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#649 - Biotech: The Pendulum Swings Back, 05-May-1999

In recent months, opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods
has exploded in both Europe and Asia.[1] A powerful
consumer/farmer backlash has spread across Europe and the
Indian subcontinent, raising eyebrows even in the somnolent U.S.

** In April, the seven largest grocery chains in six European
countries made a public commitment to go "GM free" and now they
are lining up long-term contracts with growers who can provide
GM-free corn, potatoes, soybeans and wheat.

** The Supreme Court of India has upheld a ban on the testing of
GM crops even as activists are torching fields suspected of
harboring GM plants.

** The third-largest U.S. corn processor, A.E. Staley Co. of
Decatur, Illinois, has announced that in 1999 it will refuse to
accept genetically modified corn varieties that have not been
approved by the European Union. Europeans create a huge market
for U.S. crops and the European backlash forces U.S. farmers to
think twice about planting GM seeds.

The bellwether event was the announcement last month by seven
European supermarket chains that they intend to jointly
patronize growers who can deliver food that is 100% free of
genetically modified (GM) organisms.[2] Tesco, Safeway,
Sainsbury's, Iceland, Marks & Spencer, the Co-op, and Waitrose
grocery chains make up the consortium. Last week Unilever, the
huge transnational (and aggressive supporter of GM foods),
announced it was throwing in the towel and joining the GM-free
consortium. One day after Unilever capitulated, the Swiss firm
Nestle made the same commitment. The following day
Cadbury-Schweppes joined the ranks of the GM-free. It was a
complete and unexpected rout for the genetic engineering
industry.

According to the London INDEPENDENT, the only major players
still supporting GM foods in England are Monsanto Corporation
and the Blair government. Just a few months ago, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair had told members of parliament that
opposition to GM foods would be "a flash in the pan." Now
popular support for the Blair government itself has dwindled as
opposition to GM foods has swelled. In his last election, Mr.
Blair was supported financially by Monsanto, the leading
proponent of genetically modified crops (see REHW #637, #638,
and #639).

Several factors seem to be at work in Europe:

1) Older people can still remember Nazi eugenics experiments --
Hitler's plan to create a "super race" by genetic selection. As
a result, any genetic manipulation of living organisms to
produce "super organisms" is suspect.

2) The recent "Mad Cow Disease" scare in England and France --
which has killed several dozen people so far and was brought on
by the unnatural practice of feeding cows to cows -- has
seriously undermined government credibility and has made
Europeans wary of all unnatural farming practices.

3) Many Europeans -- as distinct from many Americans -- care
about the taste and nutritional quality of their food and drink.
Many Americans seem happy to subsist on french fried potatoes and
iceberg lettuce accompanied by huge portions of low-grade,
fat-laden beef. Many Europeans consider such fare barbaric.

4) On February 12 of this year, the first tentative evidence of
health damage from GM foods emerged. Beginning in 1996, Dr.
Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen,
Scotland had been feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats
and observing stunted growth and damaged immune systems,
including damage to several major organs (kidney, spleen, thymus
and stomach). Dr. Pusztai was a senior scientist at the Rowett
Institute, having conducted research there for 35 years, during
which time he published 270 scientific papers.

In January, 1998 and again in April, 1998, Dr. Pusztai received
permission from Philip James, the director of the Rowett
Institute, to speak on British television. Although he is not
categorically opposed to genetic engineering, in his April TV
appearance, Dr. Pusztai said he would not eat genetically
modified foods himself and he said it was "very, very unfair to
use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs."

Proponents of genetically modified foods protested loudly
against this expression of informed opinion. On the first day of
the controversy, Philip James defended Dr. Pusztai's right to
speak his mind, but on the second day Mr. James suspended Dr.
Pusztai, condemned his research, made him sign a gag order, and
forced him to retire.

An audit report by the Rowett Institute in August, 1998,
vindicated Dr. Pusztai's research methods. At that point Dr.
Pusztai was once again given access to his own research data and
he vigorously reconfirmed his original conclusions. Dr.
Pusztai's studies have not yet been published, so details remain
unknown.

The "Pusztai affair" lay dormant until February 12th of this
year when a group of 20 scientists from 13 countries published a
manifesto demanding the reinstatement of Dr. Pusztai and
expressing support for his tentative conclusions.

Only later was it discovered that the Rowett Institute is partly
funded by Monsanto.

The "Pusztai affair" lit a fire of public outrage that has since
grown into a raging conflagration.

