Who's Winning the Frankenfoods Fight?
News and Analysis on Genetic Engineering, Factory Farming, & Organics
Ronnie Cummins, BioDemocracy News 27 May 2000
The worst nightmares of Monsanto and the Gene Giants are becoming reality. The
four year food fight by European consumers and farmers is slowly but surely driving
genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops off the EU market, the largest in the
world. US corn exports to the EU have fallen from $360 million a year to near zero,
while soybean exports have fallen from $2.6 billion annually to $1 billion--and are
expected to fall even further as major food processors, supermarkets, and fast-food
chains ban GE soy or soy derivatives in animal feeds.
Canada's canola exports to Europe similarly have fallen from $500 million a year
to near zero. Meanwhile Brazilian exporters are doing a brisk business selling "GE-free"
soybeans to European buyers, and organic food is booming throughout the industrialized
world. On May 18 the latest in a series of GE scandals rocked Europe as a major rapeseed
(canola) seller, Advanta Seeds, a division of biotech giant AstraZeneca, admitted
that genetic drift from gene-altered canola fields in Canada had contaminated certified
"non-GE seed" export shipments to Britain, France, Germany and Sweden.
Consumer rejection of gene-foods is steadily spreading to Japan, South Korea,
Australia, New Zealand, India, and a host of other nations, including the United
States and Canada. Japan and South Korea-where public concern is rising--have the
biotech industry extremely worried, since these two nations alone buy $11.3 billion
of US agriculture exports every year. On May 18 the Tokyo Grain Exchange soy futures
market begin for the first time to offer wholesale traders a choice of GE or non-GE
soybeans. On the first day of trading, non-GE buyers committed to 914,000 tons, compared
to only 364,000 tons for unsegregated (GE-tainted) US soybean futures.
Gene-foods and patents on living organisms have become hot button political issues
in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. At recent international
conventions such as the Biosafety Protocol meeting in Montreal in January and the
UN Codex Alimentarius meeting in Ottawa in May, the US government has become increasingly
isolated in its "no labeling, no safety-testing" position.
Since the first of the year, prospects for a Biotech Century have dimmed considerably.
Among the most recent blows to the agbiotech industry have been the following:
* Storm clouds in Asia. Japan dropped a regulatory bombshell in mid-April when
the Ministry of Health announced that starting next year agricultural producers must
"screen" imported genetically modified foods for potential food allergies
and other health hazards. In addition new mandatory labeling rules on GE food ingredients
coming into force next April will have a major impact on the marketplace.
According to a report by Sharon Schmickle in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on April
30, Japanese importers and manufacturers of many common food products--including
tofu, miso, cornstarch, corn snacks, popcorn and frozen or canned corn--are almost
certain to switch to non-genetically engineered ingredients once they're forced to
label. James Echle, who directs the Tokyo office of the American Soybean Association,
told the Star-Tribune "I don't think anybody will label containers genetically
modified," he said. "It's like putting a skull and crossbones on your product."
In a related story from Asia, the government of Sri Lanka formally banned the import
of GE foods and crops on April 23.
* Patent victory in India. Vandana Shiva and India and EU public interest activists
registered a major victory in mid-May when the European Patent Office withdrew a
controversial patent previously granted to pharmaceutical giant W.R. Grace on a chemical
formulation derived from the Neem tree, which has been used as a bio-pesticide and
medicinal agent for generations by indigenous villagers and farmers in India. Biotech
corporations fear that the revocation of the Neem patent will set a precedent that
could put billions of dollars of their "biopirated" patents on drugs and
seeds at risk.
* European opposition to gene-foods is as strong as ever. A new EU-wide survey,
"Eurobarometer," recently analyzed by the European Commission, showed that
consumers in the EU were "deeply wary of genetically modified food." Professor
George Gaskell of the London School of Economics, presenting the study at a news
conference on April 27 flatly stated, "Genetically modified foods are getting
the thumbs down. They are seen to be very risky."
