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Jan Lee headshot

Monsanto Tests the Waters with Reddit 'Ask Me Anything' Session

Words by Jan Lee

Where do you go if you are a major corporation like, say, Monsanto, and want to tell your story in your own words? These days, connecting with your target readership can feel a bit like negotiating a mine field: major media may hear what it thinks makes a headline, but is it the message the company feels is newsworthy?

Last Thursday, Monsanto took a stab at circumventing that danger zone with a one-on-one chat session on Reddit. This isn't the first time the agrochemical industry turned up on Reddit's popular Journal of Science. Last year, Cathleen Enright, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, took a seat at one of Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) sessions and fielded questions on the genetically-modified food industry. As Enright put it, the session was a way of providing "real-time, unmoderated conversation" on the questions surrounding GMO.

This year's AMA was a bit different. Dr. Fred Perlak, former head of operations for Monsanto Hawaii, logged in to answer the weighty scientific questions -- the kind of things we may not think about when we open that box of cereal containing GMO ingredients or tear open that candy bar, such how to combat insect resistance; Monsanto's concept of biodiversity and the controversies that surround that question; and where and how the company grows its seeds. With Hawaii's year-round growing climate, its fertile islands have become essential to the company's seed industry, providing a breadth of research on the challenges of meeting a global GM demand.

The AMA was a big hit. More than 2,400 comments were logged by doctors, biologists, grad students and farmers. Topics ranged from the biochemistry behind GMO, to the anticipated future of the technology. One reader highlighted Monsanto's earlier tendency to pair scientists and marketing specialists together in a "buddy system" and the benefits that emerged on both sides of the house. Another noted the uncomfortable contrast in predictions made on Monsanto's application to the FDA, which stated that "glyphosate is considered to be a herbicide with low risk for weed resistance." More than a decade later, however, Monsanto knows differently.

"IMHO [in my humble opinion], resistance to glyphosate is probably inevitable by some weed species," conceded Perlak in the AMA. And, he pointed out, that's a fact that isn't limited to GM crops.

One question that didn't appear to receive an answer is the viability of GMO livestock. The questioner noted that GMO have already been fish developed, but the company that engineered the technique failed to get approval. Was this something that Monsanto was pursuing, and would its leverage be a plus in developing this industry? The question appeared to have gotten lost in the thread and, sadly, wasn't answered.

But Perlak, who now is part of Monsanto's pipeline, strategic partnerships and sustainability team, indicated that the company is surging ahead with new ideas, such as drought-resistant crops and new, more adaptable forms of soy beans.

It also has some challenges to overcome, one of which is insect resistance, Perlak said.

"I think we will see virus resistance for a number of crops -- their arrival to the market depends on public acceptance, which is why talking about the science is so important," he wrote on Reddit.

And the company is also still trying to master the concept of producing food that actually has better nutritional value. "Its going to take time," Perlak admitted.

He suggested that a major stumbling block toward such innovation is the public's perception of GMO foods. Overcoming that issue, he said, is crucial.

"[If] you want to influence the industry you have to help people understand the science so that they are not afraid," Perlak wrote.

While the AMA probably didn't hit on a lot of the questions the average person might have about GMO technology, Perlak's candid answers were a great first step toward educating the public on the more mysterious elements of transgenic engineering. He also didn't shirk at questions that acknowledged some public distrust of whether Monsanto is being transparent about the safety of its technology.

"[The] heart of your questions is are we being transparent and can you believe us?" acknowledged Perlak, who said he takes heart in the fact that there are efforts throughout the world to ensure that transgenic technology and products are used and marketed wisely. He said he felt confident that safety measures were being taken through adequate testing and research.

According to Perlak, this AMA was Reddit's idea. Hopefully the concept will plant the seed for further Reddit discussions by Monsanto, in which readers can ask questions they feel haven't been answered. As last Thursday's AMA demonstrated, transparency and candidness seem to be valued, and go a long way in winning the ears and trust of avid readers.

The full transcript is available on Reddit's Journal of Science site.

Image credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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