BioDemocracy News #27 May 2000
Biotech Bytes: Who's Winning the Frankenfoods Fight?
News and Analysis on Genetic Engineering, Factory Farming, & Organics
by: Ronnie Cummins
BioDemocracy News is a publication of the Organic Consumers Association
Biotech Bytes: Who's Winning the Frankenfoods Fight?
Quote of the Month:
"There are two things that most of us feel. We feel hurt and we feel
angry... We had real leadership... We had... faith in this science when
others were dubious, and it all seemed to be working. So we painted a big
bull's-eye on our chest, and we went over the top of the hill." Robert
Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto, quoted in The New Yorker magazine April 10, 2000.
The worst nightmares of Monsanto and the Gene Giants are becoming reality.
The four year food fight by European consumers and farmers is slowly but
surely driving genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops off the EU
market, the largest in the world. US corn exports to the EU have fallen
from $360 million a year to near zero, while soybean exports have fallen
from $2.6 billion annually to $1 billion--and are expected to fall even
further as major food processors, supermarkets, and fast-food chains ban GE
soy or soy derivatives in animal feeds. Canada's canola exports to Europe
similarly have fallen from $500 million a year to near zero. Meanwhile
Brazilian exporters are doing a brisk business selling "GE-free" soybeans
to European buyers, and organic food is booming throughout the
industrialized world. On May 18 the latest in a series of GE scandals
rocked Europe as a major rapeseed (canola) seller, Advanta Seeds, a
division of biotech giant AstraZeneca, admitted that genetic drift from
gene-altered canola fields in Canada had contaminated certified "non-GE
seed" export shipments to Britain, France, Germany and Sweden.
Consumer rejection of gene-foods is steadily spreading to Japan, South
Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, and a host of other nations,
including the United States and Canada. Japan and South Korea-where public
concern is rising--have the biotech industry extremely worried, since these
two nations alone buy $11.3 billion of US agriculture exports every year.
On May 18 the Tokyo Grain Exchange soy futures market begin for the first
time to offer wholesale traders a choice of GE or non-GE soybeans. On the
first day of trading, non-GE buyers committed to 914,000 tons, compared to
only 364,000 tons for unsegregated (GE-tainted) US soybean futures.
Gene-foods and patents on living organisms have become hot button political
issues in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.
At recent international conventions such as the Biosafety Protocol meeting
in Montreal in January and the UN Codex Alimentarius meeting in Ottawa in
May, the US government has become increasingly isolated in its "no
labeling, no safety-testing" position.
Since the first of the year, prospects for a Biotech Century have dimmed
considerably. Among the most recent blows to the agbiotech industry have
been the following:
* Storm clouds in Asia. Japan dropped a regulatory bombshell in mid-April
when the Ministry of Health announced that starting next year agricultural
producers must "screen" imported genetically modified foods for potential
food allergies and other health hazards. In addition new mandatory labeling
rules on GE food ingredients coming into force next April will have a major
impact on the marketplace.
According to a report by Sharon Schmickle in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
on April 30, Japanese importers and manufacturers of many common food
products--including tofu, miso, cornstarch, corn snacks, popcorn and frozen
or canned corn--are almost certain to switch to non-genetically engineered
ingredients once they're forced to label. James Echle, who directs the
Tokyo office of the American Soybean Association, told the Star-Tribune "I
don't think anybody will label containers genetically modified," he said.
"It's like putting a skull and crossbones on your product." In a related
story from Asia, the government of Sri Lanka formally banned the import of
GE foods and crops on April 23.
* Patent victory in India. Vandana Shiva and India and EU public interest
activists registered a major victory in mid-May when the European Patent
Office withdrew a controversial patent previously granted to pharmaceutical
giant W.R. Grace on a chemical formulation derived from the Neem tree,
which has been used as a bio-pesticide and medicinal agent for generations
by indigenous villagers and farmers in India. Biotech corporations fear
that the revocation of the Neem patent will set a precedent that could put
billions of dollars of their "biopirated" patents on drugs and seeds at
* European opposition to gene-foods is as strong as ever. A new EU-wide
survey, "Eurobarometer," recently analyzed by the European Commission,
showed that consumers in the EU were "deeply wary of genetically modified
food." Professor George Gaskell of the London School of Economics,
presenting the study at a news conference on April 27 flatly stated,
"Genetically modified foods are getting the thumbs down. They are seen to
be very risky."
