Genetically Modified Food Debate

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 18, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

In keeping with the message, the medium was suitably high-tech: a transatlantic encounter conducted live by television satellite. Up on the giant screen in the London conference hall, Robert Shapiro, chief executive officer of the Monsanto Co.

Genetically Modified Food Debate

In keeping with the message, the medium was suitably high-tech: a transatlantic encounter conducted live by television satellite. Up on the giant screen in the London conference hall, Robert Shapiro, chief executive officer of the Monsanto Co., listened patiently as the American BIOTECHNOLOGY conglomerate he heads was raked over the coals by Peter Melchett, the British aristocrat who is executive director of the environmental organization Greenpeace in Britain. Lord Melchett accused Monsanto of "bullying" an ever more anxious public into reluctant acceptance of a wide range of genetically modified foods, everything from soybeans to corn to Canadian canola oil. Shapiro's response, however, was not quite what has come to be expected from the boss of the most aggressive biotech firm on the planet. "If I'm a bully," he ruefully noted, "then I'm not a very successful bully."

The candid remark drew murmurs of satisfaction from the gathering of environmental activists, organized by GREENPEACE. For it marked a significant victory for the country's ecological warriors, the first high-profile acknowledgement that the world's biotech industry, based largely in the United States, is losing the global battle to convince the public of the benefits of GENETIC engineering. Instead, consumers are increasingly fearful that there could be unknown side-effects. "We have irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded," Shapiro admitted to his London audience. "Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension. Too often we forgot to listen."

The result has been a spreading public rejection of what is known in Europe as GM - genetically modified - foods and elsewhere often as GE - genetically engineered - products. The implications for North American farmers are huge - Canada and the United States are becoming the only markets where GM foods can readily be sold, and that may not last. Anti-GM activists have already launched a campaign to rally Canadian consumers.

The evidence of the turnaround is everywhere, from British supermarket shelves, where GM goods are increasingly rare, to Indian cotton fields, where outraged peasants have torched crops mistakenly believed to have been genetically altered. The 15 nations of the European Union are implementing regulations calling for the labelling of all products with even a trace of GM ingredients. Last summer, Japan's two leading breweries, Sapporo and Kirin, announced they would stop using genetically modified corn by the year 2001. Monsanto itself pledged, shortly before Shapiro's satellite debate, that it would not market controversial "terminator" crop seeds that in future could produce lucrative, one-season-only plants. "The message is scary," said Germany's Deutschebank in a recent report on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, prepared for the bank's clients. "GMOs increasingly are, in our opinion, becoming a liability to farmers. We predict that GMOs, once perceived as the driver of the bull [market] case for this sector, will now be perceived as a pariah."

That process is already well under way in both the United States and Canada, where a two-tier market for grains is fast developing. Increasingly, genetically "improved" crops are trading at deep discounts, while European processors have been willing to pay premiums of as much as $1.50 a bushel for non-GM crops. In September, the huge U.S. grain processing corporation, Archer Daniel Midland, advised American grain farmers to begin segregating GM and non-GM crops. At the same time, the two main U.S. baby food manufacturers, Gerber Products Co. and H. J. Heinz Co., declared they would no longer use genetically modified corn or soybeans in any of their products.

Canada's canola farmers have been hardest hit by the trend. In 1994, Canadian exports to the European Union of canola seed, destined for crushing into oil, peaked at $425 million. "Now there's squat," says Ian Thomson, agricultural counsellor at the Canadian High Commission in London. "What's happened is that we have completely lost a market that was worth close to half a billion dollars annually in good years." Part of the problem lies in the farming techniques of canola producers in Canada, where between 60 and 70 per cent of the annual crop is genetically engineered to render it resistant to weed killer. Canadian producers do not segregate their crop, making it virtually unsalable in Europe. If the trends continue, a similar fate may await future Canadian crops in the country's three other major markets for canola seed - the United States, Japan and Mexico, all of which are also experiencing rumblings of unease about GM products.

The problem is as much about public perceptions as it is about science. In Europe, the anti-GM battle has been waged against the backdrop of a series of European food scares that began with BSE, or "mad cow" disease, in Britain and has escalated with scandals over carcinogenic dioxins in Belgian poultry and dairy products and the use in France and elsewhere of sewage slurry in animal feeds. The aggressive stance of U.S.-based agribusiness giants has not helped. The U.S. government, responding to pressure from the powerful agribusiness lobby in Washington, has taken the Europeans to court at the World Trade Organization, winning successive decisions against Europe's restrictions on Caribbean bananas and growth hormone additives in beef. The Americans have threatened similar challenges to European resistance to the free import of genetically engineered grains.

The combined effect has been to shatter Europeans' confidence in what they are eating and drinking as well as fostering deep resentment about the unrestrained power of U.S. multinational corporations. "There has been an unprecedented, permanent and irreversible shift in the political landscape," Greenpeace's Lord Melchett told Shapiro last week. "People are increasingly aware and mistrustful of the combination of big science and big business."

Even the normally apolitical Prince Charles has entered the debate. The much-maligned heir to the British throne gave a major boost to the campaign in June with a fierce attack on the safety of GM crops, evidently sparked by Prime Minister Tony Blair's contemptuous dismissal of the "ayatollahs" leading the GM opponents. The Prince, who operates his own lucrative organic farming business, posed what he termed 10 unanswered questions in a widely disseminated newspaper article. "What I believe the public's reaction shows," wrote Charles, "is that instinctively we are nervous about tampering with nature when we can't be sure that we know enough of the consequences."

The Prince's concerns are shared by many. It is no accident, for example, that in his first major address to the European parliament last week, the newly elected president of the European Commission, Italy's Romano Prodi, singled out food safety as the top priority of his infant administration. He proposed a pan-European food agency to deal with issues such as those involving British beef, Belgian chickens and U.S. genetic modifications. "We have to provide answers," he said, "to those who are wondering if official information can be trusted these days, or is it all being manipulated for economic and political purposes?" On farms across the globe, the answers may be blowing in the wind.

Maclean's October 18, 1999