Health

THE MONSANTO TEST
by Zac Goldsmith

OUR AIM IS NOT to dwell on the matter, but it is very hard to avoid once again reporting on the activities of Monsanto Corporation. The reason is simply that almost everything they do is an outrage. From their new propaganda campaign in India and their illegal testing of genetically modified crops in that country, to the political arm twisting by the US of the highly skeptical New Zealand government over the issue of labeling genetically contaminated foods, they must surely be going too far.

That is certainly what their own advisers have warned them. In two leaked reports prepared by Greenberg Research apparently on behalf of Monsanto, the company is advised of an "ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology" in the UK, and a "maturing crisis" in Germany. The reports, entitled The British Test, and Germany: The Maturing Crisis, presumably commissioned by Monsanto, are based on national surveys, polls and interviews in the UK and Germany. The purpose of the study is primarily to assess the impact of Monsanto's recent PR campaign and publicity on its image as a company, and its conclusion is that Monsanto needs urgently to launch either a 'corporate image campaign, or simply to prepare for crisis management'. What the reports do not mention are other forms of active opposition to Monsanto and its products. In India for example, a movement was launched a few weeks ago to expel Monsanto entirely from that country. It has been named "Operation Cremate Monsanto".

In France, where opposition is fast growing, moves have been made by ECOROPA to sue Monsanto in the courts for lying in its advertisements about the benefits of food biotechnology and the justifications for it. Our own experience at The Ecologist has been enormously encouraging, with widespread support and interest in our special issue on Monsanto. The issue has been read by more people than usual, despite difficulties we had in finding a printer willing to publish it, and despite a reluctance on the part of leading wholesalers to distribute the magazine to their various outlets.

The embarrassing results of the surveys, which, had they not been made public by Greenpeace, would most likely have been shelved, can only lead to an admiration for Monsanto, who have single handedly managed to unite a divided social and ecological movement. Mainstream, otherwise apolitical, members of society have teamed up with radicals. The left is working with the right. Consumer groups and environmental groups have rarely been so close. Otherwise law abiding citizens are showing a willingness to take part with 'professional' protesters in direct and often extra legal action. Monsanto has itself become an issue, and the company is faced with what the Greenberg report describes as "large forces at work that are making public acceptance problematic."

"Biotechnology and Monsanto", the first report begins, "face their toughest European test in Britain. The broad climate is extremely inhospitable to biotechnology acceptance and, absent political support in government, Monsanto would surely face unfavorable decisions on its key products. Over the past year, the situation has deteriorated steadily and perhaps at an accelerating pace. At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking will stabilize, but we apparently have not reached that point. The latest study shows a steady decline over the year."

Referring to Germany, the second report begins: "[t]here is no place in Europe at least where we have researched where the public stands so opposed to genetic engineering and the introduction of GM foods."

By any standards, Monsanto is in serious trouble. Its mass 'information' campaign has backfired and so too has its routine aggression towards critics and its astonishing disregard for the consumer.

Negative reactions to the very concept of adding genetically modified ingredients to foods have, according to the survey, risen dramatically in the UK from 38% a year ago, to 51% today. A third of the public is now "extremely negative", up from 20%. The number of people in the UK for whom the addition of such ingredients is "acceptable" has decreased from 33% to just 25%, again over the last year. The situation in Germany is even grimmer, for Monsanto: "On the general issue of food products improved with GM ingredients, just 16% respond positively, but 81% respond negatively (including 42% who are very negative). The response among German women is worse: 86% negative."

But what began as an issue of genetic engineering has developed fast into an issue of corporate dominance of the food chain; the very basis of human life on earth. "[German] opposition has begun to center on the American character of this technolo gy, on transnational corporate threats to the consumer, and on the role of Monsanto in particular."

"There is considerable evidence," the report continues, " that the anti biotechno logy discourse focuses on American compa nies in general and Monsanto in particular. The company is seen to employ aggressive practices and to enter the market with a cer tain disregard for the German consumer. In Germany, genetic engineering and biotech nology are associated with big multination al and globally active corporations. For the opponents in particular, these companies are 'surrounded by a certain aura of mystery and threat'. The anti corporate discourse in Germany already includes the idea of cor porate control of the food chain and threats to independent farming. Biotechnology companies are seen [by the general public] to be willing to risk great human danger in order to make profits."

