Two steps forward and three steps back. At times, that seems to describe the progress that the U.S. is making in winning Europeans' acceptance of genetically modified crops.
With genetically modified crops growing on nearly 40% of this year's cotton acreage, over one-third of all soybean acreage and about 20% of the corn acreage, it's no wonder that government agencies, commodity organizations and chemical companies are waging a diligent campaign for full acceptance of transgenic crops abroad.
"The more information we can give people about biotechnology, the more familiar they become with it and the less resistance there is," says Jim Hershey, the American Soybean Association's (ASA) director for Europe, CIS, the Middle East and Africa.
After Roundup Ready soybeans got European Union approval, ASA launched an educational campaign at food and feed manufacturers and processors in Germany.
The crux of the program was to give positive, accurate information to leery consumers to alleviate their concerns, explains Hershey.
"Most people in the government and the industry will tell you now there's movement - albeit slow - toward the acceptance of biotechnology in Germany," he says.
While progress is being made, misinformation about biotechnology still abounds. For example, a June 1998 Greenpeace news release stated: "Plants engineered for herbicide tolerance, such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops, could spread their genes to weedy relatives, creating uncontrollable super weeds. Crops that produce their own insecticides can similarly lead to super bugs whose tolerance demands massive use of toxic pesticides."
A recent survey of 950 Britons by Market & Opinion Research International, a London polling firm, found that 58% oppose the introduction of genetically modified food, up from 51% in a 1996 survey.
ASA, in cooperation with USDA and the Foreign Agricultural Service, has turned its attention to quelling the concerns about transgenic crops in Great Britain.
"We take hope in the example of Germany," says Hershey. "If you keep funneling information into the market, hopefully the curve will start to shift. We have science and truth on our side."
Monsanto is spending about $5 million this summer on ads in British and French newspapers to promote dialogue and the benefits of transgenic crops, reports the Wall Street Journal. The ads tout such potential benefits as higher-yielding crops to feed the world's swelling population and naturally colored cotton to eliminate harmful dyes.
The European Commission (EC) recently passed a law requiring that all food products be labeled if they may contain transgenic crops.
"It's unfortunate and, in our opinion, it's not right. But they've done it and we have to live with it," says Hershey.
As most transgenic and traditional crops are not segregated at the farm, not all food products with soy- or corn-based ingredients contain transgenic plant material. Regardless, they must be labeled, explains Karen Marshall, Monsanto's director of public relations.
Questions remain as to how the EC-mandated label is going to be worded.
"The really important thing is that the labels are not misleading and that they don't insinuate that one type of product - genetically modified vs. non-modified - is better than the other," stresses Marshall.
In the Netherlands, labeling has been required on a countrywide level for over a year on all products containing ingredients with Roundup Ready soybeans.
"Our market research shows that the labels have no effect on sales," she says.