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Monsanto Braces for Increasing Opposition to Ag Biotech in the USA
Monsanto Braces for U.S. Protest on Gene-Altered Food
By Brett Chase
BLOOMBERG News
San Francisco, Sept. 22

Monsanto Inc., DuPont Co., Novartis AG and other companies that
produce genetically modified seeds are gearing up to defend their products
as safety concerns gain momentum among U.S. consumers.
For these companies, which have staked their future on biotechnology, U.S.
acceptance is crucial. Health concerns have led Europeans and more recently
the Japanese to spurn the technology, which inserts new genes into crops
like corn and soybeans to make them more resistant to pests and weed
killers.

The companies hope to stave off similar sentiments in the U.S., where much
of the food supply already contains genetically modified ingredients. Half
of the U.S. soybean acres and 38 percent of corn acres were planted with
genetically altered seeds this year. About 60 percent of packaged foods
contain soy, a source of oil and protein, while corn, a source of starch,
oil and sweeteners, is found in about 13 percent of foods.

"With all the static in the air, we need to make our own statement," said Ed
Shonsey, president and CEO of Novartis Seeds Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of the
Swiss drug and agriculture giant. "We have to reassure (consumers) and be
activists somewhat ourselves," Shonsey said.

While the companies and U.S. officials insist foods containing genetically
modified crops are harmless, they have failed to persuade consumers in
Europe, where regulators have not approved any new kinds of altered seeds in
more than a year. Now, Monsanto and its competitors are trying to figure out
how to keep fears of gene-altered foods from taking hold in the U.S.

Monsanto Priority

Dealing with that has become "my No. 1 priority besides delivering the
financial results," Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto's president and chief
operating officer, said recently.
DuPont Chairman and CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr. said companies need to
address consumer concerns head-on.

"One of the first things we must do is acknowledge public concerns about
unknown risks," he said in a speech at Boston College. "History has shown
that new technologies are not without risk. But history has also taught us
that the benefits of a new technology can be much greater than the risks."
Opinion polls have indicated that Americans are unaware of how much of their
food has been genetically engineered, but they are wary of it. A poll of
more than 1,000 Americans found that 62 percent were unaware about half the
nation's food contains gene-altered ingredients. The poll, by StrategyOne,
the research division of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, found almost 70
percent of respondents think the U.S. government should require more
extensive labeling of ingredients in gene-modified foods.

Unnatural

"What I've heard makes me feel very uncomfortable," said Karen Formanski, a
25-year-old receptionist for a Chicago book publisher. "It just seems so
unnatural."

About 40 consumer, religious, farm owners and environmental activist groups
in the U.S. are joining forces to map out a strategy to make their views
known on the technology. The groups participating in Genetic Engineering
Action Network USA, ranging from the Consumers Union to small-farm
organizations, held a two-day retreat outside San Francisco in August and
plan a campaign questioning the effects of gene-altered foods on the
environment and health.

"The goal is to craft a central objective all the groups can sign on to,"
said Mark Ritchie, president of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,
a Minneapolis research group that's participating in the network. "There are
a large number of people who say they don't like it or say it doesn't sound
right."

Plan of Action

They plan to lobby Congress and state legislatures for stricter regulations
on the testing and labeling of genetically altered food. Separately,
Greenpeace, which has been a relentless crusader against genetically
engineered food in Europe, started a U.S. campaign this year,asking 50 food
companies whether ingredients in their products had been genetically
modified.

Already two companies, Novartis's Gerber unit and H.J. Heinz Co., said
publicly this year that they would not use the ingredients in their
baby-food products, Greenpeace has called on McDonald's Corp., Nestle SA and
Diageo Plc unit Pillsbury Co. to follow suit in the U.S.
Spokesman for Nestle and McDonald's said they would only change ingredients
in their foods if U.S. laws or consumer opinion demanded it.

In recent months, anonymous groups have claimed responsibility for
sabotaging a Monsanto test crop in Maine and crops in California and Vermont
that may have been planted with Monsanto seeds. A Novartis research field in
Minnesota was destroyed earlier this month.

DuPont spokeswoman Kathy Forte acknowledged signs that U.S. consumer and
environmental groups are becoming more vocal in their opposition. She also
said DuPont and other companies fear U.S. consumers could turn against the
technology just as Europeans have.

"The intensity has increased in the United States. It's not at the level of
Europe but we can't assume it won't be," Forte said. She adds that assuring
consumers of the safety of genetically modified food is as important as
product development.

Reaction May Be Overestimated

Verfaillie said he believed the debate in the U.S. would be similar to one
Monsanto encountered when it developed a way to increase milk production by
injecting cows with hormones. "What the retailers found was the consumer
didn't care. Although in surveys they'd say, 'We're not going to buy it,' "
he said, "in practice, they didn't care."

Critics say the more recent controversy over genetic engineering is gaining
momentum and point to decisions made by food companies who want to steer
clear of trouble. Even Novartis, which is actively promoting the genetic
technology in its seed division, yielded to consumer concerns by keeping
gene-modified ingredients out of its Gerber baby foods. That move was aimed
at consumers like Carlene Czarnik, a 31-year-old junior high school teacher
from Appleton, Wisconsin, and a new mother with mixed views about the
technology.
"The concept sounds wonderful, but you've got to wonder what the long term
effects are," she said.
-Brett Chase in Chicago (312) 692-3728/tab /mfr -0-
(BN ) Sep/22/1999 15:48

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