"Welcome to the Spin Machine"
April 5, 2001
As a senator once asked Robert MacNamara: "If I can't trust you on the little lies, sir, how will I ever believe you on the big ones?"
The above exchange can be understood in two different ways. The first is to see it simply as a lesson in the foibles of paying A grade money for B grade public relations. BSMG advertises itself as a corporation with "All the tools to change thinking," and one doubts that those tools come cheap. On the other hand, having their PR representative get caught in a lie, take ten days between emails to figure out the best way to handle it, and then come back with a breezy apology about "unintended confusion," changed my thinking about BSMG much more than it did about biotechnology. And this is putting aside just who and what the Council for Biotechnology Information is, something we'll address later. While we're still on the topic of value, I would think that for whatever astronomical fee BSMG charges its corporate clients, the company could cough up a PR rep who was a little less creative with the relevant geography (who knew, for instance, that Africa was a country?). This is, in other words, not just lying but bad lying.
The second way to understand the exchange requires quite a bit of background. Beyond being expensive incompetence, the emails we received represent another salvo of propaganda from an industry that it is very powerful but also increasingly desperate. It is the story of an ongoing and underreported battle over the future of agriculture, and it involves the systemic suppression of information, a quiet but massive consolidation of the food market, and a depressing pattern of collaboration by federal agencies. It has culminated in this latest PR push, which is a series of outright lies told at the expense of the least powerful people on earth.
Right now, sixty percent of the packaged food sold in America has been genetically altered, meaning that some of its ingredients are derived from organisms that do not occur in nature. This phenomenon, the genetic engineering of food, is wholly unprecedented in history. Although farmers have long practiced selective breeding, merging different seed types to yield new traits in plants, scientists now can take genes from completely unrelated organisms and drop them into plants. A breed of corn developed by the French company Aventis, for instance, contains bacteria and viruses that kill weeds, making the corn easier to grow. And a form of Canola seed made by St. Louis-based Monsanto has genes from California Bayseed, turnip rape, bacteria, and viruses.
Genetic engineering is the cutting-edge of biotechnology, and in some quarters it is expected, without hyperbole, to be the biggest industry of the twenty-first century. Unlike the Internet, whose vast potential has yet to yield significant return, biotech lends itself easily to profit. Monsanto, for instance, has developed a strain of soybean that is immune to a Monsanto-made herbicide called Roundup, meaning that a farmer can douse fields liberally with Roundup, and be confident that it won't hurt his crops. This leads to purchases of both the seeds and the pesticide, and plentiful amounts of the pesticide at that. Other companies have grown crops genetically engineered to grow only if planted with their own fertilizers. Buoyed by these innovative marketing tactics, biotech has generated billions of dollars already, and is expected to be an $8 billion enterprise by 2002. The field is dominated by six massive and well-established corporations: Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Novartis of Switzerland, and Germany's BASF AG.
Genetically Modified, or GM, ingredients are now found in countless products containing soy and corn. Certain brand of chocolate bars, soy sauce, corn oil, and baby formula all have GM products in them. In addition, a large number of dairy cows are now treated with the genetically-engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH), a product made by Monsanto that can increase a cow's milk output by 25 percent. The milk, too, is genetically altered.
Most people aren't aware of this for a simple reason: GM food isn't labeled. It would be neither fair nor accurate to say that genetically altered food is unsafe, although it has certainly tripped some red flags, particularly with respect to people who have allergies. The idea that someone might unknowingly eat food that as altered with substances they are allergic too has become increasingly common. In March, Aventis had to recall millions of cases of its Bt corn. The corn, which is genetically modified to produce its own pesticide as it grows, has not been approved for human consumption, and is intended for use as animal feed. But it had found its way into tortilla chips and other food products, and was triggering reactions in humans.
Only a discriminating reader of the newspaper would be aware of this recall, and might wonder, depending on the extent of the article, why anyone would even think of eating a vegetable that emits its own pesticide. The answer is that they don't. Put bluntly, genetically altered food has been introduced into the American diet without an open public debate or meaningful public consent. In 1992, after a quiet but ferocious lobbying campaign by the biotech industry, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that GM food is "substantially equivalent" to conventional food, and categorized it GCAS, or "generally considered as safe." This decision, made over the strident objections of groups such as the Consumer's Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists, means that GM food requires no independent testing before it is released; individual companies test it themselves and submit the results to the FDA. This is a classic example of corporate rights: the product, like a person, is innocent until proven guilty. And most important for the industry, as innocent food, it doesn't have to be labeled.
