Air Date: Week of July 17, 1998
This summer, biotechnology giant Monsanto has launched a $5 million dollar European ad campaign to promote genetic engineering for crops; a technology that's widespread in the U.S. but has been mostly kept out of the marketplace of western Europe. The ads, running in French and British newspapers, stress benefits such as higher yields, fewer pesticides, safety and quality control. Commentator John Carroll says the ad campaign could make Europeans grow even warier. John Carroll is a reporter and media critic for WGBH-TV in Boston.
CURWOOD: This summer, biotechnology giant Monsanto has launched a $5 million European ad campaign to promote genetic engineering for crops, a technology that's widespread in the United States but has mostly been kept out of the marketplace of western Europe. The ads, running in French and British newspapers, stress benefits such as higher yields, fewer pesticides, safety, and quality control. Commentator John Carroll says the ad campaign could make Europeans grow even warier.
CARROLL: To the average American, Europeans seem a bit well, eccentric about what they eat. The British, for example, don't freshness-date their food, they carbon-date it. The French, on the other hand, refuse to eat anything that hasn't been harvested or eviscerated within the past 24 hours. As for the rest of the European Community, they can't even agree on the definition of cheese. So it's really no surprise that Monsanto has had trouble promoting genetic food products in the European market. Monsanto wants to sell biotechnology-enhanced seeds to farmers and get European consumers to eat their genetically-engineered soybeans and such. But the general populace, mindful of the British beef scare of several years ago, apparently fears an outbreak of mad corn disease.
That's driven Monsanto to adopt the weapon of last resort with an uncooperative public: advertising. Monsanto's European newspaper ads are decidedly more low-key than what Americans are accustomed to seeing. One French ad takes the form of a quiz, offering multiple-choice answers to the question: What is genetic engineering of crops? The answers, loosely translated, are: the production of blue oranges, the study of plants that dance to techno-music, or and this is the correct one, the science that improves vegetables by giving them new properties. Not exactly final Jeopardy, but certainly tougher than asking the French why they prefer gum surgery to American tourists.
The British campaign, not surprisingly, is less playful. The kickoff ad says, "Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions. Monsanto believes you should hear all of them." The text of the ad promises that the company will publish ways to contact Monsanto's most vocal critics. And another ad does include phone numbers and web sites of biotechnopponents, only one of which actually opposes genetic crop engineering. But that one, Friends of the Earth, is a doozie, offering briefings such as "Genetically Engineered Oilseed Rape," and "Public to be Force-Fed Frankenstein Food Propaganda." With enemies like that, who needs the French? Then again, the whole point of the campaign is to seem balanced while loading the dice in Monsanto's favor. Odds are the company doesn't expect many people to go to the trouble of checking out the critics of biotech crops. We're just not genetically engineered that way.
CURWOOD: John Carroll is a reporter and media critic for WGBH-TV in Boston.
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