Jolley: Five minutes with Monsanto

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The phrase  "Evil Empire" was a hard stone cast at the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Rage Against the Machine picked it up and used it to title their 1996 album. Steven Grasse used it as a title to his book which was subtitle,"101 Ways that England Ruined the World." At its most vile, it's a nickname hung on the hated New York Yankees by Mets fans everywhere.

Today, it's a handy descriptor that unlettered foodies all across America are trying to make synonymous with Monsanto. Those two "Mother" magazines; Mother Earth and Mother Jones, often seem hell-bent on tattooing that title on everything related to Monsanto. 

Wielding that pointy-tipped tattoo needle are people like Rick Paulus. A few days ago, he wrote this for KCET, which bills itself as Southern and Central California's community television station. "You may have noticed that recently we've been ramping up our coverage of what the GMO supergiant Monsanto has been up to lately. Now, there are a few reasons for that.

First and foremost, they've simply been in the news more often as they continue their various international machinations and backdoor maneuvering in their attempt to dominate the burgeoning GM industry. These recent moves, as well as the fact that the question of whether GMO's belong in our food has reached a fever pitch since the Prop 37 debate last year, have put the company in the spotlight.

The second reason is that looming on the calendar has been an event that finally gives people at home a chance to do something if they're feeling antsy about Monsanto, DuPont and friends. This Saturday, October 12, marks the second March Against Monsanto protest rally. And folks, it's going to be a doozy.

Wildly exaggerated claims were made about the first March Against Monsanto. If you are to believe the reports, millions of people in over 50 cities around the world showed their rage by participating. Of course, those reports came from the organizers so we might want to subtract a few zeroes from those numbers. Zealots often lose the ability to accurately count things.

Not that I want to give Monsanto a free pass; all companies play a lively game of stub toe from time-to-time. After reading many of the incredibly nasty stories about a monolithic and evil ag empire headquartered in St. Louis and bent on world domination, I thought a visit might be in order. 

I contacted Janice Persons who does a lot of their social media for them. "Sure, come on down," she said.

So I drove to their campus, half expecting to be greeted on a dark and stormy night by the offspring of an unholy union between Darth Vader and Dracula as I approached a medieval castle perched on top of a cloud covered mountain.

And campus is the best description; it reminded me of some of the nicer college campuses I've visited; lots of trees and well-maintained green spaces and more buildings than I could count. Enough people work there to comprise a nice-sized town. I half expected to see a line of fraternity and sorority houses on the other side of Olive Street. Already lost, I was staring at several buildings, trying to figure out which one was where I might find Persons when a nice employee asked if he could help. Instead of pointing and saying, "That building, stupid," he walked me over to the security desk and explained to the guard that I needed help.

Of course, I was on the wrong side of the campus and had to drive to the other end where several other very courteous people helped me find the right building. So far, no storm troopers in Star Wars costumes, just people who seemed to have been hired based on their sense of “nice.” 

Janice Persons met me at the door, bought me a cup of coffee and introduced me to Dr. Gary Hartnell who has, at one time or another in his career, worked with almost every animal in the ag pantheon - "cattle, hogs, goats, water buffalo," he said only slightly tongue in cheek. We sat down and began to talk. I had my questions researched and ready but threw them away. Rather than try to direct the conversation, I thought it was best left as a free form discussion.

Question: What are you doing now?

Persons: "Our year ends in August and we always look at our business. There's always something we want to tweak. We'll be looking at how we engage society. People hear a lot of things about us and it's largely emotional. So, we're looking at how we should talk with people about Monsanto."

Our ad campaign, America's Farmers, will continue and a lot of SEO, too.

Question: A lot of reporters seem to be knee-jerk anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto. Will you be able to get a handle on some ingrained attitudes??

Persons: There have been some people calling on journalists to be journalists, not mouthpieces. Some publications are being a little more serious about reporting. There is a blurring of the lines between editorial content and commentary and people see something in the New York Times and are confused between the two. 

If you're truly an environmentalist, does it make sense to be anti-biotech? Have some people (reporters) taken the time to learn the science behind it? Are they serving the best interests of their audience if they automatically rubber stamp attitudes? Having that discussion makes sense to us.

Question: Are the talking points being set by just a few people or is everyone entering the discussion?

Persons: The people who are into this are a small portion of the population but they are very vocal so they guide the discussion. We're making a change in how we talk with people about the subject. We've been highly science-driven, very fact-driven and we need to engage them on an emotional level, too. We have to say we personally care about this. We have to show people the complexities of the issues and the problems we need to solve. We have to give people the facts but be personal about it, too.

