Thanks to the Vegetarian Resource Center <firstname.lastname@example.org> for posting this
The Globe and Mail, Canada
Saturday, February 20, 1999
"We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the
wider environment [of genetically modified crops]. . . . If something does
go badly wrong, we will be faced with the problem of clearing up a kind of
pollution which is self-perpetuating. I am not convinced that anyone has
the first idea of how this could be done." -- Charles, Prince of Wales,
Less than a year ago, that was about as tough as the opposition to
genetically modified (GM) foods got, in Britain or anywhere else: genteel
expressions of concern by people essentially without power, many of whom
were seen as cranks. ("If Big Ears is against it, it can't be all bad.")
The GM juggernaut, meanwhile, rolled on unimpeded, bearing Monsanto,
Zeneca, Novartis and the other major biotechnology companies toward a very
lucrative Promised Land.
How distant that all seems now. On Feb. 12, the first evidence of health
problems connected with GM foods that was even remotely plausible surfaced
in Britain. It is fairly flimsy evidence, one must say, but it has
unleashed a frenzy of media criticism that had been just waiting to happen,
and it's now virtually certain that no commercial GM crops will be grown in
Britain for years.
It is quite likely that this will trigger similar revolts in the rest of
Europe, and reinforce the growing Third World resistance to the spread of
GM technologies there. It is even possible that the protests, boycotts and
demands for segregation and clear labelling of GM products will spread back
to North America, where criticism hitherto has been extremely muted.
To Bob Shapiro, chief executive of the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and
erstwhile Master of the Universe, it must all feel very unfair. After all,
nothing specific has been proved about the dangers of GM foods, either to
consumers or to the environment. He even claims to be an environmentally
sensitive "green" himself, and looks hurt when anybody questions his
motives. But there is certainly a strong whiff of nemesis about the
When Mr. Shapiro took over as CEO four years ago, Monsanto was a
middling-to-large agrochemical combine with a huge problem: The patent for
the highly successful weed killer (Round-up) that provided the bulk of its
income was due to expire soon. He came up with a brilliant solution.
It's already out there in the marketplace: Monsanto now sells seeds that
are genetically engineered to be resistant to Round-up, allowing farmers to
get a better yield for the same dose of herbicide. And just to make sure
they don't buy some cheap knockoff version of Round-up from a competitor,
the seeds come with a contract obliging the farmer to buy Round-up from
Monsanto. That's two profit centres where there used to be one.
True, it meant that American consumers now had to eat these genetically
modified foods, like it or not -- and since the United States exports huge
amounts of food, all sorts of foreigners had to eat them, too. Moreover,
Monsanto needed a lot of farmers to commit to Round-up Ready seeds before
its patent on Round-up herbicide expired, so there wasn't too much time for
lengthy trials to see whether its GM products were safe for the consumer
and the environment.
Mr. Shapiro became one of the biggest contributors of "soft money" to Bill
Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. Next thing you know, he's special
trade adviser to the President. Getting GM products onto the shelves of
American supermarkets was a no-brainer -- the U.S. media are half asleep,
and the public doesn't seem to care what it eats so long as the portions
are huge -- and Canadian consumers didn't pose much of a problem, either.
Europeans, on the other hand, were deeply suspicious of these "Frankenstein
foods," mainly because they had just been through a major health scare over
bovine spongiform encephalitis (mad cow disease), which is transmitted from
cattle to humans through the consumption of infected beef. Ten years ago,
all the experts, apart from a few maverick scientists, were sure that BSE
could not cross the species barrier and infect people -- but the alarmist
mavericks were right. And that explains, according to John Durant,
professor of public understanding at Imperial College, London, why "people
in Europe [are now] very sensitive to new technologies in the food supply
industry, and very wary of scientists and government attempts to reassure
Monsanto dealt with European fears (or rather tried to override them) by
systematically mixing GM and non-GM products together before exporting
them. When the Europeans objected, demanding clear segregation and
labelling of GM foods, Mr. Shapiro got his good buddy Bill Clinton to
threaten a trade war, and they quickly caved in. (Leaked New Zealand
government documents from early 1998 show a similar pattern, with
Washington threatening to pull out of a potential free-trade agreement if
New Zealand went ahead with its plans for labelling and testing genetically
Late 1998, in retrospect, was probably the high noon of Monsanto's
incipient world empire. Thirty per cent of the U.S. soybean crop and 15 per
cent of its corn was grown from Round-up Ready seeds last year, with both
figures set to double in the next two years. An orgy of acquisitions,
including corn-seed producer DeKalb Genetics Corp., grain-trading and
processed-foods giant Cargill Inc., and Unilever's crop-breeding unit,
which specializes in hybrid wheats, turned Monsanto into the world's
dominant biotech company, with an estimated worth of $35 billion (U.S.), up
sixfold in five years.
Monsanto also bought cottonseed company Delta & Pine Land last year for
$4-billion, thus acquiring its "terminator seed technology": a genetic
modification that prevents seeds harvested from GM plants from germinating
if replanted. This is a technology without much relevance in North America,
where most farmers buy all their seed anyway, but it was vital to
Monsanto's plans in the Third World. It also turned out to be a flashpoint
"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." More precisely, 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 hectare.
