A top executive with biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. on Nov. 27 conceded that the company's "arrogant" and "insensitive" approach in developing genetically modified foods has hurt its image, and vowed to change its business practices.
Speaking at the fifth Farm Journal Forum, Monsanto President and Chief Executive Officer Hendrik A. Verfaillie issued a remarkable mea culpa on behalf of the company, and unveiled a new corporate pledge designed to govern its approach to developing biotechnology.
Among other commitments, Verfaillie said, the company would support increased government regulation of agricultural biotechnology, including a full premarket notification process, and would never insert human or animal genes into food crops.
"Monsanto had focused so much attention on getting the technology right for our customer--the grower--that we didn't fully take into account the issues and concerns it raised for other people," Verfaillie said. " We didn't understand that when it comes to a serious public concern, that the more you stand to make a profit in the marketplace, the less credibility you have in the marketplace of ideas. When we tried to explain the benefits, the science and the safety, we did not understand that our tone--our very approach--was seen as arrogant."
Monsanto has been a leader in developing bioengineered crops, such as corn crops that are engineered to produce their own pesticides, or soybean crops that are designed to be resistant to common chemical weed killers.
But biotechnology companies producing genetically engineered crops have come under intense scrutiny and heavy criticism in recent months, particularly since StarLink corn, a genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption, was found in the nation's food supply. The Environmental Protection Agency approved StarLink, which was produced by Aventis CropScience, a Monsanto competitor, for use as animal feed and in industrial applications. The agency declined to approve it for humans to eat because of concerns that it might trigger allergic reactions.
The discovery of StarLink in the food supply, however, prompted a series of massive recalls of corn products, and Aventis had to offer to repurchase this year's entire crop at a premium.
EPA on Nov. 28 convened a meeting of its Scientific Advisory Panel to help it evaluate new information supplied by Aventis, which purportedly shows StarLink to be safe for human consumption (see related story in this issue).
Biotechnology companies worry that genetically engineered foods might eventually encounter the same public distrust and hostility they currently suffer in Europe, where there is little to no market for bioengineered foods.
Monsanto Makes Corporate Pledge
To help forestall this possibility, Monsanto issued a corporate pledge designed to increase public confidence in biotechnology. Among many other points, the pledge promises to:
The distrust of agricultural biotechnology in the United States and abroad was also on display at the Farm Journal Forum.
The Japanese government recognizes "the great potential of biotechnology," according to Masaki Sakai, counselor for agriculture, forestry and fisheries with the Japanese Embassy, but he said the Japanese people have not embraced genetically modified foods.
Japanese consumers are "very much concerned about and are worried about" genetically modified foods, and hold the most negative views of genetically modified foods in a survey of eight major industrialized countries, he said.
The problem is that all of the benefits of biotechnology to date have been available to farmers, and not to consumers, Sakai continued. For example, crops that are pesticide- and herbicide-resistant help farmers, but have no benefit to consumers in the marketplace. It likely will not be until the next generation of genetically modified crops reaches the market that consumers will see direct benefits, in terms of lower prices or improved characteristics.
Japanese consumers are told that the current genetically engineered varieties are "only as safe as conventional products and nothing more--and they are more familiar with the conventional products," he said.
Pending Japanese regulations likely will require labeling of genetically modified foods, and segregation of genetically modified crops from their conventional counterparts, he added.
American critics of biotechnology, meanwhile, do not necessarily want to stop the technology from ever developing, according to Larry Bohlen, director of health and environment programs with Friends of the Earth, which has been helping to lead opposition to existing biotechnology policies in the United States.
Instead, there must be much greater federal regulation, including intensive testing, before biotechnology can become a fully adopted agricultural practice. "Maybe one day in 10 or 20 years... but not now," he said.
Biotechnology in its current largely unregulated form, he noted, has actually caused significant trade disputes among trading partners. Corn exports to Japan, for example, have fallen in recent weeks since StarLink corn was discovered in food products in that country. Japan is the largest importer of food in the world, Sakai said.
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Last Updated on 11/30/00