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<nettime> Welcome to the Spin Machine - a new definition of depravity
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<nettime> Welcome to the Spin Machine - a new definition of depravity

Date Posted: 10/03/2001
Subject: Welcome to the Spin Machine - a new definition of depravity

from the NGIN news list

"I believe that anyone who blocks those in developing nations  from improving
their food supply does, indeed, have blood on their hands." - Andrew Apel ,
editor of the AgBiotech Reporter, a biotech industry newsletter, explaining why
he equates GM critics with the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre

By this measure how should we judge Mr Apel and the rest of the AgBioView crew
who so determinedly distract attention from the real causes of hunger?

The following article provides a sweeping survey of the biotech battleground
through the eyes of former PR man, Michael Manville.  It is full of insight
right from its very opening where Manville, in a succession of e-mails with a
"corporate flack", prises open the PR operation behind the "educational
information" he is being offered.

Excerpts from 'Welcome to the Spin Machine':

"If you are a Public Relations type, then you know there are two elements to
managing a crisis. The first is getting the critics to shut up, and the second
is shifting the public debate in a manner that makes everyone start talking
about something else, while they think they're talking about the problem at

"[This is] part two of the biotech PR strategy: redirecting the argument...
Biotech is the planet's best hope for supplying food to a growing population.
Genetic engineering can let us make plants that will grow in deserts, that will
have vaccines built into them, that will be fortified with extra vitamins.
While we waste time debating labeling, the poor starve, and if you oppose
genetically-modified food, then you oppose feeding the world, too. So good luck
sleeping at night.

"There are 800 million hungry people in the world; 34,000 children starve to
death every day. There are those who consider this a tragedy, and then there
are the biotech companies and their countless PR firms, who seem to consider it
a flawless hook for product branding. It is an insult of the highest and most
grotesque order to turn those who live from day to day into the centerpiece of
an elaborate lie... the companies who make [GE foods], and the flacks who hawk
their falsehoods, offer us a new definition of depravity, a new standard to
plunge for in our race to care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all



Welcome to the Spin Machine


From: Wright, Tony (BSMG)
To: submissions {AT} freezerbox.com
Subject: Biotech articles for Freezerbox.com
Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001

Dear Editor,

To provide your online visitors with information on biotechnology, we
would like to offer you one or more bylined articles written by experts
in the field, to publish on Freezerbox.com. These articles are available
free of charge and provide educational information about biotechnology
that we believe will interest your readers.

"Agricultural Biotechnology: It's Here to Stay," By Leonard Gianessi,
senior research associate at the National Center for Food and
Agriculture Policy. Gianessi addresses examples of how biotech helps
farmers with pest management, Citing examples in corn, soybeans, and
cotton. (1,015 words).

"Biotechnology-A Tool to Help End World Hunger," by Dr. Stanley Wallach,
Executive Director of the American College of Nutrition. Wallach
discusses  breakthroughs in biotechnology that can provide starving
and/or malnourished populations with foods rich in vitamins and
nutrients. (665 words)

"Modern Biotechnology and Small Farmers in Developing Countries," by Per
Pinstrup Andersen, Director General of the International Food Policy
Research Institute. The author highlights the benefits that
biotechnology can bring to a small farmer in a country such as Africa
(sic). It also addresses the implications of the European debate about
biotechnology and its effect on developing countries. (1,126 words)

I hope that you find these of interest, so we can provide you with the
full text for review. I will follow up to learn of your interest. In the
meantime, if you have any questions, please call me at 972-***-**** or
email me.

Tony Wright
CyberPR Senior Account Executive
BSMG Worldwide
From: Mike Manville
To: Wright, Tony (BSMG)
Subject: Re: Biotech articles for Freezerbox.com
Date: Thursday, 15 February 2001

Dear Mr. Wright:

Freezerbox is always interested in publishing articles of divergent
views, so we would be happy to examine anything you wish to submit.
Biotechnology is certainly a topic worthy of discussion, not so much for
its potential, which is inarguable, but for the question of whether its
use will live up to the lofty rhetoric that has surrounded its
introduction. So please do forward on the texts.

I have to assume, as you are an employee of BSMG, that you are
contacting us on behalf of a client. A former PR man myself, I was a
little confused as to why you didn't identify the company in whose
interest you are working. Naturally, we would appreciate knowing who
your client is before we publish anything you give us.

But again, we are eager to see the articles. Thanks for your interest
and for thinking of us.

Best Regards,
Michael Manville
Freezerbox Editorial Board
From: Tony Wright (BSMG)
To: Mike Manville
Subject: RE: Biotech articles for Freezerbox.com
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 2001

Mr. Manville

I am excited that you are interested in the op-ed pieces about the
benefits of biotechnology.  As far as my client, we represent the three
authors of these op-eds who are trying to make a name for themselves on
this up-and-coming topic.  We assist them with media placements. I have
attached the three op-ed pieces in a Word format. If you would like them
in another format, please let me know. And of course, if you have any
questions, please contact me. Also, if you do decide to use the
articles, could you send me a link to them? The authors will be very
interested. Thanks.
Tony Wright
From: Mike Manville
To: Tony Wright (BSMG)
Subject: Biotech Articles: Follow-up questions
Date: Friday, 16 February 2001

Dear Mr. Wright:

Thanks for letting us review the articles. Our interest in biotech at
this point, as I mentioned earlier, lies more in the debate over its
implementation (labeling, monopolistic practice, etc.) than its
scientific potential alone. The articles you have submitted, though
interesting, unfortunately do not address some of these issues head-on.

