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<nettime> Under the banner of populist protest, multinational corporatio
Soenke Zehle on Thu, 12 Dec 2002 08:51:32 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Under the banner of populist protest, multinational corporations manufacture the poor

There is, of course, no dearth of material on Monsanto, the bigbadboy of
agbiotech. But the 'Let the Harvest Begin' story is still worth a read
(http://www.ukabc.org/gaiamon1.htm), at least to appreciate the shifts in
Monsanto's PR described below. In the US, the growth of corporate grassroots
aka 'astroturf' orgs is a well-known phenomenon, apparently it's being
exported. I tend to think of Monsanto as a good benchmark of where corporate
PR is these days.

For context, also recall the (ongoing) controversy over GM food aid to
Africa (latest US statement: rejecting GM food aid amounts to a 'a crime
against humanity'), where the back-and-forth between the US and the EU
(quick to supply non-GM food aid, of course) is beginning to look like yet
another example of proxy superpowerism displaced onto the terrain of trade
and technology. As studies show less and less acceptance of GMOs among
wealthy consumers across the globe, there's no real alternative to making
the poor eat it, it seems. But maybe the EU will soon dispatch its own
delegation of authentically poor peasants to stave off US corporate


via genet-news mailing list
archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html

SOURCE: Freezerbox Magazine, by Jonathan Matthews
DATE:   Dec 3, 2002

Under the banner of populist protest, multinational corporations manufacture
the poor

"Carrying his placard the man in front of me was clearly one of the poorest
of the poor. His shoes were not only threadbare, they were tattered, merely
rags barely being held together."

So begins a graphic description of a demonstration that took place at the
Earth Summit in Johannesburg. The protesters were "mainly poor, virtually
black, and mostly women... street traders and farmers" with an unpalatable
message. As an article in a South African periodical put it, "Surely this
have been the environmentalists, worst nightmare. Real poor people marching
the streets and demanding development while opposing the eco-agenda of the
Green Left."

And seldom can the views of the poor, in this case a few hundred
demonstrators, have been paid so much attention. Articles highlighting the
march popped up the world over, in Africa, North America, India, Australia
and Israel. In Britain even The Times ran a commentary, under the heading,
do not need white NGOs to speak for me".

With the summit's passing, the Johannesburg march, far from fading from
view, has taken on a still deeper significance. In the November issue of the
journal Nature Biotechnology, Val Giddings, the President of the Biotech
Organization (BIO), argues that the event marked "something new, something
very big" that will make us "look back on Johannesburg as something of a
watershed event - a turning point." What made the march so pivotal, he said,
that for the very first time, "real, live, developing-world farmers" were
"speaking for themselves" and challenging the "empty arguments of the
self-appointed individuals who have professed to speak on their behalf."

To help give them a voice, Giddings singles out the statement of one of the
marchers, Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation.
"Traditional organic farming...," Reddy says, "led to mass starvation in
India for
centuries... Indian farmers need access to new technologies and especially

Giddings also notes that the farmers expressed their contempt for the "empty
arguments" of many of the Earth Summiteers by honoring them with a "Bullshit
Award" made from two varnished piles of cow dung. The award was given, in
particular, to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, for her role in
"advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and hunger"

A powerful rebuke, no doubt. But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is the
President of BIO, for almost every element of the spectacle he describes has
been carefully contrived and orchestrated. Take, for instance, Chengal
the "farmer" that Giddings quotes. Reddy is not a poor farmer, nor even the
representative of poor farmers. Indeed, there is precious little to suggest
he is even well-disposed towards the poor. The "Indian Farmers Federation"
that he leads is a lobby of big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On
occasion Reddy has admitted to knowing very little about farming, having
farmed in his life. He is, in reality, a politician and businessman whose
are a prominent right-wing political force in Andhra Pradesh - his father
having coined the saying, "There is only one thing Dalits (members of the
untouchable caste) are good for, and that is being kicked".

If it seems open to doubt that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the poor
speak for themselves, the identity of the march's organizers is also not a
source of confidence. Although the Times, headline said "I do not need white
to speak for me", the media contact on the organizers' press release was
"Kendra Okonski", the daughter of a US lumber industrialist who has worked
various right wing anti-regulatory NGOs - all funded and directed, needless
say, by "whites". These include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a
Washington-based "think tank" whose multi-million dollar budget comes from
US corporations, among them BIO member Dow Chemicals. Okonski also runs the
website Counterprotest.net, where her specialty is helping right wing
lobbyists take to the streets in mimicry of popular protesters.

