October 07, 1998


So Bad, Even Monsanto Can't put a Spin on It

Monsanto appears apoplectic in the face of global criticism over the seed-killing Terminator technology. In recent weeks the company has taken a drubbing across the globe, from India to New Zealand, Zimbabwe, the UK, and even in cyberspace. But so far Monsanto's legendary spinmasters have been unable to counter the criticism and articulate any good reason why the world needs the Terminator. Who, after all, wants a dead seed?

Following Monsanto's disastrous defense of the technology in India in August, which resulted in the Indian Minister of Agriculture announcing a national ban on the Terminator, the technology has continued to get Monsanto into trouble across the world. Here are four of the latest cases:

--> Zapped in Zimbabwe
At a national conference on agricultural biotechnology held in Harare September 24th, Monsanto was lambasted by more than 350 government and nongovernmental delegates, including representatives of the diplomatic corps. The company came under fire for both its handling of Bt Cotton and Terminator Technology. Apparently some of Zimbabwe's biggest cotton farmers slipped Monsanto's Bt cotton varieties into the country last year for a little unauthorized sneak preview. When officials learned of it, the plants were uprooted but the company has been held in suspicion ever since. However, few attending the Conference knew about the Terminator until RAFI's Pat Mooney spread the word during a keynote address.

Mooney's remarks were obviously not to the liking of the numerous Monsanto/ Cargill/ DeltaPine representatives in the room. Wally Green from Monsanto's South Africa office demanded podium time to defend what he termed Gene Protection". Green concluded by advising his audience that if farmers didn't want 'Gene Protection' they didn't have to buy it. In the ensuing uproar, Zimbabwe officials told Mr. Green of instances where either government rules or commercial credit had forced farmers to grow certain crop varieties.

Conference organizers then restructured the meeting to allow for a full debate. Much to the delight of the meeting, the flustered Green unwittingly fell to calling the technology "Terminator" himself. (Officially, Monsanto calls the Terminator "TPS - Technology Protection System".) Then, with national television cameras whirring, Green threw in the towel, telling the audience that "It must be obvious to everyone here that Mr. Mooney knows much more about the Terminator that I do. ... All I can do is take note of what has been said here and report back to my company." Green also said that he had been sent by Monsanto specifically to defend the Terminator. He was last seen surrounded by other company officials being hustled out of the meeting.

--> Aggravated in Auckland
On September 30th in Auckland, New Zealand, Monsanto officials again found themselves in the frying pan, when the Terminator ruined a pro-biotech 'tea party' that was supposed to promote genetically engineered crops. The half-day seminar was set up by Gene Pool, a local government-funded NGO with tight corporate links. The event was going as planned, with attendees delving into numerous rounds of food and drink, watching a Monsanto video extolling the company's virtues, and hearing a series of predictable speeches, when Auckland University lecturer Peter Wills took the podium.

Wills was presumably invited as a token alternative view so that Gene Pool could claim some semblance of balance in the meeting. Chris Wheeler, an Auckland activist and past president of the New Zealand Soils and Health Association, slipped into the pricey meeting on a press pass and reports that Wills delivered much more than Gene Pool expected. After questioning the wisdom of Monsanto's agbiotech strategies, which provoked many concerned comments from the audience, Wheeler says things really got hot when Wills blasted the Terminator. At that point, a visibly flustered Murray Willocks, Monsanto's New Zealand Business Manager, took the floor and tried to distance the company from its own technology, saying "The Terminator is just a concept." and "We have no plans for the Terminator Technology at this time."

Wheeler's account of the ensuing exchange is that the red-faced Willocks "went into confused messages mode, trying to establish the impression that Monsanto had acquired the technology merely as a spin-off from a recent acquisition [Delta and Pine Land] and that there were no direct plans to actually use it." At the meeting's end, Wills was surrounded by attendees wanting to talk about the Terminator.

--> Inundated on the Internet
After finding out that Monsanto is pushing ahead fast to obtain an exclusive license for the US Government's interest in the Terminator, on September 29th RAFI lauched a global e-mail campaign aimed at stopping Monsanto's negotiations with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since then, over 1000 people from 37 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific have sent a letter to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman from RAFI's website.

In the face of the challenge to its plans, Monsanto has maintained a stoic silence; however analysis of use of RAFI's website reveals that company is attentive. They have visited the website repeatedly. The only exception to the silence: One person writing from an e-mail address belonging to a Monsanto subsidiary used RAFI's page to e-mail the USDA a lacklustre defense of the Terminator titled "Ignore RAFI!". But the author conveniently ignored the fact that each of the one thousand letters sent from the page was edited and submitted by an concerned person or institution.

The RAFI Teminator letter page is dispatching an average of 125 letters from all over the world every day. The page has recently been updated so that users from across the world (87 countries) can reference the relevant Terminator patent document for their country when writing. RAFI is encouraging people everywhere who want to take action against the Terminator to please include a visit here.

--> Penwell's Pulping Provokes Probing (UK)
In a widely reported incident, on September 28th, the internationally respected British magazine Ecologist announced that its printer, Penwell's (Cornwall, UK), had destroyed the entire print run of 14,000 copies of the magazine's newest edition. Penwell's did not offer an explanation, and told the UK daily The Guardian that "We cannot comment on what happened at all, or our reasons." The Ecologist says Penwell's had printed the Ecologist for 29 years.

Following a Monsanto advertizing campaign in Europe earlier this year claiming that the company wanted open discussion of its impact, the Ecologist had decided to devote the entire edition to articles about Monsanto, including a story on the Terminator technology co-authored by Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Genetics Forum (UK) and RAFI's Pat Mooney.

Telephoned by The Guardian, Monsanto's UK spokesman Daniel Verakis said that although he was aware the Ecologist was working on an edition about biotechnology, "... I did not know that it would be especially about Monsanto. The fact that it was pulped is news to me. We had nothing to do with it."

Zac Goldsmith, co-editor of the Ecologist, was quoted by The Guardian as saying "The fact that Monsanto had nothing to do with the decision to pulp is, if anything, more scary than if they had made some kind of legal threat. It goes to show what a powerful force a reputation can be."

Fortunately, the Ecologist quickly made arrangements with an alternative printer to get the magazine reprinted and on the newsstands.

--> NGOs Offer "Help"
NGOs, while expecting the formidable Monsanto PR machine to go on the offensive at any time, are taking turns making tongue-in-cheek "suggestions" for how the company might address the publicity problem through the tried and true technique of a good slogan. NGO ideas include:

"Dead Seeds: Trust Us, You Want Them"
"Get Terminator: We Couldn't Think of a Better Name for It"
"Terminator: A Little Bit of Arnold Schwartznegger in Every (Dead) Seed"
"Who Needs Germination? Buy TPS"
"Don't Worry About the Next Generation, Use TPS"
"Seed Corn is for Sissies: Don't Keep It, Terminate It!"
"Get Terminator. No, It's Not a Sexually-Transmitted Disease (We Think)"
"Terminator III: I Won't be Back"

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