Red-faced after an embarrassing tumble in the court of world opinion, leading American agricultural biotechnology firms are trying a new tack: global sensitivity.
They're pledging not to sell genetically modified crops in the United States that other countries refuse to import. Such moves will reassure foreign buyers of US grain and bolster next year's export prospects after this year's public-relations fiasco. But they also push American farmers into unfamiliar territory.
Next spring, for the first time, many of them won't be raising crops that other countries object to - even though US authorities declare these varieties safe. This new strategy gives unprecedented leverage to foreign governments, especially the biotech-averse European Union, over US planting decisions. And it could slow development of the next wave of genetically modified, or GM, food, at least in the US.
"What Europe is truly doing is shifting the leadership in biotech from the 'first world' to China," says Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Indianapolis. "China has an urgent desire for better diets.... And they are already going great guns."
The Monsanto Company here in St. Louis started the momentum late last month when company president Hendrik Verfaillie outlined a new corporate pledge. Among other things, Monsanto promised not to launch new bioengineered crops before both Japan and the US had fully approved them. The pledge doesn't stop sales of any current varieties, since they're approved in Japan and the US. But it could slow acceptance of GM crops under development, a Monsanto spokeswoman says.
According to the company's pledge, "we hope also to extend this intention to Europe, as soon as it has established a working regulatory system." But US biotech firms have seen their applications held up for two years or more because the EU has been under heavy consumer pressure to limit sales of GM crops.
This week, Monsanto's leading biotech rival, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, took the step Monsanto declined to take. It announced it would not sell to US farmers six of its GM corn varieties this next planting season, because they're not EU-approved. The company said its "postponement" is temporary and that it would revisit for the following planting season. Other US seed companies are considering similar moves.
Some, such as newly formed Syngenta Seeds, are touting the fact that all their current biotech varieties have US, EU, and Japanese approval. "In our case, the answer is very simple," says Tony Minnichsoffer, spokesman for the Golden Valley, Minn., agribusiness. "All [varieties] are approved for all uses in all [major] countries."
"This decision wasn't an easy one," says Doyle Karr, public affairs manager for Pioneer, based in Des Moines, Iowa. "We asked ourselves: Are we letting Europe off the hook? But we saw the value of doing a time-out on these products."
That way, the company argues, the agricultural sector can unite over a strategy on how to handle GM crops in world markets.
The biotech industry suffered a huge setback this year after consumer groups in the US and abroad discovered that StarLink corn, a bioengineered variety approved only for use as animal feed, was showing up in taco shells and other products for human consumption. The findings cast serious doubt on whether farmers and grain handlers could separate their bioengineered crops and keep specific varieties from being exported to countries that hadn't approved them.
Many export-dependent farmerspraised Pioneer's move. "We certainly applaud what they're doing," says Ron Warfield, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, who lobbied companies not to sell varieties unapproved in the EU. "We are very pro-biotech. Our concern is that we get too hasty in terms of how we have to proceed [and] that we get a backlash."
But according to Monsanto, many of its farmer customers are leery of such foreign intrusions. "They want access to technologies that save them money and increase production," says Scarlett Foster, a company spokeswoman. "They don't want to be held hostage to a regulatory system in Europe that doesn't work."
For their part, biotech criticspraised Pioneer's postponement. "It's a sensible move, given the needs of American farmers," says Richard Caplan, environmental advocate for US Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and consumer watchdog based in Washington. But he notes that pressure is mounting, even in the US, to toughen the approval process for biotech crops.
On Monday, a joint US-EU panel, including scientists, industry officials, farmers, and consumer advocates, recommended tighter controls on genetically engineered foods, including mandatory labeling. The biotech industry opposes labels because it fears consumers will interpret them as warnings against genetically engineered ingredients.
The US Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon release labeling guidelines and a new requirement that biotech firms consult with the agency before bringing new products to market. (They now do this voluntarily.) So far, the FDA has resisted forcing companies to label genetically engineered foods.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society