Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

Bob's Box of Tricks

Monsanto is engaging its critics in 'dialogue.' Uh-oh…

The Ecologist, December 1999

When Robert Shapiro, Monsanto's Chief Executive Officer, addressed the Greenpeace Business Conference in mid-October, he didn't look a happy man. Beamed into a London hotel via video-link from his Head Office in Missouri, USA, he looked tired, drawn and hunted, as if a pack of crop-pulling activists were trying to batter down the doors of his executive suite. He didn't sound happy, either. In fact, he sounded almost contrite.

Sounding contrite is Monsanto's newest public relations ploy. They need a new one, because none of the others worked. First they tried bullying people into buying everything they produced without question. But people asked questions. Undeterred, Monsanto tried the oily approach: lots of money spent on big adverts telling us that we should listen to all points of view, provided the final outcome was that we agreed with theirs. Not money well spent, as Bob Shapiro would surely now agree. On the contrary - all the money, time and corporate muscle applied by Monsanto over the last year has had the effect only of making them probably the most unpopular corporation on Earth.

Hence the contrition. Bob Shapiro had a clear message for the journalists and environmentalists assembled by Greenpeace in London: Monsanto have changed. No longer, he said, are we the same nasty corporation that manufactured Agent Orange or filled the seas and many of their mammals with PCBs. No longer are we the same unscrupulous collection of technocrats who employed scientists to fabricate dioxin test results, or 'misled' farmers about the health risks of our bovine growth hormones. Not any more. No sirree! These days we're New Monsanto - nice guys with test tubes who only want to help.

According to Bob, New Monsanto recognise that "we have irritated and antagonised more people than we've persuaded," and "our confidence in this technology and our enthusiasm for it has I think widely been seen, and understandably so, as condescension or indeed arrogance." Not only that, but for the first time, Bob acknowledges that "there are real concerns about its [biotechnology's] use," and that, potentially, not every biotechnology product is, per se, a good one. Bob also wants 'dialogue' with his enemies, and is willing to change his mind if he's wrong. This was almost as exciting to some environmentalists as the announcement a couple of days before that Monsanto will not now be commercially developing terminator seeds, as a result of widespread revolt.

But before we get too excited at this brave new dawn, let's just take a brief look at the movement behind the platitudes. Let's have a look at what the corporation is actually planning to do, and what it's planning to produce, over the next few years.

A good place to start is with a copy of The Paper, Monsanto's in-house newspaper, a recent copy of which has been passed to the Ecologist by a thoughtful reader. It contains some fine nuggets about what the corporation is currently up to. Bob's boys have, for example, just opened new laboratories in Bangalore, India, where researchers are working to "bring food, health and hope to a growing world" by inventing new, patented varieties of tropical crops. Elsewhere, the company is making buying as many of the world's seed companies as possible a "top corporate priority." Why? Because a global seed company will have the "financial muscle" to push Monsanto products all over the world.

The most entertaining/frightening article in The Paper is the double-page spread entitled 'Getting To Know Vietnamese Farmers.' A more accurate translation would probably read 'Throwing millions of dollars of corporate propaganda at Vietnamese farmers.' For Monsanto are up to their old tricks again; sending representatives around Vietnam's small farms with 'vibrant yellow Roundup posters' advertising the 'Roundup Clubs' the company is setting up across the country. Monsanto has managed to get the support of the government for these clubs, and no doubt a combination of persuasive propaganda and free meals at local restaurants for farmers has the effect of expanding the company's market in rural areas, with none of that pesky 'dialogue' that Bob is so keen to talk to Western Greens about.

So it's business-as-usual in many areas. But what of future technologies? What does New Monsanto have planned for us? Here's a small selection of what the company's last Annual Report promises us it may be marketing next year and beyond:

'Feed Enzymes, developed through biotechnology to increase the nutritive value of animal feed.'
'No-till soybeans' - you don't even have to plough them.
'Insect-protected tomatoes' - yummy.
'Coloured cotton' - it grows in whatever colours the market demands, and thus 'reduces the need for chemical dyeing.'
'Improved solids potatoes' - you need less oil to fry them.
'Roundup Ready forestry products' - yes, that means trees. Whole plantations of Monsanto trees, controlled with Monsanto pesticide, coming your way after 2002.

What was that you were saying, Bob? Ah, yes - "biotechnology in itself is neither good nor bad. It can be used well or it can be used badly, and like any important new tool it creates new choices for society." Indeed. Well, I think I've made my choice already. But thanks for the 'dialogue.' Much appreciated.