In my last blog I looked at how a series of events, publications and decisions indicated a sudden shift away from the anti-GMO activist lobby, with existential challenges cutting deep into the narrative of the NGOs, Big Organic and the Green parties. I postulated several reasons (coordination of scientists, science communicators, an excessively exuberant lobbying by the pro-organic lobby leading to an increase of reasonableness …). What I omitted to acknowledge is the role industry lobbying has played in the recent turn towards a more sensible policy on agricultural science.
To be more precise, it is because industry was not directly involved in the events that these issues made news and have impacted a wider audience. Industry involvement in debates that concern environmental-health risks (food, chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals …) has become a distraction from the main issues.
Following the EU White Paper on Governance in 2001, policy debates had been a process of stakeholder dialogue and validation, largely around two poles – NGOs representing civil society interests on one side and industry / the scientific community on the other with policymakers looking for a consensus or common ground. In the last few years, activist groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, USRTK and Corporate Europe Observatory have successfully excluded industry from the policy process and their witch-hunts have now been directed towards any scientists who have had any remote connection with industry project involvement.
Killing dialogue did not kill free thinking
In clearing out the lobbying arena, the NGO’s had free rein to implement their nuttier campaigns – anti-GMOs, chemtrails, pro-organic, anti-vaccines … with little opposition and the potential for serious public health and environmental consequences. These activist campaigns destroyed trust in the institutions and gave rise to social media gurus like the Food Babe, Health Ranger, Mamavation and David Avocado Wolfe who began to profit from the widespread public fear and uncertainty.
As I had noticed a year ago, industry for a large part, simply gave up – any interest they tried to represent was attacked by hateful groups who had no qualms about destroying reputations. The cynical strategy of anti-industry groups like CEO or Greenpeace to destroy dialogue worked but it created a vacuum in the policy arena. This stakeholder void gave rise to a third actor, what I would call “reasonable people” who saw the nonsense being dictated, informed themselves and began to mobilise against the zealots and confused campaigners.
Today, particularly on food issues, we are beginning to see a network of scientists, science communicators, farmers, teachers and well-informed individuals sharing information, challenging the fear-mongers, publishing articles and blogs and reminding policymakers and brand managers that evidence, facts and common sense are essential elements in the decision-making process.
- Farmers are blogging about what they actually do (and not what activists say they do) – uploading videos and opening up their world for us to learn.
- Healthcare workers are expressing their difficulties with the logic of anti-vaccination parents.
- Counter-protests against the global March Against Monsanto event on 21 May 2016 were able to disrupt what had been a major event in the activist campaign calendar.
Many of the members of this new third stakeholder group have contacted me, and I have found this experience quite refreshing. I cannot begin to name them for fear of forgetting or misclassifying them (about half of the people I follow on twitter I would consider as reasonable and unaffiliated).They are not tied to industry or any consultants but merely have personal interests – often they worry that their children may be affected by non-vaccinated classmates, that food prices will needlessly increase or shortages could cause famines in developing countries, that farmers will not be able to produce quality harvests, jobs and innovations will be lost, or that they are simply shocked at the widespread diffusion of ignorance on society. As parents, they are rightly offended when environmentalist businessmen like Wayne Parent use their children to campaign or when physiotherapists like Dr Mercola pretend their supplements can cure cancer … and they express this moral outrage.
These Reasonable People bring a passion and energy into the debates that industry has not been able to express. They recognise that NGOs who claim to represent society are merely one voice of a small minority and they disagree strongly with their objectives. This message is being heard in the policy arena and many brands are resisting the pressure to follow dictates from formerly confident activist campaigners.
So what should industry do with this new force in the policy process? Absolutely nothing! Their independence is their strongest point.
Lobbying in the Internet Age
I’m told that Monsanto employees were instructed to stay away from the March against their company. Think for a moment what would have happened if they had participated in the counter-protests or had been caught mobilising people? People would have actually showed up! What would have happened if industry had funded the American National Academies of Sciences report that had given GMOs a very positive scorecard? Social actors and media have been trained to reject outright anything that has even a whiff of corporate involvement. The activist demolition of industry’s reputation and trust means industry actors have to find a new model of how and where to act in the policy arena.
