Slouching Toward Biodevastation:
A Certain Uneasiness
Four and a half years after the first genetically engineered (GE) food was forced onto the marketplace in the U.S. (Monsanto's still controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone rBGH), global "life science" corporations are celebrating. With over three dozen unlabeled and untested GE foods and crops commercialized in North America, with several dozen "Frankencrops" approved for sale in Europe, Japan, and Australia, with over 25 million acres already under cultivation, with GATT and life patenting/biopiracy regimes tightening their noose on the global economy, civil society involuntarily stands on the edge of a Biotech Century.
If present trends continue (with over 25% of U.S. soybeans, corn, and cotton and he majority of Canada's rapeseed or canola already GE), the industrialization and globalization of agriculture will be nearly complete within a decade. Fusing together technological advances in eugenics (so-called genetic or germ-line therapy), cloning, neutraceuticals (GE foods containing their own drugs), and agricultural biotechnology, a transnational Biotechnocracy, Monsanto, Novartis, Hoechst/AgrEvo, Dow, Dupont, has plans to provide most of the world's drugs, food, and seeds--not to mention body parts, vital organs, and cloned "designer genes."
And yet a certain uneasiness has crept into the boardrooms of the gene engineers. The stock prices of Monsanto and the other "life science" corporations remain high, but a spreading global economic crisis could turn into a meltdown. Sales of "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds and Bt-spliced corn and cotton are robust, yet even Monsanto recently ran out of cash and had to be bought out by a larger corporation, American Home Products. Compounding these concerns in the New World Order of ag biotech are an increasing number of technological and environmental "glitches." Genetically engineered, rBGH-derived milk and dairy products linked with increased breast, colon, and prostate cancer risks; "genetic pollution" and creation of herbicide and Bt-resistant "superweeds" and "superpests"; collateral damage to beneficial insects, pollinators, and the soil food web; and looming on the horizon, a "Terminator Technology" that could make the world's crop seeds infertile.
The Spectre that Hangs
Above all the spectre that hangs over Europe, and now Japan, is citizen resistance to genetic engineering. Besides near-panic over the growing consumer backlash in the UK and Europe, American biotech exporters are now deeply worried about the threat of consumer "right-to-know" labeling laws being passed in Japan. In the September 3 issue of Agri-View, a U.S. farm industry newspaper, agri-biotech spokespersons categorize biotech labeling as a "rash scheme," and warn of "substantial market access problems" if the Japanese government requires mandatory labeling--as consumer groups have been demanding. According to Ken Hobbie, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Grains Council labeling "threatens the long alliance" between the U.S. and Japan on agricultural trade. "We have to get the word out to all of U.S. agriculture about this potential situation, because it threatens corn, beans, and a lot more."
If the "Monsanto/American Model" of Biotechnocracy cannot be forced down the throats of European and Japanese and, ultimately, North American consumers (i.e. no labeling or required safety-testing of GE foods and crops) then the Biotech Century, at least in terms of agricultural production, will be stillborn. Despite an endless stream of government and industry PR, consumers overseas, and even in the U.S. remain troubled or anxious about GE foods. Recent polls show 80-95% of consumers in the industrialized world demanding labeling of GE foods--primarily so that they can avoid buying them.
As reported in Food Bytes #11, even in the United States, a new mass movement against genetic engineering has begun to develop. Reflecting and spearheading this new American resistance, on May 27, 1998 attorneys from the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), a Washington, D.C.- based public interest organization, filed a comprehensive lawsuit on behalf of consumers, scientists, environmentalists, chefs, and religious groups to force the Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory labeling and adequate safety testing of all genetically engineered foods and crops.
In a national poll by Novartis in February of 1997, a full 93% of Americans said that all genetically engineered foods should be labeled. In the same poll 73% said they felt "strongly" about mandatory labeling of gene-altered foods, while 54% wanted to see agriculture move toward organic production methods. If this anti-biotech public sentiment in the U.S. can be turned into an organized political force, as is becoming the case in Europe, the Biotech Century will be over, even before it officially begins. For a global summary of consumer polls on labeling genetically engineered food see: http://www.consumersinternational.org/campaigns/biotech/surveys.html
|Published in In Motion Magazine October 7, 1998.
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-actio
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