Many consumers and food activists use social media platforms to stay informed and engage in important debates about the future of our food system. But increasing corporate influence in these spaces requires us to differentiate fact from spin as we encounter hundreds of posts and tweets per day. Big Ag’s attempts to shape social media debates expose its fear of criticism from a growing food movement demanding corporate transparency, regulation, and sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. With 284 million monthly active users, Twitter has become a battleground for Big Ag’s credibility.
Half of social media users share news stories and discuss current events on social media, and all of the “Big Six” agribusiness companies—Bayer, BASF, Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, and Monsanto—maintain active social media presences. Searching for terms like GMO, agriculture, or farming on Twitter yields thousands of tweets from the Big Six. While I knew agribusiness companies used PR campaigns, I became more acutely aware of their social media tactics through an exchange I had with Bayer CropScience (@Bayer4Crops). It began when Bayer tweeted a UN Food and Agriculture Organization video on the impact of food waste:
I tweeted back that if we could stop wasting one third of food, the focus on increasing yields with biotech would become even less defensible:
I thought that would be the end of the interaction: a big company tweeted something, and I replied as a concerned citizen. To my surprise, @Bayer4Crops not only responded to me personally, but, as I describe below, engaged in a multi-pronged attempt to change my mind—or at least the minds of others who might encounter our tweets.
Bayer’s reaction reflects an economic reality: with Big Ag’s bottom line at stake, public perception matters. Monsanto, for instance, reported sales of $2.87 billion in the quarter ending November 30, 2014, alone. Agribusiness sales require a regulatory environment allowing GM foods and crops on the market, as well as the widespread application of pesticide, herbicide, and synthetic fertilizer. As consumers, farmers, and voters question the safety and necessity of these products and methods, Big Ag is waging a fight for credibility on multiple fronts.
While in theory social media platforms like Twitter provide a democratic forum—anyone with internet access can tweet anyone else—they are still subject to the distortions of financial influence. In the face of corporate attempts to manipulate discussion, tweets may rise to prominence because they offer new, compelling information—or because groups with vested interests pour significant resources into making tweets appear authoritative.
Big Ag’s assault on social media reveals an anti-democratic push to stifle informed debate and quash individual criticisms before they gain traction in the court of public opinion. Indeed, Big Ag, including Bayer, manipulates social media exchanges with a variety of obfuscating tactics: moving critics to corporate-controlled internet forums; downplaying the implications of the GMO debate; claiming they’re doing humanitarian (as opposed to profit-seeking) work that is either vilified or misunderstood; green-washing their image by appropriating activist language; and intentionally sowing doubt about the credibility of anyone who questions the safety of GMOs or industrial agriculture.
Tactic #1: Take the conversation off Twitter and into a biotech-controlled forum
As Gary Ruskin outlines in Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs, a new report published by the nonprofit US Right to Know, Big Ag companies have hired public relations firms like Ketchum and Fleishman Hillard to mitigate criticism with industry-created websites. For instance, the American Farm Bureau Federation reports that its PR firm “seeks out negative tweets on Twitter” relating to biotech and then directs the authors of those tweets to a website called GMOAnswers.com. Funding for the site comes from The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes the Big Six. The Farm Bureau reports that since launching its Twitter campaign last year, “there’s been about an 80 percent reduction in negative Twitter traffic as it relates to GMOs.”
Sure enough, in my exchange with Bayer, @Bayer4Crops tweeted back to encourage me to join the discussion in the company’s online forum.
Tactic #2: Downplay what’s at stake
Moving to the corporate forum would have taken me out of the searchable free-for-all of Twitter and into a Bayer-moderated space. But more than that, Bayer’s invitation to discuss implies that our fundamental disagreement about the impacts of industrial agriculture—with potentially life-altering consequences for humans and the biosphere—can be resolved through a friendly chat.
Monsanto uses the same strategy of minimization in its recent controversial ad set to appear in Oprah’s O Magazine. The ad shows smiling people sitting down to share a healthy and bountiful meal with the tag line “Grab a seat and let’s dig in: The best dinners are the ones with lively conversation.” The ad implies that organic and industrial practices can coexist, and the conflicts between Big Ag and its detractors are no more fraught than a spirited dinner conversation. In fact, there are irreconcilable contradictions between the approaches in question that preclude collaboration. Unlike biotech/chemical methods that seek to subjugate nature and human welfare to profit, organic agroecology works with nature to rebuild soil—and communities—over generations.
What’s really at stake is nothing less than our democracy: whether producers and consumers have meaningful control over shaping our own food and agriculture systems, a concept known around the world as food sovereignty. Big Ag methods extract more from the soil—and the communities that work the soil—than they return. Industrial agriculture relies on mechanization, monoculture, pesticide, herbicide, fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizer, and patented seed. These methods deplete the soil and favor large corporate farms, while putting small farmers into debt—or pushing them off their land entirely.
There are viable alternatives to Big Ag: small-scale, biodiverse, agroecological systems have the potential to produce safe, quality food in sufficient volume to feed the world. What’s really at stake is a robust debate examining the root causes of hunger and the full range of solutions, as well as the human and environmental impacts of those solutions. That’s not a trivial subject to relegate to casual speculation in the private sphere. The debate should take place publicly, in policymaking spaces, without the manipulative tactics of agribusiness lobbyists and PR firms.
Tactic #3: Pretend you’re just misunderstood
Big Ag ads like Monsanto’s imply that critics are misinformed or worse, lashing out at companies’ valuable efforts to solve global hunger. In my exchange with @Bayer4Crops, I asserted that the GMO production model starts from an inaccurate premise of hunger caused by scarcity rather than poverty and inequality. In response, the Bayer tweeter feigned surprise, implying that I had misunderstood, or even willfully misrepresented, the company’s real interests.
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Bayer may, in fact, be “very committed” to helping farmers use their proprietary products. But alleviating poverty and inequality requires addressing inequitable access to wealth, resources, and food system decisions—i.e., political solutions—not a one-size-fits-all model of techno-fixes. Bayer’s tweet sidesteps the complexity of the issue and the scope of systemic change required to support farmers, while asserting a benign humanitarian goal.
Tactic #4: Green-wash language and assert a common interest
In addition to asserting (false) alliances with small farmers, Big Ag hopes to coopt grassroots causes. If everyone appears to be fighting hunger and promoting sustainability, consumers see no reason for protest, which recasts the conflicting players as needing to work together.
In this spirit of false alliance, BASF—whose work diametrically opposes Food First’s support of agroecology and food sovereignty—tweeted a Food First link, making it seem as though they share common cause in the fight against hunger:
In another example of green-washing and false alliance, Monsanto recently released a YouTube video narrated by Jerry Hayes, titled “How Monsanto Helps Keep the Bees Buzzin’.” Hayes says “it takes all of us working together” to protect honeybees, which have been “impacted negatively by…pests, predators, and diseases,” as well as by climate change. Hayes implies that individual citizens planting bee-attracting flowers in their backyards have the same responsibility and impact as Monsanto, which sells neonicotinoid-treated seeds. He never mentions the primary concern with regard to bee populations, colony collapse disorder, which is tied to using neonicotinoids (manufactured by Bayer and Syngenta and used on Monsanto seed). Thus the video argues that Monsanto cares about the environment, too, but banning these chemicals isn’t the solution; rather, ordinary citizens have to step up and do their part.
One of the video’s many unaddressed weaknesses includes blaming climate change for decimating bee populations without acknowledging that industrial agriculture is a leading contributor to climate change. But passing the buck helps Monsanto assert a common interest with its detractors: Monsanto and environmentalists united against climate change! Blaming external forces also opens the market for profitable pseudo-solutions, like proprietary drought-tolerant GMO seeds.