* America's food giants begin to turn their backs on Frankenfoods. Even in the
heartland of biotech, consumer aversion to GE foods is increasing. Since July, 1999
a number of major US food corporations--including baby food giants Gerber, Heinz,
and Mead-Johnson (infant formula); pet food purveyor Iam's; corn chip king Frito-Lay;
and several sizable supermarket chains, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Genuardi's, have
announced plans to go "GE free." On May 9 in Chicago at the convention
of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of supermarket corporations,
a number of leading supermarket chains admitted privately that mandatory labeling
of GE foods is probably inevitable.
* The death of Frankenspuds. Monsanto announced in early May that they were closing
down their NatureMark plant in Crystal, Maine, a transgenetic laboratory and greenhouse
operation that had been producing Bt potatoes since 1992. Bt potatoes are gene-spliced
with the soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, to repel the Colorado potato beetle.
Earlier this year, Monsanto laid off 20 of the 30 employees in their other Bt potato
lab in Idaho. Bt potatoes thus join the growing obituary list of Monsanto's Frankenfoods.
In 1996 Monsanto/Calgene's Flavr Savr tomatoes were taken off the market after dismal
performances in the field and on grocery store shelves.
Monsanto's retreat on Bt potatoes comes in the wake of news stories in the Wall
Street Journal and Associated Press that America's leading potato buyers--including
McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay, and Procter & Gamble--are eliminating Bt
potatoes from their brand-name french fries and potato chips. "We have to respect
the preferences of our customers, and both the domestic and global restaurant chains
which we serve have asked us to exclude these potatoes," said Fred Zerza, a
spokesman for J.R. Simplot, of Boise, Idaho, one of McDonald's largest suppliers.
In November 1999, McCain's and Lamb-Weston, two of North America's largest potato
processors, told farmers they would no longer accept gene-altered spuds. Approximately
50,000 acres, amounting to 4% of last year's total potato crop, were genetically
engineered in North America. Next year Bt spuds may become an extinct species.
* Bt cotton gives rise to "Stink Bug" epidemic. Recent field reports
posted at www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/btcottonnoprofit.htm
indicate that Bt cotton fields in North Carolina and Georgia are becoming infested
with Stink Bugs that are eating up the cotton crop. Not only does the Bt toxin not
kill the Stink Bugs, but apparently they love the mutant plants. Monsanto's recommendation,
posted on their Farmsource web site, is to spray the Stink Bugs with toxic pesticides
including methyl parathion, one of the deadliest chemicals used in American agriculture.
So much for the notion that Bt cotton will get US farmers off the toxic treadmill.
As analysts have pointed out to BioDemocracy News, the pests that Bt-spliced cotton
are designed to kill--cotton bollworms, pink bollworms, and budworms--were previously
considered harmless "secondary pests" until the overuse of toxic pesticides
(sold by the same companies now peddling so-called "environmentally friendly"
Bt crops--Monsanto, Novartis, and Aventis) killed off their natural predators and
parasites and turned them into major pests.
* More bad news for Monsanto. Recent studies carried out at the University of
Nebraska indicate that gene-altered Roundup Ready soybeans produce 6-11% less yield
than conventional soybeans.The two year study, reported by the Associated Press on
May 18, showed Roundup Ready soybeans yield 6% less than their closest relatives
and 11% less than high-yielding soybean varieties. In another damaging revelation,
Dr. Charles Benbrook, a consultant for the Consumers Union, published a summary of
an upcoming report revealing that genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans,
contrary to frequent claims by Monsanto, actually use 2-5 times more pounds of herbicide
per acre than conventional soybeans sprayed with other "modern low-dose pesticides."
For background information see a previous study by Benbrook on RR soybeans, see www.biotech-info.net/RR_yield_drag_98.pdf
* American farmers back-off on GE. All signs indicate that US farmers are slowly
but steadily moving away from GE crops. According to the March 31 Associated Press,
a recent USDA survey showed that American farmers will plant 24% less genetically
engineered corn this year, 13% less cotton, and 9% less soybeans. The Winnipeg Free
Press reported on April 24 that farmers in Canada are reducing the amount of acreage
devoted to GE canola, perhaps by as much as 10%.
