Camlawrie’s Weblog

The World According to Monsanto

I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “that’s just the tip of the iceberg”, referring, of course, to the observation that the majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view below the surface of the water it floats in.  I feel like I may be slightly subject to this ‘iceberg’ phenomenon.  The proverbial Iceberg is a single line in the speech I presented in class in mid October.

“Are Monsanto and Syngenta bad companies that make bad products?” is a rhetorical question I posed in my speech.  At the time I simply considered it fodder to pad my illustrations that supported my message about leadership in agriculture, nothing more.  In fact, the only reason I even included it was because my roommate had alluded to scandals involving Monsanto and I thought it would make a good illustrative reference if I mentioned I knew nothing about Monsanto.  But, apparently there are a few people in this world who would vehemently answer “yes” despite the rhetorical nature of the question.  The World According to Monsanto is the title of a documentary that puts Monsanto in the hot seat and examines the negative impacts the company has had on the world.

It starts off with a few ‘did-you-know?’ facts that establish Monsanto’s origin as a chemical company rather than a biotechnology company.  Interestingly, Monsanto originally produced chemical additives for foods before entering the plastics market and finally the herbicide market.  Monsanto is most famous for developing Roundup (Glyphosate); the most widely used herbicide world wide.  After a brief history of the company, the movie explains negative impacts of Monsanto-produced chemicals, followed by allegations of a “revolving door” involving the United States Food and Drug Administration that hurried the introduction of biotechnology and transgenic crops that might not have been as safe as advertised; the film attacks recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and Roundup-Ready soybeans in this segment.  A segway into transgenic crops provides the digression into patenting seed stock, and prohibiting seed saving, and ends with a discussion suggesting conspiracy theories where Monsanto is systematically converting all the crops in the world to their genetically modified crops.  The use of global examples does an exceptional job of addressing the breadth of Monsanto’s influence on agriculture worldwide.

I took the message the movie had with a grain of salt because I had trouble believing it was the absolute truth.  While I believe there is some truth in the stories, the film was fraught with anecdotal evidence and cynical musing that can’t possibly portray an accurate picture of Monsanto and its products.  The apparent misrepresentation annoyed me, and I was disappointed with the audience who attended.  Everyone took the bait, hook, line and sinker.  Don’t get me wrong, Monsanto has been involved in some questionable business, but I think the film illustrated Monsanto as a sinister, mysterious corporation with as much to hide as Area 51.  Something which I can’t fathom as being true.  Check out the whole film on Google Video at:


A Rant on Agricultural Apathy

Agricultural Apathy: Lack of interest, emotion or concern, or feelings of indifference relating to agriculture and farming

As an ‘urbanite’ enrolled in an agricultural communications class I feel more and more of a responsibility to encourage my urban friends to become more engaged with agriculture.  I get the impression the agricultural apathy runs rampant in the urban world.  I can’t really give a good explanation why this is the case, but I do believe a lack of exposure is a large factor.  The urban demographic needs to have their eyes opened to such an important sector of the Canadian economy.

An urbanite might ask why they should care about agriculture, and my answer to that person would be “If for no other reason than because farmers produce the food on you eat”.  Another good reason might be because upwards of 13 million acres of land in Ontario are farmland.  That’s 13 times the size of the Greater Toronto Region which includes the City of Toronto, Peel Region, Halton Region, York Region and Durham Region.  In otherwords, from Burlington, Ontario eastward to Oshawa, Ontario and as far north as Newmarket, Ontario.  I might also ask this person if they can trace the path their food takes from the farm to their table.  When they can’t, I’ll suggest that that might be another good reason to be more concerned about agriculture.