Also, and you must forgive me for if I sound skeptical, but I find it
unusual that three academics who work for non-profit organizations would
(or could) hire one of the world's largest PR firms to disseminate their
writings for free. I find it doubly unusual that the PR firm they choose
also happens to list as its clients transnational corporations like
Philip Morris, Monsanto, and Dupont, all of whom are heavily invested in
biotech. Finally, I find it triply unusual that this PR firm also
happens to have signed a three-year, $50 million contract with those
companies to design a program whose goal is to allay concerns over
genetically engineered food in the United States.

Would you care to comment on this? I would be interested in the
explanation. Anyone is welcome to submit an article to our magazine; we
only ask that They do so openly, honestly, and in the spirit of full

Best Regards,
Mike Manville
Freezerbox Editorial Board
From: Wright, Tony (BSMG)
To: Mike Manville
Subject: RE: Biotech Articles: Follow-up questions
Date: Monday, 26 February 2001

Mr. Manville

Sorry for the unintended confusion about who we represent. You are
correct that we do, of course, work for the Council for Biotechnology
Information, an organization whose goal is to promote the benefits of
biotechnology. In our work with the CBI we assist like-minded supporters
of the of the technology with their own media placement opportunities.

If you would like to discuss other ways that we can work with you,
please feel free to contact me. Thank you for your interest.

Tony Wright
BSMG Worldwide
As a senator once asked Robert MacNamara: "If I can't trust you on the
little lies, sir, how will I ever believe you on the big ones?"

The above exchange can be understood in two different ways. The first is
to see it simply as a lesson in the foibles of paying A grade money for
B grade public relations. BSMG advertises itself as a corporation with
"All the tools to change thinking," and one doubts that those tools come
cheap. On the other hand, having their PR representative get caught in a
lie, take ten days between emails to figure out the best way to handle
it, and then come back with a breezy apology about "unintended
confusion," changed my thinking about BSMG much more than it did about
biotechnology. And this is putting aside just who and what the Council
for Biotechnology Information is, something we'll address later. While
we're still on the topic of value, I would think that for whatever
astronomical fee BSMG charges its corporate clients, the company could
cough up a PR rep who was a little less creative with the relevant
geography (who knew, for instance, that Africa was a country?). This is,
in other words, not just lying but bad lying.

The second way to understand the exchange requires quite a bit of
background. Beyond being expensive incompetence, the emails we received
represent another salvo of propaganda from an industry that it is very
powerful but also increasingly desperate. It is the story of an ongoing
and underreported battle over the future of agriculture, and it involves
the systemic suppression of information, a quiet but massive
consolidation of the food market, and a depressing pattern of
collaboration by federal agencies. It has culminated in this latest PR
push, which is a series of outright lies told at the expense of the
least powerful people on earth.

The Players

Right now, sixty percent of the packaged food sold in America has been
genetically altered, meaning that some of its ingredients are derived
from organisms that do not occur in nature. This phenomenon, the genetic
engineering of food, is wholly unprecedented in history. Although
farmers have long practiced selective breeding, merging different seed
types to yield new traits in plants, scientists now can take genes from
completely unrelated organisms and drop them into plants. A breed of
corn developed by the French company Aventis, for instance, contains
bacteria and viruses that kill weeds, making the corn easier to grow.
And a form of Canola seed made by St. Louis-based Monsanto has genes
from California Bayseed, turnip rape, bacteria, and viruses.

Genetic engineering is the cutting-edge of biotechnology, and in some
quarters it is expected, without hyperbole, to be the biggest industry
of the twenty-first century. Unlike the Internet, whose vast potential
has yet to yield significant return, biotech lends itself easily to
profit. Monsanto, for instance, has developed a strain of soybean that
is immune to a Monsanto-made herbicide called Roundup, meaning that a
farmer can douse fields liberally with Roundup, and be confident that it
won't hurt his crops. This leads to purchases of both the seeds and the
pesticide, and plentiful amounts of the pesticide at that. Other
companies have grown crops genetically engineered to grow only if
planted with their own fertilizers. Buoyed by these innovative marketing
tactics, biotech has generated billions of dollars already, and is
expected to be an $8 billion enterprise by 2002. The field is dominated
by six massive and well-established corporations: Monsanto, Aventis,
Dupont, Dow Chemical, Novitis of Switzerland, and Germany's BASF AG.

Genetically Modified, or GM, ingredients are now found in countless
products containing soy and corn. Certain brand of chocolate bars, soy
sauce, corn oil, and baby formula all have GM products in them. In
addition, a large number of dairy cows are now treated with the
genetically-engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH), a
product made by Monsanto that can increase a cow's milk output by 25
percent. The milk, too, is genetically altered.

Most people aren't aware of this for a simple reason: GM food isn't
labeled. It would be neither fair nor accurate to say that genetically
altered food is unsafe, although it has certainly tripped some red
flags, particularly with respect to people who have allergies. The idea
that someone might unknowingly eat food that as altered with substances
they are allergic too has become increasingly common. In March, Aventis
had to recall millions of cases of its Bt corn. The corn, which is
genetically modified to produce its own pesticide as it grows, has not
been approved for human consumption, and is intended for use as animal
feed. But it had found its way into tortilla chips and other food
products, and was triggering reactions in humans.

Only a discriminating reader of the newspaper would be aware of this
recall, and might wonder, depending on the extent of the article, why
anyone would even think of eating a vegetable that emits its own
pesticide. The answer is that they don't. Put bluntly, genetically
altered food has been introduced into the American diet without an open
public debate or meaningful public consent. In 1992, after a quiet but
ferocious lobbying campaign by the biotech industry, the Food and Drug
Administration ruled that GM food is "substantially equivalent" to
conventional food, and categorized it GCAS, or "generally considered as
safe." This decision, made over the strident objections of groups such
as the Consumer's Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists, means
that GM food requires no independent testing before it is released;
individual companies test it themselves and submit the results to the
FDA. This is a classic example of corporate rights: the product, like a
person, is innocent until proven guilty. And most important for the
industry, as innocent food, it doesn't have to be labeled.

