Monsanto: Where Dialog Goes To Die?

Yesterday, I sat in on a brainstorming session at the University of Vermont with Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food. Attendees representing UVM faculty, farmers, non-profits and others were working on identifying agriculture and food system research priorities. Interesting discussion. Lots of challenges.

One thing that jumped out to me during a back-and-forth with Mr. Roberts was the tension between producers and consumers. As the knowledge gap between the two has grown over the last 50 years, due to consumers not needing to understand food processing in today’s convenience-driven food system, as well as our increasingly-difficult-to-understand, complex food infrastructure, so has our ability to engage in civil and constructive debates about how to improve the food we eat.

Producers are frustrated with consumer ignorance, while consumers are increasing concerned about their health and well being related to the foods they are eating. The challenge is figuring out how to get both sides constructively talking versus discounting or outright ignoring each others’ opinions.

Take for example my attempt to respond to Monsanto’s recent blog post regarding Food, Inc., where the author describes interactions with the documentary’s producer, Elisa Pearlstein.

When I got the call, I asked a number of questions: “Who would be in it? Who would present the opposing view? Who was funding the film? Would the film present balance and fairness or present one side of the story?”

Over the course of a few weeks, Elise and I talked and e-mailed several times, but I never felt I had those key questions answered. Despite this, we invited Elise and a crew to a trade show to learn more about Monsanto, agriculture and talk with farmers. They opted not to come to the show.

When I read the post, I wanted more substance. I wanted to know what was said and not said between Darren (Monsanto) and Elise. My guess was that Darren’s brief blog post intentionally glossed over much of that discussion, and conveniently presented his side. So, I posted a comment on the Monsanto blog that was awaiting moderation last night, but was gone by this morning. I guess I didn’t pass Monsanto’s Comment Policy.

Here is my comment as posted:

While I don’t doubt that conversations were had between you and Elise Pearlstein, it is difficult to trust at face value your version of the story.

After all, Monsanto has posted a formal review of the documentary that claims the film “demonizes American farmers”, among other things.

Such a reaction, assuming Monsanto is interested in “taking part and sharing in rich conversations about the important challenges facing agriculture, food production and our well being,” makes it clear that Monsanto isn’t interested in any of this.

When your company starts answering to consumers that are directly impacted by your products, rather than exclusively to your shareholders, then we will know the company is changing.

Had such a comment been posted on my blog, I would have posted it for others to read and comment on. I would have also responded directly to it with additional information to help the author improve his/her understanding. Not posting it at all is a dead end.

Too bad, but not too surprising given today’s polarized debate regarding food.

Things have to change.

UPDATE: Monsanto posted my comment on its blog. Now we wait for a response to the post. Stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter: Jambutter

This blog post is a proud supporter of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Friday series.

19 responses to “Monsanto: Where Dialog Goes To Die?

  1. I can’t imagine what your comment inluded that wouldn’t have fallen in line with their comment policy as stated on the website:

    “Any comments that contain profanity, vulgarity, threats, commercial promotion, incoherence or content generally not in line with our Pledge principles of integrity, dialog and respect will not be published and will be immediately deleted.”

    By not posting it, they’re obviously refusing to be part of the discussion.

    • Jennifer: Thanks for confirming what I thought was a provocative, but respectful post. I had a similar experience on Twitter, where a Monsanto PR representative “offered” to answer questions. What I and others got in return were questions to our questions, “I think” answers (rather than “Monsanto believes”), and limited responsiveness.

      What Monsanto doesn’t seem to get is that the more it puts off consumers, who aren’t likely shareholders, but who have very real concerns, the broader and deeper the chasm grows. At some point, consumers, using social media and other mobilizing tools, will figure out how to effectively use that against Monsanto and tear down the wall, so to speak.

  2. FYI, your comment is posted on Monsanto’s blog. I read it there and then clicked on your name which directed me to this page.

    • Jason: Thanks for the update. I’m glad to see that Monsanto decided to post my comment after all. Now we wait to see if “Darren” formally responds.

      Given you found me via the Monsanto blog, I am curious if you work for the company? Regardless, it would be great to get your thoughts on my comments, Food Inc., etc.

  3. Hey Rob – Keep the dialogue going! Eventually Monsanto will engage – or die.

    I’ve seen some great research (proprietary so can’t share) that underlines how very concerned consumers are about chemicals, hormone, unnecessary additives and danger in food and household products. They don’t trust the system (and why should they?)

  4. Brett Henderson

    Proprietary information always is a disappontment to me. It requires me to trust without validation. Mosanto argues with the same logic. Trust us we know, we just can’t tell you. If we as consumers can speak from proprietary points I guess we should accept Monsantos. I really dislike them, but fair is fair.

