Author
Jurgen Kronig

 

Masters of Creation – Failed

 

The agro-chemicals giant Monsanto launched a colossal lobbying strategy in the UK in an attempt to ready Europe for genetically modified food – a case study

 

By Jürgen Krönig and Thomas Fischermann

 


 

A multi-national has fallen into hell. This image may appear biblical, but comes from an insider in the biotech industry. At a conference on genetically modified organisms (GMO) a member of the Novartis board used harsh words to criticise his colleagues at the American company Monsanto. Critics of the seed and pesticide giant had always considered it to be traitors of creation and the incarnation of reckless industrial power (”MonSatan”) – but now even former allies are complaining. Monsanto’s ambitious goal of introducing GMOs by force has failed miserably.

 

The company lost its independence in the campaign, had to merge with Pharmacia & Upjohn and caused upheavals in the entire industry. ”They have done us all a great disservice,” raged the Novartis manager. This was probably the outcome that Monsanto under the management team of the charismatic Robert (Bob) Shapiro had least expected when they planned their advance on the European market in the mid-1990s. In the US the strategy of the ”silent biotechnology revolution” had worked perfectly; millions of consumers ate soya and maize from the Monsanto laboratories without any worries because they had not been asked for their opinions. The Clinton Government had helped; scientists praised the blessings of genetic engineering to the skies. Most of the media ignored the issue. But time was pressing in Europe. Intensive agriculture in the Old World was under heavy criticism. Sales of agro-chemicals were stagnating, the demand for organic products was rising.

 

The genetic revolution was also intended as a grandiose counterblast there. Once realised, it would guarantee the long-term sales of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and the seeds developed to go with them. As Monsanto has already demonstrated with its pesticide Roundup and the Roundup Ready seeds that are resistant to it. The biotech industry would acquire a power that no one had had before: control over a part of the human food chain. Private ownership of the building blocks of life itself. Industrial groups as the masters of creation.

 

Monsanto selected the United Kingdom as a springboard into Europe. In addition to conquering the British market, the company hoped for support in European policy there. The strategy of the ”silent revolution” intended to concentrate on the political and economic elites. The climate in the United Kingdom was conducive to this.

It made no difference whatsoever that the Conservative Government, which until then had been silently paving the way for Monsanto, was elected out of office on the island in May 1997. In Tony Blair, a politician was taking the helm who also believed in the blessings of technological progress. The Premier continued to be a committed champion of GM products even when scepticism was growing in the public and the media became ever more hostile in its reports on ”Frankenstein food” and genetic capitalism.

 

Many Government ministers strengthened Blair in his course: his then Agriculture Secretary Jack Cunningham was already well known as a promoter of the chemicals and nuclear industries. A key adviser to Cunningham in genetic engineering matters later went to work for the Bell-Porringer PR agency, which advises Monsanto. It soon became known that Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, was involved in several biotech companies. The former chairman of the Agriculture Select Committee, the Conservative Peter Luff, had to resign in April 1999 because he had not informed Parliament of his lucrative connections to GMO lobbyists. And so it went on.

 

Monsanto therefore tried to play a game in Britain that it had already perfected in the US: the revolving door: the amalgamation of personnel with the administration in power and the prospect of lucrative jobs for civil servants and political assistants to foster sympathy. Critics of the group in the US have already called Monsanto a pension provider for former Clinton employees. As the relationship between Clinton’s New Democrats and the Blair reformers was already very close, Blair’s arrival in office had a further advantage for Monsanto: one of Bill Clinton’s former PR experts, Stan Greenberg, made the first contacts with New Labour on behalf of the biotech company. The US trade delegation fought hard for biotechnology and was aiming for Britain and America to march in step.

 

But Blair and the members of his cabinet had not only come under the influence of the lobbyists; they had also become the victims of their scientific advisers. This, too, was no coincidence. The Government’s groups of advisers had been staffed with well-intentioned experts for many years. Five scientific committees were involved in the Government’s decision-making process and 40 per cent of all members in these committees were directly associated with the biotech industry – mainly with Monsanto. In the particularly important ACRE Committee, which deals with environmental impacts, ten of the 13 experts earned their livings at Monsanto & Co, including the chairman. The result of this was that all 160 petitions in favour of GMO cultivation that were submitted to ACRE by June 1999 were approved. Over half of the members of the Novel Foods Committee that decides on the licensing of GM products in the UK were representatives of the biotech industry.

 

Long before Blair came to power it was established practice for Monsanto, in cooperation with the Departments of Agriculture and Health, to draw up arguments with ”independent experts” – which were passed on to ministerial authorities and scientific journals. Labour took matters further. A specially established GMO Unit was to organise the propaganda more effectively. Lists of communicative scientists in favour of GMOs were drawn up so that they could appear in the media.

