GM foods: big biotech is quietly winning the war

A rush and a push and the land is ours … Memmore

It must have been 1996 or 1997 when I first met someone from Monsanto. The anti-GM movement in the UK had by then already acquired some momentum and Monsanto was cast as the prime villain for seeking to import GM soya into Europe, though other seed producers were receiving similar treatment. I asked my contact why Monsanto allowed itself to be castigated in such a way. “It never occurred to us that anybody would be interested in plant breeding,” he replied. “They never had been in the past.”

Though hindsight is a wonderful thing, the industry should maybe not have been so surprised at the opposition when it began to market its insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops in the mid-1990s. Some readers might recall efforts in the mid-1980s to delete a gene that made plants more susceptible to frost damage, which led to the development of “Ice Minus” bacteria. The spectacle of scientists in moon suits spraying Ice Minus on strawberry and potato plants in California made global headlines. Despite the fact that the bacteria did improve the plants’ protection against frost, long legal battles with opponents concerned about the effects on the environment were one of the main reasons the project was abandoned.

The rise of environmentalism

You can trace the anti-GM movement to two things. First, increasing disillusion, especially in Europe, with the progress of left-wing ideologies in the former Soviet Union and its allies. And second, a growing awareness of environmental problems in the years following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark attack on synthetic pesticides, Silent Spring. These created a breeding ground in which movements like anti-GM could flourish: as the socialist cause faded, environmentalism began to take its place.

USEPPA, CC BY-SA

Helping this along were scores of green politicians who saw political advantage in adopting postures which could frighten the population with threats to their food, and commercial interests such as the organic food industry which may have seen GM as a threat to their own brands and market shares – although it didn’t explain its opposition in that way.

This was the potential maelstrom into which agribiotech companies launched their first projects. The objections erupted primarily in Europe, reaching the US only ten years later (in the form of opponents seeking local GM bans and a nationwide campaign for GM labelling). Yet even in Europe, the opposition was far from universal in the early days. Between 1995 and 1997, for example, GM tomato purée was sold in two UK supermarket chains without incident.

It was only in 1997 when the anti-GM row really got going over the import of GM soya into Europe. At the time, some environmental pressure groups were in need of a new vehicle through which to channel protest – for example Greenpeace had backtracked and apologised for publicising a seriously mistaken estimate of the amount of oil left onboard the Brent Spar storage buoy. Accordingly, these organisations adopted a vigorous and at times violent opposition to all things GM, including imports and, above all, their cultivation on European soil. They frightened enough people to create a public outcry. The media became largely anti-GM, in Europe at least. Retailers began to remove GM products from their shelves, although their approach was far from coherent. The seed producers battled on but to little effect.

In from the cold

Fast-forward 15 years and the environment has improved somewhat for GM in Europe. The UK media, for instance, now tends to be more in favour than against. There is more pro-GM media coverage than there once was even in Germany, a country still generally more determinedly opposed than England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also take a more anti-approach).

Supermarket opposition has softened in the UK, too. Recent changes to EU rules have made GM crop cultivation more likely in a handful of countries, including England, the Czech Republic, Romania and Spain. My sense is that much of the European public has become bored with the issue, even in countries whose governments remain opposed. GM is meanwhile very successful in the Americas and parts of Asia and Australia, while growing perceptibly in Africa.

‘Put a GM sock in it.’ Jane0606

Through all of this, the major agribiotech companies have focused on quietly selling themselves to people prepared to listen, and publishing various accounts of their technical and scientific advances. In Europe, they work with the industry group EuropaBio to represent their interests in the corridors and conference centres of the EU. In the past few years, the industry seems essentially to have given up on cultivating GM crops in the European countries where it is not welcome, focusing instead on the places that want the technology. But it is keen to maintain imports into Europe of GM products, particularly animal feedstuffs, which are widely used.

Agribiotech no doubt did make mistakes in the early days of GM by failing to anticipate the strength of the opposition. But maybe the need to commercialise the products made this unavoidable. Certainly the industry remains unpopular in some quarters: Monsanto in particular is still seen by activist protesters as a large and visible target. But whether the general public subscribes to such views, or ever really did, is much less certain. Ultimately that is the only thing that matters, even if there is still some way to go to persuade everyone yet.

For more coverage of the debate around GM crops, click here.