Derailing the Biotech Express:
U.S. & Global Activists at the Crossroads
Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston
Little Marais, Minnesota
(In this article are published) major developments on the Genetic Engineering (GE) front over the past few months (April, May, June - 1999). They focus specifically on U.S. government and industry plans to co-opt and divide the growing international anti-biotech movement and stifle debate in the U.S. First a few of the major developments over the past 90 days:
- On June 24, European Union (EU) environmental ministers moved to implement the legal equivalent of a three-year moratorium on any new approvals of GE foods or crops. The moratorium will remain in effect until more stringent EU safety regulations are put in place in 2002. Not since April of 1998 has a GE food been approved in Europe. "We've had a de facto moratorium, and now it's been cast in stone," EU Commission spokesman Peter Jorgenson told a reporter from Dow Jones. While the powerful European biotech trade association, EuropaBio, criticized the moratorium as "deplorable," Greenpeace spokeswoman Louise Gale categorized the ministerial decision as "a clear step in the right direction," a recognition of EU citizens' "massive rejection of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food and agriculture." US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky complained that the GE approval process in the EU had "completely" broken down and warned that the White House was considering the possibility of economic retaliation by filing a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization. The EU decision comes in the wake of a massive grassroots movement across the continent which has provoked a literal stampede by major supermarket chains, fast-food restaurants, food producers, and animal feed companies in Europe to proclaim a ban on GE foods and food ingredients.
- On May 17, the prestigious 115,000-member British Medical Association (BMA - the equivalent of the AMA in the US) issued a report which called for a moratorium on GE foods and crops, declaring that more"independent" research is needed to determine the possible toxicity of bioengineered food. The BMA warned that the commercialization of untested and unlabeled gene-foods could lead to the development of new allergies and antibiotic resistance in humans. British doctors emphasized that the notion of the "substantial equivalence" of GE and non-GE foods -- which provides the legal basis for the US government position of "no labeling" and "no pre-market safety-testing" -- is scientifically incorrect, ignoring "gene interaction of unexpected kinds which may take place in GM foods."
The BMA report rocked the already shaky biotech industry, generating significant media coverage in many parts of the world. Influential members of the US Senate immediately attacked the BMA report. Republican Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri, sometimes known as the "Senator from Monsanto," lashed out against the EU in the Washington Post: "It is characteristic of the European Union to hide behind studies such as this in order to maintain its protectionist trade policies." A representative of the BMA, Sir William Asscher, spoke at a well-publicized press conference in Washington, D.C. on June 16 sponsored by the public interest organization, Environmental Media Services.
- In the most dramatic story of the year highlighting the environmental hazards of GE crops, Nature magazine published a letter from Cornell University scientists in its 5/20/99 issue indicating that pollen from Bt corn crops is poisonous to Monarch butterflies. Headline stories of the threat to what the press dubbed "the Bambi of the insect world" brought home the fact -- especially to Americans -- that millions of acres of GE crops are already under cultivation in the US, with untold damage already being done to the environment and living creatures. Although Monsanto and the biotech industry immediately tried to undercut the Monarch story, complaining that the studies were carried out in a laboratory rather than in the fields, another recent study by scientists from Iowa State University <www.pme.iastate.edu/info/monarch.htm> conducted in and around fields planted with Bt corn, showed similar results. Under pressure from the media fallout, USDA head Dan Glickman emphasized in interviews that "We can't force-feed consumers... There are certainly more and more questions being asked about biotechnology, and those questions must be answered." EU authorities reacted to the Monarch story by announcing that previous approvals for Bt crops in Europe will now have to be reviewed and possibly reversed. Greenpeace threatened a lawsuit unless the prior EU approvals for several Bt crops were canceled. The Bt-Monarch controversy comes on the heels of other recent studies showing that Bt-spliced crops kill beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs, kill beneficial soil microorganisms, damage soil fertility, and may be harming insect-eating birds.
- The Times of London reported April 15 on a scientific study that proved that bees could spread GE-tainted pollen for a distance up to four kilometers, much further than researchers had previously thought. Adrian Beeb of Friends of the Earth pointed out that this study underlined that nearly every farmer's field in the UK was potentially at risk from genetic pollution and urged the government to back growing demands for a five-year moratorium. Another recent article in Science magazine (284: 965-67) pointed out that European corn borers resistant to the Bt toxin may carry this resistance as a dominant, rather than a recessive trait, with the consequence that these Bt superpests will likely breed and multiply at a much faster rate (especially in so-called "refuges" planted adjacent to Bt crop plots) than previously expected. This in turn could quickly render non-GE Bt pesticidal sprays ineffective. Non-GE Bt sprays are the most important emergency pest control agent for organic and low-chemical use farmers in the world.
