Biotechnology has unleashed a revolution in agriculture, one expected to transform agri-business and food production both in the United States and around the world. As always, no revolution is without controversy and critics. Opposition to biotech foods first began in Europe in the mid-1990s. High-profile protests and activist groups successfully created a firestorm of public concern over the safety, health and environmental impact of food biotechnology. Agri-business companies were targeted by well-organized, well-funded opponents. Media reporting about “Superweeds,” “Frankenfoods” and “Mutant Crops” presented an unbalanced view of food biotechnology. All these efforts created pressure for European governments to act against agri-business and for the industry itself to modify its behavior.
Meanwhile, in the United States, public awareness of food biotechnology issues was low. Biotechnology crops had successfully been introduced into the marketplace in 1996 without controversy. U.S. farmers embraced the technology as a means of improving commodity quality and crop yields, particularly in America’s most important food crops – corn and soybeans. Unlike in Europe, American consumers had confidence in Federal regulators charged with the responsibility of determining if biotech foods were safe.
But activists – having been successful in opposing biotech foods in Europe – began in 1999 to turn their attention to Canada and the United States. Agri-business companies recognized they had failed to educate consumers and regulators in Europe about the benefits of these foods and to allay public health and environmental concerns. They were determined to get ahead of the public opinion curve in the United States, and to put in place concrete measures in Canada. This required that they inform regulators, media, food processors and retailers and consumers about the enormous benefits and promises of food biotechnology, and successfully counter anti-biotech critics.
BSMG Worldwide had seen first-hand the effectiveness of the anti-biotech campaign in Europe, and the mistakes that were made by industry in trying to counter it. Research conducted by BSMG Worldwide’s KRC Research showed that North American consumer audiences – who had little knowledge of and no clearly defined opinions yet about biotechnology – would be vulnerable to the same tactics successfully used by anti-biotech critics in Europe.
In late 1999, seven leading food biotechnology companies and their trade and industry groups came together as a coalition and developed an industry-led public information program designed to share information about biotechnology with the people of Canada and the United States. The founding members of the coalition were: Aventis CropScience, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag Products (Novartis and Zeneca merged in 2000 to become Syngenta), the American Crop Protection Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. BSMG Worldwide was retained to develop and implement a multi-year, integrated public information campaign.
The coalition asked BSMG Worldwide to quickly tackle five objectives: (1) create an overall strategy for a comprehensive North American public information program that would shape public opinion and public policy formation on food biotechnology, (2) help establish a formal structure through which the coalition of companies could make decisions and function, (3) develop and test communications messages through attitudinal research, (4) design and implement a public affairs and public relations campaign, and (5) create effective television and print advertising.
The strategy BSMG Worldwide designed centered on being educational, rather than advocacy – that is, it would provide information to media, consumers and stakeholders, not lobby for specific legislative or regulatory initiatives. The coalition would develop alliances across the entire food “chain” – from farmers to food processors and distributors, to restaurant owners and consumer organizations. Its effort would focus on promoting the benefits of food biotechnology – in particular, the potential to create more abundant crops, healthier and more nutritious foods, and to address global issues such as world hunger and protecting the environment. The campaign would also counter criticism that biotech foods were unsafe, by emphasizing the extensive testing of biotech foods undertaken by both the industry and government regulators. The coalition’s strategy would be to build trust among consumers in the technology behind biotech foods, particularly with American audiences who have confidence in the ability of science and technology to constantly improve our quality of life.
In addition, the public information program would be structured so as to answer questions and concerns from the public and respond to misinformation and “scare-tactics” by biotechnology opponents. Information would be made available to the public not only by the biotechnology industry, but through a variety of academic, scientific, government and independent, third-party sources. And it would promote the importance of using “sound science” in forming public policies relating to food and agriculture.
The Council for Biotechnology Information was formally launched in April 2000. The program encompasses the following projects, which are implemented on the Council’s behalf by BSMG Worldwide:
A media relations program to inform editors and reporters about the benefits of biotechnology and its potential for developing healthier and more nutritious foods and addressing health and hunger problems both in the United States and around the world.
U.S. and Canadian information kit has been sent to more than 1,200 representatives of media organizations.
The Council monitors media coverage of biotechnology and regularly responds to inaccurate or misleading information through letters and op-ed articles, and sets up interviews and editorial board sessions between media organizations and biotech allies and supporters.
The media relations campaign also targets mainstream consumer media outlets, including magazines (such as Health, Self, Elle and Gourmet), food editors and feature editors through monthly Food Biotech Briefs and “deskside” briefings. Media relations are also conducted with environmental publications and the agriculture trade press.
A consumer brochure on the benefits of biotechnology was made available to the public through a toll-free consumer hotline (800-980-8660). More than 100,000 brochures have been distributed to date.
A web site (www.whybiotech.com) was launched in both English and French (for the U.S. and Canada), containing a wealth of information about biotechnology and its benefits. New information is continually added to the site, and it was relaunched in October 2000. CyberPR is used to drive consumer Internet traffic to the web site.
An industry outreach program was developed with key stakeholder audiences in the United States and Canada. These include national and regional health, medical and nutrition organizations, scientific and academic organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Federal policy makers.
Print and television advertising was developed to build broader public awareness of food biotechnology, promote its benefits and promise, and inoculate the industry against negative attacks. The initial media buy included CNN, MSNBC and selected cable programs, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and TIME. In a second phase of the television media buy, advertising is currently being expanded to reach a broader audience. This began with spots aired during the Olympic Games and continues with media buys in prime time.
Special projects, such as showcasing to media the potential of food biotechnology in addressing world hunger problems on the occasion of World Food Day (October 16) and Thanksgiving.
Results of this program to date have been tremendous. Research conducted in January 2001 has shown increased awareness of biotechnology among the general public, and support for the technology holding steady. Addtionally, public information tactics have had a positive impact on educating both opinion leader audiences and the general public, as well as countering biotechnology critics. Support for biotechnology has been widespread among government agencies and the scientific and research community as well.