Meet the modifier It's the most vilified development of all time in food science, and has sparked hostility verging on the hysterical among self-appointed defenders of the nation's health. But is there just a chance genetic modification does not represent a 'Doomwatch' scenario? Monsanto agricultural chief Hugh Grant talks exclusively to The Grocer's Clive Beddall He hardly resembles the devil incarnate. The slim fit, button down collared shirt, appropriately in a subtle shade of GM soya green, goes well with the well cut fawn slacks. It's regulation kit for your thrusting Stateside exec. And that's a big disappointment if you've swallowed the activists' propaganda, and perceived that biotech scientists wear Orwellian blue boilersuits and have Frankenstein-style bolts through their necks. But Hugh Grant, chief operating officer of the agricultural division of Monsanto, has the right credentials to be your average midwest US working guy. He's married to his high school sweetheart, Janice. He has three "global children" one born in Scotland, one in Brussels and the other in Missouri ­ and he jogs through the St Louis suburbs when not surfing the net. Until recently, at meetings with Grant amid the campus setting of the conglomerate's St Louis HQ, visitors from this side of the pond had a job to keep the 42 year old Scot off the subject of his beloved Dundee United Football Club. But nowadays, he beams, the arrival of global digital cable TV has put him back in touch with the goings on in Scottish football. For Grant is, despite the Americanisation process inflicted on Brits who grab fame in the US, still a Scots lad at heart. So a passion for Saab convertibles is predictable for someone brought up near Glasgow, and who believed car roofs were essential accessories against traditional Scottish downpours. His career has taken him from Larkhall via Kirriemuir, Leicester, Brussels and the Far East to the increasingly genetically modified soyafields of Missouri. But, surprisingly for a guy who has become a top dog in the global GM arena, he didn't show much of a leaning for things scientific during his classroom days. "There were not too many swots at my school," he recalls with a smile, admitting a greater passion for soccer in the years before heading off to university. He soon "found science" on two Scottish campuses, picking up a BSc (Hons) in molecular biology and agricultural zoology from Glasgow and an MSc from Edinburgh. Add an MBA in 1988 from the International Management Centre at Buckingham, and you have the academic CV which led to him overseeing Monsanto in more than 130 countries. Looking back two decades, he admits he's achieved his avowed ambition to get a job which gave him an opportunity to see the world. "And that's been a fantastic privilege," he beams. But it's doubtful, as an ambitious graduate, that Grant could have foreseen a career path which would take him to the top in the world's most high profile and, to some, most vilified genetic engineering group. Colleagues describe him as an affable "consensus guy who usually gets his own way". But it's when GM inquisitors mention "Frankenfoods" that the affable Ayrshire smile disappears and the lean Grant countenance takes on a more earnest look. "All of us in the Monsanto community have felt pretty terrible as the Frankenfood debate has developed," he admits. "But if you ask me when I think the demonstrations will end, I have to say that I don't know. However, I'm more optimistic nowadays that the benefits of GM will become obvious to a wider spread of the population as a proper scientific debate develops." But aren't the consumer lobbyists correct when they declare that much of the EU's opposition to biotechnology was caused by the arrogance Monsanto displayed when first delivering its message to less tolerant societies outside the US? And surely it was naïve to expect a UK population battered by BSE and similar food safety scares to be dragged willingly down the GM route? The brow furrows and the admissions are honestly delivered: "Yes. We didn't foresee the consumer backlash in Europe and the UK in particular. Frankly, we didn't communicate early enough, or directly enough with consumers about the benefits of genetic modification. Our media drive in the UK, especially in the Sunday supplements, missed the mark. In truth, our early campaigns were a flop." While Grant dismisses Monsanto's initial strategy in a sentence he's quick to tell you why it rebounded on them in Britain. "We saw a real opportunity to substitute traditional chemical crop protection, and felt strongly from an environmental point of view that that was the way to go. But while US consumers showed a ready, tolerant attitude, that was far from the case in the UK." He recalls it was hard for Monsanto to make itself heard in the UK media. "And we increasingly found ourselves to be the only group speaking for the biotech sector. That was not the best place to be." The backlash was illustrated in a flood of e-mails and toll free calls from UK shoppers to St Louis. Unlike the more receptive local reaction to GM issues, concerned Brits flooded the hotlines with worries about allergies, the welfare of elderly relatives and young children, and the effect of GM food on consumers' with special dietary requirements. That, says Grant, was the real indicator of the British view, and one which was to cause a rapid change in Monsanto's approach to the UK. He's convinced that while the eco-warriors whipped up much of the anti-GM stance in the UK, the absence until this year of an independent food standards agency was another reason why nervous British supermarkets, plus most of their shoppers, swiftly rejected the US scientists' biotech dream. The British backlash also hit home with a vengeance for the newly installed exec from Scotland. When they arrived in St Louis three years ago, Grant, wife Janice and three children were given their own personal slant on the UK hostility as regular e-mails from associates and relatives in Britain spelled out the size of the opposition. "The scenario back home was critical. The UK was going through a very tough period with BSE and it almost seemed that there was another terrible food horror story in the papers every week. "US consumers, on the other hand, were reassured by responsible regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture. That gave them a respected platform to evaluate the new technologies, particularly on food safety ­ something that was lacking in the UK." But while Grant is hopeful the new UK Food Standards Agency will be a trusted platform towards ensuring a more balanced GM debate in Britain, he doesn't underestimate the power of the multiples