A Collection of Open Letters to the Participants in the Phony War Over Biotechnology
By Mark Mansour
PART I: YOU WHO ARE BEING FRIED, WE SALUTE YOU, AND OFFER SOME ADVICE
The good news is, you are on the cusp of some of the most inspiring and far reaching technological developments in human history. The bad news is that, because you have failed to grasp the enormity of the opportunities and hazards that attend that other great miracle of our time, the information explosion, you stand to lose all. The activists grasped that in today's world, the one with the most concise, passionate message gets first dibs on the public attention span, and given its short duration, that is all they ever needed. It would have helped had the benefits of biotechnology been spread sooner and with more passion. The damage is done, but it doesn't have to be permanent. Here are some suggestions. First, whether it is fair or not, those who deal with you on an ongoing basis have come to the unfortunate conclusion that you are, as a group, preternaturally clueless. Among you are geniuses of the highest order, but industry as a collective is seen to be obtuse and doomed to repeat the same mistakes forever. You must demonstrate to your customers, and to their customers, that you get it. Certainly, the Prodigene soybean snafu of recent weeks is a serious potential setback. It can either serve as a wake up call, or it can be the first shot in a second, even more ruinous war. As an industry you are not taking the differences between novel food crops and pharmaceutical and/or industrial crops near seriously enough. That will have to change. Friends of the Earth had a press release and a menu of recommendations ready for government before the other shoe fell, and press releases from major food trade associations looked to be identical to the one released by Friends of the Earth. This is not an alliance that augurs well for the future. The biotech industry must become more effective at self-policing, especially of non-food crops, and it must take vigorous action against its less conscientious and energetic members. It needs to ensure public confidence in its partners--the US government and farmers-- is maintained. Lose that, and the entire war is lost. A no holds barred, passionate, and honest dialogue with the world must begin, and soon. View it as an investment in your future. Don't just spend your money on slick-but-nebulous TV ads. Shake loose the purse and spend a few dollars on your grass roots constituency - credible, non-industry voices and activists. It is clear that people will listen to your message if it is sufficiently compelling. There is ample evidence that a turnaround is possible. If you doubt it, see the plastics industry, which engineered one of the most miraculous public relations turnarounds in modern times. From being cast as a problem, they are now identified by many as part of the solution. Certainly, they are not impervious to criticism, but they have been neatly supplanted in the public mind by other villains. To paraphrase the ancients, "Physicians, go forth and heal thyselves, and do it pretty damned quickly."
TO: THE FOOD AND INGREDIENTS INDUSTRIES:
You got a raw deal. The promise of biotechnology was terrific, at least in theory, but the folks who sell you the goods were supposed to get out the good word, and you have bungled the job. Now, the hard work of America's farmers is floating on the high seas, in thin air, from one corner of the world to the other, and no one seems to have the slightest idea what to do about it. Worse, these tough decisions have to be made in the fog of war, as it were, while activist groups and the media take daily potshots designed to divorce you from your consumer. It stinks. Well, get used to it, because this is the future. This is the face of globalization in the twenty-first century. You view yourselves, quite rightly, as your consumers' friend. When industry bought into globalization, it bought into all of globalization's baggage. It received, through the advent of the WTO, the end of the Cold War, and the opening of previously closed markets, billions of new customers. As part of the bargain, it received exotic regulatory regimes in some of these states, as well as the burgeoning UN standard-setting offshoots. It also made particularly relentless enemies of activist groups, many of whom were armed with a burning conviction that multinational industry was the root of all evil. All they needed was a compelling issue, and bad luck for all, they found it in the form of Frankenfoods. The problem is that corporate America first underestimated, and is now overestimating the strength of the activists and their message. Just as the opposition began to lose steam (and it most assuredly has), the food industry conveniently formed a circular firing squad, and shot at each other.
