Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: February 2, 2005
* Benbrook's latest Technical Paper
* RE: Wheat In Iraq
* Genetically modified food on town ballot
* Bumper biotech crop harvest comes amid mounting discord
* No need to label genetically modified products?
* After Bt corn, watch out for Bt cotton
* Wheat and barley disease fungus is fully mapped and on the Web
* How activists do it: Nine PR observations and suggestions from 20+ years of monitoring
From: Wayne Parrott
Date: February 2, 2005
Subject: Benbrook's latest Technical Paper
I just want to add a couple of comments to Chris Preston's excellent analysis of the latest Benbrook 'technical' paper:
1) The issue of yield lag or drag was real at one time, but the gap has been closed in the US as new varieties have been released. Yield drag in soybean is nothing new, and has been known to happen when a trait from a wild soybean is bred into modern varieties. The example with which I am most familiar is insect resistance bred the conventional way. I has been said that, “The primary breeding problem in developing insect resistance has been, and continues to be, in achieving yields equal that of existing cultivars” (Lambert and Taylor, 1999). In the end, I fail to understand why Benbrook believes yield drag from RR is unacceptable, but fails to complain about yield drags caused by other genes bred into soybean.
Lambert, L. and J. Tyler. 1999. Appraisal of insect-resistant soybean, p. 131-148. In: B. R. Wiseman and J. A. Webster (eds.), Economic, environmental, and social benefits of resistance in field crops. Entomological Society of America, Lanham, MD.
2) Protein concentration. It has long been known that soybean grown in the southeastern USA has higher protein than soybean from the midwest (Wilson, 2004). While the exact reason is not known-- it could be due genetic differences in the soybeans adapted to different zones. Midwest beans are the type that would be grown in Argentina, and Southern beans are the types that would be grown in Brazil, so differences would be expected without even having to consider RR.
Wilson, R.F. 2004. Seed Composition. In Soybeans: Improvement, Production, and Uses. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI
3) The incidence of Fusarium. It is important to note that the Missouri study cited by Benbrook was done with soybeans susceptible to Fusarium in first place. The incidence of Fusarium on soybean is under genetic control by the soybean plant. Some varieties are resistant, some susceptible. A lot of the early RR soybean varieties also had the gene(s) for susceptibility to Fusarium. As this gene has been bred out, the problems are being resolved. This also goes to show that the type of variety used can have greater effects on soil biota than any applied herbicide ever could.
The following is a concluding paragraph from: V.N. Njiti, O.Myers, Jr., D. Schroederc and D.A. Lightfoot (2003) Roundup Ready Soybean: Glyphosate Effects on Fusarium solani Root Colonization and Sudden Death Syndrome. Agron. J. 95:1140-1145 .
“In this study, the application of glyphosate to RR soybean did not increase susceptibility to soybean root infection by Fsg or soybean SDS leaf symptoms caused by toxin produced in response to root infection. It has been suggested that there might be a relationship between the application of glyphosate to RR soybean and increased fungal diseases (Kremer, unpublished, 2001). This study found no relationship between the application of glyphosate to RR soybean and SDS. No increase in fungal colonization was Anoted. It has been reported that RR soybean plants inoculated with Fsg in the greenhouse had more root colonization by the fungus and more severe leaf symptoms when sprayed with glyphosate (Sanogo et al., 2000). However, the response was not limited to glyphosate herbicide. The difference between the greenhouse and field response may be related to the stage of evaluation and inoculum concentration (Njiti et al., 2001). Some of the cultivars, including Resnik (McBlain et al., 1990a), Flyer (McBlain et al., A1990b), and A5403 used as parents in the development of RR soybean cultivars have been shown to be very susceptible to SDS (Gibson et al., 1994; Prabhu et al., 1999). Alleles contributed by these parents may explain why some RR cultivars are very susceptible to SDS.” This reference was conveniently ignored by Benbrook. Note that besides genetic differences, the use of a greenhouse assay by the Missouri researchers may have also affected the results.
Subject: RE: Wheat In Iraq; World embracing biotech food crops; What is Sustainability?
Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2005 14:09:15 -0800
From: "Sivramiah Shantharam"
Dear Professor Gregori:
I sort of read your posting on Iraq's seed policies. You are right. It is not worth either finding out the facts or responding to all the gibberish these anti-biotech activists write. They are a real waste of time. I subscribe to GM Watch. It is annoying like hell to see all the non-sensical, diabolical and scheming spin put on every story. I used to read all the GM watch postings just to see their point of view. Now, I just skim them and I get the drift just after reading the first sentence. I must give it to all these folks, they are determined to get up every day in the morning and find out something even remotely negative about biotech and blow it all out of proportions. They do a dam good job of it. I must admit that somewhere there is an element of truth in what they write about, but just an element.
Indeed, they have a point of view and that is, GM is bad and all multi-nationals are evil and their technology is even more so. And, all scientists, particularly of the biotech variety are all frauds who have sold their souls to corporate interests. If you say anything good about biotech, then you must be an agent of the industry. If you are critical and say bad things about biotech, then you must be manna from heaven. They see nothing good in biotech and they want all of it banned forthwith. Did I say they have a point?
- Shanthu Shantharam,
Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD.
From: "Al Switzer"
Subject: Re: Wheat In Iraq;
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2005 09:34:16 -0700
Re Iraqi seed question and iraqui eating habits.
It is amazing how the ill-informed claim to solve problems by employing convoluted logic.
Middle Eastern eating habits include cous cous (pasta shaped as small spherical balls served with a meat stew), Tabuli (a salad based on cracked soft (pasta) wheat berries) and pita (a flat bread based on semolina (pasta) wheat flour).
Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2005 04:21:42 -0600
From: "Gordon Couger"
Subject: Re: Wheat In Iraq;
I am sure that the farmers in Iraq will probably get things going when the condition in the country is stable enough to risk planting a crop and the west, mainly the USA, will provide them with grants of machines, fertilizer and seed when and where it is needed. The World Bank and the rest of the EU will be there with capital for higher rent than the grants they get from their allies in the war.
With some of the world's best farmland to get back in production as quick as they can. I am sure that Iraqi farmer will choose roundup ready crops in situations he can use them so he can clean up the weeds after years of neglect under Saddam in a year or two instead of the 3 or 4 years it would take using conventional methods. I am sure that they will embrace BT cotton just like farmers all over the world. Hopefully they will get the latest Round Up ready cotton that can be sprayed with Round Up all season long. It will allow them to combine the best of their old methods and modern technology to get the land back into near full production in one or two years instead of the usual 3 to 5 years for remediation land in this condition.
Even abandoned fields gowning weeds and not being grazed is nearly as good as letting it lay out in a carefully cultivated legume. Believe me on this, I have reclaimed land that was abandoned to weeds for years and it was much more productive than carefully conventionally cultivated land right beside it when you control the weeds and add fertilizer to it to take care of any nutrient deficiencies. As long as the land has had cover and not started blowing, weeds are almost as good a cover crop and soil builder as alfalfa.
I am sure that the modern government that Iraq selects will see the farmers in Iraq will have the same choice of seed, fertilizer and other inputs that farmers all over the world enjoy. Not the state run farming of India and much of the rest of the developing world. They have a country to rebuild they don't have time for senseless regulations that have built up over the year in most countries of the world. They will be busy with serious problems, not who can raise what and how they do it.
Even though they have been held back for years, they still have some of the best land on earth and they are some farmers that never quit breeding seeds through the whole mess. It doesn't take an international company, a university, a Ph.D. or even a high school education to breed good crops. Just a man that understands his land and crops and has the time to do it.
Fifty years ago when I started farming, every variety of wheat and cotton I planted was bred by one man, a farmer, not a professor or seed company. In fact I sill owe Laval Verhalen here at Oklahoma State the steak dinner I swore I would buy the man that developed Westburn M cotton if I ever ran into him for the money I made stripping the crop in 1979-1980. We refused to take a job that was not that variety because it stripped so much better, it made us $200 a day more for us both than any other variety because the limbs came off staggered, not opposite each other, and it was the most storm proof cotton ever bred. It still stripped well after standing in in the field ready but to wet for as much as 6 months. We only need big corporations to put up the capital to fight luddilites that try to prevent change, not to breed crops. The only reason we have forced the small breeder to sell out to the big companies is that they can't bring new technology developed at public universities to market without spending millions on pointless testing that has not found a single problem I know of. In that same time I know of nearly a half dozen problems with crop breeds that don't require any oversite. The empires that the greens fear were created by the greens fear.
