The Washington, DC-based National Press Foundation announced yesterday that they're taking applications for an upcoming all-expenses-paid journalism conference called "Food, From Farm to Table." The conference promises to "take a holistic look at the issues: hunger, food waste, organic, GMOs, food science, feeding the world’s growing population, and more." That's cool, if you don't mind that one of its major sponsors is Monsanto, that the program includes a visit to the controversial agrobiotech company's research labs, or that this sounds a whole lot more like a press junket than a journalism conference.
There are three other sponsors of what NPF president Sandy Johnson described on Twitter as a "free 4-day reporting bootcamp," of which Monsanto is the only for-profit corporation. Reached by Eater for comment, Johnson disclosed that the total donation amount across all four sponsors is $100,000, which covers conference costs for 20 journalists plus speakers and NPF staffers, including travel, hotels, meals, and NPF-branded tote bags, notebooks, and pencils. Johnson refused to provide the precise amount of Monsanto's contribution, or to say whether sponsorship amounts were evenly or unevenly divided across the four organizations.
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."
The NPF's "reporting bootcamps" do not involve actual journalistic training, Johnson explained. Rather, they're designed to provide access to story ideas and sources, with an expectation that participants are already well-versed in skills Johnson describes as "toolbox," including a knowledge of journalistic ethics. Asked about the possibility of an ethical conflict, she replied, "You're suggesting that journalists aren't adult enough to attend a program that has multiple sponsors, and derive benefit from it, without being able to cover it objectively. I think that you're insulting journalists."
Mounting a conference sponsored by a highly polarizing company with an aggressive PR agenda might not appear to be the most logical course of action for a journalism nonprofit. Not all of NPF's programming involves sponsorship from related companies, but this isn't the first time the organization has chosen to get in bed with ethically squicky sponsors: in 2010, the organization came under fire for taking money from pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer to underwrite a multi-day conference training journalists to write about cancer, and an upcoming NPF reporting conference on retirement is sponsored by Prudential, a company that sells retirement-related financial products like life insurance and pension investments.
(Monsanto, of course, is famously willing to disguise their public relations efforts as broad conversations about American foodways: in 2014, influential food-world figures like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan were offered tremendous sums of money to participate in a project pitched to them as a Condé Nast-sponsored video series on "food, food chains, and sustainability," which rapidly fell apart when it was revealed to be pure Monsanto advertorial.)
Johnson requested that Eater set aside curiosity about the NPF's sponsorship practices and instead inquire as to genesis of the "Food, From Farm to Table" conference. She explained that she was inspired to produce the program after reading the food-sustainability-themed May 2014 issue of National Geographic. "I think a lot of journalists, including you, don't know where their food comes from," she said to this reporter. "But I do," she added. "I grew up on a farm."