Labeling--or, more accurately, the absence of it--lies at the heart of the biotech industry's marketing strategy. GM companies are afraid that labeling their products would imply uncertainty about their safety, trigger calls for new layers of regulation, and depress sales while adding costs. Far better to allow the food to slip unnoticed into most Americans' diets, and let it be assimilated. This strategy has forced the industry into the awkward position of proclaiming themselves to be on the cusp of a new scientific revolution--as they do when they patent new seed varieties--while at the same time assuring regulators that there is rally nothing new about the food this revolution produces. The contradiction here is easily swept away by the inevitability of Science, a logical atom bomb that portrays doubters and opponents as illiterate paranoids or, failing that, closet communists.
"Those of us in industry can take comfort of a sort from such obvious Luddism," Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro wrote of biotech opponents, in the Journal of the Center for the Study of American Business. "After all, we're technical experts. We know we're right. The 'antis' obviously don't understand the science, and are just as obviously pushing a hidden agenda--probably to destroy capitalism."
This statement brims with so much condescension that one can almost forget how lame an argument it is. One needn't be a scientist to mistrust Dow Chemical--the company that made napalm a household word--with one's food. Nor need one be an anarchist to harbor misgivings about Monsanto, a company whose ability to police itself, and indeed to be policed at all, is highly questionable.
The oldest and most aggressive of the food biotech companies, Monsanto deserves a close look from anyone interested in genetic engineering. It was founded in 1901, as Monsanto Chemical, to make saccharin, a substance whose production was at that time monopolized by Germany. It began as a small concern--the initial investment was $5,000--but grew rapidly and diversified. In 1929 it began to produce polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and eventually became the world's largest supplier of them. PCBs had a variety of uses, but were used mostly to lubricate electrical transformers. Evidence of their toxicity was first reported in the 1930s, and in the 1960s Swedish scientists documented high levels of them in dying wildlife. PCBs were finally banned in 1979, and the United States has classified them as a "probable human carcinogen." PCBs have left a broad legacy of environmental degradation; they are the major pollutant at a number of Superfund sites, and most notoriously in the Hudson River, where years of PCB discharge from General Electric has left 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
Like other chemical companies, Monsanto was also a producer of DDT. The pesticide famously indicted by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. Monsanto had actually stopped making the pesticide by the time Carson's book was first serialized in the New Yorker , but the company, fearful that public attitudes would turn against pesticides in general, took action nevertheless. Rather than confront Carson's evidence, however, it hired a ghostwriter to pen The Desolate Year, a parody of Silent Spring that depicted a pesticide-free America being ravaged by insects. The Desolate Year was mailed free to over 5,000 media outlets, and applauded by Walter Sullivan in the New York Times.
The late 1960s would bring other problems, however. In the company's 1977 official history, Faith, Hope and $5,000: The Monsanto Story , the author--a former Monsanto PR director--looks back wistfully at the tumult of the sixth decade, and notes with sympathy that while Dow was being castigated for its involvement with napalm, Monsanto had little to do with war-related controversy. The author does concede, however, that the company was "occasionally mentioned as a manufacturer of 2,4,5-T weed and brush killers, some of which were identified as defoliants used during the war in Vietnam."
This sentence could be called disingenuous, or more accurately an astounding act of omission. It is, in truth, an extremely oblique way of saying that Monsanto made Agent Orange. The world's most notorious defoliant is indeed created by combining the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4,D, and frankly the Monsanto sells itself short by using such sterile language to describe its product (the sentence I just quoted is the most the book says about AO, and the defoliant is never named). Although a number of corporations made Agent Orange, and all assured the Defense Department that it was perfectly safe for humans, Monsanto's version was significantly more potent than those of its competitors. When a coalition of Vietnam Veterans successfully sued the manufacturers of AO, a judge ordered that Monsanto pay 45.5 percent of the damages, in recognition of its product being so much more heavily laden with dioxins.
In 1985 Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in Nutra Sweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame's clouded past, including a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it "might induce brain tumors." The FDA had actually banned the drug based on this finding, only to have Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld (currently the Secretary of Defense) vow to "call in his markers," to get it approved. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener, and Reagan's new FDA commissioner, Arthur Hayes Hull, Jr., appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry's decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision, but Hull then installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then broke the tie in aspartame's favor. Hull later left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position with Burston-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame.
In 1982 the town of Times Beach, Missouri, which hosts a Monsanto plant, was found to be so contaminated with dioxins that it had to be evacuated. An investigation into Monsanto's culpability was stalled when the Reagan Administration, citing Executive Privilege, ordered EPA Administrator Anne Burford to withhold key documents from a House Committee that had subpoenaed them. Reagan, it should be noted, had long wanted to destroy the EPA, and absent his ability to so he appointed Burford to run it. She was cited for contempt of Congress for her refusal to cooperate in the investigation of Monsanto, and later forced to resign in 1984 amid charges of misusing Superfund money. Her top assistant, Rita Lavelle, spent four months in jail for perjury for the same reason. Lavelle had been suspected of destroying documents related to the Times Beach case, and she regularly attended luncheons with Monsanto executives.
