Genetic Engineering, Factory Farming,
News from Europe, India, Colombia,
Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.
Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston
Little Marais, Minnesota
In what the Financial Times of London characterized on February 23 as a "public relations disaster for transgenic foods," global resistance to Monsanto and genetic engineering (GE) has sharply intensified over the past 60 days. As reported previously Monsanto Under Attack: Global Pressure Builds Against Monsanto, the international anti-GE movement is rapidly developing into a serious threat to Monsanto and other biotechnology titans.
The growing crisis over gene-foods has reached the point where financial analysts are warning the Clinton administration that the European Union will not back off on efforts to label untested GE foods. Many believe this controversy could spawn a major trade war within the World Trade Organization (WTO). In Britain, commentators have similarly warned Prime Minister Tony Blair that his cozy relationship with Bill Clinton and Bill's favorite corporation, Monsanto, could do severe damage to Blair.
It has been a rough last several months for Monsanto and the ag biotech special interests. Here is a chronological blow by blow account:
- The Fall/Winter 1998 issue of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Gene Exchange <http://www.ucsusa.org> warns of recent US research showing that genetically engineered Bt crops are building up Bt toxins in the soil, thereby damaging the soil food web and harming beneficial insects.
- On December 15, 1998 attorneys from the Center for Food Safety, on behalf of a broad coalition, filed a legal petition in Washington, D.C. against the FDA to have rBGH taken off the market. The legal action received major attention from the mass media, including a widely-viewed segment on ABC TV national news. The CFS petition cites mounting evidence that the original testing of rBGH was flawed. In 1990 the FDA said BGH was "safe for human consumption." Part of its findings were based on 90-day rat feeding studies in which they reported "no toxicologically significant changes..." Based largely on this conclusion, FDA did not require human toxicological tests usually required for a veterinary drug. However in April of 1998, researchers from Health Canada, the Canadian equivalent to FDA, issued a report which contradicted FDA's findings. Canadian researchers found studies showing that rats were absorbing rBGH after all. In fact, between 20 and 30 percent of the rats were developing distinct immunological reactions. Additionally, cysts formed in the thyroid of some male rats and infiltrated the prostate--both warning signs for potential cancer hazards.
- "These are toxicologically significant changes in the rats and they should have triggered a full human health review, including assessment of potential carcinogenic and immunological effects," said Dr. Michael Hansen, an expert on rBGH and a scientist with the Consumer Policy Institute, a division of Consumers Union. According to CFS attorneys it is "unclear" how or why these results were overlooked in the original FDA review of rBGH. Monsanto says it submitted the studies to the FDA, while the agency says it only saw summaries of the rat tests.
- "We're going to go to the courts and say--you were lied to," said Andrew Kimbrell, lead counsel for the CFS. "Essentially it was fraud by the agency and fraud by Monsanto in telling the court that there were no human health effects possible from consuming these products made with rBGH treated milk." The EU has already banned rBGH, but this policy comes up for review later this year. The US government has warned that they will file for damages under the WTO if the EU continues to ban Monsanto's rBGH.
- Australian trade authorities announced on Jan. 8, the largest shipment of canola (rapeseed) ever exported from Australia. The $16.5 million dollar shipment is bound for oilseed crushing plants in Europe. According to Graham Lawrence, managing director of the New South Wales Grains Board, "Europe has moved to become a major buyer this year because Australia is the only country to guarantee non-genetic modified canola." Canada has lost $300-400 million in canola sales to Europe over the last year because government authorities have followed the US model of co-mingling GE and non-GE grains. This year over 50% of Canada's 13.4 million acres of canola are genetically engineered.
- The mid-January 1999 issue of the California Farmer magazine reports that Bt resistance has emerged among pink bollworms, a major cotton pest, in Arizona cotton fields Biotech critics have warned for years that genetically engineered Bt crops will cause major crop pests to develop resistance to Bt, thereby destroying the usefulness of the world's most important natural biopesticide.
