Monsanto’s Started a Blog: Conversation with Critics, or the Same Old PR?

monsanto blog headerYesterday’s Post-Dispatch had a story on the front page of the Business section that immediately caught my eye: St. Louis-based agribiz giant Monsanto has started blogging (and Twittering and YouTube-ing).

That’s right: Monsanto, the company many of us in the sustainability sphere love to hate, has entered the conversation.

That, on the surface, is a good thing.

Of course, the devil’s in the details.  As occasional contributor Max Gladwell pointed out in “10 Ways that Social Media and Sustainability Line Up,” social media can provide a high return on investment for a business… provided its efforts are grounded in transparency. I’d add that such efforts must also be based in a genuine desire to interact: social media is conversation, and all parties have to both talk and listen. Without these elements, a corporate blog will strike its intended audience as just another effort at message control.

Monsanto’s blog also seems to validate another of Max’s points: much of the content so far has consisted of responses to grassroots criticisms of the company ventures into biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering of crop seeds. As blogger and public affairs manager John Combest told the P-D, “”There was this big conversation going on (on the Internet), and we weren’t a part of it.”

So, how’s the company doing in its initial forray into the blogosphere?

At this point, I’d argue they still have a lot to learn.

Yes, they’re new to this, and I’m not sure there’s any way to learn how to blog well other than on-the-job training. As such, they’ll make plenty of mistakes early on.

I’m more concerned, though, about the overall tone I’m seeing in the blog. It’s difficult to get a real conversation (versus a shouting match) going if you tend to dismiss your critics. And there’s an awful lot of that so far.  Take these passages from the “Why a Monsanto Blog?” page:

The title Monsanto According to Monsanto is a spoof of The World According to Monsanto, a horribly biased documentary which portrays Monsanto in a very negative light. Aside from the shoddy journalism, we at Monsanto found it incredibly arrogant that the filmmaker would present her own twisted view of Monsanto as the company’s view of the world… (my link added for the film)

Monsanto has a fair number of critics. Technology in agriculture is an emotional topic and there are organizations or individuals who generally oppose modern agriculture or biotechnology. This blog will be used on a rather frequent basis to respond to criticism leveled against Monsanto and the use of technology in agriculture.

Here’s another example from “Indian Farmer Suicide — The Bottom Line“:

[Biotech] cotton is making life better in India. Unfortunately, critics of biotech do not like these favorable statistics or news reports, so they rely on baseless smear campaigns to create a visceral reaction in those who are unfamiliar with the facts. Debt is the reason for Indian farmer suicide–but the economic benefits from Bt cotton may be the key to reversing the tragic statistics.

Monsanto’s blogger could certainly argue that this is tone critics have take with the company. To a large degree, they’re right. But, at this point in my search of their archives, I have yet to see any effort to acknowledge critics who are informed on the science of biotechnology, and still don’t like the company’s activities. There are plenty of them out there…

A couple of other notes: According to the P-D article, any employee at Monsanto can contribute to the blog, and they’re encouraged to do so. So far, though, the only posts have come from the dedicated blog team, all of whom are members of the public affairs department. Secondly, the “Why a Monsanto Blog?” page claims that the company will use this venue to “to levy some criticism ourselves” (which I assume means criticism of the company… though it doesn’t specifically say that). If I’m interpreting that right, I have yet to see any efforts on this front. But they’ve definitely taken plenty of shots at critics (which is what they may have meant).

This is a very new effort, so I don’t want to be too critical: Monsanto is making an effort here. At this point, though, this effort feels very much like typical corporate communications in a more conversational voice. If that turns out to be the sum total of their blogging efforts, I doubt they’ll see much ROI on it. If they’re genuinely willing to listen to informed criticism, and to get decision-makers into the mix of bloggers, this could represent a substantive step forward.

The blogosphere’s a messy marketplace of ideas; corporations, however, value message control. A few companies have done well entering the social media space. They jury’s still out on Monsanto (as it should be)… we’ll want to keep a close eye on their efforts, though.

Don’t want GMOs in your garden? Check out our selection of organic seeds.

  1. Becky

    I’m inclined to say “Just More PR,” but this is definitely something to keep an eye on. If they are honest and self-critical, I guess it could signal a move in the right direction? I’m not optimistic that it’s going to be that way, though.

  2. Autumn

    I, for one, would love to throw some virtual, rotten, genetically modified tomatoes at them.
    They are whining, not blogging, and I think I just made up a new word – “Whog”!

  3. David - green thoughts

    I think the problem a company like Monsanto would face is the fact that they make many immoral decisions, and can not afford to admit it. How can they then even attempt an honest blog. It is impossible until they truly acknowledge the dangers of toxic chemicals. But, it is not currently profitable for them to do so, and may never be. I would not pay much attention to them, but would focus on alternative companies providing agriculture ideas that really help the planet, and that are designed with that mission in mind from the “ground” up.

