The biotech industry has chosen a slam dunk
strategy to gain public acceptance for its products: Slip unlabeled
genetically engineered food into the food supply and hope too many
people don't notice or object. Deal with those who do notice and
object with an army of "experts" that stand ready to refute
any criticisms or critics of the technology. If a lot of people
start to object, by that time it should be too late because much
of the food supply will already be genetically engineered. If plans
run awry for some reason, mount a full public relations offensive
and pass the ball to the World Trade Organization whose rules favor
free trade. A victory there isn't such a long shot, and if it works,
Up until fairly recently, the strategy was
going pretty much according to plan. The first large-scale commercial
plantings of transgenic crops went into the ground in 1996, and
by 1998 they covered nearly 69 million acres in eight countries,
not including China. Last year, 74 percent of the world's transgenic
crops were grown in the United States. This year more than half
of the US corn crop and between one-third to half of the soybeans
planted were genetically engineered varieties. Gene-altered products
on the market include canola, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers,
peanuts, sunflower, milk and chymosin, an enzyme commonly used in
hard cheese. Since corn and soy, in particular, are so widely disseminated
in processed foods as sweeteners, oils, texturizers, extenders,
etc., consumers have been eating increasing amounts of genetically
engineered food for the last four years--mostly without their knowledge
or consent--because the food has not been labeled as such.
European activists in groups like Greenpeace
and Friends of the Earth objected to genetically engineered foods
sneaking into the food supply and brought the issue to the attention
of the European media and public. With the mad cow debacle and other
public health and food safety crises fresh in their minds, European
consumers have told American biotech companies to take their transgenic
food and shove it--at least until they feel that they have received
adequate answers to their questions about the safety of consuming
genetically engineered food and releasing genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) into the environment.
European supermarkets and food companies, like
Nestlé, Cadbury and Unilever, are scrambling to assure their
customers that their products are GMO-free. They are looking for
non-GMO sources, mainly outside the US, which has caused major food
ingredient suppliers such as Archer Daniels Midland to begin separating
their GMO and non-GMO product. To ensure it has some GMO-free product,
ADM--"supermarket to the world"--is even contracting farmers
to grow non-GMO crops near its processing plants in Decatur, Illinois.
In addition to Europe, the issue is getting
extensive play in Australia and New Zealand, and Japanese consumers
are in an uproar as well. The European Union, Japan, South Korea,
New Zealand and Australia have all passed some sort of mandatory
labeling law for GMOs. "The firestorm in Europe landed in different
parts of the world, and all of a sudden we have global distrust
of the technology," one biotech industry analyst said.
Eyeing the wreckage in other countries, the
biotech industry is terrified of a consumer backlash here. More
and more stories questioning various aspects of the technology and
reporting on the international consumer revolt are appearing in
influential publications such as the New York Times, the
Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek
and Consumer Reports.
In July, the PR trade publication PR Week
ran a story titled "Field of Bad Dreams," which reported
that industry got "a wake-up call" following the release
of a laboratory study showing that Monarch butterflies were killed
by eating pollen from corn genetically modified to produce its own
insecticide. Discoveries like that could end consumer complacency
"in an instant," one source in the story commented.
To prevent a US consumer backlash, PR Week
advised ag PR pros to lay the foundation for public acceptance
of biotech foods. This would entail setting up "early warning
systems" to handle awkward studies and activist groups questioning
their products; training seed company officials to deal with the
popular press; getting seed companies to publicize their research;
and roping in "third party spokespersons" to trumpet pro-biotech
statements and opinions from government regulators. Farmers make
especially good spokespersons, PR Week advised, because
they "garner positive response from American consumers."
It warned that food companies "need to be very precise about
what the meaning of safe is in regard to these products," reminding
its readers that "agri-chemical makers have been doing that
for years, telling farmers their fertilizer and pesticide products
are safe only if used as directed" (emphasis added).
PR firms with food industry clients have quietly
begun laying the groundwork. Fleishman Hillard, rated number two
in ag PR, predicted that about $2.5 million of the $10 million it
earns for agricultural PR in the coming year will be for "crisis
preparedness" related to genetic engineering issues. Before
a crisis hits, PR professionals want to emphasize "the value
message,"--i.e. that genetically engineered crops offer the
only way to feed a growing world population, especially at a time
when land for agriculture is shrinking.
