10 February 2014

Speak of the devil

By
How did biotech giant Monsanto come to personify evil?
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Several years ago, Janice Person, a Memphis-born PR specialist and amateur photographer, was making small talk with a stranger sitting next to her on a plane when the conversation turned to their jobs. “Where do you work?” the woman asked Person.

“Monsanto,” Person replied.

The woman gasped and her eyes widened in disbelief. “Monsanto is evil,” she said.

Person, who is the social media director for the US-based agricultural company, hears this a lot. The sentiment is sprayed all over the Web, where Monsanto-bashing is at its most fevered. There, if you punch the company’s name into an internet search engine, you’ll encounter a bewildering universe of ugly allegations and invective embellished with photoshopped images of demonic-looking children eating corncobs and oddly shaped vegetables spurting blood. The most strident anti-biotech websites refer to the company as Monsatan.

What inspires such vitriol? Critics of the multinational seed giant assert that it is contaminating agriculture with its genetically modified (GM) plants and bulldozing the livelihoods of small farmers. “To its opponents,” the science journalist Michael Specter writes in The New Yorker, “Monsanto has become a cauldron of evil — a place where people have manipulated nature to create grotesque ‘Frankenfoods’, which they have shoved down millions of unsuspecting throats.” That article appeared in 2000.

The advent of social media in the past decade has reinforced and magnified the company’s villainous reputation. In 2013, a call to action against Monsanto on Facebook triggered a viral campaign that galvanised opponents of GM foods. Rallies were planned online and occurred simultaneously around the world. The global protest was called “The March against Monsanto” and drew thousands of people on to the streets. “They are poisoning our children and poisoning our planet,” the event’s organizer told the media.

This charge infuriates Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer and senior vice president,
who was given the annual World Food Prize (considered the Nobel of agriculture) in 2013. The prestigious award was created by legendary plant biologist Norman Borlaug 26 years ago.

“He was a personal hero of mine,” Fraley says of Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95 and is known for his breakthrough wheat research in the 1960s. The World Food Prize recognises individuals whose work enhances “the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world”. Fraley shared the honour in 2013 with two other scientists, Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology company’s North Carolina research centre, and Marc Van Montagu, chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium. Their respective biotechnology discoveries paved the way for a host of genetically modified crops now grown on more than 170 million hectares around the world by some 17 million farmers.

“Their research,” the World Food Prize noted in its citation, “is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.” Would the judges of such an esteemed prize really bestow an honour on Monsanto’s top scientist if he were poisoning the world?

“Let me vent,” Fraley says, when we meet in mid-October at the Marriott Hotel in downtown De Moines, Iowa, where many World Food Prize events and panel discussions were taking place. There is a festive, celebratory air. Assorted dignitaries, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, rotate through the proceedings. But Fraley, who has a steely demeanour to match his shaved head, seems stuck in a defensive crouch.

At the start of our conversation he feels compelled to set the record straight about an issue that rankles him like no other. “Here’s the important thing,” he says, trying to conceal his irritation. “There has not been a single example where there has been an issue with food safety.”

He’s right (more on that later). But the man from Monsanto is probably not the best messenger to make this case. Fraley gets this on some level. That same week he acknowledged on a television program “that my company and my industry has struggled with public acceptance”.

But clearly the aura of a prominent prize and its global stage presents a golden public relations opportunity. “It’s a chance for us to address misperception and misunderstanding,” Fraley said on Monsanto’s blog the week he was honoured. How would the company go about this? “It starts with safety,” Fraley explains to me. “That’s where we are focusing a lot of our dialogue moving forward.”

Science is on his side.  None of the world’s major science institutions or regulatory bodies have found evidence of harm to public health from agricultural biotechnology. The European Union concluded (after spending more than US$300 million on biosafety studies) “that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than, for example, conventional plant breeding technologies”. Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) declared that, “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques”. The Royal Society in Britain, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association, among others, concur.

