Monsanto Under Attack
Global Pressure Builds Against Monsanto
by Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota
"Monsanto's (Bt Cotton) field trials in Karnataka (India) will be reduced to ashes in a few days. These actions will start a movement of direct action by farmers against biotechnology, which will not stop until all the corporate killers like Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer etc. leave the country. We know that stopping biotechnology in India will not be of much help to us if it continues in other countries, (but) if we play our cards right at the global level and coordinate our work, these actions can also pose a major challenge to the survival of these corporations in the stock markets. Who wants to invest in a mountain of ashes, in offices that are constantly being squatted (and if necessary even destroyed) by activists?" -- Prof. Nanjundaswamy < swamy.krrs@a world.net>, President, Karnataka State Farmers Association, November, 1998
As reported in Monsanto Under Attack: Setbacks from Brazil, to Canada, to the U.K. things have not been going so well for the gene engineers at Monsanto. In fact lately their situation seems to have degenerated from bad to worse. Besides slipping stock prices and persistence rumors of an unfriendly takeover by Dupont or another corporate giant, the Biomasters of Biotech have suffered from a rash of recent reversals including:
- Destruction of several heretofore secret test plots of Monsanto's Bt "Bollguard" Cotton in India. On Nov. 28 and again on Dec. 2 contingents of Indian farmers in the Karnataka region, chanting "Cremate Monsanto" and "Stop Genetic Engineering," uprooted and burned Bt cotton fields in front of a bank of TV cameras and news reporters. Once again Indian national and provincial governments came under fire for secretly collaborating with Monsanto and other agri-chemical transnationals. In the wake of the controversy, government officials in New Delhi were forced to reiterate that "Terminator Technology" seeds--patented by the USDA and Monsanto--will not be allowed into the country. NGOs (non-government organizations) including the Karnataka State Farmers Association have called on Monsanto to get out of India, and for the government to ban field tests and imports of genetically engineered seeds and crops. On Dec. 3 the Andhra Pradesh provincial government was forced to ask Monsanto to halt all field trials of Bt "Bollgard" cotton going on in seven districts in the state.
- Informed sources in Thailand and South Korea report that government advisors and officials have begun discussions and deliberations to require mandatory labeling and safety-testing of genetically engineered foods and crops, despite anticipated objections from the U.S. Embassy. On November 6 the influential Thailand Biotech Centre admitted that "genetically engineered foods and agricultural products may pose a health hazard." Dr. Suthat Sriwathanapong, of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Technology, said that to "protect consumers against this possible health risk," the Thai Food and Drug Administration should issue a more comprehensive rule to regulate genetically engineered drugs and products.
- The Consumers Union of Japan and other NGOs continue to call for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and crops. With several million petition signatures already in their hands, Japanese government officials are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the demands of consumers. In a national survey in 1997, 91% of Japanese consumers stated their desire for "safety information" on GE (genetically engineered) foods. Despite Japanese consumers concerns, US trade officials have repeatedly warned Tokyo that mandatory labeling of GMOs is unacceptable, and could lead to a US/Japan trade war.
- The Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education <email@example.com> and 12 other environmental NGOs organized a militant mass demonstration outside of Monsanto's corporate offices, near Manila, on Dec. 8 under the slogans of "Stop the Terminator Seeds" and "Put a Face on the Enemy." The genetic engineering controversy has recently been covered prominently in a number of major Phillipines newspapers, and two senators have introduced government resolutions to hold hearings and investigations on field trials and imports of GE foods and crops into the country.
- In New Zealand, a major controversy has developed over revelations that a U.S. government official threatened serious economic reprisals if the country went forward with a law on mandatory labeling. Former associate Health Minister Neil Kirton revealed in an interview in the national press that the United States Ambassador, Josiah Beeman, visited him twice in February and March and "bullied" him over the testing and labeling of genetically modified food. Kirton was later fired and replaced by another government official who was willing to go along with the U.S. "no labeling" position. Polls in New Zealand and Australia show that consumers overwhelming support mandatory labeling. In one 1993 poll in Australia, a full 89% of citizens said they wanted labeling and would reject foods that were unlabeled. A recent nation-wide survey conducted by Central Queensland University researchers found strong resistance to genetically altered food among Australian consumers, particularly women.
- In mid-November the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) of Asia and the Pacific launched a Safe Food Campaign at the Asia Pacific People's Assembly in Kuala Lumpur. PAN is collaborating with its network partners in the region to carry out this campaign. "Growing concern over these 'miracle' foods and the lack of information has prompted coordinated action over this issue", said Jennifer Mourin, the Campaign coordinator. Indian activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, speaking in Kuala Lumpur, described Monsanto, the biggest player in the ag biotech industry, as a "global terrorist," forcing "hazardous food" on countries, using "tremendous pressure and misleading promotional campaigns" to prevent people from choosing "the food they want," and refusing to segregate and label genetically engineered foods and crops.
- In Mexico City, national parliamentary representatives of the Green Party have begun work on federal legislation that would require mandatory labeling and safety-testing of GE foods and crops. The Greens expect to receive support from other opposition political parties as well.
- In Brazil, one of the nation's largest supermarket chains, Carrefour, has come out against the commercialization of Monsanto's herbicide-resistant "Roundup Ready" soybeans. Brazil is the second largest producer of soy in the world, second only to the United States. At this time, Brazilian soybean growers are benefiting from the higher prices that many buyers in the U.S. and Europe are willing to pay for non-genetically engineered crops. A lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense (IDEC) <firstname.lastname@example.org> has temporarily halted the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture's approval of Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybeans. Brazilian NGOs including Greenpeace are gearing up to make their presence felt at the final session of the Convention on Biodiversity's Biosafety Protocol negotiations in mid-February in Cartagena, Colombia--where citizen groups and developing nations will try to push through a legally binding international treaty to regulate genetically engineered organisms.
- At a November international conference of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) <email@example.com>, at Mar del Plata, Argentina, delegates from more than 60 countries, representing the world's leading organic farming organizations, called for governments and regulatory agencies throughout the world to immediately ban the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production because of threats to human health, the environment, and farmers rights.
- In Europe the controversy over gene foods continues unabated. Consumer studies by Monsanto's American polling firm recently leaked to Greenpeace International showed that public opinion in Great Britain and Germany has turned even more strongly against GE foods in recent months. According to the poll, conducted by Stanley Greenberg, "the broad climate is extremely inhospitable to biotechnology acceptance. Over the past year, the situation has deteriorated steadily and is perhaps even accelerating, with the latest survey showing an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) foods." The report goes on to state that even the "media elites are strongly hostile to biotechnology and Monsanto. They think the Government is being too lax and believe they must expose the dangers..."
- In Ireland a major row has developed after a national television network, RTE, ran a program entitled "Safe Harvest," critical of genetic engineering. Monsanto and the Irish biotechnology industry immediately complained that the program was "unfair and inaccurate," and demanded a retraction. Although threats by Monsanto will undoubtedly force Irish TV to grant "equal time" to biotech proponents on a later program, the incident has once more served to discredit Monsanto, already notorious in Europe for their strong-arm tactics in trying to suppress dissent.
- In October SPAR and all of Austria's major supermarket chains declared that they will not sell GE-derived products and intend to take them off their shelves. Meanwhile Greece has decided to ban the import of GE rapeseed (canola). In addition the Scientific Committee on Plants of the European Commission ruled against the release of a GE potato containing antibiotic-resistance marker genes.
- On Oct. 12 the European Parliament's Environment Committee called on the EU Commission to impose a moratorium on new GMO releases across the continent. Shortly thereafter the UK government announced a de-facto three-year moratorium on insect-resistant plants (e.g. Bt crops) and a de-facto one year moratorium on herbicide-resistant plants. The British government has apparently come to an agreement with the biotech industry in the UK that they will not apply for authorisation of Bt or herbicide-resistant plants during this time period.
- In late-October Greenpeace Germany released an internal memo issued by the Raiffeisen Co-operative in Baden Württenberg. Raiffeisen, one of the EU's biggest grain merchants, announced that they will refuse to accept deliveries of genetically modified maize from farmers. Grain handlers, animal feed dealers, and cooking oil suppliers all over Europe are coming under increasing pressure from supermarkets, consumer groups, and food producers to supply them with guaranteed "GMO-free" ingredients.
- In a speech delivered at a sugar industry trade meeting in the U.K. experts warned that the forthcoming export of non-segregated (GE mixed with non-GE) sugar from the U.S. by Cargill and other commodity traders will likely set off a major controversy. "Current regulations in the sugar trade Associations make no mention of genetically modified quality," said Jonathan Drake, of Cargill's Geneva-based sugar trading office. In a speech prepared for an International Sugar Organization seminar, Drake warned that "Whether it [American sugar] will be freely accepted at destination is still unknown and perhaps dependent on labelling restrictions. EU officials may be quick to impose some restrictions in the wake of all the food scares in Europe."
- Hungarian protesters took to the streets on November 18, in front of the Ministry of Agriculture to pressure government authorities drafting final implementation legislation for Hungary's genetic engineering law (coming into force January 1, 1999). Chanting "Ne Kukoricazz a Kukicoret!" ("Don't Cream the Corn!), Environmental activists from five NGOs (including ELTE Nature Conservation Club and Energy Club) inflated a 6-meter high helium balloon of a corncob with bar-code, in front of the Ministry of Agriculture. Protesters are demanding a complete moratorium on the growth, use, and importation of genetically-modified plants, animals, and foodstuffs in Hungary.