For its part, Monsanto has admitted that no one knows -- or can
know -- what will happen when genetically modified organisms are
put directly into the human food chain and are released into the
natural environment, as is the case with genetically modified
crops. Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto,
said October 28, 1998, "We don't seek controversy, but obviously
it has been thrust on us. It is a direct consequence of a role
we have chosen. And it is a role which we can blame only
ourselves for.... we realize that with any new and powerful
technology with unknown, and to some degree unknowable -- by
definition -- effects, then there necessarily will be an
appropriate level at least, and maybe even more than that, of
public debate and public interest."[3]

It is clear that Monsanto's best-laid plans are coming
unraveled. In the mid-1980s Monsanto convinced the U.S.
government to agree that genetic engineering would not be
subject to any new regulations, on the theory that a genetically
modified potato is nothing more than a potato. Monsanto
contributes bountifully to presidential candidates of both
parties, and to key members of Congress who sit on food safety
committees. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken a "hand off"
approach to the introduction of this powerful new technology
whose consequences are unknown and unknowable. And President
Clinton -- who has been amply rewarded by Monsanto at election
time -- has named Monsanto's Shapiro a "special trade
representative" of the U.S. In sum, the U.S. federal government
is forcefully aiding Monsanto as the corporation prepares to
conduct a large-scale, uncontrolled experiment on the general
public here and abroad.

A key part of the Monsanto strategy was to mix genetically
modified foods with traditional foods, and keep them all
unlabeled so that no one would know what they were eating. By
the time anyone figured out that they were eating "Frankenstein
food" -- as it is now known in Europe -- it would be a done
deal.

Europeans are now hell-bent on reversing this mixture. As a
spokesperson for the Tesco chain of supermarkets in England said
recently, "We will remove GM ingredients where we can and label
where we can't. In the short and medium term I expect the number
of products containing GM ingredients to decline steadily, quite
possibly to zero." And Fernanda Fau, a spokesperson for
Eurocommerce, the association of European food retail chains
said, "...the principle that segregation of GM ingredients is
possible has now finally been accepted. We first lobbied for
this two years ago and were told it was impossible."

With GM foods identified, labeled and segregated, it will be
possible for consumers to exercise choice in the grocery store.
Then the future of genetically modified foods will be imperiled
by the marketplace. Robert Shapiro has bet the entire future of
the Monsanto corporation on unknown and unknowable GM foods, so
informed choice by consumers is the company's worst nightmare.

Monsanto's plans have gone awry in the Third World, too.
Monsanto planned to introduce its genetically modified seeds
accompanied by its patented "technology protection system" which
makes the seeds from this year's crop sterile. Critics call
Monsanto's seed sterilizing technology "terminator" and "suicide
seeds." Wherever suicide seed technology is adopted, farmers
will have to go back to Monsanto year after year to buy a new
ration of genetically modified seeds.

"By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology multinationals
will lock the world's poorest farmers into a new form of genetic
serfdom," says Emma Must of the World Development Movement.
"Currently 80 per cent of crops in developing countries are
grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from
sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and
going under," she says. "More precisely," says Canadian
journalist Gwynne Dyer, "it would speed the consolidation of
small farms into the hands of those with the money to engage in
industrialized agribusiness -- which generally means higher
profits but less employment and lower yields per [unit of
land]."[4]

In February in Cartagena, Colombia diplomats from 175 countries
met to hammer out a "biosafety protocol" to control the flow of
genetically modified organisms across international borders. The
U.S. and Canada favored a weak treaty that would not allow any
country to prevent the import and release of genetically
modified organisms merely to shelter its population from the
socio-economic impact of industrialized, capital-intensive forms
of farming, or merely on health or environmental grounds.

The "other side" at Cartagena favored a strong treaty that gives
countries the right to say no to GM organisms, requires a full
study of the effects of GM foods on farmers' livelihoods, as
well as health and environmental impacts, and makes biotech
companies responsible for the legal and financial consequences
if something goes wrong.

The Third World fought Monsanto and the U.S. government to a
draw in Cartagena and no biosafety protocol was adopted. But the
whole process helped the Third World figure out where it stands
on these issues, and this kind of informed, thoughtful
deliberation bodes ill for Monsanto's plan for domination of
global food supplies.

As Canadian writer Gwynne Dyer sums it up, "The strategy for the
high-speed introduction [of genetically modified foods]
throughout the world is shaping up as one of the great
public-relations disasters of all time. Public suspicion outside
North America is reaching crippling proportions, and the reason
is not at all mysterious. It is because the biotech firms
literally tried to shove the stuff down peoples' throats without
giving them either choice or information."[4]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all of the information in this
edition of Rachel's was taken from press reports posted on the
listserv biotech-l@cornell.edu. To subscribe to biotech-l send an
E-mail message to listproc@cornell.edu; in the body of the
message put the words "sub biotech-l Your Name" without
quotation marks.

[2] Paul Waugh, "Brit. Stores Tesco and Unilever Ban Genetically
Manipulated Products," THE INDEPENDENT (London, England), April
28, 1999, page unknown.

[3] Shapiro quoted in MONSANTO MONITOR, introductory issue
(January 1999), pg. 7. MONSANTO MONITOR is published monthly by
A Seed Europe, P.O. Box 92066, 1090 AB Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Tel. +31-20-468-2616; fax: +31-20-468-2275.
Http://www.antenna.nl/aseed . Email: biotech@aseed.antenna.nl.

[4] Gwynne Dyer, "World View, Biotechnology," [Toronto] GLOBE
AND MAIL February 20, 1999, page unknown.

Descriptor terms: genetic engineering; genetically modified
organisms; agriculture; farming; food safety; monsanto; arpad
pusztai; rowett institute; biotech;