GM bosses want to pull out of UK

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The Independent Online
TOP EXECUTIVES of Monsanto, the world's leading biotechnology firm, are pressing the board to pull out of genetically modified crop trials in Britain, because public hostility is damaging its business.

Senior company sources have told the Independent on Sunday that a powerful group within management is arguing that the trial plantings should cease entirely. Although the Monsanto chairman, Bob Shapiro, is insisting that the trials must continue, the company has already drastically scaled back its planting in Britain. Senior managers are deeply frustrated by the success of anti-GM campaigners in disrupting them.

The Independent on Sunday has also learned that the Clinton administration is so concerned at Monsanto's troubles in Britain that it is putting heavy pressure on ministers to allow a new GM maize, developed by the company, into British shops and supermarkets.

The US multinational's withdrawal would be a devastating blow, both to the GM industry and to Tony Blair who has made support for biotechnology an integral part of the New Labour "project" for Britain.

The Prime Minister is facing a revolt within his own party - expected to surface at this month's Labour party conference - over the pro-GM stance on which he has staked much of his authority. Shortly afterwards, Mr Shapiro will fly to Britain to plead his case at a Greenpeace conference.

Investors have been deserting Monsanto and other biotechnology companies as opposition to their GM products has grown; Monsanto shares have fallen by more than 10 per cent over the past six months. Deutsche Bank, Europe's largest, predicts that GM organisms will become a "pariah" for shareholders and a "liability" to farmers and warns of "an earnings nightmare" for Monsanto.

Statistics collected by Friends of the Earth from government documents show that Monsanto has cut its trials by three-quarters over the past 12 months. This year it has only about 30 sites around the country, compared with 110 in 1998.

Pete Riley, the pressure group's GM campaigner, said: "Monsanto are drastically scaling down their operations in the face of overwhelming public opposition to their activities in the UK. It is time they packed up and went home altogether."

Monsanto officially denies that there have been discussions about ending the UK trials and says that the reduction is not evidence of an impending withdrawal. A spokeswoman at its headquarters in Missouri said: "There have been no such discussions. We think it's important that people get the information that comes out of these trials."

But senior sources in the UK privately admit that top mangement is indeed advocating a withdrawal. Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, says that this would be a disaster for the company. "If they cannot make it in England, where they have the most sympathetic government in Europe, it is hard to see how they could make it anywhere," he said.