In 1990 the EPA's regulatory division reported that Monsanto had "submitted false information to EPA," and "doctored" samples of herbicides given to the US Department of Agriculture. In urging a criminal investigation of the company, the division noted that:
Monsanto covered up the dioxin contamination of its products. Monsanto either failed to report contamination, substituted false information purporting to show no contamination or submitted samples to the government for analysis which had been specifically prepared so that dioxin contamination did not exist.
The litany goes on. East St. Louis, Illinois, where the company manufactured PCBs, still has the highest rate of fetal death in the state. Monsanto has paid settlements to its own employees, who sued the company on grounds that it knowingly exposed them to dangerous substances. It ranks fifth on the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, having expelled 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the United States. It is identified as a "potentially responsible party" at 48 Superfund sites, and since 1986 it has paid $148.5 million in fines and settlements.
And in 1996, it began to buy up agricultural research companies. February of 1996 saw Monsanto partner with DeKalb Genetics, and three months later it bought Agracetus for $150 million. In 1997 it acquired Asgrow Agronomics, and days later spent $1.2 billion to pick up Holden Foundation Seeds. The shopping spree continued from there: Calgene, Cargill, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Delta and Pine Land, Water Health International. All told, Monsanto spent $8.4 billion on companies most people have never heard of. The effort pushed the company to its fiscal limits; its stock plummeted, and observers speculated that it would be taken over, perhaps by DuPont (it was ultimately bought out by Pharmecia). But it emerged controlling 85 percent of the U.S. market for cotton seed, 40 percent of the market for soy, and an awful lot of agricultural genetic technology.
To complement its new acquisitions, the company also gave itself a corporate makeover. It now has one web page covered with butterflies, and another that depicts farmers conferring in a lush and vast field. The corporate literature now liberally uses eco-buzzwords like "sustainability," and the company has styled itself a "life sciences" corporation. It sports the motto "Life. Health. Hope."
This is all well and good, but given the company's past, one wonders why the federal government has given it such leeway in the creation of food. Can a new PR campaign and the "life sciences" moniker really erase fifty years of what could at best called horrible misjudgment, and at worst outright disregard for human safety?
The company thinks so. The past is, after all, the past. "There have been times in Monsanto's 94-year history," CEO Robert Shapiro wrote in the 1995 Monsanto Environmental Review, "when we, like others, weren't as aware of our actions as we should have been. Those days have been over for a long time."
This was three years after the FDA had decided that biotech foods required no labeling. That decision, it should be noted, was written by an FDA Deputy Commissioner who, prior to joining the agency, had spent seven years working at Monsanto. By 1999, he was working there again.
Anatomy of a PR Disaster
The first large-scale commercial plantings of GM crops went into the ground in 1996. A year later they were seamlessly integrated into the U.S. food chain, some directly, and others (such as most genetically-engineered corn) as feed for beef. American agriculture is an industry of exports, however, and trouble arose when the transgenic food crossed the Atlantic.
Americans pride themselves on their distrust of government, but often restrict their skepticism to Presidents and congressmen. Witness, for example, the sententious debates over campaign finance. Finance reform is a worthy goal, but it ignores the fact that our regulatory agencies--most of which have a far greater impact on everyday life--are equally if not more polluted by money than our federal elections. Rarely, however, do these agencies come under our scrutiny.
This is not the case in Europe, where systems of strong central government are checked by a vigilant suspicion of not just elected officials but of the bureaucracy as well. At the time GM foods were arriving, this ingrained suspicion had been compounded by waves of fear over Mad Cow Disease in England and dioxin contamination in Belgium, and thus many Europeans looked on transgenic food, rightly or wrongly, as little more than a fresh opportunity to be poisoned. Protests erupted over what was derisively called "frankenfood." Ships carrying GM crops were turned away at docks, and sacks of genetically-altered seed were dumped in ministries. Prince Charles denounced biotech food as unnatural and dangerous.
In response, the European Union did exactly what the biotech industry didn't want it to do. It passed a mandatory-labeling law for genetically modified food, and began working on stringent regulations for them. The governments of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, watching the European uproar and hoping to avoid it, soon followed suit. European food companies, including giants like Nestle, Cadbury and later Carrefour, sought to allay consumer fears by pledging to use only conventional ingredients.