Genetically modified food on town ballot
- BenningtonBanner.com, By CHRIS PARKER, Feb 2, 2005
MANCHESTER -- Residents will decide at Town Meeting if they want state officials to place a moratorium on the growing of genetically engineered crops for commercial use in Vermont.
The question before voters says production of genetically engineered crops should be banned "until there is credible and independent scientific evidence that these products aren't harmful to our health, the environment and the survival of family farms."
Voters will also be asked if they want lawmakers to shift all liability from farmers to the commercial developers of the genetically-engineered technology for any damages resulting from such production.
Resident Ruth Harvie, who spent 30 years as an organic farmer in Chester before moving to Manchester, successfully petitioned the town to ask voters the questions.
While not against genetically modified organisms, Harvie says something needs to be done now at the state level to better handle the manufacture of genetically engineered foods.
"This is to put a halt until we find out exactly the result of putting poison in soil or corn that people are going to eat," she said. "This is to inform our legislators to please take this seriously."
Sen. Mark Shepard, R-Bennington, said the state Legislature passed a bill last session regarding Harvie's third question asking state officials for mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods.
Provisions of the Consumer Protection Law might already cover Harvie's question about farmer liability, he said. As for whether or not the state should ban production of genetically engineered crops, Shepard said debate is still on the table.
"We need to be careful not to legislate out something that can be helpful and careful not to legislate in something that can harm," he said.
Town Manager Peter Webster said the questions for voters are advisory in nature, non-binding and represent the advice of voters to the state Legislature.
If residents agree to the questions, copies of a resolution would be given to Shepard, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Rep. Judy Livingston.
But Webster said production of genetically engineered foods isn't a local issue and that he hopes the resolution doesn't take away focus from two key town issues: a delay in the sunset date of the local option tax and continued funding for the planned roundabouts.
Almost 80 towns in the state have passed similar resolutions on genetically modified foods, including Bennington, Landgrove and Shaftsbury, according to Jim Moulton, a Weston resident and a member of the GE Action Group, an organization of people concerned about the "potential and realized threats" of genetic engineering.
Not enough testing has been done to assume the technology is safe, said Moulton. "Essentially," he said, "you and I are part of an experiment." He said because containing genetically modified organisms is almost impossible, the public's food choices will inevitably diminish.
And Harvie said organic farming is growing enormously in the state and that there is no way to prevent cross-pollination between commercial sites and farms.
There have been too many incidents, she said, with the use of chemicals like the pesticide DDT without proper testing and federal regulation.
"I think people are becoming more aware now," she said.
Bumper biotech crop harvest comes amid mounting discord
- Associated Press, By PAUL ELIAS, February 1, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO — Farmers around the globe planting genetically engineered crops enjoyed another bumper harvest last year even as political and financial pressure mounted from skeptical consumers in Europe and pockets of the United States, an industry-supported group said.
Eight million farmers in 17 countries grew engineered crops on 200 million acres last year, a 20 percent increase over the 167 million acres in 2003, according to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. The report was paid for by two philanthropic groups, including the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation.
“The technology is probably poised to enter a new era of growth,” said the group’s founder and chairman, Clive James. The group promotes use of the technology in poor countries.
James estimated that the amount of biotech crop acreage could double by 2010, spurred on by China’s expected approval to grow genetically engineered rice as soon as this year.
The most popular biotechnology crops contain bacteria genes that make the plants resistant to either bugs or weed killers.
James and other biotechnology proponents argue that genetically modified plants will help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing nations by improving crop yields and cutting expenses through reduced use of pesticides.
Edwin Paraluman, a farmer in the Philippines who joined James on a conference call with reporters, said the planting of genetically engineered corn last year yielded him 40 percent more crop than usual.
“The benefits for the small farmer are great,” Paraluman said.
Farmers in the Philippines grew nearly 250,000 acres of engineered corn in 2004, the second year altered crops were approved commercially there.
Corn, soy, canola and cotton accounted for nearly all commercially available biotech crops.
The three biggest biotech crop producers in 2004 were the United States, Argentina and Canada, where nearly all the country’s canola is genetically engineered. The other countries cultivating biotech crops were, in order of output: Brazil, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico and Spain.
The 118 million acres grown in the United States in 2004 represents an 11 percent increase over 2003’s 106 million acres.
Soybeans and corn were the dominant crops.
The continued growth of biotech crops and the group’s rosy outlook for the technology comes amid often fierce resistance in Europe and in parts of the United States from consumers worried about how the crops may affect people’s health and the environment.
