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.