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Monsanto: Rewriting the script
by
Marilyn Minderhoud-Jones
Keywords:  Monsanto, Public Acceptance.
Correct citation: Minderhoud-Jones, M. (2001), "Monsanto: Rewriting the script." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 48, p. 13-14.

This article examines why Monsanto, like so many other international institutions, has chosen to add new, "greener" dimensions to its corporate message. In doing so it explores the tension between Monsanto's corporate sales strategy to sell its GM seeds and its communication strategy. Monsanto, a world player, appears to be having increasing difficulties in creating a market for its transgenic seed and a question mark hangs over the long-term security of its traditionally strong US market. Is this the reason for a more careful crafting of its corporate image?

Monsanto has always exercised great skill on world markets. With transgenic seeds, however, the company like many others in the same field, is having difficulty in creating demand. The current careful crafting of its corporate identity reflects a growing concern that the past research investments will not bring the return expected by its private and institutional shareholders. Monsanto's new script is a radical departure from the image the company has projected for most of its corporate history: a determined and single- minded pioneer struggling for new, profit- able market opportunities.

Founded in St Louis Missouri in 1901, Monsanto is a prototypical, homegrown American product. For the last 100 years its corporate executives have fought to keep it at the forefront of developments in chemical, physical, and more recently biotechnology research, translating results into innovative products. Internationally, Monsanto has had many successes in research and development but it was not until the late 1990s that the corporation emerged from the anonymity of a supplier of raw materials to become a household name. Today, supported by its "flagship" product Roundup, Monsanto grosses more that US$ 5.5 billion, an income larger than the GNP of most developing countries.

The development and patenting of Roundup in North America and Europe in the 1970s and Monsanto's investment in the life sciences in the 1980s were critical for the corporation and its later success in the field of GM crops. From the beginning the patent as instrument was an essential element in company strategy and continues to be used to enforce Monsanto's exclusive ownership to genetically modified (GM) seed. (see Phillipson, page2) Currently Monsanto dominates the commercial GM seed market and it has become the most emotional symbol of the technological revolution that introduced gene technology into the human food chain.

Expansion

Monsanto launched its first genetically engineered seed - Roundup Ready (RR) soy - in 1996. From the early 1980s it had been exploring the commercial possibilities of two lines: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Roundup Ready. RR soy was commercially released in the USA in 1995 after field testing for commercial performance and competitiveness. The initial field results, which emphasized yield increases and reductions in chemical inputs, were apparently sufficient to persuade US farmers to adopt it and the technology, investment and commitment to licensing and patent regulations involved. Within three years Monsanto's GM crops were spearheading a rapid and silent revolution that brought millions of hectares of arable land in the USA under GM crops. Argentina, Canada, China and South Africa have been other major adopters.

Worldwide, GM crops are also being grown in countries with questionable levels of political and social stability where it can be extremely difficult to implement biosafety legislation.

Four major transgenic crops currently dominate world markets: RR soy accounts for 58 per cent or 25.8 million hectare of the total area under GM crops; transgenic corn for 10.3 million ha; transgenic cotton for 5.3 million ha; and GM canola for 2.8 million ha. Argentina and the USA lead in GM crops. In Argentina 95 per cent of all soybean is transgenic and in the USA 54 per cent.

In the context of a heavily industrialised agriculture, Monsanto has been careful to foster ties not only with federal agencies but also with farmers via its agents, local seed companies and agricultural information services. This model of close collaboration is now being exported and used to open up new markets for Monsanto biotechnology products.

Foreign markets

When Monsanto launched its biotechnology programme in the mid-1980s it did so in the context of a strong institutional history and supported by solid international networks in strategic areas of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. However, exporting its transgenic crops beyond its home base has proved to be problematic. In its attempt to break into markets outside North America, Monsanto has confronted civil and agricultural communities informed by traditions, philosophies and legislative and regulatory systems other than those prevailing in USA. Introducing gene technology into cropping systems and food chains outside North America, therefore, requires different arguments if they are to deal effectively with the complexities of "foreign" political and economic realities. This change of approach is reflected in Monsanto's recent public communications.

The company's initial promotion of GM crops in the USA centred on yield increases and cost reduction. Recent arguments in support of its GM product have been developed in response to its European experience and are derived from the lexicons of development agencies and the environmental movement. The key words are now environmental friendliness, sustainability, poverty alleviation, and food security. This corporate ideology has contributed to the perceptions the public has of transgenic crops and their relevance for agricultural development.

New analysis

Monsanto's strategy had been defined by the criteria of corporate success: profit, consolidation, expansion, product development and sales promotion. In the 1990s it found its uni-dimensional approach to marketing its GM material challenged by more holistic critiques and its "assertive" marketing greeted with growing suspicion.

Increasing numbers of public and private institutions were questioning the economic fundamentalism of the corporate ideal. The notion of the historical inevitability and necessity of the present process of globalization - of which Monsanto and the biotechnology industry are part - was being countered by the understanding that economic growth has ecological limits. These ideas are widely reflected in the arguments and rhetoric of reports, policy statements, and corporate communications compiled by bankers, politicians and international agencies, and the direct action undertaken by civil society organizations. However, they are also being taken up in the advertisements, promotional materials and public statements of major transnational companies. Monsanto, as its public communications show, has kept pace with the "greening of the multinationals".