The European Union ended a six-year moratorium on new genetically modified foods in May, despite widespread public concern about such products.
Still, consumer skepticism runs high in Europe and few — if any — biotech crops are expected to reach market there in the near future. Earlier this year, biotechnology titan Monsanto Co. of St. Louis announced it was shelving plans to commercialize genetically engineered wheat because of widespread public resistance.
Recently, anti-biotechnology crusaders in California’s Sonoma County said they gathered enough voter signatures to qualify a measure on the local ballot that if passed would ban the growing of biotech crops there for 10 years. Three other Northern California counties already ban such crops, while similar measures were defeated in three other counties this past November, underscoring consumer uncertainty.
“It’s going both ways at the same time,” said activist Dave Henson, who led the signature-gathering campaign in Sonoma.
No need to label genetically modified products?
- MindaNews, By Allen V. Estabillo, 1 February 2005
GENERAL SANTOS CITY -- Claming genetically modified organisms are "very much safe," a government-backed biotechnology advocacy group has declared that the Philippines no longer needs to label various food and other consumer products that contain the controversial genetically-modified (GM) products.
Dr. Benigno Peczon, president of the Manila-based Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines Inc., pointed out that "conclusive studies" made by scientists and medical experts worldwide have substantially affirmed the safety of the GM products.
"Why label if these products are in fact safe? (Labeling them) doesn't make sense," he told reporters in a biotechnology forum in Alabel, Sarangani last week.
Peczon said labeling the GM products is not practical since it would only increase their prices by 10 to 12 percent and these would eventually be borne by the consumers.
He particularly cited products such as the wheat-based infant food, beverages, canola oil and potato chips that are currently being sold in the local markets
He said the cost of production of these products would increase due to the additional costs on the segregation of the raw materials or ingredients, the testing of the contents and their storage.
"This will pose a big problem since average Filipinos spend at least 60 percent of their income on food," Peczon said.
According to an impact study on the "cost implications of GM food labeling" released last year by the Bureau of Food and Drugs Administration, the mandatory GM labeling "will have a devastating impact on the viability of corporations, unless the incidence of costs can be passed on to consumers in terms of higher selling price of finished food products."
The study indicated that "GM-free soy and corn-based food products will cost 10 percent to 12 percent more with the percentage of the raw material cost to the selling price at 30 percent, 20 percent for sales and marketing cost, manufacturing cost, 10 percent and packaging cost, one percent."
In 2001, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the labeling of GM-derived food and food products but it failed to get the national government's nod.
Marikina Rep. Del de Guzman introduced the "Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act," which demands that food and food products containing genetically modified organisms or those produced through genetic engineering technologies be labeled as such.
Peczon said his group, which was created as an offshoot of the Department of Trade and Industry's efforts to develop the country's biotechnology sector, believes that a government's decision on whether GM products should be labeled or not is no longer necessary since GMOs have been proven to be safe.
He said government has already acknowledged the safety of GM products and that even adopted the development of biotechnology as a major government policy.
Last year, several groups opposed to the genetically-engineered Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn mounted their campaign against the crop following claims by a Norwegian scientist that several residents from Sitio Kalyong, barangay Landan in Polomolok, South Cotabato, where Bt corn had been planted, could have been exposed to the Bt toxin.
Dr. Terje Traviik, a scientist from the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, said a study on the blood samples 39 B'laan residents from the area yielded positive of exposure to Bt toxin.
In August 2003, about 100 residents from Sitio Kalyong were documented to have been suffering from headache, dizziness, extreme stomach pain, vomiting and allergies, about three months after local farmers planted some hectares with Monsanto's Yieldgard 818, the firm's Bt corn variety.
But Peczon, who was among the medical experts sent by the government to the area last year to look into the matter, claimed that Traviik had already acknowledged his mistake in issuing such findings to the public last year.
"He (Traviik) reportedly admitted in a recent briefing that what he released then were premature findings and he even parried further questions about it," he added.
After Bt corn, watch out for Bt cotton
- MindaNews, By Allen V. Estabillo, 1 February 2005
GENERAL SANTOS CITY -- In a bid to save the country's dwindling cotton industry, the Department of Agriculture (DA) plans to introduce to local farmers the genetically-engineered Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) cotton over the next two years.
