Monsanto Will Disappear, But The Issues Won’t

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When Bayer closes its huge takeover deal later this week, Monsanto will cease to exist. But the issues that dogged it may not.

Monsanto became the poster child for opposition to genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs.” It’s a complicated issue, since famers have been grafting plants together for thousands of years; broccoli is the product of human intervention, not Nature’s pantry.

But Monsanto attracted attention for its bluntly commercial efforts — it patented a GMO soybean seed rendered dependent on its Roundup brand weed killer — and became the focus of subsequent arguments over the legality and advisability of tinkering with living things.

There are good debates to be had about patenting life; you might not know it, but nearly 20% of the human genome is already covered by patents, which means the owners need to be paid if someone else wants to use them in a medical experiment.

So what happens when a company creates a new variety of plant, and then the owners decide to raise prices? How about when certain foods are imbued with particular benefits — say, memory repair — but are only available to those rich enough to afford them?

But the legal issues aren’t what really bother folks…we’re scared about what we don’t know about how GMOs might impact our health, or that of the planet.

Monsanto, and the institutions on which it relies for third-party validation, could not have done a better job of fueling our fears had they tried.

Though there’s broad scientific consensus that there are no direct links between GMOs and ill health, claiming that the case was closed appears disingenuous, at best, since people’s concerns include whether or not GMOs are as good for you as natural alternatives, and what those changed foods might do to the metabolism of other foods. Our bodies are complex systems.

Worries aren’t just about what GMOs do/don’t do now, but also look to how they may evolve in the future. Today’s brilliant, patented gene splice could become tomorrow’s Frankengene, and there’s no legitimate way that scientists can guarantee that won’t happen.

The fact that, say, stalks of wheat haven’t learned over the past few thousand years to strangle farmers looks comfortingly reliable by comparison, and it makes it particularly odd that the US government gave Monsanto and others immunity from any unintended damages that might occur down the road (it gave the nascent nuclear power industry the same get-out-of-jail-free card in the 1950s).

People have other concerns, including worries about what happens when that patented seed beats out natural ones for water and nutrients, so farmers become dependent on them, or require use of chemicals and/or practices that are harmful to the environment in the long-term (but wildly profitable in the short-term).

Monsanto’s answer has been to insist there’s nothing to worry about, which is about as convincing as raising your voice when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand your language.

People asked questions about unknown unknowns, and Monsanto answered with known knowns (to borrow phrasing from Don Rumsfeld). And while its scientific and bureaucratic supporters in the U.S. echoed that defense, countries across Europe implemented various restrictions on their use, requirements for labeling, and sometimes outright bans.

We have legitimate concerns, and to suggest that we’re misinformed serves only to inflame us. You don’t win arguments by telling someone they’re wrong; and, while there are some diehard opponents who will never yield on the topic, recent history suggests that the vast majority of people can be convinced of just about anything.

With the Monsanto brand no longer serving as a lightening rod for opposition, it’ll be up to Bayer to do the convincing necessary to realize a return on its $66 billion investment.

I wasn’t encouraged when Bayer’s chairman said“We will listen to our critics and work together where we find common ground. Agriculture is too important to allow ideological differences to bring progress to a standstill. We have to talk to each other. We need to listen to each other. It’s the only way to build bridges.”

The debate over GMOs isn’t about ideology, it’s about concerns and emotions. It’s not about arguing with critics, but talking like fellow human beings to people who are rightly suspicious. Since Bayer believes its investment in Monsanto was worth the cost, you can bet the chairman is talking about making others listen to its case for GMOs, not doing much listening himself.

And agriculture isn’t important; feeding people is, and that’s not necessarily the same thing. To argue otherwise is, well, like that yelling thing.

Speaking of yelling, Monsanto spent many millions every year on the best PR and lobbying talent that money could buy, and they couldn’t even make a dent on the issue. Bayer’s own cadre of well-heeled consultants won’t either, unless they throw out the communications playbook that Monsanto used, and embrace a radically new approach to the issue.

No amount of standard-issue “content” or “storytelling” can change minds if it doesn’t change the substance of the conversation.

Doing so must start with recognizing that people have legitimate concerns about GMOs, and that the answer isn’t to educate them. Bayer needs to acknowledge that the jury is still out on the broad effects of GMOs on human health, the environment, and society, instead of repeating that it’s settled science. Any “common ground” must be founded on these facts.

To get there, Bayer could do a far better job of making the case for why we need GMOs — and that means why they’re not just a get-rich tool for the company that owns the IP — and how they’re working with governments and independent researchers to ensure that they stay safe. And it would help to invest in some long-term collaboration with one or more of its opponents (i.e. pressure groups) to earn some credibility, since a brokered cessation of hostilities is not the same thing as agreement or peace.

Monsanto may soon be gone, but the issues it faced won’t go away if Bayer repeats the same communications mistakes.