Monsanto: The Bad Seed--Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly

RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #666 .
. ---September 2, 1999--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. THE BAD SEED .
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THE BAD SEED

Monsanto Corporation of St. Louis has been maneuvering for more
than a decade to dominate the world's supply of seed for staple
crops (corn, soybeans, potatoes) -- a business plan that
Monsanto's critics say is nothing short of diabolical. Monsanto
says it is just devilishly good business.

Monsanto has spent upwards of $8 billion in recent years buying
numerous U.S. seed companies. As a result, two firms, Monsanto
and Pioneer (recently purchased by DuPont), now dominate the
U.S. seed business. Monsanto specializes in genetically modified
seeds -- seeds having particular properties that Monsanto has
patented.

The U.S. government is very enthusiastic about these new
technologies. From the viewpoint of U.S. foreign policy,
genetically modified seeds offer a key advantage over
traditional seeds: because genetically modified seeds are
patented, it is illegal for a farmer to retain seed from this
year's crop to plant next year. To use these patented seeds,
farmers must buy new seed from Monsanto every year. Thus a
farmer who adopts genetically modified seeds and fails to retain
a stock of traditional seeds could become dependent upon a
transnational corporation. Nations whose farmers grew dependent
upon corporations for seed might forfeit considerable political
independence. The Clinton/Gore administration has been
aggressively helping Monsanto promote ag-biotech, bypassing
U.S. health and safety regulations to promote new, untested
gene-altered products.

A key component of the U.S./Monsanto plan to dominate world
agriculture with genetically modified seeds is the absence of
labeling of genetically engineered foods. All U.S. foods carry
labels listing the ingredients: salt, sugar, water, vitamins,
etc. But three separate executive agencies -- U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency -- have ruled that
genetically-modified foods deserve an exception: they can be
sold without being labeled "genetically modified." This strategy
has successfully prevented consumers from exercising informed
choice in the marketplace, reducing the likelihood of a consumer
revolt, at least in the U.S., at least for now.

Earlier this year, opposition to genetically modified foods
exploded in England and quickly spread to the European
continent. (See REHW #649.) Burgeoning consumer opposition has
now swept into Asia and back to North America. The NEW YORK
TIMES reported last week that, "the Clinton Administration's
efforts have grown increasingly urgent, in an attempt to contain
the aversion to these crops that is leaping from continent to
continent."[1]

** Recently Japan -- the largest Asian importer of U.S. food --
passed a law requiring the labeling of genetically modified
foods.[1] A subsidiary of Honda Motor Company immediately
announced that it will build a plant in Ohio and hire farmers to
supply it with traditional, unaltered soy beans. Soy is the
basis of tofu, a staple food in Japan.

Subsequently, the largest and third-largest Japanese beer
makers, Kirin Brewery and Sapporo Breweries, Ltd.,
announced that they will stop using genetically modified
corn by 2001. Other Japanese brewers are expected to
follow suit.

** The Reuters North America wire service reported Sept. 1 that
South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have all now passed laws
requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. Reuters
says the U.S. government has publicly protested against such
labeling laws and has privately lobbied hard against them,
unsuccessfully.

** Grupo Maseca, Mexico's leading producer of corn flour --
recently announced it will no longer purchase any genetically
modified corn. Corn flour is made into tortillas, a Mexican
staple. Mexico buys $500 million of U.S. corn each year, so the
Grupo Maseca announcement sent a chill through midwestern corn
farmers who planted Monsanto's genetically modified seeds.[1]
About 1/3 of this year's U.S. corn crop is being grown from
genetically modified seeds.

** Gerber and Heinz -- the two leading manufacturers of baby
foods in the U.S. -- announced in July that they would not allow
genetically modified corn or soybeans in any of their baby
foods.[2] After the baby food announcements, Iams, the
high-end pet food producer, announced that it would not purchase
any of the seven varieties of genetically modified corn that
have not been approved by the European Union. This announcement
cut off an alternative use that U.S. farmer's had hoped to make
of corn rejected by overseas buyers.

** As the demand for traditional, unmodified corn and soy has
grown, a two-price system for crops has developed in the U.S. --
a higher price for traditional, unmodified crops, and a lower
price for genetically modified crops. For example, Archer
Daniels Midland is paying some farmers 18 cents less per bushel
for genetically modified soybeans, compared to the traditional
product.[1]

** The American Corn Growers Association, which represents
mainly family farmers, has told its members that they should
consider planting only traditional, unmodified seed next spring
because it may not be possible to export genetically modified
corn.[1]

** Deutsche Bank, Europe's largest bank, has issued two reports
within the past six months advising its large institutional
investors to abandon ag-biotech companies like Monsanto and
Novartis.[3] In July, 1998, Monsanto stock was selling for $56
per share; today it is about $41, a 27% decline despite the
phenomenal success of Monsanto's new arthritis medicine,
Celebrex.

In its most recent report, Deutsche Bank said, "...[I]t appears
the food companies, retailers, grain processors, and governments
are sending a signal to the seed producers that 'we are not
ready for GMOs [genetically modified organisms].'"

Deutsche Bank's Washington, D.C., analysts, Frank Mitsch and
Jennifer Mitchell, announced nine months ago that ag-biotech
"was going the way of the nuclear industry in this country."
"But we count ourselves surprised at how rapidly this forecast
appears to be playing out," they told the London GUARDIAN in
late August.[3]

In Europe, the ag-biotech controversy is playing out upon a
stage created by an earlier -- and ongoing -- scientific dispute
over sex hormones in beef.[4] About 90% of U.S. beef cattle are
treated with sex hormones -- three naturally-occurring
(estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone) and three synthetic
hormones that mimic the natural ones (zeranol, melengesterol
acetate, and trenbolone acetate). Hormone treatment makes cattle
grow faster and produces more tender, flavorful cuts of beef.

