Biotechnology: Novartis, Monsanto launch PR campaign

A lawsuit against Monsanto, a global player in genetically-engineered crops, has unleashed a heated debate over the social and political issues surrounding the technology. Biotechnology companies have now launched a major public relations offensive.

This content was published on December 17, 1999 - 17:33

A lawsuit in the United States against Monsanto, a global player in genetically-engineered crops, has again unleashed a heated debate over the social and political issues surrounding the technology. Biotechnology companies, including Switzerland’s Novartis, have now launched a major public relations offensive.

The avowed aim of the campaign is to counter what biotechnology companies see as a hysterical media campaign to vilify their products and aims.

After years of mounting pressure, biotech companies have started making concessions to public opinion. The U.S. giant Monsanto recently pledged not to press ahead with so-called terminator gene technology, a method that would make plants sterile after a while. But that did not stop a lawsuit against Monsanto. Switzerland's Novartis also promised not to pursue terminator technology, vowing anything that was not in the interest of the farmer was also not in the interest of Novartis.

One way biotech companies justify their existence is by saying that only GE crops are capable of feeding the world. Without improving yields and tailoring crops for specific environments, they say, poorer countries will simply be unable to feed their growing populations.

This is refuted absolutely by aid organisations and organic farmers.

Albert Remund, an organic farmer near the Swiss capital Berne, says modern farming promotes soil erosion. He says hunger has more to do with politics than agriculture.

“In the developing world, there is more than enough land to grow food for everyone. But the large food multi-nationals exploit poor countries to produce crops for richer ones, that means people in developing nations don’t have enough land to grow their own crops,“ Remund said.

Little progress has been made in addressing the social and political issues surrounding biotechnology. One of the most intractable is patenting. Under current laws, biotech companies can literally gain ownership of a living thing, and all its offspring, simply by genetically-altering the organism.

Novartis, the world's largest biotech company, does not see it that way. Dr. Arthur Einsele, a scientist in Novartis' seeds division, says currently the patent applies only to the seed. He says the farmer can do what he wants with his produce.

For organisations such as Greenpeace, the license to patent life is a symbol of the growing power wielded by biotech companies. Greenpeace Switzerland says if current trends continue, the world's food supplies could eventually be controlled by a handful of powerful companies.

Biotech companies, on the other hand, claim that consumers in both poor and rich countries will be protected by the free market.

Novartis spokesman Mark Hill says farmers and consumers will always have a choice about what crops to buy, and from whom. This emphasis on the consumer marks a distinct change in the attitude of biotech companies. Previously they concentrated on lobbying governments and persuading farmers to switch to GE crops.

But following mounting public opposition, particularly in Europe, biotech companies are now trying to win the support of the consumer. Companies such as Novartis and Monsanto now support the labelling of food containing GE products, something the industry has consistently opposed.

Ultimately, the debate over GE crops comes down to a question of motives. Biotech companies view opposition to their activities as an attempt to turn back the clock. Opponents say GE crops are nothing more than a vehicle for biotech companies to increase their power and influence.

Getting to grips with genetic engineering is made more difficult by the ceaseless torrent of claims and counter-claims. Every shred of evidence, whether for or against GE crops, is immediately countered by the other side. Suggestions earlier this year that GE maize in the U.S. may be toxic to Monarch butterflies caused a huge controversy and provoked a deluge of rebuttals, resolving nothing. In fact, the two sides cannot even agree on whether GE crops perform better than their natural counterparts.

While biotech companies and their lobbyists try to win public acceptance, life goes on as normal on Remund's organic farm. He is confident that the future will be organic. In fact, he says that if the free market is let to decide, organic farming will be the future. Unlike modern farming methods, he says, it is healthy, sustainable and totally energy efficient.

From staff member Jonas Hughes

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