By Randall Osborne
BRUSSELS, Belgium — Relieved at having completed the second annual European Biotechnology Congress without a disruptive incident, the secretary general of the sponsoring group said he anticipates the day when Europe's growing industry overcomes political opposition and surges ahead in the world market.
"We expected [a terrorist act], absolutely," said Anthony Arke, secretary general of the European Association for Bioindustries, which sponsored the meeting, also known as EuropaBio '98.
The group received "several tips" that some kind of terroristic event would occur, Arke said. Tight but unobtrusive security at the conference included undercover police.
At last year's conference, Greenpeace dumped two tons of soy in front of the building where the event was held, as a protest against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in crop production. Arke said Greenpeace has "taken Europe as its action field, that's very clear."
This time, Arke said, he worried about a less peaceful demonstration. Animal liberation activists have been particularly aggressive in Belgium, going so far as to burn down buildings, he said. With 550 registrants, the congress doubled in size over last year.
The only hint of action against EuropaBio came in the U.S., in the form of a pie-throwing attack in San Francisco on Robert Shapiro, chairman and CEO of St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. He had been scheduled to speak at the Brussels conference but did not appear, Arke said.
The Biotic Baking Brigade, a Belgian activist group that previously has targeted Microsoft Corp. magnate Bill Gates, reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack on Shapiro, which was carried out with a tofu cream pie meant to represent Monsanto's genetically modified soybean crops.
Arke, asked whether the attack on Shapiro was intended to send a message to the EuropaBio conference, said, "I think so."
Activists have found a good climate in Europe for fomenting outrage against GMOs, about which consumers in the U.S. have not proven very concerned, Arke said.
"We have a very special food culture in Europe," he said. "It's a part of [people's] lives, enjoying their lives." The anti-biotechnology factions used the climate to its advantage by claiming to the public that agricultural scientists were "putting genes into your food," Arke said.
Now, the issue has become political and psychological, he added. "Politics is fueled by the most nonsensical arguments," Arke said. "We have a problem."
However, if the industry can explain its research in down-to-earth language, the public's skepticism can be quelled, Arke said. "Consumers are really not that interested, as long as the quality of the product is the same," he said. Research on labeling has proven as much, he added.
Europe's diversity has led to some conflict on the pharmaceutical side, but those are being ironed out, Arke said.
"We have 16 different cultures," he said. "You have to understand that a bar of chocolate, same brand, same bar, tastes different in Denmark than in Greece - and that's only taste. A Danish person will really react differently to certain situations than a Greek, for example. The differences between south and north are enormous."
Europe is struggling with "ethical issues, like cloning and transgenic animals — one country has accepted it, the other country has not," he said. "But health care [biotechnology] is not that much of a problem."
The first successful agricultural product with wide consumer appeal will end the confused political opposition, Arke predicted — and will open the biotechnology floodgates.
"Europe has the best scientists and the best universities in the world, and there is enough money here to develop biotechnology," he said. "The only [obstacle] is public acceptance."
If the industry can win the public's approval, Arke said, "then we have it all, and nobody else in the world can say that." *