Given this, it hardly needs saying that Giddings' "Bullshit Award" was far
from, as he suggests, the imaginative riposte of impoverished farmers to
India's most celebrated environmentalist. It was, in fact, the creation of
right-wing pressure group - theLiberty Institute - based in New Delhi and
well known for its fervent support of deregulation, GM crops and Big

The Liberty Institute is part of the same network that organized the rally:
the deceptively-named "Sustainable Development Network." In London, the SDN
shares offices, along with many of its key personnel - including Okonski -
with the International Policy Network, a group whose Washington address just
happens to be that of the CEI. The SDN is run by Julian Morris, its
director, who also claims the title of Environment and Technology Programme
Director for the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that has
advocated, amongst other interesting ideas, that African countries be sold
off to
multinational corporations in the interests of "good government".

The involvement of the likes of Morris, Okonski and Reddy doesn't mean, of
course, that no "real poor people," were involved in the Johannesburg march.
There were indeed poor people there. James MacKinnon, who reported on the
summit for the North American magazine Adbusters, witnessed the march first
and told of seeing many impoverished street traders, who seemed genuinely
aggrieved with the authorities for denying them their usual trading places
the streets around the summit. The flier distributed by the march organizers
recruit these people played on this grievance, and presented the march as a
chance to demand, "Freedom to trade". The flier made no mention of
"biotechnology" or "development", nor any other issue on the "eco-agenda of
the Green

For all that, there were some real farmers present as well. Mackinnon says
he spotted some wearing anti-environmentalist t-shirts, with slogans like
"Stop Global Whining." This aroused his curiousity, since small-scale
farmers are not normally to be found among those jeering the "bogus science"
climate change. Yet here they were, with slogans on placards and T-shirts:
"Save the Planet from Sustainable Development", "Say No To Eco-Imperialism",
"Greens: Stop Hurting the Poor" and "Biotechnology for Africa". On
the protesters, however, Mackinnon discovered that all of the props had been
made available to the marchers by the organizers. When he tried to converse
with some of the farmers about their pro-GM T-shirts, "They smiled shyly;
of them could speak or read English."

Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers - according to
Giddings, there were farmers on the march from five different countries -
afforded the journey to Johannesburg from lands as far away as the
Philippines and
India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion. In late 1999 the New York
Times reported that a street protest against genetic engineering outside an
public hearing in Washington DC was disrupted by a group of
African-Americans carrying placards such as "Biotech saves children's lives"
and "Biotech
equals jobs." The Times learned that Monsanto's PR company,
had paid a Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood to bus in these
"demonstrators" as part of a wider campaign "to get groups of church
members, union
workers and the elderly to speak in favor of genetically engineered foods."

The industry's fingerprints are all over Johannesburg as well. Chengal
Reddy, the "farmer" that the President of BIO singled out as an example of
from the poorer world "speaking for themselves", has for at least a decade
featured prominently in Monsanto's promotional work in India. Other groups
represented on the march, including AfricaBio, have also been closely
with Monsanto's lobbying for its products. Reddy is known to have been
to Johannesburg by AfricaBio.

And here lies the real key to the President of BIO's account of the march,
and specifically to the attack on Vandana Shiva. Monsanto and BIO want to
project an image of GM crop acceptance with a Southern face. That's why
Monsanto's Internet homepage used to be adorned with the faces of smiling
children. So when an Indian critic of the biotech industry gets featured, as
was recently, on the cover of Time magazine as an environmental hero, the
brand is under attack, and has to be protected.

The counterattack takes place via a contrarian lens, one that projects the
attackers' vices onto their target. Thus the problem becomes not Monsanto
using questionable tactics to push its products onto a wary South, but
agents of the rich world obstructing Monsanto's acceptance in a welcoming
Third World. For this reason the press release for the "Bullshit Award"
Shiva, amongst other things, of being "a mouthpiece of western
eco-imperialism". The media contact for this symbolic rejection of
neocolonialism? The
American, Kendra Okonski. The mouthpiece denouncing an Indian
as an agent of the West is a ... Western mouthpiece.

