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Blows Against the Empire:
From Oakland to Montreal

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

After 'The Battle of Seattle'

Less than two weeks after "The Battle of Seattle," on December 13, 1999 the Organic Consumers Association managed to organize, with the support of a new national coalition called GEAN (Genetic Engineering Action Network), a noon street protest of over a thousand people outside Food and Drug Administration hearings on genetically engineered foods in Oakland, California. The New York Times (Dec. 14) correctly identified the protest as "the largest rally ever in the United States against the use of genetic engineering in food." In the week leading up to the protest the OCA telephone bank called 10,000 contacts in the San Francisco Bay area, while GEAN volunteers handed out 20,000 leaflets to consumers in front of supermarkets and natural food grocery stores. Both over the telephone and in the streets, the reaction of Californians to our "Say No to Frankenfoods" message was overwhelmingly positive. There is no longer any doubt that the global controversy over genetically engineered foods and crops has spread to the USA.

Five weeks later on January 22 in sub-zero temperatures, a thousand spirited demonstrators marched through the streets of Montreal, denouncing the governments of the so-called "Miami Group" (the U.S., Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay) for trying to subvert a Biosafety Treaty that would regulate the multi-billion dollar international trade in genetically engineered foods and organisms. Chanting "Life before profits!" and "We will not be guinea pigs," an internationalist contingent, mobilized by Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians, called for a global moratorium on gene-foods and crops. At a news conference the day before, a protester threw a pie in the face of Joyce Groote, the genetic engineering industry's top lobbyist in Canada.

But street protests in Oakland and Montreal are just the most visible signs of increasing resistance in North America. Since the last issue of BioDemocracy News, the Gene Giants and the Miami Group have suffered a number of setbacks, including the following:

