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Global Grassroots: Gaining Ground

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

Quotes of the Month:

"The deal would be this: if the Americans would stop lying about us, we would stop telling the truth about them." European Union Development Commissioner Poul Nielson, referring to the increasingly bitter EU/US conflict over genetically engineered food, Reuters,

"There is no need for GM (genetically modified) crops; no one wants them, not famine-stricken African nations, and very possibly, not even the biotech corporations themselves, judging from the spectacular cutbacks and spin-outs of agricultural biotechnology and major retreats from funding academic research over the past year." Dr. Mae Wan-Ho, Institute for Science and Society 1/14/03

Globalization and Biotech under Fire

On the eve of an increasingly unpopular war, U.S. government policies, including globalization, genetic engineering, and subsidies to industrial agriculture, are under fire as never before-from Iowa to India, from London to Latin America. On New Year's Day, the ninth anniversary of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a stone 's throw from the Mexico office of the OCA in Chiapas, 20,000 indigenous protestors are marching through the streets. Wearing masks and bandanas, armed with machetes, and holding aloft hand-made signs, Zapatista farmers and rural villagers are rising up in resistance. In an evening rally, illuminated by the flames from hundreds of torches, Zapatista leaders denounce NAFTA and rural poverty; as well as biopiracy, the theft and patenting of native resources and knowledge by biotech scientists, and transgenic pollution, the contamination of Mexico's traditional corn varieties by genetically engineered (GE) corn being dumped on the country by U.S.-based grain giants, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.

A thousand miles to the north, Mexican farmers organize a parallel protest, blocking the U.S./Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez. Since the advent of NAFTA in 1994, the country has been flooded by cheap, U.S. taxpayer-subsidized grains and foods, including six million tons a year of GE corn and high-fructose corn sweetener for soft drinks. Unable to compete with more than $20 billion in annual subsidies to U.S. agribusiness, most of which goes to large farms, two million Mexican corn growers, cane-cutters, and indigenous subsistence farmers have been driven off the land, forced to migrate to the already overcrowded cities, or to make a long and dangerous journey to the U.S. to find work. Once self-sufficient in food production, Mexico now spends 78% of its oil exports to purchase food imports from the U.S.

Not since the revolution of 1910 has the U.S.'s neighbor to the south experienced such a wave of unrest. In the past two months, hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers organized marches, blocked highways, and seized government installations. In one dramatic protest, a group of ranchers blocked the streets outside the Congress in Mexico City with their farm tractors, and then rode up the steps of the building on horseback. Desperate to defuse the mounting crisis, Mexican President Vicente Fox has promised to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement, much to the chagrin of the White House. Similarly hammered by NAFTA and subsidies to large corporate farms, the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S. and the National Farmers Union in Canada have extended their solidarity, calling for economic justice for farmers, North and South, a rollback of international trade agreements, and an end to the dumping of GE corn and other crops on the Mexican and world market. On Jan. 31 over 100,000 irate farmers marched through the streets of Mexico City and rallied in front of the National Palace.

Further south, in Brazil and Ecuador, new Presidents have been swept into office, riding a wave of anti-globalization and a demand for peace and economic justice. In Brazil left-wing President Lula da Silva has made "Zero Hunger" and food security his number one priority, at the same time pledging to maintain Brazil's moratorium on GE soybeans. Brazil's exports of GE-free soybeans have doubled to $7.6 billion over the last four years, while U.S. soybean exports (75% of which are GE) have declined by 30%. In a national survey in July 2001, 67% of Brazilians said that transgenic crops should continue to be banned.

Manifesting the growing power of the global grassroots, from Jan. 23-28 over 100,000 farmer, labor, consumer, and environmental, activists gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil for the third annual World Social Forum-denouncing war, corporate globalization, and food insecurity, under the overall theme, "Another World is Possible." Among the notable street demonstrations in Porto Alegre was a Jan. 27 protest at Monsanto's headquarters, where Greenpeace activists scaled the building and hung a banner denouncing Frankencrops.