Under these pressures, the export market for American corn collapsed. Fear of genetic modification caused a 96 percent decline in sales to Europe between 1997 and 1998. Alarmed at the lost income, the American Corn Growers Association began advocating an abandonment of GM technology, and a return to conventional farming. Then Frito-Lay announced it would use no GM ingredients in its products, and a study in the Nature revealed that Monarch butterflies trying to pollinate the flowers of GM maize could be poisoned by the corn's genetically-implanted toxins.
On and on it went. Scientists talked about the dangers of "genetic pollution": the danger of GM crops escaping into the wild and cannibalizing other varieties. Farmers in the developing world burned fields of GM crops. For the biotech industry, this was a public relations catastrophe that portended a still larger one. If the negative momentum accumulated in Europe were to make its way back across the Atlantic, then the entire infrastructure, the billions of dollars expended to put the companies at their pinnacle of influence, would all toboggan into an obscene loss. Already farmers felt angry and betrayed, and advocates--emboldened by European labeling laws--were clamoring for the FDA to reconsider its initial ruling. Fueled in no small part by fear of transgenic crops, the organic food industry was growing at a staggering 20 percent per year. Long derided as a backward niche market, by 1998 organic farming had done $4 billion worth of business, making it the same size as GM.
The low point came on October 27, 1998, when Monsanto CEO Shapiro gave a keynote speech about genetic engineering at a "State of the World" Conference in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. After his address he was assaulted by members of the anarchist Biotic Baking Brigade (motto: "We speak pie to power"), who smashed a tofu vegan cream pie in his face. A member of the brigade, identified only as "Agent Apple," then distributed a press release that ripped Monsanto for masquerading as an environmental corporation, and accused it of a "PR Greenwash" that hid its activities beneath an eco-friendly veneer.
Nine months later, Deutsche Bank, the largest bank in Europe, took the unusual step of advising investors worldwide to sell their shares of Novartis and Monsanto, citing the failed European campaign as evidence that the market "wasn't ready for GMO." Greenpeace punctuated that sentiment on February 18, 1999, when it dumped four tons of genetically altered soybeans on the steps of 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Tony Blair resides. In a snide reference to the Clinton Administration's support for biotech crops, as well as to Clinton's matrimonial turbulence, activists unfurled a banner over the soy that read "Tony--Don't Swallow Bill's Seed."
Two days later, the London Observer asked Dan Verakis, Monsanto's UK PR spokesman, to assess the company's progress in Europe. Verakis was succinct in his reply. "Everybody over here," he said, "hates us."
The Silencing Machine
If you are a Public Relations type, then you know there are two elements to managing a crisis. The first is getting the critics to shut up, and the second is shifting the public debate in a manner that makes everyone start talking about something else, while they think they're talking about the problem at hand.
In 1998, amid the European uproar about genetically modified food, the prestigious British magazine Ecologist prepared an entire issue dedicated to the biotech controversy. Two lengthy articles in the issue detailed Monsanto's checkered past, as well as its cozy relations with U.S. regulators. The issue was completed, but while the magazine was on the press its printer--who had printed every issue of the outspoken periodical for 26 years--abruptly destroyed it, citing fears of a libel suit. The magazine found another printer willing to do the job, and then learned that major newsstands were refusing to sell it. The issue eventually ran, but went largely unnoticed, prompting Project Censored, Sonoma State University's media watchdog group, to list it as one of the most suppressed news stories of the year.
Monsanto insisted it had made no threats to the Ecologist's printer, and in fact it may not have. British libel law places the burden of proof on the accused, a punishing standard that has made printers sensitive and triggered its share of bizarre trials (in the year 2000 a British historian, sued for libel by a holocaust revisionist, actually had to go to court to prove that the Holocaust took place). In such a hostile legal atmosphere, Monsanto's reputation alone could act as a catalyst for self-censorship, and preclude the need for an actual threat.
And Monsanto is, without a doubt, notoriously protective of its reputation. The most instructive example of this is the case of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, the Monsanto drug, sold under the name Posilac that induces higher milk production in cows. During the drug's approval process, Monsanto hired no less than 10 PR firms, and lobbied heavily to have the FDA rule that milk from rGBH-treated cows need not be labeled as such. Once this approval was granted, the company sent a letter to grocery stores, threatening to sue any supermarket that voluntarily labeled rGBH milk.
A year later, in February of 1997, Florida's WTVT, a Fox affiliate, abruptly pulled what had been advertised as an explosive look inside Posilac's approval process. The series, investigated by the husband and wife team of Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, disclosed that rGBH had made a significant number of cows sick. More troubling was the fact that a standard cancer test for a new drug involves two years of testing on several hundred rats, but rGBH, according to Wilson and Akre, was tested for 90 days on 30 rats, and the results of the tests were never published. The series also featured health officials from Canada alleging that Monsanto executives had offered them a multi-million dollar bribe during Posilac's approval process there. (Canada ultimately banned the drug, primarily for its danger to cows but also due to potential hazards for humans.)
