Tag Archives: Monsanto

What if you are like Monsanto, and in a battle you can’t win?

There are some battles that you just know can’t be won. Monsanto is in one of them–the GMO name-calling battle. I’ve had a few client situations where the reputation situation is so ugly, that any conventional strategy is quite hopeless. In one, a few years ago, I said you need a game changer. You need a way to push a restart button and clear the past away. They did and the change was remarkable.

But what about Monsanto. Things are so bad for them, that even the PR newsletters commenting on them can’t spell their name right. I live in Washington State and the GMO labeling issue is on the ballot. As NPR pointed out, it is certain to pass. Food in Washington State no doubt will soon need to be identified as GMO or non-GMO.

What is so fascinating about this issue is that anyone who has seriously looked at the fundamental concern, which is consumer health and safety, has to conclude that there is zero scientific evidence for any concern. Zero. None. All the more remarkable given how hard are working to find the slightest amount. Even famed food authority Michael Pollan, in an NPR interview, stated that the scientific evidence does not suggest any danger. But, he also pointed out that this debate is really not about safety. He says it is about transparency.

I am all for transparency. I stated in a Capital Press interview that in this era any ag producer or food processor needs to look at how what they are doing will be viewed by the public and consumers if it is made clear. If it can’t be defended, they had better change it, because whatever is untenable to the public will come out. I believe in transparency.

But this is not really about transparency. Because slapping words or in this case three letters on something that has become so distorted and misunderstood in meaning is doing no public service. Why not just put “radioactive” on it, and the nuclear symbol? The anti-GMO forces, with the too ready compliance of the headline-hungry media, have so tainted those three letters that putting GMO label on food is to call it poison.

It’s not about transparency because as Pollan pointed out, and was confirmed to me by those who oppose GMOs, the science doesn’t matter, transparency doesn’t really matter. This is about big companies, powerful corporate interests, and most specifically about Monsanto. This corporate giant is wrongly seen as having a monopoly on GMOs and ruthless in their protection of intellectual property (see Food Inc.). That’s why the anti-GMO forces can’t win this battle. It’s not really about GMO, food, safety, or transparency. It is about the animosity that so many–particularly the younger set–feels toward corporate agriculture and food production. The GMO battle is a litmus test for whether or not you support the local movement, reduction in chemicals in foods, the small guy vs the huge guy.

Monsanto can’t win it. The pro-GMO folks can’t win it because they are fighting the wrong battle. They can’t seem to try to bring some scientific sense to this discussion without being accused of cozying up to corporate greed. That’s the nature of this battle.

To me, this is an archetype of the kind of “state of fear” situation that destroys, rather than helps. The vaccination scare is another example. I have little doubt that many young lives have been hurt by the irresponsible activism of some and the inherent danger in our media system when chasing ad dollars is more important than providing the truth.

How will we be hurt when we lose the GMO battle? In Washington, how can we not see an increase in food costs and a reduction in food choices? Who wants to prepare labels for one state? Who wants to manage distribution with this kind of ad hoc labeling requirement. Pure nonsense–and for what reason? Science? No. Fear mongering by those who profit from creating irrational fears. Much worse, is the danger that public fears about GMOs will limit our ability in the future to produce the many times greater food output needed to meet demand by 2050. In that case, people will starve and food costs will become a much higher portion of living costs, with the poor being hurt the most.

Monsanto, and the rest of you in this business. Your lack of transparency, of lack of attention to the rising concern about this, your lack of public education around this important issue is where the blame really lies. It’s too late for you to try to address this. But others who are concerned about our food supply–and about how nonsense like this can take such a firm hold–they must step up now.

 

The furor over Genetically Modified Corn reveals the activism-media link

My friend and colleague Irv Lipp alerted me to this issue of GM (Genetically Modified) maize (corn) in Europe. Here are the basic facts as I can distill them:

1. A French anti-GMO activist, Seralini, who so happens to have an anti-GMO book coming out this week, announced to the media that he was going to release the results of a scientific study that showed definitively that modified corn and herbicides made rats sicker than rats that ate regular corn.

2. He gave the study to major media outlets in France with the provision that they could not consult other experts before release.

3. The news headlines, as NPR reports, showed up stating: BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors”

4. The story has been widely published.

5. Anti-GMO activists around the world have jumped on the study to push bans on GMO food with apparently some success in France and Russia.

But, as Mr. Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. The “scientific study” is proving to be anything but scientific. I’m not qualified to go into details about why it is being roundly rejected by groups such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but it seems quite obvious that Mr. Seralini and group have cynically manipulated the media into promoting his anti-GMO agenda.

Now, of course, groups that are promoting such foods are on their back feet desperately trying to counter the information (or false information) being so widely distributed.

The real story here is media manipulation. The eagerness of the media to publish a story that certainly will generate a great deal of public interest on a controversial topic plays into the hands of unscrupulous activists. The clever device of getting major media to agree to not investigate the story while it was embargoed should have led them to smell a rat. I suspect many did, but the headline was too juicy to pass up and the do not see their job as in a story like this as validating the claims, only publishing the claims.  The blog “food and drink europe” did an excellent job of analyzing the media manipulation behind this story.

Once again I have to hand it to NPR for an excellent treatment of the story. Their take on it seems to me fair, balanced and accurate. They identify the agenda of the study’s author (at least part of it since they didn’t mention his book coming out), but also point make clear the criticism. They even report that the study may show an opposite effect claimed by Mr. Seralini:

Also, if this experiment truly showed a link between genetically engineered food and tumors, one might expect the rats that ate more of the GM corn to develop more tumors. In fact, the opposite happened. The rats eating a diet of 33 percent GMO corn stayed healthier than animals eating food with a GMO concentration of just 11 percent.

And, particularly unusual for a story of this nature, NPR gives some relevant related information:

“…there’s a deeper reason why scientists like Kuiper give little credence to Seralini’s studies. There’s a saying in science: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For most of the scientists who have been studying the safety of GMOs, it’s an extraordinary claim, at this point, to assert that the current generation of genetically modified crops are harmful to human health.

There’s no apparent reason why that should be true; No one has found new toxic substances in these crops. And the giant feeding experiment that’s been going on for the past fifteen years — hundreds of millions of Americans consuming GMO ingredients — hasn’t produced evidence of harm, either.

It would take a lot more evidence that the results of this study to change their minds.”

The sad facts of this story are:

1) The predisposition of the reader will determine their acceptance of the “science.” Mine predisposition is likely obvious to you.

2) Media scare stories like this have two sad effects: they further destroy trust in the media as a conveyor of truth, and they cause irrational fear that drives irrational public policy.

For crisis communication professionals, particularly those engaged in controversial operations such as making food, the lessons should be clear. This is what the media does, this is how it operates, this is what you have to deal with. Don’t be fooled. However, when NPR calls to do an interview, take the call.