U.S. Consumers & Farmers Battle
Two genetically engineered tomatoes, the "Flavr Savr"
and the "Endless Summer," have been taken off the market
Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston
Ronnie Cummins is U.S.A. director of the Pure Food Campaign and Ben Lilliston is editorial director of Sustain. Published with permission, this article also appeared in the Berlin, Germany newspaper Taz.
Europeans aren't the only ones outraged about unlabeled and untested genetically engineered soybeans and other foods being forced onto the marketplace. On October 7, 1997 an emerging coalition of 80 North American family farmer, consumer, and environmental groups staged protests and press conferences in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Chicago, and Kansas City to launch a boycott of Monsanto's genetically engineered soybeans and Ciba Geigy's transgenic corn.
In a protest similar to the Pure Food Campaign's nationwide "milk dumps" over the past 3 years (part of the boycott against Monsanto's controversial rBGH or rBST milk hormone) farm and consumer activists, facing a wall of TV cameras, defied police and dumped bags of genetically engineered corn and soybeans on the sidewalk in front of the Chicago Board of Trade -- the building where American grains and farm commodities are traded on the international market. Four days later on Oct. 11 Greenpeace sprayed and damaged an experimental field of Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybeans (RRS) in rural Iowa, gaining nationwide publicity.
Resistance to "Frankenfoods" is rising in the U.S. due to the Clinton Administration's stubborn refusal to require special pre-market safety testing or labeling of genetically engineered foods and crops. Because of steady opposition by farmers and consumers, two genetically engineered tomatoes, the "Flavr Savr" and the "Endless Summer," have been taken off the market, while a third even more controversial product, Monsanto's rBGH, has suffered losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, Wall Street analysts quoted in Business Week magazine predicted that Monsanto will be forced to pull rBGH off the market as well. In May, Monsanto admitted that they were abandoning their once ambitious plans to sell rBGH outside of North America.
Although consumer polls indicate that up to 95 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and crops, biotech and grain companies, backed by government authorities, have insisted that this year's crops of transgenic soybeans and corn will not be separated and labeled, and that Europe will face WTO economic reprisals if they try to keep U.S. gene foods out of Europe.
Recent scientific reports on potential allergenicity and biological pollution caused by transgenic crops have heightened concerns in the U.S. As the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine pointed out in a highly publicized editorial on March 14, 1997 the allergenic potential of these new genetically engineered foods "is uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable."
Concerns about Roundup Ready soybeans increasing the amount of toxic chemicals sprayed on U.S. farmlands are just as serious. Farmers using RRS seeds will now be able to dump twice as much Roundup -- a toxic herbicide also made by Monsanto -- onto their cropland, further damaging soil fertility and polluting the groundwater. In California, Roundup has been found to be the third most commonly reported cause of pesticide poisoning among farmworkers.
Similar concerns are fueling opposition to Ciba-Geigy's genetically engineered corn, called the "Maximizer," which remains banned in Europe. Ciba's "Maximizer" Bt-spliced corn contains an ampicillin antibiotic resistant gene, which health officials warn could spread antibiotic resistance into animals (through their feed) and ultimately to humans.
Economic concerns are also increasing as a Euro-U.S. trade war on gene foods looms on the horizon. The U.S. currently exports over two billion dollars a year of corn and soybeans to Europe, and as H.H. Kroner of Eurocommerce emphasized at a well-attended press conference sponsored by Jeremy Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., U.S. farmers risk losing this market unless genetically engineered grains are kept separate and labeled. Soybeans and corn are the two most important agricultural crops in the U.S., with 50 percent of the U.S. soybean crop exported. Although Monsanto's RRS soybeans amount to only a small part of the U.S. soybean harvest this year (one million acres out of a total of 65 million acres), American farmers have begun to worry that the government's reckless policies on labeling and pre-market safety testing will cause Europeans to turn to other countries next year such as Argentina and Brazil for their soybeans and corn. Similarly U.S. retailers and food processors worry that a backlash by U.S. consumers -- such as they have already experienced over rBGH--could hurt the sales of soy and corn-derived products.
U.S. farmer opposition to biotech crops is being led by the National Family Farm Coalition and the Family Farm Defenders, two rural-based groups fighting against the advancing wave of giant corporate factory farms that are driving the country's family farmers off the land.
"We do not need these genetically altered products, we do not want them, and we will not use them," says Missouri soy farmer Bill Christianson, of the National Family Farm Coalition. Just before dumping a bag of gene-spliced grain onto the ground in front of the Chicago Board of Trade, Wisconsin dairyman John Kinsman of Family Farm Defenders said, "With the advent of genetic engineering and patenting of life forms, a Pandora's Box is being opened that may prove impossible to close. Corporate contamination of the food supply and monopoly ownership of life patents will assure the destruction of family farming in most parts of the world including the United States."
Unfortunately, as U.S. campaigners point out, the Roundup Ready soybeans, "Maximizer" corn, rBGH, and the "Flavr Savr" tomato are but the first items on the menu in an ever-expanding array of genetically engineered foods. Monsanto will be marketing biotech cotton, potatoes, and rapeseed oil later this year. Monsanto's Bt-spliced cotton plants are now being harvested on 2 million acres across the U.S., and the company's gene-spliced "NewLeaf" potatoes have already been test marketed on a small scale in Canada. Upjohn is harvesting a virus-spliced squash. Within two years Monsanto and others expect to have 25 products on the market.
The Pure Food Campaign believes that an aggressive international campaign by farmers, consumers, and progressive businesses is the only way to drive these soybeans and other transgenic foods and crops off the market. The coalition organized by Pure Food has emerged basically victorious in the rBGH milk hormone and tomato boycotts, but the real battle against genetically engineered foods and life form patenting has just begun. As the PFC explain in a recent press release "In an era of corporate globalization and increasing industrialization and contamination of the food supply, green and progressive-minded people have no choice but to organize and campaign on a transnational basis. Isolated and fragmented citizens are no match for the Monsantos and the multinational grain cartels. But together we can win."
|Published in In Motion Magazine December 3, 1996.
Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Pure Food Campaign (PFC), a non-profit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the U.S. and the world. The PFC's primary strategy is to help build a national and international consumer/farmer/ labor/progressive retailer boycott of genetically engineered and chemically contaminated foods and crops. To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, Food Bytes, send an email message to: < email@example.com > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action
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