The story had been heavily promoted and was set to air during sweeps week, but was scuttled when Monsanto's lawyer, the famed libel litigant John J. Walsh, sent a letter to Fox News Chief Roger Ailes that made thinly-veiled threats of a massive lawsuit. In the following months Wilson and Akre rewrote the story 73 times in an attempt to appease Fox's lawyers, who in turn were trying to appease Monsanto. Six airdates were set and cancelled, and finally the Fox attorneys crafted their own script, which omitted most criticism of Monsanto, and told Wilson and Akre to air it. The two reporters refused, citing FCC rules that prohibited the intentional broadcasting of false information. When management refused to yield, Akre threatened to go the FCC, at which point both she and Wilson were fired. Jobless, the two reporters promptly filed a lawsuit against the station for violation of Florida's whistleblower statute (the suit was ultimately successful, and details of it can be viewed at www.foxbghsuit.com).
Walsh's letter capped a series of events that have effectively silenced media criticism of food in the United States. In 1996 the Food Lion supermarket chain won a massive libel decision against ABC, and shortly thereafter the Chiquita Corporation won a similarly large judgement against the Cincinnati Post. Both cases set a disturbing precedent, because the media outlets lost despite being able to prove that their information was correct. Traditionally, the veracity of information had been an exculpatory factor in libel litigation, but the courts, in a perverse interpretation of the law, had now said that a news outlet could criminally defame a corporation by telling the truth about it. (Walsh referenced the Food Lion case in his first letter to Fox, and in a subsequent letter said that the WTVT segment contained "defamatory statements which...could lead to...dire consequences for Fox News.")
This shift in the legal landscape was complemented by an aggressive lobbying campaign from the American Farm Bureau Association, which culminated in 12 states passing "Agricultural Disparagement Statutes"--uniquely pointed libel laws designed to prevent the slandering of certain foods. The first significant use of an agricultural disparagement statute came in 1996, when Oprah Winfrey was sued for having an open discussion about Mad Cow Disease on her TV program. Winfrey won the initial decision in 1997 (prompting her to crow, in her uniquely indefatigable way, that "free speech rocks!"), but the case immediately went to appeal, and she had already spent $2 million of her own money. Most news organizations are unwilling to invest in such a legal extravaganza, and as a consequence stories about the GM food controversy are rarely given broad coverage in the United States.
In the media's silence, the industry has roared. In 1998, on the day before Thanksgiving (one of the year's slowest news days), the U.S. Department of Agriculture released draft standards for organic quality. The standards were part of an effort begun eight years before, when Congress had passed the National Organic Foods Production Act, officially recognizing organic agriculture. As part of that law, the USDA had appointed a National Organic Advisory Panel to determine what the government definition of "organic" food should be.
The definition, as it turned out, would be broad. Observers, and particularly organic growers, were stunned to find that the USDA had almost completely ignored the recommendations of its own panel, and instead drafted guidelines that eviscerated the existing benchmarks for organic quality. Under the proposed measures, genetically altered foods, irradiated food, foods grown on fields fertilized by sewage sludge, crops doused in pesticide, and beef from taken from perpetually confined farm animals could all be called organic. Also dropped into the guidelines was a clause that gave the USDA a monopoly on the word "organic" itself, making it illegal for independent producers to adopt higher standards and create their own labels.
The implications of this, for a biotech industry terrified of labeling, were obvious. Genetically-altered food could enjoy something far better than being label-free; it could be given a label that most Americans associated with only the highest levels of purity. It would also pry open the door for the organic food market--a system of small, independent businesses--to be taken over by large corporations. It is a truism that the higher standards of organic farming preclude mass-production, but with standards dropped to a level that allowed factory-farming methods, there would be nothing to stop agribusiness concerns from having their cake and eating it too. They could flood the "organic" market, subsume its multi-billion dollar profits, and enjoy the benefits of the organic name without the tedium of its practice. As a bonus, should other nations--most of whom have very strict organic regulations--object to the inclusiveness of the American rules, the arbitrating body would be the World Trade Organization, an institution that has consistently depressed world standards in order to foster greater exchange.
