1) Why Americans are happy to swallow the GM food experiment
By Julian Borger
Saturday February 20, 1999
Americans have never had a food scare, and the industry is backed by the food
regulator and has strong links to the Clinton presidency
America's vegetable aisles bloom like a multicoloured banner for the Land of
Plenty. In a typical supermarket in the nation's capital, peppers, sweetcorn,
potatoes and onions overflow in the produce section.
For Vic Foster, stocking up on a day off, it all looks good. He is not a
vegetarian but sees himself as a health-conscious consumer who rarely eats red
meat, due to the possible risks of heart disease and cancer. He has faith in
greens, but admits having not given much thought to the possibility his
purchases might have been genetically modified.
'The way I look at it is that if there was any threat to the consumer, we'd be
told about it, like tobacco or salt. I mean we have the most consumer-oriented
system in the world,' said Mr Foster, a telecommunications engineer.
His assumption that all is well is representative of US opinion. In a survey
this month by the International Food Information Council, 62 per cent of those
questioned said they would be more likely to buy vegetables that had been
genetically engineered to taste better or fresher.
Compared to Europe, there is little public debate on the issue of
genetically-modified (GM) foods, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
does not require food labels to inform consumers when a product has been
Consequently, agriculture has undergone an extraordinary revolution with none
of the sound and fury that has accompanied parallel changes in computer
and Mr Foster's trade, telecommunications. More than 50 million acres of
farmland are currently sown with GM foods, mostly soya, corn, cotton and
potatoes. Four years ago, that acreage was zero. More than half the soya
products on sale in the US have been genetically engineered, as have 75 per
cent of processed foods.
According to Mark Hertzgaard, author of Earth Odyssey - a book on the global
environment, published in the UK next month - the principal cause of this
resounding silence is political.
'Corporations have a greater control of the debate here,' Mr Hertzgaard said.
'It's cultural here. Everything is already wrapped in plastic. You take it for
granted. It's like the air you breathe.' The links between the GM industry and
the government have been carefully cultivated. The dominant corporation in the
field, Monsanto, a $7.5 billion (£5 billion) giant with 25,000 employees, has
covered all its bases, making significant financial contributions to both
Republicans and Democrats. It successfully lobbied the Reagan
1986 to persuade it that no new legislation was required to regulate research
and production of GM foods. Congress was thus kept out of the argument.
Monsanto's links with the Clinton presidency are even stronger. One of its
board members is Mickey Kantor, the chairman of Mr Clinton's 1992 presidential
campaign and a former chief trade negotiator. Marcia Hale, another former
Clinton aide, is the company's international regulatory director. When
brought a group of Irish journalists to the US recently to combat a spate of
bad publicity, the visit included a tour of the White House.
Administration officials have taken the lead in lobbying for Monsanto and the
rest of the GM food industry, in the trade confrontation with Europe over the
issue. Even Al Gore, the supposedly environmentally-friendly vice president,
was brought on board when it came to lobbying Paris to permit the sowing of GM
crops in France.
An analysis of Monsanto's workings in the St Louis Post-Dispatch in December
found that 'where Monsanto seeks to sow, the US government clears the ground'.
Significantly, at the cusp of the Bush and Clinton administrations, when the
FDA was drawing up guidelines for deciding whether GM foods should be
one of the key decision-makers was Michael Taylor, who had hitherto been a
lawyer for Monsanto.
The FDA determined that whether a food had been genetically engineered was not
a 'material fact'. James Maryansky, its biotechnology co-ordinator, said the
FDA would not 'require things to be on the label just because a consumer might
want to know them'. Some government officials also argue that GM labelling
would refer not to the nature of the product itself, which has 'substantial
equivalence' to naturally-grown vegetables, but to a process - and therefore
does not have to be signposted.
The FDA rules mean that even risk-assessment data can also be withheld as
'confidential business information'; in some states food companies can sue
competitors under 'veggie libel' laws, if they label their products as having
no genetically-engineered ingredients, on the basis that this might imply
superiority to GM products.
The more optimistic health and environmental activists believe that although
Monsanto and the GM industry may have won almost all the battles so far, the
war has only just begun. Jeremy Rifkin, the head of the Foundation on Economic
Trends, points out that US activists began the world-wide campaign against the
first major GM issue, Bovine Growth Hormone when it began to be heavily
the dairy industry in 1994. And two years ago, when the FDA ruled that GM
could be labelled 'organic', 250,000 Americans wrote in to complain. Since
then, Mr Rifkin admits, interest has fallen off. 'Journalists say to me: This
is a non-story.'
The US has yet to undergo a serious food scare on the scale of Britain's brush
with BSE, so consumer faith in food producers continues. But attitudes have
also shown themselves extremely brittle and could change radically in the
of a mishap. The honeymoon between the GM food industry is already showing
signs of tarnish, after incidents of crop failure; Monsanto blamed weather,
in Mississippi cotton farmers successfully sued for damages when their
genetically-altered crop failed in 1997.
Consumer activists argue the relationship with farmers may worsen further in
the aftermath of developments like 'The Terminator' - a GM seed which
self-destructs after its first crop, so farmers are obliged to return to the
manufacturers each season. 'The Terminator seeds turns farmers into junkies.
That's scary,' Mr Hertzgaard said.
But in the absence of some health or production capacity, the industry's
influence and consumer apathy have all but removed the subject from the
Even the bullish Mr Rifkin admits: 'It's going to be a 100-year struggle.'
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