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Monsanto sees seeds of food revolution in europe { March 19 2004 }

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Monsanto sees seeds of food revolution in Europe
By David Firn and John Mason
Published: March 19 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: March 19 2004 4:00

The food industry is showing increased interest in selling genetically-modified foods in spite of continued scepticism among European consumers, the head of a big USbiotechnology company insisted this week.

The new generation of GM products with clear consumer benefits - such as vegetable oils that help prevent heart disease - has provoked fresh interest among manufacturers, says Hugh Grant, chairman and chief executive of Monsanto. These included European food companies - demonstrating a shift in the industry's attitude.

"We are entering a new phase. Eight years ago a one hour chat would have consisted of them telling us all the mistakes we had made. Now they are asking about what is happening in Brazil [which may soon approve the planting of GM crops], and what are the next wave of products.

"We are getting unprompted calls from food manufacturers inquiring about oil technologies. That would not have happened before," Mr Grant said.

His comments, in a Financial Times interview, come as the European Union is slowly lifting its moratorium on the cultivation and import of GM crops. Next month will see GM products beginning to appear on supermarket shelves as the EU's labelling regime comes into force. European consumers would continue to accept GM products only slowly, Mr Grant acknowledged, but he sees the battle for consumer confidence entering a new phase as approvals of GM products and their appearance on shelves add "substance" to the debate.

Although winning consumers over will be slow, it will happen and without strong-arm lobbying by the food industry - notably supermarkets, which are widely seen as the "gatekeepers" for public acceptance, he says.

The EU labelling regime will mean retailers having to make decisions about stocking GM products such as icing sugar colourings. Mr Grant says customers will vote with their wallets, although the appearance of such products would not change the world overnight, he agreed. "It is modest, but modest is better than zero," he said.

The main immediate opportunity was the increased use of GM soya beans and corn as animal feed for the meat that Europeans eat. Consumer resistance to this had been minimal so far and was unlikely to alter.

However, it was the possibilities of second generation products that interested manufacturers, he insisted. Monsanto has altered soya beans and oilseed rape to include the genes from marine algae that help fish produce omega 3. This is the fatty acid that helps reduce heart disease and may boost brain performance.

Up to a quarter of the oil extracted from the seeds is omega 3 and, unlike fish oil, it has no taste. That means it can replace less-healthy fats in products such as yoghurt. Mr Grant thinks concern over obesity will encourage manufacturers and retailers to look at GM oils, while new laws requiring more information on the composition of fats may persuade the health-conscious that GM products are a good buy.

Mr Grant refused to identify which food companies had approached Monsanto, but his indication that some were European showed how times had changed, with Monsanto no longer so much on the defensive, he said. "When people call you because you have something that they want, you don't have to talk loudly or softly," he said. This year marks a turning point for Monsanto, which spent billions acquiring seed companies after spotting the commercial potential of GM crops in the 1980s. For the first time, traditional agrochemicals such as Roundup, its blockbuster herbicide, will make up less than half Monsanto's gross profit.

Mr Grant admits the company still needs to do more to live down the arrogant image his predecessor, Robert Shapiro, confessed to in 1999. But growth does not depend upon it.

The company's target of 10 per cent annual earnings growth excludes the prospects of rapid growth in Europe, Brazilian approval of GM soya and the gradual opening of the huge Chinese market.

Europe is now basing decisions more on science, he says. "There is a mature engagement from both sides around the table that was not there eight years ago - but it will take time."

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Monsanto sees seeds of food revolution in europe { March 19 2004 }
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