Posted: Sunday, September 19, 1999
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Biotechnology companies face new foe: the InternetBy Bill Lambrecht
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Analysts at Deutsche Bank in Germany came up with some grim conclusions this summer about the financial prospects for genetically modified crops, saying companies such as Monsanto were losing battle after battle.
A few years ago, the German report never would have traveled outside the rarefied air of global investors. But that was before the World Wide Web. This month, a consultant in Idaho arranged for the bank analysis to be posted on the Web, and in three days, thousands of people had downloaded the 25-page report and further disseminated it around the globe. Critics, farmers and people still making up their minds about the new technology had a new piece of information.
The Internet is enabling mobilization like never before and, in the process, giving biotechnology companies fits.
In recent months, St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and its rivals in the new science of genetically engineering food have watched in dismay as pockets of protest have mushroomed. Europe and Japan are demanding the labeling of modified foods. A trade war is brewing between the United States and Europe. American farmers are wondering whether to continue sowing tens of millions of acres with gene-altered seeds.
What is behind the recent developments? More people, especially Europeans, are raising questions about environmental safety, potential health effects and the power of the companies to determine the nature of food.
But perhaps no single factor looms larger in biotechnology's tumble than the role of the Internet. The Web has given critics and skeptics the arena to post studies, opinions and vitriol for the world to consume. E-mail and listserves -- electronic mailing lists -- enable activists to work with one another and to exchange scraps of information instantly. All the activity leaves the impression, real or imagined, of a vibrant global movement.
The "life science" companies and biotechnology devotees use the Internet, too, and in time they hope that it will play a key role in convincing the world that biotechnology can yield food that is not only safe, but better.
But as it stands, one powerful new technology may be functioning to stem the growth of another powerful new technology.
The Idaho consultant who distributed the German report, Charles Benbrook, contends that people who had misgivings in the past about farm and food policies had no means to link up and reinforce their beliefs. The Internet has changed all that.
"Activists can transfer fresh and important information around the world with speed and ease," Benbrook said. "And that's something we've never experienced before."
Until last year, the most public responses received by the Department of Agriculture on a new rule was 7,000. Then Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman asked Americans to tell him what they thought of a new organic foods policy that would let food that was genetically engineered, irradiated or fertilized with sludge carry the government's new "organic" label.
More than 250,000 people responded, mostly by e-mail, and the vast majority said it was a terrible idea. Under the nearly completed rules, genetically engineered food in the United States won't be labeled as organic.
The Internet is becoming an important factor in politics and public policy debates on a host of issues. Until recently, interest groups usually consisted of associations with national memberships and slick magazines. Now, with the Internet, people can mobilize and pressure governments with the push of a button.
"It changes the presumptions of representative democracy," said Phil Noble, a political consultant and founder of PoliticsOnline. "I think the Internet is going to do for public policy what the telephone did for lobbying."
People can be mobilized, too, in ways that don't give a true picture of public sentiment.
"In literally a matter of hours, I can create an interest group of tens of thousands on whatever my issue is right now, and mobilize them to send mail, e-mail or even rotten eggs," Noble said.
Political scientist Michael Cornfield of George Washington University said "cyberlobbying" soon will dominate grass-roots organizing because of its speed and low cost.
"It won't level the playing field between those who don't buy access and those who do, but it will make it easier for people to be involved in grass-roots lobbying," he said.
Anti-genetic engineering forces seem to be finding it easy right now.
A PR headache
With a staff of five in the United States and Canada, the Rural Advancement Foundation International has about 30,000 fewer employees than Monsanto.
Yet RAFI's "Terminator" campaign has created a monumental public relations headache for Monsanto and triggered anti-biotechnology sentiments around the world.
The Terminator is the RAFI-coined name for a genetic technology that renders seeds sterile so they can't be saved for the next crop. That way, farmers must buy more modified seeds and pay the additional "technology fee." The sterile-seed invention was patented last year by the U.S. government and a Mississippi seed company that Monsanto is acquiring.
Using the Internet, RAFI has persuaded some of the world's leading agriculture researchers and even the biotechnology-friendly Rockefeller Foundation to condemn the Terminator on the grounds that it is unfair to low-income farmers and might even be harmful if farmers planted them unknowingly.