Similarly, when I pointed out the connection between biotech and monoculture, @Bayer4Crops asserted Bayer shared my point of view, as evidenced by its “Respect the Rotation” initiative:
Promoting the rotation of enormous GMO monocultures, and rotating the chemicals sprayed on them, in no way indicates a “shared view.” The lead image on Bayer’s Respect the Rotation page shows a large-scale, chemical-intensive monoculture—not the sustainable, diversified farming systems to which I was referring.
During the course of this exchange @Bayer4Crops also followed me on Twitter. When I tweeted that Bayer did not share my point of view, @Bayer4Crops unfollowed me and deleted its “Respect the Rotation” tweet.
Tactic #5: Sow doubt
PR campaigns like “Respect the Rotation” want consumers to question criticism of agribusiness: If Bayer promotes crop rotation, then is industrial agriculture really so bad? Doesn’t crop rotation demonstrate a commitment to sustainability? Indeed, “sustainability” is subject to a wide range of definitions.
In December 2014, for instance, BASF hosted a Sustainable Brands conference in New Jersey, and BASF participates in other “sustainability” conferences around the globe. Again, though BASF’s products are inherently unsustainable, appropriating activist language encourages consumer doubt: how can critics call the host of a sustainability conference unsustainable?
The food sovereignty vs. monopoly agribusiness fight is asymmetrical: corporations have millions of dollars to coordinate advertising, PR campaigns, and political lobbying. By contrast, individual consumers, advocacy nonprofits, and academic researchers operate with far less funding.
Further complicating matters, a significant portion of scientific research on GMOs comes from agribusiness itself. Big Ag companies restrict access to their products for testing and actively seek to prevent the publication of criticism. For instance, Food & Water Watch found:
When an Ohio State University professor produced research that questioned the biological safety of biotech sunflowers, Dow AgroSciences and [DuPont’s] Pioneer Hi-Bred blocked her research privileges to their seeds, barring her from conducting additional research. Similarly, when other Pioneer Hi-Bred-funded professors found a new [genetically engineered] corn variety to be deadly to beneficial beetles, the company barred the scientists from publishing their findings. Pioneer Hi-Bred subsequently hired new scientists who produced the necessary results to secure regulatory approval.
And Big Ag may not stop at withholding research material, as the case of University of California Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes and Syngenta illustrates. Originally hired by Novartis Agribusiness (later Syngenta) to study the effects of atrazine, Hayes found that the herbicide caused hermaphroditism in frogs. The company responded by pursuing a campaign to discredit Hayes both professionally and personally, prying into his professional speaking engagements and private life. U.S. industrial corn crops widely use atrazine, and despite research indicating reproductive harm to humans as well as frogs, repeated EPA reviews have not resulted in a ban.
Thus, sowing doubt among consumers and voters about the validity of criticism, even from respected scientists in peer-reviewed journals, is a tactic to neutralize opponents and downplay concerns over human and environmental risks.
Becoming More Critical (Social) Media Consumers
Though Twitter is a relatively new forum, Big Ag’s highly funded PR tactics are not new (pdf). The same PR companies and front groups now representing biotech interests previously defended Big Tobacco companies and continue to spread confusion about human-caused climate change. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein describes The Heartland Institute, which has received funding from the Koch brothers, historically defended Big Tobacco, denies the human role in climate change, and attacks critics of GMOs.
In an age of intentional misinformation campaigns, critical consumption of media is imperative. We must ask: who is writing or speaking, who funds them, and what do they and their funders have to gain? Big Ag has responded to grassroots social movements by manipulating conversations on social media, which undermines public debate and erodes the democratic process. Food and environmental activists should respond by actively encouraging informed analysis among consumers. Green-washed websites, corporate-controlled discussion forums, and concerned-sounding tweets must not undermine the growing movement for healthy, culturally appropriate, and ecologically produced food.