"Genetically engineered" -- Is Frankenstein Dead?
(A World Round-up)
Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston
Little Marais, Minnesota
Over the past 90 days the Biotech Behemoth has come under unprecedented attack. From New Delhi to New England, from Scandinavia to South Africa, Monsanto and the Gene Giants have been forced to trim their sails and scramble for defensible positions. By September even the heretofore complacent United States began to experience the first waves of Frankenfoods unrest, with no less than nine biotech field test crops sabotaged by eco-guerrillas in California, Minnesota, and New England; announcements by major baby food companies Gerber and Heinz that they were banning genetically engineered (GE) ingredients from their products; chaos in farm communities after grain giant Archer Daniels Midland announced they would not buy soybeans and corn co-mingled with GE varieties; unprecedented media coverage of the gene-foods controversy across the US and Canada; Monsanto's announcement of a partial surrender on the Terminator Technology; and initial discussions in the US Congress and Canadian Parliament on requiring labeling of GE foods.
"Clearly the firestorm of controversy in Europe has spread around the world," said biotech analyst Sano Shimoda, president of BioScience Securities Inc. of Orinda, Calif. "The sparks of the firestorm have landed in the US."
EU Resistance Fans the Flames
In Europe, the Frankenfoods boycott continues full-force with more and more supermarket chains and food manufacturers surrendering to consumer demands to get GE-tainted products off their shelves. Crop uprootings and protests have multiplied across the continent, with French farmers and British, German, Irish, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, Swiss, and Scandinavian consumer and environmental groups leading the charge. Rattling the nerves of the international grain cartel and agribusiness giants, a number of major animal feed companies, meat and poultry producers, and supermarkets have announced bans on GE-derived animal feeds, pet foods, and meat and poultry products. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and other groups initiated in September a "mopping up" campaign to drive GE-contaminated meat and animal feeds completely off the EU market. Industry analysts point out that approximately 50% of all GE crops worldwide are incorporated into animal feed. As Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace International stated on Sept. 16 "The question of whether you can use genetically modified products in animal feed is the next big issue to face Europe...I'm afraid many consumers are not fully aware of how their chicken, for example, is produced using genetically modified material. We'll be working on changing that by the end of the year."
The EU has imported 16 million tons of soybeans over the past 12 months from the US, Argentina, and Brazil. US and Argentina agribusiness corporations are increasingly worried that most of their overseas major buyers will soon refuse to buy any soybeans, corn, or soy or corn-derived animal feeds whatsoever which are not guaranteed "GE-free." Almost no US corn (nor Canadian canola oil) has being exported to the EU for the past two years because of consumer resistance. Meanwhile Brazil, where a GE ban is in effect, is exporting record-breaking amounts of soya to the EU; while Australia is exporting increasing amounts of non-GE canola to Japan.
Public concern about the safety of GE foods and crops reached a new level of intensity in Europe in mid-October after key articles appeared in two prestigious scientific journals, Lancet (by Drs. Arpad Pusztai and Stanley Ewen) and Nature (by Drs. Eric Millstone, Eric Brunner, and Sue Mayer). The Lancet article basically reaffirms the preliminary results of Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosive research findings last year that lectin-spliced genetically engineered potatoes and a commonly-used viral "vector" contained in many GE foods, derived from the Cauliflower Mosiac Virus (CaMv), may likely present serious health hazards for humans. The October 7 Nature article, "Beyond Substantial Equivalence," demolishes the pseudo-scientific rationale of the biotech industry and international regulatory agencies that Frankenfoods and crops are "substantially equivalent" to their non-genetically engineered counterparts, and therefore require neither stringent pre-market safety-testing, nor mandatory labeling. Lancet has come under intense criticism from the biotech industry since publishing the Pusztai piece in its Oct. 15 issue.
Industry leader Monsanto is literally on their knees in the UK. In several closed-door meetings in September with the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic farming organization, and Friends of the Earth, Monsanto begged forgiveness for bullying its critics and offered to help organic farmers carry out more effective crop breeding by sharing its proprietary data on plant genomes. As the UK newspaper, the Independent, put it in their October 3 edition:
"[Monsanto] is in full retreat, its products rejected, its share prices well down, and even the American heartland that forms the foundation of its business is now increasingly at risk. It seems to be able to do nothing right. Last week it announced that it had found plants that could make a green plastic to be put on compost heaps to rot, only for environmentalists to accuse it of trying to spin its way out of trouble and to point out that genes from the new plants could spread to contaminate others."
