By Joel Bleifuss
Agribusiness corporations have long hoped to make GMOs (genetically modified organisms) a permanent, and inescapable, feature of our daily diet. But to get to that point, chemical giants such as the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and the Swiss company Ciba-Geigy AG will have to overcome consumer, environmental and public health organizations that fear this pell-mell rush to a genetically modified future. And they'll have to somehow get past the roadblocks Mother Nature has put in their way.
Three of Monsanto's bioengineered marvels are in the process of going bust. The company's artificial bovine growth hormone (rBGH), introduced in February 1994, has not lived up to its promise. Although the drug does increase milk production, the resultant health problems in cattle outweigh the benefits from the extra milk produced, as critics warned they would. In April, Business Week reported that Wall Street insiders were predicting that rBGH would be pulled off the market by the end of the year. Furthermore, the Pure Food Campaign obtained a letter, signed by 10 scientists who have done rBGH research for Monsanto, that reveals a 55 percent drop in sales of the wonder drug between February 1995 and February 1996.
After two years in stores, the Flavr Savr tomato is now off the market and heading for the dumpster. The tomato, which was developed by a company in which Monsanto has a half stake, had been genetically engineered to taste like a homegrown tomato yet be sturdy enough to ship across country. (The current grocery store tomato lost its taste in the process of being bred for ease of packing and shipping.) The Flavr Savr's problem is that it was developed in California and won't grow well in Florida's sandy soils and different climate.
Now, Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton, Bollgard, is proving a failure. The cotton, which accounts for 13 percent of the nation's annual crop this year, had been altered to produce a substance that acts as a natural pesticide to three insects that eat cotton. But the Bollgard cotton is not working as planned. As James Wilbur, an analyst with Smith Barney, told the Wall Street Journal, "if genetic technology doesn't work on a product like this, it calls into question the whole long-term strategy of the company."
Monsanto had sold the Bollgald seeds to farmers with brochures that pictured a bollworm and advised: "You'll see these in your cotton and that's okay. Don't spray. Just relax. Bollgard will protect your cotton." But a heavy bollworm infestation this summer, combined with the failure of Bollgard to perform as expected, forced the company to change course. Monsanto began telling farmers that spraying might be necessary to save their crops. In fact, Abbott Laboratories marketed its DiPel insecticide, "which contains a blend of five or more toxins," as the chemical solution for growers who planted Monsanto's Bollgard.
In theory, Bollgard cotton works because it has been genetically engineered to contain genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is harmless to humans but in high enough doses kills insects. Yet the long-term implications are frightening. Bt, a natural substance, is a key weapon in organic farmers' battle with pests. By making this natural pesticide an integral part of cotton and other crops such as soybeans and corn, Monsanto and other biotech firms will hasten the evolution of Bt-resistant insects. Indeed, Monsanto itself admits that it is only a matter of time before the bugs develop a resistance to Bollgard.
Earlier this year Monsanto introduced another genetically altered product likely to turn out as ill-advised as rBGH, Bollgard and the Flavr Savr tomato: the Roundup Ready soybean. Roundup Ready has been altered to include a gene from a bacterium that makes the plant resistant to Glyphosate, the key toxin in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Farmers who plant Roundup Ready beans will he able to spray the herbicide on their fields without killing their soybeans.
Ciba-Geigy has similar plans for Maximizer, a corn hybrid loaded with three altered genes, which the company introduced last spring. Like Monsanto's cotton, Ciba-Geigy's corn contains a Bt gene that makes the corn toxic to pests, in this case the corn-borer larvae. Like Roundup Ready, Maximizer is also built to resist one of Ciba- Geigy's herbicides, in this case glufosinate, manufactured under the brand name Basta.
Maximizer has been approved for sale in Canada and the United States, but European countries, in particular Britain, Sweden, Austria and Denmark, are balking. The European Union has so far refused to approve the corn for import. The impasse could escalate into a trade war between the United States and Europe.
