U.S. CONSUMERS DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS. IN AN ATTEMPT TO EDUCATE SHOPPERS â€” AND PREVENT PROTESTS LIKE THE ONES IN EUROPE AND JAPAN â€” THE WORLD'S LEADING BIOTECH COMPANIES HAVE IMPORTED SOME MARKETING STRATEGIES FROM ABROAD.
THE WORLD'S MAJOR AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE COMPANIES LAUNCHED AN UNPRECEDENTED COOPERATIVE PR CAMPAIGN LAST YEAR TO WIN OVER AMERICAN CONSUMERS.
You may not know it, but you've undoubtedly eaten some. In the past five years, bioengineered food has become an inescapable aspect of modern life. Approximately two-thirds of all processed food now on U.S. supermarket shelves has ingredients that have been genetically rearranged through biotechnology. This year, more than two-thirds of the American soybean crop and about one-quarter of the corn was grown from genetically altered seeds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet most Americans are unaware that this latest agricultural revolution has officially begun. Just 20 percent of U.S. consumers realize that they have already eaten genetically modified foods, according to a January 2001 survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. Less than 15 percent of us understand how common these foods are in the supermarkets.
In fact, agricultural biotechnology began to register in the American consciousness only last fall, when a type of biotech corn not yet approved for human consumption accidentally wound up in taco shells and other products. The mix-up made headlines, the food companies launched recalls, and biotech industry executives began to worry about consumer backlash. After all, a shoppers' revolt overseas had virtually shut down the Japanese and European markets for genetically modified foods. In response to protests, major British supermarket chains now refuse to stock such products, and the European Union requires labels on any food that includes even small amounts of bioengineered produce. Now, the agricultural biotech industry is rushing to halt this marketing meltdown before it reaches the U.S., where consumers spend more than $400 billion a year on groceries.
There are already signs that anti-biotech sentiment is spreading to the U.S. Anticipating consumer concern, Frito-Lay has asked its suppliers not to use genetically engineered corn and Gerber has pledged to keep its baby food biotech-free. And as a pre-emptive move, the world's major agricultural science companies launched an unprecedented cooperative PR campaign last year. Their goal: To win over the American consumer and prevent a repeat of the European reaction, where protest against genetically modified food was swift and powerful. (See timeline, page 52.) Public opinion across the continent now ranges from skeptical to hostile: According to a spring 2000 poll of 3,000 Europeans by marketing research firm Ipsos-Reid, consumers worry that the crops will mutate uncontrollably, make people sick or cause unforeseen environmental disasters, like inadvertently breeding a new race of super weeds.
Here in the U.S., consumers haven't made up their minds yet. In the Pew study, which polled 1,001 adult Americans as part of a new biotechnology education initiative, 65 percent of U.S. consumers said they supported research into genetically modified foods. But when asked whether they wanted these products on supermarket shelves, more than half (58 percent) said no, and 54 percent reported that they would not be likely to eat the foods. Other surveys found similar patterns: According to the Ipsos-Reid poll, which also surveyed 2,001 adult Americans and Canadians, respondents hope this technology will produce healthier foods (18 percent), enable farmers to use fewer pesticides (15 percent) and perhaps even help solve world hunger with more efficient crops (31 percent). But they also fear that these new foods may cause allergies or make them sick (28 percent), or that the crops may have unpredictable side effects (25 percent).
This absence of firm opinions is a crucial opportunity for the biotech companies to win the hearts and minds of consumers. To that end, the industry has taken a coordinated and proactive approach, adopting some marketing lessons from its European experience. Among the lessons:
CONSUMERS HAVE ONLY LIMITED CONFIDENCE IN SCIENCE.
Agricultural biotechnology was developed to accelerate the process of improving crops and livestock through selective breeding. Cotton, for example, was redesigned with a bacterial gene that allows the plant to produce its own pesticide, reducing the cost of spraying crops. Other plants have been modified to resist common diseases or to tolerate weed-killing herbicide sprays. Multinational titans like Novartis AG, Aventis S.A., Monsanto and DuPont have spent hundreds of millions on this research in the past two decades, mostly on modifying staples like soy, corn and cotton, making them easier and cheaper to plant and grow.
But few shoppers cheer on the farmer in his fight against the European corn borer. With no obvious consumer benefits, people are more likely to be wary of this new technology, says William Hallman, an associate professor at Rutgers University's Cook College, who studies perceptions of risk. â€œThe products released first were not poster children for biotechnology,â€? he says. â€œThe benefits accrued first to the companies, secondly to farmers and to consumers dead last â€” if at all.â€?
