On a warm evening last summer, I sat around a backyard barbeque with a number of people my wife works with. This group tends to be quite removed from the farm, naturally because many of them were raised in the city, and now live and work there as well. When discussing where the delicious watermelon I’d brought came from, I mentioned my sister had brought it home from work. Her company had a garden set aside on its research farm where employees kept an array of fruits and vegetables they could take home to their families. Before you wonder what research was going on with watermelons, this wasn’t used for testing — it was merely a perk of the job with everyone pitching in together to raise and share some fresh produce.
Talking about this community garden, a young woman asked where it was. I mentioned the farm belonged to my sister’s employer that summer, Syngenta. She wanted to know more about such a great, local business that was focused on the community — not like those big agri-giant companies like Monsanto, she said. What she didn’t realize, of course, is that Monsanto and Syngenta are very similar. They are large companies with offices and employees all over the world. They research, market and sell a number of products to farmers from seed to pesticides. The difference is Monsanto has become synonymous with “Evil Corporation” and entered the urban dwellers’ vocabulary.
There is even an annual March Against Monsanto, but, I wonder, why no Strike on Syngenta or Down with DuPont? And even stranger, to me, is the argument that a big corporation can’t have the public’s interest in mind.
Thinking about the March Against Monsanto, what do people do to vent their frustrations at corporations like this one? They tweet through a corporate-owned company known as Twitter on their iPhones built by Apple (also a corporation). They create and edit pictures make scary memes using Photoshop (from the corporation Adobe) to share on Facebook (are you seeing a trend?) and then hand out flyers printed from hardware built by corporations like HP or Canon.
Confused at the hypocrisy? Well the best I can figure is that we have a corporate spectrum, similar to the animal rights vs welfare spectrum I wrote about last month. On one end of the spectrum we find companies we see as innovative, consumer minded and/or generally good citizens to society. On the other we tend to see other companies as selfish, environmentally destructive and/or dangerous for their workforce. Think for a minute about where you would put a company like Ford. What about Nestle, BP, MolsonCoors, Procter & Gamble, Samsung and, yes, Monsanto?
It’s partly because of scientific illiteracy, partly because of a lack of understanding of farm production practices, and partly because we didn’t do a good enough job when this technology first came to the market about sharing what biotechnology is all about and how it helps farmers
Think now why you put them where you did. Is it because of what you’ve heard, what you’ve experienced in products or what you’ve experienced as an employee? The ‘what you’ve heard’ is certainly what gives Monsanto the ‘Oh’ people let slip out of their mouth when employees tell of who they work for.
Is it justified? Trish Jordan is the Director of Public & Industry Affairs for Monsanto Canada, gets direct contact with the fear, the hate and the pandemonium that it seems to generate. “I think a challenge we face is that people don’t understand what we do at Monsanto. It’s partly because of scientific illiteracy, partly because of a lack of understanding of farm production practices, and partly because we didn’t do a good enough job when this technology first came to the market about sharing what biotechnology is all about and how it helps farmers.”
On another spectrum, we have Carmi Levy, a consultant based in Ontario that monitors the pulse on a sector where new technology is introduced to market every day, with people lining up to buy it. Think phones, cameras, software, robot vacuums, etc. So why the love for new technology in gadgets but not new technology in farming? “Ultimately people invest in new technology because they think it can help them,” Carmi notes. “It means that we don’t make decisions to buy or use technology strategically or in a big picture approach, we make the decisions based on what we need in the now.”
To Carmi, that thought is what may be behind this idea of liking one and hating another. People don’t think we need GMOs, and therefore may be against them, but want lower prices at the grocery store or the cosmetically pleasing look of a piece of fruit. The connection between the two gets lost.
Carmi uses the example of the small but vocal group that are against WiFi because they claim is causes a number of health issues. (Sounding similar to certain farm technologies…) “This group is doomed to remain on the fringe as naysayers, simply because technology continues to reshape the way we as consumers live. There is no going back – no matter how much those naysayers say, think or how much pseudo-scientific evidence they try to present. For technology, people aren’t willing to put their smartphones down long enough to listen to the dangers they may or may not pose. People have moved on.”
So where does this connection put corporations in agriculture? Is there a time that people will move on because they see the benefits? Trish hopes so. “At Monsanto we need to keep doing more to engage with non-traditional audiences. We can’t afford to put the 2.5 billion dollars annually that activist groups use to market fear, guilt and pseudo-science, but we can be part of the discussion around in how and why farmers choose to use biotechnology, and more importantly, be receptive to the questions consumers have.“