Public communication

"Greening" can be traced back to 1990, when Monsanto institutionalized its Pledge as an instrument of communication. The Pledge was the corporations respond to civic and scientific concerns about the effects of agrochemicals in agriculture. The first Pledge committed Monsanto to pursuing a policy of environmental responsibility for all its products.

In terminology and in votive force the Pledge sought to reassure and console. It had a message for its customers and critics: "We speak the same language, we use the same words, therefore we seeks the same goal." Not all would agree.

Pledging

The Pledge is Monsanto's highest profile public statement and reflects its perceptions of its corporate and market environment.

The 2001 Pledge commits Monsanto to "openness" and "transparency" in its communications with the public. Two of the Pledge's five "tenets" are relevant here. First, the assurance that Monsanto will act in a "transparent" and "open" way to ensure "information is available, accessible and understandable". Second, in response to public concerns about the long-term effect of transgenic crops, Monsanto pledges to post summaries of the "safety evaluation of agricultural biotechnology products" on its website. It might be suggested that the value of such summaries would be increased by the inclusion of full scientific reports and evaluations as well as the analysis and recommendations of national environmental and food safety authorities.

Inevitably Malthus

Monsanto's reaction to critics of its corporate activities has been to highlight those elements that emphasis a constructive approach to the concerns of civil society, development agencies and environmentalists. Genetic engineering is linked to sustainability and a commitment to "achieving sustainable agriculture through new (bio)technologies". In a recent brochure designed to argue the case for genetic engineering in African agriculture, Monsanto acknowledges the value of other (undefined) approaches but immediately questions their (undefined) capacity. Scenarios of fragile and exhausted ecological systems, inadequate agri- cultural capacity, and a nightmare Malthusian scenario of unbridled demographic growth, uncontrollable hunger and human tragedy are used to support this position. Food - reduced to a homogeneous commodity and removed from its social, cultural and ritual context - is needed, and more and more of it. Feeding a hungry world becomes the moral justification for the rapid introduction GM crops. The promotional message is clear: the answer to poverty is the genetically modified seed. However, this ignores the experience and complexity of local farming systems worldwide that have struggled for centuries to survive in the face of just such realities.

Whilst there are few who would argue against the potential of gene technology as applied to agriculture, the speed with which companies like Monsanto have acted to bring a complex, new and highly innovative science into the public domain has aroused a distrust that the corporation cannot easily dispel.

Young minds, old habits

A very sensitive area of corporate PR activity is education. Like other companies Monsanto developes supplementary teaching materials. The following module was taken at random from a package designed to support teachers introducing the concept of life sciences to secondary school children. It illustrates the confusion of perceptions that can be created when the theoretical and commercial applications of a complex process are brought together in an inappropriate way - in this case a cookery lesson.

"Gourmet Genes - Lesson 1" sets out to answer a question: "If food is grown everywhere food can grow - how can we grow even more." Having run through the basic principals of DNA and its potential to address problems such as disease, low nutritional value or susceptibility to climatic stress in crops like corn, wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, and rice, children are invited to come up with their own "recipe" for a GM crop. The process, it is implied, is simple. Identify a plant, describe its problem, select a plant that does not have this problem, and develop a recipe by cutting and pasting the DNA "ingredients" to create an improved "gourmet" plant.

Conclusion

Monsanto, as we have seen dominates, the present market in GM seed. As such it bears a special responsibility for ensuring that the full results of appropriate, independent, scientific assessments of the safety of its products are made available in the public domain. This is not the case at present.

An analysis of the exchange and management of information at the public interface of the debate on the commercialization of GM crops shows dangerous oversimplifications. The complexities of hunger and poverty are conventionally reduced to a recipe of indices of income and economic growth. The statements and policies of many politicians, financiers and many research organizations are based on such statistics. These perspectives, when combined with the promotional activities of transnational companies like Monsanto, create serious barriers to understanding and the development of informed public awareness of the realities of the transgenic revolution.


Marilyn Minderhoud-Jones

Editor Biotechnology and Development Monitor, Wibautstraat 224, 1097 Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Phone (+31) 20 5618163; Fax (+31) 20 5618164; E-mail monitor@biotech-monitor.nl

Sources
Ross, E. (1999), "Solutions to poverty: From Malthus to biotechnology" LEISA, Vol 15, No. 3/4.

www.monsanto.com/monsanto/biotechnology_science/background/lesson1.html

Kruszewska, I. (2000), "Torn between North American seed producers and EU consumers" Biotechnology and Development Monitor , No 46, pp 23-24.

Schenkelaars, P. (2001), Agronomic and environmental effects of growing glyphosate soybean. Centrum voor Landbouw en Milieu and Schenkelaars Biotechnology Consultancy, Netherlands.www.sbcbiotech.nl

James, C. (2000), "Preview: Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 2000" ISAAA Briefs , 21-2000, p 5.



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