You can tell when an agricultural story begins to get national media attention, because we in the agricultural press starts getting calls from national editors and producers asking for background, sources, and farmers to interview. This was the case last week when the Monsanto case came before the US Supreme Court. The case of a small Indiana farmer facing off in the highest court in the land against one of the nation’s largest corporations was just too good for the national media to pass up. The resulting front page coverage and national talk show exposure generated lots of spin, but resulted in very little understanding about what the case was really all about and the implications for both US farmers and consumers.
I knew things were getting strange when National Public Radio (NPR) called me about the story. This was one of the most liberal, anti big business media outlets calling a conservative, pro-business journalist. They wanted me to be a guest on a nationally syndicated talk show to talk about how Indiana agriculture was responding to the case. My first inclination was to say no, and I should have gone with my gut feeling. I didn’t, however, and agreed to appear on the program.
The program was On Point with host Tom Ashbrook. It originates in Boston on WBUR and is syndicated on NPR stations nationwide. The first guest on the program was David Savage , who covers the Supreme Court for the LA Times. To my surprise, he was fair, balanced, and stuck to the legal points of the case. Next up was the farmer, Hugh Bowman, who is at the center of the case. Host Tom gave Mr. Bowman the celebrity treatment gushing over how grateful they were he had agreed to be on the program. Farmer Bowman was as irritable and cantankerous as you might expect a 75 year old Southern Indiana farmer to be. When host Tom asked him what he thought of the day’s court proceedings, he said he was hard of hearing and didn’t hear a damn thing they said. From then on, Tom’s questions were a bit more condescending. He adopted a tone often used by parents when talking to a young child.
Then it was my turn. My first question, “Who are farmers rooting for Monsanto or farmer Bowman?” I explained that there were farmers on both sides of the issue, but that all farmers were watching the case with great interest because of the ramifications it held for biotechnology, agriculture, and food production. This point was totally ignored. I was then asked, if Monsanto and other big companies own patents on all the seeds, how can a farmer go to the elevator and buy seeds to plant? I explained that the practice of buying commodity grain at an elevator and then planting it to grow a crop, as Mr. Bowman had done, was not a widespread practice. I explained most growers planting biotech or non-biotech crops were very particular about what seeds they planted. This was another point that was lost on my host. By then, my 5 minutes of fame was over.
Next up on the program was Debbie Barker, international program director at the Center for Food Safety. She railed against big companies who were locking up the world’s seed supply. She also blasted biotechnology and made the audaciously false statement that “no genetically engineered seeds had been developed that improved human nutrition.” At this point, I started banging my head on my desk and muttering words not fit for Sunday School. Also appearing on the program was Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation. Both of these guests had written briefs to the court in support of Mr. Bowman. Their one-sided diatribes produced plenty of sympathetic noises from the host.
This is also how most of the coverage in other media outlets went. Folk hero farmer Bowman standing alone against the evil corporate giant Monsanto. Missing from the discussion were the more important patent issue and the ramifications the court’s ruling would have on farmers and consumers worldwide. I found it especially ironic that the On Point program was underwritten by a world hunger relief agency, yet biotechnology represents the one hope our world has to reduce hunger and malnutrition.
During the program Mr. Ashbrook used the phrase, “Can you patent life?” which not only over-emotionalized the issue but showed a total lack of understanding of the role that seeds play in food production and reproduction. This issue presented an opportunity to inform consumers about the important role that biotechnology plays in our world food supply and how farmers use this technology to improve food production and safety while minimizing the impact on the environment. With the help of a sympathetic media, anti-biotechnology groups hijacked this issue and turned it into another beat up on Monsanto campaign.
Farmer Bowman is now back on his 300 acres in SW Indiana and most likely very happy to be there. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on this case this summer; and, no matter which way it goes, Mr. Bowman will be trotted into the limelight again either as a folk hero or victim of corporate greed. The court will set the legal precedent for biotechnology in the seed industry but will do little to foster public understanding of or acceptance of this technology in food production.
By Gary Truitt