According to a new paper in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, "Monsanto - has engineered public opinion to reduce critical scrutiny."
Monsanto, the authors argue, has followed "a tried-and-true set of PR tactics designed to tie GM crops to the question of hunger, to silence debate on the topic, and to challenge critics as technophobic. This PR strategy removes debate that is vital for public and environmental health."
In portraying GM crops as a "solution" to hunger worldwide and promoting company defenders from developing countries, Monsanto has positioned itself "as a development partner, as a benevolent philanthropist who has technology to 'share.'"
This PR strategy is "seductive," the researchers explain, in that it suggests easy answers to complex problems. It also "attempts to depoliticize; the public relations machinery, through active co-optation, becomes an 'anti-politics' machine.'"
It's interesting that this paper is written by South African, Mexican and American researchers, ie academics from countries where Monsanto's regulatory capture has been particularly extreme. There is at times a fatalistic character to the text that will not necessarily resonate in other parts of the world where opposition to the imposition of this technology has sometimes had significantly greater success.
Despite that, there's some very interesting analysis in the paper. Here are some excerpts, predominantly from the latter part of the paper.
For the full paper: http://www.ijoeh.com/pfds/IJOEH_1104_Patel.pdf
Genetic Engineering in Agriculture and Corporate Engineering in Public Debate: Risk, Public Relations, and Public Debate over Genetically Modified Crops
RAJEEV PATEL, MSC, PHD, ROBERT J. TORRES, MS, PHD, PETER ROSSET, MSC, PHD
International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, October - December 2005
...Monsanto has, for at least 30 years, been keenly aware of how to fight a war for 'hearts and minds.' In the 1950s, Monsanto, Dow, and other chemical companies waged a fierce battle against a (then) little-known marine biologist named Rachel Carson. Her book, Silent Spring, threatened to mar the image of these companies by linking their products - specifically DDT - with environmental toxicity and a wide range of negative effects.11 Recognizing the potential impact of this work, these companies (or organizations to which they belonged and that they supported*) tried to intimidate Carson's publisher into not publishing the work, an effort that ultimately failed. Unable to prevent its publication, the chemical companies jump-started a huge PR machine in response to Silent Spring. In public forums sponsored by the companies, supposedly unbiased 'third party experts' were called on to attack Carson's credibility while defending the efficacy and safety of DDT and other chemicals. In conjunction with this effort, Monsanto published and distributed 5,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled 'The Desolate Year, ' which depicted a future U.S. landscape ravaged by insects, left to multiply in the absence of pesticides.
This is an important discursive moment, for it demonstrates not only the tactics of the pesticide corporation, but the assumptions that underlie its very existence; nature threatens the very existence of humanity, and without the intervention of the pesticide industry, nature will triumph in humanity's destruction through an unchecked and fecund breeding of predators. There is no space here for an appreciation of complex ecosystems, endogenous mechanisms, or for agroecological ideas. It is a recurring theme in debates over GM crops.
Monsanto failed to suppress Silent Spring, and it was published in 1962 to great critical acclaim. It has arguably been one of the most important books for drawing attention to the environmental effects of agricultural chemicals. Its success is illustrated by a strategic move that Monsanto made just two years later: Monsanto Chemical Company changed its name to Monsanto Company. This change of name did not, however, result in a substantive change in Monsanto's arresting, analytically trivial, and politically categorical: 'Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible. ' Such modulation of theme is to be expected, since the terrain of public debate is itself in constant flux...
... Facing challenges over its environmental record in 1988, with yet further allegations of environmental irresponsibility laid at its door, Monsanto pledged to reduce its toxic waste emissions by 90%. This is a laudable effort, but one that obfuscates the root of the problem: Monsanto's products, not its emissions, are the cause of the most environmental damage.13 Yet by turning the problem into one of 'unintended consequences, ' rather than of the harm created when its products were used in accordance with the manufacturer's own instructions, Monsanto was able to temporarily deflect more serious systemic criticism of its operations...