- On the Roundup Ready soybean front, well-respected scientist Dr. Charles Benbrook has just posted information on the Internet <www.biotech-info.net> indicating that "overwhelming" and "indisputable" evidence shows that farmers planting Monsanto's genetically engineered RRS soybeans are experiencing a significantly lower yields than farmers who are growing conventional, non-GE soybeans. Benbrook also warns that supposed reductions in pesticide use from RRS or Bt seeds are exaggerated at best (farmers use less volume of Roundup than other pesticides, but only because it's more chemically potent) and fraudulent at worst. As Benbrook and others point out in their book Pest Management at the Crossroads <www.pmac.net> the only real way to reduce pesticide use is through organic or sustainable agriculture practices (integrated pest management, including crop rotation, cover crops, beneficial insects, planting a variety of crops, manual/mechanical weeding, natural bio-pesticides, etc.). The July 10 magazine New Scientist (UK) contains an article on recently released USDA data on GE crops that essentially reaffirms Benbrook and others' analysis that herbicide-resistant and Bt crops are neither producing higher yields nor reducing pesticide use. According to Kurt Kleiner of the New Scientist: "Most American farmers who have turned to genetically engineered crops seem to be getting yields no better than farmers who grow traditional varieties. They also appear to be using similar quantities of pesticides."
- The president of the pro-biotechnology Rockefeller Foundation, Gordon Conway, warned Monsanto in late-June that its strong-arm tactics and promotion of the Terminator Technology are created a dangerous public backlash against GE. Press reports stated that Conway flatly told Monsanto to drop the controversial Terminator Technology and to stop opposing the labeling of GE foods. Analysts point out that the Rockefeller/Monsanto controversy is indicative of a increasing split in the ruling elite over how and how quickly to force GE on an increasingly concerned and skeptical public.
- Dr. Marc Lappe from the Center for Ethics and Toxics <www.cetos.org> published with two other scientists July 1 a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Medicinal Food pointing out that Monsanto's RRS soybeans contain 12-14% lower levels of beneficial, naturally occurring phytoestrogens (thought to provide natural protection against breast cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis) than conventional soybeans. Monsanto, as expected, has vehemently denied Lappe's claims. Monsanto previously intervened with a publisher to try to prevent Lappe and Britt Bailey's anti-biotech book, Against the Grain, from being published.
- As record amounts of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide continue to be sprayed on Roundup Ready soybeans, canola, corn, and cotton, a recent article in the journal Cancer (March 15, 1999) has revealed links between glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. In 1998 over 112,000 tons of glyphosate, the world's largest selling herbicide were sprayed across the globe. A full 71% of all genetically-altered crops last year were engineered to be resistant to herbicides such as Roundup.
- According to an article in the July 2 Farmers Weekly (UK), after major US corn buyers Archer Daniels Midland and A.E. Staley announced they would no longer purchase GE corn which was unapproved for sale in the EU, up to 20% of US corn farmers in some areas returned their unapproved GE corn seeds back to their seed distributors.
- In the May 6 issue of Post, an insurance magazine, a manager for insurance giant Cigna International, Maunce Pullen, recommended that insurance companies think twice before issuing insurance policies to genetic engineering companies: "Our experience with asbestos, PCBs, and other 'miracle' products in the past should have warned us of the potential dangers of diving into issues before we have an adequate awareness of the exposures."
- In a sharp blow to Monsanto and the US government, the GATT Codex Alimentarius in Rome once again on June 30 refused to certify that the controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST) is safe for humans. "By refusing to set a standard today, Codex has recognized that there is no consensus on rBGH safety in the international scientific community, and that national governments should be able to decide whether rBGH should be permitted in their milk supply," said Jean Halloran, Director of the Consumer Policy Institute at the US Consumers Union. In related developments government authorities in India, under public pressure, banned imports of rBGH, while in New Zealand strong grassroots opposition caused Monsanto's distributor, Eli-Lilly, to withdraw its application to distribute the drug. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that Monsanto's genetically engineered rBGH -- now injected into 5% of all dairy cows in the USA -- likely poses significant health risks for both humans (increased cancer risks as well as antibiotic resistance risks) and animals.