This is not a bad thing. The interests of industry are being represented in the policy and media arenas by these Reasonable People even if they are not directly supportive (a common expression I hear is: “I am not a fan of “Company X”, but I am for the use of scientific facts and evidence”). It is best that industry not be directly associated with these individuals – when Monsanto offered to pay plant biologist and effective science communicator, Kevin Folta’s university to cover some of his travel expenses for science engagement events, it was an wasteful distraction to the issues and led to a disgusting character assassination of a leading scientist and trusted professor. Many companies decided, I believe rightly, to pull back from supporting independent actors.
It is about time for the industry approach to lobbying to be reassessed. The Internet and social media revolutions have changed most other industries (music, travel, entertainment …) so why not also how lobbying is done. NGOs have used social media to become significant actors with small budgets and small teams but industry is still using the tools and techniques developed in the 1990s (create a website, hold events, arrange meetings, map and engage significant targets …). As the trust game and the transparency tools put handcuffs on this rather musty strategy, industry is running out of options.
I believe the problem lies with the consulting world. The large behemoths with backward-looking holding companies like WWP and Interpublic (the Viacoms in the world of public affairs) who are still looking for ways to fill time-sheets and win pitches. If the time-sheet mentality were replaced with long-term strategies and network/capacity building, then industry and the consulting world would have a clear role to play in the new age of lobbying. Budgets will be smaller and more creative, fast-moving consultancies would be more appreciated.
Until then, consultancies should prepare for more reorganisations and industry should just get out of the way and let these newly organised reasonable people deal with the activist nonsense.
And how have the activists, NGOs and anti-industry campaigners reacted to this shift in lobbying dynamics?
An Activist of Desperation
The anti-industry activism was built on very shallow foundations. Groups like Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) have never clearly articulated a positive vision of their world – like many “antis”, they merely have a negative view – stop industry, stop pesticides and GMOs, stop nuclear, oil, gas and coal, stop free trade …
CEO does not do research – they have no scientific method behind them – they merely trawl the Internet looking for people who have industry connections or at some time in the last twenty years had worked on an industry-funded project. It mystifies me that they don’t get their hypocrisy – screaming and yelling about scientists or retired-politicians who have links to industry while they themselves are funded by some of the largest corporate and investment banking foundations. Groups like US Right to Know are even worse – taking money from groups that will benefit from their obfuscations and distractions (ie, the organic food industry lobby).
Witch-hunting is a tiresome and thankless profession. Every study that is released or government panel publication is met with only one response – to list which members at some point may have had an association, however remote, with industry. They use the opportunity to trash the reputation of individuals without offering anything positive. I have highlighted how Greenpeace and CEO tried to bring down Professor Boobis because he was checking and advising industry on using proper toxicological methods (how dare he!). On the National Academies of Sciences report on GMOs, Food and Water Watch attacked the report without even reading it. GMWatch also tried “to conflict of interest” this report because it was rumoured, falsely (and they knew it), that one of the scientists who had merely proofread the document, had some eclectic contact with Monsanto in 2008. You have to be really desperate to stretch it to that type of argument.
And that is just the point – the NGOs, activists and anti-industry groups are getting desperate. After decades of campaigning, they have absolutely no credible scientific publications, data or evidence to back up their campaigns against pesticides, GMOs or endocrine disruption. The only thing they can do (and it has become a reflex reaction) when a scientific study comes out, is try to find remote conflict of interest claims of scientists having rumoured links to industry (even going back decades). They often don’t even bother to read the reports (I suspect that most of them lack the scientific capacity within their organisations) and think that people will ignore scientific reports if they put the dreaded industry label on it (and not notice that these “anti” organisations are also funded by industry-based groups).
How will these contrapreneurs possibly be able to use this tiresome technique in their next battle against New Plant Breeding Techniques (NBTs)? In Europe alone, there are 7200 independent researchers and SMEs researching on NBTs. Pass the popcorn!
This is one more reason industry would do better to take a step back. More people will notice how shallow and irrelevant the antis’ positions actually are if they run out of demons to conjure up.
I spent several days in France this week and spoke with many agricultural science journalists and media actors about the recent swarm of knee-jerk anti-industry attacks to scientific studies, particularly by several anti-science activists writing in Le Monde. The common response, after the rolled eyes, is that it is not only tiresome and uninteresting, but also counter-productive. People are smart enough to know that industry is unable to influence the international research process in a world demanding transparency.
While these “She’s a Witch!!!” fear campaigns may work to rally the converted within their organisations, it is really putting off the larger general public. Yes, that includes the growing tribe of Reasonable People who can see through the shallow activist games, deceptions and lack of credibility. And as this new stakeholder group speaks out and throws spanners into the activists’ works, I can understand the NGOs’ desperation!