- In the United States there are recent reports among agronomists of problems with Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" Cotton in Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona. In addition informed sources in Arizona report that Bt cotton is failing to repel pink bollworms, a major cotton pest. Lagging sales of Monsanto's Bt corn seeds in the Midwest have already forced the company to slash prices by 30%.
- In the U.S., according to the April 1998 journal, Cotton Grower, Bt-cotton growers in Arkansas had less than a banner year last season. A University of Arkansas study of several Bt and non-Bt cotton fields showed that on average Bt cotton yielded fewer pounds and lower income per acre. One farm showed a remarkable difference in yield--Bt cotton produced 168 fewer pounds per acre than the non-Bt variety. Bt cotton, on the farms studied, yielded an average of 24 fewer pounds per acre. Also, the new varieties required more growth regulator to synchronize plant development and had to be picked twice. Non-Bt cotton is typically picked only once.
- Also in Arkansas, on Nov. 24, seven farmers filed legal complaints against Monsanto, claiming that they were sold soybean seed with low germination rates. The complaints, filed with the Arkansas State Plant Board, involve several seed varieties that utilize Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene technology.
- In Maine on Nov. 20, pressure from the Green Party and other citizens groups caused Monsanto to withdraw its application to register and grow its genetically engineered corn in the state.
- Beginning October 31, more than 140 restaurants nationwide joined Greenpeace USA in calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require labels on genetically engineered foods. These restaurants will distribute information on the dangers of transgenic foods, including a postcard that customers can send to the FDA to support a lawsuit calling for labeling.
- "As a chef who is concerned about food quality, I want to be able to serve my customers the purest foods I can find," said Peter Hoffman, chef of the New York restaurant Savoy and board member of the national organization Chefs Collaborative 2000. "This means locally grown food from farmers I trust, not untested foods which may harm my customers." Chefs Collaborative is a non-profit membership organization of 1500 chefs across America who are dedicated to the ethic of sustainable cuisine.
- On Nov. 26 activists calling themselves the "California Croppers" destroyed a test plot of Novartis Bt corn on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. In a communique the Croppers warned Novartis and other biotech companies that further GE test plots were likely to come under attack. The Biotic Baking Brigade also struck again on November 23, throwing pies at a University of California official and an executive from Novartis.
- On November 18, the industry journal Chemical Week reported that cash-strapped Monsanto is trying to sell its controversial chemical sweetener, NutraSweet. Although the artificial sweetener has generated enormous profits for Searle, Monsanto's drug subsidiary, over the years, it has also generated thousands of complaints from consumers who claim that NutraSweet has damaged their health. Chemical Week also cited Wall Street analysts who report that Monsanto is also trying to sell its even more controversial genetically engineered animal drug, the recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. So far there are no companies willing to buy rBGH.
- In yet another public relations setback for Monsanto (and Rupert Murdock's Fox Television network), fired Florida investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson were presented a prestigious Ethics Award from the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists for their investigative reporting on Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone. Akre and Wilson were fired by the Fox network last year after Monsanto claimed the two had produced a bias report on the controversial animal drug. On December 16, Wilson and Akre will be receiving the Joe Callaway Award from the Shafeek Nader Trust for "civic courage" in Washington, D.C.
- In addition to receiving continuing adverse publicity in the U.S. from harassing and prosecuting 480 farmers for the "crime" of saving seeds Monsanto now faces an a potentially even more explosive situation in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. According to a Saskatchewan newspaper, the Western Producer, Monsanto has filed legal charges against a Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, for growing Roundup Ready canola without a license. But Schmeiser claims he's innocent and that Monsanto is the guilty party. He says that his farm has been contaminated by genetic material which has drifted from the fields of adjoining farmers who are growing genetically engineered canola. "It's in the ditches and the roadsides; it's in the shelter belts; it's in the gardens; it's all over," said Schmeiser. If Schmeiser ends up facing Monsanto in court, he says he going to be putting the company's genetically altered crops and patents on trial.
- And finally in Canada, the government announced on December 4 that it will not be giving approval to Monsanto's rBGH -- at least for the foreseeable future. In an enormous controversy that will simply not go away, federal Health Canada officials have been exposed in the national media for conspiring with Monsanto to get the drug approved, despite objections by the government's own scientists--who warn that the drug has not been proven safe--and strenuous objections by farmers and consumer groups. Previous reports in the media have pointed out that Monsanto offered two million dollars to government health officials in exchange for speedy approval of rBGH, while shortly thereafter dissident scientists files' were burglarized and documents damaging to Monsanto were stolen. Several years ago Monsanto threatened to pull all investments out of Canada if rBGH were not approved, and has threatened the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for airing stories critical of the company's strong-arm tactics.