* American grain dealers starting to segregate GE crops. A May 4 report on the
New York Times website www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/financial/04tsc-foods.html
indicates that many of America's grain wholesalers are segregating GE and non-GE
corn and soybeans for overseas export, even though they've been telling the public
for years that segregation is impossible. "We are encouraging farmers tosegregate
crops," said Larry Cunningham, senior vice president for corporate affairs at
Archer Daniels Midland. "And we have an opportunity to also benefit from it.
In Europe and Japan some people are willing to pay a premium for segregated crops."
According to the Times, "a study conducted by Pioneer Hi-Bred , a subsidiary
of DuPont, indicated that, of the 1,200 U.S. [grain] processors surveyed, 24 percent
were planning to segregate corn crops this year, up from 11 percent in 1999, and
20 percent were planning to segregate soybean crops, up from 8 percent last year."
* Opposition to GE foods increases in Canada. A nationwide campaign against Loblaw's,
the nation's largest supermarket chain, has the food industry worried. On May 9 the
Council of Canadians, Sierra Club, and a coalition of public interest groups filed
a legal petition against the federal government for failing to protect public health
and the environment in regulating genetically modified organisms. Under Canadian
law, the government is required to respond to the challenge within 120 days. According
to a March 31 poll conducted for the Council of Canadians, three-quarters (75%) of
Canadians familiar with GE foods are worried about their safety and almost all (95%)
want GE foods labeled as such. A similarly high number (95%) want consumers to be
able to buy non-GE foods, and over two-thirds (71%) would even be willing to pay
more to get them.
Moreover, most respondents (56%) are not confident in the federal government's
ability to protect their health and safety when it comes to GE foods--although grocery
retailers say they depend on consumer confidence in government testing.
* Anti-GE protests increase in the US. Four thousand people demonstrated against
genetically engineered foods in Boston, Massachusetts on March 26, marching in front
of the national convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Over
the past three months "Frankenfoods dumps" outside supermarkets in Boston,
San Francisco, and at the annual shareholders meeting of the Safeway supermarket
chain, organized by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Friends of the Earth,
have generated significant media coverage and rattled the nerves of the biotech industry.
Meanwhile sabotage of biotech crops has continued in the US, with an April 8 announcement
by the "Petaluma Pruners" that they had destroyed GE grape plants grown
by the Vinifera corporation in Petaluma, California.
* On March 21 anti-GE protesters, led by a group called Grain RAGE (Resistance
Against Genetic Engineering), wearing white biohazard suits and respirators, blocked
the road to the Cargill corporation's international headquarters outside Minneapolis
for several hours. Cargill, the world's largest grain dealer, is one of the most
strident proponents of GE crops. ln September Cargill donated $10 million to the
University of Minnesota for a plant genetics research facility. Cargill also has
strong ties to Monsanto. Cargill sold its international seed business to Monsanto
in 1998 and has agreed to manufacture commercial livestock and poultry feeds produced
from Monsanto's proprietary germ plasm. On May 15 Reuters reported that Ernest Micek,
the chairman of Cargill, told a globalization conference sponsored by the Economic
Strategy Institute that "while some American consumers are raising concerns
about genetically modified foods, they are ignoring the safety risks of organically
grown corn, soybeans and other grains."
