From the Amazon to South Korea to India
Monsanto and the Gene Giants suffered through another disastrous 45 days from March to mid-April. If the biotech industry thought that the worst of their public relations nightmares were over, they were wrong. By the ides of March, even the most stalwart promoters of Frankenfoods, the grain cartels and the Clinton administration, were showing signs of strain. Among the most notable developments:
to Europeand the U.S.A.
Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston
Little Marais, Minnesota
- At an international meeting of entomologists (scientists who study insects) in Basel, Switzerland in March, experts warned that genetically engineered (GE) Bt crops are exuding 10-20 times the amount of toxins contained in conventional (non-GE) Bt sprays, and are harming beneficial insects (such as ladybugs/ladybirds and lacewings) and soil microorganisms, and may likely be harming insect-eating bird populations. The scientists called for a moratorium on commercial planting of Bt crops. Worldwide in 1998 there were 19.3 million acres of Bt crops under cultivation (representing 28% of all GE crops), including 45% of the US cotton crop, 25% of the corn, and 3.5% of the potatoes. For further information on the Basel meeting contact <email@example.com> For info on the Center for Food Safety & Greenpeace lawsuit filed in the U.S. Feb. 18 to remove Bt crops from the market see <www.icta.org>.
- *Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety are contributing to a strategic, precedent-setting seed patenting lawsuit in U.S. federal court. A small farm supply and seed dealer in Iowa, Marvin Redenius, is suing Pioneer Hi-Bred International (the largest seed company in the world, now being bought out by Dupont), claiming that agricultural seed and biotechnology patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office since 1985 are illegal because the U.S. Congress never intended that key food crops be patented. Traditionally the U.S. Congress has held that seed companies have a right to use one another's seed for breeding purposes and that farmers have the right to save and replant seeds. According to the March 3 Wall Street Journal, "Biotech Industry Shivers at Threat to Seed Patents" the lawsuit has thrown Monsanto and the other biotech corporations into a panic. As the WSJ puts it the lawsuit "places at risk much of the billions of dollars in investments by companies such as Monsanto Co., Dupont Co., and Novartis." Stay tuned for further developments.
- British poll results announced March 11 in the Daily Record found that "nine out of 10 shoppers would switch supermarkets to avoid genetically modified (GM) food," and would be willing to travel "up to double the distance" to a supermarket which banned gene-foods. On the same day the Church of Scotland issued a five-year study in which they condemned the "unethical" practices of U.S. and transnational biotech corporations. Donald Bruce, Church spokesperson, stated in the Aberdeen Press and Journal: "There is indignation from people that they are not being given a choice. It smacks of imperialism -- but instead of a Boston Tea Party, this time we could have a Rotterdam Soya Bean Fest with soya and maize dumped into the North Sea."
- On March 11, leading scientists and activists from over a dozen nations (Europe, North America, Japan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India) meeting at a "Biodevastation" conference in India vowed to "bring down" Monsanto and the other biotechnology transnationals and build a global mass movement for sustainable and organic agriculture. Ronnie Cummins summed up the battle that civil society faces at a well-attended press event in New Delhi: "We stand on the edge of a Biotech Century where a runaway technology wielded by Monsanto and other transnationals threaten food security and biodiversity in both the North and the South." The India "Biodevastation 2" conference was organized by Dr. Vandana Shiva, as a follow-up to last year's "Biodevastation 1" conference in St. Louis. On May 19-20 in Seattle, Washington the Edmonds Institute will be sponsoring "Biodevastation 3," which will coincide with the annual convention across town of America's trade association of genetic engineering corporations, BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization). For further details on Biodevastation 3, contact Beth Burrows at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
- On March 11, the Consumers Union of Japan issued a report on increasing anti-GE food activities in Japan. The CUJ announced that 2300 of Japan's 3300 local government assemblies have now called on the Tokyo government to require mandatory labeling of GE foods. In addition two million Japanese consumers have signed a petition to the government on GE labeling. Despite mounting public concern, Tokyo has already approved the importation of 22 GE foods and six food additives. The CUJ and other citizen groups are especially alarmed about GE industry plans to grow gene-altered rice in Japan -- where nine million tons are consumed annually. For more info contact <email@example.com>. On March 14, the Los Angeles Times ran a major story entitled "Japanese Choke on American Biofood," in which they noted increasing alarm by U.S. authorities over growing Japanese opposition to $11 billion of unlabeled American food exports, much of it containing genetically engineered ingredients. The Los Angeles Times story called attention to a 1997 government survey in which 80% of Japanese consumers expressed "reservations" about GE foods, with 92.5% supporting mandatory labeling.
