According to this story, when two of Monsanto's top executives boarded a jet this summer to take them from St. Louis to London, it wasn't just a routine business trip. They were headed for a secret meeting with the leaders of the British environmental movementQthe very people who had branded the company's genetically modified (GM) food products as potential health hazards and ecological time bombs, and whose actions had helped trigger tabloid headlines like Frankenstein Foods and Farmageddon. These, the executives knew, had led an entire nation to avoid their products like poison. In short, they were going to confront their worst nightmare.
Monsanto was in a predicament, which is far from over that called for drastic action. Although some studies have raised concerns about GM foods (see p. 1662), so far, there is little evidence to suggest that those currently on the market are harmful, either to human health or ecosystems. Even so, the resistance to GM foods, which largely originated in Britain, is spilling into other European countries and the developing world. Companies such as Monsanto that have bet billions of dollars, and perhaps their futures, on GM crops are suddenly looking vulnerable, as are farmers who have staked their livelihoods on the new seeds. And development experts who are counting on the new technology to feed a growing world population are looking on nervously.
Julian Kinderlerer, a researcher at the Institute of Biotechnological Law and Ethics at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, was quoted as saying, "The opposition is astonishing. There's no way you can sell products in Britain that contain genetically modified organisms anytime soon. Forget it."
Even in the United States, which has seen far less furor over the issue, leading baby food manufacturers Gerber and Heinz announced that they would permit no GM foods in their products. Worried by these developments, U.S. farmers, who have largely been embracing the new technology, are starting to balk.
Indeed, most agree that the next couple of years will be crucial for the future of GM crops and that in the end consumers, rather than the farmers that the industry has long considered its primary customers, will decide the fate of GM foods.
Mike Phillips of the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), a lobby group in Washington, D.C. , was quoted as saying, "It's a different ball game today. It's finally dawning on Monsanto, as well as other companies, that it's what the consumer wants [that counts]." And to placate that consumer, some companies are contemplating taking steps, such as separating biotech and nonbiotech foods and labeling those that have been modified, that the industry has always opposed.
Until recently, GM foods have been a success story. In the United States, over 40 transgenic crops have been approved for marketing, and farmers have planted an area larger than Great Britain with transgenic soy, corn, canola, potatoes, and cotton. Among U.S. consumers, the revolution has caused nary a ripple - partly, perhaps, the story says, because most people aren't aware that they're eating GM foods, as labeling isn't required. And worldwide, land area planted to GM crops grew 40% this year, to over 40 million hectares, according to industry figures.
But as GM products found their way around the globe, resistance grew, especially in Britain, where the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, as well as several Salmonella outbreaks, have eroded public trust in food safety regulation (Science, 7 August 1998, p. 768). A controversial study by food scientist Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, which claimed to show that GM potatoes could stunt rats' growth, further fueled the flames this year (Science, 19 February, p. 1094), as did a May statement by the British Medical Association, which called for a moratorium on the release of new GM crops, pending further study of their health effects.
Reacting to the escalating public concern, several European supermarket chains banned GM products from their house brands, or even from their shelves. In Britain, subsidiaries of two major European food producers, Unilever and Nestle, announced that they would phase out genetically modified ingredients in their products, and big fast-food chains like McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken took GM food off their menus. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has decided that products in which more than 1% of one of the ingredients is transgenic should be labeled; and in June of this year, the EU dealt the industry a major blow by suspending the introduction of new GM crops for several years.
Monsanto and other biotech companies have also heard rumbles of unrest from the financial world. Two gloomy reports, issued by Deutsche Bank analysts last May and July, even advised investors to back out of biotech companies. Although GM crops might be perfectly safe, they may soon "be perceived as a pariah," said one of the reports, entitled "Genetically Modified Organisms Are Dead." According to the bank, a two-tier market system will likely arise, with non-GM organisms the more desirable, and thus more valuable, commodity. Indeed, one of the largest traders in corn and soybeans, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in Decatur, Illinois, started offering farmers a premium of 18 cents per bushel for non-GM soybeans this spring.
For years, Monsanto, backed by the U.S. government, had insisted that the European resistance was irrational and unscientific, and that there was no legal basis for stemming the flow of GM products. But those reassurances did little to win hearts and minds. On the contrary; a confident ad campaign touting the marvels of biotechnology in Britain last year backfired, says Neil Verlander, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, because it didn't seem to take the concerns seriously. "They got it wrong, and it hurt their image," says Verlander. The fact that the campaign coincided with a piece in The Daily Telegraph, in which Prince Charles declared that genetic engineering "takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone" didn't help Monsanto either.
But this summer, the story says, with the protests mounting, Monsanto shifted gears. Some credit Gordon Conway, president of The Rockefeller Foundation - a U.S. charity that has invested $100 million in genetic research benefiting the developing world for pointing out to Monsanto executives that they had to change their tactics, lest biotech food become unmarketable altogether.
Monsanto's trip to London, where executives met representatives of organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, was one of the first signs that something had changed. The trip resulted in a "healthy exchange of ideas," says Verlander. And on 6 October, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro personally put on the hair shirt when he addressed a Greenpeace business convention in London through a satellite link. The company's attitude had "widely been seen, and understandably so, as condescension or indeed arrogance," Shapiro admitted. "Because we thought it was our job to persuade, too often we forgot to listen."
That confession came 2 days after Monsanto had taken another step to pacify opponents. The company renounced the so-called "terminator technology," which renders the seeds produced by transgenic plants sterile forcing farmers to buy new seed every year.
But just how much effect such conciliatory gestures will have on the market is uncertain. In early September, just before the harvest, ADM and another company, Consolidated Grain and Barge, the story says, started encouraging farmers to keep conventional and transgenic crops segregated, to make sure their products wouldn't be shut out of the market. The announcements rattled farmers, who worried that they might have bet on a doomed technology. "For a farmer, whose crop is his lifeblood, that's pretty hard to take when you're about to climb on the combine," says Tamara White, director of commodities at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
As a result, some predict that as early as next year, many growers may switch back to non-GM varieties.
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Last Updated on 11/29/99
By Karen Lutz