Resistance in Asia and the Pacific
In Asia and the Pacific, biotech opposition has intensified significantly over the past six months, forcing marketplace changes and prodding government officials to call for mandatory labeling and more stringent safety-testing of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Throughout the region there has been an upsurge in protests, public debate, and mobilization efforts by anti-biotech campaigners and consumer and farm groups. Among the more serious recent blows to the GE Colossus in the Asia and Pacific region are the following:
- Despite biotech industry and US government complaints, mounting public pressure has forced regulatory authorities in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan to begin to implement programs of mandatory labeling of gene-altered foods. Although consumer and public interest organizations in these countries have criticized proposed labeling regulations as incomplete and riddled with loopholes, US trade officials are "concerned" about the possible loss of "billions of dollars" in US grain exports to the region, according to a Reuters story on September 1. Similar demands for labeling are building in Malaysia and the Philippines, while farm and consumer organizations in India have called for an outright ban on GE crops and imports. Indonesia and Pakistan officials have also recently announced plans for more stringent safety-testing of GE imports, while Thailand government authorities announced on Oct. 18 it will ban imported GE seeds "pending clear scientific proof that they are safe," according to the Associated Press. "Fears reached new levels last week when a shipment of genetically modified wheat believed to be from the United States" mysteriously arrived in Thailand, according to the AP story. The EU has warned Thailand that its rice exports may be rejected if shipments are found to be contaminated with GE rice varieties now being grown in that country.
- Reuters reported on Oct. 15 that Australia's $14 billion farm export sector is shunning GE crops because of fears of a "consumer backlash." Despite heavy biotech industry lobbying the country has still not allowed the commercialization of a wide range of GE products, including sugar cane, beer, and canola. The only GE crop presently being grown on a large-scale in Australia is cotton.
- Major food and beverage companies in Japan -- following the pattern of food and animal feed corporations in Europe -- have begun implementing bans on GE soybean and corn ingredients in their products. Kirin Brewery, Sapporo Breweries, Itochu Feed Mills, Nippon Flour Mills, Nissin, Fuji Oil Co., and the Japan Tofu Association, among others have decided to either ban GE ingredients completely or put a major marketing effort into sourcing and selling GE-free products. A division of Honda Motor Company announced they were building a soy-handling plant in Ohio to supply the sharply rising demand for non-GE soybeans in Japan. Interpress on Oct. 14 reported a similar move by Pioneer-Hybrid Japan, who announced a major business venture to import non-GE soybeans from the US. In the same article Interpress called attention to a 1999 poll in Tokyo where "90% of those surveyed expressed deep concern over the growing trend toward biotechnology." Japan is the largest importer of food products and animal feeds in the world.
Dow Jones reported on October 5 that the Japanese futures market (the price buyers are willing to pay for future deliveries) for US soybeans which were harvested last year are "declining rapidly" because last year's soybeans "are mixed with large amounts of GM (genetically modified) products." According to Dow Jones "Japanese [grain] traders are rapidly switching to imports of GM-free soybeans." With giant importers in the EU, Japan, and other nations now demanding GE-free foods, more large transnational grain traders are expected to follow the example of Archer Daniels Midland, who announced in September they expect US farmers and grain elevators to start separating out and segregating GE from non-GE grains. Archer Daniels Midland purchases fully 1/3 of all corn, soybeans, and wheat produced in the US.
Storm Clouds Over Latin America and Africa
Monsanto and the GE industry are now coming under fire as well in Latin America and Africa, once considered "secure areas" for bio-colonial ventures. Besides mounting criticism over the Terminator and Traitor Seed technologies (see <www.rafi.org>) and monopoly patents, Biotech Inc. is beginning to feel the heat over issues of safety-testing, environmental impact, and labeling. Among the more significant developments:
- In Mexico, the ruling PRI party has been forced by mounting public pressure since May (when the Monarch butterfly story broke) to proclaim -- at least in rhetoric, if not in reality -- that genetically engineered corn cannot be imported into Mexico from the US. On July 16, Interpress reported that two government scientific bodies on biodiversity and technology warned of threats to Mexico's native corn varieties from field tests or imports of Bt or herbicide-resistant corn varieties from the US, and called for both an import ban and a planting ban. Mexico is the world center for corn biodiversity with 25,000 native varieties. As Greenpeace Mexico told the Financial Times on Oct. 12, referring to GE corn exports from the US, "It's a time bomb. The biggest threat is to biodiversity." Greenpeace warns that 25% of this year's corn imports into Mexico are GE. According to the Times, despite mounting concerns over GE corn, Mexico has approximately 120,000 acres of GE cotton and 15,000 acres of GE soybeans currently under cultivation.
Responding to growing controversy Mexico's largest corn flour company, Maseca, recently announced a ban on GE ingredients in their products, according to the New York Times. Mexico, with a population of over 90 million, is the second largest buyer of US corn in the world, purchasing $500 million in US corn exports annually.
