The Corporation Conundrum: Why Consumers Hate Monsanto, But Love Their iPhones

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.“

Read more of Andrew Campbell’s columns by clicking here.

 

Andrew Campbell

Andrew is a dairy farmer in southern Ontario who also specializes in helping farmers learn about social media and advocacy. Once broadcasting farm news reports on the radio, he still likes to keep a close eye on news and issues relating to agriculture. Andrew is the owner of Fresh Air Media (http://www.thefreshair.ca), has a mild addiction to Twitter and believes the Brier & Scotties are the most important sporting events in the country. @FreshAirFarmer

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20 Comments

Brandon Meiners

Hey, they are not protesting against corporations in general, they protesting Monsanto because they are poisoning our world and want to control our food. That is quite different than using an iPhone or twitter.

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Micah

I would argue that Apple and other electronics company poison the world and degrade the environment quite a bit more than agricultural organizations such as those listed in the article. Fire retardant metals, mercury and other volatile compounds were only removed in the last decade, and are still used in less developed regions around the globe. With this in mind, the detrimental effect of discarded technology has yet to be seen. On the other hand, AMA, WHO, the list goes on have all concluded that GMOs pose zero health risk and are a step in the right direction to reaching on the UN millennium goals of eradicating hunger. We know what GMOs do, we don’t know what smartphones do, we don’t even know what effect microwaves have on our health and we use those without question quite often.

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Trish Jordan

Monsanto people are no different than most – we want safe, affordable, abundant food and we want to help farmers conserve and protect limited natural resources such as land, soil, water etc. We use innovation to help farmers lessen the impact of farming on the environment. That’s a good thing and something to be proud of…and I am.

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Mischa Popoff

There’s no point reiterating Monsanto’s positive message over and over again Trish. You’ve got to defeat your enemy, plain and simple.
Nice guys, and gals, finish last.
Stop being so darn nice! Fight like you mean it for God’s sake, or GMOs will end up like DDT.

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curtis8

DDT was *horrid* for the environment. Please do not compare GMO and DDT, someone will read it wrong and then spread more FUD on things they know nothing about.

The true issue is that as we are more connected with technology, everyone feels that since they can share, they should. So you end up with a large amount of people not doing any real research telling other people what is happening, who believe the first person and then spread it more.

If you want to understand farmers, visit a *real* farm. A person that survives from the farm where it is not a hobby. Someone who fears being rained out, dried out, hailed out, because they need the grain so they can pay bills and make it to another year.

I went to a Government program that was intended to help farmers. Some of the people there had jobs in the city and the three horses they had one their acreage seemed to qualify them as “farmers”. I’m sorry but no, having a couple acres and a few “pets” does not count.

Jen Christie

Great story, Andrew. I was thinking about this very subject after reading a post that @nurselovesfarmer tweeted about corporate sponsored mommy bloggers talking about farmers. We live in a very privileged society when we have the luxury to feel like Ag technology (directly linked to food) is something we ‘don’t need’. I’d be curious how many of these same critics, yourself included Brandon, have visited a developing nation like India where smallholder farmers can barely produce a crop to feed themselves, let alone sell to pay their bills and help feed their country. Where their crop genetics are so poor a ‘normal’ season is trying enough, let alone one of late where extreme weather is more normal. Or where they are spraying harmful chemicals by hand, with little to no protection. Crops could be developed to avoid this & withstand harsh growing conditions. It’s very easy for us to make these moral judgements from the comfort of our home in Canada or the US, on our tablet computers while we sip organic beer & toss our slightly blemished produce in the trash. I don’t know the answer but it just makes me sad.

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Jay Garlough

Andrew, I think you’re close to figuring this one out! For all the corporations you listed, I feel personal experience in relation to a brand plays the largest role. However, it is not because these technologies, tools or hardware may be based on sound science or save farmers money.

One key piece you are missing is that when your city friends have a good experience with an iPhone, it is very easy for them to attribute it to Apple.

We don’t like Twitter because it “makes it easier” for farmers to share selfies. We don’t like Facebook because we have an extensive understanding of the “scientific literature” on social psychology and social networks. We don’t like Apple Inc. because they have several apps that could help a farmer grow a “cosmetically pleasing piece of fruit”.

Luckily, engaging with non-traditional audiences on a larger scale could be done without by spending billions of dollars but instead with a few well-positioned partnership. Just imagine how many consumers could be reached if Coca-Cola had a little “sweetened with Monsanto™ corn” sticker and if the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program had a bright “Now with Syngenta™ corn” stamp!

Ever since “WiFi Available Here” stickers started going up all at all the cafes and restaurants I frequent, I really have not heard or seen any media stories from those fringe naysayers. Trish, perhaps those well-financed activist groups have some free “Monsanto Available Here” stickers you could use. ;-D

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Sarah [NurseLovesFarmer.com]

On a more serious note, very well-written, Andrew, and thank you for the link to my post. I often challenge the anti-biotech crowd to go completely biotech/GMO-free but none really grasp the concept of how widely used this technology is in our daily lives. Complaining about our food system (when we have absolutely no right to with such diverse choice of food, IMO) from their iPhones, as I love that you pointed out. My husband also notes that many, many of these activist types cannot name one ag company other than Monsanto and likely that’s *the* reason why there is not “Strike Against Syngenta” etc.

