About “Beyond the Rows”

Beyond the Rows is a Monsanto Company blog focused on one of the world’s most important industries, agriculture. Monsanto employees write about Monsanto’s business, the agriculture industry, and the farmer.
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The Story That Was and Wasn’t

It’s Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. You’re doing a Google search on genetically modified crops in Europe. One of your search results is from the U.K.’s Daily Mail web site – an announcement that Monsanto is closing wheat breeding stations in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. You look at the article’s date: Jan. 31, 2012.

If you oppose GM crops, you’re thrilled, and immediately use the Daily Mail’s “tweet this” feature to alert all of your Twitter followers, many of whom retweet the news to their followers. Soon, Greenpeace Europe picks it up and tweets it. Numerous other organizations follow suit. The news begins to move across Twitter and into online web sites and blogs. GM opponents celebrate, and some retweet the story several times. It morphs from the closing of wheat breeding stations in four countries to Monsanto pulling completely out of Europe.

Very few people notice that the story on the Daily Mail’s web site continues to show whatever the current date is – Jan. 31, Feb. 1, Feb. 2. When we see the story on Tuesday, we know it’s an old story. Reporters contacting our offices in Europe are told it’s an old story being recycled as a new story.

A few GM opponents also think something is wrong. The story refers to announcement by Monsanto, and the few people who bother to check can’t find the news release on Monsanto’s web site. They tweet a cautionary note and ask for some corroboration. But most people aren’t concerned – this looks like an unexpected victory in their war on GM crops. And they trust the people who are tweeting it.

GM Watch, an organization which opposes GM crops, knows the story is old. It actually researches it and discovers the actual date: Oct. 16, 2003. (The date on the Daily Mail story kept changing because the site’s search engine always displayed the current date, not the original date of the article.)

To its credit, on Wednesday Feb. 1, GM Watch tweets the correct date and tells people the story is old. Twitter reports began to calm down. But reports continue to circulate; not everyone sees the GM Watch tweet.

Enter Natural News, another opponent of GM crops. It publishes a rehash of the Daily Mail story on Friday, Feb. 3, with a link to the story, which now has a date (surprise!) of Feb. 3. Its fans and followers use the convenient “tweet this” feature and it starts all over again. Separately, a UPI reporter in Europe sees the noise on Twitter, checks the Daily Mail site, and publishes the story on UPI’s wire service – not bothering to check whether it’s accurate or not.

We posted a statement on our Facebook page and the link on Twitter. It took some doing to catch people’s attention amid all the excitement, but Natural News eventually published a reluctant correction (but a correction nonetheless); UPI pulled its story from the wire. The Daily Mail has made the original publication date more prominent. Many of the key people who were prominent in spreading the news have deleted their tweets.

There are likely a lot of lessons here, not the least of which is how gullible you can be when you want to believe something is true, and a newspaper web site or your favorite organic news web site gives the appearance of it being true.

Social media and web sites are wonderful communication channels when used responsibly. If you trust the people you follow and the sites you visit, you accept the information they tweet or post as accurate. But it’s often astonishing what people will tweet on twitter or post to Facebook and YouTube, and what people will believe.

On any given day, you will find people who believe (because they saw it on Twitter) that Monsanto controls the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the EPA, the Food & Drug Administration, the European Union, the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. State Department, the White House, the Chicago and Los Angeles police departments, the U.S. Congress, various city councils in the United States, all public universities in the Midwest (and many of the private ones), and all major U.S. news media including the New York Times.

You will see reports that Monsanto owns the Blackwater security firm, the Whole Foods grocery store chain, and Stonyfield Farms (for the record: we own none of them). People routinely tweet about our new artificial sweetener (we’re not in that business) or our pig business (we’re not in that business, either). You will see a “researcher” promoted to a “scientist” and then promoted to “one of pre-eminent scientific experts in the world” because someone wants to believe what he says.

The big lesson here: online reports can be wrong. Just because you want something to be true, just because it fits with your worldview, and just because your best friend posts it on Facebook or Twitter, doesn’t mean it’s true.

