BIOTECH PR INITIATIVE REAPS POOR HARVEST
A growing public backlash against genetically modified food and 450 anti-biotech farmers from India on the way to Europe to protest was the nightmare scenario that made the industry lobby group EuropaBio and PR company Burson-Marsteller decide to hastily organise a speakers tour of 10 Indian pro-biotech farmers in May this year. The Indian pro-biotech farmers travelled through five countries launching fierce attacks against environmentalists and progressive farmers movements. The tour, however, attracted very limited media attention.
fter years of smooth sailing, the biotech industry has recently suffered one blow after the other, particularly in Europe. Distrust of genetically engineered food is growing rapidly among Europeans, and public outrage expresses itself in the
uprooting of test fields and other direct actions. Industry attempts to counter this adverse tide with expensive PR campaigns have so far failed. The political climate is slowly starting to reflect public opinion on biotechnology, with many EU governments toughening their approach to the approval of genetically modified seeds and food products.
The backlash against genetically manipulated agriculture and food is by no means limited to Europe. India is the scene of major popular opposition to genetic engineering, particularly against the attempts of Monsanto and other biotech giants to enter the country promoting genetically modified seeds. Indian small farmers perceive this invasion as a threat to their survival. Knowing that Monsanto and other Western seed companies strive to monopolise the seed market and force farmers to buy genetically modified seeds each year, Indian farmers defend the practice of saving seeds for the next crop. Not long ago, the European press reported about the actions of farmers organisations burning Monsanto's genetically modified cotton plants as part of their 'Cremate Monsanto' campaign.
Against this backdrop, the biotech industry was not amused when it learned that several hundred radical Indian farmer activists were planning to tour Europe in May/June 1999. The Indian farmers, many of them from the anti-biotech farmers' union Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS), were to travel around Europe as part of the Inter-Continental Caravan for Solidarity and Resistance, also called ICC-99 (see below). The ICC-99 brought 450 representatives of Southern people's movements to Brussels, Cologne, London, Amsterdam and many other cities to protest against biotech agriculture and the unjust global economic model constructed by Northern corporations and governments, for instance through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
In an attempt to limit the impact of the ICC-99 tour, the European biotech industry hastily organised a counter-tour, with ten pro- biotech Indian farmers and agricultural experts visiting five European countries. The main speakers during the tour were Sharad Joshi and Manvendra Kachole, both leading figures in the Indian farmers' union Shetkari Sanghatna and the umbrella organisation Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC).
This speakers tour was coordinated by EuropaBio, the main lobby group of the biotech industry in Europe, and co-organised by a number of major 'life science' corporations- including Novartis and Monsanto. To assist with the promotion of the tour, the infamous PR company, Burson-Marsteller, was called in. Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest PR agency with 60 offices in 32 countries, specialises in what it calls 'perception management'.  The agency has in the last year been responsible for developing the PR strategy of the European biotech industry, aimed at allaying public fears about biotechnologies and at manipulating political sympathies in Brussels. 
The French part of the tour was hosted by Novartis, a company with major interests in genetically modified seeds, such as the controversial Bt cotton and Bt maize. The Swiss part of the tour was organised by Jäggi Burson-Marsteller, the Swiss subsidiary of the PR giant.  It is very probable that the whole idea for the tour and plan was developed by Burson-Marsteller themselves.
The main mission of the tour was to counter the image that Indian farmers oppose biotech agriculture. Dr. Manvendra Kachole, one of spokesmen of the tour, told the press, "in order to feed our rapidly growing population (soon 1 billion people), we will have to increase our yields, while reducing the use of fertilisers and pesticides, and this is only possible with modern biotechnology." 
"Anti-technology propaganda," was Kachole's response to a recent Christian Aid report which concluded that biotechnology endangers global food security and the environment.  "India today cannot afford to listen to pseudo-scientific rhetoric from NGO activists who think that they know what is good for Indian farmers," Kachole continued. The Christian Aid report points to the fact that there is no lack of food in the world, but that unequal distribution and poverty is the reason why 800 million people worldwide are living in hunger. United Nations estimates that the food produced in the world today could feed 11/2 times the current population if these fundamental problems were addressed. 
