At last the tide is turning against genetic engineering

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th June 1998.

Those of us who have been grumbling about genetically manipulated food for the past four or five years could be forgiven for occasionally succumbing to the sin of despair. While pressure groups have used every imaginable ruse to alert consumers and ministers to the hazards of the biotech companies’ control of the food-chain, the Guardian is the only national newspaper consistently to have taken these dangers seriously. This is a doubly difficult subject to cover, as it demands a degree of understanding of both economics and biology: most journalists were simply not prepared to tackle it.

In the absence of concerted media scrutiny, the biotech companies seemed, until yesterday, to be winning almost every battle they fought. Substantial public disquiet had done little to obstruct their feverish progress towards the worldwide ownership of our most indispensable commodities. In just three years, for example, the biotech company Monsanto has secured 30 per cent of the American soya crop and 15 per cent of the maize crop. A series of gigantic acquisitions has culminated in its merger with American Home Products, to create a corporation worth $96billion, one of the largest firms on earth.

Such financial muscle enables the biotech companies to exert a remarkable degree of control over elected authorities. In the United States, there’s a regular exchange of personnel between Monsanto, the government’s Food and Drug Administration and the Oval Office. The FDA has been described by campaigners as “Monsanto’s Washington branch office”.

In Europe, the biggest lobby of parliament ever conducted persuaded MEPs to adopt a new directive granting the biotech firms exclusive rights over genetic material: patents, in other words, on life. When four British government conservation agencies, alarmed by the potential ecological hazards of genetically engineered crops, called for a moratorium, Jeff Rooker, the agriculture minister, told them that there was nothing he could do. “I am not sure”, he complained, “we are in the driving seat.”

As Monsanto prepared to launch its £1 million advertising campaign last weekend, campaigners had the sinking feeling that the battle was all over bar the shouting. British people would continue to be fed genetically engineered food, whether we wanted it or not.

Monsanto’s campaign is a masterpiece of Machiavellian subterfuge. Instead of simply trumpeting the virtues of its products, its advertisements claim that the company wants to stimulate a public debate on the issue, “to encourage a positive understanding of food biotechnology”. In the name of even-handedness, they even go so far as to include the address of Greenpeace’s website.

What the adverts do not reveal is that this “debate” is purposeless. Monsanto’s $96 billion plan to conquer the world will go ahead whatever its respondents think. Having let the horse out, the company is inviting us to discuss whether or not the stable door should now be shut.

Its strategy seems spectacularly to have misfired. In yesterday’s Telegraph, Prince Charles took its call for debate at face value, writing “We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the wider environment … if something does go badly wrong we will be faced with the problem of clearing up a kind of pollution which is self-perpetuating. I am not convinced that anyone has the first idea of how this could be done”.

Suddenly, Monsanto has got the public debate it claimed it wanted. And it doesn’t seem to like it at all. For the past 24 hours, all leave for its spin doctors has been cancelled. The threats posed by genetic engineering are now being taken seriously by almost every news outlet in Britain. Monsanto’s “debate” is no longer a predestined confrontation between the all-powerful and the utterly powerless, but (and it’s sad that in 1998 it takes royal intervention to achieve it) a genuine battle of wills.

This, of course, is only the beginning of the story. Monsanto has no shortage of resources for counter-spin. But now the biotech companies can no longer treat the British as they have treated the Americans: as a nation of coopted dupes. Genetically-engineered food has become even less palatable than it was before.