WASHINGTON - Analysts at Deutsche Bank in Germany came up
with some grim
conclusions this summer about the financial prospects for
crops, saying companies such as Monsanto were losing battle
A few years ago, the German report never would have traveled
rarefied air of global investors. But that was before the
World Wide Web.
This month, a consultant in Idaho arranged for the bank
analysis to be posted on
the Web, and in three days, thousands of people had
downloaded the 25-page
report and further disseminated it around the globe.
Critics, farmers and people
still making up their minds about the new technology had a
new piece of
The Internet is enabling mobilization like never before and,
in the process, giving
biotechnology companies fits.
In recent months, St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and its
rivals in the new science
of genetically engineering food have watched in dismay as
pockets of protest
have mushroomed. Europe and Japan are demanding the labeling
foods. A trade war is brewing between the United States and
farmers are wondering whether to continue sowing tens of
millions of acres with
What is behind the recent developments? More people,
especially Europeans, are
raising questions about environmental safety, potential
health effects and the
power of the companies to determine the nature of food.
But perhaps no single factor looms larger in biotechnology's
tumble than the role
of the Internet. The Web has given critics and skeptics the
arena to post studies,
opinions and vitriol for the world to consume. E-mail and
listserves -- electronic
mailing lists -- enable activists to work with one another
and to exchange scraps
of information instantly. All the activity leaves the
impression, real or imagined,
of a vibrant global movement.
The "life science" companies and biotechnology devotees use
the Internet, too,
and in time they hope that it will play a key role in
convincing the world that
biotechnology can yield food that is not only safe, but better.
But as it stands, one powerful new technology may be
functioning to stem the
growth of another powerful new technology.
The Idaho consultant who distributed the German report,
contends that people who had misgivings in the past about
farm and food policies
had no means to link up and reinforce their beliefs. The
Internet has changed all
"Activists can transfer fresh and important information
around the world with
speed and ease," Benbrook said. "And that's something we've
Until last year, the most public responses received by the
Agriculture on a new rule was 7,000. Then Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman
asked Americans to tell him what they thought of a new
organic foods policy that
would let food that was genetically engineered, irradiated
or fertilized with sludge
carry the government's new "organic" label.
More than 250,000 people responded, mostly by e-mail, and
the vast majority
said it was a terrible idea. Under the nearly completed
engineered food in the United States won't be labeled as
The Internet is becoming an important factor in politics and
public policy debates
on a host of issues. Until recently, interest groups usually
associations with national memberships and slick magazines.
Now, with the
Internet, people can mobilize and pressure governments with
the push of a
"It changes the presumptions of representative democracy,"
said Phil Noble, a
political consultant and founder of PoliticsOnline. "I think
the Internet is going to
do for public policy what the telephone did for lobbying."
People can be mobilized, too, in ways that don't give a true
picture of public
"In literally a matter of hours, I can create an interest
group of tens of thousands
on whatever my issue is right now, and mobilize them to send
mail, e-mail or
even rotten eggs," Noble said.
Political scientist Michael Cornfield of George Washington
"cyberlobbying" soon will dominate grass-roots organizing
because of its speed
and low cost.
"It won't level the playing field between those who don't
buy access and those
who do, but it will make it easier for people to be involved
lobbying," he said.
Anti-genetic engineering forces seem to be finding it easy
A PR headache
With a staff of five in the United States and Canada, the
Foundation International has about 30,000 fewer employees
Yet RAFI's "Terminator" campaign has created a monumental
headache for Monsanto and triggered anti-biotechnology
sentiments around the
The Terminator is the RAFI-coined name for a genetic
technology that renders
seeds sterile so they can't be saved for the next crop. That
way, farmers must buy
more modified seeds and pay the additional "technology fee."
invention was patented last year by the U.S. government and
a Mississippi seed
company that Monsanto is acquiring.
Using the Internet, RAFI has persuaded some of the world's
researchers and even the biotechnology-friendly Rockefeller
condemn the Terminator on the grounds that it is unfair to
and might even be harmful if farmers planted them unknowingly.
RAFI's Hope Shand said that the Internet has dramatically
organization's power to reach people. In a recent 16-month
period, she said, RAFI
had 1.3 million "hits" on its Web site, from which visitors
"The Terminator campaign would never have been possible
without the spread of
information on the Internet," she said.
Another Internet campaign torpedoed an effort by Monsanto in
year, Monsanto agreed to give $150,000 to the Grameen Bank,
which is known
internationally for giving loans to poor farmers. But after
the bank received a
barrage of e-mail critical of Monsanto, the arrangement was
Dozens of groups - from the Union of Concerned Scientists to
proponents such as Greenpeace - use the Internet to work
Friends of the Earth and some of the biggest environmental
advocacy groups wage
online global campaigns. An Internet drive to force
mandatory labeling of modified
food is being waged out of Washington state.
Crop saboteurs, such as genetiX snowball in Britain, hook up
with the Direct
Action Media Network and organizations that take a militant
Then there's Mutanto, a Web site that parodies Monsanto's.
Monsanto's slogan of "Food, Health and Hope," Mutanto offers
"Fraud, Stealth and
The critics of genetic food are simply exploiting their
Internet advantage, said
Michael Hanson of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer
other side has just as much access, but they're just not as
good at it."
The "other side" thinks that the anti-biotechnology
campaigners succeed on the
Internet through distortion: distorting the facts about
safety and creating the
false impression that consumers, not just activists, worry
about modified food.
A relatively few activists have been able to create a sense
of movement that
didn't exist before the Internet, biotechnology companies
say. As a result, news
outlets and others believe there's more out there than there
really is, even
though some of the anti-biotechnology sites get very few
"It's a dual-edged sword," Monsanto's Jay Byrne said. "On
one hand, the Internet
allows people with opinions or even spurious facts to share
broadly. But at the same time, it allows the public access
to scientific and
academic information that so far has been generally
supportive of the technology.
The challenge lies in discerning between the two."
Monsanto uses the Web aggressively and has won awards for
it, including one
this month from an agribusiness magazine for its French Web
page. The company
tailors individual sites around the world to combat
anti-genetic food sentiments.
In the United Kingdom, Monsanto's Web site went so far as to
offer a link to
Greenpeace and post critical press accounts of itself to
Monsanto uses its British site to sponsor a public dialogue
on the outbreak of
European incidents of crop destruction by protesters.
By the same token, detractors accuse Monsanto of
exaggerating in cyberspace
biotechnology's potential to feed hungry people.
Despite the Internet's power and potential, both sides in
debate concede that it will come down eventually to people
sorting through issues
themselves just like they've always done.
Benbrook, the Idaho consultant, said, "If the public doesn't
believe what is said,
the fanciest Web sites and the biggest public relations
campaigns in the world
won't amount to much."
Organic Farming Research Foundation
Mark Lipson, Policy Program Director
ph: 831-426-4006 or -6606; fax: 831-426-6670
PO Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95061
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