Greenberg's explanation of Monsanto's PR failure centers not on the products them selves, or on the nature of the technology, but more on what is seen as a backwardness among European consumers, and a general 'immaturity' or ignorance, particularly among the press. "The media elite are strongly hostile to biotechnology and Mon santo. While individual reporters may have improved their knowledge, there is no evi dence of that among the media elite who did not read the [presumably 'educational'] advertising and who do not seem particu larly informed on the issue."

Objections raised by a number of media 'elite' interviewed by Greenberg included among other things issues of regulation, of independent agencies, of labeling. They favored, for the most part, a temporary moratorium on the release of GM foods a fairly reasonable platform, but one which is apparently incompatible with that of Mon santo. "Reading these comments it is unlikely that the press is about to usher in a change in the climate in Britain," concludes the report 'a change in climate' no doubt meaning unconditional acceptance of Mon santo's products.

The problem in Germany, according to Monsanto's advisers lies in "an ideological opposition to 'processed foods' which are seen to not be real." In the UK, the study shows that the public are fast losing their faith in "scientific progress", indeed they are seen by Greenberg to be "the most skeptical in Europe". Similar studies backed by Unilever, the Green Alliance and

the University of Lancaster have shown, what's more, that consumers in the UK harbor "mixed feelings about the integrity and adequacy of present patterns of gov ernment regulation, and in particular about official scientific assurances of safety."

But what is astonishing in all this is a total inability on the part of Monsanto's advisers to rest any responsibility for this 'maturing crisis' on its unacceptable prod ucts or on the behavior of Monsanto itself (except for minor reference to their clumsy introduction of genetically modified soya). What is even more disturbing is their lack of interest in doing so. The purpose of the report seems to be that of analyzing means either of sweeping the issue under the car pet until such a time as the issue is forgot ten, or else of twisting the language and adapting the arguments until they prove more persuasive to a fundamentally dis trustful public. In the UK, the emphasis is on terms used to describe Monsanto's

work, with polls having been carried out to determine which of the various options meets with least disapproval. In Germany, where there is wide scale rejection of Mon santo's ecological or health justifications for introducing GM foods, the report sug gests a shift in emphasis towards "stress[ing] economic and macro benefits and avoid[ing], at this point, intrusions on the sanctity of the German consumer."

Monsanto's next advertising campaign (should they be foolish enough to launch one) will therefore focus on different argu ments in different regions, and will be tai lored as a result of this and other studies, on exactly that which Monsanto believes we, the consumer, want to hear. We don't like the term genetic modification in the UK we won't be hearing it. The Germans no longer believe the ecological justifications for genetic engineering they will only have to endure the economic ones. In other words, the path of industrial progress has become one in which a product is born, and, regardless of its social value is then sold to a gullible consumer with the use of artificial arguments. Bovine Growth Hor mones, as discussed in our special issue on Monsanto, must surely be the finest illus tration of that process, whereby a highly questionable means of increasing the milk (and pus) output of a cow has been foisted on a nation already burdened with a mas sive milk glut.

The overall flavor of the Greenberg report is negative as far as Monsanto is concerned. But there is sadly still scope for Monsanto's further entry into the two coun tries on which the reports are based.

The British retailers for example, are "quite well briefed, in some cases citing Monsanto briefing statistics word for word." In contrast to a year ago, "they no longer seem focused on safety concerns."

Among the political elite too, there has been "clear evidence of progress". The rea son, according to Greenberg: "these mem bers of the elite saw the advertising and clearly understood the messages." The political elite in Germany too are "strongly supportive, perhaps even proponents." The report uses terms such as 'stability' and 'maturity' for those sectors which are beginning to see things in Monsanto's favor. "The interviews (in Germany) sug gest a mature politics that has largely left the issue settled, or at least off the table."

