Does Monsanto Have a Place at an Eco-Convention?

The biotech company sponsored some panelists and moderators who traveled to Austin for SXSW Eco.

A panel at the SXSW Eco convention. (Photo: Janice Person/Facebook)

Oct 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There’s been a sea change in the conversation around genetically engineered foods. While you can still find fearmongering over health risks and conspiracy theories about the widespread use of unapproved G.E. crops, a more sober, contemplative tone has emerged among journalists and bloggers who cover the issue.

There was the lengthy, well-reported series by Grist’s Nathanael Johnson in which he concluded, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters.” And then came Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times, “G.M.O.s are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing.” Even as voters endure a final couple of weeks of ads from well-funded opposition campaigns fighting GMO labeling laws in Colorado and Oregon, there’s a growing chorus of voices saying that such regulations would not be the panacea some are hoping for.

But Monsanto? Monsanto can still raise ire like no other, even if the likes of Johnson and Bittman are writing stories that some misconstrue as being supportive of the biotech giant.

Lately, the company has been trying to burnish its image by courting some of its critics. Modern Farmer recently detailed Monsanto's push to win over mommy bloggers by inviting them to tour a facility in Northern California, guided by female employees.

That effort appears to have humanized the company for the visiting bloggers, but a similar effort to have something of a voice and a presence at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, didn’t go quite so well, according to Mother Jones' Tom Philpott, who spoke on the panel “GMOs Real Talk: The Hype, the Hope, the Science.”

“Then, at the very end of the hour, during the Q&A session, a SXSW Eco staffer took the mic and dropped a bombshell,” he writes. “She alleged that the GMO seed/pesticide giant Monsanto had sponsored several earlier panels—paying the travel expenses of the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers.”

The company pitched two panels that were picked up for the conference, and “we offered to pay travel/hotel expenses for the panelists and we asked that the participants fully disclose this, both on social media and at the beginning of the panel discussions,” wrote Janice Person, who does online engagement for Monsanto.

“The goal was open, honest dialogue—something all of us agreed was paramount,” she continued.

At the beginning of both panels—one on honeybee health, the other titled “Farming to Feed 9 Billion”—those disclosures were made by the moderators and panelists who had their travel expenses paid by Monsanto.

So is there some sort of conflict or problem here? Another instance of Monsanto’s evil machinations? Philpott writes, “Apparently, McDonald’s disclosure from the stage was the first indication of Monsanto’s involvement that the conference’s organizers got.” The company may have “brought drama” to Philpott’s panel, but it seems that all parties would have been better off if things stuck to the “open, honest dialogue” that Person had in mind.