It is reasonable to ask why the USDA would gut the rules for organic quality. Part of the explanation might be the agency's traditional proclivity for industrial agriculture (it was a proponent of DDT), and its historic enmity to organic farming (it actually lobbied against the Organic Foods Production Act). And certainly the comfortable relationship that Monsanto had with the Clinton Administration didn't hurt. Monsanto CEO Shapiro served on the President's Advisory Committee for Trade and Policy Negotiations, and Mickey Kantor, who was Clinton's Trade Representative from 1992-96, left his post to take a seat on Monsanto's Board of Directors. Marcia Hale, a personal assistant to President Clinton, went on to become the company's Public Affairs Director in Britain.
The real problem, however, may lie in the evolution of the USDA, which in the last fifteen years has become less a regulatory agency and more a clearinghouse for corporate agriculture. In 1986, The Federal Technology and Transfer Act made it legal for corporations to provide private funding to the USDA, and for research done with that funding to be patented by corporations. In 1992, under the auspices of this law, the USDA set up the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Corporation, essentially an in-house venture capital firm. Since then the AARG has invested more than $11 million in the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation, a private company funded by, among others, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Dow Chemical, and the McDonald's Corporation. These companies contribute to the BRDC and in exchange get access to taxpayer-funded agricultural research. The BRDC's mission is to find a commercial market for technological innovations in agriculture, and any profits made in the sale of the research are split evenly between the AARC, the BRDC, and the USDA. The USDA, in other words, has a vested interest in the success of biotech products, including, of course, genetically altered food. The alliance between USDA and biotech has nothing to do with conspiracies or evil intent, and everything to do with the fact that they, regulatory agency and regulated corporation, have become business partners.
Given the stacked nature of this deck, it is to the credit of the organic food community that the proposed standards were derailed. The USDA received 275,000 letters during its public comment period, more feedback than it had at any time in its history, and the overwhelming outcry forced the agency to roll back its agenda.
On the other hand, the idea of pure food is still encroached on every day. Supermarket giant Archer Daniels Midland now makes a soy burger, as does Philip Morris. Watchdog groups say that both use genetically-altered soybeans. While this may matter little to vegetarians who eat soy products for no other reason than that they contain no meat, it does undermine a larger idea of vegetarianism as a purer and more natural diet. In a democracy, there is a crucial difference between manufactured consent and informed consent. Informed consent is the product of education and full disclosure. Manufactured consent is the work of the lawsuits, lobbyists and revolving door regulators. It relies on silence, and thrives on spin.
The Spin Machine
And so back, finally, to where we started: the emails to Freezerbox . This is part two of the biotech PR strategy: redirecting the argument. A look at the titles of the second and third essays, "Biotechnology: A Tool to Help End World Hunger," and "Modern Biotechnology and Small Farmers in Developing Countries," shows where we are headed. Biotech is the planet's best hope for supplying food to a growing population. Genetic engineering can let us make plants that will grow in deserts, that will have vaccines built into them, that will be fortified with extra vitamins. While we waste time debating labeling, the poor starve, and if you oppose genetically-modified food, then you oppose feeding the world, too. So good luck sleeping at night.
Good luck indeed. Before plunging into a sea of guilt, we should first figure out just who is sending us these fine missives. BSMG is, as my first return email noted, one of the world's larger public relations firms. Its regular clients include Monsanto, Dow, Baxter Bayer, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (an ardently pro-biotech group) and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America. In addition, in March of 2000, Monsanto, Dow, Aventis, Novartis, DuPont and BASF entered a multiyear contract with BSMG, for the purpose of taking American doubts about biotech and nipping them in the bud. The contract was originally signed for $50 million, but the companies expressed a willingness to spend up to $250 million to get their message out.
This is a remarkable step, and illustrates the seriousness with which these companies fear a real discussion. These corporations are not, after all, friends, and while they may work together in trade associations, it is highly unusual for them to enter into joint PR ventures. Last year DuPont even sued Monsanto, alleging theft of intellectual property.
BSMG inaugurated its biotech campaign by taking two immediate steps. The first was to set up the Alliance for Better Foods, a non-profit group whose sole purpose is to advocate for GM products. The Alliance lists as its most prominent sponsor the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and it is run, according to a report in PR Watch, out of BSMG's Washington office. BSMG's second step was to found the Council on Biotechnology Information, a non-profit front group funded entirely by the six companies named above. The CBI, readers will remember, is the group that Mr. Wright is purporting to work for. It is an interesting arrangement: his company is hired by six other companies to create a nonprofit he can hide behind, not right away, but only after his initial claim--that he works for three researchers--is found out. The true catalysts of the PR, a group of wealthy corporations, lie three layers back, behind the benevolent veils of academia and nonprofit advocacy. Welcome to the spin machine.