Last week Michael Whittaker from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) gave a guest lecture in our class, and I couldn’t help but think to myself ‘this might be a mainstay of the agricultural apathy problem right here’.  But allow me to explain.  He described his role as the Deputy Minister of Communications and Consultations, and went on to describe exactly what that means.  Believe me, Mr. Whittaker is a pretty important and busy man.  Mr. Whittaker even provided us some samples of press releases the might find their way to his desk for a stamp of approval before being sent to the major media outlets.  And in my opinion, that is where the problem lies.  Press releases are boring.  So automated and formulaic, that if any of them did find their way to an important place like the first few pages in a newspaper, that they’d be skimmed over and forgotten about.  I wanted to ask what the main media outlet he dealt with was, but never found the proper oppourtunity.  What about the radio or television?  Press releases don’t really jive with the glitz and flash of TV, and they sure don’t have the proper lingo to translate well to mainstream urban radio.  But maybe it’s not his job to care about how effectively the messages he approves are being conveyed.  I do wonder if that thought crosses his mind from time to time.

I can think of a couple ways to fight agricultural apathy.  My first idea is to keep agricultural learning in the city classroom.  When I was in elementary school, agricultural trips and learning experiences were common.  As I got older, they inexplicably stopped.  That’s a pretty simple way agricultural knowledge could be brought into focus.

Another idea I have, but can’t really claim as my own, is an excessive advertising campaign.  The Toronto Transit Commision (TTC) allows whole train cars (Domination packages) to be bought out for advertising purposes.  Anyone who has been on a subway train at rush hour can attest that exposure to a large number of people is not a problem.  If independent companies can afford to buy out whole subway trains, I’m sure AAFC can scrounge up some change from the couch in the lunch room to help out their cause.

Maybe I’m wrong, but those seem like fairly simple and logical ways to increase urban exposure to agriculture.  Maybe AAFC needs to re-evaluate the modes of communication that are employed to invigorate agricultural communication and give it the two-handed ‘shove-in-the-right-direction’ it needs.  I think stopping acricultural apathy isn’t as big of a problem as I originally thought, whoever is in charge of agricultural marketing just needs to take 10 minutes and brainstorm a couple of new ideas.  Pardon my rant, but I think it has been some what of a catharic experience.

NB: CBS Outdoor is the advertising agency contracted by the TTC to manage advertising on their vehicles

The Centre for Applied Agricultural Communications

Imagine a place where you could go for enlightenment – Agricultural enlightenment.  Somewhere a lot closer than Tibet and the Dalai Lama.  If something about agriculture was confusing, simply by asking a question you could have more of an answer than you could ever have dreamed for.  Real honest to goodness answers from real honest to goodness farmers.

Such a place may exist in the not too distant future.  From what I understand, this place would be called the Centre for Applied Agricutural Communications.  A place where farmers and town folk could converge to reach agricultural zen.  Initial reactions to the proposal for the centre were positive.  A survey showed that upwards of 80% of respondents indicated the centre was something they’d support and use.  Representatives from surveyed agricultural companies and corporations indicated that they would even pay for a service like this.

But where would you put a place like this?  I’m concerned that it might be under utilized if it is in a fixed location.  I know that is a horrendously negative stance to take, but I think it might be a reality.  Us ‘urbanites’ can be pretty oblivious to agriculture in Ontario and Canada and to the Centre for Applied Agricultural Communications.  Let me bluntly illustrate this with a personal example.  I wouldn’t be in this agricultural communications class if I hadn’t been approached and recruited by Owen Roberts.  It just really wouldn’t have crossed my mind to sign up for it.  As a student, I became so focused on my chosen line of study that I was successfully blinded to other learning oppourtunities around me.  I think the same thing would plague the centre.  People just wouldn’t think to use it because it might be out of sight and out of mind.  While I think that a home base would be a good start, the operators (whoever they eventually are) should have the capability to take the centre to the public; the capability to make appearances at malls, plazas, schools, even special events in urban centres to give it the necessary exposure.  I present a lot of problems and don’t really give any solutions, but that’s because I don’t know exactly what a good solution would be.  I do know that being actively involved in promoting agriculture to my friends is a good start.