- On Jan. 14 Canadian government officials announced that they were not going to allow Monsanto's controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST) to be injected into Canada's dairy cows. The ruling came after nine years of heavy lobbying by Monsanto and a major nationwide debate. Although the Canadian government and the media stressed that the permanent ban on rBGH was based primarily on animal health concerns, the data posted on their web site by the Canadian scientists who reviewed the drug made it clear that human health hazards were also a consideration, namely increased antibiotic residues and elevated levels of a potent human growth hormone factor and cancer promoter called IGF-1 found in rBGH-derived milk and dairy products. (For further information on the hazards of rBGH, see <http://www.purefood.org> and <http://www.icta.org>)
- * On Jan. 22, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that financial difficulties were forcing Monsanto to slash 1700 employees from its global workforce of 28,000. As indicated in previous Food Bytes, Monsanto now finds itself strapped for cash in the wake of last fall's failed merger with the American Home Products Corp. Monsanto's recent aggressive multi-billion dollar acquisitions of seed companies, research labs, and grain trading operations have increased their power and control over world markets, but have drastically reduced their available capital and lowered their stock values, leaving them potentially vulnerable to an unfriendly takeover by Dupont or Dow or another mega-corporation. Wall Street investment analyst William Fiala told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "It seems like they (Monsanto) bit off more than they could chew after the merger collapsed. They are taking a risk that they could cut too deep in terms of personnel or could sell things out of necessity that are still good investments. Their debt is beyond Monsanto's comfort level and beyond most analysts' comfort level."
- * Almost 200 cotton farmers in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are suing Monsanto for damages after crop failures of Monsanto's Bt and Roundup Ready cotton seeds, according to a news story in the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle on Jan. 25. In a separate lawsuit 25 cotton farmers in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana are suing Monsanto for fraud and misrepresentation--also in regard to Bt cotton crop failures.
- * On Feb. 5, Carrefour, France's largest supermarket chain, announced that they were taking all genetically engineered foods off their shelves. A representative from Greenpeace France, Arnaud Apoteker, told anti-biotech activists at an conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico on Feb. 7 that Greenpeace and their allies were planning on driving all GE foods and crops out of France by the end of next year.
- * On Feb. 12 front-page headline stories in the British press revealed that Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosive research findings on the potential human health dangers of genetically engineered potatoes--first aired in the UK media last August--had been verified by a panel of 20 international scientists. Dr. Pusztai, a world renowned researcher on plant lectins, was fired last August from the government-funded Rowett Institute in Scotland, under very suspicious circumstances, shortly after he went public with research indicating that laboratory rats fed genetically engineered potatoes had suffered significant damage to their immune systems, thymuses, kidneys, spleens, and guts. According to press reports, Pusztai's firing and the ensuing scientific coverup by the UK government were a direct consequence of ongoing White House pressure on Tony Blair to keep the door open to Monsanto and other biotech companies to market and grow GE products in Britain and across the EU.
- When Dr. Pusztai fed conventional potatoes and snowdrop lectin (GNA) to rats, no damage occurred. But when Pusztai fed the rats an equivalent amount of potatoes which were gene-spliced with the snowdrop lectin, significant and startling damage became quickly evident. Despite deliberately false U.K. government allegations that Dr. Pusztai's experiments were purely theoretical, a number of biotech companies are currently carrying out similar lab and field tests on gene-spliced potatoes, rapeseed, rice, and cabbage, calculating that snowdrop-spliced food crops will repel crop pests.
- Perhaps even more alarming than Pusztai's mutant potatoes, scientists have subsequently pointed out that Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a gene routinely spliced into millions of acres of US corn, cotton, and potatoes is now considered to be a form of lectin. And more alarming yet, another scientist, Dr. Stanley Ewen, said that a commonly used vector or production aid in gene-splicing, the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, may have caused serious damage to the stomach and internal organs of the rats in Pusztai's study. If the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) is confirmed as being hazardous to mammals, this could literally become the "Chernobyl of Biotech"--since Roundup Ready soybeans, Bt corn, and most other GE crops are produced using the CaMV as a genetic splicing vector.
- On Feb. 13, eight days after Carrefour's announcement in Paris, a major British supermarket chain, Asda, announced that they were going to remove all genetically engineered ingredients from their own-brand goods. Asda's move comes in the wake of similar moves by other UK retail chains, including Iceland and Marks and Spencer. As Sheila McKechnie of the UK Consumers Association pointed out in the Daily Mail newspaper on Feb. 11, grocery chains banning GE foods like Carrefour will now "have an enormous competitive advantage" in the marketplace.
- Bloomberg News reported on February 13 that EU authorities had rejected Monsanto's request to grow GE Roundup Ready and Bollgard Bt cotton plants in Europe. Two days earlier the European Parliament voted to tighten GE regulations, demanding that GE corporations be compelled to purchase liability insurance to cover any and all damages resulting from gene-altered crops or foods. The Parliament also demanded stricter measures for the prevention of gene transfers from GMOs to other crops or wild species, as well as a ban on antibiotic-resistance marker genes in genetic crops.