- In Brazil, where 25% of the world's soybeans are grown, the Supreme Court ruled in June that Monsanto's GE Roundup Ready soybeans (RRS) cannot be grown until the government finalizes stringent regulations on bio-safety and Monsanto completes an environmental impact statement. Mounting public debate and demonstrations by farm and environmental groups have made the GE controversy a major issue in the country. Monsanto representatives admitted to the Brazilian trade press in late-September that no RRS soybeans will be planted in 1999-2000 and that prospects for planting in 2000-2001 are also in jeopardy. Analysts believe that if Brazil's RRS ban continues for several more years (and sales to the EU of non-GE soya continue to grow), GE crops may never gain a significant market share in the country. Brazil, with a population of 165 million, has the largest economy in Latin America.
- Other Latin American developments. Paraguay's Biosafety Commission, supported by many of the country's non-governmental organizations, called on August 4 for "GE-free" production in Paraguay. Meanwhile in Argentina, the world's second largest producer of GE crops (with 10 million acres of GE soybeans under cultivation), the government has begun to come under criticism by environmental groups for its lack of regulations on GE crops and for the "heavy participation of representatives from the industrial sector" in the nation's so-called "Bio-safety Commission," according to a Sept. 7 story by Interpress.
- In Africa, a group of nations, led by Ethiopia, are developing draft legislation that would make it illegal to export GE foods or crops to their countries without prior country approval, according to an article in Nature magazine August 5. This prior consent law would force GE exporters to carry out human safety, environmental, and socioeconomic studies. This initiative has drawn opposition from biotechnology corporations and grain-exporting nations, led by the US, who consider so-called Biosafety Protocols a restraint of trade. In early August it was announced that the government of South Africa, through its departments of Agriculture and Health, is moving toward compulsory labeling of GE foods.
Is Frankenstein Dead?
We at CFS News would love to inform you that our adversaries, the so-called "Life Sciences" corporations, are on their last legs, at least in regard to their global plans for agbiotech. Monsanto in particular seems to shifting into a defensive mode, compared to their former bully-on-the-block attitude. Swiss-based Novartis is trying ever so hard to be nice, while DuPont ("better living through chemistry") is promising a cornucopia of health benefits once its GE functional foods and nutraceuticals hit the market 5-10 years from now. Waiting in the wings for the Frankenfoods controversy to die down are the friendly xenotransplantation (animal to human organ transplants) folks from Novartis, the GE tree doctors from Monsanto, and the GE Frankenfish advocates, who respectively assure us they'll solve the global organ donor, forestry, and fishing crises. However, peel off the thin veneer of biotech "green washing," cut through the PR propaganda, and it's obvious that our adversaries are still up to their old tricks:
- Monsanto's "surrender" on the Terminator Technology October 4 is, in battle terms, a tactical diversion, rather than a strategic surrender. Of course it is a significant victory for farm and consumer organizations around the world to force Monsanto to publicly renounce first-strike use of this neutron bomb of GE agriculture. As Pat Mooney of RAFI stated "Congratulations should go to the civil society organizations, farmers, scientists, and governments all over the world who have waged highly effective anti-Terminator campaigns during the past 18 months."
But as Hope Shand from RAFI explained to the Environmental News Network: "[The]Terminator is not dead in the water. Many other companies are pursuing the same goal, as well as genetic trait control, which is also very scary. And the USDA is still promoting terminator." As the New York Times noted, Monsanto and its soon to be acquired cotton seed subsidiary, Delta and Pine Land company, will still continue research on the Terminator, while they and other transnational biotech companies will continue researching and patenting "related work." This "related work" on the trait or "Traitor" technology, the "Son of Terminator," will achieve the same end results as the Terminator, essentially preventing GE seeds and plants from growing to full maturity, developing full yields, or expreszsing desired traits without spraying the biotech company's proprietary chemicals -- thereby giving a half-dozen giant GE companies a global stranglehold over seeds and farm inputs. Traitor technology, just like its predecessor, the Terminator, poses a mortal threat to global plant and insect biodiversity and the 1.4 billion farmers and rural communities worldwide who save and trade or sell their seeds.
- While sounding off about "dialogue" and "engaging with the concerns of consumers" Monsanto and the other life science corporations are working furiously behind the scenes to discredit scientists and journalists who dare to speak out publicly about the evermore obvious hazards of GE foods and crops. Nearly every biotech company and agribusiness public relations firm in the EU and North America during the first two weeks of October joined in a loud chorus to attack Erik Millstone's brilliant article on the myth of GE "substantial equivalence" in Nature, as well as Arpad Pusztai's article in Lancet. Overall in the past 30 days there has been a major increase in pro-biotech stories, letters to the editor, editorials, and opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and electronic media across the global. The biotech lobby are in a panic. They know they're losing the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers and farmers, and they have launched an all-out propaganda offensive -- using indentured scientists and "third party" experts to brand their opponents as "luddites" and to proclaim their own corporate junk science as "sound science."
