Gmofreefood’s Weblog

Monsanto Declares P.R. War Against Food Inc. Film
April 22, 2010, 8:04 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Monsanto Co. is leading Big Ag’s PR offensive against Food Inc., the searing documentary on industrial agriculture that opened Friday. That’s not surprising. The chemical giant comes off as the biggest bogeyman in the film, which focuses on the company’s genetic seed patents, alleged bullying of farmers and efforts to influence politicians.

What is surprising is that Monsanto is tying its response to the movie to a discredited front group called the Center for Consumer Freedom. It seems too obviously payback for at least $200,000 that Monsanto has contributed to the supposedly nonprofit organization.

The company’s PR offensive against Food Inc. is no ham-handed reaction. It includes a very slick (of course) web page featuring an interactive seven-question quiz and the following characterization of the movie:

Food, Inc. is a one-sided, biased film that the creators claim will “lift the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that’s been hidden from the American consumer.” Unfortunately, Food, Inc. is counter-productive to the serious dialogue surrounding the critical topic of our nation’s food supply.

A couple of points may undermine Monsanto’s message, however. A core theme on the company’s site is that Food Inc. “demonizes American farmers.” But the movie actually positions itself as siding with family farms against agribusiness and accuses the ag industry of doing precisely what Monsanto is doing in response to the movie: conflating its interests with those of small farmers.

Maybe this is smart on Monsanto’s part. Both sides in the Great Food Debate brandish the “family farmer” as a talisman against the claim that they’re elitists. But Monsanto inherently will have a more difficult time maintaining that it’s the friend of farmers — especially, family farmers — at the same time it’s aggressively going after farmers in lawsuits.

And that standing-up-for-the-little-ol’-farmer line gets a bit harder to take when you consider that Monsanto is directing readers from its own website to the Center for Consumer Freedom. The center is one of a dozen or so front groups created by Washington lobbyist Rick Berman to push the interests of some of America’s least popular industries.

You may have read about Berman earlier this year, when his son, former Silver Jews front man David Berman, quit his band on the same day that he wrote a statement calling his father “a despicable man” and “sort of human molester” for the “evil” work he does.

He props up fast food/soda/factory farming/childhood obesity and diabetes/drunk driving/secondhand smoke.

He attacks animal lovers, ecologists, civil action attorneys, scientists, dieticians, doctors, teachers.

His clients include everyone from the makers of Agent Orange to the Tanning Salon Owners of America.

Among other causes, Rick Berman has fought against  minimum wage increases, tougher drunk-driving laws and tobacco regulations. He’s claimed the nation’s rising obesity rate is a “myth” created by “food police” and that there’s a “lack of evidence that second-hand smoke causes cancer.”

Berman specializes in going for the opposition’s jugular on behalf of unpopular causes. His targets have included such feel-good organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Human Society of the United States, and a host of independent scientists. But he’s secretive about the groups that fund him. As he told 60 Minutes:

You’re just not going to get a lot of companies who want to say that ‘I’m funding Rick Berman to go after you.’ … Take a deep breath and get over it. I’m not going away.

According to The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Berman’s nonprofits also have caught flack for funneling money back to his own lobbying firm. But his clients appear perfectly happy with that setup (maybe, it’s because they can get tax benefits for contributing to a “nonprofit” groups when what they’re really engaging in is public relations).

Still, bits and pieces are known about Berman’s sponsors. Cigarette maker Philip Morris provided $600,000 in seed money for center (which was at first called the Guest Choice Network) and has provided at least $2.95 million to Berman’s groups over the years, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. In addition to Monsanto, agribusiness companies that gave at least $200,000 to the Center for Consumer Freedom include Cargill, Coca-Cola and Tyson’s Food; the parent companies of Wendy’s, Arby’s and White Castle were among the fast-food sponsors.

The fact that the center keeps its fiscal information secret does raise an obvious question: Did Monsato and company pay extra to get Berman and company to say stuff like this?

Buying organic foods will hurt your pocketbook more than it will help your health or the environment. Wishing for more laws and regulations won’t make them any easier to write or enforce. And shaking a fist at the companies who provide millions of Americans with access to affordable foods won’t change anything.

By tying its cause to a group that calls itself Consumers for Free Choice, when “consumers” have nothing to do to with the group, Monsanto is associating its own argument with a bit of a charade. Regardless of the merits the of the Great Food Debate, the company’s lack of credibility now becomes the issue.

Activists call such organizations “Astroturf,” after the fake grass, because they pose as grass-roots organizations but actually are the products of corporate investments. Get it? Hmm … wait a second … what big chemical company invented Astroturf in the first place?