Source: The Guardian 23 Sept 1998

Companies must not be allowed to steamroller genetically altered food in to the shops without a wider debate

By John Elkington, Chair of SustainAbility and co-author of Manual 2000: Life Choices for the Future You Want (Hodder and Stoughton 9.99)

Thanks Monsanto, but no thanks! That's what activists and consumers across Europe want to say to the US company whose attempts to get genetically modified soya beans and related products on to our tables and plates are meeting fierce resistance. Britain's fist "citizen's jury" on the subject convened in Brighton recently, sitting for 10 evenings and taking evidence from expert witnesses. The jury was "horrified" that multinational companies were being allowed to meddle with our food in what it saw as a "covert and secretive manner." Most European food consumers are sure of one thing: after the mad cow saga they want to be able to make real, informed choices' Yet the insensitive way that Monsanto and grain importers have introduced genetically modified (GM) products into the European market seems tailor-made to remove our ability to choose between modified and unmodified products. Odd, given Monsanto's earlier experience with the dairy hormone bovine somatotropin (BST).

Companies such as Monsanto and Eli Lilly argued that BST would massively boost milk production, and even help to control global warming by cutting the amount of methane cows produce. But the European Commission decided that issues linked with animal welfare and the impact on the structure of the farming industry (and the communities and landscapes it supports) posed too serious a risk. BST is banned in Europe, although the decision comes up for review next year.

After this political reverse, we might have expected Monsanto to play a rather more politically astute game this time around. Instead, as the highly respected ENDS Report explains in its latest issue, Monsanto made a decision in 1996 which "will have few competitors for top prize for the most spectacular strategic business misjudgement of the 1990s." Despite warnings from European retail bodies, Monsanto and the grain companies opted against crop segregation, denying consumers a choice on foods containing the herbicide-resistant soya beans. This flew in the face of the highly successful formula that companies such as Sainsbury's and Safeway now follow in introducing new GM food products. When Sainsbury's launched its tomato puree from GM tomatoes, it offered labelling, well-focused consumer information and - critically a lower price, reflecting the energy and transport savings in shipping denser tomatoes. The product literally flew off the shelves.

If you give people the choice, as was the case recently in Switzerland, they may well vote for genetic engineering. Bad news, perhaps, for the many intelligent, thoughtful people who have an absolute, immovable objection to genetic engineering. But others - myself included - believe that well regulated biotechnology potentially has much to offer in the area of sustainable agriculture and food production. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine how we are going to sustainably feed a doubled world population without such techniques.

However, you don't have to be a Luddite to worry, about the impact that genetic engineering will have on the environment, on our health and on society. The economic, social and environmental effects will be at least as profound as those caused by the steam engine, oil or computers.

Some business people clearly feel that the General Patton strategy is the key to future market success. Batten down the hatches and trundle your tanks through - or over - the opposition. Yet there are others in the biotechnology industry who are profoundly concerned about this heavy-handed approach. Both publicly and privately, other bio-companies have called on Monsanto to slow down before it's too late.

But should we really blame Monsanto? Isn't it simply doing what comes naturally, developing new products and aiming to get a lock on new markets? Whatever, the company has unwittingly spotlighted the lack of systems in many parts of Europe that would allow citizens to hear the different arguments and have their say. With the power of capital markets and globalisation sweeping all before them, the time has come to develop new forms of governance and public participation fit for the 21st century. The Science Museum's "Gene Foods on Trial" debate tomorrow evening [24 Sept] is a useful step in the right direction.