Public rejects genetically modified food

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MOST BRITONS reject genetically modified food, according to private research for Monsanto, the company promoting it worldwide.

The research, conducted by Stan Greenberg, opinion pollster to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, indicates that the US biotechnology giant faces a crisis over its image and with public acceptance of its products in the UK.

Monsanto's pounds 1m summer advertising campaign, aimed at converting what Mr Greenberg calls Britain's "elite networks", was "overwhelmed" by the collapse of public support, he writes in a devastatingly frank analysis, which has been leaked to Greenpeace. Monsanto confirmed last night that the document was genuine.

Mr Greenberg, one of the world's leading pollsters who helped President Clinton to victory in 1992 and has now formed a company with Tony Blair's media adviser, Philip Gould, pulls no punches in his private account of the company's PR predicament.

There is substantial opposition from the public, from the media, and not least, from retailers, he says. He quotes senior executives from leading supermarkets such as Waitrose, Tesco and Safeway expressing anger at the high-handed way in which, they say, Monsanto brought genetically modified (GM) food into Europe by mixing bioengineered soya products with normal ones, allowing consumers no choice.

"The latest survey shows an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and GM foods," he writes. "At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public opinion will stabilise, but we apparently have not reached that point. The latest survey shows a steady decline over the year, which may have accelerated in the most recent period."

He reveals that his research now shows an absolute majority of people in Britain rejecting foods with genetically modified ingredients. "The number saying that these products are 'unacceptable' has sky-rocketed: 35 per cent last year, rising to 44 per cent before the summer and to 51 per cent now," he writes.

The one hope Mr Greenberg holds out for Monsanto is with politicians and government scientists. "Fully half of the MPs [he surveyed] see benefits outweighing risks: 70 per cent of the MPs reacted positively to GM foods."

Last night the executive director of Greenpeace UK, Peter Melchett, said the document showed Monsanto was in crisis over its activities in Britain. "It shows us they're in a completely hopeless position in terms of acceptance by the general public, and on a knife edge as to whether the people in power are going to listen to them or listen to the public," Mr Melchett said. "It also shows that their advertising campaign was not designed to start a public debate, as they claimed, but designed to sway a small group of elite opinion formers."

Mr Greenberg was not available at his Washington office last night.

A spokesman for Monsanto said the document had been prepared for a company meeting. "There is nothing new or different from what we have been talking about all summer in it," he said. "No one would argue that there is a lot of concern and questions about biotechnology right now."

This year opposition to GM food has been more fiercely expressed than ever before in Britain, with the Prince of Wales, an organic farmer, making two outspoken attacks and declaring he would not serve it to his family or guests. English Nature, the Government's wildlife agency, called for a three-year moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically modified crops, saying that the deadlier weedkillers some can support are extremely harmful to wildlife.

The Government has indicated that it may prolong commercial trials by an extra year.