New York Times Dismisses GE Opponents as Luddites

March 14, 2000

New Genes and Seeds: Protesters in Europe Grow More Passionate


THE HAGUE -- At the big conference on genetically modified food
here in January, the discussion among 300 participants in the hall
was serious science -- intelligent, earnest and a bit dull.

Outside, things were livelier. Two protesters dressed as headless
chickens strutted. A gorilla wailed over his pox-speckled bananas, and a
mutant apple in a radiation suit passed out leaflets. The demonstrators
played a tape of bubbling cauldrons and vile belches, and the perfect fillip
was the stench that hung in the air -- which was not even their idea, just
dumb luck that a sewer crew was working nearby.

Naturally, the television cameras lingered on the protesters, who
numbered fewer than 20.

In Europe, the debate over genetically modified food is as much about
passion as it is about science. British newspapers routinely call
ingredients from genetically altered plants "Frankenfood," and pollsters
say just 1 percent of Britons think that genetically modifying plants has
any value at all. Environmental advocates in Europe have destroyed fields
of test plants.

By contrast, in the United States such ingredients are in nearly two-thirds
of the products on supermarket shelves, and few Americans seem to
have noticed. For Europeans, "It's not at the level of a rational discussion
any more," said FranÁois Perroud, a spokesman for NestlÈ, the world's
biggest food company, which is based in Switzerland. NestlÈ has
stopped buying any grain from genetically altered seed for its European

"It's become a battle of doctrines, of religious beliefs, of inanities," Mr.
Perroud said. "But unfortunately more and more retailers have jumped on
the bandwagon and banished these products from their shelves."

Legally, the European Union requires labels on any food with 1 percent
or more of genetically modified ingredients. Planting, importing or selling
genetically altered seeds or foods has virtually stopped, because farmers
will not plant the seeds, consumers will not buy the foods, and stores
decline to stock them.

Regulators have not approved any new seed strains for nearly two years.

Total American corn and soybean exports slipped briefly, but American
farmers are undeterred. Early indications this year from seed companies
are that they are not significantly cutting back, because big food
processors have agreed to buy modified grains and keep them separate
from traditional ones.

The focus of the fury is a technology that borrows a genetic code from
plants or animals and transfers it to a plant. Modified seeds, for instance,
can produce their own pesticide and reduce the amount used in the fields.
The seeds are now used throughout North and South America, China
and Australia.

Opponents concede that no one has ever been harmed by genetically
modified food. But there are questions about environmental threats. Will
genes from herbicide-resistant corn get into weeds, creating
"superweeds"? Will benign insects like Monarch butterflies be killed by
pollen drifting from bug-killing corn?

Many Europeans fear the food itself, and some supermarket chains will
not sell it. Those who object to the science argue that more research is
needed on long-term safety.

Many factors are at work -- a mysterious science that occurs at the
submicroscopic level, jingoism about food, scare campaigns by
environmentalists, arrogant American responses and one bit of bad
timing, the fact that freighters loaded with the 1996 American soybean
crop sailed just as British mad cow disease, totally unrelated to
genetically modified food, was terrifying Europe.

There is also an anti-American element. Demonstrators' signs often
portray America and its agrochemical companies as one and the same.
But Guy le Fur, an expert on biotech food at the Confederation
Paysanne, a radical farmers' organization that has destroyed silos full of
modified grain, drew a distinction.

He noted that there were European giants in gene-technology, too,
although most of their work is in pharmaceuticals. "I don't see it as a
national issue," Mr. le Fur said. "It is colonization by three or four
companies who want total control of what goes onto the plates of people
across the planet and who want to make a lot of money."

Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist member of the French Parliament committee
on environmental safety, said there was deep mistrust specifically of
American assurances that the food was safe. "The general sense here is
that Americans eat garbage food, that they're fat and they don't know
how to eat properly," he said.

American endorsements, Mr. Lellouche added, were "like the British
beef thing -- the British government is still screaming that their beef is

Whether or not European fears will spread to America is unclear.
Biotech seed accounts for 36 percent of American corn, 55 percent of its
soybeans and 43 percent of its cotton. Some Americans wonder how
dozens of supermarket items like infant formula, cola and muffin mix
could contain biotech products without their knowing it.

American seed producers like Monsanto and DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred
International are under pressure not just by environmental activists but by
food makers like H. J. Heinz, Gerber and Frito-Lay who have stopped
using biotech ingredients and by corn farmers who switched to the seeds
and then saw consumer fears shake European markets.

The trade group that represents big food makers, the Grocery
Manufacturers of America, says it believes that much of the concern is
overblown. "It's barely a blip on the radar screen," a spokesman, Brian
Sansoni, said. "It's just not an issue that's front and center with the
American people."

The protests in Europe also stem from lingering cultural differences in the
ways Americans and Europeans look at food. Since World War II,
despite raised eyebrows from the academic elite, Europeans have eagerly
lapped up most American culture, from blue jeans and computers to
movies and music.