"The terminator gene will pose a serious threat to Indian agriculture,"
warned Babagouda Patil, India's Minister of Rural Development; in Karnataka
state, the farmers' association launched Operation Cremate Monsanto and
burned out two experimental fields of GM cotton. In Britain, meanwhile,
Arpad Pusztai, a professor at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen,
reported in April that an experiment in which laboratory rats were fed
genetically modified potatoes had caused weakened immune systems and damage
to vital organs.
The protests from the Third World, however, were drowned out by a major
advertising campaign claiming that GM crops were the answer to the threat
of global famine. (This is tripe, as the world has plenty of food -- the
problem is getting it into the hands of the poor -- but it sounds better
than saying GM foods will raise the profits of biotech firms and farmers in
the rich countries.) And the inconvenient British researcher was forced
into retirement, with various experts saying his research was "muddled."
On the surface, the plan for global domination seemed to be unfolding
serenely. And then, on Feb. 12, a group of 20 scientists from 13 countries
published a memorandum demanding the immediate rehabilitation of Dr.
Pusztai, and expressing support for his tentative conclusion, financed by a
$2.4-million grant from the British government's Scottish Office, that GM
potatoes had damaged the kidneys, thymus, spleen and gut of laboratory rats
after only 10 days of feeding trials, and weakened their immune systems.
That memorandum ignited a firestorm of protest in Britain that forced the
government to postpone authorizing the first commercial GM crops for at
least a year, until the autumn of 2000, and may soon lead to a three-year
moratorium. Last week, the European Commission blocked the sale or growth
anywhere in Europe of two GM cottons that Monsanto markets in the United
States, its third and fourth decisions in a row blocking the release into
the environment of a genetically modified organism.
On Wednesday, Monsanto was fined $25,000 by a British court for "genetic
pollution": inadequate barriers between an experimental field of GM oilseed
rape and adjacent fields of natural crops. The free ride in public opinion
is over -- but what are the real risks?
The direct fears can be summed up under three headings: "Frankenstein
foods," "genetic pollution," and "green concrete." In each case, the
anxieties arise not so much from what is known, but rather from what is not
yet known about the possible consequences of this massive and ultra-rapid
move into GM crops.
The latter two concerns have been relatively easy for the biotechnology
industry to dismiss, since they tend to divide people along familiar lines,
with the pragmatists usually outnumbering the greens. If the end result of
adding alien genes to create crops resistant to herbicides and insect
infestations is fields where there are no other plants, few insects, and
thus hardly any birds, just the GM monoculture (the "green concrete"
phenomenon) . . . well, modern intensive agriculture has travelled a long
way down that road already. And most people never see the fields anyway.
Same goes, pretty much, for "genetic pollution." Scientists and
environmentalists may worry about the risk that the altered genes that
confer resistance to herbicides might get into other plants as well,
creating a generation of "superweeds" that require bigger and bigger doses
of weed killer to control. It was Monsanto's failure to ensure adequate
safeguards against that danger (a six-metre gap between GM and normal
crops) that resulted in Wednesday's fine. But, once again, the danger is
too obscure and distant to mobilize popular opinion -- whereas any
suggestion that GM foods are a threat to human health is (in
public-relations terms) an absolute killer.
The tests that have caused such alarm on this front were started in 1996 by
Dr. Pusztai, an international authority on lectins (natural poisons that
plants produce as a defence against predators). Competing against 28 other
tenders, he won an official contract to conduct research into the human
nutritional consequences of GM foods -- which, as a former senior Scottish
Office official involved in commissioning the project recently explained to
The Guardian, were receiving "little regard" at the time.
Dr. Pusztai, a respected scientist with 35 years at the Rowett Research
Institute and 270 scientific papers to his credit, probably won the
competition because of his expertise with lectins, which are natural
candidates for genetic manipulation since they confer protection against
insects. He had the biology department of Durham University prepare a GM
potato strain that incorporated genetic instructions for the manufacture of
lectins, and began feeding it to rats. At the same time, he fed another
group of rats with normal potatoes that were simply spiked with lectins.
All the rats suffered some damage, since lectins are poisonous -- but the
stunted growth and damage to the immune system were worse in those given
the GM potatoes. Moreover, the researchers began to suspect that the
culprit was not the lectin gene itself, but rather the virus promoter, the
"light switch" that GM companies use to activate the inserted genes. And
the particular promoter used in the potatoes was the cauliflower mosaic
virus -- which has already been used in most GM products on the market.
These were highly provisional and preliminary results, but Dr. Pusztai (by
no means a dogmatic opponent of genetic engineering) was alarmed enough to
seek further research financing -- which was refused. He was given
permission by the institute's director, Philip James, to speak on British
television in January of last year, and again in April. On the latter
occasion, Dr. Pusztai said he would not eat GM foods himself and that it
was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs."