Alicia Ilaga, director of DA's biotechnology program implementation unit, said they are now preparing to test the suitability to local conditions of the bollworm-resistant Bt cotton developed by China.
"We will begin the initial greenhouse testing in Ilocos later this year and it will be followed by actual field tests in selected parts of the country," she said in a recent briefing in Alabel, Sarangani.
Ilaga said some of the field tests for the Bt cotton may be conducted in several areas in southern and central Mindanao.
According to the Cotton Development Administration (CODA), the provinces of Sarangani, South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat are currently the leading cotton areas of the country.
But the CODA reported that the country's cotton production area has gone down to about 4,000 hectares from a peak of around 37,000 in 1992 after farmers were forced to shift to other crops due to rising prices of pesticides against bollworm infestation.
Bollworm reportedly cuts cotton production by up to 60%, at an average of 1.2 metric tons per hectare.
Ilaga said they acquired the Bt cotton technology from the Chinese Biocentury Transgene Co. Ltd., which grows the crop in the southern portion of China.
She said they opted for the Chinese Bt cotton due to the similarity of the China's southern regions to local conditions and after failing to obtain biotechnology giant Monsanto's Bt cotton.
Ilaga said the Chinese Bt cotton is essentially an insect-damage-immune crop that contains the naturally occurring substance of the Bt protein.
"It was developed mainly to resist the bollworm pests," she said, adding that the crop can also yield as much as three metric tons per hectare.
Bt cotton is now used in 16 cotton-growing countries including Australia, Canada, Argentina, India, Indonesia, Thailand, China, and the United States.
The Philippines continues to import 95 percent of its cotton requirement from the US, Australia and Pakistan. Nearly half of these imports come from Bt cotton-growing countries, Ilaga said.
In 2002, more than 20 percent of total cotton planted all over the world was Bt cotton, with Australia and the US among the most significant planters.
Wheat and barley disease fungus is fully mapped and on the Web
- USDA, Feb 2, 2005
ARS played a pioneering role in the complete mapping of the genome of Fusarium graminearum. This is the pathogen that causes scab—the most devastating disease of wheat and barley to date. This fungus not only cuts yields of plants, it also affects their quality and produces harmful toxins. Last year, a scab epidemic crippled the wheat industry in the southeastern United States. In the 1990s, a widespread epidemic hit barley and wheat country, both here and around the world.
Farmers and scientists quickly realized that the usual methods of controlling crop disease—planting resistant crops and applying fungicides—wouldn't be enough to curb this one. So in 1997, they formed the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative to provide seed money to encourage research on new ways to control wheat scab. ARS distributes the initiative's funds.
Corby Kistler, a geneticist at the ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minnesota, was hired in 1999 to unravel the Fusarium genome. At that time, very little information existed about any of the pathogen's genes. Kistler, geneticist Liane Gale, and other colleagues at the St. Paul lab and elsewhere were able to sequence about 2,000 of the pathogen's 12,000 genes. That initial success was enough to attract a $1.9 million grant from the Microbial Genome Sequencing Program, administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.
Co-applicants for the grant included colleagues at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana; Michigan State University in East Lansing; and the Broad Institute, a major genomics research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Kistler, along with molecular geneticists Todd J. Ward and Kerry O'Donnell in the ARS Microbial Genomics and Bioprocessing Research Unit, Peoria, Illinois, sequenced parts of several hundred Fusarium genes to help map the genome. This work revealed that the fungus has only four chromosomes. O'Donnell compares each chromosome to a huge jigsaw puzzle, saying that the Broad Institute's task was to put the pieces together. They succeeded, except for some odd pieces, which Kistler and Gale have recently inserted.
"We're 99.8 percent done. It's a remarkable achievement," says Kistler. "The Broad Institute used their computer to assemble hundreds of thousands of little bits of DNA sequences into the complete Fusarium genome. Other fungi have lots of simple DNA sequences that are almost like spacers in the genome. These 'puzzle pieces' are so simple that they could fit almost anywhere. So it can be nearly impossible to find exactly where they fit," says Kistler. "Fortunately, the Fusarium genome has very few of these ambiguous, generic pieces. Almost all the pieces clearly fit in only one place."
Because of this, the sequencing is more complete than has been done for any other fungus of this type. Kistler and his colleagues are encouraged about finding a way to control scab disease using the genome information.