Since 1995 the European Union has prohibited the treatment of
any farm animals with sex hormones intended to promote growth,
on grounds that sex hormones are known to cause several human
cancers. As a byproduct of that prohibition, the EU refuses to
allow the import of hormone-treated beef from the U.S. and
Canada.

The U.S. asserts that hormone-treated beef is entirely safe and
that the European ban violates the global free trade regime that
the U.S. has worked religiously for 20 years to create. The U.S.
argues that sex hormones only promote human cancers in
hormone-sensitive tissues, such as the female breast and uterus.
Therefore, the U.S. argues, the mechanism of carcinogenic action
must be activation of hormone "receptors" and therefore there is
a "threshold" -- a level of hormones below which no cancers will
occur. Based on risk assessments, the U.S. government claims to
know where that threshold level lies. Furthermore, the U.S.
claims it has established a regulatory process that prevents any
farmer from exceeding the threshold level in his or her cows.

In a 136-page report issued in late April, an EU scientific
committee argues that hormones may cause some human cancers by
an entirely different mechanism -- by interfering directly with
DNA.[5] If that were true, there would be no threshold for
safety and the only safe dose of sex hormones in beef would be
zero. "If you assume no threshold, you should continually be
taking steps to get down to lower levels, because no level is
safe," says James Bridges, a toxicologist at the University of
Surrey in Guilford, England.[4]

Secondly, the EU spot-checked 258 meat samples from the Hormone
Free Cattle program run jointly by the U.S. beef industry and
the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program is intended to
raise beef cattle without the use of hormones, thus producing
beef eligible for import into Europe. The spot check found that
12% of the "hormone free" cattle had in fact been treated with
sex hormones. EU officials cite this as evidence that growth
hormones are poorly regulated in the U.S. beef industry and
that Europeans might be exposed to higher-than-allowed
concentrations if the ban on North American imports were lifted.
"These revelations are embarrassing for U.S. officials," reports
SCIENCE magazine.[4] Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to assert
that its hormone-treated beef is 100% safe.

Thus we have a classic scientific controversy characterized by
considerable scientific uncertainty. This particular scientific
dispute has profound implications for the future of all
regulation under a global free trade regime -- including
regulation of toxic chemicals -- because the European Union is
basing its opposition to hormone-treated beef on the
precautionary principle. The U.S. insists that this precautionary
approach is an illegal restraint of free trade.

The EU's position is clearly precautionary: "Where scientific
evidence is not black and white, policy should err on the side
of caution so that there is zero risk to the consumer," the EU
says.[6] The Danish pediatric researcher, Niels Skakkebaek, says
the burden of proof lies with those putting hormones in beef:
"The possible health effects from the hormones have hardly been
studied -- the burden of proof should lie with the American beef
industry," Skakkebaek told CHEMICAL WEEK, a U.S. chemical
industry publication that is following the beef controversy
closely.[6]

It appears that European activists have seized upon hormones in
beef, and upon Monsanto's seed domination plan, as a vehicle for
opposing a "global free trade" regime in which nations lose their
power to regulate markets to protect public health or the
environment. The NEW YORK TIMES reports that a Peasant
Confederation of European farmers derives much of its
intellectual inspiration and direction from a new organization,
called Attac, formed last year in France to fight the spread of
global free trade regimes.[7] The Confederation has destroyed
several McDonald's restaurants and dumped rotten vegetables in
others. Patrice Vidieu, the secretary-general of the Peasant
Confederation, told the TIMES, "What we reject is the idea that
the power of the marketplace becomes the dominant force in all
societies, and that multinationals like McDonald's or Monsanto
come to impose the food we eat and the seeds we plant."

What began as consumer opposition to genetically-modified seed
appears to be turning into an open revolt against the
25-year-old U.S.-led effort to impose free-trade regimes
world-wide, enthroning transnational corporations in the
process. If approached strategically by ALLIANCES of U.S.
activists and their overseas counterparts (and it MUST NOT be
viewed as merely a labeling dispute) genetic engineering could
become the most important fight in more than a century.

--Peter Montague
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

==========
[1] "Melody Petersen, "New Trade Threat for U.S. Farmers," NEW
YORK TIMES August 29, 1999, pgs. A1, A18.

[2] Lucette Lagnado, "Strained Peace: Gerber Baby Food, Grilled
by Greenpeace, Plans Swift Overhaul -- Gene-Modified Corn and
Soy Will Go, Although Firm Feels Sure They Are Safe -- Heinz
Takes Action, Too," WALL STREET JOURNAL July 30, 1999, pg. A1.

[3] Paul Brown and John Vidal, "GM Investors Told to Sell Their
Shares," THE GUARDIAN [London] August 25, 1999, pg. unknown.

[4] Michael Balter, "Scientific Cross-Claims Fly in Continuing
Beef War," SCIENCE Vol. 284 (May 28, 1999), pgs. 1453-1455.

[5] "Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures
Relating to Public Health; Assessment of Potential Risks to
Human Health from Hormone Residues in Bovine Meat and Meat
Products." European Commission, April 30, 1999. 139 pgs. The
report is available in PDF format from:
http://europa.eu.int/comm/dg24/health/sc/scv/out21_en.html .

[6] "Europe's Beef Ban Tests Precautionary Principle," CHEMICAL
WEEK August 11, 1999, pg. unknown.

[7] Roger Cohen, "Fearful Over the Future, Europe Seizes on
Food," NEW YORK TIMES August 29, 1999, pg. unknown.

Descriptor terms: genetic engineering; farming; agriculture;
monsanto; pioneer; france; peasant confederation; beef industry;
hormones;

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