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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Karen Charman | PR Watch

Force Feeding Genetically Engineered Foods

by Karen Charman

The current campaign by agribusiness to win public approval for genetically modified foods gives new meaning to the phrase, "the carrot and the stick."

The carrot in this campaign consists of promises that biotechnology means better food, a cleaner environment, and prosperity for struggling farmers. The stick consists of lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against biotech's critics--now made easier with the "agricultural product disparagement laws" that industry has lobbied into law in more than a dozen states. Threats of lawsuits have been used repeatedly against writers who have exposed the activities of the personnel engaged in flacking for biotech foods. In "The Professor Who Can Read Your Mind," (linked below) Karen Charman describes one such threat that she encountered in the course of researching her stories for this issue.

The food industry wants to "educate" you about "ethical and scientific issues" associated with genetically modified foods, but its notion of education is based on a propaganda model in which you, as student, are meant to sit still and listen while it, the teacher, tells you what to think. That is why secrecy and control of information is a major part of its educational campaign.

Secrecy is what motivates Professor Tom Hoban's legal threat and his refusal to disclose the identity of his clients, just as it motivates the Burson-Marsteller PR firm's refusal (linked below) even to confirm that it has been hired by the Monsanto company to flack for biotech foods.

The biotech food industry likes to pretend that education is necessary because the public is ignorant, irrational and easily moved by "Luddite technophobia," "hysteria" and "environmental scare tactics." And it is true that the public is ignorant--especially about the scale and scope of the changes which industry has already begun to introduce without public consultation or consent. But ignorance is not irrationality, and it is precisely the fear of an informed public that now has industry and its minions running scared.


The biotech industry has chosen a slam dunk strategy to gain public acceptance for its products: Slip unlabeled genetically engineered food into the food supply and hope too many people don't notice or object. Deal with those who do notice and object with an army of "experts" that stand ready to refute any criticisms or critics of the technology. If a lot of people start to object, by that time it should be too late because much of the food supply will already be genetically engineered. If plans run awry for some reason, mount a full public relations offensive and pass the ball to the World Trade Organization whose rules favor free trade. A victory there isn't such a long shot, and if it works, slam dunk!

Up until fairly recently, the strategy was going pretty much according to plan. The first large-scale commercial plantings of transgenic crops went into the ground in 1996, and by 1998 they covered nearly 69 million acres in eight countries, not including China. Last year, 74 percent of the world's transgenic crops were grown in the United States. This year more than half of the US corn crop and between one-third to half of the soybeans planted were genetically engineered varieties. Gene-altered products on the market include canola, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, peanuts, sunflower, milk and chymosin, an enzyme commonly used in hard cheese. Since corn and soy, in particular, are so widely disseminated in processed foods as sweeteners, oils, texturizers, extenders, etc., consumers have been eating increasing amounts of genetically engineered food for the last four years--mostly without their knowledge or consent--because the food has not been labeled as such.

Europe gags

European activists in groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth objected to genetically engineered foods sneaking into the food supply and brought the issue to the attention of the European media and public. With the mad cow debacle and other public health and food safety crises fresh in their minds, European consumers have told American biotech companies to take their transgenic food and shove it--at least until they feel that they have received adequate answers to their questions about the safety of consuming genetically engineered food and releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment.

European supermarkets and food companies, like Nestlé, Cadbury and Unilever, are scrambling to assure their customers that their products are GMO-free. They are looking for non-GMO sources, mainly outside the US, which has caused major food ingredient suppliers such as Archer Daniels Midland to begin separating their GMO and non-GMO product. To ensure it has some GMO-free product, ADM--"supermarket to the world"--is even contracting farmers to grow non-GMO crops near its processing plants in Decatur, Illinois.

In addition to Europe, the issue is getting extensive play in Australia and New Zealand, and Japanese consumers are in an uproar as well. The European Union, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia have all passed some sort of mandatory labeling law for GMOs. "The firestorm in Europe landed in different parts of the world, and all of a sudden we have global distrust of the technology," one biotech industry analyst said.

Eyeing the wreckage in other countries, the biotech industry is terrified of a consumer backlash here. More and more stories questioning various aspects of the technology and reporting on the international consumer revolt are appearing in influential publications such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and Consumer Reports.

In July, the PR trade publication PR Week ran a story titled "Field of Bad Dreams," which reported that industry got "a wake-up call" following the release of a laboratory study showing that Monarch butterflies were killed by eating pollen from corn genetically modified to produce its own insecticide. Discoveries like that could end consumer complacency "in an instant," one source in the story commented.

