"Meltdown" of GE Foods in Europe
"What we are witnessing is one of the greatest revolts against a new technology
in history" -John Vidal
We're gagging on GM. Monsanto must face up to meltdown
By John Vidal
Friday March 19, 1999
Another grand year for US life science corporation Monsanto's chairman, Robert
Shapiro. This week, it was reported that his $10 billion-a-year, Missouri-based
company, champion of the GM food revolution, had made healthy profits, taken
over more seed companies and increased earnings for shareholders. And, by the
by, Mr Shapiro has cashed in $18 million of his own shares on top of his $US 1.7
There was some veiled regret that Monsanto had failed to merge with the
huge American Home [Products], but no word on its widely reported talks with
chemical giant, Dupont. Should this happen, it would create a biotechnology powerhouse,
well able to dominate global agriculture. There was no word, either, on the
company's troubles in Europe. Here, Shapiro's troops are in the bunker, with
the company, in PR terms at least, close to meltdown. What Blair and Clinton poll
analyst, Stanley Greenberg, reported last year as a potential corporate crisis
is worsening by the day.
In the past few weeks, Asda and Marks & Spencer joined Iceland in banning GM
products from their own-brand food lines. Safeway followed suit, with
Sainsbury, Waitrose and the Co-Op in the past few days. That leaves Somerfield and
Tesco's. But consumer pressure now embraces many major environment, development,
consumer and health groups, and it may be only time before they, too, retreat.
The big question is which of the giant (but mostly anonymous) food processors like
Unilever, Northern Foods or Nestle, breaks first and declares its own products
GM-free. In the past fortnight, scientific doubts have been expressed about
Monsanto GM soya's links to allergies, the government's advisor on GM releases
has condemned it (and other companies) for a 'lamentable lack of consideration'
for consumers; and the august Institute of Chartered Surveyors has advised that
growing GM crops could threaten land values and put farm tenants at risk of
The National Farmers' Union of Scotland responded that it would now be
'commercial suicide' for farmers to grow the crops if asked. Meanwhile,
Sugar, which controls all sales of sugar beet seed to British farmers, has said
has no plans to introduce genetically modified varieties, even if approved.
But the catalogue of corporate woe goes far beyond Britain. Irish, Swiss,
Italian, French and Belgian supermarket chains have all started to exclude GM
ingredients. In the past fortnight, New Zealanders have been uprooting crops,
Brazilian state environment agency has begun a case against the company, the
Ukraine environment minister has declared his country should not be an
site for GM crops and Indian peasant farmers are revolting.
Meanwhile leading scientists this week declared BST, a Monsanto growth
hormone engineered to increase the yield of cow's milk but so far banned in
as harmful to animals with potential human health risks.
Monsanto can do little to resist the global wave of opposition. Instead it is
legal weapon, a tactic that may backfire and further damage its image. In 10
time, two women will be tried in a Plymouth court for 'conspiracy to commit
criminal damage' for pulling up one of their GM herbicide resistant maize crops
may have to pay £600,000 to the company in compensation. In April, defendants
Genetix Snowball face the company in the civil courts.
Monsanto is demanding that the small organisation which last year published a
book on how to take open, (the activists will argue 'responsible') direct
against GM crops, should be forced to hand over to it the names of everyone who
bought the book from them or was sent a copy. It smacks of corporate policing
the next month will see large British demonstrations, marches and, inevitably,
the public destruction of more GM trial crops. For the first time, MPs have
indicated they may be prepared to be arrested.
With the popular press and several broadsheets now campaigning against
Monsanto's products, what friends has the company got?
Tony Blair, who has several times spoken to President Clinton about the
support new technologies like genetic engineering, is cooling. So far he,
ministers and civil servants are falling back on the line that consumers should
to exercise 'choice'. But, judging from the Cabinet committee report leaked to
Guardian a few weeks ago, government doubts that it can control the explosive
situation are mounting. 'How real is the risk of a trade war with America?'
Cunningham asked his senior civil servants. 'Why don't we require a
pharmaceutical type analysis of the safety of these foods with proper trials?
confident are we that our line that a moratorium would be illegal is accurate?'
Yesterday, government announced a new labelling regime aimed at enforcing EU
regulations, with fines of up to £5,000. The controls, which the trading
authorities may find unworkable in practice, will force restaurants, cafes,
bakers and delicatessens to declare the GM content of their foods.
The suppliers have largely escaped. It was dismissed as a red herring and
outdated' by opposition MPs who can sense the government's inability to keep
up with such a dynamic situation.
But even as the European Union is looking to introduce full labelling for GM
and flavourings, something Monsanto and the other GM food companies might find
intolerable, British retailers have said they will go further because
reassurances are not enough.
What we are witnessing is one of the greatest revolts against a new technology
in history, dwarfing the European protests against Shell over Brent Spar and
Whether this revolt will be judged by history as a triumph of new democracy
and a significant step in the reining in of corporate power, or as a backward
response to inevitable 'progress', it proposes a new relationship between
politicians, corporations and consumers.
Mr Shapiro's confidence that Monsanto will end up winners might well prove