Europeans are concerned that Ciba-Geigy's corn will lead to the development of Bt-resistant corn borers. They also fear that the genes that make Roundup Ready soybeans and Maximizer corn resistant to the Monsanto and Ciba-Geigy herbicides could transfer to weeds, making those weeds impervious to the herbicides. Such resistance has already been observed in Denmark, where rapeseed, a native European plant used to make vegetable oil, was genetically altered to resist a pesticide. That resistance then jumped from the rapeseed plant to neighboring weeds.
Finally, some European scientists are worried about a bacterium gene in Ciba-Geigy's corn that conveys resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin. Ciba-Geigy claims that this gene serves no purpose other than as a handy marker for scientists to determine which plants have the added genes. Some scientists, however, fear that the gene could be passed to the cattle who eat the corn, and from there, spread to people who eat the cattle. Both animals and humans would then become resistant to ampicillin, an antibiotic doctors and veterinarians commonly use to fight infections. For this reason the British government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes has sought to ban the doctored corn.
On top of all this, some genetically modified foodstuffs have proved dangerous to people who suffer from allergies. For example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Des Moines based seed company, developed a genetically modified soybean using genes from Brazil nuts. But the company had to abandon the product before it hit the market because people with nut allergies, which occasionally are fatal, were found to be allergic to the new soybeans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that genetically modified organisms derived from products to which many people are allergic be tested and labeled. But an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine last March argued that the policy did not go far enough: "Because FDA requirements do not apply to foods that are rarely allergenic or to donor organisms of unknown allergenicity, the policy would appear to favor industry over consumer protection." The editorial called for the labeling of all foods containing genetically altered organisms, concluding that industry benefits when the public is convinced that transgenic foods are safe, and stronger federal regulations would encourage such public confidence."
Europeans seem to share this sentiment. According to recent surveys, 85 percent of Europeans would choose not to eat genetically modified foods if given the choice. This mistrust of bioengineered foods has put U.S. soybean growers-- who export 40 percent of their crop to Europe--in a precarious position. Even though the European Union approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans earlier this year, EuroCommerce, the Union's major trade association, has demanded that genetically altered soybeans be labeled and separated from regular soybeans.
Last month, the German unit of the Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever canceled all 1996 orders for U.S. soybeans, totaling 650,000 metric tons, unless they could be guaranteed "Roundup Ready soybean-free." Aa a Unilever spokesperson explained, "We are a consumer-driven company and we have to take their wishes into account." Even though Rounup Ready makes up only 2 percent of the U.S. soybean crop, U.S. soybean suppliers cannot comply with the demand of Unilever's German unit because the Roundup Ready beans are not separated from the traditional varieties.
A similar consumer backlash may be brewing in the United States. "Where agribusiness has miscalculated is in thinking that you can operate in today's global economy under the rules of the consumer be damned," says Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Pure Food Campaign, which is spearheading the opposition to bioengineered foods in this country. His group is calling for a global boycott of 10 processed foods that will soon contain Roundup Ready soybeans and Maximizer corn, including Coca-Cola, Fritos corn chips, Kraft salad dressings, Similac infant formula and McDonald's french fries.
The U.S. government, however, shows no sign of abandoning its support of bioengineering. Campaigning last month in Iowa, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the United States will stand behind its genetically altered produce and oppose any European labeling requirements as a trade violation. "We've got to make sure that sound science prevails, not what I call historic culture, which is not based on sound science," he said. "Europe has a much greater sensitivity to the culture of food, as opposed to the science of food. But in the modern world, we just have to keep the pressure on the science. Good science must prevail in these decisions."
But in supporting Monsanto's right to grow and export genetically engineered food crops, Glickman appears interested less in "good science" than in making sure "corporate science" prevails--the kind of science that historically has guaranteed short-term profits for corporate America and long-term problems for the rest of us.