But the best news of all for Monsanto is a feeling of utter helplessness which seems to have consumed the public both here in the UK, and particularly in Germany.

"The [German] public, while strongly opposed to GM foods, believes these prod ucts are on the market and that the public is relatively powerless to stop their introduc tion." Even though, according to all available studies, German consumers believe that GM food "constitutes a danger to all mankind," 92 per cent say "GM foods will definitely come and cannot be stopped." In what must be one of the more vivid illus trations of the near complete separation of interests between state and citizen, there is now a situation in which the federal state of Germany is seen by a heavily opposed pub lic to be an advocate for biotechnology. As a result, according to one consumer repre sentative, the consumer feels powerless. "One day you're confronted with the stuff, and what can you do? You haven't got any choice." Another consumer representative believes that although "[t]here would be a lot of squabbling, I don't think that genetic engineering can be stopped."

According to Greenberg, "few of the opponents expect the [German] Greens to use their leverage to get the SPD to shift on genetic engineering. All the players seem to think these are developments that cannot be stopped." A British MP is quoted as saying, "I'm sure in five years time, everybody will be happily eating genetically modified apples, plums, peaches, peas." This, despite the fact that the process currently faces enor mous (and growing) popular resistance.

Which leaves Monsanto with the question as to what might be done to correct the sit uation. What is clear in both countries surveyed, is that the more people learn about genetic engineering, the greater is their resistance to it. What is also clear is that the answer does not lie in trying to persuade the public of the merits of GM foods. This is certainly the view of Monsanto's advis ers. "The overwhelming weight of evi dence argues for a low profile approach in effect doing little to influence the process and certainly doing little to elevate Monsanto's profile in Germany. Obviously one should continue to press the govern ment for favorable decisions on seed introductions and one should support efforts to expand information and knowl edge about biotechnology."

This is also what EuropaBio, Europe's largest biotechnology trade federation, was advised by PR firm Burson Marsteller. The task of persuading consumers to accept the new technology should, they advised, be left to "those charged with public trust the politicians and regulators". The American government has after all already leapt out of the democracy closet and has revealed itself unashamedly to be little more than an embassy for Monsanto and other large cor porations.

Monsanto now realizes. and will surely capitalize on, consumer despair. For, as long as people believe that the issue is dead, that giant corporations like Monsanto will have their way come what may, then there can seem little point in fighting. A gradual atmosphere of semi tolerance or of "maturity" as Greenberg puts it, is already .developing among a demoralized public which no longer sees any real gain in guar anteeing political opponents of genetic engineering political advantage over biotechnology advocates.

It is alarming that even with majority oppo sition to biotechnology, consumers appear to be at the point of caving in to what they see as 'evolutionary' forces. What does this mean for democracy, when people feel that no matter how unpopular, the interests of big business will always come first? But equally alarming for Monsanto is a realiza tion that, without that feeling of impotence, there can be little, if any, light at the end of their genetically modified tunnel.

We witnessed in Germany last year what has been described as "one of the biggest shows of defiance to a European state by its own people." l S,OOO locals, anti nuclear protesters and environmentalists, united in rejection of the risks they were being asked by their leaders to shoulder, set about bringing an end to the transportation of nuclear waste to the much feared Gorleben nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

They were met with 30,000 police officers the largest mobilization of such forces in post war Germany. The operation cost the Ger man government £35 million, and it seems highly unlikely that the government will attempt to repeat the process. Likewise, there can be no guarantee that consumers around the world will not rise up as they did in Germany in resistance to what is an unacceptable trend. Alan Simpson MP has already warned that genetic engineering may be too important an issue to be left to politicians.

By all accounts of the behaviour of our politicians today, and their relationships with compa nies like Monsanto, he is right. If our gov ernments fail us on this issue, as they have on so many others, then perhaps they too should anticipate such a reminder that democracy, the environment and our health belong to us, and that these things are not tradable.lEl

Note: The authol of the two leaked leports. Stall Greenberg, Chairmall and Chief Executive of Greenberg Research, has served as policy advisers to President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.


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