- On June 21, a Federal Court in Brazil ruled that Monsanto's GE Roundup Ready soybeans cannot be planted in that country before August 2000. According to the judicial decision, Monsanto is prohibited from commercializing the GE seeds until the government has issued regulations and rules defining the biosafety and labeling of GMOs. In a July press conference in London, Brazilian agricultural officials promised a consistent and reliable supply of non-GE (as well as organic) soybeans for the UK and EU market.
- According to the British and Brazilian press, more and more major supermarket chains, food producers, and animal feed companies in Europe are starting to turn to Brazil, rather than the US (where GE and non-GE soybeans continue to be co-mingled), for their soybean imports. This is alarming to US farmers and the White House, since US ag exports are already in crisis, with a 14% decline overall in exports since last year.
Meanwhile prices paid to farmers for US soybeans have dropped to a 27-year low, with overall US soybean exports declining by 38%. In addition the US has lost $400 million in corn exports to Europe over the past two years because of the EU public's rejection of GE corn, while Canada has lost over $500 million in canola (rapeseed) exports. Compounding US/Canadian problems, there are signs that Japan, a major buyer of North American grains and oil seeds, may be forced by public pressure to turn to Australia, France, Brazil and other nations for guaranteed supplies of GE-free canola and soya. Monsanto Canada CEO Ray Mowling warned the Canadian Grain Council on April 14 that the growing global controversy over GE "Frankenstein foods" and the growing "effectiveness of GMO opponents" poses a major threat to agricultural biotechnology.
- In the face of mounting consumer pressure and heavy media coverage of the Bt-Monarch butterfly controversy, Japanese government officials announced in mid-June that they were suspending approval of Bt crops for agricultural production, pending the establishment of criteria for safety evaluation. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) will also apparently decide by the end of the year whether mandatory labeling will be required for most GE foods. As pointed out in previous issues of CFS News, public concerns over food safety and gene-foods have increased considerably in Japan over the past three years. In recent international meetings of the Codex Alimentarius, Japanese officials have refused to support the US position of "no labeling" for GE foods. Japan imports 77% of its soybeans from the USA, as well as 87% of its corn. One of the biggest nightmares of the biotech industry is that Japanese and Asian anti-GE activists will build a mass movement similar to what we are now seeing in Europe and India. Japan is the largest feed grain importer in the world, purchasing 30-40% of US grain exports, while Korea and Taiwan combined often import almost as much as Japan.
- Activists, NGOs (non-government organizations), and government officials from Cuba, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela met in Ecuador in mid-June and affirmed that nations of Latin America must agree on biosafety mechanisms to lower the risks posed by genetically engineered foods and crops. Biologist Elizabeth Bravo from the Ecuador environmental group Accion Ecologica warned that unlabeled and untested GE foods from Argentina and the US are already coming into Ecuador and other Latin American countries. Bravo told InterPress News Service that "The possible alterations to human and environmental health from GE foods are unpredictable." Bravo also stressed that "Farmers are forced to purchase genetically modified seeds from a single firm, on pain of losing the commercial competition race. Who guarantees that these foods are safe?" Cuban biosafety expert Orfelia Rodriquez summed up the consensus on labeling which is steadily developing in Latin America "Governments must inform the population on the risks of using transgenics, and must make labeling of such products mandatory, in order for consumers to know what they are consuming."
- On July 2 activists from Greenpeace delivered several hundred pounds of GE corn seed, purchased in Mexico, to Mexican health authorities to prove that corn imports coming into the country do contain gene-altered DNA -- despite a supposed ban by the government on imports of GE corn. Mexico is the world center for diversity for corn, and scientists have warned that "genetic pollution" of Mexico's many corn varieties could lead to the loss of the world's most important and irreplaceable source of corn germ plasm. The Greenpeace action generated major press coverage, and, along with recent coverage of the Bt-Monarch story (Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico for the winter months), has begun to alert the Mexican public of the dangers and uncertainties of GE foods and crops.
- Over three dozen NGOs and consumer groups in the US -- including for the first time several national environmental groups -- have begun holding anti-biotech meetings, participating in conference calls, and organizing press events and protests. ... According to a report by Bill Lambrecht in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 30, a number of major non-profit foundations in the US are on the verge of pouring significant financial resources into public interest organizations in order to facilitate a major American GE public awareness campaign.
