Food

From Mommy Bloggers to Clandestine Spies, Here's How Monsanto's PR Company Controls the GMO Debate

Big Ag public relations has an image problem of its own.

Photo Credit: Madhourses / Shutterstock

Sen. Bernie Sanders sent out an email to supporters Friday asking them to take action against a Senate bill that would overturn Vermont's recent legislation requiring companies to label products containing genetically modified organisms.

"The corporate interests are at it again," Sanders wrote. "Monsanto, agribusiness and the bio-tech industry have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overturn legislation passed by Vermont, Connecticut, Maine and Alaska that calls for the labeling of GMO food. In fact, they are moving aggressively now because Vermont's strong law goes into effect today."

As the debate over GMOs wages on, the forces pushing for increased use of GMOs continue to spend an incredible amount of money on a marketing blitz to recruit more voices sympathetic to their cause. And if some of the tactics employed by the agrichemical industry seem like something out the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency, well, that’s because they are.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Carey Gillam, a former business reporter for Reuters who later began working for U.S. Right to Know (a nonprofit largely funded by the Organic Consumers Association), describes the pressure she felt from Monsanto and other Big Ag companies to jump on the GMO train:

Pressure from Monsanto began when I first started covering them around 1999 or 2000, and it wasn’t even GMO crops. At the time Monsanto was in transition from an industrial chemical company involved in litigation with PCBs to an agrichemical and biotech seed company. They had some GMO crops but they had only been out a few years. They also had the pesticide glyphosate or Roundup, and they were marketing bovine growth hormone for dairy cows. There were a lot of questions about a lot of this stuff.

While logical people can debate the positives and negatives of GMOs, the company behind many of Big Ag’s pro-GMO ads raises serious questions about the campaign’s credibility. 

One of the largest purveyors of pro-GMO literature is the Council for Biotechnology Information, a front group funded by the Big 6 pesticide and GMO corporations: Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Sygenta. The council hired the PR form Ketchum (which formerly worked on Brown & Williamson’s cigarette campaigns) to create the website GMOAnswers.com, a pro-GMO website that claims to “answer your questions about GMOs” using “independent experts.” As Reuters notes, the council is “committed to spending millions more annually for several more years on this campaign.”

But one of those experts, Kevin Folta, came under intense scrutiny for his pro-GMO literature after a Freedom of Information Act request filed by U.S. Right to Know unearthed a longstanding financial relationship with Ketchum and Monsanto. Folta used the PR company’s literature—verbatim—in his responses on GMOAnswers. As Buzzfeed reports, he also worked with Ketchum to write an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel and received a $25,000 grant directly from Monsanto to use how he saw fit.

Folta has attempted to color his relationships with Monsanto and Ketchum as innocent, driven by science and his personal commitment to GMOs. But as scientist Angus Murphy, a friend of Folta’s, once said to him, “we cannot paint this as an innocent relationship with Monsanto.”

The same Ketchum currently leading the fight to normalize GMOs previously spent six years working with Russian president Vladimir Putin. ProPublica reports, “From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant.” The PR firm was even responsible for placing an op-ed in the New York Times on behalf of Putin in 2013. 

In 2010, the environmental group Greenpeace, an outspoken critic of Monsanto, accused Ketchum of using "clandestine and unlawful means” to obtain confidential information to use against it. The suit accused the PR company, under the direction of Kraft Foods, of hiring the private investigative firm Beckett Brown International to spy on Greenpeace, including gaining access to Greenpeace’s trash, conducting electronic surveillance on the group, and obtaining phone records for Greenpeace staff. The suit alleged Ketchum used these tactics as punishment for the group’s efforts to "expose environmental hazards and improve environmental conditions.”

AlterNet’s Sarah Lazare previously reported on Ketchum’s relationship with the Honduras government. “The company is representing the government of Honduras in the midst of an escalating human rights crisis defined by a spate of assassinations of indigenous environmental activists, including the renowned social movement leader Berta Cáceres,” Lazare wrote in April. “Today, Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on earth for environmental defenders, with activists reporting that death squads are making a comeback.”

“One of the things that goes unnoticed about corporate power are the structures that make the exercise of corporate power possible,” Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, told AlterNet in April. “Here we have a U.S. PR firm playing a key part in efforts to promote chemicals, GMOs and the chemical industries. And now they are doing everything they can to launder and rehabilitate the image of the government of Honduras amid atrocious violations.”

In addition to taking money from oppressive regimes and bankrolling efforts to shape public opinion on GMOs, Ketchum also courts mommy bloggers, inviting them to exclusive events to show the “local and sustainable” side of Big Ag. 

“Stealth marketing techniques, such as these by Monsanto, reveal how the food industry—from biotech behemoths to fast-food peddlers—is working surreptitiously to shape public opinion about biotechnology, industrialized farming and junk food,” author and activist Anna Lappé wrote for Al Jazeera America.

“Sure, PR is an old game, but Big Ag is giving the age-old techniques of shaping public opinion a new, sneakier spin,” Lappé noted. “Much of today’s marketing happens behind the scenes and off the printed page—on the Web pages of blogs, on Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, through sponsored content and industry-funded websites and on the stages of big-ideas festivals.”

Sustainability is hardly the first thing to come to mind when considering companies like Monsanto. As Modern Farmer notes, “History isn’t on Monsanto’s side: Founded in 1901, the multibillion-dollar Midwestern-based business has been behind such harmful chemicals as Agent Orange, Dioxin, DDT, and PCBs, the questionable dairy cow hormone rBGH, and the artificial sweetener Aspartame.”

For many, the most incredible aspect of Big Ag’s push for increased use of GMOs is the fervency with which these companies lobby against bills that would require labels for foods that contain GM ingredients. Industry executives argue that labels scare consumers away from purchasing genetically modified foods. As blogger Ana Picazo told Modern Farmer, “People deserve to know what’s in their foods. It’s called informed consent.”

Andre Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, agrees, telling Huffington Post, “We are appalled that our elected officials would support keeping Americans in the dark about what is in our food and even more appalled that they would do it on behalf of Big Chemical and food corporations.”

"[Major agribusiness and bio-tech companies] do not believe people have a right to know what's in the food they eat," Sen. Sanders wrote to supporters Friday. "That is why they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions to overturn the GMO right-to-know legislation that states have already passed and that many other states are on the verge of passing."

Considering the millions of dollars Big Ag has spent lobbying public and private citizens to get behind GMOs, it's no shock that it is squashing efforts to better inform consumers. If Monsanto wants to change the image problem associated with genetically modified organisms, it may want to change the image problem associated with its public relations firm first.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the suit alleged that Monsanto directed Ketchum to spy on Greenpeace. In fact, it was not Monsanto, but Kraft Foods, that was indicated in the suit.]

Elizabeth Preza is a staff writer for Raw Story. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.

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