Professional protest organizations, like many businesses, sometimes have trouble keeping their messages straight. Last month, a paper in our pages from Monsanto describing the production of biodegradable plastic in transgenic mustard (Nat. Biotechnol. 17, 1011 , October) had both environmental groups and corporate biotechnology doing cartwheels in an attempt to stay on the "right side" of an issue that appears to us to have no wrong side.
Immediately after its publication, a Friends of the Earth spokesperson, Pete Riley, denounced the Monsanto research as "a publicity stunt," insinuating that the technology isn't safe. "They're trying to make out that what they are doing is not dangerous, but beneficial, to the planet," he said. According to Riley, we should be curtailing our use of plastic and examining natural plastic alternatives like "cellulose" instead of working on biodegradable equivalents.
Monsanto did not help matters either. First they issued a statement touting the research and then, in the face of hostile publicity, they hastened to assure they had no plans to commercialize the technology. But this was old news—biodegradable plastic is a long way from being commercially viable and Monsanto abandoned plans to pursue it last year. The timing of the new statements, however, made it seem as if they were giving up on biodegradable plastics because it was "bad" in the way that the terminator gene technology has now become "bad."
The terrible irony in all of this is that, not long ago, Monsanto and another professional protest organization, Greenpeace, found a common ground in biodegradable plastic, agreeing that it would be a good alternative to ubiquitous and environmentally unfriendly PVC plastic. They even collaborated on making a credit card out of the stuff. Called Biocard, it first appeared in the UK in 1997, offered by The Co-operative Bank UK (www.co-operativebank.co.uk/greenpeace.html). To quote the bank's website, "For every account opened on-line, Greenpeace receives a £10 donation from the bank (£5 for postal applications) and then continues to receive a further 25p for every £100 spent. This money will be used to fund our campaign for a PVC-free future and other initiatives to counter abuses of the environment."
A worthy project indeed. At the time, Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK thought enough of it to say "developing a credit card based on non-PVC plastic sends another strong signal that PVC is on the way out," PVC then being the green campaign of the moment.
But that was then, and this is now. Perhaps the most important lesson from all this is that alliances can be made between biotechnology and environmental groups, and it would be a shame to abandon them because current public relations campaigns demand total public opposition. For environmental organizations, perhaps the message is that if you tar all genetic technologies with the same brush, you will soon discover that you are in fact arguing against the very tools that can help you in the causes you hold most dear—protecting human health and the environment. And if you are a company developing these technologies, the message is that you must explain, accurately and simply, why they are beneficial. Biodegradable plastic offered one such opportunity—and biotechnology can't "take it back" every time the winds of public relations change direction.