overview of g-e soy and corn

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1997 VOLUME 18 NUMBERS 1 AND 2

Multinational Monitor

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Say It Ain't Soy, Monsanto

by Kenny Bruno

SOMETIME IN 1997, if you are in the United States, you are likely to eat your first genetically engineered food. You will not know it, because it will not look or taste different, and it will not sport a "genetically altered" label. You will not be able to avoid it easily, because it may be an ingredient in hundreds of processed food products. And, according to some critics, you will not know if it is safe, because it has not been adequately tested.

The new food is Roundup Ready Soybeans (RRS), genetically altered soybeans created by Monsanto, the company which developed the controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

Monsanto has genetically altered these soybeans to tolerate Roundup, the company's trade name for the herbicide glyphosate. With RRS, farmers can wait until soybean plants sprout before spraying Roundup, thus, in theory at least, using the herbicide more efficiently than farmers who apply it before the plants come up.

In 1996, U.S. farmers harvested about 1.2 million acres of Roundup Ready Soybeans. Although this crop represents only about 2 percent of U.S. soybeans, it will be mixed with conventional soybeans -- unlabeled -- to become part of as much as 60 percent of all processed foods that contain some soy-based ingredient. In the United States, most consumers are likely to ingest small amounts of transgenic soy in such common foods as margarine, chocolate and bread.

In Europe, however, resistance to genetically engineered foods is high. Dozens of companies and several countries have refused to accept the transgenic bean unless it is segregated from conventional soy and labeled.

The European battle over RRS is helping to shape the future of the market for genetically engineered foods. Europe is the biggest importer of U.S. soybeans. If it roundly rejects genetically engineered soybeans, Roundup Ready Soybeans might be found to be not market ready. And if RRS fails to find market success, the biotechnology corporations' drive to mix genetically engineered food into the overall food supply may be derailed.

By contrast, if Monsanto successfully forces unlabeled RRS on to the market, it will set a precedent for treating genetically engineered food as indistinguishable from conventional food, and constitute a major corporate victory over consumer demands for even modest labeling standards for genetically engineered food.

Designer allergens

One potential risk RRS poses is the creation of new allergenic proteins. "There's no foolproof way to predict and test" whether allergies will develop, says Michael Hansen, a biologist with Consumers Union in New York. If transgenic foods are going to be introduced, Hansen says, "the prudent thing to do would be to label so you can trace allergic reactions." Possible allergic reactions include hives, respiratory problems and rapid heartbeat.

Other potential risks posed by transgenic crops include decreased nutritional values, increases in toxins and accidental cross breeding with wild plant relatives to create untested genetic strains.

Monsanto addressed these concerns to win U.S. Department of Agriculture approval of RRS, but Greenpeace and other critics say the risk evaluation had numerous shortcomings:

* Monsanto did not assess the risk of cross breeding with wild soybean varieties in the Far East. The impacts of such "genetic pollution" are unpredictable and likely irreversible.

* In Europe, Monsanto said frost would prevent genetic pollution -- even in Spain, Italy and other warm countries.

* Monsanto tested animals for allergies for a period of just 10 weeks. If Monsanto's plans go forward, humans will consume RRS over an entire lifetime.

Karen Marshall, Monsanto manager of public affairs, responds that RRS has been subjected to over 1,800 tests and "is the most tested in the history of soybeans." Monsanto has consulted with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for years, she says, and received regulatory approval in Japan, Canada and various countries in Europe. Monsanto scientists "asked the right questions," she says, and the company did far more than minimally required to earn regulatory approval and alleviate concerns about both allergies and cross breeding.

Dr. Arnold Foudin, deputy director of biological and scientific services at the USDA's animal and plant inspection services, agrees there is no risk of cross breeding. "Soybeans are self-pollinated," he says, so "outcrossing does not occur even to other soybeans. It is almost impossible mechanically to make hybrids." Also, because Roundup does not exist in nature, he argues, even if a wild soy plant were to acquire the RRS Roundup-resistant gene, "over a reasonable length of time the gene would not be maintained."

Seeds of dissent

Monsanto claims the package of RRS and late spraying of Roundup will benefit farmers and the environment by enabling farmers to eliminate weeds efficiently with less pesticide usage, by waiting until the crop has sprouted ("emerged") and weeds have grown, and until weather conditions are ideal for spraying.

The savings for farmers in herbicide use, claim Monsanto representatives, will offset the premium on the seeds.