* On March 21 the Center for Food Safety, the OCA, Greenpeace and 51 other groups
filed a legal petition against the FDA in Washington, D.C. calling for a moratorium
on all GE foods and crops unless the FDA can prove through stringent, long-term safety-testing
that these products are safe for human health and the environment. For further information
on the legal petition see www.foodsafetynow.org
* In Washington 52 members of the US House of Representatives are now co-sponsors
of a bill introduced by Dennis Kucinich (Democrat from Ohio) calling for mandatory
labeling of GE foods. Kucinich has also drafted a House bill on safety-testing. The
Kucinich GE labeling bill has drawn angry criticism from the biotech industry, agribusiness,
and the Grocery Manufacturers of America--who maintain that mandatory labeling would
unduly alarm consumers and thereby kill the industry. Companion bills on safety testing
(Patrick Moynihan, Democrat from New York) and labeling (Barbara Boxer, Democrat
from California) have been introduced in the US Senate as well. For further information
on the grassroots lobbying campaign to get these bills passed in Congress see www.thecampaign.org
* More than two dozen bills related to gene-foods have been filed in US state
legislatures over the past year year in at least 13 states; dealing with issues such
as the "Terminator" seed technology, registration of farmers planting GE
crops, and labeling gene-altered foods. Although these bills have been held up in
committee or rejected in the face of concerted lobbying by powerful biotech and agribusiness
special interests, their proliferation is evidence that more and more politicians
are feeling the heat from constituents on GE foods. * Swiss panel slams EPA. A prestigious
panel of Swiss scientists, commissioned by Greenpeace, on April 19 issued a peer-reviewed
critique of the shoddy science endorsed by the EPA to certify the environmental safety
of Bt corn. The EcoStrat report reveals that tests submitted by the biotech companies
Novartis and Mycogen to determine whether their GE corn could harm non-target insects
were so poorly designed that there was virtually no chance that adverse effects would
be observed. Despite the flawed methodology, EPA accepted the tests as scientific
evidence that the gene-altered crop was harmless to non-target insects, and continued
to accept the same flawed testing procedures for approval of other companies' insect-resistant
"Bt" crops. According to Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, a science advisor to Greenpeace,
"We now know that EPA's approval of insect-resistant crops was based on false
assumptions, shoddy methodology, and skewed results." For more information on
the EcoStrat report see www.greenpeaceusa.org
* Investors rebel against gene-foods. Anti-GE shareholder activism in the US has
increased considerably since the first of the year. According to the New York Times
"Twenty-one resolutions calling for restraints on the use of genetically modified
ingredients are on the annual meeting agendas at some of America's leading food and
seed manufacturers this year, up from zero a year ago... Shareholders at Coca Cola,
Kellogg's, Phillip Morris ,and PepsiCo have already voted on the resolutions, which
garnered a respective 8.3 percent, 5.6 percent, 4 percent and 3.2 percent of the
support of voting shares." As activists point out, once a company faces opposition
from 10-15% of its shareholders on an unpopular position such as using GE ingredients
in its products, it will usually change its company policy.
Pharmageddon Strikes Back: Disinformation, TV Ads, Regulatory Reforms
Fearful that the global backlash against gene-foods is spreading to the U.S.,
Monsanto, Aventis, Novartis, Dow, BASF, Zeneca, DuPont, and the Biotechnology Industry
Organization have launched a $50 million a year public relations campaign to confuse
and mislead the American public.
Fronting for the Gene Giants, the so-called Council for Biotechnology Information
has paid for cheery "biotech is great" national television ads, launched
a Web site www.whybiotech.com, opened a consumer
information hotline, carried out focus groups and polls, and enlisted prominent scientists
and public figures (including Andrew Young, ex-ambassador to the United Nations and
former Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Watson) to serve as messengers for pro-biotech
propaganda. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 4, the Council says
it may spend as much as $250 million on the campaign over the next five years. In
the CBI's opening national TV ad, the narrator tries to equate the potential benefits
of GE crops with the more widely accepted uses of biotechnology in medicine.
Flashing between scenes of farm fields and medical labs, the 60-second ad proclaims:
"A patient has a medicine she needs. A boy can survive a childhood disease.
A cotton crop helps protect itself from certain pests because discoveries in biotechnology,
from medicine to agriculture, are helping doctors and farmers to treat our sick and
to protect our crops."
DISINFORMATION FROM THE BIOTECH INDUSTRY:
* GE foods have been thoroughly tested by U.S. government agencies and found to
* Biotechnology increases the nutritional content of foods, makes them taste better,
and can help feed the world's hungry.
* GE crops reduce the use of toxic pesticides.