But such assurances don’t appear to have alleviated consumer anxiety about GM foods. In fact, if anything, there is a new groundswell of opposition, with recent campaigns to ban or label GM foods spreading around the globe. And with some success: Maharashtra state in India revoked the Monsanto Mahyco licence in 2012 (it was reinstated in 2013); in 2013, the city of Zhangye in Gansu province, China, officially banned “gene bombs”, and in late December the Hawaiian island of Kauai followed suit.

So which is the real Monsanto? The one poisoning the world, or the mega-successful company with the top science officer extolled for helping to make agriculture more productive, resilient, and cost-effective?

At the press conference in the Des Moines Marriott to introduce the three laureates, Fraley and his co-recipients act as if the award being conferred on them should bulletproof their besieged industry. It is long past time for the media to stop scaremongering about GM foods, Fraley growls, referring to news articles reporting on dubious (and in some cases retracted) studies by anti-biotech activists. “These products have been in the marketplace for 25 years … their track record for safety is absolutely impeccable.” Translation: enough with the “Frankenfoods” trope.

Several days later, at the music-infused ceremony outside the domed Iowa state Capitol, Mary-Dell Chilton echoes Fraley. “My hope is this will put to rest the misguided opposition” to GM crops, she says, after receiving her award.

That is unlikely. For no doubt Chilton was aware of the protesters gathered nearby that day, some of them outfitted in devils masks to convey what they think of “Big Ag”, an often-used term that is shorthand for multinational agricultural firms such as Monsanto. One group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has a truck circling the capitol with a banner that reads: “Monsanto fails at improving agriculture.”

Never mind that such breezy slogans are belied by facts. A 2010 US National Academy of Sciences report found that many US farmers “who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realising substantial economic and environmental benefits, such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields compared to conventional crops”. Such benefits also accrue to millions of smallholders who plant GM crops.

So which is the real Monsanto? The one poisoning the world and failing to improve crops with genetically modified seeds, or the mega-successful company with the top science officer extolled for helping to make agriculture more productive, resilient, and cost-effective? How can one company be so reviled and lauded at the same time?

Robert T. Fraley at a Monsanto test field in Woodland, California.
CREDIT: NOAH BERGER/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

All protest campaigns are fuelled with hyperbolic rhetoric. But the supercharged emotion that Monsanto triggers in many people suggests that the company is more than just a proxy in the larger battle against GM crops. Consider the woman who recoiled in horror after hearing that Janice Person worked at Monsanto. “She was looking at me like I was evil,” Person recalls of the encounter.

Something has to power that kind of visceral reaction. What it seems to be is a complicated brew of Monsanto’s legacy as a company that once produced chemicals such as Agent Orange, the defoliant notoriously used in the Vietnam War; its perceived thuggish (and litigious) behaviour towards small farmers who have violated seed technology contracts; and assorted, widely held myths, such as the one about the “failure” of Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton that caused at least 250,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide over the past decade (See sidebar). A big part of the company’s demonisation surely owes to its huge commercial success, which has made it the face of a relatively new science that is poorly understood by the general public and viewed suspiciously by many (see Risky business, page 80). If you add all those ingredients together, you have what is known as a toxic brand.

Monsanto recognises this. The Washington DC-based media group Politicorecently reported that Monsanto “has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms”.

This is a departure for the multinational, which has more than 23,000 employees spread over some 60 countries.  For years, Monsanto seemed to shrug nonchalantly at the slings and arrows. “In the beginning, we kind of assumed that being the market and technological leader, we were supposed to take all the shots,” Fraley says.

But empire building, as companies like Microsoft and Apple have also discovered, draws close scrutiny to your corporate behaviour. It also didn’t help that Monsanto was initially tone deaf to public concerns. “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” said Philip Angell, the then director of corporate communications in 1999. “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the Food and Drug Administration’s job.”

