The Associated Press.
August 8, 2000,
Farmers say Novartis A.G. policy creates double-standard
On one hand, Novartis A.G. says it's eliminating genetically modified
ingredients from its foods. On the other, the agriculture and
pharmaceutical giant is selling the crops to farmers through its
Minnesota-based international seed unit.
Midwestern farmers say it's unfair to sell the biotech seeds and then shun
The Switzerland-based company, which announced last year that it would
eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its Gerber baby foods,
confirmed last week that its food-processing subsidiary has taken steps to
avoid biotech ingredients in all of its products. The company also makes
Ovaltine, Wasa crackers and several items that are sold as health and diet
Reaction from farmers ranged from resigned patience to outrage.
"They are promoting something that they won't buy back," said Mike Yost,
who farms near Murdock, Minn., and serves on the boards of directors of the
Minnesota and national soybean growers' associations.
Yost has joined other soybean growers in meetings with Novartis officials
in recent months to argue that it's also inconsistent for the company to
sell drugs made with genetically engineered ingredients while rejecting
foods made with the technology.
"Where they are saving lives every day with biotech pharmaceuticals, nobody
has a problem," Yost said.
But Yost and other farmers said they aren't surprised by Novartis' response
to conflicting market signals. Consumers, especially in Europe, are
boycotting biotech foods despite assurances from government officials that
there is no scientific evidence that the products aren't as safe as
Meanwhile, farmers, especially in the United States, overwhelmingly have
adopted biotech varieties since the mid-1990s because the technology offers
them better control over pests, sometimes with reduced need for synthetic
At Novartis Seeds Inc. in Golden Valley, Tony Minnichsoffer acknowledged
that the conflict has created "a difficult image problem for us."
As the spokesman for Novartis' largest international seed unit,
Minnichsoffer said he has spent half of his time facing criticism and
questions from farm groups since Gerber publicly rejected biotech crops
Novartis' food-processing unit answers to a consumer market that takes its
cues from Europe, and the seed business answers to farmers, he said.
"We run our business, and they run theirs," he said. "It's not easy for us
in the agricultural divisions in North America to deal with that. We don't
agree with their decisions, but we can't control what they do. Farmers may
see that as a betrayal by the company, but it isn't by the company. It's by
a part of the company."
Crop-marketing experts say that farmers' losing Novartis as a customer
would have little impact on overall sales of biotech crops. The company's
niche in food processing is relatively small compared with giants such as
Kellogg Co. and Campbell Soup Co., which have said they will not sort
biotech varieties from the rest of the harvest unless there is a scientific
reason to do so.