To prevent a US consumer backlash, PR Week advised ag PR pros to lay the foundation for public acceptance of biotech foods. This would entail setting up "early warning systems" to handle awkward studies and activist groups questioning their products; training seed company officials to deal with the popular press; getting seed companies to publicize their research; and roping in "third party spokespersons" to trumpet pro-biotech statements and opinions from government regulators. Farmers make especially good spokespersons, PR Week advised, because they "garner positive response from American consumers." It warned that food companies "need to be very precise about what the meaning of safe is in regard to these products," reminding its readers that "agri-chemical makers have been doing that for years, telling farmers their fertilizer and pesticide products are safe only if used as directed" (emphasis added).

PR firms with food industry clients have quietly begun laying the groundwork. Fleishman Hillard, rated number two in ag PR, predicted that about $2.5 million of the $10 million it earns for agricultural PR in the coming year will be for "crisis preparedness" related to genetic engineering issues. Before a crisis hits, PR professionals want to emphasize "the value message,"--i.e. that genetically engineered crops offer the only way to feed a growing world population, especially at a time when land for agriculture is shrinking.

In early October, to coincide with a two-day Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on ag biotech, the food industry launched the Alliance for Better Foods, its first public pre-emptive strike against an anti-GMO consumer backlash. The alliance has its own website (www.betterfoods.org), which lists the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), the American Farm Bureau Federation, and 24 other trade associations representing virtually every segment of the food industry (except the organic foods sector). The alliance is run by the Washington office of BSMG Worldwide, a full service PR firm whose clients include Monsanto, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, and numerous other large food, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations.

The GMA is the driving force behind the Alliance for Better Foods said GMA spokesperson Brian Sansoni. The alliance doesn't include biotech companies or their trade association, the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), he said, but was created to get the food industry "to speak from the same page" in support of the technology. "We didn't want the activists' misinformation and scare campaign to be the story--like what happened in Europe," he said.

Sansoni wouldn't say much else about what the alliance is up to, but The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that "it and BIO say the heart of their strategies will be behind-the-scenes efforts to educate journalists." The paper notes that BIO is inviting journalists to a symposium in Chicago in November and quotes pro-biotech pollster Tom Hoban's observation that these "educational" efforts are important because media stories will be crucial to shaping public opinion.

The Sounds of Sound Science

The anxiety level of the industry and its backers appears to be increasing substantially. At the abovementioned Senate Ag Committee hearing, many called on EPA, FDA, and USDA, the three federal agencies with regulatory jurisdiction over biotech, to step up their efforts to defend the technology. According to the trade publication Food Chemical News, Senate agriculture committee chairman Richard Lugar told the agencies they are obligated to correct false statements made in the media and publish "sound science" that backs the safety of their approvals for biotech foods. "Industry wants a stronger seal of approval. . . . There's a difference between saying it's not unsafe and saying it's safe," the publication quotes him as saying.

This sentiment was repeated by Marc Curtis, president of the American Soybean Association, who complained that the Clinton Administration has not clearly signaled how it intends to handle biotech issues in the coming round of world trade talks that begin in Seattle at the end of November. Obviously rattled by what many in the industry have termed "terrorist attacks," Curtis also called on Congress to make vandalism against biotech field trials a harshly punished federal crime.

Biotech scientists from a variety of land grant universities stressed many versions of "the value message" in their testimony: on the promise of biotechnology to cure people of chronic diseases, prevent food allergies, lower the risk of heart attacks and even some cancers, deliver vaccines, prevent the inevitable plowing under of wilderness areas, replace polluting industrial petrochemicals, reduce chemical use in agriculture, and enrich economically depressed rural communities. Some lamented that all these dreams could vanish if biotechnology's critics prevail.

Roger Beachy, president of the newly established Donald Danforth Plant Center, a non-profit biotech research organization set up in St. Louis with funding from Monsanto, the Danforth Foundation and the state of Missouri, further chided biotech critics by suggesting that their alternative to biotech food, organic food, was not guaranteed to be safe. Repeating a falsehood that began with Dennis Avery from the right-wing Hudson Institute, he said organic food "makes good use of animal manure to fertilize crops" which may or may not be properly composted and therefore carries a high risk of E. coli contamination. (See accompanying story on Dennis Avery in this issue, linked below.) Beachy, like Senator Lugar, demanded more support from government agencies: "Where's FDA, NIH, [Agriculture] Secretary Glickman?" on this, he asked.