Two Maps Are Better Than One
"The Broad Institute's role was to take our raw genetic material and do the actual sequencing needed to assemble the genome," says Kistler. "ARS provided the genetic map—which locates the genes in relation to each other—and the Broad Institute developed the physical map, which shows the chemical makeup, or DNA sequences, that make up the chromosomes. The two maps correspond well to each other, validating the accuracy of the genome sequencing."
The genome map has been revised since its initial release. Both maps have been combined and are now on the Broad Institute's web site at www.broad.mit.edu/annotation/fungi/fusarium.
"We're releasing information as fast as possible so it can reach researchers anywhere in the world and immediately help them discover genes they can use to genetically control scab," says Kistler.
Genome work always requires collaboration, Kistler says. "It's too big a job for one person or lab to do. We enjoy this collaboration because it's an integral part of what science is all about, and we all profit from it."
At Michigan State University, associate professor Frances Trail focuses on identifying genes that enable Fusarium to form the spores that start the disease's spread each spring. At Purdue University, associate professor Jin-Rong Xu specializes in finding genes that enable the fungus to cause disease.
"Many Fusarium species can't cause disease," Kistler notes, "so we want to find out which genes make it possible for F. graminearum to cause scab. We are studying altered strains of the fungus that don't form spores or don't cause disease. That will help us find out which genes are needed to form spores and which genes cause the disease.
"We know where only half the genes that produce the toxins are. We are now using the genome sequence to find the other ones. Our overall goal is to find out how this fungus causes scab, how it produces toxins, and what environmental cues trigger scab. From there, we can devise a strategy for preventing the disease. It's a case of getting to know your enemy."—By Don Comis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources, Genomics, and Genetic Improvement (#301), Crop Protection and Quarantine (#304), and Food Safety (#108), three ARS National Programs described on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
H. Corby Kistler is with the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory, 1551 Lindig St., St. Paul, MN 55108; phone (612) 625-9774, fax (651) 649-5054.
Kerry O'Donnell and Todd J. Ward are in the USDA-ARS Microbial Genomics and Bioprocessing Research Unit, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, 1815 North University St., Peoria, IL 61604-3999; phone (309) 681-6383 [O'Donnell], (309) 681-6394 [Ward], fax (309) 681-6672.
How activists do it: Nine PR observations and suggestions from 20+ years of monitoring
© ePublic Relations Ltd
In January 1993, the face of PR changed instantly and forever. Marc Andreessen released a web browser called Mosaic. Mosaic brought easy accessibility and a sense of order to the world wide web and the internet. For many years prior, the internet and its precursors had been developing quietly in the background. Significantly, Mosaic was distributed for free. Seven years later, in 2000, research conducted in cooperation with the Council of Public Relations Firms noted:
“…communications specialists are struggling to recognize the impact that the Internet will have on how communication occurs. They are reacting slowly to the changes it will make in online business and culture.” (The Impact of the Internet on Public Relations and Business Communications.)
For seven years the PR industry functioned oblivious to the impact and significance of the internet. The reason: PR agencies were making so much money they didn’t have the incentive to look into this thing called the internet. During that same period, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), other special interest groups and their left-leaning supporters successfully mastered the internet and moved their ideas to the top of the political, social, and media agenda. Unfortunately, corporate PR folks continue to react slowly and to misunderstand the internet. Fortunately, on the other hand, observation of activist use of the Internet offers many proven and effective lessons.
The following observations, comments, and suggestions are based on watching activists since the early 1980s. Many are based on activist use of the internet; some are not. All present challenges and opportunities for corporate PR folks.
1. Localize! Localize! Localize!
The internet is a global force and corporations function in a global marketplace; however, activists often use the internet most effectively at the local level. Through the internet, activists bring global information, experiences and knowledge to bear on local issues and councils. It’s an acknowledged activist strategy to target a local council to pass a bylaw, ordinance, or regulation to support their cause. Once approved by one council, activists have a template or model they can use to lobby another council. They export that template regionally, nationally and globally over the internet. With local communities onside, activists have momentum to move their ideas through senior government levels. The spread of smoke-free and GE (genetically engineered)-free communities are examples of the application of the strategy.
This activist approach supports the apothegm “All politics is local.” The challenge for corporate PR folks is develop effective and creative ways to get down to the local level.
