Monsanto’s controversial role at this year’s SXSW Eco

My efforts to attend the food panels at SXSW Eco this year were thwarted by both an exhausting three-day stint at ACL last weekend and a sick kid, so I’ve had to watch the conversations about drought, farming, fishing and bees from the (dis)comfort of my Twitter stream.

It wasn’t nearly as informative as sitting in the panels themselves, but one thing I was able to glean was that there was quite a bit of controversy of Monsanto’s sudden presence at a conference that for years has operated without much influence of Big Ag.

As Austinite Tom Philpott explains in this piece for Mother Jones, Monsanto coordinated two panels, one on feeding the world’s growing population and another on bees, and paid for the panelists’ expenses to get here. According to another response piece from Monsanto’s Janice Person, the company had asked the participants to disclose that support during the session.

SXSW Eco apparently hadn’t figured out that Monsanto had organized the sessions, but like it or not, the company so frequently vilified for their pushing of their own genetically modified seeds (and related pesticides and herbicides) should be allowed to have a seat at any conversation about the state of farming and agriculture today.

Plenty, and I mean PLENTY, of other companies put together panels for SXSW Interactive and Eco to promote their own agenda, and there’s hardly any disclosure or pushback from participants.

That doesn’t mean that what happened at this year’s SXSW Eco doesn’t deserve scrutiny. Because I wasn’t there to watch the drama unfold (or hear the Monsanto panels that happened earlier in the week), I’m simply posting this to bring attention to the fact that something controversial went down, but I’m still forming an opinion of who, if anyone, was at fault.

What I do know is that SXSW, both the main conference in March and these spin-off conferences, is so chock full of corporate sponsorship and wider cultural influence that we shouldn’t be surprised that a company that Monsanto finally realized that they’d be better off participating (and leading, when possible) the conversation than letting their foes have an unfettered space to tear them to shreds.

UPDATE: South by Southwest has released this official statement:

When Monsanto approached SXSW Eco by proposing through PanelPicker a session on pollinators called “Bees: What the Buzz is all About” we accepted it because we thought it had merit. We were as surprised as our attendees when the moderator/organizer for another panel,  “Farming to Feed 9 Billion” announced at the beginning of the session that Monsanto had paid all the participants’ travel expenses to speak on the panel.

SXSW Eco’s mission is to create a platform for an open discussion and healthy debate on the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time. We strongly feel that in order to make progress in this area, and in order to create real, tangible solutions, we must take a cross-sector, cross-industry approach and engage entrepreneurs, academics, scientists, non-profits, and companies both large and small.

Ultimately, it is lack of transparency on the part of Monsanto and the panel’s moderator that is the biggest issue for our team. It is essential to our conference that the origins of the viewpoints that will be presented are fully disclosed to maintain the trust that is so valued within our SXSW Eco community.

I’ve responded with a question to SXSW officials about whether or not they prohibit a company from paying travel fees for participants and what their guidelines are for revealing such financial support or information about how a panel was organized. I will say that in six years of covering SXSW, I’ve never heard a panelist or moderator offer such a disclosure.

UPDATE: The response from SXSW about disclosure rules: “There are no explicit rules, but we assume that when someone is participating and provides their company affiliation that it is accurate.”


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