But farmers will pay another kind of price for RRS. In addition to a $5 per 50-pound bag "technology fee," every RRS farmer must sign a contract with Monsanto which prohibits farmers' traditional practice of saving some seed for planting the following season. Monsanto wants to ensure the farmers will have to buy a new supply of RRS for every crop.

To guarantee farmers do not circumvent the seed-saving ban, the contract also gives Monsanto enormously intrusive powers: "the right to inspect and test ... and to monitor Grower's soybeans fields for the following three years."

"Farmers have never gotten a fair shake economically, but one of the tradeoffs has been the freedom the farmer enjoys," says Bill Christison, who raises more than 1,000 acres of soybeans a year in Chillicophe, Missouri. "Signing a contract with a chemical corporation is going to take away some of that freedom."

Emphasizing the reduced herbicide use for farmers using RRS, Monsanto also touts the purported environmental benefits of RRS. This claim is not without irony, coming from one of the world's leading agrochemical makers. "We are not saying herbicides are bad," explains Marshall, but, with RRS, farmers "can use less herbicide."

But Christison says farmers can reduce glyphosate use with conventional seeds. He raises much of his acreage with no herbicide whatsoever, and spends an average of just $11 per acre on herbicide for the remainder. He does all his spraying post-emergence, and uses reduced tillage (tilling less of the land to limit erosion), practices that Monsanto claims are made possible by Roundup Ready.

Christison argues that RRS actually may promote greater use of glyphosate, with harmful environmental consequences. "It will promote the overuse of the herbicide. If there is a selling point for RRS, it's the fact that you can till an area with a lot of weeds and use surplus chemicals to combat your problem, which is not what anybody should be doing."

Christison also warns that RRS's effectiveness will change over time. If weeds become resistant to glyphosate, as has occurred in Australia, then farmers will have to resort to other herbicides, adding financial and ecological costs.

Karen Marshall and other Monsanto spokespeople are eager to characterize RRS as part of "sustainable agriculture," on the grounds that the genetically engineered seed will reduce herbicide use. But Christison's reference to the pesticide treadmill -- the process by which pests or weeds develop resistance to the chemicals applied to eliminate them, thereby necessitating increased applications or a switch to more toxic chemicals -- illustrates the flaw in Monsanto's claim of sustainability. And it highlights the existence of a truly sustainable alternative ignored by Monsanto altogether: organic agriculture.

Rounding up profits

RRS is not engineered to increase yields, nor is it more nutritious than conventional soy. Like rBGH, it is neither needed or wanted by consumers. So why did Monsanto spend millions of dollars and years of research to develop it?

The answer is Roundup. "Monsanto lives and dies based on its results for Roundup," according to a report by the Minneapolis-based stock analysts Dain Bosworth. Roundup is Monsanto's number one selling product, accounting for half of the company's operating income.

Roundup sales are healthy now, but the herbicide's patent expires in the year 2000, and farmers could turn to generic manufacturers of glyphosate, at a lower price. But not if they use Roundup Ready Soybeans. RRS growers are contractually obligated to use Roundup brand glyphosate only. To further bolster the Roundup market, Monsanto has other Roundup Ready products in the pipeline, including Roundup Ready corn and cotton.

No right to choose

Most people would consider it a bad sign for a novel product if the manufacturer feels that informational labeling will threaten sales. Yet this is exactly the position that Monsanto has taken on RRS. As with the milk hormone rBGH, Monsanto recognizes that there is no logical reason for consumers to buy food containing Roundup Ready soybeans, since they are not cheaper, healthier or tastier. Monsanto has turned this reasoning on its head, arguing that since there is "no difference" between RRS and conventional soybeans, RRS should not be separated from conventional soybeans nor labeled as genetically engineered.

Labeling "would not necessarily be good for the consumer at large," says Karen Marshall. "Labels would imply" that RRS and conventional soy "are not the same, when they are," she says.

Asked whether consumers who do not want to eat or support genetically engineered food at least deserve the ability to make a choice about whether they buy genetically engineered products, Marshall says they can buy organic goods. The consumer interest is outweighed, she says, by the fact that a label would "really imply to the vast number of people that [RRS is] inferior, and that is not the case" -- in other words, by Monsanto's interest in selling RRS.

Gary Barton, Monsanto's director of biotechnology communications, believes that choice to eat genetically engineered food or not will become untenable anyway, in five or 10 years. With genetically engineered corn, canola, soy and other foods coming on the market, "you'll be backed into a corner with not a lot of food options" if you try to avoid all genetically engineered foods, says Barton.

