When many people think of Monsanto, if they’ve heard of us at all, they think “GMO.” Globally that’s probably not far from the mark. Genetically modified organisms are an important part of our business, and an important part of farmers’ toolkits worldwide. But GMOs are just one of a broad range of solutions that Monsanto offers farmers to help produce more, better and more affordable food more efficiently.
In Europe, our second biggest business sales region globally, traditional, or non-GM agriculture represents more than 99.5 percent of our business. That means we breed, grow and sell pretty uncontroversial, non-GM maize, oilseed rape and vegetable seeds–along with agrochemicals that help farmers produce safe, affordable food more efficiently for the vast majority of European citizens who don’t reject modern agriculture. Every product we sell has received regulatory approval after strict testing and expert review. We also work every day with farmers, industry, governments and other stakeholders to help make more efficient use of precious natural resources, including water. Why, then, is Monsanto the subject of so much venom on the Web?
To try to better understand the gap between perceptions and reality–and why, in our view, the media often seem to do more to confuse people than enlighten them–we asked Mediatrack, a research company specialised in analysing trends in media coverage of various topics, to interview a random sample of journalists who had written about Monsanto over the past year. This wasn’t about Monsanto trying to place stories or ideas! It was about us listening and learning. The interviews were anonymous in order to facilitate frank feedback. And frank feedback we got.
The full report is available here. For anyone in a hurry, here are some of the survey’s main findings:
Asked about the key issues facing the agro-food business in Europe today, journalists’ top responses were:
Asked about the use of herbicides and pesticides in Europe, journalists who participated in the survey were fairly evenly split. Around two in five said the current level of usage is about right (and is safe) while two in five said herbicides and pesticides are over-used and need to be reduced. Only one in eight or fewer shared the opinion–widely expressed in organic and anti-Monsanto websites, unfortunately–that “big business” is sacrificing consumer safety for profit.
On the emotion-laden topic of organic farming in Europe today, most journalists said it was an important part of the food and agriculture industry in Europe, but also said that organic methods are less productive and more expensive than conventional farming, so it can’t address the need to increase food production to feed a growing population. Some also highlighted the problem of fraud in organic labeling. Unlike the general public, most journalists don’t believe organic food is more nutritious–all credible scientific evidence says that it’s not–but some do believe that it’s safer–another belief not supported, and often contradicted, by the scientific evidence. Several journalists also believed that organic food played a much bigger role in feeding the people of Europe than is true, estimating that organic food accounts for 10% of the food market in Europe, while the organic industry’s own figures (see slide 23) show that it is below 4% in most countries.
Asked about the sustainability of Europe’s model of agriculture and food production, journalists highlighted food security as a concern. Many journalists said Europe should produce a greater proportion of its own food, but also acknowledged that Europe’s dependence on imports for some crops was a fact of life. (European Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan echoed this sentiment and stressed the role of innovation in ensuring European food security in a speech just this week.)
Asked to comment on the credibility of various sources of information for their own work, reporters said official channels such as the United Nations (e.g. FAO, WHO), European Union (e.g. EFSA, European Commission) and national regulators (e.g. DEFRA in UK, INSERM and ANSES in France) are the most trustworthy sources of information, with industry and the scientific community coming in as second and third respectively. This question clearly highlighted the need of companies such as Monsanto to do a better job of explaining what we do and responding to ordinary people’s questions and concerns. But it also showed that widely quoted non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth–are trusted as little as large companies. (We freely admit to enjoying that finding, which correlates with our own decision, a year ago, to create a Reality-Check tab on this blog in large part to respond to pseudo-scientific or downright unscientific nonsense spread by these same NGOs under the guise of saving the planet.)
Finally, asked to comment specifically about the trustworthiness and transparency of companies such as Monsanto and its competitors, the journalists surveyed said they know Monsanto well or very well, but overall would like greater transparency and more information on Monsanto’s views, products and on what we as a company are doing. Around half said they expect big companies to use “spin” to drive commercial agendas, and around one in eight were downright hostile, saying they distrust big firms like Monsanto.
The bottom line? It’s clear we have our work cut out for us, but we’re optimistic and up for the challenge. One of our new year’s resolutions for 2015 is making sure that we’re out there talking more, ensuring greater availability of solid, credible, third-party information, and broadening the conversation on what constitutes sustainable agriculture.
We welcome any questions or comments you have for us!