As the international uprising against genetically engineered (GE) foods continues to grow, the worst fear of US government and business officials is that the commotion abroad will awaken Americans, who unknowingly already consume biotech foods being rejected in Europe. The victories of their foreign counterparts, meanwhile, are providing fresh inspiration for US food activists, some of whom have struggled for decades to win media coverage, citizen attention and regulatory action. The Food and Drug Administration has officially opposed biotech food labeling and mandatory safety testing since 1992 [see Kristi Coale, facing page]. But now that Europeans are forcing American companies to segregate and label genetically engineered foods, it is much more difficult to claim that the same can’t be done in the United States.
Last summer was a watershed event for many US farmers, who planted Monsanto’s biotech corn and soybeans, only to find them rejected abroad. Some are shifting back to traditional varieties, at least until the crisis is resolved. Gary Goldberg, CEO of the American Corn Growers Association, suggested in November that farmers avoid genetically engineered seed corn and try to obtain non-engineered varieties before farmer demand depletes supplies of old-fashioned seed.
The US food and biotechnology industries are now in full “crisis management” mode, their PR experts and lobbyists working furiously to prevent the same kind of defeat suffered on foreign shores. One example is the recently launched Alliance for Better Foods, run from the DC office of the PR/lobby firm BSMG, which also represents Monsanto and Philip Morris, America’s largest food company. Monsanto’s PR firm Burson-Marsteller recently bused 100 members of a Washington, DC, Baptist church to stage a pro-GE-foods rally outside an FDA hearing. But if events in Europe are any guide, the momentum may have shifted to a new alliance of grassroots environmentalists, consumer activists and family farmers. The Los Angeles Times noted in October that “a storm of protest…has reached US shores, leading some experts to predict that agricultural biotechnology could go the way of nuclear energy–falling out of favor because of public fears and unfavorable economics.”
The key to any successful biotech “issue management” campaign is repeating simple but carefully chosen messages that can set the terms of the debate. This was true with Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH), administered to cows to increase milk output. In the case of rBGH, one message was that “the milk is the same.” This isn’t true, and changes in the milk are a reason the drug hasn’t been approved by Europe or Canada. But the message worked here, where, after a furious PR and lobbying campaign, the FDA approved the use of rBGH and allowed sales of dairy products without consumer labeling. Six years later, Monsanto claims that one-third of US cows are in herds injected daily with rBGH.
Another simple but effective PR tactic, known as “the third-party technique,” puts messages in the mouths of independent-seeming experts, such as scientists and doctors, whom journalists and the public are more likely to trust. Besides government “watchdogs” at the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), such messengers can include former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the AMA and its prestigious publication Journal of the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association. All these and more have vouched for rBGH, and we can expect an avalanche of similar trusted experts reassuring us about biotech foods in the months ahead. Meanwhile, many right-wing pro-industry groups have launched their own PR campaigns against the “fearmongering” of consumer and environmental activists. At Thanksgiving, for example, the National Center for Public Policy Research faxed to newsrooms a release headlined Activists Attack Bio-Engineered Food Despite Benefits to the Poor and the Sick. All these tactics would fail, of course, if the media did their job by thoroughly investigating and reporting the issue of genetically engineered foods, and that is why media management is the number-one goal of every PR campaign.
As its ultimate weapon, industry has successfully lobbied into law “agricultural product disparagement” statutes that give them new powers to sue people who criticize their products. The first such lawsuit was filed in Texas against Oprah Winfrey and her guest Howard Lyman for the crime of airing a public debate on mad cow disease and its risks in the United States. A jury ruled in Oprah’s favor, prompting her to crow that “free speech rocks.” The reality is that her case is on appeal, and she has spent more than $2 million thus far in legal bills that she will never get back. Food-disparagement statutes survive intact in Texas and twelve other states, and this shot across the bow of the media has already had a chilling impact on coverage of other food controversies.
One of the smartest moves by Monsanto in the rBGH fight was hiring Carol Tucker Foreman, an influential and well-connected Democratic insider and lobbyist. Previously, Foreman had been the executive director of the DC-based Consumer Federation of America and then, under President Jimmy Carter, an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Soon after her stint at USDA she launched her own DC lobby firm with many corporate clients. While paid by Monsanto to lobby for rBGH, Foreman also coordinated the Safe Food Coalition, whose members include a number of big Washington-based nonprofits such as Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Running the coalition allowed Foreman to maintain dual identities as both a consumer advocate and a corporate food lobbyist. Earlier this year Foreman left her lobby firm and returned to the Consumer Federation of America, where she now says she favors labeling genetically engineered foods.
Another major Washington food lobbyist is Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group dubbed “the food police” by industry for its attention-getting news conferences against unhealthy fats and sugars in the American diet. When it comes to biotech foods, however, CSPI has been less vigilant, failing to oppose Monsanto’s rBGH during the long struggle over its approval. Jacobson now frets that mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food sold in supermarkets, as called for in a bill introduced in November by Representative Dennis Kucinich, could kill a goose he hopes will lay genetically engineered golden eggs such as “increased yields, reduced toxins, increased nutrient levels, and modified fatty acid composition.”
If inside-the-Beltway groups like CSPI and CFA are conflicted and unlikely to lead the charge to gain mandatory safety testing and consumer labeling of GE foods, who is? A broad array of seasoned activists has been fighting this battle for a long time, among them author Jeremy Rifkin, attorneys with the Center for Food Safety, the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Council for Responsible Genetics, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and the Union of Concerned Scientists. In meetings this year a number of these organizations and others formed the Genetic Engineering Action Network, which is united around four objectives: mandatory safety testing of GE foods, mandatory consumer labeling if they pass safety tests, long-term industry liability to cover unforeseen problems and an end to the domination of food and agriculture by “supermarket to the world” companies.
No one involved in the US fight expects it to be quick or easy. Says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, “We have to do what Europe and Japan have done–build a powerful organized movement of farmers, consumers and environmental activists who will target and boycott companies.” Recently the FDA held three public hearings on genetically engineered foods. Critics call them staged events and dog-and-pony shows, but they have provided a media forum for advocates of safety testing and labeling. The activists want biotech foods off the market entirely until a rigorous system of health and ecological testing has been devised. Like their colleagues in Europe, they are promoting the Precautionary Principle–the common-sense maxim of “looking before you leap”–as the basis for public policy. Adherence to the Precautionary Principle would obviously have dire consequences for companies whose bottom-line profits depend on selling as many biotech foods as quickly as possible, but it seems a minimal level of protection against the inevitable unforeseen consequences of genetically engineering the world’s food supply.