 

Because the opinions of scientists on the subject of GMOs are more in the interests of industry than has ever been the case in the past, the ramifications are felt even in scientific journalism. In a self-critical article in 1999 the scientific journal New Scientist, itself not exactly against GMOs, referred to the dominance of ”corporate science” serving the interests of multinationals. The British Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Meacher, has also admitted to these problems to Die Zeit: ”I am very well aware that it is difficult to find independent scientists in these matters these days.” In the spring of 1999 Meacher himself started to replace industry representatives in the GMO ACRE Committee with independent minds.

 

But by then it was already too late. Public confidence had been severely shaken in the preceding months. The press had become mainly hostile, some titles even conducted campaigns against ”Frankenstein food”. They were fed with material from environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who had stepped up their campaign in 1998. They even ensured that no bad news about GMOs went unreported – whether the GMO death of the monarch butterfly, business interests in GMOs or peasants’ protests in India. Later, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were given the highest praise from the magazine PR Week. All of this fell on fertile ground with the British – because BSE had already left a deep feeling of mistrust. The more newspapers now reported the links between politicians, scientists and industry, the greater the scepticism with regard to all three.

The biotech industry is not considering giving up

This has been shown by several surveys, and Monsanto’s PR advisers also noticed this very soon. In the autumn of 1998 they noted in an internal document how quickly the mood had changed. They talk about a ”collapse in confidence”, the climate in the UK was now ”extremely unfavourable” for biotech. And ”the media elite feels obliged to point out possible risks and to prevent introduction in an information vacuum”. But Monsanto fought on stubbornly whereas other groups had long ducked out. The management around Shapiro did not seem to understand how explosive genetic engineering had become in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. This also seemed to be how Blair and his team felt for a long time. ”The strong reactions in the population clearly surprised our Government” admitted Environment Secretary Meacher last autumn. Blair, himself, made a U-turn at the beginning of this year – under Meacher’s influence – and now warns of ”possible risks”.

 

Monsanto’s rescue attempts are only making the situation worse. Hasty, belated PR adverts for the general populace tended to make the company a laughing stock – such as the statement that Monsanto had developed genetically modified food from sympathy for the Third World. Other adverts earned the company a reprimand from the advertising authorities: ”deceiving the public”. To cap it all, with its ”surprise attack tactic” Monsanto also missed the opportunity to firmly bind the sellers of GM products – the supermarkets – in a pro-GMO alliance, perhaps by promising them better profit margins. But the opposite was the case: the high-tech vegetables were boycotted by consumers. Which is why the supermarkets have proved to be fickle allies. From the start of 1999 the supermarkets were competing among themselves to see how could clear their shelves of GM food the quickest.

This change in climate was admittedly not just a British phenomenon – it was accompanied by global setbacks that made Monsanto’s descent even quicker. Last summer the largest American exporter, out of concern for the European markets, announced that he would separate GMOs and natural products, something which had previously been deemed ”impossible”. The US Government carefully distanced itself from Monsanto and suddenly advocated a labelling obligation. The Blair Government had just prescribed this for all catering outlets in the country.

 

Things were to become even worse for the group that just a few years earlier had been the declared darling of Wall Street. Investment advisers advocated selling Monsanto shares. In France, as a result of the mediation of Greenpeace, Premier Lionel Jospin met the American GM opponent Jeremy Rifkin. In the US the group was sued for ”insufficient tests prior to the introduction of GM seeds in many parts of the world”. In the EU – against resistance from London – a de facto moratorium on the cultivation of GM products was adopted. In several countries, environmental activists destroyed trial fields – also in the UK where the maize and turnip wars created celebrated media heroes.

Monsanto’s grandiose vision of the biotech revolution lay in ruins. In the autumn the company bosses’ humiliation was complete. A repentant Robert Shapiro appeared at a Greenpeace conference. Monsanto’s once so self-assured CEO was unrecognisable on a satellite link. ”We have made mistakes,” he said. His career at Monsanto will end this summer.

 

But the biotech industry never considered giving up. A battle was lost in Britain, but the industry believes it will win the war. ”There certainly are people who see the failed Monsanto campaign as an instructive test,” said a PR adviser. The industry says that pace will have to be more careful and it will have to place more emphasis on dialogue and information – but there can be no compromise in the end. GMOs will either be introduced or not. At the moment, the biotech industry is counting on the willingness of many countries, especially in the Third World, to use their seeds – and is expanding rapidly there. At the same time, it wants to tempt consumers in the rich West with products with immediately obvious benefits – so called ”functional food”. Desserts that do not affect the consumer’s weight, vegetables that work like medicines. And in many countries the crop tests for GM food continue. ”Introduction through the back door,” says John Sauven, campaign director at Greenpeace.

In the United Kingdom, however, there are only 47 fields instead of the 60 that were originally planned. Because the maize and turnip wars are continuing there after the preliminary defeat of Monsanto. Since the Government continues to publish the maps of the trial fields, green activists have already been able to start new destruction campaigns at some sites. Trample-proof GM products have not yet been invented.

 

 

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