Who Crippled Biotech Foods?
Environmentalists are Hurting the Biotech Foods Revolution, But Corporate Missteps and Farmers are Giving them Plenty of Help
January 11, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
January 7, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-One of the world's pioneers of crop biotechnology, is gone. Monsanto, the St. Louis agriculture technology company, is being bought by the drug maker Pharmacia & Upjohn. Monsanto's chairman Robert Shapiro will have no role in managing the merged company. The loss to Monsanto's stockholders may total $16 billion.
There's more bad news in biotech. Novartis and Zeneca, two of Europe's largest agricultural biotech investors, say they will merge their agricultural biotechnology operations and spin them off. That looks like damage control, minimizing harm to the reputations of the parent pharmaceutical firms.
Biotechnology for farming is suddenly a write-off in the business world. The laboratories and scientists who have done most of the genetic engineering for world agriculture have been cut off from any investment capital.
They'll have to fund future research from seed sales. The genetically modified seed sales are now open to question. Biotech seeds still cut farmers' costs, and U.S. and Latin American farmers will probably plant lots of genetically modified seeds this spring.
But some food processors are refusing to take genetically modified commodities. Governments in Europe and Japan are bridling at modified imports.
The chilling effect of the controversy over genetically engineered crops is being felt throughout the scientific world. The land-grant agricultural colleges were already reeling from past eco-attacks on the high-yield farming systems they helped develop.
They are unlikely to undertake high-profile biotech research projects. Not a single risk to human health or the environment has been demonstrated, but the momentum of agricultural biotechnology has been virtually destroyed.
How did it happen? The easy answer is Greenpeace and others in the environmental movement are the ones killing the agriculture biotech companies. But the eco-activists have gotten a lot of help.
Monsanto's chairman had a heroic vision, but a flawed strategy. He saw biotech could raise crop yields, reduce Third World hunger and malnutrition and save more acres for wildlife.
He failed to realize, however, that his seeds weren't just producing crops for farmers but producing food for people.
He forgot the consumers. Monsanto's first biotech products cut costs for farmers. But pest-free corn and weed-free soybeans provided consumers no direct reason to rejoice. The Flavr Savr tomato of the early 1990s, modified to keep the fruit from softening as quickly, just wasn't a very good tomato.
Even more surprising was Shapiro's belief the environmental movement would welcome his genetically engineered crops. He thought environmental activists really cared about poor people in the Third World.
He thought they would welcome reduced pesticide spraying and embrace genetically engineered crops whose higher yields would save tropical forest from low-yield farming.
He failed to realize the eco-movement has opposed virtually any farm technology that would feed more people. Instead, he consulted with the environmental groups about marketing strategies. Heaven knows what they told him.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement was grabbing for donations and political power, and to heck with conserving the tropical forests for tomorrow.
It's campaign against "Frankenfoods" was wildly successful. Even scientists who should have known better began preaching the "precautionary principle," never mind the millions of people and billions of wild creatures not yet helped by the new technology.
Shapiro's biggest mistake was his failure to make any serious attempt to tell consumers why Monsanto was producing biotech crops in the first place. That kind of silence is normal in agribusiness, but it's a dangerous strategy in today's activist-laden marketing climate.
The news media also helped kill the revolutionary technology. Like the eco-activists, the media grabbed for short-term scare headlines, never mind the long-term good.
Headlines rang around the world when one laboratory experiment showed the toxin in genetically modified corn could kill Monarch butterfly caterpillars.
But this was no surprise. Organic farmers have been using biotech to kill caterpillars for years. Months later, field studies found any butterflies more than one yard outside a cornfield were safe. But the public had already been convinced that modified foods were bad for the environment.
It was a replay of the sort of irresponsible journalism that caused the 1989 hysteria about apples sprayed with the chemical Alar.
Farmers helped crippled biotech crops with incessant complaints about surpluses in order to back up their demands for farm subsidies. They should have been complaining instead about trade barriers that keep their exports out of rapidly expanding markets like China and India.
More fundamental, however, the agricultural biotech companies are victims of rich, well-fed Americans who seem no longer to care about poor people and wildlife in other countries.
They seem to have accepted the Greenpeace view that the world has too many people anyway. They have gone along with the incredible notion that widespread malnutrition, starvation and massive clearing of wildland is good global policy for the 21st century.
Does all this mean biotechnology in food is gone forever? That's another column.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.