Dear National Press Foundation: Thank you for helping @MonsantoCo to buy more journalists

TO: Sandy K. Johnson
President of the National Press Foundation:

Ms. Johnson, I respect your career as a journalist, particularly your legacy as Associated Press COB in Washington, DC. I also respect the mission of the National Press Foundation, especially these days when journalism as a craft and a community is on the ropes.

Yet I was so very dismayed to learn of the National Press Foundation’s Food, from Farm to Table “bootcamp,” which sounds like little more than junket, paid at least in part by Monsanto. As disheartening were your recent comments defending such a program.

“Johnson did say that she personally initiated the NPF’s sponsorship relationship with Monsanto after she found herself seated next to a member of the Monsanto board of directors at a dinner party in January. She also said that once Monsanto signed on as a sponsor, the NPF decided to locate the conference in St. Louis in order to include a visit to the company’s labs in their programming. When asked if she was familiar with Monsanto’s controversial reputation, Johnson replied, “In whose eyes? In your eyes? I’m familiar with the Monsanto that created research and science around agriculture that has allowed the United States to feed the world.”

Now I understand that the food journalism community can be pretty quick to pounce. And there are many sides to the complex story of food and food politics. But this program and your conversation with Helen Rosner at Eater reveal two disturbing problems.

Now, you might rightly stand on your word that this junket would be fair and balanced, that adult journalists can decide for themselves, that NPF wants to shed light on a multifaceted issue, etc. I agree that a tour of Monsanto should be included in such a program as should your planned tour of an organic farm. And yes, I think that Monsanto’s side needs to be heard, and questioned critically. I think a visit Whole Foods and to Aldi is on order. I think checking out the refrigerators of the rich in Clayton and the poor in North St. Louis would be revealing. Go stand in the middle of vast corn fields in southern Illinois. Compare their soil to that of a permaculture plot developed by EarthDance Farms of Ferguson, Mo. Speak with scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden (or bring some from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or the University Missouri at Columbia). Take a day trip up to Decatur, Ill. and visit Archer Daniels Midland. On your way back check the small and largish dairy production around Breese, Ill.

Such activities will surely make your junket less junket-y.

But why should Monsanto foot the bill? Do you/NPF not see a real conflict of interest? Do you not think that there’s at least the potential for impropriety or the appearance there of? Can you swear that Monsanto at no point has influence on the itinerary? Do you not see that by taking Monsanto’s money, you allow them to buy influence? The rules of the exchange are changed, right?

I remember the old AP “rules” that I learned as an intern and stringer. We took free water if we were thirsty; the rest of the sponsorships, junkets, food at events, transportation with the campaign — I was taught — was to be refused or paid back if absolutely necessary. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten why those rules — informal or official — were so strictly promoted as a code of conduct.

Is it the case that the junket couldn’t happen without Monsanto funding? I do suspect you wouldn’t be able to offer an all-expenses-paid trip to St. Louis. Which is also probably what Monsanto wants. In that case, don’t do it; find other funding creative ways to train journalists on these matters without compromising your/NPF’s integrity.

Now, on a more personal note, your blathering and defensiveness reveals you as biased on these issues — consciously or not.

You say got the idea from a NatGeo issue? You were sitting at a dinner party next to a Monsanto bigshot and struck up a conversation? Congratulations. Are you so removed from these concepts that you weren’t already aware of their complexity and Monsanto’s role? Are you really claiming you are unaware that Monsanto is controversial and not always considered an altruistic corporation interested in ending hunger? Do you think Monsanto critics are just some hippy fringe? There’s no reason for concern with GMOs and the politics of GMOs and corporate control of the food system? You’re absolutely unbiased in all this?

No, Ms. Johnson, I think you have plenty of bias, and you quite plainly reveal it. You apparently got riled up and pushed back at Ms. Rosner, but in doing so, you openly take a stand on your benefactor Monsanto — and apparently the highly contentious politics of food, aid, subsidies, intellectual property rights, trade, policy, freedom of expression, tort law and more. Your unskeptical description of Monsanto as supporting the food-providing United States is company salespitch and/or jingoistic propaganda more than truth.

As a final justification, you attempt to dismiss your skeptical interviewer because you claim some authority, having grown up on a farm. I agree that once perhaps put you closer to some of these issues (though probably not the extensive complexity of agro-food politics today) than people who don’t grow up in and around farming towns.

But that last credential doesn’t excuse your (and NPF’s) abrogation of basic journalistic principles. You might like Monsanto enough to take their money. And you apparently can’t see your own bias (bias is funny that way).

But I hope enough journalists do see through Monsanto’s attempt to buy media coverage, in which you are now complicit.


