- Monsanto, the American biotech giant,
is facing an unprecedented wave of criticism from within the industry.
Many of Monsanto's rivals say the company is largely to blame for a consumer
backlash that could cripple the prospects for genetically engineered food
- Polls show that consumer acceptance of
engineered food has collapsed in Europe since 1997, when it emerged that
Monsanto's herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready soya beans had been shipped
to Europe mixed with ordinary soya. Consumers interpreted the move as a
ploy to force transgenic soya down European throats.
- Monsanto officials have always maintained
that the decision not to segregate was made by farmers and distributors,
but they admit to misjudging the mood in Europe. Monsanto was convinced
that smooth acceptance of transgenic soya in the US would be mirrored in
- The entire industry is now having to
deal with the consequences of that miscalculation. Though wary of breaking
a tradition of solidarity against opponents of genetic engineering, other
companies are distancing themselves from Monsanto. "We have a PR mountain
to climb," says Willy de Greef, head of regulatory and government
affairs at Novartis Seeds in Basel, Switzerland. "You have a problem
if the market leader has firmly set ideas about how to do things, which
others might not agree with," he adds. "An expensive failure
can be made into an asset if you've learnt from it, but Monsanto still
has some learning to do."
- Zeneca, the British-based biotechnology
giant, also feels aggrieved, not least because it won applause from consumer
groups in 1996 by labelling its tomato purée as containing <http://www.usa.zeneca.com/news/cn-060598-tomato2.htmgenetically
modified tomatoes. "It's a matter of respect for your customer,"
says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in
- Another senior figure in the industry,
who asked to remain anonymous, is more blunt, accusing Monsanto of "arrogant
stupidity". He adds: "The issue with Roundup Ready soya beans
is the elimination of choice. It's not about genetic engineering, it's
an issue of 'no one's going to tell me what to eat'."
- Other companies are less willing to single
out Monsanto for criticism, but those contacted by New Scientist agree
that the failure to segregate Roundup Ready soya was a setback. And the
problems didn't end there, say some industry sources: a high-profile advertising
campaign from Monsanto, designed to reassure European consumers, has if
anything hardened negative public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology.
"We're as fed up as some others with the Yankee-Doodle language that
comes to our consumers," says de Greef of Novartis.
- Even some US companies, insulated from
the worst effects of the European storm, are concerned. Du Pont of Wilmington,
Delaware, is worried about the impact of Monsanto's stance on future launches
of its products in Europe. "It may be more difficult now," says
- When it comes to their own-brand products,
many of Britain's major retailers are telling their soya suppliers to order
as much material as possible from sources outside the US--mainly in Argentina
and Brazil--that are guaranteed unmodified. But Brazil last month approved
commercial plantings of Roundup Ready soya beans, and Monsanto aims to
capture 20 per cent of the Brazilian market within three years.
- Monsanto argues that the company is being
singled out because it is the market leader. "We certainly didn't
intend to drop other companies in it," says Monsanto spokesman Dan
Verakis. "If people think we started the controversy, we are certainly
trying to clarify it."
- Related Sites:
- Living in a GM World: New Scientist's
special issue on genetically modified foods Monsanto's site on engineered
food Novartis's site on genetic engineering To sample what other companies
have to say about genetically engineered food, see: http://www.agrevo.com/biotech/QA/QAGTfr.htmorhttp://www.limagrain.com/limagrain/
gb/biotech Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food maintains
a list of suppliers of nonmodified soya beans
- Britain to proceed with caution
- Calls for a moratorium on the commercial
planting of engineered crops have been rejected by the British government.
Instead, it intends to move towards allowing them be grown for sale via
"farm scale" trials. If these reveal harm to the environment,
"we can take appropriate action", says environment minister Michael
- The trial plots will be bigger than any
plots grown in Britain to date, but for now will be restricted to crops
made tolerant to herbicides. Similar trials of plants modified to produce
insecticides will be delayed for at least three years, as the government
fears that these crops could pose a threat to species that are not pests.
- Biotechnology companies are pleased to
have avoided an outright ban. "This is the way to get data together
to challenge claims that these crops damage the environment," says
Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell,
- English Nature, the government conservation
watchdog which had been pressing for a moratorium, expects the measures
to "give time for further research into gene escape and allow ecological
experiments to be done".