The speakers tour attracted very limited media coverage -- far less than the anti-biotech Intercontinental Caravan (ICC-99). French journalist Catherine Coroller from the daily Liberation comments that, "this pro-GMO (genetically modified organism) tour in France has had absolutely no impact among the public or the media."  The biotech industry seems somewhat intimidated by the negative press of the last years. In France, press conferences were avoided and instead hand-picked journalists were invited to meet the Indians. As Catherine Coroller explains, "Christian Morin (communications manager of Novartis, ed.) called me some day and asked if I wanted to interview some pro-GMO Indian farmers. I said yes of course but I asked him why he did not organise a press conference, it's always interesting to hear the questions of the other journalists, but he said that they preferred every journalist to meet the Indians alone."  Arnaud Apotheker of Greenpeace France commented, "I think it was not a big success for Novartis, as there was very little in the press about it. It was only mentioned a few times and one of the articles criticised Novartis reacting to four hundred angry Indian farmers coming to Europe by bringing only a few farmers to give the other side of the story."  The media impact in Switzerland was also minimal. As Ursula Eggenberger of Jäggi Burson-Marsteller wrote about the Swiss part of the tour, "regarding the media, we have had the same situation as in Germany: no interest in the subject respectively, organisation at too short notice." 
In Bern, Switzerland, the tour turned out counterproductive for its organisers when it was welcomed by Greenpeace activists, who denounced the tour as a "PR event... for a technology that has been proven to threaten biological diversity and... leading farmers into dependency on large corporations."  The NGOs attacked "the tactics of EuropaBio... using so-called Indian "farmers" to confuse the public and discredit the upcoming Intercontinental Caravan from India." 
The Greenpeace critique of the character of the Indian delegation was not unfounded. A EuropaBio press release describes Shetkari Sanghatna (SS) as "the mainstream farmers' movement in India,"  and claims that the "umbrella organisation," Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC), which Shetkari Sanghatna is part of, "represents several million farmers' from 14 Indian states."  Kavaljit Singh of the Delhi-based Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) presents a very different reality. The membership of Shetkari Sanghatna, he explains, has dropped from around 80,000 in the 1980s to an estimated 5,000 today- very little for a country with almost 1 billion inhabitants. 
SS is largely confined to the state of Maharashtra and represents medium and large-scale farmers, many producing sugar cane and other cash crops- large landowners rather than subsistence farmers. Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC), Singh explains, is "a very small group," a "paper tiger" coalition of small organisations which was established by SS leader Joshi when his organisation started losing support in Maharashtra. Moreover, both organisations politically are by no means representative of the average Indian farmer. Joshi and the organisations he has set up are not only pro-biotech agriculture but also generally opposed to any controls on the economy.
Joshi is also the leader of a grouping called Farmers for Freedom,  which is "fighting for freeing the economy of all state interventions." Mr. Kachole is the international contact person for this ultra free market organisation, with claims the roots of poverty are "distortions in economic progress... due to malicious interference with the process of capital accumulation... If the governments of the Third World countries would give up their efforts to intensify and perpetuate poverty," the Farmer for Freedom internet website proclaims, "the poverty would disappear on its own."  Joshi is also the founder of the Swatantra Bharat Party, a political party "devoted to...minimal government," of which Kachole is the current president.  The marginal position of these groups and their ideology was revealed when Joshi ran for the Indian parliament in the mid-90s and received only a few hundred votes.
EuropaBio was clearly charmed by Joshi's very aggressive line against those opposing the interests of the biotech companies, whether they are farmers or environmental groups. "The anti- liberalisation groups of NGOs and militant farmer groups," Joshi writes in a booklet distributed by EuropaBio, "have demonstrated a sizeable capacity for misinforming and misleading of the farmers and the general public against the benefits of liberalisation in agriculture."  The radical farmer's movement in India is labelled as "a semi-luddite quasi-socialist formation that has no cohesive basis and is limited to certain castes in the state of Karnataka..."  This is an attack on the Karnataka-based radical farmers' union, KRRS, which has built-up its reputation through mass actions against the WTO and TNCs like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Cargill and Monsanto. About ecologists, Joshi writes that his group "always keeps a distance from the environment lobbies as it feels that they do not understand the ground realities of agriculture." 
On the promotion of genetically modified seeds by Western biotech corporations, Joshi states that, "if the farmers can have immediate access to frontier technologies on payment for a period of twenty years and free of cost after that, we ought to be grateful to the developed world for that."  Joshi continues to downplay the well- documented risks connected with biotechnology, claiming that "any progress creates environment and health hazards. There is no human intervention which does not have risk. Luddites will always oppose it." 
