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I Went to Monsanto’s Controversial Journalism Bootcamp

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The GMO giant offered journalists a rare, if curated, glimpse behind the curtain. Here’s what they saw.

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Jesse Hirsch/Eater

On a recent Sunday evening, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, gave what seemed like a benign lecture to 20 journalists in a St. Louis conference room. The topic was hunger and the elderly; at the end, Ryerson asked if her speech was helpful. Our reaction was stark — a wave of noncommittal murmurs, followed by a smatter of applause. No one had liked the speech. This crowd was tough.

Sure, it was 8 p.m., and Ryerson's speech rounded out a day when many of us had traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to get there. But our limp response was more than exhaustion and ennui. A room full of seasoned journalists — congenitally allergic to bullshit — had determined her speech didn't pass the smell test. She had given an hour of carefully rehearsed, self-promotional talking points, less about the problems of hunger than about how tireless her group had been in combating it. In a later download session, our feedback was scathing.

If this was how our group savaged the nice woman from the AARP, how would we handle Monsanto?

Monsanto COO Brett Begemann speaks to the NPF attendees. Photo: Courtesy NPF

When Fellowship Meets Junket

The AARP seminar was part of a four-day journalism program on food and agriculture, put on by the National Press Foundation (NPF), whose mission is to provide a variety of educational programs for journalists. This brand-new, all-expenses-paid fellowship was one of NPF's most competitive programs to join — only about a quarter of applicants got in. The agenda included a food-safety workshop from the Centers for Disease Control, an organic farm tour, and a primer on agriculture economics.

But the centerpiece of our Missouri adventure — both a reason many of us were there, and why this fellowship sparked some controversy — was the visit to Monsanto. On the third day of the program, we'd be spending nine hours on Monsanto's research campus in Chesterfield, Missouri. We would meet a C-Suite of Monsanto execs, tour some labs, hear from a panel of "unbiased" conventional farmers, and round the whole thing out with a cocktail party (Monsanto mingler!).

To gain the access offered by this fellowship was unheard of — even though it would surely be larded with bushels of spin.

Even among people who avoid the news cycle, who don't follow the major issues of our time, the word Monsanto can prompt a knee-jerk flash of emotion (likely anger or disgust). Give it a Google; you'll find hundreds of thousands of pages like this. Eater itself criticized the NPF fellowship, questioning the NPF's ethics regarding corporate sponsorship. It's very difficult to isolate emotion from reason when the Big M is involved.

Of course, there's also the sticky issue of funding. The prior post on Eater took issue with Monsanto co-sponsoring this program, asserting it blurred the line between junket and fellowship. I've done journalism fellowships before, but I've never seen funding from external, interested parties. The concern: How could this flock of naifs walk away from a Monsanto-funded fellowship without drinking the (Roundup-spiked) Kool-Aid?

It's a fair question, one I wrestled with myself before applying. I've written about food and agriculture for more than five years; I'm well aware of Big Ag's struggle to court public opinion. For a massive agriculture concern to shell out thousands of dollars (NPF did not disclose the exact amount) to curry favor with journalists is certainly enough to raise an eyebrow.

But ultimately I went for it (not just because I wanted to see St. Louis in July). Here's why:

  1. Monsanto is an incredibly powerful force in modern agriculture, supplying a wide swath of farmers with seeds, pesticides, and data. They are also notoriously secretive and combative with journalists, a PR strategy that has helped perpetuate the "Evil Empire" meme. To gain the access offered by this fellowship was unheard-of — even though it would surely be larded with bushels of spin.
  2. The selected journalists were not rookies. Neither were we paid bloggers, new to the ag space and open to suggestion. Many of us had been working in this field for years, even decades. And even the journalists who came from different beats (eg, education, consumer finance) were well inured to spin. "A huge part of our job is assessing bias," said program participant Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor at NPR. "Whether it's a Walmart shareholders meeting, a sit-down with leaders in China, visiting congressional offices... not sure what I'd do all day if I didn't have to sort out what was goofy from what sticks."
  3. Monsanto was not the only funder of this fellowship — the Organic Trade Association (industry group for organic farmers) co-funded the program. We spent the program's second morning on an organic farm, followed by a workshop with OTA's director. The OTA has come under fire for its own spin and aggressive lobbying, but at least its sponsorship would provide a Monsanto counterpoint. Oh, and the program's third co-sponsor? The AARP Foundation.

The entrance to Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters; a rule-breaking moment inside. Photos: Hirsch/Eater

In the Belly of the Beast

I would love to tell you every detail of my jam-packed tour de St. Louis, from the sharp overview of ag journalism presented by Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg, to a sociologist's look at the psychology behind GMO fears. But let's be real — you just want to hear about Monsanto.

Monday was organic day, and our time on the farm was lovely — snacking on blackberries, scratching farm dogs, not staring at laptops. Later that day, our organic lecture was carefully delivered; the presenters were too savvy to make unverified claims. "They showed one slide that said organic food is more nutritious (an unproven claim)," said fellow Tamar Haspel, who writes about agriculture for the Washington Post. "But you notice they never said that aloud? They were so careful not to say anything that could bite them later."

We swapped quips about black helicopters and secret police... but beneath our mirth, I sensed nerves. Would we blow it?

It was comparatively easy for the OTA to stick with proven facts; they weren't grilled with nearly the intensity we reserved for Monsanto. Sure, there was a tough question about what happens when a cow gets sick on an organic dairy (if the cow gets treated with antibiotics, it will probably be killed or sold) and one fellow asked point blank why she should care about organic foods. But these were relative softballs.