2. Create symbols
Activists use symbols to gain understanding, acceptance and support for their causes. Symbols are frequently used to personify an issue. For example, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was convicted of illegally planting genetically modified canola. He’s now featured in activist and other documentaries condemning GE crops and their developers. Schmeiser travels around the world explaining how he was victimized and targeted by a multinational seed company. Beyond that he has become a symbol for activists who concerned about intellectual property rights, the environment, farming practices, international trade, indigenous people, academic freedom, university funding, nanotechnology, democracy, education, food safety, children, and countless other issues. In anti-GE circles, Schmeiser has become an almost mythic figure. His story and his so-called victimization rattle around the internet as symbols for many causes, inspiring others to action.
Corporate PR folks need to develop symbols – personifications – for the issue confronting their employers and clients. Sticking to facts alone fails to inspire.
3. Release the tools of PR
PR is not rocket science. The basic skills – writing a news release, organizing a news conference, submitting a letter to the editor, meeting with politicians, preparing fact sheets for decision makers, creating a media list, developing relationships with journalists, etc. – are easily acquired. Knowing this, activists make manuals on these topics available on the internet. Any activist with a slight interest in PR can download the information and acquire basic PR knowledge. There’s also information on more specialized PR functions including fundraising, branding, creating personalized emails, and developing full-fledged web portals. In addition, activists also conduct hands-on workshops – often for free – on many facets of PR, including media training.
The result is PR capacity is infused and diffused within then activist world. Many activists have the information, skills, confidence and trust to address the media and undertake PR activities. And, they are empowered to use those skills as they see fit. This can create many activist spokesmen on single issue, even within a single community
Corporate PR folks on the other hand, historically hoard and centralize PR ability and capacity. They believe PR is specialized skill set and they must control it. They believe that a single voice, presenting a consistent message is the way to go. Any deviation from the approved patter is seen as weakness and unprofessional. When corporate PR folks prefer a single, centralized voice to multiple voices, they loose in the numbers game. It’s often numbers that drive media coverage, public perception, and government action.
To level the playing field, corporate PR must relinquish control of the PR toolbox and encourage others to become masters, or at least apprentices, of the craft.
4. The internet is about community, not technology
For many corporate PR folks, the internet is a technology for exchanging more information, more quickly. It’s another information source that must be monitored and responded to as required. It’s another way to promote ‘the brand.’ Such views miss the essence and true importance of the internet.
The internet is about communities. It’s about bringing together people who share common interests and, above all, common values. It’s about conflicts and differences that occur in the real world but find voice in cyberspace. It’s about the sharing information and ideas that bind a community. The more information a community shares, the more the individual members feel they are part of the community. Individual members feel they are part of something greater than themselves.
In the months following the Nov. 2, 2004, reelection of President George W. Bush, a number of online communities were formed to encourage and organize anti-Bush activities around the inauguration. During the 60 days before the inauguration, two anti-Bush lists – there were many more – distributed more than 1,200 messages to their subscribers. That’s 20 messages a day! Many of those messages ranted about the policies of President Bush. Others shared tactics related to inauguration day protests, minutes of organizational meetings, offers of medical and legal assistance, plans for housing and transporting for out-of-town activists, and media contacts. Anyone interested in participating in an anti-Bush activity found like minds and support on these lists.
Following the inauguration, participants posted articles, stories, and photographs depicting their experiences. This is important because the activists are creating and documenting their history and making available to others. Strong communities have a strong history.
The challenge for corporate PR folks is to create and maintain a network of business communities on the internet.
5. Keep tabs on the biotechnology industry
Like many other industries, the biotechnology operates on a global scale. Depending on its geographic location, biotechnology is meet with anything from passive public acceptance to violent rejection. For corporate PR folks, biotechnology is a lesson-in-progress. On an almost daily basis, it’s possible to see how anti-biotech activities work on both the global and local levels. Valuable lessons and observations are available for corporate PR folks who operate globally. Those lessons are applicable to any industry with a global presence.
6. Subscribe to an activist newsletter
Activists are very open about their beliefs, strategies and tactics. By subscribing to just one activist newsletter and one listserv, it’s possible to gain great insight into how activists work. These subscriptions become even more interesting when combined with Google. Take an unfamiliar name or concept from a newsletter, conduct a Google search, follow the links, and see where they lead. Do this a few times and patterns and interconnections start to reveal themselves. Increased understanding and appreciation of activism emerges.
7. Demand transparency from NGOs
NGOs demand transparency from businesses, government, academic institutions, and other organizations. Yet, many NGOs are not transparent themselves.
