Consumer Education Monsanto-Style

Devon Peña | 05.02.2014

World Food Prize winner outlines shift in strategy: focus on consumers not just growers

Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and this year’s winner of the dubious World Food Prize, recently admitted that Monsanto made a huge strategic error by focusing educational outreach on growers and ignoring consumers. An interesting analysis of this admission is presented in an overlooked report by Joan Faus published in the April 12, 2014 edition of El País (Spain). Faus quotes Fraley admitting the error: “In the last twenty years almost all of our communication activities and education have been focused on farmers and it went very well. But the mistake we made is that we did not put enough effort toward consumer education.”

Faus attended a press conference hosted last month by Fraley in St. Louis with invited members of the European press corps. The extended session revealed much about the political and strategic worldview of Monsanto’s top technologist and legitimation agent-in-chief. According to Faus, Fraley’s view of consumer education is informed by the corporation’s awareness that the future of genetically modified foods will be largely played out in the public sphere and not the science labs. We should note that scientists have always been imbricated with the political machinery of the state as the overlapping industry ties of past and current USDA and FDA appointees will attest.

The mistake we made is that we did not put enough effort toward consumer education. – Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer

Perhaps, but one thing is certain: Monsanto does seem acutely aware that the battle between supporters and opponents of GM has heated up and is extremely fierce. Moreover, after years of accumulating what Fraley views as an unfairly bad reputation, the Gene Giant has decided to change strategy: It plans to get closer to the consumer so it can work at convincing skeptics and critics of the safety of its products and the positive effects biotechnology presumably has on world agriculture [sic].

Monsanto admits it has a growing “credibility crisis” among consumers worldwide but it is playing an old discursive trick, asserting that this is not a problem of risk but of risk communication. According to Faus’s report, Monsanto’s lack of credibility is more complicated as illustrated by consumer rankings for “Most Evil Corporation of the Year.”

While clearly not based on a rigorous scientific sample of consumers, the results of a survey of 16,000 respondents conducted online by Natural News revealed that more than half of these respondents (51%) identified Monsanto as Most Evil Corporation of 2011. These results accurately reflect how anti-GMO consumers rank corporations and by extension are also reliable indicators of emerging attitudinal trends across all the consumer groups Monsanto wishes to “educate”. Monsanto likely realizes this is more than a problem of risk communication and is instead more a question of taking control of risk characterization to manipulate and create confusion and hence inaction among the broadest consumer market segments possible. Doublethink style, education is obfuscation.

Do these opinion surveys reveal anything unique or useful about the nature of the discursive politics surrounding Monsanto’s transgenic crops specifically and biotechnology in general? Monsanto would have you believe that people opposed to GMOs are irrational and basing their choices on pure fear. Is this presumption of irrationality justified? Not really since the scientific evidence against GMOs is fast mounting, but this is the wrong question posed by too many pundits. More important is what this tells us about Monsanto’s efforts to reframe the public discourse that has ascribed to the brand such a nasty, super-loaded or ‘monkey’ signifier in the form of its nefarious status as the world’s “Most Evil Corporation”.

A significant dimension of a critical deconstructive approach suggests serious study of something Faus hints at: Monsanto is, of course, already hiring PR experts who do the sort of hermeneutic and semiotic quant analysis made part of pop culture by Don Draper and his underlings in Mad Men. The artist [sic] in the age of digital reproduction becomes an information manager who is best when s/he recognize how to manipulate language and other symbolic discursive games, especially through what we might term systematically-distorted communication. Presumably it then becomes a simple matter of activating mass media discourse agents to define and constrain truth claims and the qualification of those deemed able to make objective truth claims by virtue of a particular (reductionist) way of knowing the world.

Despite all this Monsanto’s basic problem will fortunately always be driven by the unavoidable fact that the most enduring controversies go well beyond a simplistic focus on consumer food safety. Our critiques are formidable and play across an evolving set of perceptions covering the entire range of economic, environmental, cultural, and public health effects associated with all of the stacked-traits GMO product lines and their ancillaries. The challenges posed by a diverse and expanding public of scientists, farmers, seed savers, plant breeders, and consumers who question Monsanto’s credibility has now reached a critical mass that will not be easily suffocated by PR stunts and publicity pirouettes a la Protegendisque scientifica.

Image source: Sustainingstarter.

This is what Monsanto neo-regulation is attacking. It seems unAmerican to a growing number of stakeholders. Image source: Sustainingstarter.

Risk scientists, consumers, seed savers, plant breeders, organics farmers, environmental and nutrition health advocates, among many other members of the public who are direct stakeholders in the food system agree that the problem is the miscommunication about existing risks across the entire spectrum of integrated biotechnology products including the vast inventories of, as well as in-the-pipeline, agro-industrial chemicals like the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers required under the seed licensing and precision-farming contracts the Gene Giants impose on most producers. We agree that the scientific evidence already points at problems in the form of interrelated social, cultural, economic, and environmental disparate impacts. As a result, Monsanto is having a hard time disputing the hardening evidence that transgenics has a major environmental justice problem.

But this is more than about the politics of the communication and perception of risk. Faus notes that consumer “repulsion generated by Monsanto practices” was expressed across the world in May 2013 with demonstrations in 436 cities in 52 countries. Monsanto clearly has a European problem, but what about the USA or Latin America? Social movements clearly complicate the public discourse process in all these settings.