- Another major GE food safety controversy erupted in the U.K. on March 12, when researchers at the York Nutritional Laboratory announced that soy food allergies among the British public unexpectedly rose 50% in 1998, coinciding with a large increase in imported foods from the U.S. containing genetically engineered soybeans. Last year Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans constituted 32% of the U.S. soybean crop. Scientists have warned for years that foreign proteins, most of which have never been consumed by humans, gene-spliced into common foods could set off an epidemic of food allergies. In the U.S., eight percent of children, and two percent of adults already suffer from food allergies -- with symptoms ranging from mild unpleasantness to sudden death. British biotech expert Dr. Mae-Won Ho of the Open University has warned that Monsanto's RRS soybeans could pose serious food allergy problems. As Ho stated in a legal affidavit last August, Monsanto's RRS soybeans: "contain genes from a virus, a soil bacterium and from a petunia (plant), none of which have been in our food before... The soil bacterium, Agrobacterium sp. (CP4EPSPS)... is unlike any other protein that humans have eaten. And there is no reliable method for predicting its allergenic potential. Allergic reactions typically occur only some time after the subject is sensitized by initial exposure to the allergen."
- The newspaper, the Independent, reported on March 14 that the UK government had entered into secret negotiations with biotech companies for a voluntary three-year ban on growing GE crops in Britain. The Independent noted that the Tony Blair government was wary of forcing Monsanto and the other biotech companies into an involuntary ban for fear of trade reprisals by the U.S.. And on March 17, the giant Sainsbury's supermarket chain in the UK announced that they were joining forces with six other leading EU grocery chains -- Marks and Spencer (UK); Carrefour (France); Effelunga (Italy); Migros (Switzerland); Delhaize (Belgium), and Superquinn (Ireland) -- to form a consortium to buy non-GE foods and food ingredients. This move, characterized by the EU business association Eurocommerce as "very significant," comes in response to increasing consumer demands for a ban on GE foods. Other major chains and food and beverage producers in the EU (Asda, Iceland, and Waitrose in the UK; Unilever in Germany; 90% of all supermarkets in Austria; Carlsberg beer in Denmark; among many others) have already announced bans on GE products.
- The UK New Scientist stated in its 2/29 issue that increasing demands for certified GE-free soya, corn, and rapeseed (canola) oil are bringing world market prices down in most cases to within 6-10% of the price of conventional (co-mingled) grains and oils. This in turn has alarmed American grain exporters and agribusiness representatives, who have begun to warn U.S. farmers that "intense opposition" to GE foods in the EU and Japan threatens the U.S. export market and may soon lead to requirements for crop segregation, GE residue testing, and labeling. At the National Grain and Feed Association convention in San Francisco on March 20, according to Reuters, farmers were warned that despite pressure from the U.S. government on the EU, Japan, and other nations for open markets and no GE labeling, opposition to GE crops around the world was increasing. (See the CFS web site <www.purefood.org> for more information).
- In a related development, grain export giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) announced in early March a program for segregation and extensive marketing of GE-free "identity preserved" soybeans. ADM emphasized that their new GE-free soybean program was in response to global "customer demand." In this context of increasing public controversy and market volatility, German biotech company AgrEvo announced in mid-March that they were postponing commercial planting of GE Liberty Link soybeans in the U.S.A because of the lack of "import clearances" or approvals in overseas markets. The American Soybean Association said they approved of AgrEvo's precautionary move, voicing concern about the loss of $4.5 billion in U.S. annual soy exports. Up until now the U.S. has been able to export shipments of unlabeled, non-segregated soybeans worth $2.5 billion to the EU every year, as well as $1 billion to Japan.
- The heavily indentured U.S. scientific establishment --personified in this case by the National Academy of Sciences -- announced in March that it would set up an "expert panel" to evaluate cuurent EPA regulations on GE crops (such as Bt crops) containing their own pesticides. After publishing the proposed list of scientists who would make up this NAS "expert panel" (almost all of whom are rabid supporters of genetic engineering), the NAS came under heavy fire from public interest groups such as the Consumers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the Pesticide Action Network, RAFI, and the Campaign for Food Safety. In response the NAS has made overtures to a well-known biotech critic, Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, to be added to the panel. Of course this token gesture is not enough. Until the proposed expert panelists publicly reveal their ties to the biotech industry, and the panel is reconstituted with at least 90% of scientists being truly "objective," the NAS advisory panel will continue to be criticized for what it is, a "scientific greenwash" of a dangerous and currently out-of-control technology.
- On March 15 leading French non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Greenpeace and Ecoropa, called for the French government to follow the lead of the UK and Denmark and impose a national ban on the planting of all GE crops. Etienne Vernet of Ecoropa told Reuters that the French public demand "a moratorium on all types of genetically modified food for three to five years." In response to growing public pressure, the French government recently implemented a ban on growing transgenic beets and rapeseed. Other EU nations with partial or comprehensive bans on growing or importing GE crops include Austria, Greece, and Luxembourg. GE crops are also banned in Norway. On April 1, the Greece government announced a ban on planting GE crops and vowed to join with other EU nations to prevent further approvals of GE foods. EU authorities have rejected all new applications for GE products since April 1998, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government and biotech transnationals. Four biotech applications are currently deadlocked -- a Monsanto corn, a Zeneca tomato, and two Monsanto Bt cotton applications. On March 22, a leading Spanish farmers organization, COAG, with 200,000 members, called for a complete moratorium on GE foods and crops.
- South Korean students and environmentalists occupied and blockaded a government-funded biotech greenhouse on March 12. Hanging a large banner and chaining themselves to the entrance, activists told the Korean press that they wanted an immediate ban on the cultivation or importation of GE foods and crops. Before being arrested by police, a demonstrator told the media: "We're here today to let the government and those researchers involved know how the public feels about their incompetence, arrogance, and lack of responsibility." Since December 1998 -- facing mounting public pressure -- the South Korean government has begun developing national regulations for mandatory labeling of GE foods and crops. On March 25 the Malaysian government directed an advisory committee to come up with a draft for national biosafety legislation within three months. For further info on anti-biotech and safe food activism in the Asia and Pacific region see the Pesticide Action Network's web site <www.poptel.org.uk/panap/>.
- On March 16, Brazil's main commercial newspaper, Gazeta Mercantil, reported that Monsanto had withdrawn its patent applications for five varieties of Roundup Ready soybeans. Although Monsanto said its withdrawal was merely for "technical" reasons, Gazeta Mercantil pointed out that Monsanto is losing the biotech debate in Brazil. Among recent reverses for Monsanto: a statement by SBPC, the national association of scientists, as well as Brazilian consumer protection agencies, opposing RRS; a ban on growing RRS soybeans in the large soya-growing state of Rio Grande do Sul; and the decision of the enforcement agency of the Environment Ministry, IBAMA, to join Greenpeace and the NGO IDEC in a court battle to ban RRS soybeans. Meanwhile Brazil continues to export increasing quantities of GE-free soybeans to the EU, in effect taking market share away from the U.S.. With 160 million people, Brazil represents the most strategic market for GE production and consumption in Latin America. In a related development, informed sources have told CFS News that the government of Chile -- stung by criticisms that it sided with the U.S. in the recent sabotage of a Biosafety Protocol treaty in Colombia -- has begun deliberations to develop a set of mandatory labeling regulations for GE foods.
- On March 21 an official scientific advisory panel in the EU recommended a continuation of Europe's ban on Monsanto's controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST), a GE hormone injected into 5% of dairy cows in the U.S. to force them to give more milk. The panel warned that the milk from cows injected with rBGH contains up to 4-5 times the levels of a potent chemical hormone messenger called IGF-1, which has been linked to increased human risks for prostate, breast, and colon cancer. The U.S. is the only country in the industrialized world to have approved rBGH, despite widespread consumer opposition and continuing charges of conflict of interest in the FDA. For information on the Center for Food Safety legal petition to have rBGH banned in the U.S. see <www.icta.org> On a related note award-winning U.S. TV journalists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre's lawsuit against Fox TV (who fired them last year after they produced a hard-hitting series on rBGH for Fox TV) begins on May 10 in Tampa, Florida. See <www.foxbghsuit.com>
- The Wisconsin State Journal revealed on March 24 that a Wisconsin-based organic food manufacturer, Prima Terra, had located the source of "genetic pollution" in a shipment of 80.000 bags of organic corn chips which were destroyed in Holland earlier this year after "testing positive" for traces of GE corn. According to Prima Terra, one of its suppliers, an organic corn farmer in Texas, was the victim of genetic drift, after GE corn pollen blew onto the farm's certified organic corn fields from a neighboring farm. Genetically altered corn pollen can travel for miles in the wind and integrate its DNA into the genome of conventional plants.
- According to 3/30 posting on the internet by ASEED, the EU youth activist network, Hungarian authorities have at least temporarily denied permission for Monsanto, AgrEvo, and Novartis to conduct field tests of GE corn and sugar beets. Anti-GE public awareness and activism are slowly but steadily increasing in Hungary and Eastern Europe. For further information contact ASEED <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- The English folk band "Seize The Day" have released a new song on the Internet called "Food 'n' Health 'n' Hope," a scathing satirical attack on Monsanto. To hear the song, copy it, and distribute it, copyright free, tune your internet browser to <www.seizetheday.org>.
- In late-March Amazon tribal leaders, wearing shell necklaces and bird feathers, carried out a protest at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., demanding a revocation of a "bio-pirated" patent granted to U.S. scientists for a traditional medicine and hallucinogenic plant called Ayahuasca. According to a March 31 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Bill Lambrecht, universities and biotech companies such as Monsanto are finding it harder and harder to "bioprospect" in indigenous areas due to increasing opposition by Native groups.
- In a major, perhaps precedent-setting victory for the anti-GE movement in Britain, UK prosecutors on March 29 dropped all charges against two defendants, Jacklyn Sheedy and Liz Snook, who were on trial for destroying a test plot of AgrEvo's GE corn last year. The AgrEvo test site threatened to contaminate a field of organic corn planted nearby. According to informed sources, the prosecution and the British government feared that if the two campaigners were put on trial they would likely have been found innocent by the jury, thereby setting a "dangerous" precedent for those contemplating future direct action. Sheedy and Snook faced up to ten years in prison for "conspiracy to commit criminal damage." And in a related development, an Irish judge on April 1 granted probation to six of seven activists accused of destroying a test plot of Monsanto's GE sugar beets last June in County Wexford. Meanwhile in early April a 1700 square meter test plot of GE rapeseed was sprayed with pesticides and destroyed by activists in Giessen, Germany. This was the fourth time since 1997 that this particular test site had been destroyed.
- Portugal's Burger King restaurants announced a ban on GE foods on April 7. A number of major UK fast-food chains (McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken) made similar announcements in February. Informed sources have told CFS News that even McDonald's U.S.A. has the jitters over GE -- with McD's franchise owners in Wisconsin and Minnesota telling potato processors and their growers not to deliver Monsanto's Bt potatoes to them. Farmers also report that Monsanto's miracle Bt potatoes aren't doing that well in the fields, with Minnesota potato growers complaining the mutant Bt spuds won't germinate until the temperature hits 50 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to 40 degrees for conventional varieties.
- On April 8 biotech and anti-organic propagandist Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute got a pie in the face as he was delivering a lecture on biotechnology at Grinnell College in Iowa. According to a press release, the Central Iowa Anarchist (CIA) cell of the Biotic Baking Brigade carried out "Operation Avery's Savory" as a "response to Avery's shameless and flagrant support of biotechnology and industrial factory farming." A week earlier in Somerset, England, Novartis PR man Steve Smith was hit by a custard pie at a meeting on GE foods. As Smith rushed to the toilet to gain his composure, he was creamed by yet another custard pie.
The U.S. mass media are finally starting to wake up to the controversy over genetically engineered foods and crops. Beginning last Oct. 25, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a major feature story, "Playing God in the Garden," critical of Monsanto and ag biotech, the American news blackout appears to have lifted--at least partially. In recent months objective, and even a few hard-hitting investigative articles, have started to appear in the NYT; the Washington Post (a series by Rick Weiss); the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headquarters for Monsanto (an excellent series of articles by Bill Lambrecht); the Los Angeles Times; Harpers magazine; the Christian Science Monitor; Penthouse magazine; E magazine; and other magazines and papers. Even national TV networks, especially CNN and ABC News (November 9 and December 15, 1998) have started to begin to address the issue. In addition the progressive media--the Nation, Mother Jones, the Progressive, the Progressive Populist, Earth Island Journal, Multinational Monitor, among others -- and community radio stations have recently begun to publish and broadcast articles on the GE controversy. In Canada ag biotech media coverage has been more widespread than the U.S., partly as a result of the major national debate over rBGH. With increased media coverage in North America there is now a steadily increasing awareness on the part of the general public, as well as a number of hopeful signs that a new grassroots mass movement -- anti-GE, anti-industrial agriculture, pro-organic, pro-sustainable--is starting to develop.