Global Opposition to GE Crops
Biotech Food Protests Reflect Cultural Contrasts, Health Fears
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 1999; Page A01
BOGHALL FARM, Scotland—They gathered at the edge of a field here late one
night, about 20 people wearing dark clothes and gardening gloves. The gently
rolling, half-acre test plot that stretched before them was lush with
thousands of experimental canola plants, genetically altered by a German
When lookouts in three cars all gave the go-ahead via mobile phones, the
shadowy figures illuminated battery-powered miner's lamps atop their heads,
crept from behind the hawthorn hedgerows and began ripping every
gene-altered plant from the earth. Hours later, exhausted and surrounded by
wilting, uprooted vegetation, the dirt-covered protesters sped back to
"We were nervous for the next week," one participant said recently, speaking
to a visitor at the now barren site on the condition of anonymity. If the
group members are caught and convicted, they could spend a decade or longer
The Boghall raid was one of many "decontaminations" of gene-altered farm
sites by protesters during the past year, many of them resulting in arrests.
In England, Scotland and Ireland, at least three trials for such raids have
come up in the past month alone.
The actions are part of a wave of protest circling the globe as the first
fields of genetically modified crops take root outside the United States.
Gene-altered crops have been grown and consumed in America since 1996 with
hardly a murmur of debate, and the massive negative reaction in the British
Isles and other countries is highlighting differences in the way Americans
and others perceive science and the environment. The protests are also
drawing attention to lingering scientific uncertainties about the risks of
The controversy is over crops that have been endowed with genes from
bacteria and other organisms, mostly to make them resistant to insects and
chemical weedkillers. In Britain and other European countries, where such
crops are still restricted to small experimental plots, polls indicate that
two-thirds of consumers believe the plants pose a threat to the environment
or to human health.
Recent public protests and a flurry of newspaper articles with headlines
about "Frankenfoods" and "Mutant Crops" have put European government and
industry officials on the defensive. More than two dozen influential
consumer organizations in Britain called last month for a five-year
moratorium on commercial plantings of gene-altered crops there. Top chefs
have called for segregation and labeling of engineered ingredients so they
can keep the stuff out of their gourmet dishes.
The protests appear to be working. Last month, several major fast food
outlets and supermarket chains in England -- including Burger King,
McDonald's and Sainsbury's (the large grocery chain owned by the family of
England's science minister, Lord Sainsbury) -- promised to eliminate
genetically modified foods and ingredients from their product lines.
Those moves are alarming farmers and distributors in the United States, the
leading producer of gene-altered foods, where regulatory agencies have
deemed gene-modified crops "substantially equivalent" to traditional crops
and where consumers -- knowingly or not -- consume large quantities of
engineered food every day.
Last year, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. soybean crop was genetically
engineered. And while Americans may think they don't eat much soy, it's
present in an estimated 60 percent of all processed foods, including breads,
baby food, salad dressings and ice cream. Similarly, 45 percent of U.S.
cotton -- including that grown for cottonseed oil -- was genetically
modified last year, as was 25 percent of the nation's corn.
In the industry's view, these crops are at least as safe as traditionally
"We're talking about tens of thousands of field trials and millions of
people who have ingested these foods safely," said Carl Feldbaum, president
of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington. "And before
people ingested the foods, we're talking about agencies highly respected by
American citizens -- the FDA, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture -- all
signing off on the safety of these plants."
According to Feldbaum and other advocates, gene-modified crops are
desperately needed if the world's growing population is to be fed in coming
decades. Some experts have even suggested that engineered crops are the only
way to achieve the environmental Holy Grail of "sustainable agriculture,"
because in theory, at least, they can reduce the need for chemical
insecticides, herbicides and erosion-promoting tilling.
Moreover, scientists promise they will soon be adding genes that are not
only useful to the farmer but also valuable to the consumer, such as genes
that make foods more nutritious or tasty.
But even the best arguments by scientists and government agencies have not
Philip S. Angell, director of corporate communications for Monsanto Co., the
giant St. Louis-based agricultural company that is the major U.S. producer
of gene-altered seeds, is one of many observers who blame Europe's rejection
of biotechnology on a lack of public trust in food safety agencies there. In
particular, he blames the still-simmering "mad cow disease" fiasco, in which
British government officials insisted for years that there were no human
health risks from the bovine disease -- only to have that assurance
"That wound still has not healed," Angell said. "You have this low burn
level of anxiety about food safety, and in the midst of all this you have a
product introduction of genetically engineered soybeans."