Despite the very limited media impact, Mrs. Eggenberger of Jäggi Burson-Marsteller evaluated the pro-biotech tour as successful and wrote a proposal for follow-up. She envisions the "launch of an international network for the exchange of biotechnology information, including links on the internet to farmers organisations, GMO producers, seed companies, etc., as well as a directory of experts in the different fields, which should be available to the press."  She also daydreams of a "global meeting in Spain or a developing country with farmer organisations, scientists, consumers, seed companies etc." Wishful thinking, or more likely an attempt to keep up the spirit among her corporate clients who cannot have been very satisfied with the results of the tour. The biotech industry tried out a new trick in its attempt to counter the rising anti-biotech tide, but the attempt failed as it didn't wash with the European media.
INTERCONTINENTAL CARAVAN COMES TO EUROPE
A month after the EuropaBio tour, some 450 peasants, fisherpeople, landless farmers and other representatives of peoples' movements arrived from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Brazil, Mexico and other countries. Visiting ten countries, the participants in the Intercontinental Caravan (ICC-99) confronted the corporations and economic and political institutions they hold responsible for the current socially and ecologically destructive economic world order. 
Throughout the tour, non-violent actions took place, such as those against the genetic research centres working for Bayer in Cologne, Germany and Monsanto in Leuven, Belgium. The action in Leuven was co-organised by the European farmers' union Coordination Paysanne Europ‚enne and targeted "the control by Monsanto of necessary resources for agriculture production such as seeds, and the introduction of genetically modified seeds and genetically modified agriculture products into the market of countries, without their agreement." 
1. EuropaBio is made up of some 600 companies, ranging from the largest bioindustry companies in Europe (including the European offices of US companies such as Monsanto) to national biotech federations representing small and medium-sized enterprises. Member companies include all of the major European multinationals interested in biotechnology, such as Bayer, the Danône Group, Novartis, Monsanto Europe, Nestlé, Novo Nordisk, Rhône-Poulenc, Solvay and Unilever.
2. Some of its more notable past 'successes' have included 'crisis management' for Union Carbide following the Bhopal disaster in India and for Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it has assisted in upgrading the images of dictatorial governments in Indonesia, Argentina and South Korea.
3. See also Corporate Europe Observer, Zero Issue, October 1997.
4. The list of Jäggi Burson-Marsteller's customers includes Novartis, Roche, Gen Suisse and many other biotech companies.
5. Indian Farmers demand access to modern biotechnology, EuropaBio press release, Brussels May 11th, 1999.
6. Selling Suicide - farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries, Christian Aid, May 1999.
7. Genetic Engineering and World Hunger. The Cornerhouse, Briefing # 10, October 1998, page 3.
8. "I think that the pro-GMOs Indian farmers have met 2 or 3 French journalists, including me, which is very few. And not all of them wrote articles," said Coroller when asked about the impact the tour has had in France. Letter to Corporate Europe Observatory, June 30th, 1999.
10. Interview with Arnaud Apotheker, September 3rd, 1999.
11. Indian Group in Switzerland, email report 22nd of May 1999 by Ursula Eggenberger, Jäggi Burson-Marsteller.
12. Verwirr spiel der Gentech-Lobby, Joint press release by Greenpeace Switzerland and SWISSAID, May 21st, 1999.
13. Ibid. Greenpeace and SWISSAID made clear that the event was "to be interpreted as counter-demonstration against the upcoming Intercontinental Caravan of around 400 Indian farmers... that will protest against the WTO's agricultural policies and the activities of the biotech industry in India."
14. Indian Farmers demand access to modern biotechnology. EuropaBio press release, Brussels May 11th, 1999.
15. Ibid. KCC "represents farmers organisations that demand freedom of trade"; claimed to have 55 organisations from 14 states as members; "The intellectual leadership is provided by the Shetkari Sandhatana in Maharashtra"
16. Telephone interview with Kavaljit Singh, September 2nd, 1999.
17. The full name of the grouping is; Farmers for Freedom, for Free Economy, and for Minimum Political Governance.
18. Economic Doctrine of The New Farmer's Movement, website Farmers for Freedom: http://www.angelfire.com/in/farmersforfreedom/
19. See Mr. Joshi's website: http://angelfire.com/in/swatantra/
20. Visionaries of a new 'Bharat', p. 13.
21. Kisan Co-ordination Committee India Brief.
22. Ibid. Page 16.
24. ibid. Page 17.
25. Indian Group in Switzerland, email report 22nd of May 1999 by Ursula Eggenberger, Jäggi Burson-Marsteller.
26. The ICC-99 visited Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. For more information, see the website: http://stad.dsl.nl/~caravan/
27. Coordination Paysanne Européenne, Press Release, May 28, 1999.