BIOTECH

Dow rolls out PR campaign as USDA weighs herbicide-resistant corn seed

The video shows corn being harvested against an orange sky as a pianist plays a somber tune.

"Think about the challenge that the world is facing, quite honestly," Dan Kittle, the vice president of research and development for Dow AgroSciences LLC, says in the next frame. "Over the next 40 years, we have to produce as much food as the entire planet has produced in the previous 10,000 years of mankind."

Images of farms follow, with farmers saying they need a better system to control threatening weeds.

It's all a buildup for the appearance of Dow's Enlist Weed Control System, which uses genetically modified corn seeds that are resistant to 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), a widely used herbicide. The product, the narrator suggests, is critical to the U.S. food supply and the "Future of Farming," the title of Dow's six-minute YouTube video.

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"Food and farming is, in every meaning of the phrase, a way of life," the narrator says. "It is a singular culture that supports a broader culture. The modern history of farming is written in the discoveries of effective and productive cropping systems, driven by weed control technologies."

Dow's PR campaign for Enlist features display ads in trade publications, TV commercials, a dedicated website, an Enlist Twitter account and a YouTube channel. The channel shows farmers discussing the need for Enlist because weeds have developed resistances to other genetically modified corn products -- particularly Monsanto's Roundup Ready, glyphosate-based crops.

The Enlist rollout has not gone without a few speed bumps. In recent weeks, stories chronicling the concerns of farmers about a new genetically modified corn product from Dow AgroSciences have appeared in newspapers and on television networks.

The farmers say 2,4-D is prone to air drift and particularly damaging to specialty crops such as tomatoes and grapes. The chemical has been associated with health problems such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and has led to a first-of-its-kind media campaign urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stand in the way of Dow's seeds, which some experts speculate took six or seven years and countless dollars to develop.

"It's time to say no to the chemical companies," Iowa corn farmer George Naylor said on a recent conference call with reporters hosted by the Save Our Crops Coalition.

Agribusiness experts say Dow's marketing is crucial to the success of Enlist, which is awaiting approval at USDA. Dow has said it hopes to have Enlist on the market by the 2013 growing season, and, according to its estimates, the proposed suite of 2,4-D-resistant corn, soybean and cotton could lead to $1 billion in earnings for the company.

"My guess is that their marketing budgets are close to their R&D budgets. That's how important they are," said Harry Kaiser, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University. "You can develop the best product in the world, but if no one knows about it, you're not selling it."

Dow probably doesn't expect any problems obtaining approval from USDA, which has never denied a petition to put a genetically modified crop on the market. Furthermore, U.S. EPA has repeatedly said that 2,4-D is safe when used as directed on product labels. The agency also recently denied a Natural Resources Defense Council request to ban it (Greenwire, April 10).

Dow spokesman Garry Hamlin said most of the marketing is typical for Dow. The company has made websites for its products before and advertised for them in trade publications.

Marketing is particularly important for pesticide makers like Dow because they have to portray two messages, said James Dunn, an agricultural economist at Pennsylvania State University. First, they have to explain why the product is different -- and better -- than what's already on the market.

Second, the company also must train customers to use the new technology.

"You don't just put it out on the shelf and expect people to know what it's for," Dunn said.

Dow girded for response

Hamlin suggested Dow was prepared for some backlash over 2,4-D because public health groups have been trying to get the pesticide banned for years.

"We fully expected there would be a robust amount of comments surrounding this product," Hamlin said. "We think we have a good product, and we continue to be confident about the transparent, science-based process used to evaluate this process."

Hamlin added that organizations representing more than 6.3 million scientists, academics, government officials and farmers submitted documents to USDA in support of the Enlist system before the comment period ended last month.

Dow's marketing appears to emphasize what would happen if Enlist doesn't go on the market. Enlist's YouTube channel features testimonials from farmers describing the proliferation of weeds and what it means for crop yields.

"What we are trying to do with this new system is enable growers to continue to have highly effective weed control systems that are sustainable in the long term," Mark Peterson, Dow's global biology team leader, says in the video.

The Dow marketing doesn't mention health concerns over 2,4-D. In fact, it rarely mentions 2,4-D by name. Instead, it casts the Enlist system in broad terms about saving farms and an agricultural way of life.

Also not addressed are concerns from some farmers about air drift and volatilization, in which a pesticide turns into its gas form -- leading to drift -- or criticisms from experts such as Penn State's David Mortensen who say the 2,4-D-resistant corn will put agriculture on a genetically engineered "treadmill" with crops that are more and more modified in order to deal with increasingly resistant weeds (Greenwire, March 15).

Given 2,4-D's history as the less toxic component of the controversial Agent Orange herbicide used in the Vietnam War, Dow must have taken those concerns into account when it was considering how to market Enlist, said Charles Benbrook of the Organic Center, a Colorado-based nonprofit. Benbrook formerly worked on pesticide issues at the National Academy of Sciences.

It also may have contributed, he said, to Dow's decision to repeatedly mention glyphosate -- the Roundup chemical that is widely regarded as safe and is also a component of Enlist -- while largely omitting 2,4-D.

"They had to know this was coming," Benbrook said.

'Crusade'

Benbrook suggested another controversial Dow product may prove instructive for how the company portrays Enlist.

A little more than a decade ago, public health advocates made a concerted push for EPA to ban chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide that is widely used on a variety of crops, including fruits and vegetables.

The chemical had been associated with several human health problems, including nervous system symptoms such as dizziness and blurred vision, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

It was also a major component of Dow's Lorsban pesticides, and Benbrook said the company fought to keep the product on the shelves. Part of that effort was a coordinated PR campaign that included advertisements in trade publications that portrayed a "world without Lorsban."

One ad depicts a cartoon pickup truck with no crops to sell. The "salad" truck is covered by ants, and an "out of business" sign is stuck in the ground.

The message is clear and similar to the one used in the Enlist ads: Without Lorsban, you won't be able to grow your crops and maintain your livelihood.

Benbrook said he had never seen anything like that campaign.

"It becomes a crusade inside the company," he said.

Dow's effort appears to have worked, for now. In 2001, EPA banned the use of chlorpyrifos in residential uses but continued registrations for other applications.

But public health advocates continue to push EPA to take stronger action. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network North America sued the agency to force a ban (Greenwire, July 23, 2010).

And a recent study that showed chlorpyrifos may have adverse effects on the brain development of children during pregnancy has reignited those calls, potentially creating another public relations nightmare for Dow (Greenwire, May 1).

"Dow is also going to find itself on the defensive on chlorpyrifos," Benbrook said. "There is going to be a big effort to finish that off."

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