The economic crisis in Latin America has grown worse. Besides reducing consumer-buying power by 30% in 2002, Argentina's economic strangulation by the International Monetary Fund has reduced the ability of Argentina's farmers to buy GE Roundup Ready soybeans-a significant factor in Monsanto's recent economic downturn. One of the few glimmers of hope in the Argentina rural economy is the increasing demand overseas for non-GM corn and grass-fed beef. Meanwhile in Venezuela, increasing poverty, capital flight, empty supermarket shelves (50% of the nation's food is imported), and a business-led sabotage of the oil industry, have brought the country to the verge of civil war.

In Colombia, the collapse of world coffee prices and a generalized agricultural crisis have increased poverty and hunger, driving many desperate farmers to grow drug crops, fueling an ever more violent civil war. Seemingly drunk with power, emboldened by what it believes is the popularity of its "war on drugs and terrorism," the Bush administration has moved aggressively into Colombia. U.S. troops are now directly involved in counter-insurgency operations, guarding oil pipelines and working hand in hand with the Colombian army and right-wing death squads. Among the tactics being employed by the U.S. are the indiscriminate aerial spraying of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide over vast areas of the Colombian countryside, poisoning rural communities and destroying food crops, as well as coca and poppy fields. U.S. biowar proponents are advocating the aerial spraying of an even more dangerous herbicide, genetically engineered fusarium bacteria.

Biotech Bullying Backfires

Across the globe, as reported in BioDemocracy News, and updated daily on OCA's website, an enormous "food fight" has intensified. While developing nations sound the alarm over hunger, food dependency and declining biodiversity, and resent the recent dumping of GE-tainted corn on impoverished nations; in the industrialized world, consumer concerns over food safety, nutrition, and environmental sustainability have reached an all-time high. Both North and South there is an increasing distrust of "industrial food" and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and a growing appetite for organic products. While industrial food revenues are flat, growing 1-2% a year, organic sales are booming, with yearly growth rates of 20-25%. By the year 2020, at current rates of growth, most food sold at the grocery store retail level in the U.S., Canada, and the EU will be organic. Farmers in 110 nations will produce more than $25 billion worth of organic foods and fiber in 2003.

Worldwide sales of transgenic crops have stalled at $4.25 billion a year, with only four countries, for all practical purposes, producing GMOs on a commercial scale (U.S.-corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola; Canada-corn, soybeans, canola; Argentina-soybeans only; and China-cotton only). As Greenpeace organizer Jeanne Merrill told the Associated Press (1/16/03) "The reality is that the biotechnology revolution has not happened. The majority of these crops are going into animal feed. Farmers are rejecting biotech food crops."

In 2002 there was essentially no increase worldwide in the commercial plantings of the four major GE crops, soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton- with the sole exception of GE cotton in China and India. And even the expansion of Bt-spliced or herbicide-resistant cotton is likely to be short-lived, with reports from the fields of pest resistance and declining yields. In order to speed up the demise of Bt cotton, as well as to fight sweatshops and increase the market demand for organic cotton and sustainable fibers, the OCA is launching a major new campaign called Clothes for a Change. Among other tactics, this campaign will pressure leading brand name companies such as Gap, Levi's, Ralph Lauren, Nike, and Wal-Mart to go "sweatshop-free," to stop using GE cotton in their garments, and to blend in organic and sustainable fibers instead. For more information see

The Bush administration's bullying tactics on GMOs have backfired badly. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's belligerent threats to file a WTO challenge against the EU for its moratorium on GE crops have simply hardened European attitudes toward Frankenfoods and increased global market demand for organic and non-GMO crops. Similarly Washington's denunciations of African leaders for "starving their people" by refusing shipments of U.S. food aid contaminated by genetic engineering, have angered Africans who believe that America is trying to shove unwanted GMOs down their throats. Charges by U.S. trade officials that Europe had manipulated gullible Africans into believing that GMOs were unsafe prompted a blunt response from EU Development Director Poul Nielson on Jan. 20 that the U.S. "was lying."

Compounding White House and biotech industry woes, the GMO-tainted food aid controversy has spread to Asia, with India recently refusing part of a $100 million shipment of GE-tainted corn and soy from the U.S.. At the same time Japanese importers once again rejected a shipment of U.S. corn, contaminated with the banned StarLink variety. USDA officials said they were "surprised" by the news, since they believed all remaining StarLink corn was destroyed last year. On 1/18 the Brazilian government impounded a GM corn shipment from the U.S., demanding that it be returned or incinerated. Meanwhile protesters pulled up GM crops and took to the streets in the Philippines after the government bowed to U.S. pressure and approved Bt corn. In Australia, shipments of U.S. GM corn were confronted by protests in Melbourne, Brisbane, and Newcastle.