  4. Bobby B.

    Biotechnology is another one of those fences that people choose to straddle. Greens are largely anti-biotech when it comes to farming and livestock production. However, most are in favor of human, embryonic stem cell research, which coincidentally also falls under the umbrella of biotechnology. Why in the minds of most greens is it okay to practice biotech on the human species, but not on lower animals and plants?

    To be fair, I will admit that my beliefs relegate a one-sided opinion on this. I hold human life in high esteem and do not agree with embryonic stem cell research. However, all other plants and animals are fair game.

  5. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Ah, Bobby… were it only that simple…

    Of course, you’re talking about two different sub-disciplines of biotechnology: agricultural biotech and medical biotech. The concerns with agricultural biotech aren’t limited to putting plants and animals above humans. First, many worry about potential health threats posed by genetically-modified organisms (and, in fairness, Monsanto has addressed that on its blog — I’ll leave it to other with more expertise to judge their response). There are also larger ecosystem concerns: what happens when those modified genes get into the larger gene pool? What happens when they interact with other species in an ecosystem? These are valid questions, and definitely can affect human life.

    On embryonic stem cell research: can you show me a form of this research that’s not focused on improving human life? I won’t belittle your beliefs about when life starts, but the moral arguments are hardly one-sided here… We may eventually discover that other sources of stem cells are just as useful as embryonic stem cells — I hope that happens, as it would be the best situation for all. Until then, do you want to be the one to tell people suffering from Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, etc., that your beliefs about life beginning at conception are more important than research that could alleviate their suffering to some degree? How does that square with “holding human life in high esteem?”

    (Glad you’re here, bud… need someone to keep me on my toes!)

  6. David - green thoughts

    This morning I saw a 40 minute YouTube video about Monsanto. They are pigs.

    In fact, the video is called “Patent for a Pig”, and it describes how Monsanto, while busily locking up the farmland so that only its soy, corn, and other crops can be grown, is now moving to patent pig genes. Their clearly stated goal is to dominate food production world-wide. Won’t governments come around and stand up to them. As an American, I certainly hope the USA will do so, as we started this mess allowing Monsanto to control neighboring farmers when the wind blew some genetically modified seeds in from neighboring farms. Ridiculous!

  7. Jim Johnson

    Very interesting. I think the reason Monsanto takes the stance they are taking by dismissing the bloggers is that they are so far off base on some of their criticisms and facts, that they have no credibility. One such example always talks about we (Monsanto) put farmers out of business by suing them and making a lot of money doing it. This person quoted that we made $160,000,000 one year suing farmers and it is so ridiculous, it is is not even close.

  8. Kathleen


    Thanks for the feedback on the blog, you are right, it is fairly new (less than 2 months old) and I appreciate others letting us know how we are doing. Posts like yours give me a good POV, coming from someone outside.

    You should look forward to posts regarding the things you spoke about, but also pay attention to the comments section of the blog. Here you can find different Monsanto employees engaging with people and creating some really great conversations regarding Monsanto and biotech. In the future, we have plenty of topics we want to address, we just can’t put everything out at once, then what would we talk about?

    Thanks again!

    Kathleen (Monsanto Company)

  9. donald dunklee

    so sad…..what do the disclaimers, the fine print, at the end of the blog indicate? Could it mean Monsanto would own the opinions that are written by unwitting good people?? But I guess that would mean they could not sue for any liable as they would own the copyright of what was written…..thus making that content their property…..hmmmm. reminds me of something called biotech.

  10. Bobby B.

    To address your ecosystem concerns, the genetic modification of plants and animals is generally aimed at increasing yield and building resistance to diseases; not to create The Giant Hogweed from the Genesis song or the smart sharks from the movie Deep Blue Sea. The term “frankenfood” is nothing more than one side’s effort to demonize legitimate research. If potential health threats are a concern, consider this short list of common items that humans frequently consume, which do not exist in nature and have few (if any) redeeming qualities: alcohol, cigarettes, hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, table sugar, bleached flour, and polished rice. The listed items originate as relatively benign plants, but through a little manipulation (albeit non-genetic) we derive two poisons, two frankenfats and three concentrated starches. The first two are proven to shorten life, the second two are blamed for heart disease, and the last three are believed to contribute to obesity and diabetes. Ironically, the increase in the consumption of these items has paralleled an increase in the average life expectancy over the past century. While it is true that some scientists believe we have reached a plateau in regards to lifespan, a doubling of the average lifespan in approximately one hundred years remains a phenomenal achievement.

    Philosophically, since most environmentalists adhere to Darwin’s theories, why fear the introduction of modified genes into the pool or the interaction of genetically modified species with existing species? If it is only natural for the strong to survive and for the weaker species to gravitate towards extinction, what exactly is the problem? How can a Darwinist accept the death of a species vis-à-vis a natural mutation, but not one brought about by a manipulated mutation? Will nature not eventually find a balance? Historically, it was the intellectuals who poked fun at religious folk for fearing progress. Today, the intellectuals are the ones who fear the future and desire to turn the clock backwards.