Labeling--or, more accurately, the absence of it--lies at the heart of
the biotech industry's marketing strategy. GM companies are afraid that
labeling their products would imply uncertainty about their safety,
trigger calls for new layers of regulation, and depress sales while
adding costs. Far better to allow the food to slip unnoticed into most
Americans' diets, and let it be assimilated. This strategy has forced
the industry into the awkward position of proclaiming themselves to be
on the cusp of a new scientific revolution--as they do when they patent
new seed varieties--while at the same time assuring regulators that
there is really nothing new about the food this revolution produces. The
contradiction here is easily swept away by the inevitability of Science,
a logical atom bomb that portrays doubters and opponents as illiterate
paranoids or, failing that, closet communists.

"Those of us in industry can take comfort of a sort from such obvious
Luddism," Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro wrote of biotech opponents, in the
Journal of the Center for the Study of American Business. "After all,
we're technical experts. We know we're right. The 'antis' obviously
don't understand the science, and are just as obviously pushing a hidden
agenda--probably to destroy capitalism."

This statement brims with so much condescension that one can almost
forget how lame an argument it is. One needn't be a scientist to
mistrust Dow Chemical--the company that made napalm a household
word--with one's food. Nor need one be an anarchist to harbor misgivings
about Monsanto, a company whose ability to police itself, and indeed to
be policed at all, is highly questionable.

The oldest and most aggressive of the food biotech companies, Monsanto
deserves a close look from anyone interested in genetic engineering. It
was founded in 1901, as Monsanto Chemical, to make saccharin, a
substance whose production was at that time monopolized by Germany. It
began as a small concern--the initial investment was $5,000--but grew
rapidly and diversified. In 1929 it began to produce polychlorinated
biphenyls, or PCBs, and eventually became the world's largest supplier
of them. PCBs had a variety of uses, but were used mostly to lubricate
electrical transformers. Evidence of their toxicity was first reported
in the 1930s, and in the 1960s Swedish scientists documented high levels
of them in dying wildlife. PCBs were finally banned in 1979, and the
United States has classified them as a "probable human carcinogen." PCBs
have left a broad legacy of environmental degradation; they are the
major pollutant at a number of Superfund sites, and most notoriously in
the Hudson River, where years of PCB discharge from General Electric has
left 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

Like other chemical companies, Monsanto was also a producer of DDT. The
pesticide famously indicted by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. Monsanto
had actually stopped making the pesticide by the time Carson's book was
first serialized in the New Yorker, but the company, fearful that public
attitudes would turn against pesticides in general, took action
nevertheless. Rather than confront Carson's evidence, however, it hired
a ghostwriter to pen The Desolate Year, a parody of Silent Spring that
depicted a pesticide-free America being ravaged by insects. The Desolate
Year was mailed free to over 5,000 media outlets, and applauded by
Walter Sullivan in the New York Times.

The late 1960s would bring other problems, however. In the company's
1977 official history, Faith, Hope and $5,000: The Monsanto Story, the
author--a former Monsanto PR director--looks back wistfully at the
tumult of the sixth decade, and notes with sympathy that while Dow was
being castigated for its involvement with napalm, Monsanto had little to
do with war-related controversy. The author does concede, however, that
the company was "occasionally mentioned as a manufacturer of 2,4,5-T
weed and brush killers, some of which were identified as defoliants used
during the war in Vietnam."

This sentence could be called disingenuous, or more accurately an
astounding act of omission. It is, in truth, an extremely oblique way of
saying that Monsanto made Agent Orange. The world's most notorious
defoliant is indeed created by combining the herbicides 2,4,5-T and
2,4,D, and frankly the Monsanto sells itself short by using such sterile
language to describe its product (the sentence I just quoted is the most
the book says about AO, and the defoliant is never named). Although a
number of corporations made Agent Orange, and all assured the Defense
Department that it was perfectly safe for humans, Monsanto's version was
significantly more potent than those of its competitors. When a
coalition of Vietnam Veterans successfully sued the manufacturers of AO,
a judge ordered that Monsanto pay 45.5 percent of the damages, in
recognition of its product being so much more heavily laden with

In 1985 Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held
the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in Nutra Sweet. Monsanto
was apparently untroubled by aspartame's clouded past, including a 1980
FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which
confirmed that it "might induce brain tumors." The FDA had actually
banned the drug based on this finding, only to have Searle Chairman
Donald Rumsfeld (currently the Secretary of Defense) vow to "call in his
markers," to get it approved. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald
Reagan's inauguration, Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use
aspartame in food sweetener, and Reagan's new FDA commissioner, Arthur
Hayes Hull, Jr., appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review
the board of inquiry's decision. It soon became clear that the panel
would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision, but Hull then installed a sixth
member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then broke
the tie in aspartame's favor. Hull later left the FDA under allegations
of impropriety, served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College,
and then took a position with Burston-Marsteller, the chief public
relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has
never spoken publicly about aspartame.

In 1982 the town of Times Beach, Missouri, which hosts a Monsanto plant,
was found to be so contaminated with dioxins that it had to be
evacuated. An investigation into Monsanto's culpability was stalled when
the Reagan Administration, citing Executive Privilege, ordered EPA
Administrator Anne Burford to withhold key documents from a House
Committee that had subpoenaed them. Reagan, it should be noted, had long
wanted to destroy the EPA, and absent his ability to, so he appointed
Burford to run it. She was cited for contempt of Congress for her
refusal to cooperate in the investigation of Monsanto, and later forced
to resign in 1984 amid charges of misusing Superfund money. Her top
assistant, Rita Lavelle, spent four months in jail for perjury for the
same reason. Lavelle had been suspected of destroying documents related
to the Times Beach case, and she regularly attended luncheons with
Monsanto executives.