In the ensuing outcry, Mr. James defended Dr. Pusztai on the first day --
and, on the second, suspended him, condemned his research techniques, made
him sign a gag order, and forced him to retire. An audit report conducted
by the Rowett Institute in August, while exonerating Dr. Pusztai of the
charge that his research methodology was bad, did not link GM potatoes to
any health risks. But Dr. Pusztai, who was then given access again to his
own research data, strongly reconfirmed his findings.
There the matter rested until Feb. 12, when the 20 scientists (including
two who had worked at the Rowett Institute) published their letter of
support for Dr. Pusztai. And then all hell broke loose in the British media.
One signatory, Ronald Finn, a former president of the British Society of
Allergy and Environmental Medicine, told a London press conference: "We in
the U.K. have just had a very narrow escape following the epidemic of mad
cow disease. I think we have probably got away with it. We have been warned
once . . . and we should be extremely careful to monitor any further major
change in food technology."
Another signatory, Jonathan Rhodes, professor of medicine at Liverpool
University, went further. "One key problem that keeps coming back time and
again is that regulation of food is nothing like as strict as regulation of
drugs. And when you start tinkering around with the genetic structure of
food, you have to move toward thinking of food products as pharmaceuticals."
So what happens now that the cat is out of the bag? For there is not just a
lot of money at stake. There is also the conviction on the part of various
Western governments, most notably those of the United States, Canada and
Britain, that GM technologies will bring them enormous trade benefits in
the next century, and thus must suffer no major restriction or delay.
In Britain, it's probably a lost cause. Prime Minister Tony Blair is an
enthusiastic supporter of GM foods because biotechnology firms contribute
generously to his Labour Party, because his friend Bill Clinton phones him
>from Washington to lean on him, and because he genuinely believes that GM
technologies will assist in a British postindustrial renaissance.
Government officials and ministers have met companies involved in GM foods
81 times (23 with Monsanto alone) since Labour was elected in 1997, and
more than $22-million has been earmarked in aid for British biotech firms.
As part of the damage-control exercise, Mr. Blair let it be known that he
himself ate GM foods and believed them to be safe (though his spokesman
refused to be drawn on whether the Blair children also ate them). But it
won't help. The British government is now in full retreat before an aroused
public, and neither threats nor blandishments from Washington will keep it
Recent decisions in Strasbourg suggest that the tide in the rest of Europe
is running in the same direction. Last week, the European Parliament voted
to impose strict corporate liability and mandatory insurance on companies
that release GM organisms into the environment, and for much stronger rules
on the segregation and labelling of GM foods.
In the United States, however, turning the tide is much more difficult.
Monsanto, which makes large donations to both the Democratic and Republican
parties and to congressional legislators on food-safety committees, has
become a virtual retirement home for members of the Clinton administration.
Trade and environmental protection administrators and other Clinton
appointees have left to take up lucrative positions on Monsanto's board,
while Monsanto and other biotech executives pass through the same revolving
door to take up positions in the administration and its regulatory bodies.
(Mr. Clinton has even praised Monsanto by name in a State of the Union
"The Food and Drug Administration," says Betty Martini of the consumer
group Mission Possible, "is so closely linked to the biotech industry now
that it could be described as their Washington branch office." And the
industry has got its way: U.S. law does not require that GM foods be
labelled as such, and 14 states have been persuaded to pass virtually
identical "veggie libel" laws preventing the "spreading of false and
damaging information about food."
So whether GM foods are safe or not, most Americans will be eating them for
a long time to come. They will have difficulty even in finding out which
foods contain GM products (though most processed foods already do), and
they may discover that questioning the safety of any specific GM food
publicly leads to a close encounter with a large firm of lawyers. In the
rest of the world, however, the backlash is growing fast.
This week in Cartagena, Colombia, diplomats from 175 countries open the
final stage of negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol that is meant to
regulate the movement of GM products between countries. The biotech
industries, with strong backing from the U.S. and Canadian governments, are
aiming for a weak treaty that gives no country the right to keep GM
products out in order to shelter its population from the socio-economic
impact of industrialized, capital-intensive forms of agriculture, or even
on health and environmental grounds.
But the Europeans are starting to waver, and large numbers of NGOs are in
Colombia to push for a protocol that gives countries the right to say no to
the import and release of GM organisms, requires a full assessment of the
possible effects on farmers' livelihoods, as well as health and
environmental impacts, and makes biotech multinationals responsible for the
legal consequences (including compensation) if something goes wrong. And
most of the Third World has already figured out what side it is on.
Whatever the real problems with GM foods, the strategy for their high-speed
introduction 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 levels, and the reason is not at all
mysterious. It is because the biotech firms literally tried to shove the
stuff down people's throats without giving them either choice or
In the words of Malcolm Walker, chairman of the British food-store chain
Iceland Foods (which now has banned all GM foods from its shelves), the
U.S. food giants' tactic of mixing GM and ordinary soya to make sure it was
all contaminated was "secretive, devious, and a terrible thing to do.
People want food they can trust."
Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian-born writer based in London, is a regular
contributor to Focus.
Copyright © 1999 The Globe and Mail
[End Part 2]
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