  • On December 14 headline news stories reported that Jeremy Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends, joined by the National Family Farm Coalition, had filed a federal lawsuit against the Monsanto corporation, alleging that Monsanto had engaged in monopolistic business practices and had commercialized genetically altered crops without first ensuring they were safe for consumers and the environment.
  • In late-December Credit Suisse First Boston, one of the world's largest and most influential financial advisors, categorized the agbiotech industry as suffering from "negative momentum," pointing out that major food corporations are running scared and that "if anyone is in control it appears to be environment and consumer groups."
  • In a long-anticipated move, Monsanto's major stockholders forced the company in December into a planned merger with pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia & Upjohn and to spin off its controversial, debt-ridden agbiotech division into a separate company. As the Wall Street Journal stated December 21 the planned merger "is likely not only to push biotech to the back burner, but also to cost Monsanto its independence..." The Monsanto-Pharmacia merger comes on the heels of a similar move by European life science giants Novartis and AstraZeneca last year, who combined their agbiotech divisions together in order to sell them off, "effectively washing their hands of crop biotechnology," according to the Journal. For more information see: <>
  • Reuters news service reported on January 13 in a straw poll that U.S. farmers plan to "cut back sharply" on planting genetically engineered soybeans, corn, and cotton this year, in response to the growing global backlash against GE foods. Farmers told Reuters to expect reductions of 15% in RoundUp Ready soybeans, 22 % for RoundUp Ready corn, 24 % for Bt corn, and 26 % for Bt cotton.
  • Media coverage of the gene-foods controversy continued to increase substantially in both the United States and Canada (as well as other nations) in the last quarter of 1999. Estimates last fall, based on computer-based searches of news articles, indicated up to a six-fold increase in news stories on genetically engineered foods in North America in 1999 as compared to 1998.
  • On December 30 Bloomberg News reported that Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the two largest natural food supermarket chains in the U.S., plan to ban genetically engineered ingredients from their hundreds of private-label products. The two companies have combined sales of almost two billion dollars annually. Whole Foods owns 103 stores in 22 states and Washington, D.C., and has more than 600 products carrying its own brand name. Wild Oats operates 110 stores in 22 states and British Columbia, with 700 products under its own brand. The move puts pressure on other major U.S. food chains and manufacturers to offer GE-free or certified organic products. Organic food -- the only US food currently guaranteed to be GE-free -- is the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of American agriculture, with projected sales this year of $6.6 billion, representing 1.5% of all grocery retail sales in the U.S. In a 1997 poll by Novartis, 54% of American consumers said they would like to see organic become the predominant form of agricultural production in the U.S.
  • In late-January leading U.S. corn chip manufacturer Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc., announced that they were sending out new contracts to their corn suppliers, asking them not to use genetically engineered corn. The news unnerved the pro-biotech Farm Bureau, who accused Frito-Lay--like Gerber and Heinz baby foods last July -- of "caving in" to U.S. anti-biotech activists. Frito-Lay's move also disturbed their competitors, one of whom was quoted in the Washington Post on February 6: "If you're one of Frito's competitors you're saying, 'what are they up to?... Are they getting ready to jump out from behind a bush and bash us with a label,' boasting that they are free of genetically engineered ingredients?" Frito-Lay is one of the primary targets of a new "Frankenfoods 15" boycott campaign being organized by the Organic Consumers Association and Friends of the Earth. For a copy of a Frankenfoods 15 leaflet in printable format see: <>
  • According to Simon Harris, California field organizer for the OCA, Frito-Lay's recent moves are "a sign that they're getting nervous." But Harris also warns that "Frito-Lay has gone only half way. They've admitted that their corn contracts are only applicable to 95% of their suppliers, that they can't guarantee that their cooking oils are GE-free, and have stated that they have no plans for labeling their products. Until Frito-Lay goes all the way and announces that they will start enforcing 'no-GE contracts' with all their suppliers and labeling their products as free of genetically engineered ingredients, they will remain at the top of our Frankenfoods 15 boycott list."
  • Farmers Weekly (a UK newspaper) reported on February 4 that a U.S. expert on potatoes, Oscar Gutbrod from Oregon State University, speaking at the Agra Europe Potato 2000 conference in Rome, stated that USA fast-food giants McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's were refusing to accept genetically engineered potatoes for their french fries. Informed sources have told BioDemocracy News that McDonald's has binding contracts with at least some, and perhaps all, of their U.S. potato suppliers prohibiting the use of Monsanto's Bt-spliced potatoes. However, McDonald's, another of our Frankenfoods 15 boycott targets, has refused to send the OCA their policy on GE potatoes in writing. And as Gutbrod noted in his speech in Rome, even if America's fast-food giants have quietly banned Frankenfries from their kitchens, the grease that they're fried in is routinely derived from GE corn, cottonseed, and soya.
  • A federal judge ruled on January 19 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must "respond" within 60 days to the charges in a lawsuit on Bt-spliced crops filed by attorneys for the Center for Food Safety (CFS). In February 1999, CFS, Greenpeace, and a coalition of over 70 plaintiffs, including the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, sued the EPA, charging the agency with the wanton destruction of the world's most important biological pesticide -- Bt. Non-GE Bt sprays have been used sparingly by organic farmers for years, but are now under threat from "superpests" engendered by genetically engineered crops. The lawsuit calls for all Bt crops to be pulled off the market. Bt corn, cotton, and potatoes make up approximately 25% of the global acreage of GE crops. See: <>
  • The U.S., Canada, and Argentina -- who produce almost 99% of the world's GE crops -- failed in their efforts to prevent any regulation whatsoever of international trade in genetically engineered foods, crops, medicines, and organisms at the Biosafety Treaty meeting in Montreal in January. However the Biosafety Protocol that emerged from Montreal is at best a partial victory. Bulk commodities shipments, seeds, and animal feeds will have to be labeled as containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but not for at least two years, and even then vague labels will say "this product may contain" rather than giving specific information. GE and non-GE crops will not be required to be segregated in growing areas and in shipping and packaging, and individual food products (cooking oils, meat) -- as opposed to bulk grain or seed shipments -- will not have to be labeled at all. In addition the Protocol will have to be balanced and made congruent -- in legal terms -- with WTO trade regulations. Countries will be allowed to impose import restrictions on GMOs, but only on the basis of so-called "sound science."
  • North American liquor giant Seagram announced on January 21 that they will not be accepting any genetically engineered corn or other grains next year.
  • U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce David Aron stated at an international trade conference in the Netherlands on January 21 that U.S. exporters are willing to meet the EU's one percent threshold on labeling food products containing genetically engineered ingredients, although he told Reuters "labeling will actually undermine confidence in products, in government, and in the regulatory process."
  • Direct action. The clandestine Earth Liberation Front sabotaged an agbiotech lab at Michigan State University on December 31, causing $400,000 in damages. On January 21 "Anti Genetix" activists uprooted genetically engineered strawberries in a test plot near Watsonville, California. The Watsonville "decontamination" incident is the 21st known action taken against genetically engineered crops and multinational biotechnology corporations in the last year in North America. It occurred just a week after a raid on a Federal Biotech facility in Albany, California in which transgenic wheat was destroyed.

Counterpunch: The Biotech Industry Strikes Back

As we mentioned in the last issue of BioDemocracy News, the agbiotech industry has launched an unprecedented multi-million dollar PR campaign to counteract the growing power of the anti-GE movement across the globe. As Edward Shonsey, CEO of Novartis told the New York Times last year, anti-genetic engineering campaigners have "crossed the boundaries of reasonableness, and now it's up to us to protect and defend biotechnology." To protect and defend Frankenfoods, Novartis has launched a new website <> where, among other things, you can send off for a bumper sticker and auto license plate holder inscribed with the slogan "We Back Biotech."

