SOC/BIO: Biotech companies begin public opinion counteraction
Sat, 20 Nov 1999 09:33:56 EST

Well, it looks like the ag/biotech companies are FINALLY beginning to take the green/luddite threat seriously:

>From the International Herald Tribune, Paris, Saturday, November 13, 1999
Biotech Firms Now Aim To Alter Public Opinion

By David Barboza New York Times Service

CHICAGO - Worried about growing resistance to genetically modified foods, some of the world's biggest biotechnology companies have decided to mount a huge lobbying and marketing campaign to counter their critics and combat what they fear is a rising wave of anti-biotech hysteria.

Makers of genetically modified seeds have taken a beating this year in Europe, where critics have sabotaged test plots of altered crops and have fostered widespread distrust of what they call Frankenstein foods.

Now wariness over genetically modified crops is starting to appear in the United States. Environmental groups are stoking opposition through lobbying and full-page advertisements; federal lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would require labeling of food made with genetically modified crops, and regulators are re-evaluating everything from food safety to the effects bioengineered crops may have on the monarch butterfly.

The companies have reviewed their stunning public relations loss in Europe and now acknowledge that there were a number of missteps.

''I think there was a certain na´vetÚ in our initial approaches to the
European market,'' the chief executive of Monsanto Co., Robert Shapiro, said in an interview. ''We had been operating on a model that had been used in the United States. If the question is, have we learned anything in recent months in the sociology, the media orientation, yes we have learned something.''

At stake in this contest for American, European and Asian public opinion are billions of dollars in investments by the biotechnology industry and American farmers who have rapidly adopted products such as corn and soybeans that have been engineered to resist pests or producer higher yields.

Until recently, the leading biotechnology companies were reluctant to respond to criticism in the United States for fear of making the novel foods an issue. But some biotech executives now say that there is a sense that the tide may be turning against genetically modified foods and that urgent action is needed.

And so in recent months, Monsanto, Du Pont Co., Novartis AG and other biotech companies have formed a series of industry-wide alliances and have set aside tens of millions of dollars to fight what they view as an ugly campaign that has vilified the companies - calling Monsanto, for example,
''Monsatan'' and ''Mutanto,'' - and misrepresented their products.

''The protest industry has gone too far,'' said Edward Shonsey, chief
executive at Novartis Seeds Inc. ''They've crossed the boundaries of reasonableness, and now it's up to us to protect and defend biotechnology.''

Members of the alliances are financing scientific research, organizing educational forums, lobbying legislators, regulators and farm organizations, and using their own Web sites to promote the benefits of genetically modified, or GM, products.

The members have also retained three major public relations concerns in recent weeks, and many are pooling their resources and preparing a global advertising and public relations campaign.

''All these forces are coming to bear where we're going to have a really big
battle,'' said Todd Duvick, a food industry analyst at Bank of America. ''We already have huge quantities of GM foods, and there are companies that want labeling and companies that don't want them; it's creating a logistical nightmare. Meanwhile, all the biotechnology companies are trying to protect themselves.''

The debate centers on a technology that can borrow genetic code from plants or animals and transfer it to a plant to give it a desired trait. This year, 20 to 45 percent of American corn and soybeans were grown from seed engineer ed to produce its own insecticidal toxin, and those crops have found their way into many processed foods.

Backers say biotechnology may eventually lead to crops that have extra nutrition or can thrive in adverse weather.

But some consumer advocates and scientists, particularly in Europe, say that not enough research has been done to prove that food made from genetically altered crops is safe to eat.

In response, U.S. regulators say that no studies have proven that food made from genetically modified products is harmful to eat, and that all biotech products now on the market have been deemed safe.

Another concern is the possible effect such crops might have on the environment. An increasing number of studies suggest that genetically modified plants could interact with the environment in hazardous ways and that regulators are not requiring the proper studies to assess the risks.

With critics gaining ground in the United States, the biotechnology companies feel they need to act.

Monsanto, whose aggressive efforts to gain acceptance for its genetically modified products backfired in Europe, recently retained Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm, at an annual cost of millions of dollars, according to people who reviewed the deal. Some of the leading environmental groups, however, say they believe the new campaign will backfire because it will raise even more questions about biotech foods.

''They are under the misguided assumption that the more information they put
out the more light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Jeremy Rifkin, the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, an environmental group.
''But the more information they put out the more questions people have about
GM foods.'' He asserted that the products were dangerous and said, ''They think it's public relations disaster, but it's more than that.''

Environmental groups in the United States pounced on the issue in May after a Cornell University study showed that pollen from corn producing the insecticidal toxin Bt could stunt the development of monarch caterpillars in the laboratory.

On Wednesday in Washington, a bipartisan group of 20 members of Congress introduced legislation that would require labeling of genetically engineered food.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to rule in the coming weeks on how biotech corn can be planted, a decision that may be influenced by ongoing studies on the monarch butterfly.