This must end, for one reason alone, if none of the others are compelling. It won't work. "Greenpeace made us do it" will be more useful a defense in the supermarket aisle than it will be in court. The public will blame industry and regulators when it takes an eight-fold insert to sell a package of candy which costs 15 or 20% more than it used to. The folks who started the mess will, like the puny little provocateur in the old television western bar fight, sneak out the swinging doors, cackling, while the patrons of the bar punch and gouge each other with fists and broken bottles, until exhausted they flounder on the floor and beg for regulatory relief. The fact that the inevitable day of reckoning was forced by the advent of biotechnology is interesting, from an academic perspective, but fundamentally irrelevant. It is now clear that the opponents have a variety of targets in mind, and they are emerging without filter or surcease. We are beset with lawsuits filed by fat children, at the behest of lawyers who made their bones on asbestos and tobacco. There will be more to come, as one global organization after another lines up at the trough to hammer away at every innovation or product that stands the slightest chance of making money. It is a death trap, for success only makes a potential target a bigger, better and more attractive target. Accommodation won't work because believers on the other side aren't interested in accommodation. If the issue goes away, so goes their funding, so they either must keep the issue alive or find another issue. What to do, one asks? Strategies designed to placate patronize are doomed to failure for the simple reason that no one, especially consumers, has a clue what consumers want. No one has ever asked them, in any commercially meaningful fashion, what they want. While the polls provide a glimpse, it is flawed. One wonders at the results of a real poll which asks consumers what they would like to see and pay for on a label. We got our sneak peek in Oregon in November, and labeling was creamed. One wonders how much worse the "label it all" lobby will have it when a price tag is places on each of its labeling schemes.When that day comes, this debate will truly have earned the price of admission, but for now it is more like watching Crossfire: entertaining in a crude fashion, but ultimately unsatisfying, much as eating the stuff that passes for health food in legions of stores that trumpet cardboard tasting matter as "GMO free." How ironic that industry's "placate them and they'll leave us alone" strategy has only helped the organic industry by casting doubt on the safety and benefit of biotech food. Ultimately the issue will transmute into, a food fight over something that lies at the core of the food industry's existence: their ability to communicate with their customers in an open and honest fashion, without kibbitzers providing unnecessary and harmful cross talk. At that point, when real money is at stake, the choice to either stand confidently behind their products and reasoned and honest discourse, or to give away their trademarks, corporate good name, and viability will be made, and we will know far more than we know today about the face of globalization in coming decades. For better or worse, you are on the front lines. Since it is now clear that you will have to stand and fight over something, and since the other side already has more plans in store for you, it might be advisable to make a go of it on this issue, regain the moral high ground, and gird for the next attack. It certainly beats being killed by friendly fire in a circular firing squad, and it will be a far nobler fight.
PART II: TO THOSE OF YOU WHO VISITED THIS MISFORTUNE ON ALL OF US,
TO: THOSE OF YOU IN THE ACTIVIST COMMUNITY WHO HELPED FOSTER THIS ENVIRONMENT OF DISTORTION AND CONFUSION (AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) ALONG WITH A JAB AT THE MEDIA:
It may shock you to learn that many who despise your methods admire your energy. Despite your misapprehensions, the overwhelming majority of those who work in corporate America have consciences and deeply held feelings about what is right and wrong. Some of your more most virulent detractors are people who feel betrayed by your unprincipled and cynical manipulation of the facts. Many of these people were and are passionate about the environment, good health, and the future of generations to come: all of the things you hold dear. And, despite your inability to the grasp the fact, many of them are passionate about the promise of biotechnology. It wasn't the fact that you questioned the safety of the technology, for that is what scientists in the biotech industry do every day. They research probe, try and discard new ideas, and in general engage in the stimulating empirical process from which true genius springs. Most of the questions you purported to raise, de novo, were asked and answered by people far more qualified than you. Although you have dodged and weaved in your dialogue with the public, going back and forth from professed concern over food safety and then, when even your staunchest allies weren't buying that anymore, back to environmental concerns, the fact is that you used the novel aspects of the technology to tremendous public relations advantage. The "weird factor" was irresistible: the myth could fit easily onto a headline or a bumper sticker, while printing the truth required the clearing of several old growth forests. And, as sincere as many in the corporate world are in their convictions, the public seems forever inclined to give credence to the fervor of the true believer over the measured words of the corporate man or woman who receives a paycheck in return for speaking his or her mind. People can lie for free, and others tell the truth for money, but this seems to have eluded the