"We have irritated and antagonised more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension because we thought it was our job to persuade."
- Robert Shapiro

SIRC – Media Watch 22-10-99

Monsanto and the media

Once again it would appear that the much-maligned Monsanto has been re-instated to its rather unenviable position at the top of the British media's hit list. This month's corporate assassination began with The Independent on Sunday's piece on September 26 that quoted confidential documents from Monsanto which detailed proposals of a scheme to "cash in" on world water shortages. Although plans to establish water businesses in India and Mexico had never come to fruition the company's inability to "do anything right" in the eyes of popular opinion seemed set to continue.

Monsanto's involvement in talks with environmental pressure groups this month, were repeatedly hailed as a major victory for consumer power and rarely as a willingness to enter into an open discourse. On September 27 the Telegraph reported that the company was in negotiation with Green groups in an attempt to "meet the concerns of environmentalists over GM food." The Observer, September 26, covering the same story, preferred to view this development as a U-turn. It reported that a 'secret meeting' between the biotech company and the soil association had resulted in a discussion over the future of genomics and the acceptability of this system of cross breeding to the environmentalists. By offering access to its substantial gene databases Monsanto could help customise certain crops for the specific environmental conditions and soil type. This would optimise crop production through 'natural' cross breeding and not genetic modification. Speaking to the paper, Patrick Holden of the Soil Association said: 'what was said has huge significance. It shows that Monsanto is thinking about reversing their whole strategy. We believe Monsanto is open to a full rethink of what it is doing.'

In response to accusations of 'backing down' Monsanto said on Thursday September 30 that it was not considering changing its stance on genetically modified (GM) food. The company's director of corporate affairs in the UK, Tony Combes, said in a statement: "Monsanto has no intention of abandoning its global commitment to modern biotechnology as a safe, sustainable aid to the future of agricultural production.''

Announcements of the termination of Monsanto's 'terminator' technology on October 04 were also greeted with less than unanimous praise. In a letter to Gordon Conway, chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, Robert Shapiro, chief executive of Monsanto, said that they would not commercialise "sterile seed technologies, such as the one dubbed terminator. We are doing this based on input from you and a wide range of other experts and stakeholders, including our very important grower constituency." While Mr Conway welcomed assurances in the letter "as a first step toward ensuring that the fruits of plant biotechnology are made available to poor farmers in the developing world", others were more sceptical. Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth suggested that this development was simply an attempt to reverse the tide of popular opinion and as such represented "only a gesture. There is nothing to stop them introducing it at a later date."

The Guardianchose to run a story on October 06 detailing the burning of GM cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh, Southern India, an action that supposedly reflected the country's distrust of terminator technology. This action however actually occurred last December and presumably the story was re-issued in light of Monsanto's recent decision to cease commercial development of their non-pollinating seeds. As it turned out the crops that were destroyed did not contain the terminator gene – the protestors were acting on rumour.

Addressing the Greenpeace business conference Robert Shapiro expressed some regrets with regards to Monsanto's company policy "We have irritated and antagonised more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension because we thought it was our job to persuade. But too often we forgot to listen." But Greenpeace's director, Baron Melchett, countered by accusing Mr Shapiro of being a 'bully'