PR folks should demand NGO transparency. Ask NGOs about their finances, membership numbers, governance structure, mission, measures for determining if the mission is being achieved, qualifications of spokesmen, board and staff relationships with other organizations, senior staff salaries, fund raising costs, etc. The easiest way to start is to ask an NGO of its annual reports for the past five years.
A request to Eneract (The Energy Action Council of Toronto) for recent annual reports and financial statements received the following reply:
We don't produce annual reports - and our financial statements are presented
to our membership at our annual general meeting, which is open to the
public. Our next AGM will be held in late March and will be announced
widely - if you'd like to get notice of the AGM, I recommend that you sign
up for our email newsletter (we send out less than 1 email per month).
Feel free to call or email if you have any specific questions that I can
help you with.
Best regards - and Happy New Year!
A visit to the Eneract web site (http://www.eneract.org) shows the organization receives financial support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (an agency of the Ontario government), the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and the Shell Environmental Fund. It’s worrisome that government and businesses give money to an organization that doesn’t even produce an annual report. Where’s the transparency? Are Ontario taxpayers and residents getting good results for their support of Eneract? Are the donations from TD customers and shareholders having a measurable and noticeable impact on the environment? Is Eneract practicing the level of transparency and accountability that NGOs demand of Shell and the oil industry? Does Eneract have a history of living up to its mission? Whatever it may be.
Meaningful, substance-filled annual report can do much to ensure NGO accountability and transparency. NGOs should welcome requests to transparent and accountability
8. Network as if you meant it
Activist attacks are often seen as focusing on a specific business, industry or technology. In response, corporate PR is frequently and narrowly focused on explaining or defending the business, industry or technology. Such a response fails to address a basic activist strategic – focused attacks are just a front for a broad network of activist causes. Biotechnology provides a clear and current example. As shown in the following diagram, biotech is just the rallying point for a wide range of activist interests.
The networking among these players is extensive, intense, and dense. Corporate PR efforts that focus on the technology of biotechnology cannot possibly address all the issues and concerns activists espouse.
To succeed biotechnology and other interests that confront the wrath of activists must develop their own expansive networks. The following diagram illustrates the point.
In this example, NGOs are the focus. Industries and business groups that should become part of the network are shown in green. Some of the others issues that need to be addressed are show in blue
This type of networking is more extensive than the traditional networking conducted on the golf course, at the chamber of commerce luncheon, or the annual meeting of some professional or trade association.
9. Be proud promoters of capitalism
Corporate PR folks must be proud of capitalism and its drive for profits. While it’s not perfect, capitalism has produced health standards, educational opportunities, personal wealth and environmental progress that are the envy of less fortunate people around the world.
Unfortunately, corporate PR folks and even business leader in boards of trade and chamber of commerce have failed to hold the banner of capitalism high and with pride. Too often they are eager to acquiesce to activist demands even if it means ignoring sound science and common sense. More significantly they appear willing to sacrifice the basic values and principles essential for capitalism to succeed.
PR folks who are squeamish about promoting capitalism and it values should read C.K. Prahalad’s "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits." Through numerous examples and detailed explanations, Prahalad shows how capitalism can play a leading role in alleviating poverty among the four billion people who live on less than $2 dollars a day. For more than 50 years, NGOs, charitable organizations, and philanthropic groups have attempted eliminate poverty. They've seen remarkably unsuccessful.
Prahalad notes capitalism benefits both businesses and the poor. He writes:
“…The four to five billion people at the BOP (bottom of the pyramid) can help redefine ‘what good business practice’ is. This is not about philanthropy and notions of corporate social responsibility…the BOP must become a key element of the central business mission for large private-sector firms. The poor must become active, informed, and involved consumers. Poverty reduction can result from co-creating a market around the needs of the poor.”
The market is enormous -- $13 trillion in purchasing power parity. That’s equivalent to more than the combined GDP of Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy.
Capitalism has a grand, even though imperfect, history. It’s future can be an even greater. Both businesses and the world’s poorest people can experience untold prosperity. Corporate PR folks can be part of that future. To do so they must believe strongly in the ability, capacity and compassion of the private sector. They must be proud, private-sector crusaders, not corporate apologists.
Activists and activism are facts of business life. Observing, studying and discussing them provide many challenges and opportunities for corporate PR folks.