Friday, 27 May 2011

GMOs: are we in for a 'Spud Wars' summer?

The season for potato planting is upon us. Big deal. Spuds don’t usually justify a news item (or even a blog post). Nor would they now were it not for those provocative three letters, ‘GMO’ (Genetically Modified Organism). In northern Sweden, the controversial acronym has sent Greenpeace activists into a tizz. This week, they’ve been camped out at the gates of a warehouse stocking Amflora, a genetically modified variety of the humble tuber. The GM potato contains a gene that is resistant to antibiotics and should, the protestors say, be banned. The European Union, which legalised the creation of German chemicals group BASF last year, thinks otherwise.

A visit to GM Watch will reveal a catalogue of similar protests over recent weeks, months and years. Here's just a recent sample of headlines: ‘No Improvement in EU’s GMO risk assessment’, ‘Unlabelled clone meat allowed on shop shelves’, ‘Industrial poultry, GM feed and the RTRS’. The mainstream press may have wearied somewhat from their ‘Frankenstein Food’ stories of old. But passions among a large sub-set of consumers still run high.

Recent years have seen huge advances in GM technology. Who could have imagined filling your grocery basket with ‘pluots’ (a hybrid of plums and apricots), ‘lematos’ (lemons and tomatos) or ‘grapples’ (grapes and apples)? Or heading down to your local pet store and buying a GloFish (a modified florescent zebrafish)? Gimmicks aside, GM goods now proliferate in our food chain. American dairy farmers, for instance, are now saying the days of non-GM organic milk are numbered. (The warning follows the decision by the US Department of Agriculture earlier this year to legalise GM alfalfa, an essential feed for dairy cows).

Yet the fundamental arguments are much the same as when GMOs first burst onto the commercial scene. In the one corner, you have a vocal consumer lobby - perturbed about the technology’s potential health and environmental impacts. In the other, you have the biotech industry – rich, powerful and intent on arguing that GM is the future for a resource-stretched planet. The result has been a heated and often vitriolic clash. None more so than Monsanto’s head-on collision with European regulators and the general public back in the late 1990s.

As part of Ethical Corporation’s collection of landmark events for the corporate responsibility movement, Ben Schiller examines this mother of all battles. Some of the lessons are particular to the time and the industry. Playing with science – particularly when it’s linked to something as fundamental as the food we eat – is, and always be, an emotive subject.

Other lessons, however, are more generic. Most revolve around communications. Sat in St. Louis, Missouri, six hours behind London, Monsanto’s PR team were always one step behind the news agenda. The US company's advertising wasn't always the wisest either. (An early set of ads were rules as misleading by the UK watchdog). Schiller examines the PR battle in depth. The ultimate lesson? Regretable as it sounds, good news will never trump bad. Companies just have to hope journalists will eventually grow bored and move on. For GMOs, that strategy seems to have worked of late. But the coming potato harvest could see the horror headlines return. Does a ‘Spud Wars’ summer lie ahead?   

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