On the eve of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, anti-U.S. sentiments are rising. Mounting anger toward the U.S. overseas, combined with Bush administration bullying on trade and GMOs, may well deliver a fatal blow to the Gene Giants, already on life-support after several years of setbacks.

The View from Porto Alegre: Another World Is Possible

Before reviewing several recent major developments on the biotech front, let's step back for a moment and look at the "Big Picture" of agriculture, food security, war, and peace, as articulated at the recent World Social Forum in Brazil. Several of us from the OCA were fortunate enough to be delegates at this annual gathering, which is attempting to unite activists worldwide, creating a global grassroots alternative to the elite-based WTO and the World Economic Forum. Among the major concerns of global civil society, as expressed in Porto Alegre are the following:

  • Genetic engineering and industrial agriculture pose a mortal threat to public health, the environment, and the economic survival of the world's 2.4 billion farmers and rural villagers, 1.4 billion of whom are "seed savers."
  • Even as GE crops and foods are finally driven off the market, chemical and energy-intensive industrialized agriculture and globalized food production and distribution still pose a mortal threat to public health and the environment and the survival of rural communities worldwide.
  • Organic and sustainable agricultural practices (coupled with sustainable practices in energy, transportation, water, housing, health, education, and industrial production) are the only road to health, sustainability, peace, and justice. Nutritious and safe food-preferably organic food -- and a clean environment are among people 's basic human rights. Organic production systems must embody the principles of Fair Trade and social justice.
  • A thousand billionaires and multi-billionaires, along with a thousand large transnational corporations, are poisoning the planet and our bodies and undermining democracy. This global elite's stranglehold over our politics, commerce, media, and culture-including our choices regarding food, fiber, and health care-must be broken and replaced by a system of participatory democracy and sustainable development.
  • We'll never stop having wars, we'll never stop the proliferation of nuclear bombs and biowarfare weapons, we'll never stop having dictators like Saddam Hussein, and dangerous demagogues like George Bush as leaders, until we decide that it's a priority to feed, house, and clothe the world's 830 million starving people. In addition we must provide employment and living wage jobs for all, especially the 2.8 billion people currently struggling to survive on less than $2 a day. And finally we must make it a global priority to allow the world' s 2.4 billion farmers and rural villagers to remain on the land, producing the world's food and fiber, safely, sustainably, and equitably.

Biopharm Blunders-Another Nail in the Coffin for Agbiotech

"We're very sorry for the mishap."
Anthony Laos, CEO of the biopharm corporation, ProdiGene

Among the most hazardous and unpredictable new products in the biotech pipeline are the so-called "pharm" crops. These are crops, most often corn or tobacco, that are gene-spliced to produce powerful pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals. Drug and chemical companies are excited about biopharming, since using plants or animals as "bioreactors" can reduce their manufacturing costs. The downside is that these mutant bioreactors will undoubtedly pollute the environment and contaminate the food chain.

Over the past few years more than 300 fields of biopharm crops have been planted in the U.S.--in secret locations, in the open environment. Approximately 200 of these experiments have been conducted with corn, notorious for spreading its wind-blown pollen to surrounding fields. Although no pharm crops have been approved for commercial production, regulations and enforcement of test plots are notoriously lax. Biopharm companies are not even required to give the USDA the exact gene sequences of the experimental crops, making it impossible to verify whether or not particular pharm crops have contaminated the food chain. As Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth put it, ""If the USDA continues to allow biopharm food crops to be planted, someone is going to get prescription drugs or industrial chemicals in their corn flakes." Recent events suggest that this contamination is already taking place.