Adam Jadhav

P.S. Before you dismiss me. My very first job was detasseling corn. My second was stocking food at a grocery store. Several years later I interned with the Associated Press. I became a political reporter in St. Louis. I left journalism for a graduate degree in global environmental politics. I now live in India conducting research (and hands-on experiments) in sustainable agro-ecology. From there to here, it’s very interesting to how Monsanto and the United States do or do not “feed the world.”

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UPDATED: Eat your public domain broccoli. Or eat Monsanto’s. They might be nearly the same.

Every time I wade into thinking about corporate control of agriculture, it steals several hours of my life and I usually end up flustered and wrong. Alas, I’ve done it again.

UPDATE AT BOTTOM with a response from one of the scientists involved. As always, there is more to the story. The short of it: The major breakthrough, it seems, would be held in public trust. Corporations will pay licensing fees to use it in their adaptations. Not sure this will ultimately circumvent the market power and hegemony of players like Monsanto, but it’s a start.

Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones writes about the prospect of fresher summer broccoli east of the Rockies. A number of land grant university scientists are trying to make a heat-tolerant variety of broccoli, so we don’t have to always buy it from California. And they want their creation to be public domain.

Smaller seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds are involved. But so are Monsanto and Syngenta. Errp.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny’s license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. “Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli,” he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny’s and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli in the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they’d prefer not to.

Monsanto and Syngenta are partners but they ostensibly have no control over the science. If the goal is public seeds, what’s their incentive?

Well, corporate seed developers can piggyback, right? Cross the public domain strain with a so-called proprietary variety, gain the breakthrough trait and then market the patented seeds (someday, RoundUp Ready broccoli, perhaps?) in competition with the public domain variety.

Philpott’s post has been lit up by the anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto crowd, somewhat unfairly. But I’ll hazard a guess that the legitimate backlash here exists — ideology and parroting not withstanding — because when you look into the future, this feels a lot like more of the same.

Maybe both varieties exist, but Monsanto and Syngenta also have the extraordinary market control and access to the levers of power that allow them to continue to profit further off what supposed to be a public good — in this case, a specific variety of broccoli that withstands heat.

So… perhaps East Coasters and Midwesterners eat more broccoli, most likely Monsanto and Syngenta continue to make money, maybe fledgling seed companies limp along and I guess that means all is right with the world? Of course, Monsanto and Syngenta also pump money back into rent-seeking, into further proprietary tweaking, into legal wrangling and into spin/manipulation. So we’re no more disentangled from a fundamentally inequitable and self-destructive agro-food system.

An analogy: Give a team of little league-ers and the Yankees the same balls, bats and diamond and tell them to square off in a month. Who do you think wins? Do we call that outcome fair, sporting or right because they had the same rules and the same playground? Is that what we wish to accept?

At a basic level, that scenario is not so far from giving the organic farm co-op (or even Johnny’s of Maine) the same publicly held seeds as Monsanto and telling them to compete on the market. Except that instead of the warm and fuzzies of kids in baseball jerseys, we have another corner of the food system at stake.

Understand, I’m not trying to simply poo-poo this because Monsanto or Syngenta is involved. I support public science. I support locally grown. A public domain heat-tolerant broccoli might be a good thing. But my core argument here, however, remains that this by itself does little to reform an industrial food system. If a corporation can effectively co-opt another public good — and they seem to be good at that — then we’re mostly left where we started.

Here’s a response from Thomas Björkman, a scientist at Cornell, who is part of the team behind this.

Your concern is one that we thought deeply about when developing the proposal for this project. The answer is a bit more complex than you lay out.

First, there will be many varieties developed out of this project. Just this year, before the companies began using any publicly developed germplasm, three companies released five new varieties that are better than what was on the market before. (Better, at least for specific markets and growing periods). When the public germplasm is used by the seed companies we will see further advances and many more varieties. It is not a scenario that makes market control easy. Farmers will buy the varieties that work for their location and market, so the breeders who deliver that will make the sales. Seed companies will all be in competition with each other for the eastern broccoli market.

The source of the really good eastern adaptation is not a public domain variety. That will be in germplasm (collections of different genotypes) developed by my colleagues at USDA, Cornell and Oregon State. Companies that want to use it will have to to license specific materials for use in their breeding programs. This structure also prevents control of essential traits by any one entity. In addition, the licensing fees allow public breeding for the public good to continue.

Also, our goal is the public good, not specifically public-domain seeds. There is one public domain population, developed by the Northern Organic
Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. We are mainly helping get it in
commercial distribution so that farmers can buy quality seed.These days, “public domain” and “public sector” are not the same.

Thomas Björkman, Cornell

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