As we now know, even the most arrogant empire building can be forgiven if it produces cool new gadgets and makes office work easier. Also, as Fraley acknowledges, “there’s a relationship with food that is different than with one’s electrical devices”. But neither he nor Monsanto seemed to appreciate any of this when the company was laying the foundation for its agricultural empire several decades ago.

In Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Dan Charles depicts Monsanto as a company preoccupied with locking up plant patents, buying up seed companies to cement its dominance, beating its biotech competitors (such as Syngenta) and conquering new markets. This is what the outside world saw, at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era in the 1990s and early 2000s, and what Charles, an NPR science reporter chronicled in his 2002 book. This is when the most indelible impressions of Monsanto formed, not just in the minds of environmentalists, but in the minds of many farmers and even rival scientists. As Charles puts it: “The reputation Monsanto acquired was that of a hard-driving, uncompromising company” envisioned as the Microsoft of agriculture.

Protesters gathered in Washington DC in May 2013 as millions of people around the world took to the streets for a March against Monsanto to protest against genetically modified foods, and the company’s business tactics.
CREDIT: NYC LABRETŠ/DEMOTIX/CORBIS

So it wasn’t hard for anti-biotech activists to depict Monsanto as a corporate monster hell-bent on taking over the world’s food supply, because indeed, that’s what it seemed the company was doing. Others, including more tempered voices, were expressing a similar concern. In a 2003 letter to the journal Nature Biotechnology, Jerry Cayford, a public policy researcher, wrote: “If scientists really want to address the root of opposition to transgenic food, they first need to acknowledge what the underlying root is: monopoly control of the world’s food supply.”

It is debatable whether that is the “underlying root of opposition”, but it has surely been a big part and continues to be, as some scientists, such as Pamela Ronald, a University of California plant geneticist, assert: “Much of the concern relates to a general distrust of large corporations and, in particular, Monsanto, which produces a large proportion of the world’s seeds.”

For many, there is no de-coupling of biotechnology from the company that pioneered it. But others feel that Monsanto is a convenient scapegoat because it bet big on biotechnology in the early days, investing much more in research than its competitors did, thus making it a victim of its success.

As in all wars, though, there is collateral damage. Once greens and anti-biotech activists settled on Monsanto as a target-rich enemy, they realised quickly how useful the company (and its history) would be as the poster child for biotechnology. Today, that strategy has borne fruit: the science of biotechnology is broadly associated with Monsanto and any discussion today of GM crops is bound to invoke the company, even if the project is publicly funded and involves no patents or corporations. Take, for example, the UK government sponsored research on GM wheat that produces an insect-repelling odour to reduce pesticide use. GM opponents predictably invoked Monsanto in their battle cry against the wheat and threatened to destroy the trial crops in a highly publicised stunt in 2012 (that never came off).

Other worthy endeavours are tainted even if Monsanto is only a peripheral participant. For instance, a group of scientists are working on improving a broccoli strain (without genetic modification) in a project led by Cornell University and funded by the US Department of Agriculture. Monsanto and Syngenta are collaborating, which doesn’t sit well with Marion Nestle, an influential food nutritionist at New York University, who told a reporter that, “it’s another example of Monsanto’s control of the food supply”.

‘We are facing the greatest challenge in human history, whether we can sustainably feed the 9 billion people who will be on our planet by 2050.’

This is an infectious form of “Monsanto derangement syndrome”. It was triggered last year after the announcement that Fraley and two other biotechnology scientists would share the World Food Prize. Much of the media reported this news as if Monsanto had won the award. “Executive at Monsanto wins global food honour”, read the New York Times headline. “Choice of Monsanto betrays World Food Prize purpose”, wrote one leading food activist at the Huffington Post.

Over its 26-year history, World Food Prize winners have ranged from scientists who pioneered water delivery and soil restoration techniques to grassroots advocates who helped reduce poverty and hunger. Borlaug, who created the prize in 1986, dedicated his life to reducing hunger. For this, he was showered with many accolades, notably the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2000, Borlaug said he anticipated “great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades” to help meet the world’s future food needs.