- While Deutsche Banc has proclaimed the end of ag biotech -- or at least Monsanto -- as a profitable investment, other financial powerhouses such as PaineWebber in their Sept. 27 agbiotech newsletter characterize GE agriculture investments as having "short-term uncertainty, [but] long-term promise." According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Oct. 5, in a poll of 19 investment analysts conducted by Zack's Investment Research, "nine say Monsanto is a 'strong buy,' five call it a 'moderate buy,' and five have a 'hold' on the stock."
- On Wall Street Monsanto's stock price recently fell as low as $33.62 a share, down 35% over the past 12 months. Novartis, AstraZeneca, AgrEvo, Dupont, and other biotech companies are experiencing similar problems. Rumors are circulating in financial circles that Monsanto plans to layoff 20% of its employees by the end of the year. According to Dow Jones Newswire on October 6, Monsanto's Director of Agriculture in the UK, Charlotte Walker, admitted to Greenpeace leaders that the company's public relations efforts had failed and that Monsanto is "discussing the segregation of genetically modified and conventional crops."
- While under attack, beleaguered Monsanto is still selling record amounts of Roundup herbicide, GE seeds, and other agricultural chemicals, with sales in its agricultural operations totaling a record $3.1 billion for the first six months of 1999, according to Chemical Week magazine (Sept. 15). Monsanto's pharmaceutical division, Searle, is also quite profitable, boasting record sales of its new arthritis drug, Celebrex. Although profits are sluggish in their ag divisions, Novartis and the Gene Giants are still raking in billions of dollars in profits off chemicals, drugs, and medical biotech. And as RAFI points out in a Sept. 3 news release, even if the top five Gene Giants (AstraZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Aventis) were ever to stumble and fall, their agbiotech and seed operations would likely become "bargain buys for bigger fish -- the food processors or insurance companies."
- While mouthing the need for public dialogue and debate on the GE issue, the Clinton administration and the biotech lobby have been busy behind the scenes trying to pressure government officials and international economic and trade organizations to discourage individual country's efforts to require mandatory labeling or rigorous safety-testing of Frankenfoods and crops. The Bureau of National Affairs reported on Sept. 9 that the US was trying to get trade ministers from 21 nations in Asia and the Pacific (members of APEC--the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) to put pressure on EU authorities to stop obstructing GE imports. The Los Angeles Times reported on October 5 that the Clinton administration has been "fighting to remove... trade barriers" to GE exports and will press for pro-biotech rules at the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle Nov. 29-Dec. 3.
- PR Week (a trade journal of the public relations industry) reported in its July 5, 1999 issue that ag biotech corporations are putting millions of dollars into PR efforts to counter anticipated US public opposition to genetic engineering. Tony Minnichsoffer, communications manager for Novartis in Minneapolis, told PR Week that the US food industry's 5000 trade associations "need to work together as an industry" to broaden PR efforts on behalf of GE, while Monsanto's favorite PR firm, Burson-Marsteller warned that the [GE debate in the US] "is not in the crisis mode yet, but the potential is certainly there in this country." Fleishman-Hilliard, a leading PR firm, said they expect their company alone to receive $2.5 million dollars in contracts this year for PR work on "crisis preparedness and issues relating to GE foods." The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a major US trade association representing food manufacturers and the supermarket chains, also have launched a $1million PR effort to burnish the tarnished image of agbiotech. Fleishman-Hilliard recommends that food and biotech companies prepare for a major controversy over GE to erupt in the US with a "three-pronged approach": "Anticipate potential issues; Drill with simulated situations to raise the crisis instinct within a company; Quickly deal with brush fires such as the butterfly study."
- Despite growing public demands in the EU, and warnings from scientists about the hazards of antibiotic resistant marker genes, the European Commission bowed to US and agribusiness pressure on Sept. 27 and refused to require mandatory labeling on genetically engineered animal feeds. However, with or without required labeling, major EU animal feed, pet food, meat, poultry, and dairy corporations -- fearful of facing the wrath of Greenpeace and other anti-GE campaign groups -- are scrambling to eliminate GE ingredients from their products.
To answer our own question. Frankenfoods are not dead -- although global opposition has certainly put the Gene Giants on the defensive. We're starting to win some of the battles, but the war has just begun. Stay tuned to this newsletter and to our two web sites for further developments. For more in-depth stories on the developments mentioned in this issue see the "Latest News" section at <http://www.purefood.org> We've installed a new search engine so you can more easily find the information you're looking for among the several thousand articles now posted on our site.