Maybe people just weren't listening last spring when Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman sounded a stern warning about GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.
"We can't force-feed GMOs to reluctant consumers," he cautioned. "The public opinion poll is as important as the test tube. My confidence in biotechnology and the industry's confidence in biotechnology are ultimately irrelevant if the consumers aren't buying."
But the promises, not the problems, of biotech crops were on farmers' and the ag industry's minds at the time. Distant European rumblings about GMO crops seemed far away and likely to disappear. But between spring planting and fall harvest, Glickman's words proved prophetic. The U.S. ag industry, including farmers, is still learning just how relevant consumer attitudes can be.
Resistance to GMOs found favor in the European Union early, particularly in England. Still leery from the "mad cow disease" scare, the British were quick to condemn GMO crops as "unnecessary" and labeled food products made with GMO grain as "Frankenfoods." What seemed like an overreaction to new science quickly became a near consumer revolt.
While there's no scientific evidence to show that GMO food products can be harmful, the European resistance focuses on unknown possibilities rather than on scientific research.
Biotech crops took a hard hit in the U.S. when Cornell researchers released a study that indicated pollen from GMO corn kills monarch butterflies. The data has since been dismissed, but the damage, from a consumer attitude perspective, was done.
GMO crops didn't fare any better in Brazil, where Monsanto had been confident that Roundup Ready soybeans would be cleared for planting this fall. After initially receiving clearance, Roundup Ready soybeans fell victim to a Greenpeace lawsuit. Court actions closed the door on Roundup Ready soybeans for the 2000 crop.
In a continuing summer of GMO discontent, the biotechnology industry watched opposition grow into an international trade and marketing issue.
In Great Britain, some supermarkets now refuse to sell food products that include biotech ingredients, and activists attempted to destroy test plots containing GMO crops. Consumer activists in France have made it clear that the crops aren't welcome in that country, either.
Japan's largest maker of soybean protein food products, Fuji Oil Co. Ltd, has announced that the company will no longer use GMO soybeans as of April 2000. Also in Japan, Jusco Co. Ltd, a supermarket with 300 stores, decided to start labeling GMO food now, rather than wait until government regulations for labeling go into effect in 2001.
A larger blow was struck to GMO's image when both Gerber and Heinz decided to not use GMO products in their baby foods.
With growing opposition, U.S. grain handlers and processors started to take more restrictive actions with GMO grains. Early in the growing season, Archer Daniels Midland announced it would not accept GMO grains at its export terminals. But as fall harvest began, the company began to insist that suppliers segregate GMO and non-GMO crops. In some cases, grain companies offered price premiums for the latter.
At the same time large grain companies became more restrictive, Sparks Companies, Inc., a Memphis commodity research firm, released a study that showed the majority of elevators were not asking farmers to identify their grain as GMO or non-GMO.
"We're trying to figure out the state of the industry, and it's a moving target," says the National Corn Growers Association's Gary Bradley. "One study says elevators are basically ignoring the issue, and large grain companies are issuing contracts that dump all the liability on the farmer. We're trying to find a balance in the industry."