The Coastal Post - June 2000

Who's Winning the Frankenfoods Fight?
News and Analysis on Genetic Engineering,
Factory Farming, & Organics

By Ronnie Cummins

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.

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 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.

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. 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."

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%.

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 , 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.

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 for daily updates, events listings, and action alerts. edited for publication by the Coastal Post from BioDemocracy News 27, May 2000

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