In 1990 the EPA's regulatory division reported that Monsanto had
"submitted false information to EPA," and "doctored" samples of
herbicides given to the US Department of Agriculture. In urging a
criminal investigation of the company, the division noted that:

Monsanto covered up the dioxin contamination of its products. Monsanto
either failed to report contamination, substituted false information
purporting to show no contamination or submitted samples to the
government for analysis which had been specifically prepared so that
dioxin contamination did not exist.

The litany goes on. East St. Louis, Illinois, where the company
manufactured PCBs, still has the highest rate of fetal death in the
state. Monsanto has paid settlements to its own employees, who sued the
company on grounds that it knowingly exposed them to dangerous
substances. It ranks fifth on the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, having
expelled 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the United States. It
is identified as a "potentially responsible party" at 48 Superfund
sites, and since 1986 it has paid $148.5 million in fines and

And in 1996, it began to buy up agricultural research companies.
February of 1996 saw Monsanto partner with Dekalb Genetics, and three
months later it bought Agracetus for $150 million. In 1997 it acquired
Asgrow Agronomics, and days later spent $1.2 billion to pick up Holden
Foundation Seeds. The shopping spree continued from there: Calgene,
Cargill, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Delta and Pine Land, Water Health
International. All told, Monsanto spent $8.4 billion on companies most
people have never heard of. The effort pushed the company to its fiscal
limits; its stock plummeted, and observers speculated that it would be
taken over, perhaps by DuPont (it was ultimately bought out by
Pharmecia). But it emerged controlling 85 percent of the U.S. market for
cotton seed, 40 percent of the market for soy, and an awful lot of
agricultural genetic technology.

To complement its new acquisitions, the company also gave itself a
corporate makeover. It now has one web page covered with butterflies,
and another that depicts farmers conferring in a lush and vast field.
The corporate literature now liberally uses eco-buzzwords like
"sustainability," and the company has styled itself a "life sciences"
corporation. It sports the motto "Life. Health. Hope."

This is all well and good, but given the company's past, one wonders why
the federal government has given it such leeway in the creation of food.
Can a new PR campaign and the "life sciences" moniker really erase fifty
years of what could at best called horrible misjudgment, and at worst
outright disregard for human safety?

The company thinks so. The past is, after all, the past. "There have
been times in Monsanto's 94-year history," CEO Robert Shapiro wrote in
the 1995 Monsanto Environmental Review, "when we, like others, weren't
as aware of our actions as we should have been. Those days have been
over for a long time."

This was three years after the FDA had decided that biotech foods
required no labeling. That decision, it should be noted, was written by
an FDA Deputy Commissioner who, prior to joining the agency, had spent
seven years working at Monsanto. By 1999, he was working there again.

Anatomy of a PR Disaster

The first large-scale commercial plantings of GM crops went into the
ground in 1996. A year later they were seamlessly integrated into the
U.S. food chain, some directly, and others (such as most
genetically-engineered corn) as feed for beef. American agriculture is
an industry of exports, however, and trouble arose when the transgenic
food crossed the Atlantic.

Americans pride themselves on their distrust of government, but often
restrict their skepticism to Presidents and congressmen. Witness, for
example, the sententious debates over campaign finance. Finance reform
is a worthy goal, but it ignores the fact that our regulatory
agencies--most of which have a far greater impact on everyday life--are
equally if not more polluted by money than our federal elections.
Rarely, however, do these agencies come under our scrutiny.

This is not the case in Europe, where systems of strong central
government are checked by a vigilant suspicion of not just elected
officials but of the bureaucracy as well. At the time GM foods were
arriving, this ingrained suspicion had been compounded by waves of fear
over Mad Cow Disease in England and dioxin contamination in Belgium, and
thus many Europeans looked on transgenic food, rightly or wrongly, as
little more than a fresh opportunity to be poisoned. Protests erupted
over what was derisively called "frankenfood." Ships carrying GM crops
were turned away at docks, and sacks of genetically-altered seed were
dumped in ministries. Prince Charles denounced biotech food as unnatural
and dangerous.

In response, the European Union did exactly what the biotech industry
didn't want it to do. It passed a mandatory-labeling law for genetically
modified food, and began working on stringent regulations for them. The
governments of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, watching
the European uproar and hoping to avoid it, soon followed suit. European
food companies, including giants like Nestle, Cadbury and later
Carrefour, sought to allay consumer fears by pledging to use only
conventional ingredients.

Under these pressures, the export market for American corn collapsed.
Fear of genetic modification caused a 96 percent decline in sales to
Europe between 1997 and 1998. Alarmed at the lost income, the American
Corn Growers Association began advocating an abandonment of GM
technology, and a return to conventional farming. Then Frito-Lay
announced it would use no GM ingredients in its products, and a study in
the Nature revealed that Monarch butterflies trying to pollinate the
flowers of GM maize could be poisoned by the corn's
genetically-implanted toxins.

On and on it went. Scientists talked about the dangers of "genetic
pollution": the danger of GM crops escaping into the wild and
cannibalizing other varieties. Farmers in the developing world burned
fields of GM crops. For the biotech industry, this was a public
relations catastrophe that portended a still larger one. If the negative
momentum accumulated in Europe were to make its way back across the
Atlantic, then the entire infrastructure, the billions of dollars
expended to put the companies at their pinnacle of influence, would all
toboggan into an obscene loss. Already farmers felt angry and betrayed,
and advocates--emboldened by European labeling laws--were clamoring for
the FDA to reconsider its initial ruling. Fueled in no small part by
fear of transgenic crops, the organic food industry was growing at a
staggering 20 percent per year. Long derided as a backward niche market,
by 1998 organic farming had done $4 billion worth of business, making it
the same size as GM.