Hartnell: The arguments often come from a mother, and it resonates from her emotionally. We have to understand how the social side enters the conversation.

Question: But Monsanto is the big guy, the leader in the industry, by far. . .

Persons: I don't think it’s a Monsanto issue, it's an industry issue. It's easy in agriculture to say Monsanto is an outlier and there is something (bad) there. We are the leader, though so we tend to be the lightning rod.

Question: Monsanto is ahead of the rest of the industry and many people want to remember farming or maybe even return it to that nostalgic small family farm: an old farm house with a red barn out back and a few chickens in the front yard, maybe 40 acres or so being worked by the immediate family. They don't like the corporate farm image, even if that corporation was formed by the family that runs the business so the could reap some tax benefits. So, where are we going with modern agriculture?

Hartnell: It's about efficiency, doing more with what we have and still providing a living for the farmer. We have an obligation to them.

Persons: We can still provide products to the small farmer. It's not like we serve just one side of agriculture. We have organic customers, too. We supply seed to them. It's been five years since we've been advertising, "I am American's Farmer" - print television, billboards. Debbie Lyons Blythe will be part of it this year, she was America's farm mom last year.

Question: Let's set aside the general public's opinion for a few minutes. What do farmers think about you?

Persons: Call some farmers and ask them. I think most farmers appreciate our technology, they would like it cheaper. They understand why we do what we do. They understand the complexity of agriculture. 

Question: Where will the ag community be in 10 years?

Persons: It will include biotech and improved genetics, a lot of precision technologies, precision farming. We have to become more efficient.

Question: The cattle industry is perfectly OK with genetics, they've been breeding animals for improved genetics for years but there are some who say "But GMO's aren't good." What do you say to them?

Hartnell: (Talking about consumers) When you say GMO, they don't understand it and when they don't understand it, they're going to say no. When you ask, "Do you want dihydrogen oxide in your food, they're going to say no. When you tell them what it is, they're Ok with it. They did a survey in Europe that asked people if they wanted DNA in their food. Thirty percent said they didn't want it in their food. They didn't know what it was. 

Some cattlemen want to differentiate their product, too, and if they know people don't want GMO's, they'll avoid feeding those products to their animals.    

Question: Where do I find good, third-party people who will talk sensibly about GMO's?

Hartnell: You can contact the universities; Nebraska, Kansas State, Ohio State, Texas A&M and people like Jude Capper. Country Extension, too. There are a lot of people out there.

Question: Farmers are blocked from re-using seed stock?

Hartnell: Hybrid seeds have been around for over 50 years. It's been a long time since most farmers reused their seed stock. They've been buying seeds for a long time. If you buy software, you have to sign an agreement not to reuse it. Farmers know that.

Persons: It's like iTunes, you have to sign off before you can buy an app for your phone. It's the same thing farmers do today, they understand it.

Befitting the campus atmosphere of the place, an unheard bell rang, signaling it was time for class to end. Persons and Hartnell had places to go and meetings to attend. We shook hands and I walked back to my car which, by now had been left in a parking lot half way back to Kansas. 

I glanced back. Hartnell was not playing with bizarre laboratory glassware and cackling maniacally. Persons was merely walking back to her office with no signs of a straw bound stick at her disposal. Maybe if I came back at Halloween, I might see that stuff. Today, it was just a campus full of regular but uncommonly courteous people earning a good living.  

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Jimmy Reeves    
38069-7015  |  October, 12, 2013 at 07:36 PM

Good article. You tell it like it is. Thanks.

Ohio  |  October, 13, 2013 at 09:31 AM

Good article. Perhaps as a follow up you might seek out a physiological profile of those with a Monsanto phobia.

OKlahoma  |  October, 13, 2013 at 08:14 PM

Where were the tough questions? This sounds more like ad copy than an interview. Farm magazines and universities exist to protect the status quo. What a waste of an article.

John Litton    
Carmel, IN  |  October, 14, 2013 at 08:42 AM

I agree JB. There were no tough questions. What about Monsanto and their vicious lobbying efforts against anyone wanting to label their food "NON-GMO". Monsanto HATES these people. What are they so afraid of? Why don't they encourage to just label their food "THIS FOOD CONTAINS GMO's"? This just goes to show us that Monsanto does NOT care about FEEDING THE WORLD. No, they care about making money, and this is the elephant in the room.

Vermont  |  October, 14, 2013 at 09:47 AM

Softball questions like this are counter productive. What is the reporter afraid of?

