April 22, 2002

Commentary: Biotechnology conference will test consult vs confront approach to controversy

Consult or confront? A major international conference being held in Toronto this summer may hold clues to the best strategic choice for business.

In the mid 1980's the strategy of choice in Canada was consultation. Environment Canada developed the most advanced guideline for consultation in use anywhere in the world. The Canadian Chemical Producers' Association demonstrated their commitment to consultation through multi-stakeholder development of the Responsible Care program, a reaction to the extremely negative public perception of industrial chemicals

and their environmental impact.

Biotechnology-in particular its application in genetically modified food-is one of today's leading environmental issues. Many leaders, including some from the biotechnology industry itself, have urged the industry to engage in discussion with the public and with critics. These leaders admit that we do not know everything about the environmental impacts of genetically engineered (GE) species and that a public dialogue would be the best way of winning public acceptance of the technology.

However, every indication so far is that the hawks have won and that the industry will fight its critics with television and media campaigns. For its part, the Canadian government has chosen to follow industry's lead.

In my view, the industry is playing a high-risk game: one misstep, one company out of line, or one serious incident of environmental or public health damage from a genetically engineered product could bring this industry crashing down.

On the other hand, one of my colleagues is convinced that the industry's confrontational approach is winning. In North America there seems to be no risk of government regulation

of GE products, as has happened in many other countries. Farmers are planting record amounts of GE crops, and most consumers seem essentially disinterested in the topic, despite polls which suggest that there is some latent concern.

In June the largest world gathering of biotechnology scientists and business leaders will take place in Toronto. For the last few years the conference has been dogged by protesters. By avoiding major media centres, and by encouraging outreach events for the critics, the organizers have so far managed to limit the damage caused by negative publicity. Toronto is Canada's media centre and the risk of adverse coverage of biotechnology arising from protestor challenges is high.

If BIO 2002 goes off without a public relations hitch then perhaps the era of consultative public policy dispute resolution is over. If the industry is served a major black eye by

critics who present cogent arguments for increased regulation of genetically engineered food, then at least some of us will continue to believe that consultative approaches still have value in developing public policy on environmental issues.

BIO 2002 is being held in Toronto from June 9 to 12. More details can be found at www.bio2002.org

-Colin Isaacs

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group, reports on environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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