The Monsanto PR program that began by attacking Carson has continued. In 1998, the company initiated its 'Let the Harvest Begin' campaign in Europe. The company began its campaign literature by referring, glancingly and uncritically, to the historic successes of the chemical industries in the green revolution.”¡ Monsanto literature then constructed a trajectory of agricultural disaster; they suggested that with massive increases in third world populations in particular, we face a world of famine.
...Monsanto's use of the rhetoric of agricultural development evidences a shift in PR emphasis, presumably in response to critics who claim that Monsanto has little interest in resource-poor farmers in the developing world. Although Monsanto in the past has used functionaries and 'experts' to speak for interests of the farmer, they now also use poor farmers in their PR materials. In a recent report entitled 'Growing Partnerships, ' Monsanto continues to use the image of the poor, small-holder farmer to justify its influence in the global food system. The report - which includes pictures of sombrero-clad smiling campesinos and happy African children - argues that Monsanto is doing its part to help the small farmer overcome the challenges of production through key partnerships with these producers...
There are (at least) three elements of the Monsanto strategy that reflect more general techniques corporations use to maintain control over the scientific and political issues that may impact their profits. The first is historical reconstruction. It is by no means a widely accepted conclusion that the green revolution increased net human welfare or that the important part of the green revolution was the agro-technical component (as opposed, say, to the changes in land-tenure arrangements that accompanied the revolution). This very selective history is able to correlate area-specific reductions in mortality indicators with the presence of hybrid crops. The connection between technology and increased yields in some places is not a straightforwardly causal one, and there have been many cases where industrial agriculture has been responsible for declines in community welfare.39 Yet Monsanto's presentation is without significant scientific argument or citation. It omits consideration of alternative theories and gives the appearance that the company's world view is unchallenged and correct.
The description of current agricultural alternatives is also reconstructed in the same manner. Monsanto's account of farming in developing countries portrays it as inefficient in its use of resources and environmentally detrimental, and inaccurately poses GM crops as the solution to hunger in the developing world. Given the profligacy of resources in industrial farming, this is unfair.40 Many farmers in the global south farm in resource-poor conditions that would not, in any sense, be amenable to the technologically-intensive solutions that Monsanto poses. The assertion that farmers in developing countries cause wanton environmental damage has a long colonial genealogy, but it is not supported by scientific evidence. For example, in an investigation of this theory in areas of Africa, researchers have found that traditional farming practices have been responsible for increased forest cover.41 By contrast, few events in history have left as indelible a scar on the natural world as intensive agriculture in the developed world.42
Further, there is no evidence that GM crops, such as RoundUp Ready soybeans, can help to feed the malnourished in the developing world. Peasant farmers in the developing world are largely unable to afford traditional agricultural technologies, let alone the expensive and new transgenics (which are often created to express traits that have little to do with increased yields or nutrition).43 Monsanto fails to note that transgenic crops require infrastructure-rich environments which are often lacking, in part, or in whole, in the agricultural production regimes of those in developing countries. By ignoring these facts Monsanto reconstructs the present, remaking it in terms that severely misrepresent the realworld conditions in developing countries. Instead, Monsanto creates a unilinear trajectory of historical change, one in which the only possibility is to capitulate to both the diagnosis and the remedy offered by Monsanto.
This 'hope-dashing' is not just a central tenet to GM food, but a rhetorical tactic that is associated with the neoliberal worldview that 'there is no alternative' to corporate-led globalization.44 The success of the system is evidenced by its ability to prevent us from even conceiving of alternatives. This is a manifestation of economic power that is all too often ignored. While power is undoubtedly economic, power also derives from the ability to articulate favorable meaningful frameworks about the ways in which control over resources and various activities are understood.45
Gramsci viewed this struggle for power as a battle waged over a cultural and ideological common sense, such that economic control was only one part of the formula of social power. In Gramsci's thought, hegemony - or a moment of unique social power -is a blend of consent and coercion such that the ruled are at least partly agreeing to being ruled. The blend of consent and coercion lies behind the second discursive strategy that Monsanto uses, for which seduction is a useful metaphor. In choosing this word, we want to emphasise that there is something tremendously compelling about Monsanto's rhetoric, which persists even after rational arguments have shown the motives and maneuvers behind it to be disingenuous.
