About a year ago, the Internet was lit up by activists’ jubilation at the fact that South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority—acting on a complaint—had ordered Monsanto to “withdraw” local radio advertisements claiming benefits from genetically modified (GM) crops.
The radio advertisement had read as follows: “Biotechnology and GM crops enable us to produce more food sustainably whilst using fewer resources; provide a healthier environment by saving on pesticides; decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase crop yields substantially.”
Natural News, in hyperbole typical of a site funded by “natural” food interests, proclaimed “Monsanto ordered to stop making false advertising claims.” Others called our claims “deceptive” or at least “unsubstantiated.”
Even though the ads had already stopped running before the ASA ruling—and therefore never de-facto had to be “suspended”, as was widely misreported by the anti-Monsanto chattering class—Monsanto asked to be allowed to substantiate its advertisements ex-post facto following a procedure foreseen in South African law. Then as now, we believe there is nothing at all deceptive about our advertising claims in South Africa, which are virtually identical to advertising claims we make in many other countries, and we wanted the opportunity to prove it.
Today, the ASA informed Monsanto that it had overturned its initial ruling (i.e. that Monsanto should withdraw its claims) and has dismissed the complaints in their entirety.
In fact, the ASA had never said the advertising was false or deceptive—just that the claims needed to be substantiated. In its additional submission, Monsanto was able to provide a broad range of evidence to substantiate the contested claims:
– GM crops “…enable us to produce more food sustainably whilst using fewer resources….”
– GM crops “…provide a healthier environment by saving on pesticides…”
– GM crops “…decreas[es] greenhouse gas emissions…”
– GM crops “…increase[es] crop yields substantially….”
“We always believed that there are sufficient independent studies globally, as well as farmer testimonials, to show the benefits of using biotech crops,” said Kobus Steenekamp, Business Lead Monsanto South Africa.
Biotech crops are amongst the most extensively tested and regulated food and fibre products ever developed. All biotech crops currently approved for commercialisation world-wide have been thoroughly assessed by scientific and regulatory authorities throughout the world for food, feed and environmental safety according to internationally agreed guidelines and principles. There is a huge amount of scientific evidence that supports our product safety and we constantly review new information and studies about our products, as do the regulatory agencies responsible for human and environmental safety across the globe.
The fact that a thorough investigation by the ASA ended in Monsanto’s favour shows the difference between the court of public opinion, which often resembles a public lynching, and legitimate legal and other administrative processes. Public authorities generally do their jobs well. They consider the evidence that is presented to them—seriously, conscientiously, and serenely—then they present their findings in a reasonable, fair and non-discriminatory way. The exact opposite tends to happen in social media, which unfortunately is where more and more people seem to get all their information. (National Geographic has an excellent cover story titled The War on Science on this phenomenon in its latest issue.)
It is gratifying that despite the rampant circulation of misinformation on the Internet, public authorities regularly find in favour of Monsanto and its products. Often unanimously.
Monsanto is always happy to explain our products and business strategy. We fully understand that many people have questions about how their food is produced, and are making a big effort to do a better job of explaining our role in the food chain in terms that everyone can understand.
At the same time, we have to deplore the repeated diversion of public resources to investigate frivolous claims by those who are simply opposed to the use of GM crops and other modern agricultural technologies that help farmers worldwide produce more with less—a goal that most people on this planet actually share. We cannot help but think that societal resources could be better deployed solving the collective problems that we all face—food security and conserving precious resources such as soil and water, to name just two—than fighting paper tigers.