in shaping consumer opinion. Well aware of the much publicised comments from hardline retailing opponents of GM, like Iceland's Malcolm Walker, he reveals that during the "darkest hours" of the GM debate, he discussed Britain's opposition at behind-closed -doors meetings with several key UK multiple CEOs. He was encouraged when they all showed "real interest" in the technology, albeit expressing concerns around what genetic engineering would ultimately mean to certain key brands. Within months, however, this fear was translated into a general ban on GM ingredients across their inventories. But, despite vilification of the technology from prominent UK figures, Grant is convinced that "common sense, scientific data and reason" are finally entering the debate in the UK, although there appears to be no let-up, at this stage, in the green lobbyists' campaigns. As for Prince Charles' unrelenting, high profile stance against anything remotely GM, the Grant retort is direct and well practised: "Despite the Prince of Wales' views, farming is a hi-tech industry. Take East Anglia, the Paris Basin and Schleswig Holstein three of the most intensive wheat production areas in the world, where they use more pesticides per acre than anywhere else. I differ with the Prince. Biotech methods are the way to substitute a big piece of the pesticide inputs in those regions.And that can't be a bad thing amid all the talk about preserving the countryside." But he also cites the exclusive interview the Princess Royal gave to The Grocer earlier this year when, while not conclusively nailing her colours to the biotech mast, she believed a reasoned, scientific debate was needed rather than automatic rejection of the technology. That, for the Monsanto man, is real progress. "Princess Anne, in her work for the Save the Children Fund, has travelled the world and seen real hunger. I worked for four years in Asia and also saw the hungry. That makes you appreciate the potential of the business we are in. "Despite opposition in the UK, there are many parts of the world desperate to embrace biotechnology because they know the alternative is more pesticides in crop production." His dilemma now is how to sell the biotech pluses to a frightened UK public, confused more recently by the findings of the BSE inquiry. Hardly the ideal scenario for a new burst of pro-GM propaganda. Yet he hints that he is prepared to take to the UK conference circuit in a bid to spread the gospel. However he adds: "It may be a bit self effacing, but I don't think it's important that Hugh Grant is continually seen in the UK. It's far more important for British scientists and opinion leaders to take a stance on the technologies and to decide what they think is right for British food production. On the other hand, I can present one side of the argument and I'm prepared to do that." But given that the propaganda warfare around GM is increasingly being seen in cyberspace as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth back actual demonstrations with internet offensives, where does he go from here? "After adopting a low profile for 18 months, the time is right for us to put our case publicly again. The benefits we tried to get across three years ago are now much more of a commercial reality and that's not just based on our research." But what about the political lobby? Is he comfortable with the British government's attitude to GM issues? "It's very important for UK scientists and opinion leaders to take a stance on the technologies and to decide what they think is right for British food production. Tony Blair has demonstrated great courage on the issue. While he is saying he is neither for nor against GM, he says he wants to see the data and do the trials. He'll make a decision based upon a considered opinion. So I'm hopeful science will prevail." Even more surprisingly, Grant believes food safety issues, which have flavoured so much of the debate, are "moving off the agenda". And that's despite GM being dubbed by some European environmental campaigners as "the new BSE". "I don't think the safety of GM is much of an issue anywhere in Europe these days, and our evidence in the US shows we have crossed the food safety bridge. Around 100 million acres of biotech crops have been grown in the commercial arena for four years, and there has not been one single incidence of allergenic reaction. "Of course, Greenpeace will say there have been no specific allergy checks. But in an environment like the US, I'm confident that if there had been a health issue, we would have heard about it by now. GM soya beans are used in infant formula babyfoods. If problems had occurred, we would certainly have been told about it. "The question for farmers now is ­ if I grow those crops in the UK or in the Paris Basin, what will be the environmental impact?' "However, based on the US experience, I feel just fine about that. Where we have grown GM crops on this side of the Atlantic we have used far fewer pesticides. And where you use less pesticide you improve the environment. We've got data to prove it. "Where GM cotton crops have been grown in the Missouri Delta farmers tell me birds have returned to their region after being missing for decades. That's the sort of environmental impact we'll see in Europe one day. Meanwhile, we must get on with the crop trials." Looking ahead five years, Grant sees a change in the Europeans' attitude to genetic modification. He believes more EU farmers will have the chance to plant GM crops. "The scientific evaluations and trials will have yielded the necessary results and people will have concluded that the technology makes sense. "Second, the economic disadvantages in Europe of not planting the crops will swing a big piece of the debate and there will be an increase in GM technology across the main commodity crops. "In the US, for example, we have reduced the input costs in soyabean production by as much as 30% as a result of biotechnology. So as we get close to planting these crops commercially in the UK, and the scientific debate strengthens, we'll see a shift of public opinion which the multiples will follow. We're already seeing a swing away from feeding animals to animals in Europe. One third of our GM soyabean crop in the US goes to Europe, with 80% going into animal feed. The climate is changing, as Europe consumes more beans every year." Meanwhile, in the US, Grant predicts a second wave of the GM revolution. This will take the research programmes into product quality traits and nutrition features. "Current work on a vitamin A enriched rice is only the tip of the iceberg," he predicts. "New product development will spur consumer interest." {{COVER FEATURE }}