Monsanto's strategies present seemingly straightforward technologic solutions to problems as complex as hunger, deforestation, and development. The seductiveness of these technologic solutions to problems with deep historical, cultural, and social roots is powerful, and many of us want to believe that such fixes really are that simple. Monsanto is able to leverage this desire, an almost pre-rational feeling of the righteousness of a cause. If we are led to believe that Monsanto's technologic innovations are the fix for these problems, opposition to these fixes becomes the same as opposition to feeding the hungry, or opposition to development for the developing world, because these fixes become rhetorically linked to these technologies. This is why it is useful to think of 'seduction' - as a metaphor, it puts flesh on the rather dry political economic concepts of coercion and consent, showing one aspect of the constant processes that construct not only social institutions, but our very selves. It is this tension that lies at the heart of what has been termed "greenwashing."
...Monsanto's greenwash constructs a vision in which we are left to believe that the choice is either the adoption of technology or deforestation and starvation. The problem, however, is that this argument ignores important questions of farmer innovation and the value of local knowledge in generating food security, as well as the political and economic (rather than natural) causes of hunger.46 In a sense, our readiness to accept technologic solutions to these problems makes us willing participants in the PR scheme. The power of this tactic is that even when we are skeptical of this argument, we still may agree with it because disagreement - or not accepting biotechnology as the answer- has now come to mean the same thing as condemning the poor to famine. This demonstrates the third tactical dimension: discursive foreclosure. By presenting history and alternatives in this foreshortened fashion, Monsanto effectively frames the debate in such a way as to preclude a discussion about the distribution of resources or about injustice. Instead, the discourse is a limited discussion of feeding the fecund masses using agricultural biotechnology. The only alternative Monsanto posits is the destruction of wildlife habitat and rainforests to create more farms, and/or simple famine. By playing on the hegemonic construct of scientific utopianism (technology will cure everything) and our image about ourselves (as caring individuals in a crazy world), Monsanto shifts the terms of the debate, and works to alter our understanding of the world. Because of the way that these elements of the debate are linked together to favor Monsanto's position, any opposition is construed as opposition to feeding the hungry and/or destruction of environmentally sensitive areas.
This is why Monsanto's methods are particularly insidious; they appeal to those who know little about the technology and its downsides, and can be used to undermine or silence those who do bring a critical approach to the debate. This discursive foreclosure isn't just a trick of language, though. It involves real work, and real money being spent. When independent scientists find the research around GM crops missing or absent, they are subject to a degree of criticism and scorn that is not heaped upon their colleagues who make findings in support of GM crops.
With its success in influencing the dominant ideas of agriculture and technology, Monsanto has impaired valuable critical reflection on the risks inherent in GM organisms. The cost of discovering the health impacts of products once thought benign is exorbitant - not only in financial terms, but in terms of public health and safety. One need only examine the disease and injuries caused by the negligent conduct of the tobacco, asbestos, or automobile industry to understand the potential for illness, loss of life, and loss of productivity. In the United States, the governmental bodies associated with the protection of the public interest have been under almost continual assault by corporations. In some cases these attacks have succeeded in removing yet another layer of protection against risks to public health and the environment.
In an environment of lax regulation, Monsanto's discursive maneuvers help to justify their control, to make us feel good about it, and to accept it willingly. The danger here is that we are slowly being seduced into consenting to this form of control over our food supply and to accepting the risks of GM crops without the kind of research, reflection, and debate that is needed when dealing with something as basic to human survival as food. The threats to public health and safety that have come from other industries show us that thoughtful assessments of technology could have forestalled some of the negative consequences that are associated with those technologies. As the second-largest seed company in the world and a huge manufacturer of GM seed, Monsanto has made us all into guinea pigs, showing little real regard for the health of the ecosystem or consumers.