Where will the ag community be in 10 years?
Persons: It will include biotech and improved genetics, a lot of precision technologies, precision farming. We have to become more efficient.
Question: The cattle industry is perfectly OK with genetics, they’ve been breeding animals for improved genetics for years but there are some who say “But GMO’s aren’t good.” What do you say to them?
Hartnell: (Talking about consumers) When you say GMO, they don’t understand it and when they don’t understand it, they’re going to say no. When you ask, “Do you want dihydrogen oxide in your food, they’re going to say no. When you tell them what it is, they’re Ok with it. They did a survey in Europe that asked people if they wanted DNA in their food. Thirty percent said they didn’t want it in their food. They didn’t know what it was.
Some cattlemen want to differentiate their product, too, and if they know people don’t want GMO’s, they’ll avoid feeding those products to their animals.
Question: Where do I find good, third party people who will talk sensibly about GMO’s?
Hartnell: You can contact the universities; Nebraska, Kansas State, Ohio State, Texas A&M and people like Jude Capper. Country Extension, too. There are a lot of people out there.
Question: Farmers are blocked from re-using seed stock?
Hartnell: Hybrid seeds have been around for over 50 years. It’s been a long time since most farmers reused their seed stock. They’ve been buying seeds for a long time. If you buy software, you have to sign an agreement not to reuse it. Farmers know that.
Persons: It’s like iTunes, you have to sign off before you can buy an app for your phone. It’s the same thing farmers do today, they understand it.
Befitting the campus atmosphere of the place, an unheard bell rang, signaling it was time for class to end. Persons and Hartnell had places to go and meetings to attend. We shook hands and I walked back to my car which, by now had been left in a parking lot half way back to Kansas.
I glanced back. Hartnell was not playing with bizarre laboratory glassware and cackling maniacally. Persons was merely walking back to her office with no signs of a straw bound stick at her disposal. Maybe if I came back at Halloween, I might see that stuff. Today, it was just a campus full of regular but uncommonly courteous people earning a good living.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.