But, though the older generation remembers the chewing gum handed out
by American G.I.'s, other American culinary innovations like frosted
cereals and marshmallows meet with less enthusiasm.

"Every traveler knows the strawberries and asparagus in America look
beautiful but have no flavor," said Marc van Montagu, a professor of
genetic science at the University of Ghent in Belgium. "They're bred for
shelf life."

Last year, the European Union bought just $1 million worth of American
corn, down dramatically from $305 million in 1996.

Europe buys 25 percent of the American soybean crop, worth $2.6
billion in good years. Purchases dropped, to $1 billion last year,
according the United States Agriculture Department. That decrease
largely reflects price cutting by exporters in Brazil and Argentina, the
American Soybean Association said. Now their prices are rising.

The anti-biotech movement affected soybeans less, because most
imported beans are used to make animal feed and cooking oil. Under
European law, food for animals is not labeled, and processed oil contains
no DNA, meaning that it does not have to be labeled, either.

The European Union is debating making those laws stricter.

While Europeans fear the "G.M." label, scientists like Chris Somerville, a
Stanford University plant biologist, say that genetic technology is
"hundreds of times more predictable than traditional means" like
cross-breeding plants or mutating seeds with radiation or heat. The fear
of creating unpredictable monsters is "largely unfounded," Mr. Somerville

Among American shoppers, surveys show that they have confidence in
the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department.
Europeans, on the other hand, having faced mad-cow disease and
scandals over dioxin and sewage sludge in animal feed, have no such
confidence in their regulators.

Also, in a debate over gene-splicing in the United States in the mid-80's,
a decade before the seeds were widely planted. Jeremy Rifkin, an
anti-biotech campaigner, raised the alarm. But it blew over like the
population scare of the 70's.

Through a chance meeting in Washington in 1986, Mr. Rifkin made a
convert of Benedikt Haerlin, then an official of the Green Party in
Germany and now head of a campaign by Greenpeace to stop
bioengineered food.

Nearly a decade later, just as mad-cow disease struck, the first
American crop with some herbicide-resistant soybeans was on the
ocean. Advocates still talk about the 1996 crop as if it was the
Normandy invasion.

"Now we had concrete targets," a spokesman for Greenpeace, Mika
Railo, said. "We had to hit the ground running."

British newspapers leaped into the fray, and soon British companies were
asking American exporters for unmodified grain. Big shippers initially

Worse, some Americans were insulting. Bill Wadsworth, the technical
manager for Iceland, a British frozen-food and supermarket chain that is
leading the fight against biotech food there, attended a meeting in 1997 of
the American Soybean Association and American farmers.

"I told them our customers wanted choice, and if they would supply us
with one bucket, just one bucket of non-G.M. beans, then we'd make
some product without,"' he said.

In his presence, Mr. Wadsworth said, an association speaker referred to
him as "a backward European" and assured the farmers that "European
objections are irrelevant."

"That's when I organized a separate chain of supply from Brazil," Mr.
Wadsworth recounted.

Europeans often see the United States government, aggressively free
trade and keen on technology, as a co-conspirator. Last July, Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman said the administration would use all legal
remedies to compel Europe to accept American soybeans and corn,
even if that meant punitive tariffs. In the same speech, he conceded for
the first time that the administration wanted long-term studies of the

American resistance to labeling, though, rankles some Europeans, who
say it looks suspicious.

In January in Montreal, 130 countries hammered out the first international
treaty on the issue by agreeing that shipments of modified grain be
labeled. Under the treaty, which 50 nations have yet to ratify, countries
can prohibit imports of a crop deemed a threat to its environment. The
treaty does not deal with labeling consumer packages.

European governments and scientists worry about another form of
backlash. Genetic science is becoming a huge industry. If Europe earns a
reputation for Luddite reactions to new fields, they fear, it will continue to
lose its best scientists and thousands of jobs to the United States.

"People say we're playing God," said Daniel Vasella, president of
Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical and biotech giant that owns Gerber.
"But that's what they said about Icarus and flying or Prometheus and fire
or Galileo. You put the old order to rest, and you're told you've
questioned the rule of God and you will now be punished like the fall of
the Tower of Babel."

Mr. Haerlin of the Greenpeace campaign made a strongly worded
speech at conference here. To an audience of scientists, he said that
many scientists were liars and that "smarter science and smarter
scientists" were needed to improve organic farming.

He was criticized by an African official of the United Nations Food and
Agricultural Organization, who said, "Organic farming is practiced by 800
million poor people in the world because they can't afford pesticides and
fertilizers -- and it's not working."

In remarks to reporters afterward, Mr. Haerlin dismissed the importance
of saving African or Asian lives at the risk of spreading a new science
that he considered untested. The Greenpeace position, he said, was that
research could continue as long as no seeds or animals were ever

Not all Europeans agree. Swiss voters, for example, have twice rejected
by large margins referendums that would have banned all genetic
research or put a 10-year moratorium on field trials or sales.

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