In early October, to coincide with a two-day
Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on ag biotech, the food industry
launched the Alliance for Better Foods, its first public pre-emptive
strike against an anti-GMO consumer backlash. The alliance has its
own website (www.betterfoods.org), which lists the Grocery Manufacturers
of America (GMA), the American Farm Bureau Federation, and 24 other
trade associations representing virtually every segment of the food
industry (except the organic foods sector). The alliance is run
by the Washington office of BSMG Worldwide, a full service PR firm
whose clients include Monsanto, the Chemical Manufacturers Association,
Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, and numerous other large food,
chemical and pharmaceutical corporations.
The GMA is the driving force behind the Alliance
for Better Foods said GMA spokesperson Brian Sansoni. The alliance
doesn't include biotech companies or their trade association, the
Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), he said, but was created
to get the food industry "to speak from the same page"
in support of the technology. "We didn't want the activists'
misinformation and scare campaign to be the story--like what happened
in Europe," he said.
Sansoni wouldn't say much else about what the
alliance is up to, but The Philadelphia Inquirer recently
reported that "it and BIO say the heart of their strategies
will be behind-the-scenes efforts to educate journalists."
The paper notes that BIO is inviting journalists to a symposium
in Chicago in November and quotes pro-biotech pollster Tom Hoban's
observation that these "educational" efforts are important
because media stories will be crucial to shaping public opinion.
The Sounds of Sound Science
The anxiety level of the industry and its backers
appears to be increasing substantially. At the abovementioned Senate
Ag Committee hearing, many called on EPA, FDA, and USDA, the three
federal agencies with regulatory jurisdiction over biotech, to step
up their efforts to defend the technology. According to the trade
publication Food Chemical News, Senate agriculture committee
chairman Richard Lugar told the agencies they are obligated to correct
false statements made in the media and publish "sound science"
that backs the safety of their approvals for biotech foods. "Industry
wants a stronger seal of approval. . . . There's a difference between
saying it's not unsafe and saying it's safe," the publication
quotes him as saying.
This sentiment was repeated by Marc Curtis,
president of the American Soybean Association, who complained that
the Clinton Administration has not clearly signaled how it intends
to handle biotech issues in the coming round of world trade talks
that begin in Seattle at the end of November. Obviously rattled
by what many in the industry have termed "terrorist attacks,"
Curtis also called on Congress to make vandalism against biotech
field trials a harshly punished federal crime.
Biotech scientists from a variety of land grant
universities stressed many versions of "the value message"
in their testimony: on the promise of biotechnology to cure people
of chronic diseases, prevent food allergies, lower the risk of heart
attacks and even some cancers, deliver vaccines, prevent the inevitable
plowing under of wilderness areas, replace polluting industrial
petrochemicals, reduce chemical use in agriculture, and enrich economically
depressed rural communities. Some lamented that all these dreams
could vanish if biotechnology's critics prevail.
Roger Beachy, president of the newly established
Donald Danforth Plant Center, a non-profit biotech research organization
set up in St. Louis with funding from Monsanto, the Danforth Foundation
and the state of Missouri, further chided biotech critics by suggesting
that their alternative to biotech food, organic food, was not guaranteed
to be safe. Repeating a falsehood that began with Dennis Avery from
the right-wing Hudson Institute, he said organic food "makes
good use of animal manure to fertilize crops" which may or
may not be properly composted and therefore carries a high risk
of E. coli contamination. (See accompanying story on Dennis Avery
in this issue, linked below.) Beachy, like Senator Lugar, demanded
more support from government agencies: "Where's FDA, NIH, [Agriculture]
Secretary Glickman?" on this, he asked.
More than they bargained for
Many farmers--who responded in droves to industry's
intense pro-biotech PR and sales pitches--don't appear to be waiting
for the USDA, FDA, NIH or EPA to do something about the growing
consumer revolt against genetically engineered food. The American
Corn Growers Association, a progressive commodity group that represents
thousands of corn growers in 28 states, is encouraging its members
to plant non-GMO varieties. Even the pro-biotech National Corn Growers
Association (NCGA), the "official" corn commodity group
that represents larger growers, can't argue with a 96% drop in the
European market in one year. Between the 1996/97 and 1997/98 seasons,
European corn purchases fell from nearly 70 million bushels to less
than 3 million. At the Senate Ag Committee hearings, NCGA board
member Tim Hume called on biotech seed companies to make sure they
offered their best hybrid varieties in conventional versions.
