Monday, June 01, 2009

NPR / Monsanto Wedding

The American broadcast company National Public Radio and the global agri-chemical giant Monstanto made rumors of their courtship official in a lovely ceremony held earlier today.

NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling travelled to India to cover an apparent organic farming counter-revolution in that country. Monsanto came along for the ride.

For sure, the so-called Green Revolution in industrial agriculture is hard to explain in any one piece of writing; it is, in large part, the story of contemporary world affairs as developed since the second world war. To tackle the issue head on, one would need to devote a lifetime's literary output to the problem.

So I'll accept some glossing over. But we can do better than ask the Monsanto press desk for a good quote, can't we?

"Environmental groups in India estimate that more than 300,000 farmers like Sharma have switched to organic growing methods in recent years, or have started the transition from conventional to organic farming. Comparisons between India and the U.S. are difficult because their economies and cultures are so different. But consider this: India has about three times the population of the U.S., but 30 times more organic farmers than the U.S.

"Sharma's story symbolizes the dilemma that developing countries are facing around the world: What's the most sustainable way to grow enough food? The answers will eventually affect people from India to Indiana, because the world's population is booming — and if fast-growing countries like India can't feed themselves, it could trigger more global instability.

"Agribusiness leaders and many government officials are convinced that genetic engineering will help prevent a world food crisis. Firms like Monsanto Co. have been inserting genes from animals and bacteria into plants so they can grow faster with less water and resist insects.

"Monsanto's India spokesman, Christopher Samuel, says the company's advances will double the yields of major crops over the next 20 years, while reducing the amount of land, water, fertilizer and pesticides needed — in the process 'protecting the environment and its natural resources,' he says."

This assertion is taken at face value--reducing land,water, fertilizer use compared to what? Or compared to when? At what other costs?---And somewhere near this point in the audio version of the story, a Monsanto-produced voiceover warns against the coming catastrophe of world hunger and lauds Monsanto's efforts to keep it at bay through better chemistry.

Although Zwerdling acknowledges the source of that voiceover, he fails to mention, in this piece at least, Monstanto's financial support of NPR.

When NPR is not granting the vast agribusiness corporation uncritical airtime for its propaganda, it is sending a subtler message about the doubtful future and general backwardness of a life without industrial chemicals:

"In the courtyard of his house in the village of Chaina, Sharma reviews his balance sheets.

"'Our rice yields under the organic system are almost as good as before,' he says, as his wife scoops up cow manure with her hands and pats it into disks to fuel the cooking fire. 'And we're spending much less money on inputs, since we're not buying pesticides and fertilizer — although labor costs have increased.'"

I don't know. Is it just me, or doesn't this whole silly organic movement just seem like too much trouble?


Anonymous said...

Here in Wyoming, some energy companies (Shell, Encana, BP, Questar,Ultra) donate large sums of money to environmental causes and organizations,(and financially support Wyoming Public Radio). In turn these companies have all received environmental stewardship awards from the environmental orgs., and la de da, no one says a word about any of the criminal violations of Federal law that are common to Wyoming's newer gasfields. It's a global thing, I think.

Alicia Shepard said...

NPR is very conscious of our non-commercial mission, and is not accepting money from, nor has been approached by Monsanto. What you heard on air may have been an underwriting credit from American Public Media, which produces Marketplace, and is running corporate underwriting spots from Monsanto. Local station WAMU has also accepted sponsorship money from Monsanto. But neither of these spots are affiliated with NPR.

The relationship between local radio station and NPR is an unusual one, and therefore listeners often assume their local station is NPR-run because it broadcasts public radio staples: Morning Edition and All Things Considered, however NPR does not own any radio stations. If you’d like to read more about this issue on the Ombudsman’s column, you may do so at NPR’s webpage. (

NPR is an independent, nonprofit organization that carries no on-air advertising. One way NPR funds programming and general operations is through underwriting from corporations and philanthropic support from foundations and individuals. This support provides most of NPR's contributed income.


Alicia Shepard
NPR Ombudsman