intellectual grasp of millions of intelligent people. The media has thoroughly botched the job of transforming this into a real debate, allowing itself instead (with a few notable exceptions) to be the willing accomplice of people with an appallingly transparent agenda. But that dynamic will never change as long as people pay money for an entertaining story. Greenpeace told the world that it wanted labeling. Its 1999 tax returns tell a different story: one of its annexes boasts that their objective is to discredit the technology. This story was made available to a number of individuals in the media, all of whom took a pass on it. Greenpeace, after all, provides great quotes and terrific raw material when one is on deadline. Certainly, they are more quotable than a scientist or an executive, who must worry about being ridiculed, fired or sued, for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person, because he or she is under orders to behave responsibly and depict the facts in context. Facts and context seldom make for good copy. While it may be that many of you actually believe what you profess, many more of your compatriots base their convictions on the thinnest reed: the exhortations and the self-professed expertise of the people who began the movement. Too many of your best educated and thoughtful compatriots have split off in disgust for that fact to be concealed from the discerning reader. It would behoove those of you who remain to ask yourselves honestly whether this is a cause with which you will in the years to come be proud at having been a part of. If the truth be told, many of you will answer in the negative. And if that is the case, and if you shrug and persist in this cause, you will have much for which to answer. You will have company, for you will be joined at the proverbial hip with those who have used your success to try (in vain, as we will see) to solve their own parochial problems. The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Zambia is in part your responsibility. The headlines are now imprinted in memory, what with the government of Zambia so public in its refusal to accept grain to feed its staving many, on the flimsy and shameful pretext that their future health might be jeopardized, even though you know and the world knows that not a shred of evidence exists to support these assertions. At least there was some vindication in watching those same people, smart enough to realize that prospective well-being is irrelevant if one is about to die of starvation, raided the grain stores after the furor died down a week later. It was interesting that this heartbreaking turn of events barely saw the light of day, either in the media or in the streams of congratulatory e-mails that were seen in your internet newsgroups, after your stunning victory in turning biotech grain out of Africa. The irony of it all is that there are far nobler causes out there, crying for your energy. One of them has poignancy here, in fact. You might wish to take on the cause of the millions of AIDS victims in Africa. It turns out that, if the famine situation in sub-Saharan Africa is not resolved soon, the continent can kiss goodbye the potential of effective antiretroviral therapy (ART). There are numerous credible accounts of HIV-infected people in Africa who receive ART (amazing in and of itself, given how expensive and scarce these drugs are ) but who, one month later, return with nearly full containers of pills. When their doctors ask why they haven't taken their pills, the patients point to the drug usage label that says "take with food."
There are far nobler causes. Do the world and humanity a favor, and go and find one of them. Devote your energy and passion to it, and make a difference. Were half of you to take this advice, no further memoranda need be written.
PART III: TO THE ADULTS WHO WERE SUPPOSED TO TURN OUT THE LIGHTS ON
You are individually and collectively responsible for the situation in which you find yourselves (and half responsible for the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Africa). You are confronted with a trade war over what you, yourselves, have admitted is a wholly indefensible position. While you were riding the back of the Greenpeace tiger, trying to regain the credibility lost in the dioxin, blood, and Mad Cow scandals of the past decade by focusing public attention on a phony issue, European governments and industry scrambled energetically to invest billions in the future of pharmaceutical technology, cleverly crafting a Biosafety Protocol that caught grain and food in its web and neatly exempted the real cash cow, pharmaceuticals. Gorging on success, you then managed to force through your Commission and Parliament a food directive that, mirable dictu, creates a bright line between American-made snack foods that contain virtually undetectable shadows of their transgenic source in the form of protein or DNA (labelable), and wines, cheeses, beers and other delicacies, made in Europe, that might just as likely been the product of transgenically produced enzymes used as processing aids.
It is this distinction without a difference that has proved to be the slow undoing of the EC's argument in defense of its biotech strategy. By first claiming concern for the safety of future generations (out of fear of the unknown), and then backtracking in favor of labeling as a function of the "consumer's right to know" when the science didn't wash for the future safety argument, you undermined its own future strategy. If there exists an ethical responsibility on the regulatory apparatus to ensure that the consumer is allowed to make an informed choice about transgenic foods, where is the line drawn at the right to know? Between soybean oil in a corn product made in the USA, and a block of cheese manufactured via recombinant chymosin?