With this in mind, if we look at the authors of the articles sent to Freezerbox , and their respective affiliations, the story gets a bit more interesting. Dr. Stanley Wallach works for the American College of Nutrition, an organization sponsored by the Alliance for Better Foods. Leonard Gianessi is described as a "senior research associate" at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, but anyone who wanders to the center's website can see that he is actually director of its Pesticide Use Program. And the Pesticide Use Program is funded--as anyone who clicks the mouse a few more times can learn--by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Novartis.
Finally there is the question of Per Pinstrup Andersen, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute. The IFPRI is one of 16 research centers run by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an organization headquartered at the World Bank. This makes it a tough nut to crack. The CGIAR is run jointly by the World Bank, The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Development Programme. In 1994, a rumor that the Bank was planning to buy out the UN's shares of the CGIAR caused a panic in the developing world.
The panic came because the CGIAR also happens to be the world's largest repository of agricultural genetic material. It holds 40 percent of all the genetic plant material stored on earth, a collection worth billions of dollars. Currently it allows any researcher access to its gene bank, on the condition that no research done with it can lead to a patent. Such a free flow of information is contrary to every doctrine of the World Bank, an organization whose love of secrecy is surpassed only by its ebullience for markets and its history of very bad ideas. This led observers to fear that the Bank, if left in command of the CGIAR, would "help" the Third World by raffling off its genetic diversity. The takeover plan went nowhere, however, and the CGIAR is, for the most part, an admirable institution. It has condemned Monsanto in the past, and rebuked the World Bank for concentrating it agricultural lending on large-scale farms, rather than subsistence crop-growing. Mr. Andersen is writing, perhaps, because he honestly believes that biotechnology will feed the world.
And to be fair: will it? Do the deception, the libel threats, the use of PR-created front groups and agenda-driven third party testimonials really mean that the central point isn't true? And if that is the case, shouldn't we abandon this debate about labeling, and move ahead, for the benefit of the poor? "Most of the readers of these words have probably never seen someone starve to death or suffer the consequences of malnutrition," Dr. Wallach writes in the first sentence of his article. "It's a testament to American productivity that most of us have been spared first-hand knowledge of hunger." Similarly, Andersen's first sentence reads, "It must be hard for an African farmer to understand the debate currently raging in Europe about the use of modern biotechnological methods in agricultural research." He then talks, as Wallach does, about biotechnology creating crops that can grow in difficult African soil, crops with enhanced vitamins and nutrients, "miracle rice" with extra vitamin A that can prevent night blindness in children. Crops, in other words, that will end hunger.
There are a few problems with this scenario. First, significant doubt exists about whether biotech crops really do improve crop yields. A widely-cited analysis of 1,800 university studies of genetically-engineered crops shows that the biotech plants are actually somewhat less productive than conventional varieties, and over 200 farmers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina have sued Monsanto over the poor crop yields from genetically engineered cotton.
It is also worth noting that while biotech companies talk quite a bit about "miracle rice" and other hunger-busting crops, none of these corporations actually make them. Miracle rice was developed by a public research institution; Monsanto's biggest GM product, Roundup Ready, is designed not to feed the masses, but help the company sell more herbicide.
But these are questions of intent and capability, both of which can be changed. Monsanto, if it wanted to, could produce miracle rice, and hitches in crop yield could probably be ironed out over time. The real problem is more fundamental. Anderson says it must be hard for an African farmer to understand why the Europeans debate biotech food while she struggles to feed her family. And he is right. It probably is hard for an African farmer, eking out a subsistence living, to follow the controversy raging in Europe. But the African farmer would probably find it harder still to understand why her own country is a net exporter of food.
Almost every organization that has studied the problem of hunger has come to the conclusion that the quantity of the world's food supply has almost nothing to do with it. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the preeminent hunger advocacy organization in the United States, in the last 35 years the production of food has outstripped the growth of population by 16 percent. There is currently enough food on earth to feed every inhabitant over four pounds a day. Hunger is not caused by lack of food, but by disparities in wealth that deny vast portions of the population access to the food already available. It is exacerbated by structural adjustment programs, levied by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on scores of Third World nations, that force agricultural products to be exported in order to service debt. It is for this reason that India, with its 200 million hungry citizens, is also one of the world's top food exporters, and that many countries in sub-Saharan Africa regularly ship away the food they produce. The United States, in fact, artificially depresses the world food supply to keep prices up and protect farmers: mountains of surplus grain sit in storage in our country, and the USDA subsidizes farmers to keep production down. Every year the United States disposes of 48 million tons of good food.
By no means, then, does biotechnology fit into the hunger equation. Hunger is a symptom of income inequality, and hurling wave after wave of genetically-altered crops at the problem may ameliorate the symptom, but it will exacerbate the source. If farmers in the developing world become dependent on corporations for their seeds, then control of the food supply will be further consolidated, and the inability of the poor to access food--the real root cause of hunger--will be made worse.
