Genetic crop giants begin to feel the frost in Europe


Europe is not the US. As that truism began to reveal its full implications to biotechnology giants such as Monsanto in 1997, the global PR company, Burson-Marsteller, was commissioned to report on how best to overcome negative perceptions of genetic engineering in Europe.

The specialists in crisis management duly delivered to EuropaBio, the European biotechnology industries association. It identified where the industry was vulnerable. It chose to describe these as "the killing fields" - a crude and, in hindsight, unfortunate term given the style and success of anti-GM food groups' counter-campaigns.

Its advice ran: "Stay off the killing fields: public issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe . . . the industry cannot be expected to prevail in public opposition to adversarial voices on these issues. All the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these questions."

Regulators and politicians, it said, should be left to defend the health and safety of GM foods. All very well, but 1998 was the year when bioindustry, notably Monsanto - the main pioneers of GM food - was not allowed to avoid those killing fields. Events whipped up in Britain, across the EU, and to a lesser extent in Ireland, meant the emergence of the exact same mould of passionate campaigner who linked arms on Greenham Common in defiance of nuclear warheads.

They were reincarnated as "GenetiX snowball" campaigners willing to travel anywhere in Britain to sabotage a GM crop test site (including some traditional crops, by mistake). Summer 1998 was for "thrashing the crops". The cameras were told to turn up at test sites to meet saboteurs in white all-in-one suits with hoods and face masks just like workers in the inner sanctum of Sellafield.

One of five Irish GM sugar beet sites was damaged, though here intense debate dominated rather than British hysteria, which often had the hallmarks of rampant "antinukism". The Irish environmental group, Genetic Concern, believes comparison to the early days of nuclear technology is perfectly valid, notably the financial pressures to produce a workable and saleable product after colossal investment in research and development. The line "nuclear fission splits the atom, biotechnology splits DNA" typifies its strategy.

Monsanto acknowledges biotechnology is a complex science which makes explanation difficult to a European public twitchy about so much to do with food safety after BSE. Often the scare element makes rational debate impossible. Hence their frequent requests for "proper science-based discussion about biotechnology".

The whirlwind in the UK meant that some in Monsanto knew a £1 million advertising campaign would not turn perceptions around. As luck had it, its launch coincided with Prince Charles penning an anti-GM food polemic in the Daily Telegraph. The royal organic farmer did not hold back: "This kind of genetic modification takes mankind into the realms that belong to God, and God alone."

Uncertainty within the Labour government festered. With declining support for GM produce, it had to be seen to put in place new checks. It decided to stall commercial plantings of GM crops in October despite pressure from President Clinton that nothing be done to impair the introduction of this US-driven technology to Europe. The Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, sold it as "effectively declaring a moratorium" though the industry disputed this and clung to a commitment to reduce the number of trials needed to test new plant and seed varieties and radically cut the amount of information required by regulators.

The spectre of legal action by the bioindustry meant the UK government proceeded with a streamlining of GM crop tests. In Ireland, the Government had reservations about labelling provisions but was set to facilitate the bioindustry. Most tellingly, however, British unease became infectious. Austria and Luxembourg were no longer alone in defending their GM crop bans.

FRANCE put a hold on a GM maize variety and Denmark slowed commercial introduction of GM crops in the face of widespread consumer concern. With Greens coming to power in Germany, all this led to the European Commission yielding to member-state pressure. It undertook to clarify the shambles on labelling GM food and effect an overhaul of directives on genetically modified organisms.

When Greenpeace leaked an internal Monsanto document to the Guardian in November, there was no surprise at the finding of an "ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and GM foods" in Britain. A sense of despair was palpable: "We keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking will stabilise, but apparently that has not happened yet."

For the foreseeable future Europe will remain the frontier of most contention for the bioindustry, but the global advance of GM foods continues with a doubling of acreage planted during 1998 compared to 1997 to 70 million acres. Genetic engineering can make food last longer, taste better and have a better nutritional content. It can improve yields and reduce costs. Fewer pesticides and herbicides may be needed with this technology, though this is disputed by anti-GM food campaigners.

On the negative side, there is a degree of unpredictability; a likelihood of crop monoculture with a resultant loss of biodiversity, biotech power concentrated in a few huge corporations, and improbability that the technology will feed the world to the extent that its purveyors suggest. 1998 also provided further indication that "superweeds" immune to herbicides may result from transgenic crops. That said, no indication of "genetic doomsday" arising from them emerged. Monsanto conceded in advance of the October outcome of a High Court challenge by Genetic Concern to permission granted to test its crops that if it lost the case in Ireland, it could trigger similar ones across the EU and undermine the GM crop ratification process. In a perverse irony, the case was won but a collapse of public support for GM foods swept across much of Europe.