LONDON -- Opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in food production has risen steeply in the U.K., despite a £1 million (US$1.6 million) "hearts and minds" campaign by Monsanto Corp., of St. Louis, which ran in the press this summer. The percentage of people who find GMO foodstuffs unacceptable has risen from 38 percent in October 1997 to 51 percent in September 1998, according to a survey carried out for the company by U.S.-based Greenberg Research, results of which have been leaked to the environmental group Greenpeace. One-third of the public is now extremely negative toward GMO foods, up from 20 percent in October 1997.

According to the survey, Monsanto faces its toughest European test in Britain, where the broad climate is extremely inhospitable. "Over the past year, the situation has deteriorated steadily and perhaps at an accelerating pace," the Greenberg report says. "The latest polling confirms a further weakening [of support for GMO foods] with the public and the press."

The report adds, "At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking will stabilize, but we apparently have not reached that point."

The opposition has implications for biotechnology as a whole, with the public expressing negative feelings for all the terms associated with the issue. In October 1997, 36 percent expressed negative views of the term "genetic modification." By May 1998, 44 percent were negative, and by September this had risen to 50 percent. A similar pattern is evident for the terms "genetic engineering" and "biotechnology."

Public 'Not Recovered' From Beef Crisis

The report points to a number of reasons for the lack of acceptance and says that the problem of mad cow disease is widely influencing public perceptions. "The British beef crisis produced a crisis of confidence in the food chain, in scientists, the government and British and European regulatory authorities," the report says. "More than a year after the beef crisis, the British public clearly has not recovered its faith in the system for ensuring safe foods."

But the report adds that Monsanto has badly mismanaged the introduction of GMO foods. This has generated widespread resentment among retailers, who believe Monsanto has handed off to them the task of winning public acceptance. "As a result, they [retailers] are right on the edge -- testing public acceptance, but now very open to a moratorium that would get them off the front lines," says the report.

Responses from six of the U.K.'s leading food retailers -- Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, CWS, Asda and Safeway -- included comments such as:

* "We're relatively angry at the way that things have been introduced and foisted upon us, without proper preconditioning of the consumer to their arrival."

* "Well, effectively, we have not been given a choice as to whether we have genetically modified products on our shelves or not."

* "They have done it in a terribly bad way -- introducing genetic engineering with commodity crops -- because, for the public, that is a public-relations disaster. They have been told, 'Here it is, lump it. There is nothing you can do about it, you don't have a choice.'"

The one bright spot is that the report finds growing support for GMO foods among members of parliament, civil servants and the "socio-economic elite." It says that within these groups, Monsanto "has regained some of its reputation in Britain and is getting some credit for its efforts with the retailers." *