The low point came on October 27, 1998, when Monsanto CEO Shapiro gave a
keynote speech about genetic engineering at a "State of the World"
Conference in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. After his address he was
assaulted by members of the anarchist Biotic Baking Brigade (motto: "We
speak pie to power"), who smashed a tofu vegan cream pie in his face. A
member of the brigade, identified only as "Agent Apple," then
distributed a press release that ripped Monsanto for masquerading as an
environmental corporation, and accused it of a "PR Greenwash" that hid
its activities beneath an eco-friendly veneer.

Nine months later, Deutsche Bank, the largest bank in Europe, took the
unusual step of advising investors worldwide to sell their shares of
Novartis and Monsanto, citing the failed European campaign as evidence
that the market "wasn't ready for GMO." Greenpeace punctuated that
sentiment on February 18, 1999, when it dumped four tons of genetically
altered soybeans on the steps of 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister
Tony Blair resides. In a snide reference to the Clinton Administration's
support for biotech crops, as well as to Clinton's matrimonial
turbulence, activists unfurled a banner over the soy that read
"Tony--Don't Swallow Bill's Seed."

Two days later, the London Observer asked Dan Verakis, Monsanto's UK PR
spokesman, to assess the company's progress in Europe. Verakis was
succinct in his reply. "Everybody over here," he said, "hates us."

The Silencing Machine

If you are a Public Relations type, then you know there are two elements
to managing a crisis. The first is getting the critics to shut up, and
the second is shifting the public debate in a manner that makes everyone
start talking about something else, while they think they're talking
about the problem at hand.

In 1998, amid the European uproar about genetically modified food, the
prestigious British magazine Ecologist prepared an entire issue
dedicated to the biotech controversy. Two lengthy articles in the issue
detailed Monsanto's checkered past, as well as its cozy relations with
U.S. regulators. The issue was completed, but while the magazine was on
the press its printer--who had printed every issue of the outspoken
periodical for 26 years--abruptly destroyed it, citing fears of a libel
suit. The magazine found another printer willing to do the job, and then
learned that major newsstands were refusing to sell it. The issue
eventually ran, but went largely unnoticed, prompting Project Censored,
Sonoma State University's media watchdog group, to list it as one of the
most suppressed news stories of the year.

Monsanto insisted it had made no threats to the Ecologist's printer, and
in fact it may not have. British libel law places the burden of proof on
the accused, a punishing standard that has made printers sensitive and
triggered its share of bizarre trials (in the year 2000 a British
historian, sued for libel by a holocaust revisionist, actually had to go
to court to prove that the Holocaust took place). In such a hostile
legal atmosphere, Monsanto's reputation alone could act as a catalyst
for self-censorship, and preclude the need for an actual threat.

And Monsanto is, without a doubt, notoriously protective of its
reputation. The most instructive example of this is the case of
recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, the Monsanto drug, sold under the
name Posilac that induces higher milk production in cows. During the
drug's approval process, Monsanto hired no less than 10 PR firms, and
lobbied heavily to have the FDA rule that milk from rGBH-treated cows
need not be labeled as such. Once this approval was granted, the company
sent a letter to grocery stores, threatening to sue any supermarket that
voluntarily labeled rGBH milk.

A year later, in February of 1997, Florida's WTVT, a Fox affiliate,
abruptly pulled what had been advertised as an explosive look inside
Posilac's approval process. The series, investigated by the husband and
wife team of Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, disclosed that rGBH had made a
significant number of cows sick. More troubling was the fact that a
standard cancer test for a new drug involves two years of testing on
several hundred rats, but rGBH, according to Wilson and Akre, was tested
for 90 days on 30 rats, and the results of the tests were never
published. The series also featured health officials from Canada
alleging that Monsanto executives had offered them a multi-million
dollar bribe during Posilac's approval process there. (Canada ultimately
banned the drug, primarily for its danger to cows but also due to
potential hazards for humans.)

The story had been heavily promoted and was set to air during sweeps
week, but was scuttled when Monsanto's lawyer, the famed libel litigant
John J. Walsh, sent a letter to Fox News Chief Roger Ailes that made
thinly-veiled threats of a massive lawsuit. In the following months
Wilson and Akre rewrote the story 73 times in an attempt to appease
Fox's lawyers, who in turn were trying to appease Monsanto. Six airdates
were set and cancelled, and finally the Fox attorneys crafted their own
script, which omitted most criticism of Monsanto, and told Wilson and
Akre to air it. The two reporters refused, citing FCC rules that
prohibited the intentional broadcasting of false information. When
management refused to yield, Akre threatened to go the FCC, at which
point both she and Wilson were fired. Jobless, the two reporters
promptly filed a lawsuit against the station for violation of Florida's
whistleblower statute (the suit was ultimately successful, and details
of it can be viewed at www.foxbghsuit.com).

Walsh's letter capped a series of events that have effectively silenced
media criticism of food in the United States. In 1996 the Food Lion
supermarket chain won a massive libel decision against ABC, and shortly
thereafter the Chiquita Corporation won a similarly large judgement
against the Cincinnati Post. Both cases set a disturbing precedent,
because the media outlets lost despite being able to prove that their
information was correct. Traditionally, the veracity of information had
been an exculpatory factor in libel litigation, but the courts, in a
perverse interpretation of the law, had now said that a news outlet
could criminally defame a corporation by telling the truth about it.
(Walsh referenced the Food Lion case in his first letter to Fox, and in
a subsequent letter said that the WTVT segment contained "defamatory
statements which...could lead to...dire consequences for Fox News.")