In Nov. 2002 the USDA was forced to admit that at least two experimental corn crops in Nebraska and Iowa, grown by ProdiGene, had already polluted the environment. Not only had a least one, and possibly both, of the mutant corn crops pollinated, thereby spreading their mutant genes into the air, but several hundred "volunteer" ProdiGene corn plants had sprung up the following year, contaminating over 500,000 bushels of soybeans in Nebraska, and 150 acres of corn in Iowa. ProdiGene at first tried to deny there was a problem, but then issued an apology. The USDA imposed $3 million in penalties on ProdiGene, but brushed off demands by OCA's public interest coalition, Genetically Engineered Food Alert for a complete moratorium on biopharm experiments

According to USDA records, and an FDA memo posted on the OCA website, ProdiGene holds permits to grow corn which has been genetically engineered to express a pig vaccine, as well as corn gene-spliced to produce a controversial AIDS drug called HIV glycoprotein gp120, a blood-clotting agent (aprotinin). ProdiGene, under pressure, admitted that some of the plants cited in their violation were designed to express a pig vaccine, but a November FDA memo strongly suggests that it was the AIDS drug or some other human drug-not the pig virus-that was being grown by ProdiGene in Nebraska. See:

ProdiGene's biopharm blunder was the most serious biotech scandal since the StarLink controversy in 2000, when a likely allergenic variety of feed corn contaminated the U.S. food chain and generated major controversy in the press, both in the U.S. and worldwide. For the first time since the advent of GE foods and crops in 1994, major U.S. grocery store chains, represented by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and food corporations, represented by the National Food Processors Association, clashed with the USDA and the biotech industry, demanding that biopharm companies stop experimenting with food and animal feed crops such as corn. Even the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the trade association for medical and agbiotech companies, briefly called in October for a moratorium on biopharm experiments in the Midwestern corn belt, no doubt having been tipped off that the ProdiGene scandal was about to erupt. However BIO reversed itself shortly thereafter, caving in to pressure from biotech and agribusiness lobbyists.

More Frankenpharm horror stories loom on the horizon. Pressed as to whether or not other biopharm violations have occurred, USDA bureaucrats have been evasive, admitting there have been other "infractions," but claiming nothing else has occurred on the scale of ProdiGene. Although U.S. Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois has formally requested a full accounting of biopharm violations, the USDA has dragged its heels. Meanwhile biopharm's mad scientists are preparing to move their operations overseas, to the developing world, where they hope to be able to pay farmers a pittance, operate in total secrecy, and pollute the environment and food chain with impunity. On their website the biopharm industry have put out a call to farmers worldwide, especially in the Third World, to make good money and serve a noble cause by getting in on the ground floor of what they call a "future $50 billion a year, industry". But as Monsanto can attest, outsourcing genetic pollution and treating people as human guinea pigs does not always work out as planned.

Monsanto Meltdown

Despite heavy advertising and PR greenwash, despite a cozy relationship with the White House, Monsanto's image, profits, and credibility have plunged. Its aggressive bullying on Frankenfoods, its patents on the Terminator gene, its attempt to buy out seed companies and monopolize seed stocks, and its persecution of hundreds of North American farmers for the "crime" of seed-saving, has made Monsanto one of the most hated corporations on Earth.

Monsanto will likely soon be broken up, with its parts sold off to the highest bidder. The New York Times reported 1/14/03, that "With its stock price low, Monsanto is considered a takeover target. by investment banks. and could be bought and sold off in pieces." On December 19, Monsanto shocked the biotech industry by forcing the resignation of its CEO, Hendrik Verfaillie, a 26-year veteran with the company. The sudden move came as Monsanto reported losses of $1.75 billion for the first three quarters of 2002, despite cutbacks, including layoffs for 700 employees. Monsanto's stock has fallen nearly 50% since January 2001.

But Monsanto is not the only Gene Giant downsizing. Last year, biotech giant Syngenta closed down its plant genome lab in San Diego, terminated its controversial research partnership with the University of California in Berkeley, pulled out of its planned collaboration with the Indira Gandhi rice research institute in India, and canceled its contract with the John Innes Center in the UK.

Major transnational corporations in the food and life sciences sector are unlikely to shed any tears over Monsanto's demise. It's no secret on Wall Street that Monsanto, in its present form, has become a major liability for transnational food corporations and the biotech/pharmaceutical giants, who are much more concerned with the potential for hundreds of billions of dollars in sales from biotech drugs, nutraceutical foods, and nanotechnology, than the declining fortunes of agbiotech crops, whose total sales in 2002 were $4.25 billion.