A series of public relations missteps by Monsanto probably added to the
problem, company officials concede. According to a preliminary ruling by
Britain's official Advertising Standards Authority last month, a $1.6
million Monsanto advertising campaign sought to deceive the public by
expressing opinions as accepted fact and making scientific claims that were
"wrong" and "misleading."
Another factor, said David Atkinson, vice principal for research at the
Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh, is that Europeans are more
attuned to what's happening in the countryside than Americans are. "Look,"
he said, pointing out the window of his second-story campus office.
"Edinburgh is the fifth- or sixth-largest city in the United Kingdom, and we
can look out the window and see countryside and see farming."
In England, industry sources said, Prince Charles's avid endorsements of
organic food have not exactly been helpful. And in Germany, lingering
discomfort over that country's painful legacy of eugenics may explain some
of the opposition there to genetic engineering.
International politics, too, cannot be wholly discounted. Some U.S.
lawmakers and corporate officials suspect that Europe's reluctance to
embrace agricultural biotechnology is nothing more than thinly veiled
protectionism, deserving of punishment by the World Trade Organization.
Many opponents of agricultural biotechnology agree that all these
explanations contribute to their feelings. But most important, they argue,
is that there is simply not enough known about the safety of these crops.
They cite studies indicating that plants engineered to make their own
insecticides can accelerate the evolution of resistant insects and may
ultimately render the few remaining organic insecticides ineffective. And
they note that crops engineered to be tolerant of chemical weedkillers can
lead to more widespread use of those chemicals, which could wipe out weedy
homes for beneficial insects and harm the birds that feed on those insects.
Many ecologists are also concerned that the spread of new genes to weeds via
windblown pollen could lead to the inadvertent creation of "superweeds" that
don't die when sprayed with weedkillers.
Separately, some critics have raised the possibility that genetically
modified foods may harm people's health. No adverse effects have been
documented, they concede. But they note that scientists routinely insert
into engineered plants "marker genes" that confer resistance to antibiotics
such as ampicillin, which helps them identify the plants that have been
altered. Studies suggest that bacteria in people's or animals' intestines
may be able to pick up those genes from digested food and perhaps accelerate
the evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes.
Allergies are a potential problem, too, critics note. Two years ago,
scientists tried to make soybeans more nutritious by inserting into them a
Brazil nut gene. The inadvertent result: soybeans that triggered allergic
reactions in people allergic to Brazil nuts. That product never made it to
market -- a fact that supporters of the technology emphasize as evidence
that the regulatory system is working. Nonetheless, some people fear that
consumers with rare allergies may suffer life-threatening reactions to other
foods harboring unlabeled foreign genes.
Only now is research starting to examine all these potential risks to see
how likely they are in reality. Unfortunately, the picture remains unclear.
A new report sponsored by BIO, for example, concluded last month that
agricultural biotechnology has increased crop yields, reduced farmers' use
of pesticides and herbicides and reduced soil erosion in the United States.
By contrast, other researchers have concluded that in many areas of the
United States, yields of gene-altered crops have been lower than those for
conventional crops. And in Canada, genes conferring resistance to
weedkillers have clearly jumped from engineered canola plants to surrounding
weeds, making those weeds invulnerable to some herbicides.
Given that uncertainty, developers of engineered crops are bracing for
further protests in the upcoming growing season. More than a month ago in
South Korea, police arrested students and environmental activists who
occupied a greenhouse where scientists were developing gene-altered
varieties of Chinese cabbage, tobacco, cayenne and other crops. And last
month in Auckland, New Zealand, protesters destroyed a test plot of potatoes
that reportedly had been genetically enhanced with a gene taken from an
African clawed toad.
In an effort to settle the scientific questions for good, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture announced last month that it would create a panel
of experts to look at agricultural biotechnology. And the National Academy
of Sciences' (NAS) Institute of Medicine also began examining the issue
earlier this month, with the goal of releasing a report in six months.
But an end to the debate is not likely any time soon. Critics already have
accused the NAS committee of being "stacked" in favor of industry, and an
international coalition of nearly 20 environmental and consumer groups
petitioned the NAS on April 5 to include on the panel some scientists or
others who have been critical of agricultural biotechnology.
Whatever the final makeup of the NAS and USDA panels, many experts suspect
that the groups will conclude that the risks of engineered crops, though
real, are manageable with proper oversight. Studies have already suggested,
for example, that by planting "buffer zones" of non-engineered crops around
gene-altered plants, the risk of creating insecticide-resistant bugs or
superweeds can be reduced.
If that's the conclusion, these experts say, then regulatory agencies such
as the FDA and the EPA -- and farmers themselves -- may be the key to
determining whether gene-altered plants help or harm the world.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company