In Europe, the biotech industry misunderstood the depth of the public feeling about food and misjudged people's faith in science, Hallman says. Companies shrugged off consumer fears about allergic reactions or environmental catastrophes. Decades of research had proved this technology safe, they reasoned, so why should shoppers worry? What's more, the industry erred by trying to explain this technology with a science-first approach. â€œScientists and real people don't think the same way about issues,â€? he says. Most people want to understand the human decisions behind the science: Who has developed these products and why. If consumers believe that biotech initiatives may solve serious environmental or agricultural problems, says Hallman, then they are much more likely to support it.
Even industry representatives admit that assuming that the research spoke for itself was a big miscalculation. In a candid speech last winter, Monsanto's new CEO, Hendrik Verfaillie, acknowledged that his company â€œmissed the fact that this technology raises major issues for people, issues of ethics, of choice, of trust, even of democracy and globalization. â€¦ When we tried to explain the benefits, the science and the safety, we did not understand that our tone, our very approach, was seen as arrogant.â€?
Hallman's focus group research shows that few people in this country even remember their high school biology, and the public is not really interested in learning how genetic engineering works. Says Peter Cleary, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a food industry trade group: â€œThe early phase of biotechnology has been marked by a perhaps naÃ¯ve look at consumer acceptance. The assumption was made that since the science was so solid, consumers would automatically accept it.â€?
CONSUMERS SHOULD BE GIVEN INFORMATION â€” AND A
In Europe, public support for genetically modified foods began to collapse soon after the products were approved for import in 1996. At first, angry opponents grabbed headlines in France and Ireland by torching experimental cropland and seizing imported seeds. Within a few years, opposition had spread, according to the 1999 Eurobarometer survey organized by the European Commission's public opinion analysis unit. This poll, which surveys 16,000 people every three years on a range of issues, found that the percentage of Europeans who support pest-resistant crop research slumped from 58 percent in 1996 to 42 percent in 1999. In 1996, 50 percent thought that using biotechnology in food was â€œmorally acceptable.â€? By 1999, only 37 percent agreed.
In this country, however, the first time that many consumers even realized that these products were on the market was during last fall's taco shell recall. The recall started because food processors worried that consumers might develop allergies to the bioengineered corn, which had not been approved as human food but mistakenly wound up in everything from polenta to tortilla chips. Allergic reactions didn't become a widespread problem, but the scare had one major casualty: the public trust. The Pew survey found that by January, 57 percent of consumers said they'd heard either â€œsomeâ€? or a â€œgreat dealâ€? about the recall, and 73 percent said they were either â€œveryâ€? or â€œsomewhatâ€? concerned about it.
The fact that many consumers first learned about this technology as the result of a food scare was bad news for the industry, says Hank Jenkins-Smith, a Texas A&M political scientist who has just completed a major study of public opinion on genetically modified food. People tend to become angry and suspicious if they get the impression that companies are introducing controversial new technologies on the sly. â€œThe biggest hurdle in the way of support [for genetically modified foods] is the belief that this has been foisted on an unsuspecting public,â€? Jenkins-Smith says. â€œAmericans are more than willing to take risks â€” we ski, we drive on crazy roads and shake our fists at one another. But we believe that we make the choice. When the choice is taken out of our hands â€¦ [it] creates the potential for outraged reactions.â€?
It's the same challenge the chemical industry faced decades ago, says Caron Chess, director of the Rutgers University Center for Environmental Communication. A major corporation that profits from a complicated technology that few average Americans understand must be careful to avoid creating a public impression of secrecy. â€œIndustries dealing with technologies perceived as risky have to behave in ways more responsive to public opinion,â€? Chess says. â€œOtherwise they'll get hammered.â€?
WHEN INTRODUCING A RADICALLY NEW TECHNOLOGY, COMPETITORS
In an effort to outflank biotech critics and soothe consumer fears before they take hold, the industry's major companies, normally bitter rivals, launched a $50-million-a-year ad campaign in 2000. This new Council for Biotechnology Information combines print and TV ads with an online magazine and a student scholarship to put forward a warmer, friendlier message â€” that biotech creates safe, healthy products that are good for farmers and good for the earth.