As the biotech food controversy grows, the
food industry appears to be waking up to the consequences of ramming
through market approvals on questionable products without full and
honest public debate. The trade publication Supermarket News
put it this way in its October 25 issue: "Consumers' faith
in the government and retailers as watchdogs over food safety could
be broken, undermining one of the pillars upon which the modern
supermarket was built." A representative from Nestlé,
the world's largest food company, is reported to have put it this
way at an industry conference discussing the consumer problem earlier
this year: "Don't expect us to take a bullet for your
GMO products," Nestlé told Monsanto and other biotech
The food industry, however, does not appear
to be interested in a full and honest public debate over genetically
engineered food. Instead, it seems to be closing ranks. PR industry
shenanigans and the Alliance for Better Foods' efforts to "educate"
journalists and policy makers are just the latest tricks in a covert
campaign that has been underway for years to spoon-feed biotech
food to the public.
The International Food Information Council
(IFIC), an industry-funded group, was created in 1985 to "communicate
science-based information on food safety and nutrition" to
virtually any group it believes wields influence over consumers--including
professionals, educators, government officials, and journalists.
IFIC has been working on food biotech issues since 1992 and has
a lot of pro-biotech and food industry propaganda on its website (www.ificinfo.org), including such gung-ho gems
as the following:
- "New Survey Finds Americans as Positive as Ever on Food
- "Food Biotechnology--Benefits for Developing Countries"
- "New Research Shows Consumers Willing to Try Irradiated
(Cold Pasteurized) Foods; Taste Very Important"
- "Consumers, Health Experts Desire Benefits of Biotech Foods
and Concur with Current FDA Labeling Policy" [Current FDA
policy does not require labeling of genetically modified foods.]
IFIC also posts a wealth of information on
how journalists and others should understand and translate the plethora
of food- and health-related studies and reports that emanate from
various sources. It has links to the BIO site, which posts similar
material, and both sites list a variety of pro-biotech expert opinions.
The biotech industry has lined up an impressive
roster of groups and individuals supporting its cause. The American
Medical Association; the American Dietetic Association; the United
Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization,
the World Bank, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA; and a wide
range of government officials--even former president Jimmy Carter--are
all on record either plugging the technology or downplaying consumer
Right-wing policy factories are also stepping
up their pro-biotech campaign. Earlier this year, the Competitive
Enterprise Institute, which has received money from the oil industry,
Philip Morris, and from pharmaceutical and chemical companies, hired
Michael Gough, PhD as its "biotechnology advocate" to
"help advance the great promise of biotechnology in food production,
medicine development and environmental protection." For Gough
to even use the phrase "environmental protection" is an
interesting exercise in hypocrisy, since he has spent much of his
career denying that environmental problems even exist. Gough co-authored
Silencing Science with internet "junkman" Steven
Milloy (see link below),
and he frequently trashes health and environmental
advocates on the op-ed pages of publications like the Washington
Post, the Detroit News, the Wall Street Journal,
the Journal of Commerce, and the Chicago Tribune.
The "corporate science" defenders of food biotechnology
also include Henry Miller from Stanford University's Hoover Institute
and Michael Fumento (also affiliated with CEI and with Consumer
Alert, a right-wing "alternative" to Consumers Union),
and other pillars of the anti-environment establishment.
Both critics and defenders of the technology
are coming to understand that the brewing public debate over transgenic
food may have much bigger stakes than they originally anticipated.
Genetically engineered food was introduced by stealth, but overseas
the secret is well and truly out, and public awareness is starting
to emerge now in the United States as well. The same vested interests
that didn't trust the public enough to inform us up front that they
were introducing genetically engineered food into the environment
and our grocery stores are now asking us to trust them as reliable
experts on the questions of whether this innovation is safe and
good. Their fear--and our hope--is that the debate on biotech foods
could be the issue that awakens the public to the realization that
government food and environment regulators are not presently functioning
to safeguard the public's best interests.
The Hudson Institute's Dennis Avery told the
Philadelphia Inquirer that he thinks industry should go
straight to the public with a massive advertising campaign. Stay
tuned. Unlike much of what appears on television these days, this
promises to be interesting.
Reprinted with permission of
Center for Media & Democracy
The Center for Media & Democracy is a nonprofit, public interest
organization funded by individuals and nonprofit foundations and
dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry.
The Center serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking
to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices.