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
|'Insect-protected tomatoes' - yummy.
|'Coloured cotton' - it grows in whatever colours
the market demands, and thus 'reduces the need for
|'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.