TCS Daily


Harvest Time

By Craig Winneker - September 19, 2002 12:00 AM

In Europe, Monsanto is a four-letter word.

The St. Louis, Missouri-based agricultural-sciences company has become a corporate synonym in the EU for genetically modified (GM) crops and, by extension, foods and biotechnology in general. In other words, in the current European regulatory and political climate, the Bad Guy.

In the late 1990s, Monsanto mounted a large-scale public-relations campaign to push the benefits of GM crops and biotechnology for society and the environment. The effort backfired spectacularly, serving only to rile up public opposition to what became known derisively as 'Frankenfoods'.

Nowadays, the firm does almost no advertising or overt lobbying or even basic awareness-building on GM, which is surprising given that the issue is one of the most contentious on the EU agenda.

Lately there have been signs that the Union will lift its three-year-old moratorium on approval of products containing GM organisms. Recently David Byrne, the EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection, made headlines across the continent when he told a meeting of European agriculture ministers (including a Green or two) that the freeze on new approvals would have to be ended - and soon. "It is time to move," Byrne said. "We cannot forever maintain this moratorium."

The commissioner argued that Europeans had to get past their knee-jerk opposition to biotechnology, which can provide cheaper and safer food production and reduce the need for pesticide use. "It is important that innovation in the biotech field is not impeded by emotional reactions and apprehension based on inadequate or biased information," Byrne, who is from Ireland, said.

But Byrne was speaking more for himself than the entire 20-member European Commission, where EU legislation originates. Even some of his colleagues are opposed to lifting what was supposed to be a temporary ban.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström told the French left-wing daily Libération that such talk was "premature". The paper, not surprisingly, agreed with the Swede, quoting GM opponents Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the latter of which hailed the moratorium as a garde-fou, "a parapet, essential for protecting biodiversity and food safety."

Never mind that there is no convincing evidence that GM crops are harmful to humans or, to quote the bumper sticker, other living things. And never mind that French farmers - often the most vehemently opposed to any scientifically-derived agricultural advances and certainly the most organized and subsidized - are busy tinkering with their own products. Some cheese- and wine-makers, for example, have for decades used artificial enzymes to achieve a desired result - the agricultural equivalent of corking a bat.

Polls show the public is still afraid of GM foods, and it's clear Monsanto has its work cut out for it in convincing people they are safe and beneficial. You'd think the company would be storming that parapet.

Not so, says Tom McDermott, public affairs chief for Monsanto in Europe. The company keeps a very low profile in the EU these days, burned by its previous attempt to influence public opinion on biotech. Generally over the last few years it has found that every time it pokes its head out of the foxhole it gets it nearly shot off. Every once in a while an angry group of activist farmers will ransack a field where GM crops are being tested. Monsanto's even taken its name off the outside of its headquarters building on stately Avenue de Tervuren in Brussels.

"It's unfortunate that our company has become symbolic of all of this," says McDermott. "It's not productive for Monsanto to always be front-and-center in the middle of the discussion."

The most recent example came in mid-August, when, in an interview with the Financial Times, Monsanto's European CEO explained that his firm's immediate prospects for growth were not great considering the EU is not likely to approve GM products for another three years. "We are assuming no progress in Europe until 2005," said Hendrik Verfaillie. "We are trying to be conservative."

Another UK newspaper, the Guardian, saw this as an admission of near-defeat. "Troubled Monsanto scales back GM hopes in Europe," its headline read.

But McDermott insists the comments should not be interpreted as a retreat, and that Monsanto will keep up the pressure - albeit quietly - for approval. There's hope in the next month or so that the US could lodge a complaint against Europe's moratorium with the World Trade Organization, something McDermott says would force the EU's hand. He's realistic, not pessimistic.
"The EU will come around to crop biotech on its own time and at its own pace," he says.

In other words, the harvest for Monsanto shareholders, not to mention European consumers and starving Africans, may be a long time coming.

 

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