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The group's genetically modified crops were welcomed in the US. It was unprepared for the reaction in Europe, says Michael Skapinker

When Monsanto brought its genetically modified food to Europe, Greenpeace was waiting. How did the US company respond? "We sent over our American scientists and lawyers," Kate Fish, Monsanto's vice-president for public policy, says witheringly.

In a speech to a conference on corporate citizenship in New York last month, Ms Fish mercilessly dissected her company's failure in the 1990s to deal with European fears about genetically modified foods. Monsanto's executives had become so caught up in the work done in their laboratories that they barely knew how to talk to non-scientists.

"For a company that believes in science, it's very difficult. When the Prince of Wales started talking about interfering with the realms of God, we weren't equipped to deal with that," she told the conference.

Ms Fish was no stranger to environmentalism. In 1989 she founded EarthWays, an environmental group. Her first contact with Monsanto came soon afterwards, when it approached her about supporting Earth Day, which she was organising in St Louis, Missouri, the company's home town.

Monsanto's work on genetically modified foods - which, the company said, would lower pesticide use, increase crop yields and promote more efficient land use - appeared perfectly aligned with her belief in sustainable development.

She joined Monsanto's external advisory council in 1990 and when the company offered her a job in 1996, it seemed the perfect way to pursue her ideals. "I had a sense of being employed doing something I wanted to do that could have some effect in the world," she says.

Monsanto's promotion of genetically modified food enjoyed great success in the US. The products won regulatory approval and the amount of land under cultivation for such crops expanded rapidly. Taking the products to Europe seemed the natural next step. It did not occur to Ms Fish and her colleagues that European environmentalists would be anything other than enthusiastic. "When I was an environmentalist and first started looking at these products, I thought this was exciting stuff. When you spend time in the labs, you get comfortable with it. It doesn't seem so scary," she says.

Some Monsanto staff in Europe warned that genetically modified foods might not enjoy the easy ride they had had in the US. They were ignored. "We heard the signals coming from Europe. Our people in Europe were saying: 'There are some issues here.' But they weren't loud enough. They were perceived as fringe signals. Until it starts to hurt, they're very hard to hear."

The introduction of genetically modified foods into Europe was a fiasco. The environmental movement's campaign against them won huge public support. Supermarkets promised to banish such foods from their shelves. Crop trials were sabotaged. European governments imposed a moratorium on approval of genetically modified crops, which has been in force for more than three years.

This has given Ms Fish and Monsanto - which is now a subsidiary of Pharmacia, the pharmaceuticals group - plenty of time to consider the lessons. The first lesson is that what works in the US does not necessarily work anywhere else.

Americans, Ms Fish says, trust their regulators. Europeans do not - for good reason. Monsanto was attempting to introduce its products following the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis, where government assurances that beef was safe had turned out to be false.

Monsanto also appeared to be imposing genetically modified foods on Europe without consultation. "You don't alter people's food without asking them first. It was as if their babies were being attacked," Ms Fish says. "There was a sense of outrage because it didn't appear that people had a choice. I think the whole industry didn't spend the time dealing with the consumer issues, talking about the technology. When consumers first heard about it, it was from Greenpeace, it wasn't from the industry."

Is there any chance that, if Monsanto had spent more time listening and consulting, European consumers would have been willing to give genetically modified foods a try? "It's so hard to say," Ms Fish says. "Certainly, we could have done it differently."

Monsanto realises that winning Europe round will take years. In 2000, Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto's chief executive, announced a "pledge" not to use genes from humans or animals in products intended for food or animal feed. Monsanto said it would never sell a product into which a known allergen had been introduced. Addressing an issue that has caused particular concern, it also promised "not to pursue technologies that result in sterile seeds".

Ms Fish now spends much of her time in Brussels. Mr Verfaillie believes the way forward is for Monsanto to attempt to find common ground with its critics rather than confront them. It has been holding meetings with European environmental groups. "I can't give you names but we went to our most outspoken critics," he says.

Did he find these campaigners reasonable? "It was absolutely amazing. We obviously had significant disagreements on certain points but they were very willing to engage. We may not agree with everything they say but they have a point of view that reflects at least a part of society. It's very difficult to get the most extreme critics to agree to anything but the middle-of-the-road organisations have as their objective improving the environment."

Mr Verfaillie and Ms Fish are trying to convince those organisations that they and Monsanto have a common interest. Using genetically modified crops to reduce pesticide use is a line Monsanto continues to pursue. In Brazil, Mr Verfaillie says, planting of such crops has reduced leakage of pesticides into rivers. Increasing crop yields around the world would mean fewer forests and wetlands being taken over by agricultural production.

Monsanto is also talking to European farmers. "How do we build and align what we're offering with the needs of European agriculture?" Ms Fish asks. "Agriculture in the UK is very efficient but farmers' income is low. The UK's got one of the highest uses of pesticide in Europe, much higher than the US. Only the Netherlands' is higher."

Mr Verfaillie sees signs that European public opinion is starting to turn. "We do market research. We're still not where we need to be. But we see consumers in the UK and [the Netherlands] have gone from 20 per cent saying they would consume [GM] products to over 50 per cent," he says.

The European Commission last year warned that the moratorium on approving new varieties of genetically modified crops were damaging the European Union's attempt to become the world's most dynamic economy. "Europe cannot afford to miss the opportunity that these new sciences and technologies offer," the Commission said. "Biotechnology research efforts could and should be used to develop new GM varieties to improve yields and enable cultivation by small-scale and poor farmers." It added that Europe risked losing more scientists to the US.

European ministers were unmoved, insisting last year that the moratorium could not be lifted until new rules on labelling and tracing genetically modified ingredients were in place. This could take another three years. Greenpeace's website continues to insist: "Genetic scientists are altering life itself - artificially modifying genes to produce plants and animals which could never have evolved naturally." It warns that such ingredients are still "sneaking into the food chain through animal feed".

Monsanto has admitted its mistakes in failing to take these fears seriously. It is likely to be living with them for a long time.: