After years of watching biotechnology top every community college's list of
favored careers, I'm glad to see unmistakable signs that, in agriculture at
least, the love affair may be stormier than the glossy company brochures
predicted. Worldwide, agricultural biotechnologies are encountering
problems, and biotechnology companies are scared for good reason.
*In Britain, for example, where genetically engineered food labeling is
required, poll results last month showed that nine out of 10 shoppers would
switch supermarkets and travel considerable distances to avoid such food.
*In Japan, 2,300 out of 3,300 local governments have asked the national
government to require mandatory labeling of such food.
*International outrage has mounted against the "terminator gene"
technology, designed to genetically program plants to sterilize themselves.
*A major lawsuit challenges corporations' right to even patent genes in
food, undercutting the profit potential that has spurred billions of
dollars of investments in agricultural biotechnology.
*The National Corn Growers Association acknowledges that U.S. corn sales to
Europe plunged from nearly 70 million bushels in 1997 to less than 3
million last year because the U.S. crop contained a small amount of
genetically engineered corn.
*Maybe most astonishing was multinational grain marketer Archer Daniels
Midland's recent announcements that it will separately market soybeans that
are not genetically engineered and will reject any genetically engineered
corn not accepted in Europe.
Scientists in this field often dismiss consumer objections to agricultural
biotechnologies as hysterical and uninformed, saying that their products
have been thoroughly and scientifically tested and are perfectly safe and
socially responsible. But consumers have solid reasons for their
First, and probably most infuriating to industry researchers, is the issue
of genetically engineered foods' effect on human health. Despite
researchers' assurances that these foods are perfectly safe, consumers
increasingly reject them. In Britain, where soy food allergies rose 50
percent in 1998, consumers are asking whether the culprit was the fact that
32 percent of the U.S. soybean crop that year used Monsanto's genetically
engineered Roundup Ready soybeans. Such concerns arise because gene-
spliced plants incorporate proteins from a wide variety of species not
eaten by humans.
Scientific food safety assurances are particularly insufficient in Europe,
where consumer confidence was trounced by the emergence of Mad Cow Disease
despite scientific and government assurances of food safety.
Environmentalists worry about what happens when genetically changed plants
cross- pollinate with native species. What happens when wildlife eats
genetically engineered plants? How much more herbicide is sprayed when
farmers plant Monsanto seed engineered to allow a plant to resist more of
Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup? When Monsanto and other companies
took the naturally occurring insecticide bacterium Bacillus thuriengensis
(Bt) and spliced its operating mechanism into crops, organic farmers were
concerned that insects would quickly become resistant to Bt, removing a
crucial tool of environmentally sound farming only to serve corporate
interests. These concerns are being borne out in last year's cropping
The pervasive objections to genetically engineered food say less about a
hysterical public than about the astonishing arrogance of corporate
researchers. Why hasn't the biotechnology industry actually asked the
public what it wants? Why did researchers and corporate leaders decide that
making cheap food would outweigh other consumer concerns?
The growing public concerns about agricultural biotechnology are a healthy
sign that consumers can use their pocketbooks to tell biotechnology
corporations what they should have been asked from the start. U.S.
consumers will find it easier to do so when we have the same labeling
restrictions that so many European countries have imposed. We should push
(Copyright (c) Madison Newspapers, Inc. 1999)
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