AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com/
My name is Rich Kottmeyer and I am a US agribusiness attorney, currently the
General Counsel of ISI.
The other week I was speaking to Monsanto's chief AG legal officer, Diane Yu
regarding the then in progress Biosafety Protocol. I had some reservation
about the wisdom of Monsanto's approach to the debate and pass that along to
you for comment.
I think there is a general misconception about how one should and can "win"
the GMO controversy. I remember going to London and passing through customs.
One of the most common questions asked is "What is the purpose of your
visit". When I mentioned agriculture, I was immediately asked if I worked
for Monsanto. Replying a hearty no, I was quickly given a lecture about
"Frankenfood". I wondered just how in the world could this issue be so
important as to have a customs agent discuss it with a perfect stranger.
To the consumer, this is an emotional issue based on fear and a overriding
concern that America is coming to change Europe's agricultural traditions. I
propose that this is not an issue that can be solved by science and research.
Our focus on scientifically demonstrating the safety of GM products is
preventing American agriculture from addressing the issue in a way in which
it can be won. The biggest mistake being made is trying to handle the issue
of GM safety objectively as an issue of science and research. Trouble with
science that makes little sense to the average consumer is that there is a
lot of "junk science" that equally makes little sense to the average
consumer. Anyone remember the butterflies? The consumer becomes confused
and does not know who to believe which becomes a quick recipe for the status
quo or for a cautious approach.
Fundamentally, does the European consumer care what research demonstrates as
the risk or lack thereof of GMOs? Will their nagging concern ever be
alleviated by a few tests and prominent scholars (in their words)? Doubtful.
Look at your products. How does the genetic modifications affect the
consumers most vocal about their use. Remember, this is an issue that went
from being marginalized by "environmental activist" groups to having a broad
base of concerned consumers. A genetically modified ear of corn does not
provide the consumer with any sensory reason to choose or want it over the
non-GMO ear. It isn't tastier nor noticeably cheaper. The mistake made by
Monsanto and others was in focusing on production versus consumer traits. If
the products appear identical to the end user, any concern over safety is
going to be magnified. If a GMO tomato were riper, redder and juicer, it
would be much harder to find a broad base of opposition. We would want the
better tomato and probably be willing to assume some risk to satisfy our
desires. After all, where there is opposition in the World there is hardly a
shortage of the commodities being modified. In short, you have a product
that appeals to manufacturers, processors and farmers but not the end users
who consume these products.
Having introduced production traits first, GM advocates are faced with two
1) Bargaining their way into the acceptance of GM products with few labels to
allow consumers to know the difference between the products at a high trade
2) Going forward with an emotional appeal, highlighting the ability to create
greater yields in poorer countries and reduce the amount of needed fertilizer
which can leech into groundwater.
Your problem is that using an emotional appeal may backfire by having the
public more concerned with the present practices of commercial agriculture
and fertilizer use than understanding of the advantages of GM organisms.
Whatever environmental benefit derived from using a Roundup Ready organism is
unintuitive to the average consumer. On the other hand, if you had
genetically modified cotton bolls that were blue, you would have very little
trouble making the argument that reducing the amount of blue dye needed to
make denim is going to have a very positive environmental impact. If you
really want to confuse a consumer, try explaining that essentially we are
genetically modifying a crop through traditional cross breeding.
To bargain your way into the non-labiling of GM products, you simply have to
be lucky. You need an event or series of events which pull the attention of
the broad base of consumers now listening to anti-GM activists. I have often
said if we started a comprehensive GM treaty two days after the death of
Princess Diana. . . .
The current GM debate is a good old fashion political battle. On one hand we
have very media and political savvy activists. You are dealing with an
industry that is strapped. It cannot be too aggressive or it will appear to
be a Yankee pushing unsafe products against the will of the European
So I throw out the following challenge to you, assume you are the new Freedom
to Operate Group Head of Monsanto. Propose a game plan for getting
genetically modified organisms accepted in Europe before the analysts
proclaim the failure of the life science concept.