Kansas  |  October, 14, 2013 at 10:30 AM

JB, John, CL - Soft ball questions? Come on guys, you're letting your prejudices shine through. Would you prefer that I asked loaded, "Gotcha" questions? This reporter isn't afraid of anything but I am strongly in favor of the science behind what Monsanto and a few others are doing. If you want to play that old emotional card, I suppose that's your privilege. Trying not to get caught up in that trap was my intent. So tell me, what are you afraid of? Would you like to come back at me with real facts and figures or will you just repeate what you read in the internet somewhere?

John Litton    
Carmel, IN  |  October, 14, 2013 at 11:36 AM

No emotional card here, just a simple questoion. Monsanto, if you are so gung ho about GMO's then why not endorse labeling your product "This product contains GMOs." Come on Chuck, stop drinking Monsanto's kool-aid. I bet you that Monsanto has NO intention of labeling their Products as I have described. I hope that every small Farmer out there who raises non-GMO's is reading this. Please tell your Congressman or Woman that it is your right to label your products "NON-GMO" and Monsanto has NO business telling you that you cannot.

October, 14, 2013 at 12:31 PM

I suppose you walk around the woods with antlers tied to your head during deer season?

Kansas  |  October, 14, 2013 at 12:32 PM

That tired old saw, "Stop drinking the Kool-Aid" as used to denigrate another person's opinion is an exercise in silliness and it needs to be retired. "Come on John, quit drinking the anti-GMO Kool-Aid" has just as much weight in this debate - none. It's trite and meaningless. Should products containing GMA's be labeled? Probably, it seems to be a controversy ginned up by the anti-GMO folks. Is it necessary for the health and well-being of the public? Show me the proof. Is it something that the general public wants or just something that a few foodies think necessary to calm their fears? That's a better question.

John Litton    
Carmel, In  |  October, 14, 2013 at 12:54 PM

Chuck, I don't think you get it. The onus, is not on "the public" nor is it on "the general public" as you have said. The onus is on Monsanto and anyone else who gets all bent out of shape when an entity wants to label their product as "NON-GMO". Folks like Monsanto want to prevent this. They all are all about the free market UNTIL their opposition wants to provide an alternative to those that want to have a choice to buy NON-GMO products. All the sudden, Monsanto are the biggest proponents of cencorship. Chuck, apparently they have got you snowed and you don't even know it. This is America. Part of America's success is free markets. People like you and many others need to let Monsanto know that they need to allow free markets to work. This includes allowing consumers to buy NON-GMO products if they choose to. It is only fair that folks like Monsanto need to back off and let us market our products as such.

John Litton    
Carmel, IN  |  October, 14, 2013 at 01:19 PM

What a cowardice response, Sam!!

October, 14, 2013 at 01:52 PM

Must have stuck a nerve. Too bad... Not

John Litton    
Carmel, In  |  October, 14, 2013 at 02:33 PM

All the bloggers about Monsanto are willing to intelligently debate the issues...NOT!!

Kansas  |  October, 14, 2013 at 03:50 PM

John, you are still long on rhetoric and short on fact. Your argument was precisely why I knocked on Monsanto's door. Lot's of emotion, not much fact. "I hate Monsanto and I think there might be a problem with what they're doing' is not a fact-based response. If you have some solid data to back up your fears about GMO's (Monsanto's or anyone else's GMO's) let's see it. If you have a problem with Monsanto's business ethics and have some facts to back you up, I want to see those, too. PS: A statement I read during my research that Monsanto wanted to sue everyone in Vermont to protect their patents is NOT fact-based; it's ridiculous. Nevertheless, Much of what I read was of the same thin thread.

October, 14, 2013 at 11:15 PM

What about suing farmers for genetic drift? What about the genetic pollution of other people's crops? What about the refusal to allow research by independent researchers? Why doesn't Monsanto prove eating GMO's is healthy once and for all instead of refusing to allow research? I read a couple of years ago that Monsanto employees at a research facility in England demanded that no GMO products be served in the cafeteria, why not ask about that? Monsanto was the main polluter in over 90 superfund cleanup sites and now they are doing the same sort of pollution of genetics. This was a publicity piece for Monsanto, not journalism.

October, 15, 2013 at 10:13 AM

Once a Monsanto hater, always a Monsanto hater. No reason or rational thought process required, none allowed. Typical gullible mob hysteria Luddites. Where do you suppose their paychecks come from -- certainly not from any job with a corporation or from any work with any sort of technology impacting it, right? These foolish haters must all be living naked in the wilderness foraging for edible weeds and grubs. How do such hateful Luddites accept electricity, computers, the internet...unless they are also colossal hypocrites? Gotta love 'em!