In throwing your lot in with Greenpeace and their allies, you made a deal with an exceedingly clever and dissembling devil. Assuming, no doubt as you did, that they would keep their promise to exempt pharmaceuticals from their war on biotechnology, you forgot one critical factor. If the issue is the right to know about the act of genetic recombination, and the activist community has made that right inviolable, how can they ever maintain their credibility by giving you a free pass on labeling of anything manufactured from recombinant origins? And, if their stated goal is undermining the technology because they believe it is a capitalist plot, a biodiversity time bomb, or just because they hate the thought of progress, what hope have you of keeping your wine, beer, cheese, and pharmaceuticals out of their kill zone?
Now, on the eve of the establishment of your new European Food Safety Authority, you are faced with trying to earn credibility with a skeptical, indeed almost hostile public, on the pretext that you will solve the continent's food safety problems by slapping labels on a few packaged food products arriving from the other side of the ocean. Imagine how dismal that prospect will seem once the fallacy of labeling as a solution is exposed, at the same time yet another Listeria, E Coli, Camphylobacter, or Shigella outbreak kills a score more of your unsuspecting citizenry. We all know that you cannot do what you should do, and emerge to the waiting arms of the media with something like the following. "We have identified the root causes of Europe's pernicious food safety problem, and it is neither the scourge of biotechnology, nor the absence of a precautionary principle. The food safety problem in Europe is rooted in centuries of hygienically problematic food preparation and agricultural methods that are themselves the epitomy of unnecessary risk. While we all adore raw milk cheese, Steak Tartare and organic vegetables, and the other delicacies that grace the tables of La Belle Europe, the fact is, they are very risky foods. Now, we can change the way we grow, cook, and eat these foods, or we can continue to pretend that we have found the answer in biotech labeling and the precautionary principle. Freedom begets choices, so we beg you to choose soon and wisely."
The road to redemption begins with responsibility. Cease this futile, embarrassing war on transgenic food, roll up your sleeves, and usher a splendid agricultural and gastronomic tradition as painlessly as is possible into the twenty-first century. Keep your traditions and culture, but tell the Zambians you'll take their grain, biotech or not. Maybe then their government will relent and allow its starving citizens to eat. Then again, maybe it won't. But at least the responsibility will have been partially removed from your sholders.
AND FINALLY, TO: THE REST OF THE REGULATORY WORLD, INCLUDING THE UNITED STATES:
The American regulatory system, though not without flaws, enjoys a greater degree of public confidence than any in the world. No one will remember any of that, however, if you abandon your mission under political pressure, worse yet pressure manufactured by a few clever folks who have demonstrated an ingenious capacity to make their hundreds appear as millions. Follow your empirical instincts, with sensitivity for the public's need for real information, and lead with confidence and a firm hand. The public will forget the debate if you do the right thing. Their outrage, if biotechnology and reasonable food prices are sacrificed at the altar of expediency, will be a thing to behold however. You are winning the debate, even though many of you fail to realize it. Stick to your guns, and realize that nothing worth winning comes without sacrifice and cost. Those of you in the developing world, study carefully both the successes and the mistakes of your role models. It is in your grasp to determine which way your citizens will live. Biotechnology will not heal all of the world's ills. However, by allowing the chief peril of the information age, the cynical manipulation by a few for profit or warped psychic gain, will guarantee future food fights, far more sterile, depressing and destructive than this one has been. If you doubt it, ask the Zambian who is denied ART therapy for AIDS; the diabetic who depends on transgenic insulin; the infertile couple that depends on transgenic fertility drugs, or the billions unknown who might live as a consequence of therapies not yet conceived, and which might never see the light of day, should you choose the easy way out and abdicate your responsible to educate, lead and decide. For the rest of the world, which is viewing this spectacle from the outside in with amusement, bemusement or, it is hoped, dismay and outrage, it is time to learn, to read, to think and to become involved.
This is one of those once-in-a-generation issues that involves far more in its intricate web than the mundane questions of agriculture, food and politics. It is, in a very real sense, a debate about whether we choose to live in ignorance while we are drowning in information, or whether we will wake up and realize that within our grasp are miracles as well as risks, and that a civilization blessed with the genius to conceive and realize such wonders has the capacity to properly regulate and manage those risks, and in doing so leave for its posterity a legacy far greater than that of war, conflict, genocide and death that have characterized the past hundred years.