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February 28, 2010

Monsanto fights its 'bad boy' public image

by Dan Piller

Monsanto has an image problem, Chief Executive Hugh Grant says.

“We’re not who people say we are,” Grant said. “There are a lot of misperceptions, many based on fear of the unknown, about us.”

The company’s image is improving as it promotes its efforts to feed the world, provide more healthful grains and use the Earth’s resources more responsibly, Grant said.

Specialists said genetically modified seeds could help boost food production, which must rise 70 percent by 2050 to feed a growing population, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Grant said lines of biotech seeds are planned that will require less water and nitrogen, helping put Monsanto on the right side of environmental and climate change debates.

“If we’re debating whether climate change is real, (and) right now I’m betting that it is, then improvements in seed technology will be one of the leading ways to combat the problem,” he said.

The company has faced decades of controversy as one of the world’s largest maker of controversial pesticides, such as DDT and 2,4-D, the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange and Lasso and Roundup herbicides.

Monsanto reaches deeply into the supermarket shelves as maker of the feedstock grains that produce meats, breads and produce, as well as vegetable oils and ethanol. But it continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.

Monsanto entered the seed business in the early 1990s and helped lead the “biotech revolution,” genetically engineering corn and soybean seeds to resist herbicides and insecticides and to provide better yields.

Although biotech seeds are routinely approved by regulators in the United States and now in South America, they still generate controversy.

The growing movement to organic and locally raised foods is in part a backlash against what critics call “Frankenfoods,” which some fear lead the way to long-term genetic and health problems in consumers.

Last year, the producers of the documentary “Food Inc.” cast Monsanto as the biotech corporate villain. Blogger Shelly Roche launched RealityBytes.TV, where her anti-Monsanto essays are seen by about 165,000 viewers on the Internet each month.

“I can see why farmers like the new seeds,” said Neil Harl, professor emeritus at Iowa State University in Ames. “It makes them better farmers, and they can do it more easily.”

But Harl said, “Monsanto has always been seen as the bad boy of agriculture.”

The company has taken several steps to improve its image. It hosted the late Norman Borlaug at its St.Louis headquarters, and after Borlaug’s death last year used the Nobel Prize winner’s words and image to align itself with Borlaug’s green revolution. It has connected with the Bill Gates Foundation to put its drought-tolerant seeds in Africa to bolster yields there.

Monsanto also said it is promoting farmers above itself in new “America’s Farmers” ads. The ads avoid mention of its products in favor of supporting farmers “who provide America’s jobs and foods.”

Growers “feel misunderstood,” Grant said. “They’ve never been asked to do more. … If Iowa farmers don’t succeed, we don’t succeed.”

Des Moines Register

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