Newsweek Story on "Frankenstein Foods"
Frankenstein Foods? Newsweek Sept. 13, 1999
That's what Europeans are calling genetically modified crops that abound in
America. Exporters have been forced to listen.
By Kenneth Klee
Don't look for the southern French town of Montredon on your globe. It isn't
even on local road maps, perhaps because it has only 20 inhabitants. But one
of them, a Parisian intellectual turned activist-farmer named José Bové, may
change that. He's the leader of the mobs of farmers who've trashed several
McDonald's in France lately. Last week, with 200 supporters chanting outside
the jail, Bové declined a Montpellier court's offer of bail and remained
behind bars, the better to spotlight his cause. And that would be? "To fight
against globalization and advance the right of people to eat as they see
fit," he explained. Grievance No. 1: the U.S. desire to export genetically
modified crops and foods.
So far, so French, right? But spin that same globe to Peoria, Ill., home of
U.S. agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. There, even as Bové's judges
readied their decision, the self-styled "supermarket to the world" was
demonstrating that the customer is, indeed, always right. In a fax to grain
elevators throughout the Midwest, ADM told its suppliers that they should
start segregating their genetically modified crops from conventional ones,
because that's what foreign buyers want. It didn't matter that GM crops are
widely grown by U.S. farmers, and that there's no evidence that the taco
chips and soda you're enjoying right now are anything worse than fattening.
ADM had noticed something new sprouting under the bright, warm sun of
economic interdependence: a strange hybrid of cultural and economic fears.
So it decided to act before the problem got any bigger.
Public opposition to GM foods in Europe has been mounting for more than two
years, especially in Britain and France. Both Prince Charles and Paul
McCartney have come out against the stuff. Now the protests and the tabloid
headlines about "Frankenstein Foods" have reached such a pitch that they're
reverberating across the Atlantic. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, a
longtime backer of biotechnology, admitted as much in a key speech in July.
So did Heinz and Gerber when they announced the same month that they'll go
to the considerable trouble of making their baby foods free of genetically
modified organisms. Groups such as Greenpeace, which have long fought
biotech on both continents, are crowing. U.S. trade officials, who face a
tough fight keeping markets open for American agricultural products, are
worrying. And U.S. consumers, who have never really thought much about
genetically modified foods, are just plain confused.
As well they might be, given the vastly different experiences the United
States and Europe have had. In the United States, the FDA issued a key
ruling in 1992 that brought foods containing GM ingredients to market
quickly, and without labels. Companies such as Monsanto introduced
herbicide-resistant soybeans and corn that makes its own insecticide. U.S.
farmers loved the products; by 1998, 40 percent of America's corn crop and
45 percent of its soybeans were genetically modified. In Europe, meanwhile,
there was no real central regulator to green-light the technology and allay
public concerns, and many more small farmers for whom biotech represented
not an opportunity but a threat. Leaders have tried to steer a course
between encouraging a new industry and giving the voters what they want,
including labeling rules.
So, to each his own, right? Not in 1999. If Europe is selling America Chanel
perfume and Land Rovers, America will want to sell Europe its soybeans and
corn and maybe even its fervent faith in progress. While European biotech
companies such as Novartis avoided the limelight, St. Louis-based Monsanto
decided to press its case. The timing was terrible. GM fears were already
running high last summer when Monsanto ran an informational campaign;
Britain's 1996 bout with mad-cow disease, though unrelated, had weakened
European confidence in regulators and industrial-strength agriculture.
Monsanto's PR effort only made the mood worse, as have a string of bad-news
food headlines since then: dioxin-contaminated chicken in Belgium last
spring; tainted Coke in Belgium and France this summer, and a punitive U.S.
tariff on imports of foie gras and other products, imposed in July because
Europe won't accept American hormone-fed beef.
That last, also nongenetic, dispute actually triggered the vandalism at
McDonald's last month. But to many of France's famously irascible small
farmers, it's all of a piece. Even among the broader public in France and
Britain, the GM-foods issue seems to be intersecting with second thoughts
about globalization. French farmers protest American imperialism. But just
last week their biggest customers, grocery giants Carrefour and Promodes,
announced a $16.5 billion merger that will position them well in a global
battle with America's Wal-Mart and put further cost pressures on farmers.
Britain is a hotbed for Internet start-ups. But Brits still tune in to the
BBC radio soap "The Archers" to see if young Tommy will go to jail for
helping a group of eco-warriors wreck a GM-crop trial site on his uncle's
Would an American jury let Tommy go? Probably not. Consumers Union, whose
Consumer Reports magazine features a big piece on GM foods this month, has
put together an array of poll data suggesting Americans would like to see GM
food labeled, but remain interested in its benefits. Of course, if Tommy's
trial were held in Berkeley, Calif., where the school board has announced a
ban on GM foods, he might walk.
U.S. activists, encouraged by the successes of their European brethren, hope
to build on such sentiments. Some of the rhetoric is extreme, and one
group or perhaps it's just one person has resorted to vandalism,
trashing a test-bed of GM corn at the University of Maine last month and
crediting the act to "Seeds of Resistance." But there's science going on,
too. A Cornell University study published in the journal Nature in May found
that half of a group of monarch-butterfly caterpillars that ate the pollen
of insecticide-producing Bt corn died after four days. What if the pollen
spreads to the milkweed the monarchs lay their eggs in? "The arguments
aren't enough to say we shouldn't have any biotechnology," says Rebecca
Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund. "But they are enough to say we
should be looking before we leap."
Of course we should, says Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller
Foundation and an agricultural ecologist. Invited to speak to the Monsanto
board in June, he used the forum to talk about the need to go a little
slower. But, he adds, don't worry about the monarch. Bioengineers can stop
the pesticide (which is supposed to kill caterpillars; they eat the corn)
from being expressed in pollen. "There are always problems in the first
generation of a new technology," he says. And, he adds, successes. The
foundation just unveiled a genetically modified rice grain it funded to
improve nutrition in the developing world. If a shouting match over GM foods
should derail such not-for-profit efforts, he says, "that would be a
Agriculture Secretary Glickman doesn't see Americans growing as fearful as
Europeans, mainly because he thinks Americans have more faith in their
regulators. He also thinks that labeling of GM foods is a big part of the
answer not mandatory labeling, which industry opposes and activists
demand, but voluntary labeling. "I'm not going to mandate this from national
government level," he told Newsweek, "but I believe that more and more
companies are going to find that some sort of labeling is in their own best
interest." Especially companies that want to export.
Because, as ADM showed with its heartland-stopping announcement on Thursday,
it isn't only up to Americans anymore. Brian Kemp, a Sibley, Iowa, farmer,
made an urgent call to his elevator on Thursday to see if it would still buy
his GM corn. It will this year. "Europe is so important to the industry
that it could mean we'll really have to pull back on growing GM crops in
this country," says Walt Fehr, head of Iowa State University's biotech
department. "Given the choice, who wants to grow GM?"
Glickman says the trade issue which is sure to generate plenty of heat at
the November World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will be a tough
one to resolve. "But I think over the next five years or so we can get it
done." That's a mighty slow pace, considering how quickly the industry came
along in the previous half decade. But then, you generally do travel faster
when you travel alone.
With John Barry in Washington, Scott Johnsonin Montpellier, Jay Wagner in
Des Moines, William Underhill in London and Elizabeth Angell in New York
Newsweek, September 13, 1999