Not to be overlooked are the politics of interlocking relationships that have persisted among governmental and biotech industry elites ever since Michael Taylor at the FDA and later with Monsanto first got the Bush I administration to embrace the nefarious and unscientific principle of substantial equivalence; for one of the best discussions of this concept, see Ho and Steinbrecher 1998. This occurred, as seems very much to still be the case today, over the objections of many of the FDA’s own scientists and legal advisors. The Obama Administration has followed the Bush and Clinton neoliberal policies that expanded Monsanto’s role as fox in charge of safety in the henhouse.

In the wake of this ability to control federal executive administrative rulemaking, Monsanto has perhaps felt compelled and empowered to co-opt as much of American regulatory institutions and apparatuses and does so amid polls (Kopicki 2013) that consistently indicate at least 75 percent (three-fourths) of US consumers express concern with the presence of GMOs in their food with the majority citing fear of adverse health effects. It is this ‘fear’ factor that Monsanto is utilizing to undermine all critics, and issue I will explore in depth in another post.

The legitimation crisis facing transgenic technologies and GMO foods has apparently led Monsanto to start rethinking corporate PR strategy. Faus’s notes has Fraley stating that: “Consumers [must] see us as the first step in the food chain and they want to hear more about us…We must do better” [brackets added]; also see Fraley interview with Agriculture.com. Faus observes how Monsanto has “stepped up its communication on social networks where opponents are very strong”. It has also provided several pages with more consumer-oriented ‘food-safety’ information on the company’s website – go to Monsanto Food Safety.

One of my sources in the Midwest confirms that Monsanto has some company staff doubling as Internet Trolls – persons who stalk and harass the targets of misinformation campaigns and like agent provocateurs disrupt or interfere with public discourse. The ultimate aim of trolling is to create a hostile language environment that often drives many people out of the non-GMO social networks, creating a false air of scientific uncertainty and controversy or the reframing of expressions of fear as an unnecessary and Voodoo-like threat to the science of food security.

You can always tell what kind of crisis a corporation thinks it faces by the measure of activity and increased revenue spent on PR and advertising. Monsanto is obviously reaching deeper into its bottomless pockets with a new generous round of spending on so-called consumer education. Faus reports that in late 2013 Monsanto expanded its relationship with Fleishman Hillard, a leading public relations firm and division of the Omnicom Group.

Omnicom, with a market cap of $17.307 billion, is itself one of a triad of the largest advertising and public relations firms in the world today with massive global reach. Faus reports the F&H division maintains 80 offices in 29 countries with affiliates in 42 additional countries. This will be Monsanto’s global slayer of activists and dissidents and central truth fabrication machine deployed to win the hearts and minds of global consumers, its newfangled object of desire.

Of course, F&H will have its hands more than full developing and coordinating any new global campaign designed to address the ‘brand’ as if managing the image is all it takes. Good luck with that. Colin O’Neil of the Center for Food Safety is quoted by Faus: “At the same time, [Monsanto] is spending millions to fight the right of consumers to know, so no matter how well-intentioned it is to refresh the brand, consumers find this suspicious.”

Monsanto’s status as the world’s most evil corporation is the target image requiring a ‘makeover’ and a Monsanto spokeswoman speaking with Faus confirmed the company is a client of F&H agency. Faus suggests this may have something to do with Monsanto’s retreat from the EU and subsequent re-positioning to build on an already substantial presence in Latin America with soy and GM maize (in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile). Last September, the agency promoted an ad campaign along with other big biotech groups that included several websites offering detailed consumer information on these foods for a Latin American audience. Monsanto now offers its own page under the rubric of FAQs – go to Preguntas más frecuentes.

Monsanto food security. Credit: Theorganicprepper.

Monsanto food security. Credit: Theorganicprepper.

Faus details how anti-GMO activists believe Monsanto’s new spin as a more “conciliatory” and “transparent” partner of consumers and farmers that is dedicated to combatting world hunger is false and indicates a heightened level of corporate nervousness. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association is quoted: “It has been realized that genetics is over. The public will not accept an unpredictable and dangerous technology.”

Activists recall that 93% of US consumers support labeling and in remember that in 2007 Barack Obama as primary candidate made a promise to that effect. There is always a political context for this type of unprincipled betrayal and in this case the smoking gun, or bureaucrat, is none other than Michael Taylor, the very same Clinton appointee who worked in the FDA when the substantial equivalence decision was forged, then passed on to Monsanto where he was a vice-president, and is now back at the FDA. That is the nature of the structural control Monsanto has over the executive branch agencies, and we are not even addressing the millions spent on lobbyists.

Faus’s fascinating report reminds me of that Tolstoy adage about how best to remedy a bad reputation. You don’t sully it to begin with. Meanwhile, Fraley laments the sorry state of things to as many reporters as will listen, yet always feigning naiveté: “I cannot really explain [this] vilification,” reluctantly admitting Monsanto’s dark past as the producer of the Agent Orange used in the U.S. war in Viet Nam. “Undoubtedly the legacy of the past is a challenge for any company [and this matter of] public acceptance” can affect sales.

The science of actuating the bottom-line will be based on bamboozling the consumer with the pretense of a heroic and conciliatory white knight riding in on elegant transgenic horseback, armed with glyphosate shields and RNAi swords, to feed the needy and hungry while protecting the Earth from overpopulating brown hordes and the mean-spirited activists who abuse free speech rights to interfere with science and its presumably natural result of human progress. Has the banality of evil ever been more pretentiously humanistic?

Devon Peña is a Food First board member. This article was originally published on http://ejfood.blogspot.com/