The PR War Continues: Monsanto and the myth of peaceful coexistence

Laetitia Benador | 04.02.2015

Last month, due to public pressure, an advertisement by agribusiness giant Monsanto scheduled to appear in the February or March issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine was removed from the publication. An online petition on the website change.org criticized Oprah, a frequent advocate of organic agriculture and owner of an organic farm in Maui, for aligning herself with Monsanto. The successful campaign represents a victory for the anti-GMO movement against Monsanto’s latest public relations salvo.

In the advertisement, a group of friends or family members sit down at a table to share a home-cooked meal. Proclaiming “different perspectives make the meal better and more interesting,” the ad invites the public to share their opinions about food and agriculture. The ad goes on to say that “growing enough food for a growing world requires a broad range of ideas”—presumably allowing for the inclusion of everything from large-scale input-intensive monocultures to small and medium agroecological family farms.

Monsanto O Magazine Oprah

By sending a message of inclusivity and pretending to welcome a “wide range of ideas,” Monsanto implies that industrial agriculture—which uses an array of Monsanto’s chemical inputs and genetically modified seeds—can coexist peacefully with diversified, agroecological smallholder agriculture. However, this conciliatory approach obfuscates the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between these agricultural and development models. In reality, Monsanto’s fossil fuel intensive, biotech and monoculture model is antithetical to the biodiversity, land and resource base, local knowledge, and social relations that agroecological approaches are founded upon.

The crux of Monsanto’s PR strategy is to scare the public into thinking that unless agricultural production is increased—using their proprietary technologies—feeding a ballooning population will be impossible. [1. Jonathan Latham, “How The Great Food War Will Be Won,” Independent Science News, January 12, 2015, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/how-the-great-food-war-will-be-won.] Monsanto perpetuates the assumption that hunger is caused by scarcity and, thus, increasing yields using (supposedly) yield-enhancing GMOs and chemical inputs is the only solution to hunger. However, the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people. The reality is that one billion people still go hungry today because of poverty, inequality, and maldistribution of wealth and resources—not because there is too little food.

In our global capitalist food system, agribusiness monopolies exert their will with impunity, while consumers, farmers, women, and people of color rarely have a seat at the table.

The family or group of friends in Monsanto’s ad is deliberately diverse—as though carefully constructed by focus group research. An African American woman and man happily serve up a variety of brightly colored cherry tomatoes and salad fixings to three intent, smiling children–two white children and an African American boy. Within this depiction of a friendly, diverse family dinner, Monsanto hides the disproportionate power that certain “dinner guests” hold over others in the conversation about food and agriculture. In our global capitalist food system, agribusiness monopolies exert their will with impunity, while consumers, farmers, women, and people of color rarely have a seat at the table.

Industrial agriculture is held up by neoliberal policies like free trade agreements and US agricultural policies that have supported 60 years of research for industrial production and subsidies biased towards large corporations. [2. Peter Rosset, “Dumping and Subsidies: Unraveling the Confusion,” in Food Is Different: Why We Must Get the WTO Out of Agriculture (Canada: Fernwood Publishing, 2006), 38.] Meanwhile, US organic research receives roughly 1% of the funding that is spent on conventional ag research. Globally, diversified smallholders must compete against economies of scale and are vulnerable to the whims of financial speculation, land grabbing, and volatile global markets.

And yet, Monsanto wants the public to believe that it “partners with farmers.” But this partnership is defined by “technology use agreements” it requires farmers to sign in order to use their seeds and through international seed patent agreements. Such agreements often outlaw the age-old farmer practice of seed saving and sharing. For example, under the 2012 US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, Colombia is obligated to protect the interests of agribusiness by giving US corporations legal monopoly rights over seeds. It is illegal for farmers to save or sell any of these varieties or even to sell and use non-registered seeds. [3. Liza Smith, “Certified Seeds: Different Wars, Same Reasons,” NACLA, December 13, 2013, https://nacla.org/blog/2013/12/13/certified-seeds-different-wars-same-reasons.]

With the advent of plant patents in the 1980s (Diamond v. Chakerberty; Ex Parte Hibberd), agricultural biotechnology and chemical firms such as Monsanto, DuPont, Sygenta, Bayer, and Dow spent billions of dollars to purchase and consolidate at least 200 independent seed companies. Today these five corporations control over half of the world’s total seed sales. [4. Debbie Barker, Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers (Center For Food Safety, 2013), 14–15., http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/1770/seed-giants-vs-us-farmers.] Monsanto alone accounts for 27% of global commercial seed sales and provides the seed technology for 90% of genetically engineered crops worldwide. In the US, 86% of corn, 88% of cotton, and 93% of soybeans are genetically-engineered varieties. Monsanto has effectively privatized and monopolized the overwhelming majority of a previously renewable and commonly held resource. [5. Ibid., 16–17.]

The extent of such market domination is felt globally by farmers who have fewer and fewer options and face ever-increasing seed and input prices. For instance, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that from 1995 to 2011, the price of soybean seeds increased by 325%, cotton seeds by 516%, and corn seeds by 259%. [6. “USDA Economic Research Service – Commodity Costs and Returns,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commodity-costs-and-returns.aspx.] This calls into question the nature of Monsanto’s “partnership” with farmers when the company’s control over germplasm and seed markets so profoundly shapes the choices and practices farmers have at their disposal.

Finally, Monsanto implies that industrial monocultures and agroecological practices are compatible with one another and with the natural environment. However, agroecological farming is based on enhancing natural ecosystem functions rather than extracting and replacing them with external inputs and processes; it depends on the integrity of the environment. [7. Miguel A Altieri, “Linking Ecologists and Traditional Farmers in the Search for Sustainable Agriculture” The Ecological Society of America 2, no. 1 (2004): 35–42.] Industrial agriculture actively depletes the resources, ecological services, and functional biodiversity that are required for agroecosystems to operate sustainably.[8. Miguel A. Altieri. “Ecological Impacts of Industrial Agriculture and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming,” In Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, ed. Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 77-90.]

Monsanto’s claim of “peaceful coexistence”—as portrayed in the ad recently pulled from O Magazine—is a myth. The pretense of friendly dialogue between diverse opinions is only a smokescreen behind which Monsanto continues with business as usual, vilifying those who insist that our differences are irreconcilable and who refuse to sit down at the table with a company that has so regularly and consistently violated our food sovereignty.