This sentiment is shared by many agricultural scientists, who say that existing crops will have to be adapted to warming temperatures, more frequent droughts and erratic rainfall patterns. Indeed, the issue of food security was paramount in all the World Food Prize events this year. The tone was set by Kenneth Quinn, a former US ambassador and the president of the World Food Prize Foundation. “We are facing the greatest challenge in human history, whether we can sustainably feed the 9 billion people who will be on our planet by 2050.” This theme was echoed in all the talks, many of which invoked the spectre of a future “volatile climate”.

The importance of the World Food Prize’s imprimatur is not lost on Fraley, who afterwards wrote in the Huffington Post: “By validating biotechnology as one of the innovations that can help solve the 21st century’s challenges, the World Food Prize has performed a great service.”

By putting biotechnology in the context of climate change and human betterment, might Monsanto’s and biotechnology’s image be recast? Fraley thinks so. “The opportunity to reframe the discussion around food security and food affordability and protection of the environment is absolutely key,” he says.

It’s an opportunity for the 60-year-old Fraley to recast himself, as well. InLords of the Harvest, he is depicted as a ruthless, intensely driven corporate player, more interested in dominating his fledgling industry than feeding the world.

Research biologist Heidi Windler takes tissue samples from genetically modified corn plants inside a climate chamber housed in Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis. Windler is attempting to breed a strain of maize that is resistant to corn root worm.
CREDIT: BRENT STIRTON/GETTY IMAGES

Fraley, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, is by all accounts a brilliant scientist. He was awarded the World Food Prize for creating some of the first experimental transgenic plants in the 1980s. In 1996, Fraley led Monsanto’s hugely successful rollout of genetically engineered soybeans and insect-resistant cotton. When he started with Monsanto more than 30 years ago, it was primarily a chemical company. He was instrumental in recasting it as a global seed giant, built on the promise of biotechnology.

These days, Monsanto calls itself a “sustainable agricultural company” that empowers farmers all over the world “to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy”. This may be corporate boilerplate, but it also happens to ring true. In an upcoming book chapter on biotechnology, Calestous Juma and Katherine Gordon of Harvard’s Kennedy School note: “GM crops have succeeded in reducing the environmental impact of agriculture by reducing pesticide use by an estimated 8.5% in 2011; and reducing fossil fuels and CO2 emissions through less ploughing and less chemical spraying.”

Fraley echoes this theme when I talk with him at the World Food Prize and in follow-up conversations on the phone. He has even taken to tweeting imperatives of food security in a warming world: “Ag is vulnerable to climate change. We expect to see new disease & pest challenges – technology, innovation more critical than ever.”’

This is what you might call being “on message” but Monsanto seems to be heeding its own message. Last year, it bought a highly regarded tech company (co-founded by a former Google engineer) called Climate Corporation, which crunches weather and climate data for farmers to use in real time. Such a service is valuable in a world with increasingly erratic weather patterns. As one analyst observed: “Climate Corp developed expertise in agronomy in order to understand how climate variability affects different crops.”

Monsanto bought the six-year-old company for US$930 million. Friends and family of David Friedberg, the chief executive of Climate Corp, were horrified. But Friedberg had done his due diligence and found Monsanto to resemble nothing like the cartoonish portrait etched in the public mind. Upset, he explained his decision to Climate Corp employees, saying he was “not the kind of person that would take easily to partnering with a company that ‘poisons the world’s food system’”. Friedman went on to write: “Calling a company evil is easy. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth.”

This is the unfortunate truth for Monsanto today – perception has become reality. It is a problem that goes well beyond convincing consumers that GM foods are safe. One of the last times I talked with Fraley he told me that Monsanto conducted hundreds of focus groups over the past year, presumably to discern the root of its – and biotech’s – image problems.

His takeaway: “There’s a hunger for information.” This represents a chance to reset the biotech debate, Fraley believes. Perhaps, but for that to happen, public perceptions of Monsanto will also have to be reset.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at COSMOS magazine, based in New York.

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