Tuesday morning, we took a van ride to Monsanto's research campus; there was a weird energy. We swapped quips about black helicopters and secret police, and about the winsome Vance Crowe, Monsanto's "director of millennial engagement" (I speculated he enters every meeting on a skateboard, high-fiving around the conference table). But beneath our mirth, I sensed nerves. We were about to gain access — would we blow it? Would we feel comfortable asking the tough questions, not backing down if the answers were iffy?

Fellows in the Monsanto labs. Photo: Courtesy NPF

At a little before nine, we emerged from our van onto the Monsanto campus, a little dazed, a little wary. There were guards around, unarmed and smiling (I anticipated unsmiling and armed). We'd been told we could photograph everything, but there was collective disbelief; I had a personal fear of getting tazed. Eventually one brave shutterbug went for it, then we all followed suit.

It was clear from the get-go: We were going to be heavily monitored. At one point I counted the communications reps ringing our meeting room — there were 20, one for each fellow. Anytime we went anywhere, someone was watching, including a steady line of minders between the meeting room and the bathroom (one fellow was pretty sure a handler followed him in).

It was a funny tension, between throw-open-the-doors access and a tightly scripted stage show.

It was a funny tension, between throw-open-the-doors access and a tightly scripted stage show. Outside our meeting room was a video control center, manned by guys wearing all black. A bank of monitors appeared to be monitoring... us. When I asked if I could photograph that control room, there were five minutes of consultations before a rep cheerily said, "Yes, sure, why not heh heh!" Haspel called the whole operation "Orwellian," loudly and often.

Monsanto gave tours to 17,500 people last year, which seemed surprisingly high. Until, of course, I learned who typically receives the tours — schoolchildren, rotary clubs — people who are likely more willing to smile and nod peaceably. You could feel the strain as Monsanto struggled to keep 20 wily journalists from coloring outside the lines.

The day started with a speech by chief technology officer Robb Fraley, the de facto general in Monsanto's newfound charm offensive. He introduced one of Monsanto's biggest talking points of the day — the need to feed nine billion people by 2050 (with the corollary that GMOs are vital to accomplish this). Fraley has a soft-spoken approach that can read as folksy authenticity; just let your Uncle Robb tell you how it is. But again, this was a tough crowd. Later, one seasoned ag reporter called it the "standard Fraley talking points," only modified to stump for a newly unpopular merger. Another fellow told me I should read the book Lords of the Harvest, which paints Fraley as a ruthless corporate warrior. And Haspel was seen later in the hallway, confronting a visibly unhappy Fraley with a laundry list of Monsanto's flaws.

Scenes from the Monsanto lab. Photos: Hirsch/Eater

But even Fraley fared better than Brett Begemann, Monsanto's COO and president, who spoke that afternoon. As he ran down the bullet points — feed nine billion people, GMO labeling bad — Begemann exuded strong whiffs of insincerity. At one point he discussed visiting African villages and seeing hungry children; it seemed he might weep openly. But this — or when he mentioned how it "pains" him to think of a family going without bread because GM labeling raised the price of groceries — seemed like the shameless theatrics of a hack politician. "That man has no conception of what it is to want," one fellow asserted later.

Our lab tour was predictably safe, a choreographed traipse through Monsanto's less provocative projects (eg, manipulating soil microbes). It was all very Epcot Center — "The Future of Food is Now!" One of our only detours from the "standard" schoolkid tour was a visit to a lab, where we were shown how corn is genetically modified. A lab technician put a bit of corn in a dish filled with liquid, then looked around with wide eyes and said: "Not so scary, right?!" Monsanto rep Carly Scaduto told me this segment was added for us journalists, so we'd know GMOs aren't made by "jabbing syringes into ears of corn."

My favorite moments were the glimpses of humanity behind the spin.

The fellows certainly took every opportunity to ruffle feathers. There were scads of tough questions, about Monsanto's staff lacking diversity, about its role in creating superweeds, about established links between Roundup and cancer. Most of these questions were evaded with varying levels of dexterity; one exception was when Bjerga repeatedly hammered Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant (yes, Hugh Grant) about global patents. We all noticed when the outwardly genial Grant — who speaks with a Scottish lilt — momentarily transformed into a terrifying bulldog. "You could tell [Grant] just wanted to swat Alan like a fly!" Haspel gleefully noted later.

My favorite moments were the glimpses of humanity behind the spin — when Monsanto employees seemed awkward, insecure, normal. Like how Scaduto had procured all the elements of our lunch — lots of Monsanto veggies — and seemed both proud and anxious, like an uncertain party hostess. "My basement was filled with watermelons all week!" she chirped. Or a Monsanto scientist, at the cocktail mingler, telling us how Janet Jackson once sat on his friend's couch — he fervently seemed to want approval. (It was heartbreaking; I wanted to hug the man.) Truth is, even Grant's flash of anger was unmistakably human.

And maybe that was Monsanto's trickiest ruse of all. I feel somewhat confident that my group wasn't snowed by the relentless corporate messaging. But when we walked away, this big blank mean machine had sprouted a bunch of human faces. Sure, us journalists will continue to do our jobs, holding Monsanto accountable for any and all questionable practices. But what if, subconsciously, our approach will be softer now — even a tiny bit? Does that mean Monsanto won?


Jesse Hirsch is editor of Edible Brooklyn.