- On February 18, an international coalition of public interest organizations, led by attorneys from the Center for Food Safety (Food Bytes and the Campaign for Food Safety are affiliated with the CFS) filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. to have all Bt crops taken off of the market because of the hazards they pose to the environment and public health. The February 18 Bt lawsuit was announced at a well-attended press conference in Washington, and generated significant coverage in the US press. Last May (see Food Bytes #13) the Center for Food Safety sued the FDA to have all genetically engineered foods taken off the market on the grounds that they are neither properly labeled nor safety-tested, and that lack of mandatory labeling illegally restricts the freedom of choice of those who would choose--on religious or ethical grounds--to avoid GE foods.
- "Genetically engineered crops are a threat to farmers, consumers, and the environment," said Charles Margulis, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety stated, "EPA has shown a blatant disregard for federal law and its own regulations by approving Bt crops without fully assessing their environmental safety. Their continuing failure to regulate this untested technology forces us to turn to the courts for protection." For further information on these lawsuits see <http://www.icta.org>
- On Feb. 23, the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK reported that three of Britain's fast-food giants--McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken--are responding to customer pressure by eliminating genetically engineered soya and corn ingredients from their menus. According to McDonald's spokesperson Jackie Graveny: "Our aim is to have McDonald's GM (genetically modified) free as soon as possible." Similarly Burger King stated: "The company is set to ban GM food as soon as possible." In a related development the Agriculture Minister in the UK, Nick Brown, announced on Jan. 31 that UK restaurants will soon be required to start labeling "meals which contain certain types of genetically modified food."
- With more and more major food retailers, restaurants, and processors in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Scandinavia, the UK, and other nations going "GE-free" a tremendous market now exists for certified "non-GE" and organic products. This makes it increasingly difficult for governments such as the US, Canada, and Brazil to keep telling farmers that their "no labeling and no segregation" policies on co-mingling GE and non-GE grains and crops make good economic sense.
- On Feb. 23 India's Supreme Court ruled that all field trials of Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt Cotton must be halted. The court ruling and temporary legal injunction came in response to a legal petition filed by veteran Indian activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. According to Dr. Shiva, "This case does not merely have national significance, it has international significance. Around the world scientists, environmentalists, consumer groups and farmers are calling for a moratorium on commercial releases of genetically engineered crops because of growing evidence of ecological hazards and threats to food safety." The court ruling comes in the wake of months of protests by Indian farmers and consumers, many of whom have organized themselves into a Monsanto "Quit India" movement. Dr. Shiva and other activists brought together over 100 grassroots organizations in Hyderabad on Jan. 7 to launch a nationwide campaign against Monsanto.
- A major backlash has developed against the United States and major transnational biotech corporations after an international Biosafety Protocol treaty was sabotaged in Cartagena, Colombia. The Biosafety Protocol, supported by over 135 nations and public interest groups worldwide, would have tightened regulations on the international transfer and trade of genetically engineered seeds, grains, and foods. In a vote on Feb. 24 the US and five of its allies, the so-called "Miami Group" (Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile) managed to prevent the passage of the internationally binding treaty. As US biosafety expert Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute told the New York Times, "There was no moral high ground here (on the part of the US). There was no scientific higher ground. It was just cheap power politics." According to the Financial Times of London and other EU sources, the US' bully boy tactics at the Biosafety Protocol meetings will only serve to exacerbate anti-biotech feelings in Europe. A recent statement by George Monbiot in the London Guardian (Feb. 19) aptly sums up the mood of EU consumers: "Food scares happen... because people feel they have no control over what they eat. Our decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable corporations."
- On Feb. 25 a group of US activists in San Francisco calling themselves fabRAGE (Fabulous Resistance Against Genetic Engineering) stripped off their clothes and disrupted a conference panel on genetically engineered cotton featuring a speaker from the Monsanto Corporation. "We'd rather go naked than wear genetically modified cotton!" shouted Biogrrl, a fashion diva at the event, as half a dozen activists charged through the room and stripped off their biohazglam gowns, chanting: "We don't want it, won't buy it, and won't wear it. Super Gene Girl, in a biohazard suit shouted, "Gene-spliced cotton is not sustainable!" Monsanto representatives appeared apoplectic in the face of the action.
- On Feb. 27 Greenpeace activists in Mexico City hung banners protesting "Genetic Imperialism" and the US sabotage of the Biosafety Protocol on a historic monument, the Angel of Independence, in the center of the city. Police arrested the demonstrators, but the banner-hanging generated significant coverage in the Mexican media, where until recently there has been very little discussion of the GE foods controversy.
- On March 2 the Reuters news agency reported that the UK's Advertising Standards Authority wil soon "censure" Monsanto for a misleading series of ads on the safety of genetically engineered foods which appeared last year in the British press.