One of the major reasons for Monsanto's decline, besides the growing worldwide opposition to its GE crops, is the growing resistance of weeds to Monsanto's flagship product, Roundup herbicide. Roundup, up until now the top-selling weed killer in the world, making up 50% of Monsanto's sales and 70% of their profits, has recently begun to lose its effectiveness against major crop weeds such as mare's-tail, waterhemp, and ryegrass. GE Roundup-resistant soybeans presently account for more than 75% of all the soybeans planted in the United States and Argentina, as well as the majority of rapeseed or canola in Canada. According to a recent report by Syngenta, herbicide-resistant superweeds will soon reduce the economic value of farmland on which Roundup Ready soybeans are grown by 17%. Forty-six percent of farmers surveyed in Syngenta's study said that weed resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, is now their top concern.

According to industry experts, Monsanto has no alternative in the pipeline once glyphosate starts to fail. Syngenta, which also sells herbicides containing glyphosate, has criticized Monsanto for encouraging its customers to overuse the relatively cheap herbicide, as well as for not warning farmers to avoid mono-cropping, growing the same Roundup Ready crops, year after year, on the same plots of land.

Leading scientific critics such as Dr. Michael Hansen and Dr. Charles Benbrook have warned for years that weeds would inevitably develop resistance to GMOs. The reason for this is that GE herbicide-resistant plant varieties are designed to be able to survive heavy doses of the companies' broad-spectrum weed killers, which in turn cause resistant strains of these weeds to survive and eventually predominate. Similar warnings have been leveled at the use of Bt-spliced crops, which are engineered to express high doses of a soil bacteria called Bt. Now that Bt crops such as cotton and corn have been commercialized on millions of acres, major insect pests such as bollworms, bud worms, beetles, and corn borers are also expected to become resistant to Bt over the next 5-10 years.

The shaky bottom line for agbiotech is that almost 100% of all Frankencrops today, the so-called "first generation" GE crops, are either herbicide-resistant or Bt-spliced. Once these genetically engineered traits lose their effectiveness, which is now happening, the first generation of biotech crops will be dead, period. Here's a toast to the speedy breakup and demise of Monsanto and the other Gene Giants. RIP. In future issues of BioDemocracy News we'll look at the so-called second, third, and fourth generation of Frankenfoods and crops, including the absolutely frightening advent of nanotechnology, or "atomtechnology." See

Poisoning Pigs and Humans

In July 2002 a number of hog farms in Iowa reported that pigs were suffering extraordinary rates of reproductive failure-outward signs of pregnancy but no births. What the farms had in common was feeding their pigs Bt corn (or corn which was both Bt-spliced and Roundup resistant), which turned out to have a high level of fusarium mold. When one of the farmers switched back to non-GE corn, the reproductive problems disappeared. A memo by USDA researcher Dr. Mark Rasmussen dated 8/5/02 stated, "A possible cause of the problem may be the presence of an unanticipated biologically active, chemical compound in the corn." Previous research at Baylor University in Texas found similar problems in rats exposed to "chipped corncob bedding" made from Bt corn. As indicated in previous issues of BioDemocracy News, it is likely that human guinea pigs (i.e. the general public), as well as pigs, are now suffering from allergic reactions as well as damage to their immune systems and guts from ingesting Bt corn. A number of scientists believe that the Iowa incident may be the result of a sort of toxic synergy between Bt corn and Roundup Ready soybeans. More on this in an upcoming issue.

The Next Step

The OCA has made a commitment to double the size of our 500,000-member network over the next 12 months, and to step up the pressure by helping grassroots activists pass laws that alter public policy at the local and state levels. This is in addition to carrying on our marketplace pressure campaigns against Starbucks and supermarket chains and stepping up our public education efforts.

Ronnie Cummins.
And last, but not least, if you want to get involved in the growing anti-war movement and put pressure on the U.S. Congress, you should consider joining one of the most exciting and powerful new internet networks in the world

For a weekly expose of Bush administration lies and propaganda on the war, biotech, the environment, and other issues check out <> published by OCA policy board member John Stauber. To sign up for PR Watch's free weekly email report go to:

Published in In Motion Magazine March 20, 2003. Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the Internet publication BioDemocracy News, A publication of the Organic Consumers Association. Republished with permission.

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