This shift in the legal landscape was complemented by an aggressive
lobbying campaign from the American Farm Bureau Association, which
culminated in 12 states passing "Agricultural Disparagement
Statutes"--uniquely pointed libel laws designed to prevent the
slandering of certain foods. The first significant use of an
agricultural disparagement statute came in 1996, when Oprah Winfrey was
sued for having an open discussion about Mad Cow Disease on her TV
program. Winfrey won the initial decision in 1997 (prompting her to
crow, in her uniquely indefatigable way, that "free speech rocks!"), but
the case immediately went to appeal, and she had already spent $2
million of her own money. Most news organizations are unwilling to
invest in such a legal extravaganza, and as a consequence stories about
the GM food controversy are rarely given broad coverage in the United

In the media's silence, the industry has roared. In 1998, on the day
before Thanksgiving (one of the year's slowest news days), the U.S.
Department of Agriculture released draft standards for organic quality.
The standards were part of an effort begun eight years before, when
Congress had passed the National Organic Foods Production Act,
officially recognizing organic agriculture. As part of that law, the
USDA had appointed a National Organic Advisory Panel to determine what
the government definition of "organic" food should be.

The definition, as it turned out, would be broad. Observers, and
particularly organic growers, were stunned to find that the USDA had
almost completely ignored the recommendations of its own panel, and
instead drafted guidelines that eviscerated the existing benchmarks for
organic quality. Under the proposed measures, genetically altered foods,
irradiated food, foods grown on fields fertilized by sewage sludge,
crops doused in pesticide, and beef from taken from perpetually confined
farm animals could all be called organic. Also dropped into the
guidelines was a clause that gave the USDA a monopoly on the word
"organic" itself, making it illegal for independent producers to adopt
higher standards and create their own labels.

The implications of this, for a biotech industry terrified of labeling,
were obvious. Genetically-altered food could enjoy something far better
than being label-free; it could be given a label that most Americans
associated with only the highest levels of purity. It would also pry
open the door for the organic food market--a system of small,
independent businesses--to be taken over by large corporations. It is a
truism that the higher standards of organic farming preclude
mass-production, but with standards dropped to a level that allowed
factory-farming methods, there would be nothing to stop agribusiness
concerns from having their cake and eating it too. They could flood the
"organic" market, subsume its multi-billion dollar profits, and enjoy
the benefits of the organic name without the tedium of its practice. As
a bonus, should other nations--most of whom have very strict organic
regulations--object to the inclusiveness of the American rules, the
arbitrating body would be the World Trade Organization, an institution
that has consistently depressed world standards in order to foster
greater exchange.

It is reasonable to ask why the USDA would gut the rules for organic
quality. Part of the explanation might be the agency's traditional
proclivity for industrial agriculture (it was a proponent of DDT), and
its historic enmity to organic farming (it actually lobbied against the
Organic Foods Production Act). And certainly the comfortable
relationship that Monsanto had with the Clinton Administration didn't
hurt. Monsanto CEO Shapiro served on the President's Advisory Committee
for Trade and Policy Negotiations, and Mickey Kantor, who was Clinton's
Trade Representative from 1992-96, left his post to take a seat on
Monsanto's Board of Directors. Marcia Hale, a personal assistant to
President Clinton, went on to become the company's Public Affairs
Director in Britain.

The real problem, however, may lie in the evolution of the USDA, which
in the last fifteen years has become less a regulatory agency and more a
clearinghouse for corporate agriculture. In 1986, The Federal Technology
and Transfer Act made it legal for corporations to provide private
funding to the USDA, and for research done with that funding to be
patented by corporations. In 1992, under the auspices of this law, the
USDA set up the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization
Corporation, essentially an in-house venture capital firm. Since then
the AARG has invested more than $11 million in the Biotechnology
Research and Development Corporation, a private company funded by, among
others, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Dow Chemical, and the McDonald's
Corporation. These companies contribute to the BRDC and in exchange get
access to taxpayer-funded agricultural research. The BRDC's mission is
to find a commercial market for technological innovations in
agriculture, and any profits made in the sale of the research are split
evenly between the AARC, the BRDC, and the USDA. The USDA, in other
words, has a vested interest in the success of biotech products,
including, of course, genetically altered food. The alliance between
USDA and biotech has nothing to do with conspiracies or evil intent, and
everything to do with the fact that they, regulatory agency and
regulated corporation, have become business partners.

Given the stacked nature of this deck, it is to the credit of the
organic food community that the proposed standards were derailed. The
USDA received 275,000 letters during its public comment period, more
feedback than it had at any time in its history, and the overwhelming
outcry forced the agency to roll back its agenda.

On the other hand, the idea of pure food is still encroached on every
day. Supermarket giant Archer Daniels Midland now makes a soy burger, as
does Philip Morris. Watchdog groups say that both use
genetically-altered soybeans. While this may matter little to
vegetarians who eat soy products for no other reason than that they
contain no meat, it does undermine a larger idea of vegetarianism as a
purer and more natural diet. In a democracy, there is a crucial
difference between manufactured consent and informed consent. Informed
consent is the product of education and full disclosure. Manufactured
consent is the work of the lawsuits, lobbyists and revolving door
regulators. It relies on silence, and thrives on spin.

The Spin Machine

And so back, finally, to where we started: the emails to Freezerbox.
This is part two of the biotech PR strategy: redirecting the argument. A
look at the titles of the second and third essays, "Biotechnology: A
Tool to Help End World Hunger," and "Modern Biotechnology and Small
Farmers in Developing Countries," shows where we are headed. Biotech is
the planet's best hope for supplying food to a growing population.
Genetic engineering can let us make plants that will grow in deserts,
that will have vaccines built into them, that will be fortified with
extra vitamins. While we waste time debating labeling, the poor starve,
and if you oppose genetically-modified food, then you oppose feeding the
world, too. So good luck sleeping at night.

