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 in Europe.
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 Europe.
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 puree as containing genetically modified tomatoes. "It's a matter of respect for your customer," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.
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 a spokesman.
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."
Author: Andy Coghlan New Scientist magazine, issue 31st Oct 98.
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