8 Responses to "The Story That Was and Wasn’t"

  1. Like you guys, I observed this story spread around the world, and with a great deal of disappointment saw how blase most bloggers were about date or fact checking. A real shame. Nevertheless, I’d like to know at what point, if ever, you guys turn to each other in your office, or wherever, and say, ‘wow, people really really hate us. They don’t trust us and they’re genuinely scared of what we’re doing to the planet’s food supply.’ I’m well aware of your purported agenda with this whole project – to increase yields, reduce hunger etc. noble words indeed. But how are people really supposed to believe that you have the best interests of the planet at heart when you clearly pursue a monopolistic strategy. Ultimately, even you guys could set that your strategy is inevitably going to cause harm to the inhabitants of earth, right? In both the short term, by making people change the tried and tested methods of farming, such as seed saving, reducing genetic diversity (always a danger), and making people dependent on a single corporate entity which could at some time in the future go bust, leaving people with a genetically unstable crop and headed for famine. So another question to you is, how can what you do possibly be described as sustainable? I would like to end by applauding you for making people wake up to the crucial debate of overpopulation, for a population level which enables you to justify without irony your activities on the planet is, in anyone’s books, self evidently disastrous.

    Reply
    • Why do we require farmers who buy from us not to save seed? After all, it’s a longstanding farming practice. The reason is simple, and it’s one that farmers intuitively understand. You spend billions of dollars to develop new seed traits that demonstrably make a difference – differences farmers see even if a lot of non-farming critics don’t. Yields are better. Time is saved. Pesticide use is reduced. If farmers could save these seeds, we would have to price them at astronomical — and unsustainable — levels to recover the R&D investment. We would essentially be selling the seed once — and have to price it accordingly. We couldn’t sell it and farmers couldn’t buy it at such a price.

      Farmers have lots of options when they buy seed. Some varieties allow them to save the seed, and even propagate and sell it to other farmers. Some varieties are protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act and can be saved, but never repackaged and sold to others. And some varieties, like the ones you’re referring to, contain patented traits. Farmers who purchase those varieties know in advance and agree that they will not save or re-plant the seed. Farmers are very smart about choosing the varieties that are best for their farms and their bottom lines – it’s a decision they make every year. Many are willing to pay for new seed each year because the benefits they receive from the seed justify the cost.

      All farmers understand the choices they have. Each year, if farmers choose to buy our seed, they agree to our license terms. That license includes a variety of requirements on the product’s use and stewardship, and remains in place for the crop farmers plant with that seed. The vast majority of farmers abides by the contracts they sign. A very few don’t — and when they save seed they put the vast majority at a competitive disadvantage. That’s flat-out wrong.

      On the monopoly question, I think you have to step back and ask about the success of Monsanto’s technology. We committed major financial resources into biotechnology when most other companies chose to wait. The products that resulted, starting with Roundup Ready soybeans, demonstrated large benefits for farmers. Other companies eventually chose to enter the market, but Monsanto’s technology was the benchmark.

      We recognized early on that the potential our technology offered for such significant benefits could lead to significant marketplace changes, and that’s why we licensed it to numerous other companies — so farmers would have a choice for what supplier and seed they wanted. Today, several companies are developing new technologies, and the marketplace is fiercely competitive — but not only because of technology. Farmers can also choose suppliers on the basis of service, price, familiarity, longstanding relationships and many other factors, and they do. If you look at market share, you will see that Monsanto is a major competitor — but so are DuPont, Dow, Bayer, BASF and several others.

      Thanks for reading the post and for your comment.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for the clarification. It amazes me how much misinformation there is floating around the internet about Monsanto, and, like you mentioned, if it fits your worldview it is very tempting to take it at face value. However, one should always check their sources and not take the information, or any social media-published information, at face value.

    Reply
  3. What about the farmers who’s end up with Monsanto crops due to the wind blowing seeds with your patented traits onto their farms, and not through purchase. They didn’t agree to your license terms. But doesn’t Monsanto go after these farmers very aggressively in court, often bankrupting the farmers? Isn’t this extremely evil?

    Reply
  4. First of all, let me say that I applaud this article. Your take on the ridiculousness of peoples’ reactions to incorrect information was refreshing and, dare I say, funny! I hadn’t heard that Monsanto owns Blackwater, but a rumor like that would certainly not surprise me. Of course, you could quell it with your vast media empire, no? 😉

    Secondly, and on a more serious note, I am taking your response to the comment above and re-posting it in its entirety on my blog (credit given, of course). It is the most concise and appropriate response to criticisms of your business practices I have seen to date.

    Reply

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