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Monsanto's Alistair Hide recommends how to survive in a land of scrutiny

IMD’s MBA class learns tips for constructive dialogue with activists
September 2016

Alistair Hide, Corporate Engagement Leader of the world’s largest provider of genetically modified (GM) seeds and weed killer Glysophate (Roundup) explained to IMD’s 2016 MBA class how Monsanto deals with the targeting of its products by activists.

In undertaking an MBA at IMD, developing healthy moral judgment is a part of what the program focuses on to offer a solid education that provides value and positive impact for business. While the MBA class engages in sustainability projects and work with NGOs, it is also important to take an objective view to better analyze and question common perception.

Operating in a corporate space that is vulnerable to scrutiny, Hide offered valuable insight on some of the interactions between activist, government, business and the public. Though Hide admits activist may add value in certain circumstances, not all activists and initiatives are created equal. Because political discourse can obscure scientific evidence, he indicated the need for Monsanto to reaffirm the ecological and economic benefits of its production. The key, he said, is constructive dialogue.

With 20’000 employees worldwide, of which 10’000 are in the US and 2’000 in Europe, Monsanto rates as a medium-sized company. But the amount of $1.5 billion that it invests yearly in R&D to produce plants that are resistant to pests, disease and drought is larger than that of all universities combined that invest in these same areas.

“It’s a massively important issue to feed the world population which is set to increase from the present 7.5 to 9 billion in 2050,” Hide said, adding that ecological considerations are also at the forefront of Monsanto’s research.

But companies don’t work in a vacuum and must respond to public concerns regarding the environment and to the activists who voice concerns. Furthermore, a negative reputation will impact results. “But I’m amazed at how many corporations bury their heads in the sand.”

Understanding activism

Activism helps keep environmental issues on the agenda and contributes to sustainability, Hide recognized. Unfortunately, we have entered an era where emotional causes are amplified by social media that allows people to express their anger easily. There are now “millions” of NGO’s with causes.

Hide does not disregard activism, but regrets three developments: facts are no longer based on scientific evidence, which is leading to regulatory frameworks that are policy-biased, as opposed to being evidence-based. “Contrary to popular opinion, business actors are less successful than citizen groups at lobbying EU legislators.”

The second development, Hide observed, is that causes are becoming businesses with a high degree of professionalism, which can end up being self-serving. Greenpeace, he said, has more people working at its headquarters (95), than Monsanto in its European headquarters (22). “Some NGO’s are better funded than the corporations they are attacking.”

And finally, activism risks becoming entertainment: “Nobody wants to get deeply involved unless it’s entertaining.” Regrettably, conspiracy theories have proven themselves to be a good way of alerting public opinion and politicians often jump into action before being properly informed, just because they want to be seen to be doing something.

Turning the boat around

Business is feeling the pressure of activism and corporations need to change their behavior. Ironically the problems that are targeted are not always the right ones. For example, Hide explained how the mitigation of the 15% to 17% of greenhouse gas emissions accounted for by agriculture was being addressed by Monsanto through a better use of fertilizers and pesticides, and more importantly, by the reduction of the tilling of fields.

“The biggest challenge is to be heard,” he stated, saying how important it was to think like a campaigner to reconnect with society and reestablish a dialogue. “The reality is that people don’t know Monsanto.”

Understand the issues and the stakeholders, learn what is driving them: listen to the music, hear the rhythm of the debate. Anticipate the risks before they hit you and have a plan to turn the situation around before they do. Hide suggested that a clear plan of action entails building a story, telling it and engaging with society. “It takes a lot of stamina to change things in the corporate space.” It also helps to have a thick skin and “leave emotions behind.”

“Companies that don’t change, don’t deserve to win,” challenged Hide. The key to engage with society is to be relevant. “We have the next 16 months to make sure that Roundup, our star product, is renewed by the EU.”

On the flip side, Hide observed that only larger corporations can resist the onslaught of well-intentioned NGO’s, which has led to the unintentional concentration of power among the corporations that have survived.

“We have to believe that we’re defending the truth.” Activists, he reminded his audience, aren’t accountable in the same way. “It can take 10 to 20 years of research for Monsanto to produce a result. That’s a hell of an investment and it deserves to be protected.”

There’s no rule book and things can come around. Activism is a political force to be contended with, but Hide is convinced that Monsanto is on the right path.

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