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Memo to Monsanto

07.sep.99, Douglas Powell, National Post C6

To:     Monsanto Canada and other agricultural biotechnology companies
From:   Douglas Powell, assistant professor, University of Guelph
Re:     Campaign against genetically-engineered foods

As you may have heard, the Sierra Club of Canada, the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace Canada, Friends of the Earth and others, are gearing up for a fall campaign against genetically-engineered foods, aimed at arousing what they say are complacent Canadians. These groups are convinced that if the citizenry only knew about the "dangers," they would reject the new foodstuffs as Europeans have.
Based on previous tactics and public musings, the groups are likely to follow a standard script.
First, they will attack the science, playing up any obscure scientific study that suggests an unacceptable level of risk, even if the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence declares the products in question safe. They will continue to make much of a researcher with the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, who reported to television cameras on Aug. 10, 1998, that, after feeding genetically-engineered potatoes to five rats for 110 days, some suffered harmful effects. No matter that an independent review by the Royal Society soundly refuted his results.
These groups will partially embrace studies indicating potential environmental risks - partially in that they will conveniently ignore any caveats or questions about applicability to the real world. They will brush aside attempts at explanation or scientific debate as just so much mumbo jumbo or as the product of an allegedly corrupt funding system. For example, the journal Nature reported on Aug. 26 that researchers at an independent, publicly-funded institute in the U.K. found that genetically-engineered canola containing a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) to repel pests was potentially more beneficial to wildlife than conventional spraying with pesticides. The response? A Friends of the Earth spokeswoman argued, "the tests compared the GM [genetically-modified] crops to normal farming methods; organic crops do everything shown in this test, but without the risk. All the biotechnology companies are doing is creating a market for their products."
The argument really isn't about science; it's about control, and groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club know it. So while the scientists are responding in cool, technical language, the activists will demand labelling, because consumer choice, after all, is the North American mantra. Of course, the aligned groups will fail to mention that they are imposing their version of choice, in the absence of any detrimental health effects, on all consumers, and at a cost to all consumers.
Next, having side-stepped the science and cloaked themselves as defenders of all that is natural and pure, these groups will spout lies, ranging from blatant admissions of fact to conspiracy theories woven from tidbits drawn from wherever is convenient. With these lies, they will target the most vulnerable. (Parents, prepare to have your concerns for your children exploited.) Ignoring 10 years of public discussion and media coverage in North America, they will talk about how these crops are hidden and sneaking onto breakfast tables, They will say Europeans are onto something, offering up the advice of Paul McCartney and Prince Charles. But Canada is not Europe, not Belgium, with its dioxin-tainted animal feed, and especially not Britain, a country whose main culinary exports have been mushy peas and mad cow disease. They will target companies, who tend to crumble. Friends of the Earth, for example, is sending letters to 100 of the largest food companies in the U.S. asking them to pledge not to use gene-altered crops in their products. The group will post the replies on its Web site. Gerber, the target of an earlier Greenpeace letter, completely capitulated rather than face a discussion dominated by babies. Who can afford to buy the non-genetically-engineered, all organic baby food remains an open question.
And many journalists will believe these groups' claims and endorse the campaign; reporters at many of the major dailies already have. If, for example, the discussion happens to return to science, journalists will dispatch so much messy detail by saying the scientific community is split, without bothering to check the specialties of the various Ph.D.-ordained "experts" (policy and pasture grazing seem to dominate).
To date, the industry and government response has been based on inertia-through-more-research. Focus groups, expert interviews and consumer surveys seem to be the preferred tools.
Monsanto, save your money. The science is sound. Why not make it easy to track down? Why not post a bibliography on a Web site, with links, to all the peer-reviewed research that exists, answering basic questions, such as, is this food safe? It may not sway consumers, but it will influence that black-box known as public discussion, and will let many see the research for themselves.
But the more fundamental problem is this: As technologies become increasingly ensconced in daily routines, many in affluent North America reach for a connection to the past-a past routinely described as better, safer, purer and, most importantly, more natural. Tampering with that image - even if largely the creation of advertising gurus - is to tamper with the soul itself, a soul seeking nourishment and purity from the foods of nature. A soul seeking reassurement and trust.
Past research has demonstrated that the strongest indicator of trust is whether someone or some agency is proven right over time. The public soon tires of rants about risk in the absence of viable solutions. And that is, as the Brits would say, the rub of the matter.
The solution, according to Sierra et al., is to move agriculture in an organic and sustainable direction. Sounds nice, but ignores the knowledge and efficiency that science can bring to food production.  Think of the extra diesel expended to cultivate organic soybeans.  (Doesn't the Sierra Club care about greenhouse gases?) Think of the unnecessary pesticides that will be required. Think of the extra tillage and subsequent soil erosion - a problem that gripped the Canadian Senate in the early 1980s.
If critics of genetically-engineered foods were really concerned with the health of Canadians and safe food, they would launch a campaign to inform consumers about the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who get sick each year - and the few who die - from micro-organisms in the food and water they consume, not one of which has anything to do with genetic engineering. Food safety is serious business. The social magnification of theoretical risks may trivialize significant and well-characterized risks in food, such as microbial contamination, and belittles attempts by producers, processors, retailers and regulators, to provide safe, inexpensive and nutritious foods.
Perhaps beyond the shrill soundbites, there is a way to extract whatever benefits genetic engineering can bring to food production and minimize the unknowns that come along with any new technology, while at the same time establishing trust. After all, most food purchasing decisions are overwhelmingly based on trust.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, and the co-author of Mad Cows and Mother's Milk. His next book, Reclaiming Dinner, will be published next year.