- Heretofore unpublished federal Food and Drug Administration documents obtained by the <www.icta.org> and the Alliance for Bio-Integrity <www.bio-integrity.org> as part of an ongoing May 1998 lawsuit demanding mandatory labeling and safety-testing of GE foods and crops, show that even the FDA's own scientists had serious differences over the FDA's "no labeling" and "no safety-testing" policy on gene-altered foods issued in 1992. According to Steve Druker of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity "In internal documents FDA officials repeatedly cautioned that foods produced through recombinant DNA technology entail different risks than do their conventionally produced counterparts and that this input was consistently disregarded by the bureaucrats who crafted the agency's current policy, which treats bioengineered foods the same as natural ones. Besides contradicting the FDA's claim that its policy is science-based, this evidence shows the agency violated the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in allowing genetically engineered foods to be marketed without testing on the premise that they are generally recognized as safe by qualified experts."
- According to Andrew Kimbrell and Joe Mendelson, attorneys for the International Center for Technology Assessment, a federal court will decide (probably by the end of 1999) whether the FDA is required by law to mandate pre-market testing and labeling for GE foods. Additionally the court will decide whether the entire US regulatory regime regarding GE foods regulated by the FDA has to undergo an environmental impact statement. All of the legal briefs written by the ICTA will be posted on the Internet shortly after July 12 <www.icta.org>.
CFS's well-informed sources in Washington tell us that the Clinton administration and the Biotechnology Industry Organization are increasingly worried. Chemical & Engineering News reported in its May 31 issue that Thomas Nickson, a Monsanto regulatory official, "now considers the labeling of genetically modified crops for export inevitable." According to C&E News, giant commodities traders Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland also believe currently co-mingled export crops will soon have to be segregated and labeled. Although the USDA hasn't yet endorsed the idea of labeling GE foods for export, according to a June 27 story by Bill Lambrecht, the USDA hopes that new proposed federal organic standards, due to be released as early as October, will "ease the worries of biotech-wary consumers" by prohibiting the use of genetically engineered ingredients in foods labeled "USDA Organic." In other words, if you don't want GE, buy organic.
Proponents of GE realize they're going to have to make at least some minor concessions on the biotech labeling front in order to head off a trade war with the EU, prevent the GE controversy from heating up too much in Japan and other major US export markets--and prevent the emergence of a serious debate and organized opposition movement in the USA. The biotech industry understands quite well consumer polls over the past ten years that show that 80-90% of Americans support mandatory labeling, and that 60% or so, if foods were clearly labeled, would attempt to avoid buying GE products. They also understand that there isn't more of a controversy yet in the USA because almost half of all consumers erroneously believe that there aren't any GE foods (except for rBGH-derived dairy products) on the market. A 1999 study by the International Food Information Council, a government and industry-funded group, found that 47% of Americans believe that there aren't any genetically engineered foods on the market yet.
As danger signs mount of an impending increase in grassroots activism and public debate over gene-foods, the Clinton administration is taking steps to create the impression they're willing to address public concerns:
The biotech lobby apparently believe that a more moderate set of proposed national organic standards -- one that specifically excludes GE, irradiation, and toxic sludge--will placate US organic consumers. Beyond this, if the overall biotech debate in the US starts to get out of hand, they are willing to entertain the notion of partial, voluntary industry labeling. The White House and the Gene Giants believe that segregation and labeling of GE exports will placate Europeans and Asians, and that over time everyone will calm down or else become fatalistic as they realize that GE crops and ingredients are everywhere. In the meantime they intend to use the GATT, the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD, and other corporate and biotech-friendly institutions to rewrite global trade agreements and investment policies so that nation states no longer have the ability to respond to citizen demands for rigid controls over genetic engineering and other out-of-control technologies. As an ultimate fall-back plan, our sources tell us, the White House would conceivably consider a general and deliberately vague label on food products that says something like "This product may contain bioengineered or irradiated ingredients..." Of course this is not enough. Campaigners in the US and around the world must prepare ourselves for a protracted struggle. The battle has just begun.
- A White House task force will report later this year on the prospect of labeling genetically engineered foods... One option is voluntary industry labeling.
- The National Academy of Sciences met recently to plan a new biotechnology review process that focuses on GE seeds and ownership of genetic materials. An Academy panel also held a public hearing on potential risks of Bt crops.
- The USDA has resurrected a 25-person biotechnology advisory committee that will include a variety of experts, members of the public, and critics. The committee will hold its first meeting this fall.
- USDA chief Dan Glickman delivered a conciliatory, if somewhat vague, speech at the National Press Club in Washington on July 13 on the GE controversy, warning the biotech giants and food companies to listen to consumer concerns and consider adopting voluntary labeling for gene-foods. "What we cannot do is take consumers for granted... a sort of 'if you grow it, they will come' mentality," Glickman said. Glickman also promised reforms in the US regulatory process and closer monitoring of potential environmental and health problems. The July 13 speech attracted significant media attention, including major stories in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.