PAUL HOLMES: Monsanto's world-hunger solution cannot be implemented until its PR problems are solved

A few years ago, Monsanto was touting its genetically modified crops as a solution to world famine. Its corporate PR chief Philip Angell said that "government regulators, scientists, farmers, NGOs, nutritionists, doctors, cancer researchers, even former presidents, agree that biotech will be a critical component in solving many of the world's problems like hunger, poverty, and pollution."

A few years ago, Monsanto was touting its genetically modified crops as a solution to world famine. Its corporate PR chief Philip Angell said that "government regulators, scientists, farmers, NGOs, nutritionists, doctors, cancer researchers, even former presidents, agree that biotech will be a critical component in solving many of the world's problems like hunger, poverty, and pollution."

A few years ago, Monsanto was touting its genetically modified crops as a solution to world famine. Its corporate PR chief Philip Angell said that "government regulators, scientists, farmers, NGOs, nutritionists, doctors, cancer researchers, even former presidents, agree that biotech will be a critical component in solving many of the world's problems like hunger, poverty, and pollution."

Today, around 20 million people die of hunger each year, and close to 800 million suffer from it. And African nations, including Zambia - where 2.4 million people are expected to die from famine this year - still turn down US food aid because they feel genetically modified crops are unsafe to consume.

It would be easy to blame NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for this pitiful state of affairs, as Andrew Natsios of the US Agency for International Development did last week, when he accused environmentalists "of endangering the lives of millions of famine-threatened Africans by encouraging their governments to reject genetically modified US food aid," and described the groups' enthusiasm for playing politics with food as "revolting and despicable."

Normally, NGO heads (as opposed to for-profit corporation leaders) face few difficult decisions or trade-offs. They needn't worry about balancing the needs of shareholders with those of employees, customers, or neighbors. They can espouse a solution without worrying about the potential cost.

Another great thing about running an NGO is the credibility is not contingent upon competence. Think of Greenpeace, which experienced a surge of support after it successfully defeated Shell's plans to sink the Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea - despite scientific consensus that sinking it was the most environmentally friendly solution. Activists can be on the wrong side of a scientific debate and still emerge with their reputation enhanced.

But this case could be a watershed for the environmental movement, which leaves itself open to charges that it puts dogma - the idea that genetically modified foods are harmful is a matter of faith, not scientific evidence - before human lives.

That said, Monsanto and other biotech companies must share some blame for the current situation. For years, biotechs ignored their responsibility to earn public trust. Rather than engaging its critics in honest and open debate, the industry sought to cut them out of the debate, or to bully them into submission. Even now, it keeps fueling public suspicion by refusing to label its products.

In an alternate world, Monsanto could be viewed as the world's most socially responsible company, one that found at least a partial solution to one of the world's most enduring problems. Instead, largely because of a PR failure, it is reviled. And millions continue to suffer as a consequence.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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