In a national focus group study carried out last September 14-19 by public relations
powerhouse BSMG Worldwide on behalf of the Grocery Manufactures of America, a copy
of which was obtained by BioDemocracy News, BSMG recommends broadcasting the above
"positive messages" to American consumers to counteract their negative
views on biotechnology. Unfortunately for the biotech industry, BSMG also learned
from interviewing American consumers that there are some major obstacles to public
acceptance of GE foods:
* American women, who generally do the grocery shopping, are more likely than
men to have negative feelings about gene-altered foods. These negative feelings are
"rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of negative consequences for human health,
and resistance to tampering with nature." African-Americans are also "notably
negative" toward gene-foods, as are senior citizens.
* Both men and women overwhelmingly support mandatory labeling of GE foods, and
strongly oppose industry efforts to restrict labeling or to make it voluntary.
* Only 15% of consumers are aware that the majority of supermarket foods already
contain genetically engineered ingredients.
* Two-thirds of Americans say they are "concerned" about biotechnology
issues. Forty-eight percent say they oppose any use of "genetic modification"
in food production.
Spoiling the Party: The National Academy of Sciences Report & FDA "Reform"
On April 5 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released their long-awaited report
on genetically engineered crops. While the scientific talking heads at the NAS press
conference in Washington tried to reassure the public that GE foods were safe, national
TV networks broadcast a different image--outside the NAS headquarters, a crowd of
protesters dressed in white lab coats, holding up signs ("The Best Science Money
Can Buy") and giant dollar bills, chanting anti-GE slogans. While the biotech
industry applauded the conclusions of the study, nearly every media organization
in the country reported that the NAS report was plagued by charges of conflict of
interest. The majority of the dozen scientists on the NAS panel receive money from
biotech corporations or labs under contract to the industry, while the original head
of the panel, Michael Phillips, left the NAS to work as a PR flack for the Biotechnology
Industry Organization. The media also broadcast the criticisms of consumer and public
interest groups that the 261-page NAS report paid little attention to the potential
health hazards of GE foods.
As Rachel's Environment & Health weekly (May 11) (www.rachel.org)
points out, however, a close reading of the NAS report is actually quite damning
for the biotech industry and the nation's regulatory agencies (the FDA, the EPA,
and the USDA).
The NAS report admits that:
* New allergens and toxins may be introduced into foods.
* Existing toxins in foods may reach new levels, or may be moved into edible portions
* New allergens may be introduced into pollen, then spread into the environment.
* Previously unknown protein combinations now being produced in plants might have
unforeseen effects when new genes are introduced into the plants;
* Nutritional content of a plant may be diminished.
Instead of a whitewash on the safety of GE foods, the NAS report has turned into
yet another public relations debacle for the biotech industry.
In a similar vein, the Food and Drug Administration's long-anticipated announcement
of "regulatory reforms" on GE foods and crops May 3 was met with indifference
or hostility on the part of the general public. Headlines across the country emphasized
that the FDA was refusing to label GE foods, while reporters noted that every consumer
and environmental group in the US was denouncing the FDA maneuvers as "too little
and too late."
As we predicted months ago in BioDemocracy News the FDA is calling for nothing
(1) voluntary industry labeling;
(2) non-specific industry-FDA "consultations" before new Frankenfoods and
crops are put on the market, and
(3) non-specific disclosure of research data by biotech corporations on the internet.
As Debbie Ortman, National Field Organizer, of the Organic Consumers Association
put it, "The biotech industry consulting with the FDA does not constitute safety-testing,
nor is so-called voluntary industry labeling of genetically engineered foods what
90% of consumers want--mandatory labeling."
Of course this is not the end of the debate. Battered by mounting public criticism
and serious market share loss in Europe and Asia, now spreading to North America,
we can expect Monsanto and the Gene Giants to fight back with all they have. In the
next issue of BioDemocracy News we will take a critical look at the new generation
of genetically engineered products being readied for market: so-called "functional
foods," GE fish, Frankentrees, and other mutants. In the meantime stay tuned
to our website www.purefood.org for daily
updates, events listings, and action alerts.
### End of BioDemocracy News #27 ###
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