Good luck indeed. Before plunging into a sea of guilt, we should first
figure out just who is sending us these fine missives. BSMG is, as my
first return email noted, one of the world's larger public relations
firms. Its regular clients include Monsanto, Dow, Baxter Bayer, the
Grocery Manufacturers of America (an ardently pro-biotech group) and the
Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America. In addition, in
March of 2000, Monsanto, Dow, Aventis, Novitis, Dupont and BASF entered
a multiyear contract with BSMG, for the purpose of taking American
doubts about biotech and nipping them in the bud. The contract was
originally signed for $50 million, but the companies expressed a
willingness to spend up to $250 million to get their message out.

This is a remarkable step, and illustrates the seriousness with which
these companies fear a real discussion. These corporations are not,
after all, friends, and while they may work together in trade
associations, it is highly unusual for them to enter into joint PR
ventures. Last year Dupont even sued Monsanto, alleging theft of
intellectual property.

BSMG inaugurated its biotech campaign by taking two immediate steps. The
first was to set up the Alliance for Better Foods, a non-profit group
whose sole purpose is to advocate for GM products. The Alliance lists as
its most prominent sponsor the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and it
is run, according to a report in PR Watch, out of BSMG's Washington
office. BSMG's second step was to found the Council on Biotechnology
Information, a non-profit front group funded entirely by the six
companies named above. The CBI, readers will remember, is the group that
Mr. Wright is purporting to work for. It is an interesting arrangement:
his company is hired by six other companies to create a nonprofit he can
hide behind, not right away, but only after his initial claim--that he
works for three researchers--is found out. The true catalysts of the PR,
a group of wealthy corporations, lie three layers back, behind the
benevolent veils of academia and nonprofit advocacy. Welcome to the spin

With this in mind, if we look at the authors of the articles sent to
Freezerbox, and their respective affiliations, the story gets a bit more
interesting. Dr. Stanley Wallach works for the American College of
Nutrition, an organization sponsored by the Alliance for Better Foods.
Leonard Gianessi is described as a "senior research associate" at the
National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, but anyone who wanders
to the center's website can see that he is actually director of its
Pesticide Use Program. And the Pesticide Use Program is funded--as
anyone who clicks the mouse a few more times can learn--by Monsanto,
Dow, Dupont and Novartis.

Finally there is the question of Per Pinstrup Andersen, Director General
of the International Food Policy Research Institute. The IFPRI is one of
16 research centers run by the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an organization headquartered at the
World Bank. This makes it a tough nut to crack. The CGIAR is run jointly
by the World Bank, The United Nations' Food and Agriculture
Organization, and the United Nations Development Programme. In 1994, a
rumor that the Bank was planning to buy out the UN's shares of the CGIAR
caused a panic in the developing world.

The panic came because the CGIAR also happens to be the world's largest
repository of agricultural genetic material. It holds 40 percent of all
the genetic plant material stored on earth, a collection worth billions
of dollars. Currently it allows any researcher access to its gene bank,
on the condition that no research done with it can lead to a patent.
Such a free flow of information is contrary to every doctrine of the
World Bank, an organization whose love of secrecy is surpassed only by
its ebullience for markets and its history of very bad ideas. This led
observers to fear that the Bank, if left in command of the CGIAR, would
"help" the Third World by raffling off its genetic diversity. The
takeover plan went nowhere, however, and the CGIAR is, for the most
part, an admirable institution. It has condemned Monsanto in the past,
and rebuked the World Bank for concentrating it agricultural lending on
large-scale farms, rather than subsistence crop-growing. Mr. Andersen is
writing, perhaps, because he honestly believes that biotechnology will
feed the world.

And to be fair: will it? Do the deception, the libel threats, the use of
PR-created front groups and agenda-driven third party testimonials
really mean that the central point isn't true? And if that is the case,
shouldn't we abandon this debate about labeling, and move ahead, for the
benefit of the poor? "Most of the readers of these words have probably
never seen someone starve to death or suffer the consequences of
malnutrition," Dr. Wallach writes in the first sentence of his article.
"It's a testament to American productivity that most of us have been
spared first-hand knowledge of hunger." Similarly, Andersen's first
sentence reads, "It must be hard for an African farmer to understand the
debate currently raging in Europe about the use of modern
biotechnological methods in agricultural research." He then talks, as
Wallach does, about biotechnology creating crops that can grow in
difficult African soil, crops with enhanced vitamins and nutrients,
"miracle rice" with extra vitamin A that can prevent night blindness in
children. Crops, in other words, that will end hunger.

There are a few problems with this scenario. First, significant doubt
exists about whether biotech crops really do improve crop yields. A
widely-cited analysis of 1,800 university studies of
genetically-engineered crops shows that the biotech plants are actually
somewhat less productive than conventional varieties, and over 200
farmers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina have sued Monsanto over
the poor crop yields from genetically engineered cotton.

It is also worth noting that while biotech companies talk quite a bit
about "miracle rice" and other hunger-busting crops, none of these
corporations actually make them. Miracle rice was developed by a public
research institution; Monsanto's biggest GM product, Roundup Ready, is
designed not to feed the masses, but help the company sell more

But these are questions of intent and capability, both of which can be
changed. Monsanto, if it wanted to, could produce miracle rice, and
hitches in crop yield could probably be ironed out over time. The real
problem is more fundamental. Anderson says it must be hard for an
African farmer to understand why the Europeans debate biotech food while
she struggles to feed her family. And he is right. It probably is hard
for an African farmer, eking out a subsistence living, to follow the
controversy raging in Europe. But the African farmer would probably find
it harder still to understand why her own country is a net exporter of

Almost every organization that has studied the problem of hunger has
come to the conclusion that the quantity of the world's food supply has
almost nothing to do with it. According to the Institute for Food and
Development Policy, the preeminent hunger advocacy organization in the
United States, in the last 35 years the production of food has
outstripped the growth of population by 16 percent. There is currently
enough food on earth to feed every inhabitant over four pounds a day.
Hunger is not caused by lack of food, but by disparities in wealth that
deny vast portions of the population access to the food already
available. It is exacerbated by structural adjustment programs, levied
by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on scores of Third
World nations, that force agricultural products to be exported in order
to service debt. It is for this reason that India, with its 200 million
hungry citizens, is also one of the world's top food exporters, and that
many countries in sub-Saharan Africa regularly ship away the food they
produce. The United States, in fact, artificially depresses the world
food supply to keep prices up and protect farmers: mountains of surplus
grain sit in storage in our country, and the USDA subsidizes farmers to
keep production down. Every year the United States disposes of 48
million tons of good food.