As Canadian activist Brewster Kneen points out in his excellent newsletter, The Ram's Horn <> the biotech industry has "turned hysterical over the loss of control over the media" and has launched an all-out effort to discredit its critics and brainwash the public. As the Ram's Horn (January 2000) puts it: "The flood of well-programmed letters-to-the-editor, op-ed pieces, and planted articles spewing the party line on the wonders of biotech and decrying what they describe as the malicious intentions of those who resist it, is obviously not spontaneous."

In addition to its PR and media campaign, the agbiotech lobby has recently gone on the offensive:

    Reuters reported January 28 that agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. had reversed its four-month-old company position on requiring farmers to segregate genetically engineered corn and soybeans. ADM Chairman G. Allen Andreas told the Chicago Tribune that "the pendulum is beginning to turn back" on the controversy surrounding GE crops.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses, announced in early January that they were becoming a member of the pro-biotech trade association, the Alliance for Better Foods. Bill Kovacs, the Chamber's vice-president for environmental and regulatory affairs, told the Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald January 5 "We are trying to raise the awareness of the business community that if you permit an assault on this technology, you are really opening the door for an assault on all technology."

    Thirty-five powerful industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Farm Bureau, the National Food Processors Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told a U.S. Congressional subcommittee January 28 not to require labeling or safety-testing of genetically engineered foods. Mandatory labels would "send the misleading message that the government is not confident of the safety of the U.S. food supply," the groups stated. Specifically the 35 groups told Congress not to support a mandatory labeling bill introduced last year by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat. Kucinich's bill currently has several dozen Congressional co-sponsors.

    Cargill, the nation's largest grain buyer, reaffirmed in December that it would accept genetically engineered crops at all of it grain elevators across North America. Cargill's announcement "settled down the market," according to Sano Shimoda of BioScience Securities, a brokerage and investment banking firm in the San Francisco Bay area. "Farmers are [now] feeling a lot more comfortable planting genetically enhanced seed varieties," Shimodo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune January17. According to the Tribune "some analysts who advise farm-commodity traders in Chicago are softening predictions they made last fall that farmers would back away from the new varieties. This GMO acreage may not be down as much as we had thought when the hype and concern was intensifying last fall," said Rich Feltes, an analyst for Refco Inc. of Chicago.

    Monsanto announced January 17 major plans for expanding GE cotton cultivation in China. According to a Monsanto press release there are already two million farmers in China growing Bt cotton, while 2000 scientists in 137 labs across the country are working on new biotech crops.

    The Farm Bureau published poll results on Jan. 11 -- reprinted in newspapers all across the United States -- which supposedly found that "Nearly three-fourths of American consumers would support genetically modified crops if the technology means farmers can reduce pesticide use." Of course as BioDemocracy News has previously pointed out, even official USDA statistics for 1997-98 show that farmers planting GE crops have not reduced their use of pesticides, and in fact in many cases are using more. See < >The Farm Bureau poll follows in the wake of a number of other rather dubious polls purporting to prove that American consumers support agbiotech. For an expose of the American biotech industry's favorite pollster Thomas Hoban, see <>

    On January 12, at a public meeting in Spokane, Washington, Dr. Michael Phillips, a spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, announced that legislation will be introduced in Congress to make it a federal crime to trespass on or damage experimental agricultural test plots of genetically engineered crops.

    U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman reaffirmed on January 10 that the federal government is not likely to require U.S. food companies and grocery stores to put labels on genetically engineered foods. At a press conference in Washington, Glickman stated "I, at this stage, do not see any of what I call mandatory or regulatory activities taking place from the government which will order anybody to do anything with respect to these issues, whether it's labeling or anything else."

    On February 4, ABC national TV aired a program attacking the safety of organic food, alleging that animal manure-based compost fertilizers used on organic farms are contributing factors to America's ongoing E-coli food poisoning epidemic, and that claims that organic foods are safer and more nutritious than conventional foods are fraudulent. The "20-20" news program was directed by the infamous anti-environmental TV journalist, John Stossel, aided and abetted by agbiotech's favorite "scientific expert," Dennis Avery. For an expose of Dennis Avery see the back issue of this newsletter on our website (CFS News #16) or else the current issue of PR Watch <>

Published in In Motion Magazine March 3, 2000.

Ronnie Cummins.
Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the February 2000 issue of the Internet publication BioDemocracy News. Republished with permission.

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The Campaign for Food Safety is a public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption. We are a global clearinghouse for information and grassroots technical assistance.To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, BioDemocracy News, send an email message to: < > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.

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