USDA has strongly backed Monsanto's anti-labeling stance. There would be no value to labeling, says the USDA's Dr. Foudin. There is no justification for labeling, he says, "where there can be no perceived benefit to the public other than that some sector of the public thinks it is their right to know" that products are genetically engineered, he says. That sector of the public, including Greenpeace, he says, is "irrational."

So far, the U.S. soy industry has also sided with Monsanto. "We try to accommodate our customers," says Linda Thrane of Cargill, the world's largest soybean processor and trader, but she agrees with Monsanto that there is "no need to segregate because the beans are the same."

Other large U.S. soy exporters are not enthusiastic about segregating transgenic varieties, but, as one trader put it, "if the market demands it, we can't ignore it." Most bean traders believe the cost of separation will be borne by those wanting supplies free of RRS.

Europe not ready for roundup

European corporations and governments have responded quite differently to Monsanto's effort to coercively infect the market with genetically engineered soy. The German subsidiary of Unilever, the European food giant, has pledged to bar soy from all of its products until it can be assured that its 24 million bushel annual requirement can be delivered RRS-free. More than 20 German major food retailers have publicly stated that they favor labeling or wish to avoid RRS altogether. The major Swiss, Swedish and Austrian food manufacturers and retailers have endorsed separation and labeling. A major Norwegian buyer ordered 4.4 million bushels of soy from Canada instead of the United States to avoid RRS.

The controversy has led some European companies to express unusual hostility to a fellow corporation. A spokesperson for the food retailer Iceland Group told the Financial Times that the company was "angry and frustrated" and that Monsanto had "acted totally irresponsibly in allowing products into the marketplace which cannot be adequately labeled." Brussels-based Kraft Jacobs Suchard pledged that all its soy ingredients will come from conventionally grown soy and said that "the introduction of genetically modified soy into the European market [is] totally unsatisfactory from everyone's perspective -- producer, consumer, processor and food manufacturer." (Kraft's U.S. parent company , a subsidiary of Philip Morris, has not taken a position on the issue.)

Political opposition to Monsanto's plans is growing in Europe as well. The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for labeling of transgenic foods. The Norwegian trade forum on environment and packaging protested the mixing of RRS with conventional soy to the U.S. ambassador.

Non-governmental organizations are aggressively advocating labeling or a moratorium on RRS and genetically engineered foods. The regional Bureau of European Consumers Organizations is demanding labeling, while Greenpeace and others have called for a moratorium.

Who pays, who chooses?

Until last fall, Monsanto and most of the soy traders in the grain industry claimed that separation of genetically altered soybeans from conventional ones was impractical. Now the grain companies admit it can be done, but insist that the costs must be borne by those wishing to avoid the bean. Monsanto still opposes labeling.

The industry's militant resistance to separation and labeling reveals that consumer acceptance is the Achilles' heel of genetically engineered foods. As it stands now, it seems likely that at least some customers will insist on RRS-free soybeans next year. Once the system for separation is in place, the future of RRS will depend, in part, on acceptance among consumers of a product they did not ask for and do not need.

Monsanto and the biotechnology industry's bean counters will be watching the consumer response closely.

Transgenic Corn Storms Europe

GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CORN, first grown in the United States in 1996, has also generated a major controversy in Europe. U.S. farmers harvested approximately 600,000 acres of Bt corn, engineered by Swiss-based Ciba Geigy to resist a common pest, in 1996. Like Roundup Ready Soybeans, Bt corn was mixed in with the conventional crop without labeling. Unlike the transgenic soy, however, shipments of Bt corn left the United States before earning regulatory approval from the European Union. Last spring, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom and nine other governments protested the lack of labeling and inadequate studies of Bt corn's antibiotic resistance "marker" gene. Critics say this gene, while not crucial to the corn, could transfer resistance to ampicillin, a common antibiotic, to other organisms. Activists also expressed concern that Bt corn could boost pesticide resistance in insects.

Shipments of U.S. corn arriving in Europe last fall contained a small percentage of the unapproved Bt corn mixed in. At least three ships carried illegal corn cargo into the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. One ship, the Magda P, was stranded off the coast of France for a week, unable to offload. The Czech government, pressured by Greenpeace, impounded a trainload of corn which might have contained Bt, pending a final decision by the EU.

On December 18, 1996, notwithstanding objections of some member states, the European Commission approved the use of Bt corn. Five days later, the Austrian Health Minister invoked EU Article 16 for the first time in the EU's history. Article 16 allows member states to force reconsideration of an EU decision within 3 months, if they think it presents a risk to human health or the environment. Meanwhile, Bt corn is banned in Austria, and other EU members are considering following Austria's lead.

-- K.B.


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