By no means, then, does biotechnology fit into the hunger equation.
Hunger is a symptom of income inequality, and hurling wave after wave of
genetically-altered crops at the problem may ameliorate the symptom, but
it will exacerbate the source. If farmers in the developing world become
dependent on corporations for their seeds, then control of the food
supply will be further consolidated, and the inability of the poor to
access food--the real root cause of hunger--will be made worse.

What the biotech companies don't talk about is the fact that genetic
engineering turns food into intellectual property. A seed no longer
represents the work of nature, but the work of nature augmented by
millions of dollars of research. In the calculus of the free market,
those research costs must be recouped, and recouping these costs
fundamentally alters agrarian tradition, because it targets the age-old
practice of saving seeds from year to year. Monsanto has gone to extreme
lengths to prevent farmers from reusing their seeds. In the United
States it has hired Pinkerton detectives to raid farms, and encouraged
farmers to spy on their neighbors, and report anyone who is saving seed.
These efforts have resulted in almost 500 prosecutions for "seed
piracy." In the developing world, the company attempted to introduce a
genetically-altered seed that would kill itself after sprouting, thereby
forcing the world's poorest farmers to buy new seed each year. This
"Terminator" technology caused an international uproar, but the company
only backed down from it when the CGIAR, in a remarkably courageous
move, condemned it, vowed to block its use in development projects, and
urged Third World governments to ban it

The idea of patenting food an aggressively protecting that patent may be
a logical outgrowth of market economics, and in its place it may be
reasonable. But it is far from reasonable in the developing world. New
barriers to food will not end hunger. Nor, for that matter, will more

None of this, of course, is mentioned by the good people at BSMG, who
are first working for some nice academics, and then working for a
friendly non-profit, but never working for six companies who will pay
them up to $250 million to hide behind the plight of dying people in
Africa so their products will not have to be labeled in the United

There are 800 million hungry people in the world; 34,000 children starve
to death every day. There are those who consider this a tragedy, and
then are the biotech companies and their countless PR firms, who seem to
consider it a flawless hook for product branding. It is an insult of the
highest and most grotesque order to turn those who live from day to day
into the centerpiece of an elaborate lie. Maybe genetically-engineered
foods should be labeled. Maybe they shouldn't. But the companies who
make them, and the flacks who hawk their falsehoods, offer us a new
definition of depravity, a new standard to plunge for in our race to
care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all shame.

Following is a partial list of sources used. Other sources are cited in
the text, and facts found in more than three sources were considered
common domain.  Readers are urged to educate themselves on every side of
this issue, and the following sources may be helpful.

Alliance for Better Foods. www.betterfoods.org

Brayda, Deborah, "USDA, Inc.," MojoWire, April 7, 1998.

Shapiro, Robert, "The Welcome Tension of Technology: The Need for
Dialogue about Agricultural Biotechnology," The Center for the Study of
American Business, CEO Series, No. 37, February 2000

Brown, Paul, and Vidal, John, Guardian, (London) August 25, 1999.

Caufield, Catherine, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty
of Nations, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1997.

Charman, Deborah, "Force Feeding Genetically-Engineered Food," PRWatch,
Fourth Quarter, 1999.

Charman, Deborah, "Saving the Planet with Pestilent Statistics,"
PRWatch, Fourth Quarter, 1999.

Charman, Deborah, "Biotechnology Will Feed the World," PRWatch, Fourth
Quarter, 1999.

"Monsanto and the Council for Biotechnology Information," CorporateWatch

Ibid., "Greenwash Award of the Month."

Ibid., "The Next Generation of Frankenfoods." www.foodfirst.org

Forestal, Daniel J., Faith, Hope and $5,000: The Monsanto Story, 1977

George, Susan, How the Other Half Dies:The Real Reasons for World Hunger
Allanweld, Oscar and Company, Montclair, NJ 1977

George, Susan, A Fate Worse than Debt: The World Financial Crisis and
the Poor,
Grove Grove Wiedenfeld, New York, NY, 1990.

Guttenplan, DD, "Denying the Holocaust," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 285,
No. 2. February 2000.

Kahn, Jennifer, "The Green Machine," HarperŐs, April 1999.

Lilliston, Ben, and Cummins, Ron, "Organic vs. 'Organic': The Corruption
of a Label," Ecologist, July/August 1998.

Motion Magazine, November 9, 1998.

Philips, Peter, et. al., Censored 1999: The News that Didn't Make the
News, Seven Stories Press, New York, NY, 1999. www.purefood.org

Stauber, John, "Food Fight Comes to America," The Nation, December 27,

Stauber, John, and Rampton, Sheldon, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies,
Damn Lies, and the PR Industry, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME, 1995.

Tokar, Brian, "Monsanto: A Checkered History," Ecologist, Sept/ October

Ibid., "Monsanto and the Regulators."

"What is Biotechnology?" Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucs.org

"What is the CGIAR?" The World Bank Group, www.worldbank.org








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