Burying Monsanto could give GMO science a new lease on life

By having science on its side, Monsanto seemed to believe there was no need to answer public concerns – and that was a huge PR mistake

HALIFAX, N.S. Sept. 20, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Putting Monsanto out of its misery could mean future debate about genetically-modified crops will be based on facts rather than emotion.

Monsanto is arguably the most detested company in the world.

But now, Bayer’s acquisition of St. Louis-based Monsanto will likely mean the latter (or at least its brand) will slowly disappear.

Many suspect Monsanto intended to kill its brand and leave environmentalists looking for a new foe.

We have seen several acquisitions in the agrifood sector in recent months but this one is different. Germany-based Bayer AG and Monsanto Co. recently announced the acquisition at nearly US$130 a share, more than US$65 billion in total. The deal comes after months of discussions between the two companies.

The combined companies are an agricultural behemoth that will be the market leader on the three largest continents: North America, Europe and Asia.

Both companies are of significant size and both generate revenue from different streams.

From a business perspective, the acquisition makes sense. New markets can be developed for Monsanto’s products while Bayer gains access to considerable intellectual property in crop science and seeds. Bayer also gains a comprehensive portfolio of chemicals and products to help farmers increase yields.

Bayer’s brands will likely dominate the portfolio of products and it’s difficult to see how the Monsanto brand will survive over the long term.

Obviously, there are some risks with this acquisition. But many argue that the Bayer-Monsanto marriage has a far better chance of succeeding than Monsanto’s failed attempt last year to acquire Swiss-based Syngenta.

Then, it was a North American giant attempting to buy a company in GMO-hating Europe. That would have likely been impossible to get through regulators. Now it’s now the other way around.

A backdrop to all of this was the ever-increasing public outcry against Monsanto’s tactics. For years, company leaders seemed to think their science-based approach validated their goals. But they failed to properly engage the public until it was much too late.

March Against Monsanto has campaigned broadly for years. Protests across dozens of countries and more than 400 cities served as evidence that the company’s communication efforts had failed miserably.

The worldwide gatherings aimed to raise awareness about genetically-modified seeds, labelling and potential health risks caused by the use of unwanted herbicides. With the help of social media, the opposition gained steam. The state of Vermont, for example, made GMO labelling mandatory this summer and other states are considering following suit.

This anti-Monsanto backlash is the legacy of a company that chose to behave as if the collective rejection of its model didn’t exist. It was in denial for a very long time.

However, there is compelling science showing that genetically-modified crops are safe. So the anti-Monsanto movement seems less about GMOs than about the company itself.

Monsanto felt so confident about its science-based approach in a science-dominated corporate culture that social optics were never really seriously considered.

Monsanto employs thousands of PhDs and researchers, and science has always been king. By having science on its side, the company seemed to believe there was no need to answer public concerns.

But adversaries of Monsanto’s business model have successfully exploited the fact that trust actually has more currency than science. That’s the golden rule when it comes to communicating about potential risk, and they ignored it.

Much too late, Monsanto recognized it had lost control over public perceptions and gaining social licence was impossible. The company had inadvertently polarized the two sides in the debate over genetically modified crops, to its own detriment.

Accepting Bayer’s offer suggests the company recognized that it had completely misread the market and was unable to salvage its position.

Monsanto’s end will be met with delight from many environmentalists. But now it’s time for a rational conversation about biotechnologies.

Science deserves its place, of course, but consumers must remain part of that conversation moving forward.

Troy Media columnist Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University. Sylvain is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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