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BUSINESS & POLICY: Times of India reruns a three-year-old ”success” story on Bt Cotton



                                  PART 1


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TITLE:   GOT A PLANT, WILL REPUBLISH FOR A FEE

SOURCE:  The Hoot, India

AUTHOR:  Manu Mougdil

URL:     http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5489&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=5&valid=true

DATE:    06.09.2011

SUMMARY: "The Times of India reruns a three-year-old story on Bt Cotton without any updates as paid news. It is described as a consumer connect initiative. Why did Mahyco Monsanto Biotech get this extolling story republished? The trigger seems to be the bad press it has got recently. On August 28, 2011, the Times of India attempted to present ? old wine in a new bottle? in its own style. A full page story ?Reaping gold through Bt Cotton? appeared in its Sunday edition just when the media was busy celebrating end of Anna Hazare?s fast."

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GOT A PLANT, WILL REPUBLISH FOR A FEE

The Times of India reruns a three-year-old story on Bt Cotton without any updates as paid news. It is described as a consumer connect initiative. Why did Mahyco Monsanto Biotech get this extolling story republished? The trigger seems to be the bad press it has got recently, says MANU MOUDGIL

On August 28, 2011, the Times of India attempted to present ? old wine in a new bottle? in its own style. A full page story ?Reaping gold through Bt Cotton? appeared in its Sunday edition just when the media was busy celebrating end of Anna Hazare?s fast.

A group of labourers carrying baskets of cotton balls on their heads looked out of the page while the bottom half splashed success stories of two villages in Maharashtra where the villagers had apparently hit gold mine. With anecdotes of three families, the story looked strikingly in-depth.

However, the real information was concealed at the top and bottom right of the page in fine print. The write up was re-print of a story from the Times of India, Nagpur edition, October 31, 2008 and it was being published under the TOI?s ?Consumer Connect Initiative?,a benevolent nomenclature given to paid news.

Also, the news report says ?The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech?, the company which has been selling Bt Cotton seeds to farmers since 2002.

Around the same time in 2008 when TOI, Nagpur edition, published the original story, similar news reports appeared in the Economic Times and news feeds of UNI and PTI which indicates that the company had arranged the trip for a group of journalists to farms of Yavatmal district.

The reason for such a PR exercise seemed to be the flak it had been receiving from civil society groups in 2008 which blamed the high price of Bt Cotton seeds and consecutive Bt crop failures for farmer suicides.

So, why did the company get the extolling story republished after three years without any updates?

Again, the trigger seems to be the bad press it has got recently. On August 9, the Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a conglomerate of several civil society groups including Greenpeace, launched a ?Quit India? campaign against Monsanto for its ?anti-farmer and monopolistic policies?.

Also, the National Biodiversity Authority recently found Mahyco Monsanto guilty of violating rules in procuring local brinjal varieties for development of Bt Brinjal.

The fact that the original story was also fraught with errors is another important issue. The story has a blurb on the top saying:?Yavatmal district is known as the Suicide Capital of the state, but two villages - Bhambraja and Antargaon - are an aberration for the better. Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide.?

Yavatmal has 2,117 villages of which 1,845 are habited as per the information available on the website maintained by the district administration. Why only these two villages out of 1,845 were chosen is quite clear - apparently they represented a small island in the sea of discontent because around 2008 the Bt Cotton crop had been failing over consecutive seasons despite promises that the hybrid will fetch handsome returns.

By the reporter?s own admission majority of the farmers interviewed owned land anywhere between 10 and 40 acres and none of them was ever a marginal farmer. This means the farmers to be showcased to the visiting media had been carefully chosen from a higher income group.

Also, the information that no suicide occurred in these two villages is factually wrong.Ganesh Mate of Bhambraja village committed suicide in August 2004 due to rising farm debt. This was week after his neighbour, also a farmer, ended his life. Their widows claimed it was because of debt burden and long spells of drought that they had to take the ultimate step .

On March 23, 2008, 37-year-old Manohar Mahadev Raut of Antargaon village committed suicide by jumping into a well. He owned six acres and had borrowed money from private banks and moneylenders.

So news reports related to at least three suicides by farmers in these villages is available on the Internet. Needless to say there must be more such cases which either went unreported or are not available online.

Later in the story, the ?positive? experience of these two villages is portrayed as a scenario in the whole district. Raj Ketkar, deputy managing director, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), is quoted as saying, ?In Yavatmal district, the ability of farmers to purchase on cash instead of credit; increased ability to invest back in agriculture in implements like drip irrigation, tubewells, and in life insurance policies for their family speaks for the success of Bt.?

