Subject: November 7, 1996, New York Times: Article on Soy Boycott
November 7, 1996 The New York Times
Genetic Soybeans From the U.S. Alarm Europeans
By Youssef M. Ibrahim
LONDON -- As genetically engineered soybeans from the United States begin
to arrive in Europe, concerns about possible health risks raised by consumer
groups and critics of biotechnology are prompting a boycott by some food
producers and supermarket chains.
Soybeans are one of the United States' biggest farm exports to Europe; oil
from the crushed beans is used in a wide variety of grocery items, including
margarine, cake and chocolate, and soy meal is fed to livestock and poultry.
The bioengineered beans, developed by the St. Louis-based chemical
producer Monsanto to yield larger harvests at lower costs, have been approved
by both the Food and Drug Administration in the United States and the
But by the time the first shipment of U.S. soybeans that included the
bioengineered bean docked in Hamburg, Germany, on Wednesday aboard the
freighter Ideal Progress, European consumer groups had made the soybean their
main line of resistance against a coming wave of bioengineered crops,
including corn, chicory and rapeseed.
In Germany -- where anxiety over tampering with the food chain has been
raised to a high pitch by mad cow disease, which spread among old British
cattle and, as it turned out, diseased cows were recycled as cattle feed --
packaged-food companies including Unilever and Nestle Deutschland AG have
pledged not to use the Monsanto product.
Food industry associations in Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries
are concerned that products using the beans could be challenged in court by
consumer groups demanding further testing of their long-term safety. Grocery
chains, including Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway PLC in Britain, are demanding
that U.S. producers keep the Monsanto beans separate and labeled as altered.
In the European Union, environmental campaigners are to try next week to
reverse its approval of the soybeans and to block future shipments of
similarly engineered crops unless they are labeled, Hiltrud Breyer, a member
of the European Parliament, said in an interview the other day.
And while many companies, including Nestle SA, the giant Swiss-based
parent of Nestle Deutschland, are committed to the new products and see their
acceptance as inevitable, the industry is concerned about starting off amid
panic as environmental groups like Greenpeace fan consumer anxieties.
Ever since genetic engineering arose in the 1980s it has provoked unease
among many people at the idea of humans disturbing the natural genetic order.
And despite the Food and Drug Administration's position that there is no
evidence that bioengineered foods require special precautions, critics who
oppose taking any chances continue campaigning to have such foods tested as
thoroughly as any new food additive.
Monsanto is counting on the controversy dying down as consumers get enough
information, said a spokeswoman for the company, Lisa Watson. "There is a lot
of noise out there now by groups trying to make consumers believe there is
something wrong," she said.
But an influential European business representative urged caution. "Our
message from our customers is that, for whatever reason, they would prefer
not to have it in their foodstuffs," said Henrik Kroner, secretary general of
EuroCommerce, a lobbying association based in Brussels, Belgium, for hundreds
of retail and commerce groups in 20 countries.
"We should do more to make them change their minds," Kroner said. But he
continued: "I am telling the American exporters to please, in this season, if
you are wise, don't ship those soybeans to Europe because you may trigger a
lasting reaction. And if you must, separate and label them."
With soybeans second only to corn as a cash crop in the United States,
biotechnology engineers have experimented for years to produce a higher-yield
variety. Monsanto's eventual solution was to transplant a gene from another
plant to make soybeans resistant to its best-selling herbicide, Roundup.
Roundup generally kills any plant with leaves. So by planting a soybean
that can withstand it, farmers can use a single treatment of Roundup, instead
of the customary two applications of other weedkillers, and in the process
kill more weeds.
Plants that have to compete with fewer weeds can produce more soybeans,
and so farmers -- in theory -- save time and money while harvesting a larger
Monsanto sells its technology to seed companies, who incorporate it into
their soybeans. The soybeans are in turn marketed under the label Roundup
Ready, and Monsanto makes money licensing the technology and by selling lots
more Roundup, too.
Seed companies began marketing the soybean only this year, and the variety
is expected to constitute less than 2 percent of the United States'
production of 59 million tons.
But Greenpeace, which sent out a barge on Wednesday to interfere with the
docking of Ideal Progress, sees that trickle as the opening for a flood of
"This will be the first time genetically engineered ingredients have
appeared in a wide range of everyday supermarket products," Michelle
Sheather, a campaigner for Greenpeace, said in a telephone interview from
headquarters in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. "If the food multinationals have
their way, millions of tons of engineered crops will be grown."
Food companies, indeed, have invested enormous amounts of capital in
biotechnology research to develop new varieties of crops, from corn to
tomatoes, with higher yields or lower costs.
Altering genes by transplanting them from different species instead of
crossbreeding related varieties, bioengineers have already made corn and
potatoes more resistant to insect pests. In coming years, exports of these
products are expected to total billions.
With the stakes so high, some U.S. exporters say that the opposition in
Europe in recent weeks has already caused soybean exports to the Continent to
drop 10 percent.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is skeptical, attributing the drop to
higher soybean prices at a time when European grain production is greater
than usual. In any case, officials say, soybeans that cannot be sold in
Europe will find a market elsewhere.
The fight against genetically engineered food products may also be fed, in
part, by recent disputes in which Europeans have accused the United States of
trying to control commerce beyond its borders -- for example, by imposing
sanctions against countries that trade with Iran, Libya or Cuba.
And there may well be resentment over the assumption that if a U.S. agency
has deemed a product safe, that should be good enough for Europeans.
But the opposition is also driven by activist groups like Greenpeace,
which European businesses say are overly zealous but impossible to ignore.
"The soya bean has wide-ranging approval and in our assessment it is
safe," said Frank Vanooyen, a spokesman for Unilever in the Netherlands. "But
the fact remains we are a consumer-driven company, and therefore we leave the
decision up to our operating companies on a country-by-country basis."
Surveys have found that 85 percent to 90 percent of European consumers
support clear labeling of bioengineered products, and are less enthusiastic
than U.S. consumers about embracing what the Europeans see as novel foods.
But the large food companies in Europe agree with Monsanto that once the
public is informed of the benefits of newly developed crop varieties and what
the producers insist are their low risks, there will be widespread
"This is not in itself a big deal, but it sets signals for things to
come," said Claus Conzelmann, an assistant vice president for Nestle, in a
telephone interview from company headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland.
"We are perhaps a little more realistic about it," he said. "If the
consumer finally does not want it, we will draw the final conclusion. But we
are convinced biological engineering will remain an important field. In our
opinion, it increases the efficiency of agricultural production with positive
repercussions on the environment."
Monsanto, of course, is not alone; Ciba-Geigy, Du Pont, Dow Chemical,
Zeneca and Hoechst have also aggressively invested in genetically engineered
crops. In the United States, analysts say the compelling economics of
bioengineered soybeans and the crops to follow will win out.
The soybeans have "been on sale in the United States and it has not caused
any problems," said William Young, of the brokerage firm Donaldson, Lufkin &
Jenrette, who follows the grain industry.
"I can't predict politics but economics will triumph in the end," he
added. "The simple truth is that organic food is a lot more expensive."
American farmers have a say, too. And they are watching developments in
Europe closely before they return to Monsanto this winter to buy more bags of
expensive Roundup Ready seeds, according to Philip Paarlberg, a trade
specialist at Purdue University.
By the time next year's planting starts in May and June, he said, "We will
be able to assess the damage properly."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times