Hundreds of protesters made their way through the streets of downtown Toronto in May of this year, waving giant "No GMO" and "Stop Mon-Satan" signs – just one of dozens of protests against Monsanto Co. around the world that day. The signs they carried exemplified the U.S.-based seed giant's reputation as a villain, blamed for everything from poisoning the food supply to killing off bee populations to impoverishing farmers.
In its century-long existence, the company based in St. Louis, Mo., has evolved into one of the world's most-hated companies, and a lightning rod for controversy. But, according to experts, that could all change with a possible Bayer-Monsanto deal.
The first step could be losing the name – and the baggage along with it.
"I do think that, strategically, many have come to the conclusion that the brand needs to be reshifted, or, I guess, eliminated from the marketplace," said Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management at Dalhousie University. He and others predicted that, along with the merger, the brand "Monsanto" would disappear altogether. "There's just so much hatred," he said.
In recent decades, environmentalists and food activists have set their targets squarely on Monsanto. Among other grievances, they've pointed to Monsanto's litigious approach in enforcing patents, and aggressive practices in dealing with farmers. They've also pointed to Monsanto's role in manufacturing products such as Agent Orange and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), which has been linked with increased incidences of cancer.
The company's approach in addressing these controversies, meanwhile, has fallen flat. "They were, by their own admission, terrible at public relations and risk communication about their products," said John Lang, a sociology professor at Occidental College in California.
"They were very aggressive, and [in effect] really said, 'This is science, and if you don't understand science, you're not smart and that's a problem.' That's not a strategy that goes well."
Bayer, he said, has a better track record of dealing with the public and selling consumer products. The company also represents a trickier target for activists, because of its diverse range of products – including popular consumer brands such as Aspirin.
"The environmentalists will need to figure out ways to come up with a new foe," Dr. Charlebois said.
Most of all, a potential rebranding could shift the debate around Monsanto's core product: genetically modified seeds. For much of the public, the company name is synonymous with GMOs, and a distraction for scientists who try to espouse the benefits of genetically modified organisms.
A variety of Monsanto-branded genetically modified products, including soybeans, corn and canola, has long been approved as safe for human consumption by Health Canada.
"It shifts the terms," said Dr. Lang, who recently published a book on the history of genetically modified foods. "It will basically give [Bayer] an opportunity to reframe the GMO debate on their own terms … and allow them to speak from a place where people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt."