On Dec. 8, 1998, four scientists from Monsanto Co. were among those who received the National Medal of Technology, the U.S.'s highest honor for technology innovation.

OXFORD - The world may need more food of higher nutritional quality, produced on less land with fewer chemicals. And governments can hand out medals to scientists who achieve those goals. But if consumers fear to eat genetically modified foods, it will all be for naught.

Indeed, as politicians teeter on the verge of declaring Europe a GM crop-free zone, it is clear that the proponents of genetically modified foods are being drowned out by the messages of fear issued by "public interest" groups into the megaphones of a suspicious media. Given that reality, the issue for plant biotech companies is how to sell their products in this hostile environment.

The core of an emerging consensus is that plant biotech companies are going to have to change the way they think and act toward consumers. If, as seems clear, the debate over science-based regulation in Europe has been lost in the near term, then the only position left may be to give consumers what they want: labeling of GMO foods and perhaps segregation of GMO products.

At the same time, given their current lack of credibility, plant biotech companies need to marshal a new set of allies to speak up for the science, specifically academic scientists who are considered neutral. And companies are going to have to take a broader approach to public relations, thinking not just about specific product introductions but also about making the public comfortable with an entirely new enabling technology.

The roots of the problem

Klaus Ammam, director of the Botanic Gardens (Bern, Switzerland), has identified a number of reasons why Europe has got it into its current mess.

First is the failure of scientists to communicate the attraction of plant biotech to the public in a populist language. Second, he said, industry was too sure of itself without being willing to concede that there are genuine concerns relating to GMO crops that needed to be addressed.