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Monsanto’s New Leaf

November 30, 2013

monsantoThe 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.

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3 Comments
  1. I don’t agree that the technology has not lived up. It has been making a massive positive effect. 100’s of millions of gallons less insecticides used on corn and cotton in the US, India. Higher yields across the countries that use it. It is part of a system of better seed. Germplasm, Biotech traits and ag practices.

    • Thanks for the response, but I’m not sure I agree. Several studies have found that the adoption of herbicide resistant cultivars (like Roundup Ready varieties) actually increases the application of herbicides. A 2012 study by Charles Benbrook of Washington State University, for example, concluded that “[Herbicide tolerant (HT)] crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds over the 16-year period (1996-2011). The incremental increase per year has grown steadily from 1.5 million pounds in 1999, to 18 million five years later in 2003, and 79 million pounds in 2009. In 2011, about 90 million more pounds of herbicides were applied than likely in the absence of HT, or about 24% of total herbicide use on the three crops in 2011.” He argues that the increased application of herbicides is connected to an expansion of herbicide tolerance among weeds, observing that “There are now two-dozen weeds resistant to glyphosate, the major herbicide used on HT crops, and many of these are spreading rapidly. Millions of acres are infested with more than one glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of resistant weeds drives up herbicide use by 25% to 50%, and increases farmer-weed control costs by at least as much.” His findings are echoed by others, including the NGO Food and Water Watch, which found that the “total volume of glyphosate [Round Up] applied to the three biggest GE crops—corn, cotton, and soybeans—increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.
      But the broader point I was making was that—even if we grant the contested assertion that GM crop varieties have reduced the application of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture—consumers have seen few direct benefits. The farming process may be easier and more efficient, but consumers don’t see any immediate benefits. By contrast, the application of biotechnology to the medical sector—through the development of designer drugs or the production of human insulin using recombinant DNA technology present an obvious benefit for the end consumer. Until agricultural biotechnology results in the production of products with parallel benefits for the end consumer, I suspect we’ll continue to see opposition. In the absence of a reason to accept the technology, consumers will continue to reject it.

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  1. Agricultural Biotechnology and the Use of Herbicides in US Agriculture | Global Food Politics

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