Monsanto’s New Leaf
The biotech giant Monsanto is making efforts to improve its public image, including shaking up its senior public relations staff, hiring a new public relations firm, launching a new website, and posting a host of videos on YouTube. A statement issued by Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, noted that the company has “been absolutely riveted and focused on giving technology and tools to farmers to improve their productivity and yield and we haven’t spent nearly the time we have needed to on talking to consumers and talking to social media and really intercepting this” opposition to biotechnology.
For longer-term observers, Monsanto’s current efforts echo a previous initiative launched in 1999, when then CEO Bob Shapiro launched a shareholder meeting by conceding that, “We started with the conviction that biotechnology was useful and valuable but we have tended to see it as our task to convince people that we were right and that people with different points of view were wrong. We have irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension because we thought it was our job to persuade. But too often we forgot to listen.”
So what’s changed since 1999? Interestingly, not a lot. Despite promises by Shapiro, Monsanto launched a series of new initiatives intended to convince a hesitant public of the benefits of biotechnology, but the company never engaged in the “listening” he suggested. Since then, efforts to impose mandatory labelling of genetically engineered products in the United States have grown, and Monsanto has been forced to engage in a series of defensive operations to defeat ballot measures in California, Washington, and elsewhere. In each instance, ballot measures were narrowly defeated after massive spending by Monsanto.
More importantly, though, the technology of genetic engineering in agriculture has not yet lived up to the hype and promises of its advocates. As I’ve said before, the production-centered traits of the current generation of agbiotech show no real benefits for the end consumer. Roundup-Ready and Bt crops may make production easier for the farmer, but the absence of any direct benefits for the consumer give consumers no real reason to accept GM crops. And until agricultural scientists can develop crops that do show clear consumer benefits, consumers will remain skeptical of any PR initiative launched by Monsanto or other agbiotech companies.