More than they bargained for

Many farmers--who responded in droves to industry's intense pro-biotech PR and sales pitches--don't appear to be waiting for the USDA, FDA, NIH or EPA to do something about the growing consumer revolt against genetically engineered food. The American Corn Growers Association, a progressive commodity group that represents thousands of corn growers in 28 states, is encouraging its members to plant non-GMO varieties. Even the pro-biotech National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the "official" corn commodity group that represents larger growers, can't argue with a 96% drop in the European market in one year. Between the 1996/97 and 1997/98 seasons, European corn purchases fell from nearly 70 million bushels to less than 3 million. At the Senate Ag Committee hearings, NCGA board member Tim Hume called on biotech seed companies to make sure they offered their best hybrid varieties in conventional versions.

As the biotech food controversy grows, the food industry appears to be waking up to the consequences of ramming through market approvals on questionable products without full and honest public debate. The trade publication Supermarket News put it this way in its October 25 issue: "Consumers' faith in the government and retailers as watchdogs over food safety could be broken, undermining one of the pillars upon which the modern supermarket was built." A representative from Nestlé, the world's largest food company, is reported to have put it this way at an industry conference discussing the consumer problem earlier this year: "Don't expect us to take a bullet for your GMO products," Nestlé told Monsanto and other biotech seed producers.

The food industry, however, does not appear to be interested in a full and honest public debate over genetically engineered food. Instead, it seems to be closing ranks. PR industry shenanigans and the Alliance for Better Foods' efforts to "educate" journalists and policy makers are just the latest tricks in a covert campaign that has been underway for years to spoon-feed biotech food to the public.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC), an industry-funded group, was created in 1985 to "communicate science-based information on food safety and nutrition" to virtually any group it believes wields influence over consumers--including professionals, educators, government officials, and journalists. IFIC has been working on food biotech issues since 1992 and has a lot of pro-biotech and food industry propaganda on its website (www.ificinfo.org), including such gung-ho gems as the following:

  • "New Survey Finds Americans as Positive as Ever on Food Biotechnology"
  • "Food Biotechnology--Benefits for Developing Countries"
  • "New Research Shows Consumers Willing to Try Irradiated (Cold Pasteurized) Foods; Taste Very Important"
  • "Consumers, Health Experts Desire Benefits of Biotech Foods and Concur with Current FDA Labeling Policy" [Current FDA policy does not require labeling of genetically modified foods.]

IFIC also posts a wealth of information on how journalists and others should understand and translate the plethora of food- and health-related studies and reports that emanate from various sources. It has links to the BIO site, which posts similar material, and both sites list a variety of pro-biotech expert opinions.

The biotech industry has lined up an impressive roster of groups and individuals supporting its cause. The American Medical Association; the American Dietetic Association; the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA; and a wide range of government officials--even former president Jimmy Carter--are all on record either plugging the technology or downplaying consumer concerns.

Right-wing policy factories are also stepping up their pro-biotech campaign. Earlier this year, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received money from the oil industry, Philip Morris, and from pharmaceutical and chemical companies, hired Michael Gough, PhD as its "biotechnology advocate" to "help advance the great promise of biotechnology in food production, medicine development and environmental protection." For Gough to even use the phrase "environmental protection" is an interesting exercise in hypocrisy, since he has spent much of his career denying that environmental problems even exist. Gough co-authored Silencing Science with internet "junkman" Steven Milloy (see link below), and he frequently trashes health and environmental advocates on the op-ed pages of publications like the Washington Post, the Detroit News, the Wall Street Journal, the Journal of Commerce, and the Chicago Tribune. The "corporate science" defenders of food biotechnology also include Henry Miller from Stanford University's Hoover Institute and Michael Fumento (also affiliated with CEI and with Consumer Alert, a right-wing "alternative" to Consumers Union), and other pillars of the anti-environment establishment.

Both critics and defenders of the technology are coming to understand that the brewing public debate over transgenic food may have much bigger stakes than they originally anticipated. Genetically engineered food was introduced by stealth, but overseas the secret is well and truly out, and public awareness is starting to emerge now in the United States as well. The same vested interests that didn't trust the public enough to inform us up front that they were introducing genetically engineered food into the environment and our grocery stores are now asking us to trust them as reliable experts on the questions of whether this innovation is safe and good. Their fear--and our hope--is that the debate on biotech foods could be the issue that awakens the public to the realization that government food and environment regulators are not presently functioning to safeguard the public's best interests.

The Hudson Institute's Dennis Avery told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he thinks industry should go straight to the public with a massive advertising campaign. Stay tuned. Unlike much of what appears on television these days, this promises to be interesting.

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Reprinted with permission of
PRWatch.org: Center for Media & Democracy

The Center for Media & Democracy is a nonprofit, public interest organization funded by individuals and nonprofit foundations and dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. The Center serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices.

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