St. Louis Newspaper Predicts
Monsanto May Lose on Oregon

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 26, 2002

The illogic of food


MONSANTO Co. is in a pickle of its own making. The St.
Louis-based company and its industry allies are
preparing to unleash a big-money broadside upon an
Oregon ballot initiative that would require labeling
for products containing even trace amounts of
genetically modified ingredients.

Monsanto and its allies in the biotechnology and food
industry are correct when they argue that individual
state food labeling requirements could be confusing to
consumers. The labeling movement is fueled by unfounded
fears about the safety of bioengineered food. There is
simply no scientific evidence that foods containing
genetically modified ingredients cause health problems,
even though they've been on the market for years and
comprise 70 percent of processed foods in America's
grocery stores.

But this issue isn't about science and logic. It's
about trust. And tradition. It's about maintaining a
sense of personal control. Mostly, it's about emotion.
In every part of the world, people's relationship with
food is intimate, emotional, and deeply ingrained in
their psyches and their cultures.

Monsanto President Hendrik Verfaillie acknowledged as
much in November of 2000. "We missed the fact that this
technology raises major issues for people," he said.
"We did not understand that our tone -- our very
approach -- was seen as arrogant."

Mr. Verfaillie promised then that things would be
different. Yet Monsanto continued to fight mandatory
labeling requirements. In the United States, at least,
it prevailed. (Japan, Australia and several European
nations have mandatory labeling.) A few months after
Mr. Verfaillie's speech, the Food and Drug
Administration called for voluntary labeling.

That decision, grounded in science, planted the seeds
of the Oregon initiative. "I had many people tell me
that they're less concerned about moving DNA around
than about not being allowed to know about it," said
Donna Harris, the Portland woman who conceived the
ballot proposition. It's basic human psychology: If you
don't trust the people telling you you have nothing to
worry about, you worry more.

Monsanto and its allies have created the
clunky-sounding Coalition Against the Costly Labeling
Law. They've set a $6 million spending target, 40 times
the amount pro-labeling forces plan to spend. That's
the perfect set-up for an underdog victory.

It seems a stretch to believe that labeling would add
very much to food costs -- which would be passed along
to consumers. It's also hard to imagine that a label
would significantly harm the sales of food containing
bioengineered ingredients.

The Oregon initiative is an overreaction with its own
internal logic -- illogic, if you prefer. But even if
it loses in November, it's almost certainly not dead.
Activists in California and other states are talking
about launching their own labeling campaigns.

Defeating federal labeling requirements may seem like a
hollow victory in the face of more such fights. The
simplest, and perhaps cheapest, way to defeat the
underdogs may be to let them win. How illogical.

Published in Editorial on Thursday, September 26, 2002.


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