    • Brett: While I appreciate your sentiments regarding both sides being transparent, I cannot equate the voice of an individual with the mass of proprietary information contained within a company like Monsanto. Its nothing like the “pot calling the kettle black.” Monsanto spends over $2.3 million per day on research (according to a post on the Monsanto blog), a vast majority of which is not shared with the public. Someone posting a comment on the Every Kitchen Table blog might have second hand information from a credible source that conducted a $50,000 research project. See the difference?

  5. Hi Rob: Just a couple days ago I had someone from Monsanto tweet me to let me know that they work in the veggie industry and would love to answer any questions I had. So I asked one. “What is your feeling over the 3 FOX News reporters that were essentially fired over their unwillingness to modify the Monsanto-milk story?” Her response was that it happened before she started working for the company but she would look into it for me. Never heard back. I will be posting a Monsanto blog tomorrow & I’d love you to take a look. Great blog.

    • Kinzie: I’ve had similar experiences. It always seems like there is a convenient reason why a Monsanto rep can’t answer a question. Eventually, they will burn enough bridges with consumers and interest groups (if they haven’t already), and the house of cards they are building will come crumbling down. Please send me email with link to your new blog post (robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com). I look forward to reading it.

  6. Hi Rob,
    I found the “debate” and your blog from Zach’s “Farm to Kitchen Table” blog last night. I had no idea Monsanto actually has a BLOG. lol. I thought your points were well said and to the point, unfortunately I saw how quickly responses became more defensive and less about an open discussion (which I think you commented on).

    It also struck me as completely ABSURD how their solution was: if people don’t like GMO’s, they can buy all organic. You’re response was fantastic. I agree- the point is transparency and Monsanto’s refusal to allow (as we can speculate that their political lobbying has been the reason) GMO labeling in North America. Consumers have the right to know what they eat. Assuming that every North American has the resources and educational capacity to make choices without informed consent is elitist.

    The discussion was great and you were extremely professional (more so than I would have been!). I have yet to see Food Inc, but I look forward to it!🙂

    • EcoYogini: Thanks for your great comment! It isn’t always easy to keep my cool, especially when multiple people are saying the exact “party line” things in response to questions and challenges. How many times do we need to hear things like “elitists”, “demonizing farmers” and “if you don’t want GMO, then buy organic”? Do these people realize the corner they are painting themselves into? I doubt it, but when it becomes clear there will be no time to avoid the inevitable market backlash. I look forward to that day.

    • Now if only Monsanto would just stop polluting our organic genetics with their GMOs via pollen on the wind. That is trespass when they do that and they should be held liable for trespass, pollution and rape.

  7. Great post, Rob. Reading the comments on the Monsanto blog is mind-numbing. I wish there were REAL dialog going on.

    That’ll be the day…

    Thanks for submitting this to today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    Cheers,
    KristenM
    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  8. I’ll certainly be checking back to see what Monsanto says about your post.

    You seem to suggest that large companies that invest in research should openly share that research. Is that the case in your industry? Do tech firms invest in research and then make it available to competitors?

    • Jim T: Thanks for your comment, although I’m not sure how you drew the conclusion that research should be openly shared. Would you care to elaborate?

      What I can tell you is this. During my nearly 20 years in the technology industry, including a tenure at Intel Capital, where I licensed intellectual property (IP) to other companies, I learned a lot about patents, contracts and the importance of protecting IP. I also learned about “mutually assured destruction,” a concept that major technology players employed to ensure that no single company amassed too much power, sort of like a high tech cold war. If one giant infringed on another’s IP, a counter infringement would be identified and a cross-license deal would likely be worked out.

      Putting aside the absurdity of a company being able to patent seeds (thanks Supreme Court), Monsanto follows the same aggressive strategy in protecting its intellectual property, with one critical difference. There are no 800-pound gorillas sitting across from Monsanto with the fire power to counter Monsanto’s legal and business threats. Without such a counter balance, Monsanto is rapidly gathering a concentration of power without the types of checks and balances present in high tech.

      Hope that helps you better understand my perspective on intellectual property. Maybe you can share with me and my readers your perspective and experiences…

  9. Thanks for your detailed response. In regards to my perspective and after years of investigating and thinking about the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of our food and health problems would be solved if people simply returned to making their own meals from scratch (and I’m not talking about Kraft macaroni an cheese).

    We’d eat better and we’d probably eat less and the food infrastructure would shift to supply a very different demand.

    I was reacting to….

    “Monsanto spends over $2.3 million per day on research (according to a post on the Monsanto blog), a vast majority of which is not shared with the public. Someone posting a comment on the Every Kitchen Table blog might have second hand information from a credible source that conducted a $50,000 research project. See the difference?”

    I didn’t understand this and I’m still not sure that I do.

    In regards to no 800 pound gorillas…DuPont aint small.

    Peace out and cook your own food!

  10. Pingback: COOL-ing Down Monsanto « Every Kitchen Table

  11. Even if you do choice to cook your own food, you need to buy or grow the right stuff to start with. You are what you eat…ate.

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