    On embryonic stem cell research, can you name one bonafide cure that has resulted from it? Since its inception, this branch of science has always been on the cusp of a breakthrough; but has just never quite broken through. Even though most scientific breakthroughs require a fair amount of beating one’s head against the proverbial wall, one most consider the collateral damage when determining its overall value.

    Just by saying, “I won’t belittle your beliefs about when life starts,” you imply that my beliefs deserve belittling. Although most would prefer a non-fetal source of stem cells, it is currently impossible to separate the stem cell issue from the abortion issue. The argument of when life begins is really not the main issue. The main issue is whether or not the life is human. A fertilized human egg contains human DNA that dictates its first cellular division and the billions of divisions that follow. With the exception of an untimely death, the fertilized human egg has no choice but to be human. Whether the child is aborted for his stem cells early in the gestational period, late in the gestational period, immediately after birth, or up to four years of age (a few believe toddlers should be fair game) is a moot point. The most difficult question is whether or not it is ethical to degrade one human life to simple property in order to exterminate it for the comfort of another human life. Should we readily accept the premise that aborted children are the property of their parents or the state, and condone all sorts of research on their remains? Environmentalists reject testing products on animals or using animals for medical research, but you never hear any stories about those animal loving eco-terrorists ever targeting a human embryonic stem cell research facility.

    Now, although I agree that pain and suffering are difficult issues, my stance on abortion for the sake of harvesting stem cells is easily squared with my beliefs. In my view the “right to life” as penned by the founding fathers is just as stated; a right to life. There is no implication – and no inference can be made – that anyone is guaranteed a defined quality of life. This is another issue that divides society. Many believe that all human life is precious, while many others believe that human life must be measured against some sort of quality yardstick (intelligence, appearance, pain, etc.) to deserve value. It should be worth remembering that the quality yardstick is how the Nazi’s justified their crimes against humanity.

    I know that denying anyone comfort sounds harsh, and I can guarantee that my beliefs would be tested were it one of my children suffering. But I should close by asking you, how do you square having a healthy fear of the genetic manipulation of plants and animals with a readiness to receive treatment via the genetic manipulation of human cells?

  11. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Bobby — I’m in the same position you were the other day — don’t have time this morning to respond to all of your points thoughtfully. But a quick disagreement: when I said “not to belittle your beliefs,” I meant “not to belittle your beliefs”… nothing more.

  12. Bobby B.

    I am sure that you meant “nothing more” but that was a statement easily inferred to be taken another direction considering the topic. Either way, this is likely one of those “agree to disagree” situations. Sorry about the length of my last comment.

    I hope all is well with you and yours.

  13. chance

    Why is Monsanto cooking the books to its share holders on iventory protection it gave to retailers? I don’t think they would fire all of you when they find out. If, you are not sure what I’m talking about I will explain. When the price of power max reached wholesale prices of $48.50 per gallon, Monsanto gave the distributors inventory price pertection if they dropped the price. Now that the price is in the teens and the inventory has been moved. Monsanto has issued basically I owe you’s for the difference on all of these gallons. I have been waiting for the news to break or for you to pay,and niether has happened. What is going on?

  14. chance

    I also love how the American farmers are all treated the same, and for that fact with the rest of the world. Monsanto back in the early 1990’s grew more soybeans in South America than the entire U.S. crop holding back growers here to thier dumping of commodities. I love how the price for seed from Texas to the Carolina’s or Georgia may vary as much as $150.00 per bag of seed for technology alone. Better than that I bet everyone doesn’t know about Monsanto selling seed to third world countries and never getting paid for seed deals that were sold at fractions of the cost the American farmers were paying. I will be the first one to agree that your technologies have been good not great, but you have robbed the American farmer to the point they are fixing to let you feel their pain. With Bayer crop and Dow coming out next year with glyfos tolerant traits and Bt traits as good or better. Get ready for the ride. Stock prices if you did not catch on to that bite of humor.
    P.S. please do not respond with certain areas need the technology more than others because that is not true. The truth is that Round up ready flex is stacked in almost every varity that you sell when round up is only used for a grass herbicide only. In almost every region in America has a round up resitant weed. That is another thing that I think you all are cooking the books on, I’m not sure if the stock holders understand the scam that you all are doing on giving monies back for a farmer to use a competiors product to clean up your mess. Just charge what its worth and let the farmer chose what he wants to do with out management getting kick backs from other chemical companies to add there products to ou list of products that you will pay up to $12.50 an acre.

  15. chance

    Thanks for the opportunity to let me vent. If you need some more facts, let me know (concerned share holder that has shorted the stock).

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