GENTECH archive


Skyrocketing brit opposition to gen-manipulated foods

                        Genetic food facing crisis 
       Leaked internal documents show leading company's concern over
                      'skyrocketing' public opposition
                       By John Vidal and David Hencke
Guardian (london)                        Wednesday November 18, 1998
    Monsanto, the world's leading genetic food company, is facing public
     meltdown in Britain and Germany with a "society-wide" collapse of
     support for its radical technologies, according to leaked internal
    Amid deepening media problems, and resentment by supermarkets, only
      senior civil servants and (mostly Labour) MPs have shown growing
    support for Monsanto's controversial technologies in the past year.
   Two internal documents, leaked to Greenpeace and confirmed by Monsanto
   last night as genuine, say that the company should now consider crisis
    management. A company spokesman said Monsanto "was not at the moment
   considering pulling out" of either country, but that it was concerned
                             at the situation.
   While many independent polls have shown the British public to be wary
    of the introduction of genetically modified foods, this is the first
   internal company analysis to have been made public. Monsanto's latest
      polls and focus groups, according to the documents, show that an
     earlier collapse of support for GM foods has now accelerated with
     public opposition "skyrocketing", despite a 1 million advertising
   "At each point we keep thinking that we have reached the low point...
     but we apparently have not," writes the author of the papers, Stan
     Greenberg, a US poll adviser who has worked for President Clinton,
            Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
       Monsanto's strategy in Britain is shown to have been to try to
    persuade "a socio-economic elite" of the benefits of the technology,
    so that they would in turn lead others into accepting foods with GM
   ingredients. The only progress it says it has made in the past year is
    with the political elite, "upper-level civil servants and MPs", many
                      of whom it is known to have met.
    "Media reporting on biotechnology has been particularly difficult in
     Britain," says Greenberg, "with key papers and reporters waging a
                           campaign on GM foods."
      Greenberg recommends the company should prepare for a crisis in
      Germany, where Monsanto says support for GM foods is lower than
                          anywhere else in Europe.
        Daniel Verakis of Monsanto in London said last night: "This
    information is not new or different to what has already been said."
     In a further development, the Ministry of Agriculture has bowed to
   pressure from the biotechnology industry and abandoned plans to insist
         on full-scale crop trials for genetically modified crops.
    New regulations being rushed through Parliament halve the number of
      trials needed to test new plant and seed varieties - drastically
   cutting the amount of information collected by the ministry before the
                    crops can go on sale to the public.
   The regulations follow the threat of legal action from the industry -
    and are contrary to the Government's original intention to regulate
   new varieties. Objections to government plans have been lodged by the
      National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the
    Lincolnshire Seed Growers' Association and Friends of the Earth. But
    Lord Donoughue, parliamentary under-secretary at MAFF, has overruled
                   complaints by tabling the regulations.
        The Liberal Democrats are to try and block the changes - and
     objections to the Government's new regulations are to be tabled by
   Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. Mr Baker said yesterday:
   "There is a case for more tests on new genetically modified seeds, not
     The new rules abolish the need for seed trials to be replicated -
      causing concern in the NFU that new varieties could be grown in
                      Britain based on foreign trials.
    Pete Riley, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "Genetic
   engineering is a new and still unpredictable technology. To halve the
   amount of data needed is not only weak but in total contempt of public

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        From Agent Orange to tampered genes: Monsanto's life cycle

    But the company is spending #1m to convince British consumers it is
                      green. Alexander Garrett reports

                           Sunday August 23, 1998

   The high profile campaign to persuade people that genetically-modified
   food is safe suffered a fresh setback last week with a decision by the
         Vegetarian Society not to endorse products containing such

   The decision will hit several products containing soya beans produced
    by Monsanto, the US company behind a #1 million advertising campaign
                to win the hearts and minds of UK consumers.

    Although the debate surrounding GM foods has been well-aired, little
      is widely known - on this side of the Atlantic, at least - about
                              Monsanto itself.

     Monsanto is not the only company seeking to foist GM foods on the
      public, but it is the most aggressive by far. Based in St Louis,
   Missouri, it used to be very big in chemicals. But it has been rapidly
   reinventing itself in the last few years as a "life sciences" company,
        specialising in the fast-growing business of biotechnology.

   With sales of $10.7bn last year, and a market capitalisation of $22bn,
     it dwarfs the many tiny biotech start-ups that are competing for a
                         slice of this new market.

      But it is a company which also has a number of skeletons in its
   closet, including Agent Orange, the defoliant used 30 years ago by the
        US government to impose a scorched earth policy in Vietnam.

   The lethal cocktail is blamed by thousands of veterans for a litany of
   health problems including cancers and birth defects in their children
   - and helps explain why Monsanto's efforts to paint itself as a green
                    company have met a credibility gap.

    Monsanto's attempt to become the world's pre-eminent "life sciences"
    company is the latest chapter in a corporate tale that began across
                  the Atlantic at the turn of the century.

     Founded in St Louis in 1901 by Edgar Queeny - and named after his
    wife, whose maiden name was Olga Mendez Monsanto - its first product
   was saccharin, supplied exclusively to the youthful Coca-Cola company.
   After the First World War, Monsanto moved into chemicals, first buying
   the Commercial Acid Company of Illinois, then the RA Graesser Chemical
                      Works at Ruabon in North Wales.