Joni wrote an amazing post along these lines too: http://hawaiifarmersdaughter.com/2014/04/06/the-real-tragedy-of-the-gmo-free-marches/ Summing up that activists March Against Monsanto all the while using GMO products to paint their signs, the clothes they wear are likely from GMO cotton, etc. So very true.

Monsanto tweeted an article I wrote today. I shall get called a shill in 3…2…1…

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Mischa Popoff

I’m a little surprised at how mystified everyone is. The reason organic activists hate Monsanto is most definitely NOT because they “don’t understand what we do at Monsanto,” nor does it due to “scientific illiteracy,” as Trish Jordan claims.

Stop and think: who really understood electricity and the humble light bulb a century ago? Do you know how your cell phone works?

The reason organic activists hate Monsanto and devote so much energy to convincing others to hate Monsanto is because Monsanto helps farmers feed more people. And organic activists hate this because they believe there should be fewer people on this planet, not more.

These activists must be distinguished from honest organic farmers. Farmers like feeding people, even organic farmers! But the mostly urban sect of the leadership of the organic movement is pretty clear that we need fewer people – at least 50% fewer – and so this renders Monsanto evil in their genocidal minds.

If you don’t understand why your enemy hates you, you’ve already lost the battle.

For anyone who questions my appraisal I recommend reading Robert Zubrin’s “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism” (New Atlantis Books).

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Jeremy

If “organic” (Being carbon based, ALL food is organic) and “GMO-free” is a religion, then Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Petco, “organic” co-ops, and farmers’ markets are churches and the hucksters running them, on top of fear-mongering, mouth-breathing activists such as Vani “Fraud Babe” Hari, Vandana Shiva, Mike Adams, Joe Mercola, Edward F. Group, and the heads of Greenpeace are the gastronomic equivalent of evangelical Christian preachers. They’re not much different from Pat Robertson, Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Carl Bough, or the late Jerry Falwell and Duane Gish. The only difference is that anti-GMO activists worship food instead of a book. Eating is an act of worship and rival sects will want to murder you.

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Angela

I love the connection you made in this piece Andrew, I often am left shaking my head when I hear people talking about Monsanto wanting to poison the world – I can see how that would be a brilliant marketing strategy and would help increase their customer base. It is a private company, run just like any other company, to make a profit, but they do not secretly control the country. As a customer I am happy to pay for the products they sell, just like most people are happy to pay Apple or Samsung. Are these same people looking at the organic giants in the food industry with the same scrutiny that they are looking at Monsanto? Kellogg owns Kashi, Pepsi owns Naked Juice, Nestle owns Tribe Mediterranean Foods; the list goes on and on. So who really controls our food system?

And Misha you may be right about some of the activists but for many of them, the ones that move in my circles anyway, it really is “scientific illiteracy”. It become clear very fast that these people really have a very basic understanding of the issues they feel so passionate about.

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Lois Harris

It’s the age-old disconnect between want and need. Much like people ‘need’ good roads, accessible health care and financial help when they are devastated by circumstances beyond their control. But many don’t want to pay taxes and actively campaign against them. We want to feed the world, and not let anyone go hungry. But we don’t want to seriously contemplate how that can actually be accomplished.

As mentioned in the article, it’s also about the immediacy of that need. The perception is that we are awash in good, healthy food. Why do we need to worry about tinkering with plant genetics?

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Donald Probst

The focus is really to get people thinking for themselves. I usually try by pointing out a few non-science points first.

As a Monsanto employee, I will freely and openly admit that, Yes, Monsanto is trying to make money. The reason I work there is because I’m trying to make money. You work at your job to make money. It must also be considered, then, that authors and filmmakers also trying to make money. They recieve royalties from books and from films, aside from whatever pay was involved in the contracts to produce those works in the first place. So, if both sides of the argument are trying to earn money, who can you believe?

I don’t know about you, but if there were two documentaries playing in adjacent theaters, I would certainly be more likely to see one called “Cats are Better than Dogs!” than the one called “Dogs and Cats are Both Cute.” It wouldn’t even matter what my pet preference was. It’s controversial, it’s shocking, it’s raw emotion. I would be even MORE likely to see it if I didn’t know much about cats or dogs but wanted to get a pet.

So, who can you believe? Here’s the biggest difference I see: Monsanto is required by law to prove the safety and efficacy of their products before they can sell or promote them. One could argue corruption, I suppose, but the work needs to be done and thoroughly documented. It would not be an overstatement to say GMO crops have orders of magnitude more data supporting their safety than any non-GMO crops do.

When you read that last sentence, did you mentally interpret it as “he’s saying GMO crops are safer than non-GMO crops.” That isn’t what I said at all, but people tend to infer meaning. That’s why labelling is so controversial. It isn’t what the label says, it’s what it infers. Suppose instead of the label “made with non-GMO ingredients”, the label was replaced with “made by caucasians”. It may be perfectly true and, by the letter, inoffensive. There is, however, a strong inference that other products must be somehow inferior, and that inferiority must be tied in some way to lack of caucasians. Obviously, that’s ridiculous and there would be universal outrage at a label like that.

I generally follow it up with “there’s plenty of information out there on both sides of the argument. I can give you some references and places to start, if you like, but I would ask you to research it and make up your own mind.”

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