What the biotech companies don't talk about is the fact that genetic engineering turns food into intellectual property. A seed no longer represents the work of nature, but the work of nature augmented by millions of dollars of research. In the calculus of the free market, those research costs must be recouped, and recouping these costs fundamentally alters agrarian tradition, because it targets the age-old practice of saving seeds from year to year. Monsanto has gone to extreme lengths to prevent farmers from reusing their seeds. In the United States it has hired Pinkerton detectives to raid farms, and encouraged farmers to spy on their neighbors, and report anyone who is saving seed. These efforts have resulted in almost 500 prosecutions for "seed piracy." In the developing world, the company attempted to introduce a genetically-altered seed that would kill itself after sprouting, thereby forcing the world's poorest farmers to buy new seed each year. This "Terminator" technology caused an international uproar, but the company only backed down from it when the CGIAR, in a remarkably courageous move, condemned it, vowed to block its use in development projects, and urged Third World governments to ban it (see related article).
The idea of patenting food an aggressively protecting that patent may be a logical outgrowth of market economics, and in its place it may be reasonable. But it is far from reasonable in the developing world. New barriers to food will not end hunger. Nor, for that matter, will more food.
None of this, of course, is mentioned by the good people at BSMG, who are first working for some nice academics, and then working for a friendly non-profit, but never working for six companies who will pay them up to $250 million to hide behind the plight of dying people in Africa so their products will not have to be labeled in the United States.
There are 800 million hungry people in the world; 34,000 children starve to death every day. There are those who consider this a tragedy, and then are the biotech companies and their countless PR firms, who seem to consider it a flawless hook for product branding. It is an insult of the highest and most grotesque order to turn those who live from day to day into the centerpiece of an elaborate lie. Maybe genetically-engineered foods should be labeled. Maybe they shouldn't. But the companies who make them, and the flacks who hawk their falsehoods, offer us a new definition of depravity, a new standard to plunge for in our race to care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all shame.
Following is a partial list of sources used. Other sources are cited in the text, and facts found in more than three sources were considered common domain. Readers are urged to educate themselves on every side of this issue, and the following sources may be helpful.
- Alliance for Better Foods. www.betterfoods.org
- Brayda, Deborah, "USDA, Inc.," MojoWire, April 7, 1998.
- Shapiro, Robert, "The Welcome Tension of Technology: The Need for Dialogue about Agricultural Biotechnology," The Center for the Study of American Business, CEO Series, No. 37, February 2000
- Brown, Paul, and Vidal, John, Guardian, (London) August 25, 1999.
- Caufield, Catherine, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1997. Charman, Deborah, "Force Feeding Genetically-Engineered Food," PRWatch, Fourth Quarter, 1999.
- Charman, Deborah, "Saving the Planet with Pestilent Statistics," PRWatch, Fourth Quarter, 1999.
- Charman, Deborah, "Biotechnology Will Feed the World," PRWatch, Fourth Quarter, 1999.
- "Monsanto and the Council for Biotechnology Information," CorporateWatch
- Ibid., "Greenwash Award of the Month."
- Ibid., "The Next Generation of Frankenfoods."
- Forestal, Daniel J., Faith, Hope and $5,000: The Monsanto Story, 1977.
- George, Susan, How the Other Half Dies:The Real Reasons for World Hunger Allanweld, Oscar and Company, Montclair, NJ 1977
- George, Susan, A Fate Worse than Debt: The World Financial Crisis and the Poor, Grove Grove Wiedenfeld, New York, NY, 1990.
- Guttenplan, DD, "Denying the Holocaust," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 285, No. 2. February 2000.
- Kahn, Jennifer, "The Green Machine," Harpers, April 1999.
- Lilliston, Ben, and Cummins, Ron, "Organic vs. Organic: The Corruption of a Label," Ecologist, July/August 1998.
- Motion Magazine, November 9, 1998.
- Philips, Peter, et. al., Censored 1999: The News that Didnt Make the News, Seven Stories Press, New York, NY, 1999.
- Stauber, John, "Food Fight Comes to America," The Nation, December 27, 1999.
- Stauber, John, and Rampton, Sheldon, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the PR Industry, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME, 1995.
- Tokar, Brian, "Monsanto: A Checkered History," Ecologist, Sept/ October 1998.
- Ibid., "Monsanto and the Regulators."
- "What is Biotechnology?" Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucs.org
- "What is the CGIAR?" The World Bank Group, www.worldbank.org
Michael Manville is a freelance writer with a background in economic development.