MONSANTO, the American biotech giant, is facing an unprecedented wave of criticism from within the industry. Many of Monsanto's rivals say the company is largely to blame for a consumer backlash that could cripple the prospects for genetically engineered food in Europe.
Polls show that consumer acceptance of engineered food has collapsed in Europe since 1997, when it emerged that Monsanto's herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready soya beans had been shipped to Europe mixed with ordinary soya. Consumers interpreted the move as a ploy to force transgenic soya down European throats.
Monsanto officials have always maintained that the decision not to segregate was made by farmers and distributors, but they admit to misjudging the mood in Europe. Monsanto was convinced that smooth acceptance of transgenic soya in the US would be mirrored in Europe.
The entire industry is now having to deal with the consequences of that miscalculation. Though wary of breaking a tradition of solidarity against opponents of genetic engineering, other companies are distancing themselves from Monsanto. "We have a PR mountain to climb," says Willy de Greef, head of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds in Basel, Switzerland. "You have a problem if the market leader has firmly set ideas about how to do things, which others might not agree with," he adds. "An expensive failure can be made into an asset if you've learnt from it, but Monsanto still has some learning to do."
Zeneca, the British-based biotechnology giant, also feels aggrieved, not least because it won applause from consumer groups in 1996 by labelling its tomato puree as containing genetically modified tomatoes. "It's a matter of respect for your customer," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.
Another senior figure in the industry, who asked to remain anonymous, is
more blunt, accusing Monsanto of "arroga
Contact: Claire Bowles