It won't be an easy sell. Focus group research (like Hallman's) shows that consumers know little about modern agriculture and aren't particularly interested in learning more. Furthermore, even the most technologically astute Americans tend to get nervous when science is brought to the dinner table, says Texas A&M's Jenkins-Smith: â€œ[Food] is particularly rich ground for bringing forth negative and positive images when something is technically complicated, generates scientific uncertainty and evokes an immediate sense of threat.â€?
His team's polling research, conducted in association with researchers from the University of New Mexico, found four major attitude clusters among U.S. consumers. The team, which used a random telephone survey to dial 1,000 numbers, found that about 12 percent of Americans are committed opponents of bioengineered foods. Another quarter of the population are techno-friendlies who welcome agricultural biotech despite the risks. Most consumers belong to one of two central clusters â€” a highly conflicted group that recognizes both the potential risks and benefits, and an indifferent group that hasn't given either side much thought.
The two groups have very different profiles. The conflicted group has a higher proportion of women than the other three segments, and a moderate percentage of people with college degrees (36 percent). The undecided/indifferent group tends to be less educated and is split more evenly between men and women.
The Council for Biotechnology Information hopes to reach this confused majority through a multilevel public relations effort aimed at emphasizing the benefits that biotech offers to agriculture. Linda Thrane, the Council's executive director, says that one flank of the strategy is to reach out to primary food shoppers â€” most often women â€” with a positive message intended to resonate with people who are more attuned to community and family issues than to news. â€œTo get the consumer's attention,â€? Thrane says, â€œyou have to present it more in terms of what goes on your family's dinner plate. Is this safe? What is the point of this to me and my life?â€?
Last year, the campaign's first efforts tied agricultural science to the much more popular success of medical biotechnology. Thirty-second network TV spots alternated images of healthy people and farmers, as the voice-over explained: â€œDiscoveries in biotechnology, from medicine to agriculture, are helping doctors and farmers to treat our sick and protect our crops.â€?
This year, the campaign highlights one of the attributes of genetically modified science that polls best in surveys: its eco-friendly potential. Rather than dwell on the sober science, these ads place a greater emphasis on the warm and fuzzy. In one full-page print ad, a ruggedly handsome soybean farmer in a cap and worn suede jacket explains that biotech crops can help preserve the topsoil, and, by extension, his farm and family. Instead of talking about the science, the print and television ads direct the curious to call a toll-free number or visit the council's Web site (www.whybiotech.com) for facts about the genetically modified crops. Says Thrane: â€œThe core of this issue is to educate people about agriculture, and then to educate them about biotechnology. We've got our work cut out for us.â€? That's one of several marketing lessons the industry has adopted from overseas. Call it just another expensive European import.
Monsanto begins research into agricultural biotechnology.
Pesticide-producing genes are successfully introduced into plants.
Monsanto introduces herbicide-resistant soybeans, the first bioengineered major crop to be approved for marketing. About 1 million acres are planted in the U.S. Cotton and corn are next.
One of the first shipments of genetically engineered soybeans to Europe is blockaded by Greenpeace in Hamburg; 100,000 Germans sign petition to ban the seeds.
After much controversy, the European Union votes to approve imports of genetically modified crops.
The Gaelic Liberation Front destroys Monsanto's first sugar beet test plot in County Carlow, Ireland the day before harvest.
The number of new genetically modified crops in field tests worldwide tops 2,500.
More than 100 angry French farmers destroy France's first biotech corn crop.
More than half of the global soybean crop and nearly a third of the corn planted in 1998 is genetically modified, but 44 percent of Americans say they are â€œnot awareâ€? of genetically engineered foods.
Monsanto launches a European public relations campaign. Britain's Prince Charles lashes out at agricultural biotechnology.
In response to consumer pressure, Britain's largest grocery chain pledges to phase out biotech foods.
Gerber stops using biotech ingredients in its baby foods, even though then-parent company Novartis is a leader in genetic engineering research.
The top U.S. agricultural science companies, normally staunch competitors, form the Council for Biotechnology Information to launch a $50-million-a-year PR campaign.
StarLink, a type of bioengineered corn not cleared for human consumption, is found in U.S. taco shells and other corn foods, prompting a major recall. Dozens of people report allergic reactions, although Centers for Disease Control tests later find no connection.
After pulling back in 2000 in response to protests and consumer fears, U.S. farmers return to biotech. This year, genetically modified crops cover more than 82 million acres of U.S. farmland, up 18 percent from 2000. The government estimates 68 percent of all soybeans, 69 percent of cotton and 26 percent of corn in the U.S. is grown from genetically modified seed.