Monsanto's make-believe marketing

May 2011

Corn grenade. Image by Greenpeace
Monsanto's marketing antics would be funny, if they didn't have serious implications.

At the beginning of the year, reports were filtering out of America about a nation-wide advertising campaign. In place of the tough and handsome Marlboro-smoking cowboys of yore, billboards and bus-stops are being festooned with with hardy American farmers showing off their Monsanto (GM) crops. It seems the Company is finding it imperative to persuade the US public that it really, really, is working in the best interests of the people and creating jobs on American farms.

Another on-going biotech antic is “astroturfing”. This involves the creating and financing of fake 'grass-roots' organisations to generate a (fake) climate of GM-support.

One such organisation is the Institute of Liberty (IFL), which describes itself as “an aggressive defender of the rights of individuals to pursue the American dream” by injecting “the perspective of small businesses and the working families that depend on them ... into the public policy debate”. Its aim is to fight against the excesses of government.

The IFL, clearly has an anti-regulation, anti-government agenda perfect for promoting the interests of the biotech industry. Nowhere does it mention the damage caused to small businesses and their workers by big business, especially if unregulated, nor does it acknowledge the threat posed by multi-national monopolies to their precious American dream.

The head of the IFL, Andrew Langer, previously worked for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which has long been an aggressive GM-lobbyist and receiver of Monsanto donations (see more below). Langer has apparently imported the CEI's “grass-roots methods” into the IFL.

Competitive Enterprise Institute

The CEI is an “educational institute” which is “dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty”.

It publishes “original scholarly studies” and markets its policy proposals.
The CEI also engages in “pro-freedom advocacy” in the courts, to challenge all levels of government.

Some idea of the organisation's agenda can be gleaned from is 30-strong work force:
  • 12 have a background in law and regulation
  • 10 have a background in journalism, PR, and communications
  • 8 are administrative staff.
Despite its intensive pro-GM lobbying, its only resident biotech 'expert' seems to be Gregory Conko.

Conko's background is in political science and history. However, he is quite happy to “provide information to teachers, journalists, policymakers, and the general public about developments in plant science, biotechnology, and sustainable agriculture” via AgBioworld Foundation, a pro-GM lobby group which he co-founded.

Product safety and individual freedom of choice don't seem to feature on the agenda of any of the three organisations Conko is involved with.

In 2010, Monsanto, the CEI and the IFL got together to generate a 'public' debate on the GM alfalfa grass for animal feed whose deregulation was under consideration at the time, and which was raising serious concerns. Langer organised a petition based on 8,052 comments from Joe Public collected by telephone, and submitted them as a petition to the government.

However, when the New York Times examined a random sample of 50 of the 'petitioners', three were dead the others had no idea their names had been used. One such unwitting 'petitioner' vaguely remembered a survey about whether affordability of food was important.

In Australia, the latest GM debacle involves litigation by an organic farmer against his GM-growing neighbour after gene contamination deprived him of his organic status. Monsanto's immediate reaction to this news was to go into battle, promising legal and financial support to its customer.

However, this appears now to have been a knee-jerk reaction. The company seems to have rethought the long-term implications of getting involved. First, there's a tacit admission that its crops are going to cause a pollution problem (not good PR). Secondly, there's the knock-on animosity it's creating between farmers and neighbours (very bad PR). Thirdly, there's the certainty that such contamination incidents can only escalate (not good for the finances). Perhaps Monsanto has taken note of what's happening to its fellow biotech company, Bayer CropScience, since it had to admit to its role in the world-wide genetic pollution of rice. Bayer has reported a 4th quarter loss of €145 million, partly due to the enormous and on-going costs of US legal proceedings brought by affected rice growers and traders (and Bayer's name is mud in rice-farming circles).


The make-believe that can be spread through billboards, bus-stops, 'phone calls to the dead, and creative petitioning, doesn't translate to the court-room. Monsanto momentarily forgot that, but remembered just in time to step out of the fight it had caused.

There are several important lessons to be drawn from Monsanto's marketing antics:
  1. Don't take bill-board or bus-stops advertisements too seriously
  2. Watch out for the Institute of Astroturfing, it has several aliases but they are all fakes
  3. If you're dead, best not petition the government
  4. If you grow GM and pollute your neighbour, you're on your own pal.

  • Ethan A Huff, Monsanto launches deceptive ad campaign in desperate attempt to improve image,, 25.01.11
  • International Roundup: Americas, Australasia, Thin Ice, Issue 21, April 2011
  • Odd Alliance, New York Times, 30.03.11
  • Gregory Conko,

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