Carmel  |  October, 15, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Chuck, I never said that I hate Monsanto. Once more I will try to make my point. It is food producers right to label their products "Non-GMO". Monsanto wants to prevent this....what are they so afraid of??? You are correct that I don't have information that GMOs are or are not harmful....but that is NOT the issue. The consumer has the right to buy NON-GMO food if they choose to. By the same token, why not willingly label food that is GMO? It is nonsense to say that that is too costly...all food has some kind of label to begin with. A general observation here is that GMO producers evidently have something to hide. Why else would they oppose labeling?

Kansas  |  October, 15, 2013 at 06:40 PM

First, JB, read Joe's response. John, I have no problem with the idea that foods containing GMO's should be labeled, even if only a very small percentage of the public cares about it. A case in point: salt has long been known to cause health problems in some people and sodium content is on every package. A shockingly few people actually check the label. Be that as it may, Monsanto has been confronted with a lot of 'gotcha' questions from reporters. Playing 'gotcha' with this interview wasn't my intent. Getting their side of the story was my intent. Your general observation is based on assumption, by the way. They might have something to hide, they might not. The answer is yet to be determined.

October, 15, 2013 at 10:25 PM

Chuck, I read Joe's response, calling names and making assumptions about my motives does not address any of my points. i merely brought up questions that Monsanto refuses to address that I would like to see answered. I do not understand blind loyalty to such a company. Reading Joe's response begs the question of who is really the hater here. If GMO's are so safe, lets see the research, I don't think that is too much to ask. I do think it is silly to print such a soft article just to make the status quo feel good about themselves that serves no other purpose.

kansas  |  October, 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM

JB - Your answer, from the notoriously progressive Chicago Tribune who says, "Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies-in some cases numbering in the hundreds-in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods." Here's the complete story with links to 2,000 Scientific studies and reports for you to deny:,0,5426333.story

Kansas  |  October, 18, 2013 at 09:17 AM

JB, Calling names and making assumptions? That seems to be your problem. "Blind loyalty?" Your blindness or mine? There have been thousands of research programs that have deemed GMO's safe and only a few that have called them into question. I think it's silly of you to attack my article because it doesn't fit with your personal conceptions. The article wasn't meant to make the status quo feel good, it was meant to shed a little light on what is rapidly becoming a GMO with hunt.

Kansas  |  October, 18, 2013 at 09:17 AM

JB, Calling names and making assumptions? That seems to be your problem. "Blind loyalty?" Your blindness or mine? There have been thousands of research programs that have deemed GMO's safe and only a few that have called them into question. I think it's silly of you to attack my article because it doesn't fit with your personal conceptions. The article wasn't meant to make the status quo feel good, it was meant to shed a little light on what is rapidly becoming a GMO with hunt.

October, 18, 2013 at 04:39 PM

Chuck, I reread all of my posts, The only name I used was "Chuck", didn't call anyone names. The only assumption I made was your motives for the soft article. Most farm magazines only exist to sell advertising, so the articles are usually pretty light fair. Farm magazines are not known for in depth journalism, so I guess I should have just ignored the whole thing. I am a rancher, I do try to stay informed about GMO's though I did miss the article Michael mentioned and I'll look that up. I read a lot, and none of the questions I asked have been addressed.

October, 18, 2013 at 04:45 PM

Chuck, I reread all of my posts, and I did not call anyone names. The only assumption I made is about your motive for the soft article. Most farm magazines exist to sell advertising, and their articles contain only very basic information. Farm journalism is not known for in depth reporting. So I should have just ignored the article and let you all have your GMO love fest without me. I naively thought asking the real questions would get some deeper info. It has not, and will not on this forum at least. I do appreciate Michael mentioning the article from Chicago. I'll check that out.

October, 18, 2013 at 07:46 PM

Sorry about the double post. Chuck, I apologize for getting involved in this post. I know that you cannot afford to offend your advertisers, so you have to write fluffy articles, and cannot ask the tough questions. I also realize that universities and farm magazines have to defend the status quo they have created, so again you cannot question, you just have to promote. It is also obvious from the first two posts that the purpose here is to pat you on the back and perhaps take the pulse to see if folks are buying what you are selling. Obviously I am not.

MT  |  October, 19, 2013 at 09:39 AM

We all regret your involvement JB. We don't really care if you were hoping for beanball and your assessment of "softball" is just sour grapes. Anyway, there just aren't enough minutes in the day to waste any being accosted by your petty obsessions. That doesn't seem to stop any of you haters from forcing yourselves on us, though. So, next time stay out of it until you have calmed down and read up on the topic, OK? Or may just stick to reading your favorite echo chamber pap distributed by your anti-agriculture handlers. Won't be any embarrassing exposure of anyone's kneejerk urban myth ideology that way! Happy trails to ya, pardner.

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