   In the Twenties it became an important producer of aspirin, and in the
      ensuing decades it mowed through a swathe of new product areas,
    including detergents, plastics, fibre products, machine controls and
                              silicon wafers.

   For the last decade, the name Monsanto has been mainly synonymous with
   two blockbuster products: the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet and the
                             herbicide Roundup.

     Nutrasweet was acquired as part of the takeover of pharmaceutical
    company GD Searle in 1985; Roundup is the most successful product to
       come out of Monsanto's agriculture division, started in 1960.

   In the mid-Eighties, Monsanto's then president Richard Mahoney decided
   to turn it into a life sciences company. That meant focusing on three
   areas: food ingredients, medicine and, most importantly, agricultural

      Mahoney started selling off everything that didn't fit into that
      strategy, culminating in the spin-off of the remaining chemicals
           business into a new company, Solutia, early last year.

    Bob Shapiro took over as president in 1993, and started buying again
   with a vengeance. His target was seeds. Over the last 12 months he has
       paid $4bn for two companies that were involved in creating new
    varieties, DeKalb Genetics and Delta & Pine Land, then added another
    $1.4bn for the international operations of leading producer Cargill.

   That could have left Monsanto seriously extended, even vulnerable to a
    takeover. So Shapiro engineered a $33bn merger with the much larger
    American Home Products, a drugs company that numbers slimming drugs
   and contraceptive devices among its products. Unveiled in June, it was
          one of the largest deals in American corporate history.

     Finally, in early July Monsanto splashed out another #320m to take
            UK-based Plant Breeding International from Unilever.

     Dan Verakis, a Monsanto spokesman who has been drafted in from St
    Louis to help sort out its image problems, says the PBI acquisition
   marks the end of its spending spree. "We're now involved in the areas
                   and crops we want to be in," he said.

   Critics claim Monsanto already has a potential stranglehold on a large
    slice of the world's food production, particularly in grains such as
    soya, corn and wheat. They claim that its target is to own the genes
      that boost productivity, the distribution of seeds and the seeds
     themselves, which farmers are not allowed to re-sow without paying

     Verakis rejects that analysis. "There are 1,500 seed companies out
     there, and at the most, the companies we own have less than 10 per
                 cent of the global seed market," he said.

   He outlines Monsanto's utopian vision: it believes that biotechnology
      is set to unleash three waves of products beneficial to mankind.

    The first consists of genetically modified crops which are resistant
    to insects and disease, or tolerant of herbicides. These will allow
    farmers to meet the growing demand for food from a population set to
                   double in size over the next 50 years.

        The second wave, due to begin in five years' time, will see
   genetically-induced quality traits in food, such as high-fibre maize,
     or high-starch potatoes, some of which will help doctors to fight

   And in the third wave, plants will be used as environmentally-friendly
           factories to produce substances for human consumption.

    It is a vision that many environmentalists believe is deeply flawed,
     but has proved seductive to investors, who have boosted Monsanto's
       share price almost 600 per cent over the last five years. That
    valuation depends heavily on Monsanto's ability to win the argument
                    about genetically-modified products.

   Its current financial health is difficult to discern: the disposal of
      Solutia, new acquisitions and "research" write-offs of $455m all
   skewed the figures last year, but Monsanto ended up making a profit of
    $294m on its continuing operations in 1997, compared with $413m the
                               previous year.

     Things are about to become even more muddied with the AHP merger,
    which will see the Monsanto name disappear and the dawning of a new
       company with control split between the managements of the two

     One thing is clear: Monsanto is not the sort of company to retire
    meekly when things get bloody. It has demonstrated its stomach for a
    fight on numerous occasions. In 1988, it withdrew union rights from
        its UK workers, and a couple of years later, it fought back
     successfully when doubts were raised about Nutrasweet. It has also
     waged an aggressive campaign to promote its milk-boosting hormone,
   Bovine Somatrophin, which has nevertheless been banned by the European
   Union until the end of next year. The UK licence for that product has
            now been sold to another US drug company, Eli Lilly.

    In the next month or two, it is expected to unveil its latest weapon
      in the propaganda war: an advertising campaign in which some 49
   representatives of countries around the world exhort Europeans not to
     be selfish by resisting biotechnology. The line of the campaign is
                          "Let the Harvest Begin".

    Liz Hosken, of the Gaia Foundation, a non-governmental organisation
    that promotes bio-diversity in the developing world, said: "I see it
                          as emotional blackmail."

        Jim Thomas, a campaigner at Greenpeace, accuses Monsanto of
     "irresponsibility - for producing a technology that is inherently
                      uncontrollable and unnecessary".

     Monsanto portrays itself as a company whose green credentials are
    second to none, but Hosken fears its approach will replicate many of
   the mistakes made in the so-called Green Revolution 30 years ago, when
    small farmers across the developing world got hooked on the producs
      of the West's agrochemical industries, and then sank into debt.

   Verakis says this is illogical. "We have a great self-interest in all
   this. The more farmers we put out of business, the more we would harm

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information for research and educational
purposes. **