The careful framing of the messages and the actors in the rally in
Johannesburg provides but one particularly gaudy spectacle in a continuing
parade. In particular, the Internet provides a perfect medium for such
where the gap between the virtual and the real is easily erased.

Take the South-facing website Foodsecurity.net, which promotes itself as
"the web's most complete source of news and information about global food
security concerns and sustainable agricultural practices". Foodsecurity.net
to be "an independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world".
Despite its global reach, however, Foodsecurity.net's only named staff
is its "African Director", Dr. Michael Mbwille, a Tanzanian doctor who's
forever penning articles defending Monsanto and attacking the likes of

The news and information at Foodsecurity.net is largely pro-GM articles,
often vituperative in content and boasting headlines like "The Villainous
Vandana Shiva" or "Altered Crops Called Boon for Poor". When one penetrates
the news pages, the content is very limited. A single message graces the
messageboard posted by an myoung {AT} bivwood.com - the domain name of The
Group, an internet PR company that numbers Monsanto among its clients.
also an event posting from an Andura Smetacek, recently identified in an
article in The Guardian as an e-mail front used by Monsanto to run a
campaign of
character assassination against its scientific and environmental critics.

The site is registered to a Graydon Forrer, currently the managing director
of Life Sciences Strategies, a company that specializes in "communications
programmes" for the bio-science industries. A piece of information that is
usually disclosed in Graydon Forrer's self-presentation is that he was
previously Monsanto's director of executive communications. Indeed, he seems
have been working for the company in 1999 - the same year the site of this
"independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world" was first
registered. Foodsecurity's "African Director", Dr. Mbwille, is not,
in Africa at the moment. He is enjoying a sabbatical observing medical
practice in St. Louis, Missouri - the home town, as it happens, of the

Foodsecurity.net forms but one of a whole series of websites with
undisclosed links to biotech industry lobbyists or PR companies, as our
research has demonstrated. But despite the virtual circus oscillating about
him, if
the President of BIO were really interested in hearing poor "live,
developing-world farmers ... speaking for themselves", he need look no
further than
Chengal Reddy's home state of Andhra Pradesh. Here small-scale farmers and
landless laborers were consulted as part of a meticulously conducted
jury" on World Bank-backed proposals to industrialize local agriculture and
introduce GM crops. Having heard all sides of the argument, including as it
happens the views of Chengal Reddy, the jury unanimously rejected these
proposals, which are likely to force more than 100,000 people off the land.
citizens' juries on GM crops in Brazil and in the Indian state of Karnataka
have come to similar conclusions - something that the President of BIO is
almost certainly aware of.

But rainchecks on the real views of the poor count for little in a world
where "something new, something very big" and "a turning point" in the
march towards our corporate future, turns out to be Monsanto's soapbox
behind a
black man's face.

... Since 1998 Jonathan Matthews has been researching and writing on the
industrial alignment of the bio-sciences, and the public relations
activities of
the biotech industry and its supporters. He co-founded the campaigning news
and research service Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also known as GM

For further information about citizens, juries on GM food and farming in the
Global South see: the report on Food and Farming Futures for Andhra Pradesh,
http://www.iied.org/pdf/Prajateerpu.pdf, the press article, "The Locals Know
What Aid They Need", http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=276687,
and the website of the development charity, ActionAid,

For more information about Monsanto's cyberwar against its critics:

TITLE:  A Turning Point in Johannesburg?
SOURCE: Nature Biotechnology 20 (11): 1081, by Val Giddings
DATE:   Nov 2002

A Turning Point in Johannesburg?

To the editor:  A great deal has been written about the World Summit on
Sustainable Development (WSSD) that took place between August 26 and
September 4
in Johannesburg, South Africa. In all that has been written, however, it was
not widely noted that at least two developments occurred at the meeting that
are of particular interest to the agricultural biotechnology community.

First, we saw a new twist in the behavior of some elements of the global
protest industry. In a significant departure from what we have seen at most
high-profile gatherings, some prominent naysayers openly sidestepped issues
relating to human and environmental safety. One of my antagonists in a
contrapuntal TV interview opened by stipulating the safety of foods and
crops improved
through biotechnology! He conceded that the real concern of the protest
community is, rather, with economic issues. In particular, he voiced
concerns over
concentration in the agrifood industry, issues of farmers' freedom of
and the like.

