Activists from 12 Nations Meet in New York
to Plot the Downfall of Ag Biotech in the USA

October 12, 1999

A Group Sows Seeds of Revolt
Against Genetically Altered Foods


BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE, N.Y. -- It was, by
all appearances, a typical corporate retreat.

Top officials from several multinational
enterprises jetted in last week from
six continents to a secluded camp in the
Adirondack Mountains. For six
days, they strolled along babbling
brooks, huddled before roaring fires and
mapped out how to crack the
hard-to-penetrate American market.

But these were no CEOs. At the Blue Mountain Center in
upstate New York, the 22 participants from 12 countries descended on
this sylvan setting to plot the first all-out assault on the U.S.
biotech-food industry.

Several of the activists, attorneys and
scientists on hand helped orchestrate
previous campaigns against food made from
genetically modified crops in
continental Europe, the U.K. and
elsewhere. Benny Haerlin, for one, is the
international coordinator for Greenpeace
in Berlin. He is credited with
directing a campaign in western Europe
that left major companies scared
and scrambling to yank baby food, and
other genetically engineered
groceries, from store shelves last year.

With public opposition galvanized abroad,
the group met to set its sights on
the U.S. High on its agenda: gearing
public sentiment against genetically
modified organisms (GMO) and picking
corporate targets.

The U.S. food industry has been tense
about this. Half the nation's soybean
crop and a third of its corn crop contain
transplanted genes. Those crops,
in turn, are used in countless food
products: the syrup for Coke,
McDonald's hamburger buns, Heinz ketchup
and General Mills' Betty
Crocker cake mixes, to name a few.

While some U.S. food companies have
recently begun switching
ingredients, a backlash of the magnitude
seen in Europe hasn't materialized
here. One reason: there is little
evidence now that genetically modified
crops are even hazardous.

'Guinea Pigs'

While opponents concede that any real
risks to people are unknown, they
argue that the biotech industry is
treating people as "guinea pigs" by failing
to conduct long-term studies first. Some
say it's possible genetically
modified foods could trigger deadly, if
rare, allergies. They also think
genetically altered crops raise
environmental concerns and cite the
Monarch butterfly, whose larvae have died
when exposed to pollen from
genetically altered plants.

The Hit List

Some genetically engineered fruits and
vegetables targeted by activists:


Source: Greenpeace USA

In Europe, just the possibility of health
or environmental threats -- a spark
fanned by Greenpeace, among other
environmental and leftist groups --
has forced food makers, supermarkets and
restaurants to go non-GMO.

Companies such as Novartis AG say that,
while fears are so far largely
unfounded, biotech agriculture already
has many proven benefits. Among
them are "a major reduction in pesticide
use, a major reduction in soil
erosion, a major reduction in water
pollution and a major increase in yield,"
says Steve Briggs, director of Novartis
Discovery Agricultural Institute in
San Diego, a research arm of Novartis. Of
the detractors, he adds, "They
distort the truth."

Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. likewise say
they are committed to biotech
foods, but are willing to discuss
concerns raised by opponents. Chad
Holliday, chairman and chief executive of
DuPont, delivered a speech in
September at the Chief Executives' Club
of Boston extolling the virtues of
biotechnology. Citing the potential to
solve world health problems and
increase agricultural productivity, he
said, "I have great passion and
excitement for biotechnology."

The Blue Mountain retreat was organized
by a group of American activists
who felt the moment was ripe for a U.S.
campaign. Activists from all over
the globe -- India, Brazil, Zimbabwe,
Australia, Europe and the Philippines
-- flew in for the unpublicized meeting.

Pat Mooney, a Canadian who runs the Rural
Advancement Foundation
International and is legally blind,
brought his 10-year-old stepdaughter,
Kelsey. Mr. Mooney is credited with
coining the phrase "terminator" to
describe an experimental gene technology
that Monsanto would access
through its pending acquisition of a
Mississippi cottonseed company. The
technique creates seeds that are sterile.

At one point, he demonstrated the ability
to foment opposition. "Is
'terminator' good or bad?" he asked
Kelsey Thursday night, in front of the
other activists.

Bad Company

"Bad," the child replied, after a pause.

"Is Monsanto good or bad?" Mr. Mooney

"Bad," she replied, without missing a
beat. Mr. Mooney smiled.

It's not at all a given that the ferocity
of Europe's biotech-food sentiment
will spread here, but resistance may have
begun to take root. A couple of
months ago, under pressure from
Greenpeace, Novartis's U.S.-based
Gerber division said it would eliminate
genetically modified ingredients from
its baby food. H.J. Heinz Co. is taking
similar steps. Last Tuesday, bowing
to public pressure, Monsanto announced it
wouldn't market the
controversial seed.

Tuesday at Rockefeller Center in New York
City, the Blue Mountain
activists have scheduled a press
conference to present a global front
against biotech foods. Next step: U.S.
activists will reach out to
public-health associations, women's
groups and college-student
organizations. Already, they say, the
movement is stirring up interest on
university campuses across the country.

An international network -- with regular
communications and Internet
strategy sessions -- was formally created
at Blue Mountain to link activists
as they take on multinational
corporations. When the World Trade
Organization meets in Seattle next month,
there will be an antibiotech
"teach-in" to influence trade officials
and the public.

And, following the big tobacco company
lawsuits, there is discussion of
slapping biotech-food companies with
"massive litigation from people
suffering from genetic pollution of
crops," says Andrew Kimbrell, a public
interest attorney who runs the
International Center for Technology
Assessment, in Washington. His group last
year sued the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration in federal district
court in Washington to demand that
foods containing genetically altered
ingredients be labeled as such.

Fund raising is a priority for the U.S.
groups. Chris Desser, the coordinator
of the Funders Working Group on
Biotechnology, San Francisco, says she
has reached out to the Ford, Rockefeller
and other mainstream
foundations. Funding for last week's
retreat came from the HKH
Foundation, which endows the Blue
Mountain mansion, and from Britain's
JMG Foundation, which has financed groups
opposed to biotech food in
the U.K. and France.

Lounging on pillow-strewn sofas and
sipping red wine from plastic cups,
the Blue Mountain activists discussed
their next corporate targets.
Monsanto has already been "clobbered,"
declared Mr. Mooney. Marty
Teitel, executive director of the Council
for Responsible Genetics,
Cambridge, Mass., said he's discontinuing
his column, "MonsantoWatch,"
which appears in his group's newsletter.
Next up, he says: a column called
"NovartisWatch" or maybe just

In India, said Vandana Shiva, protests
are already aimed at U.S.
companies and "the biotech crops they
want to dump." She is a physicist
and founder of the anti-GMO Research
Institute for Science, Technology
and Ecology, in New Delhi. And she
compares the Indian demonstrations,
in which fields of cotton have been set
afire, to Mahatma Gandhi's efforts
to end British colonial rule.

"The problems of the entire world have
been created in the U.S.," she
says, "so we have to bring these issues
back home."