RAFI's Hope Shand said that the Internet has dramatically increased her organization's power to reach people. In a recent 16-month period, she said, RAFI had 1.3 million "hits" on its Web site, from which visitors downloaded 455,000 pages.
"The Terminator campaign would never have been possible without the spread of information on the Internet," she said.
Another Internet campaign torpedoed an effort by Monsanto in Bangladesh. Last year, Monsanto agreed to give $150,000 to the Grameen Bank, which is known internationally for giving loans to poor farmers. But after the bank received a barrage of e-mail critical of Monsanto, the arrangement was scrapped.
Dozens of groups - from the Union of Concerned Scientists to direct-action proponents such as Greenpeace - use the Internet to work against biotechnology.
Friends of the Earth and some of the biggest environmental advocacy groups wage online global campaigns. An Internet drive to force mandatory labeling of modified food is being waged out of Washington state.
Crop saboteurs, such as genetiX snowball in Britain, hook up with the Direct Action Media Network and organizations that take a militant approach to advocacy.
Then there's Mutanto, a Web site that parodies Monsanto's. Instead of Monsanto's slogan of "Food, Health and Hope," Mutanto offers "Fraud, Stealth and Hype."
The critics of genetic food are simply exploiting their Internet advantage, said Michael Hanson of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "The other side has just as much access, but they're just not as good at it."
The "other side" thinks that the anti-biotechnology campaigners succeed on the Internet through distortion: distorting the facts about safety and creating the false impression that consumers, not just activists, worry about modified food.
A relatively few activists have been able to create a sense of movement that didn't exist before the Internet, biotechnology companies say. As a result, news outlets and others believe there's more out there than there really is, even though some of the anti-biotechnology sites get very few visitors.
"It's a dual-edged sword," Monsanto's Jay Byrne said. "On one hand, the Internet allows people with opinions or even spurious facts to share that information broadly. But at the same time, it allows the public access to scientific and academic information that so far has been generally supportive of the technology. The challenge lies in discerning between the two."
Monsanto uses the Web aggressively and has won awards for it, including one this month from an agribusiness magazine for its French Web page. The company tailors individual sites around the world to combat anti-genetic food sentiments.
In the United Kingdom, Monsanto's Web site went so far as to offer a link to Greenpeace and post critical press accounts of itself to stimulate debate. Monsanto uses its British site to sponsor a public dialogue on the outbreak of European incidents of crop destruction by protesters.
By the same token, detractors accuse Monsanto of exaggerating in cyberspace biotechnology's potential to feed hungry people.
Despite the Internet's power and potential, both sides in the biotechnology debate concede that it will come down eventually to people sorting through issues themselves just like they've always done.
Benbrook, the Idaho consultant, said, "If the public doesn't believe what is said, the fanciest Web sites and the biggest public relations campaigns in the world won't amount to much."
Some Web sites in the biotech wars
Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/
Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods. http://www.thecampaign.org/
Consumers Union. http://www.consumersunion.org/
Friends of the Earth. http://www.foe.org/
Rural Advancement Foundation International. http://www.rafi.org/
Jeremy Rifkin; Foundation on Economic Trends. http://www.biotechcentury.org/
Organic Trade Association. http://www.ota.com/
Edmonds Institute. http://www.edmonds-institute.org/
Ecologist Magazine. http://www.gn.apc.org/ecologist/
genetiX snowball. http://www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/gs/
Archer Daniels Midland. http://www.admworld.com/
Monsanto Co. http://www.monsanto.com/
Monsanto Co. United Kingdom. http://www.monsanto.co.uk/
Biotechnology Industrial Organization. http://www.bio.com/
Food Biotechnology Communications Network. http://www.foodbiotech.org/
The Grocery Manufacturers Association. http://www.gmabrands.com/
National Food Processors Association. http://www.nfpa-food.org/
Food Marketing Institute. http://www.fmi.org/
Danforth Plant Science Center. http://danforthcenter.org/index.html
Missouri Botanical Gardens. http://www.mobot.org/
U.S. Government Food Safety Site. http://www.foodsafety.gov/
Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Information Resource. http://www.nal.usda.gov/bic/
UN Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service. http://binas.unido.org/binas/binas.html
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/es/esn/biotech/TABCONTS.HTM
National Corn Growers Association. http://www.ncga.com/
Nature Magazine. http://www.nature.com/
Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/
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