TCS Daily

Is It Hopeless?

By Gareth Harding - June 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Suddenly, it seems, genetically modified foods are everywhere -- except in the fields, supermarkets and research institutes where they could be feeding people and creating wealth.

Washington announced it had finally lost patience with the European Union's five-year-old freeze on GM crop production and filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization in Geneva. U.S. President George W. Bush devoted a whole chunk of a speech to naval cadets to berating Europe's blocking stance, which he described as based on "unfounded, unscientific fears." European parliamentarians were busy imposing further restrictions on how much GM content crops can contain once the EU's hotly-contested biotech moratorium ends. And European Union farm ministers took a break from not reforming the bloated common agricultural policy to not decide on how GM crops can live side-by-side with conventional and organic strains. At the end of last week, trade talks between the U.S. and Europe over biotech crops broke down.

With so much media exposure, one would have hoped the heated debate about GMOs would become less heated and more informed. Some hope.

The latest opinion polls in Britain show only 14 percent of people approve of GM food, with many fearing long-term damage to human health and the environment. This despite the fact that the Royal Society concluded there was no evidence eating GM food was any more harmful than eating non-GM food and that the public may have been scared away by "unsubstantiated claims."

It is a similar story in the EU, with poll after poll showing between 70 and 80 percent of Europeans opposed to GM foods despite a slew of reports from the European Commission, various United Nations bodies and even the French Academies of Medicine and Science showing that gene-altered crops pose no health risk.

With science, money and possibly right on its side, why is the GM lobby failing so spectacularly to win the hearts and minds of the European public? I put this question to Adeline Farrelly, communications manager with Europabio -- the industry lobby standing up for biotech firms in Brussels.

"The misinformation about GMOs is incredible and politicians do nothing to combat it," she says. "The result is a vacuum."

Farrelly urges politicians not to legislate on the basis of opinion polls and focus groups. "It's like the scandal surrounding the introduction of pasteurised milk," she says. "If you asked the public whether they preferred natural or pasteurised milk, they'd have said 'natural,' but we'd all be dead with listeria now if we'd heeded their advice."

The problem is that politicians cannot dismiss voters who clearly believe GM foods are 'Frankenstein foods' likely to create two-headed babies and change the sex of their pets. So who can turn around the negative image the public has of GMOs? The industry itself may have some options.

At present, biotech firms appear to have surrendered the PR battle to environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Instead of letting these organizations get away scot-free with scaremongering about the dangers of GMOs, the industry should set up a centralized rapid-rebuttal unit to put the record straight in the media and political fora.

Next, after disinformation campaigns by GM opponents, the words and phrases "genetically modified", "GM", "gene-altered" or even "biotechnology" have some negative connotations in public discourse. Far better to use "green crops," "green revolution" or "improved foods." This could be part of an aggressive educational campaign by the industry to alter the public's image of GM foods.

Flick through the pages of a publication like European Voice, a Brussels-based weekly read by EU policy wonks, and you will see how other industry sectors are frantically trying to reposition themselves.

The steel industry (slogan: "Made of Steel") has a shameless advert depicting an attractive woman standing betwixt an old and a new car. The message? "Steel is a classic. But it's recyclable."

Biotech companies could adopt a similar strategy and start by having a picture of a happy African farmer in front of a crammed grain store. "Green crops feed the world," the caption could state, above some blurb about the increased yields GM crops are capable of producing. Or they could have a photo of a healthy-looking rice paddy in south-east Asia. "Green crops are good for the environment," the message should scream after explaining how GM strains cut pesticide and insecticide use.

Given public perceptions, biotech companies have a ways to go. When asked which of the following organizations they trust to tell the truth about modern biotechnology, Jo and Josephine Publique put consumer organizations (49 percent) top of the list with environmental groups (46 percent) a close second. Needless to say, languishing at the bottom of the heap were farmers (13 percent) and companies (5 percent).

But they shouldn't give up hope. After all, politicians (3 percent) were even lower down the food chain.

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