It must be noted that this shift was not universal. Some of the protesters
will go to their graves firmly gripped by the conviction that foods derived
from crops improved through biotechnology are Satan's handiwork incarnate,
slowly poisoning the land and all the humans on the planet. It is irrelevant
the history of biology since the dawn of agriculture contradicts their
fears. Their minds are made up, and they will not be confused by facts. But
change in tactics is nevertheless welcome news for several reasons.

Such refreshing honesty has been all too scarce in recent years. Close
watchers who have seen the activists drum up one scare story after another,
to discard them as soon as facts begin to gain a toehold, have long
the hand-wringing about safety was more a means to advance the underlying
economic concerns than an end in itself. It is, after all, easily verified
independent and critical third-party analyses that crops and foods improved
through biotechnology are subjected to more rigorous scrutiny, in advance,
depth and detail, than any others in human history; it is also an awkward
for the protest industry that nearly a half-billion acres of biotechnology
cropland over the past decade have produced hundreds of millions of tons of
food, eaten by hundreds of millions of people around the planet (yes, even
Europe) with nary a sniffle or headache as a consequence. So let us talk
economic issues, about socioeconomic impacts, for we have good answers there
as well.

The fact is that biotechnology in agriculture is not the cause of
concentration in the agrifood industry. Wave a magic wand and remake the
world so that
Watson and Crick never lived, and neither Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins
nor anybody else ever figured out how DNA works. In this alternative
universe, we do not understand the structure or function of DNA, and the
DNA-based biotechnology industry as we know it does not exist. Yet
concentration in the agrifood industry would still be a dominant feature of
the global
economic landscape for a very simple reason: it is the result of one of the
strongest and most relentless forces on the planetóconsumer demand. In this
case, consistent demand over millennia for more, better food, in larger
quantities and at lower prices.

The issue of farmers' choice has also been raised as a reason to reject
biotechnology. Activists profess moral outrage at the prospect that farmers
have, for millennia, saved a portion of their harvest to use as seed for the
next season's plantings might lose that "freedom." But in throwing up access
barriers to farmers who purchase a new seed variety or would use an
like "terminator technology" or other genetic use-restriction technology,
activists would deny these farmers the freedom to choose how they would
the very freedom the activists profess to endorse so strongly. They make a
serious mistake in trying to "protect" farmers' interests in such a
paternalistic way: they assume farmers are too stupid to calculate their own
self-interest. There is a reason that crops improved through biotechnology
have been
adopted at greater rates than we have ever before seen in agriculture:
biotechnology delivers, and what it delivers to the farmer is increased
increased profits, and increased sustainability. It is, in fact, freedom of
that has driven the meteoric adoption of biotechnology varieties, wherever
farmers have been free to choose.

This leads on to the second major new agbiotech development at the WSSD: for
the first time, we saw significant numbers of real, live, developing-world
farmers who have grown crops improved through biotechnology. More than 300
came from the Philippines, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. They
challenged the empty arguments of the self-appointed individuals who have
to speak on their behalf. (They also presented a "Bullshit Award" to the
egregious abusers for advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and

Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation, said, "Traditional
organic farming as recommended by Vandana Shiva is the very technology that
led to mass starvation in India for centuries, with up to one-tenth of the
population perishing in periodic famines. Mass starvation in India was
ended by the Green Revolution. Indian farmers need access to new
and especially to biotechnologies. It's our choice - and our right."

Farmers from developing countries speaking for themselves is something new,
something very big, and the protest industry seemed at a loss as to how to

The debate has shifted ground. It is no longer about the politically
paralyzing fears of the European politicians and activists that claim to
that continent's 350 million people; it begins to be about the interests of
the other 5.7-plus billion people on the planet. For these and additional
reasons (such as the emergence of government-industry partnerships for
development; and foolish and inhumane overreaching by activists on food
aid), I think we
may well look back on Johannesburg as something of a watershed event - a
turning point. The day may be not too far off when the tail will cease
the dog.

--- Biotechnology Industry Organization, 1225 Eye Street, N.W., Suite 400,
Washington, DC 20005 e-mail: shiva {AT} pop.net The views expressed are the
author's alone.

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