Who's Winning the Frankenfoods Fight?
Pharmageddon Strikes Back:
Disinformation, TV Ads, Regulatory Reforms
Little Marais, Minnesota
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. U.S. 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 U.S. 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) U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 crop s-- 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 <www.biotech-info.net/RR_yield_drag_98.pdf>
- American farmers back-off on GE. All signs indicate that U.S. 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 to segregate 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."
Based upon in-depth interviews and focus groups with American consumers, the Council for Biotechnology Information has begun to hammer home the following points -- all of which of course are false:
- GE foods have been thoroughly tested by U.S. government agencies and found to be safe.
- 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). Among other things 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 of plants.
- 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 more than (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.