Agri-chemical PR strategies

We received a round-robin email in the office last week highlighting a disturbingly frequent pattern to the ways in which agri-chemical companies go about fighting environmental or health objections to their products.

We have often wondered why common sense seems to go out the window when the interests of a major multinational company are involved. When bee colonies around the world began to catastrophically collapse, with the potential consequence that one in every three bites we eat would disappear as a result, a great deal of evidence pointed to neonicotinoid pesticides as the probable cause. So you would think that it would have been basic common sense to stop using them until the problem was more fully understood? Yet the EU only suspended the use of these pesticides last week (without the support of the UK), and the US has yet to follow-suit. The question of ‘Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?’ looms large, and we can’t help but wonder why it repeatedly takes so long to implement effective measures to protect the future viability of our environment.

There is an established history of behaviour by the large bio-tech and chemical companies – Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta and others – that maps a campaign of disinformation and obfuscation of the impacts of the chemicals that they’ve introduced over the years. It’s been called ‘The Four Dog Defense.’ And is outlined as:

Step 1: ‘My Dog Does Not Bite’: an outright denial of the harmful impacts of the chemical; it also includes discrediting independent research and companies commissioning their own studies of the chemical’s impact.

Step 2: ‘My Dog Bites…but It Didn’t Bite You’: an acknowledgement that while the chemical might be harmful, it doesn’t affect the wider ecosystem or general public. Lack of research into harmful impacts (‘there is no evidence to support…’) is often cited.

Step 3: ‘My Dog Bit You, but It Didn’t Hurt You’: more denial; this time the denial acknowledges the chemical may be dangerous but argues that the research frame is wrong – dependent on unrealistic levels of exposure, or lab conditions that don’t mimic ‘real-world’ scenarios.

Step 4: ‘My Dog Bit You, and Hurt You…But It Wasn’t My Fault’: diversion and laying the blame elsewhere. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the chemical is dangerous to human health and significantly harming the environment, it’s not the fault of the chemical company. They had bad research, their product was used incorrectly, they didn’t know about the dangers. This step helps them avoid regulation and more importantly litigation.

We were recently reading back on the story of DDT. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, raised awareness of its deadly environmental impacts and begged us all to think about the wider consequences of pesticide use, arguing that they would inevitably enter our food chain and have an effect on human health. As noted in Eliza Griswold’s 2012 New York Times article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication, Carson was vilified in a massive negative PR campaign instigated by the chemical companies. She was accused of being a ‘soft’ scientist and of aiding and abetting the spread of malaria (DDT was used to eradicate mosquitos), and called an ‘agricultural propagandist’ in the communist vein. Griswold notes that ‘The well-financed counter-reaction to Carson’s book was a prototype for the brand of attack now regularly made by super-PACs in everything from debates about carbon emissions to new energy sources.’

We’ve seen the ‘Four Dog Defence’ used recently in the battle, here in Europe, to suspend use and further investigate the impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee colonies. Bayer, which first licensed neonicotinoids in 1992, argued that (Step 1) the pesticides couldn’t be impacting bee populations, note the number of studies mentioned that found ‘no-causal link’ between pesticides and bee decline. Bayer press release —but independent research has  shown that pesticide residues remain in sufficient quantities to impact bee health. One of many research reports can be found here:

They later argued that (Step 2 & 3) while the pesticides were indeed harmful, bees ‘in the field’ weren’t being exposed at levels high enough to kill them. Bayer press release

Bayer has also worked to spread doubt (Steps 3 & 4) about the link between neonicotinoids and the collapse of bee colonies, by questioning the role of parasites and poor beekeeping in the decline of bees. The Bayer handbook on Honey Bee Health is a great example of this, as are the press releases found on their website Bayer press release.

The recent US approval of the Monsanto Protection Act takes the ‘Four Dog Defence’ a step further by placing the companies and their products above the law, presumably so the giants of industry can stop pouring money into PR ($47 million was spent quashing the Prop 37, GM labelling bill, in California.) It essentially prevents the U.S. government from stopping the sale, planting, harvest and distribution of genetically modified seeds and their yields, even if they are later shown to be significantly harmful to human health. Let’s take a moment to reflect on that fact. Even if these companies sell products, which are later found to be toxic to the environment and human health, it will effectively be illegal to prevent the companies from selling these products.

However, the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ is really only a dress rehearsal for the main event. The clause, which was embedded in a spending bill, will expire within the year. What its success indicates is that legislation is the new way to go. The game has stepped up a level. Why bother denying, dissembling, diverting information on the harmful impacts of your product when it’s possible to ensure you are immune from public enquiry by getting a law passed that guarantees you can continue selling and distributing your product, no matter what? As consumers, we should be very very afraid, of this new development.