The news reports appearing in TheEconomic Times and news feeds of UNI and PTI were also fraught with misrepresentations. The UNI story?s headline claimed ?Bt cotton brings change in suicide belt of Vidarbha? while PTI had a headline: ?Bt cotton gives a new lease of life to Vidarbha farmers?.

The news story byTheEconomic Times (published on November 2, 2008) out rightly rejected the concept of farmer suicides: ?Mention farmer suicides to any Yavatmal villager and he laughs. ?Woh sab hamare yahan nahin hota. Our sarpanch won?t let it happen. We hear people in some villages have committed suicide over family disputes and alcoholism. But politicians think it is because of bad loans. Good for us,? chuckles Gangadhar Maske at Antargaon.?

According to official estimates, Yavatmal district registered 1,708 farmer suicides between 2001 and 2009.Of them, 1,173 farmers took the extreme step owing to the debt liabilities while 83 farmers committed suicide due to crop failure.

Reminds you of Peepli Live?It?s running successfully in our newspapers.



                                  PART 2

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TITLE:   FALSE ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN BY MONSANTO

SOURCE:  GM Watch, UK

AUTHOR:  Letter by Kishor Tiwari, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, India

URL:     http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13405-false-advertising-campaign-by-monsanto-

DATE:    01.09.2011

SUMMARY: "we were truly dismayed to see Page 11 of the Times of India of August 28, 2011. This is a full-page advertisement issued by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech consciously aimed at misleading your readers, the general public and Parliament. It uses as its content, news reports that are literally almost three years old - as a line on the page itself reveals. These dated reports are also replete with factual errors and untruths.

What is worse, the original "news reports" were themselves sponsored by Monsanto."

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FALSE ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN BY MONSANTO

From: Kishore Tiwari 

To: The Editor, The Times of India, Nagpur & Mumbai

Dear Sir,

Sub: False advertising campaign by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech in Times of India starting August 28, 2011. A serious instance of 'paid news?'

More than once in the past some reporters of the Times of India (certainly in Nagpur) have shown much sensitivity and sympathy when covering the plight of farmers in Vidarbha. Therefore, we were truly dismayed to see Page 11 of the Times of India, Mumbai (Page 7 in Delhi. Page 13 in Pune) of August 28, 2011. This is a full-page advertisement issued by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech consciously aimed at misleading your readers, the general public and Parliament. It uses as its content, news reports that are literally almost three years old - as a line on the page itself reveals. These dated reports are also replete with factual errors and untruths.

What is worse, the original "news reports" were themselves sponsored by Monsanto. As a line on the page says: "The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech." So a company first sponsors a news story the content of which is untrue. Then it pays to have the same story carried as an advertisement! For the company to carry its own paid-for news as an advertisement three years later is surely an outrageous breach of ethics. Worse still, on the online edition, Monsanto's planted falsehood appears under "Special Reports." Further, having done this, it runs direct advertisements in your and other newspapers for days in a row on page 3 and page 5, a massive and costly campaign. These latter are demarcated as advertisements but pretend to be the product of serious (unsourced) "research."

Very importantly, this sudden spate of fraudulent advertisements is because the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is shortly coming up in Parliament. There is deliberate intent here of Monsanto to mislead members of Parliament into favouring its utterly dishonest claims about Bt cotton. Mahyco Monsanto has been on this offensive for sometime now, with various tactics including taking several journalists from India on a free, fully-paid trip to a Farm Festival in the United States last year. Some of the stories that appeared in different newspapers after that trip did not even mention that it had been sponsored by Monsanto. Nor of course was there any mention of Monsanto?s own deep corporate links with that particular Farm show. 

Now we have Monsanto consciously misusing both your news and advertisement columns to mislead Parliament and public into favouring it. Note that the now-reproduced three-year-old news report makes completely false claims about Bt. And since when did the world's largest specialised monopoly GM seed producer need a journalist to evaluate its science? While boasting that Bt Cotton has stopped the suicides in two villages (Vidarbha has over 12,000), nowhere does it give us the data, or the version of other farmers. Unfortunately, your publication appears to have been misled into carrying this mischievous full page advertisement in all editions across the country. And then again, into playing host to the ad campaign of Monsanto that follows this plant.

We appeal to The Times of India to uphold the best ethical standards and withdraw this full-page ad and the spurious follow-up ad campaign by Monsanto that is aimed at misleading Parliament on the BRAI Bill. We appeal to you to clarify to readers like us that you do not endorse either the passing off of your news reports as advertising, nor the false claims in Monsanto's campaign.

Yours sincerely

Kishor Tiwari, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, 1 September 2011