* America's food giants begin to turn their backs on Frankenfoods. Even in
the heartland of biotech, consumer aversion to GE foods is increasing.
Since July, 1999 a number of major US food corporations--including baby
food giants Gerber, Heinz, and Mead-Johnson (infant formula); pet food
purveyor Iam's; corn chip king Frito-Lay; and several sizable supermarket
chains, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Genuardi's, have announced plans to go
"GE free." On May 9 in Chicago at the convention of the Food Marketing
Institute, a trade association of supermarket corporations, a number of
leading supermarket chains admitted privately that mandatory labeling of GE
foods is probably inevitable.
* The death of Frankenspuds. Monsanto announced in early May that they were
closing down their NatureMark plant in Crystal, Maine, a transgenetic
laboratory and greenhouse operation that had been producing Bt potatoes
since 1992. Bt potatoes are gene-spliced with the soil bacteria, Bacillus
thuringiensis, to repel the Colorado potato beetle. Earlier this year,
Monsanto laid off 20 of the 30 employees in their other Bt potato lab in
Idaho. Bt potatoes thus join the growing obituary list of Monsanto's
Frankenfoods. In 1996 Monsanto/Calgene's Flavr Savr tomatoes were taken off
the market after dismal performances in the field and on grocery store
Monsanto's retreat on Bt potatoes comes in the wake of news stories in the
Wall Street Journal and Associated Press that America's leading potato
buyers--including McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay, and Procter &
Gamble--are eliminating Bt potatoes from their brand-name french fries and
potato chips. "We have to respect the preferences of our customers, and
both the domestic and global restaurant chains which we serve have asked us
to exclude these potatoes," said Fred Zerza, a spokesman for J.R. Simplot,
of Boise, Idaho, one of McDonald's largest suppliers.
In November 1999, McCain's and Lamb-Weston, two of North America's largest
potato processors, told farmers they would no longer accept gene-altered
spuds. Approximately 50,000 acres, amounting to 4% of last year's total
potato crop, were genetically engineered in North America. Next year Bt
spuds may become an extinct species.
* Bt cotton gives rise to "Stink Bug" epidemic. Recent field reports
posted at <www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/btcottonnoprofit.htm>
indicate that Bt cotton fields in North Carolina and Georgia are becoming
infested with Stink Bugs that are eating up the cotton crop. Not only does
the Bt toxin not kill the Stink Bugs, but apparently they love the mutant
plants. Monsanto's recommendation, posted on their Farmsource web site, is
to spray the Stink Bugs with toxic pesticides including methyl parathion,
one of the deadliest chemicals used in American agriculture. So much for
the notion that Bt cotton will get US farmers off the toxic treadmill.
As analysts have pointed out to BioDemocracy News, the pests that
Bt-spliced cotton are designed to kill--cotton bollworms, pink bollworms,
and budworms--were previously considered harmless "secondary pests" until
the overuse of toxic pesticides (sold by the same companies now peddling
so-called "environmentally friendly" Bt crops--Monsanto, Novartis, and
Aventis) killed off their natural predators and parasites and turned them
into major pests.
* More bad news for Monsanto. Recent studies carried out at the University
of Nebraska indicate that gene-altered Roundup Ready soybeans produce 6-11%
less yield than conventional soybeans.The two year study, reported by the
Associated Press on May 18, showed Roundup Ready soybeans yield 6% less
than their closest relatives and 11% less than high-yielding soybean
varieties. In another damaging revelation, Dr. Charles Benbrook, a
consultant for the Consumers Union, published a summary of an upcoming
report revealing that genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans,
contrary to frequent claims by Monsanto, actually use 2-5 times more pounds
of herbicide per acre than conventional soybeans sprayed with other "modern
low-dose pesticides." For background information see a previous study by
Benbrook on RR soybeans <www.biotech-info.net/RR_yield_drag_98.pdf>
* American farmers back-off on GE. All signs indicate that US farmers are
slowly but steadily moving away from GE crops. According to the March 31
Associated Press, a recent USDA survey showed that American farmers will
plant 24% less genetically engineered corn this year, 13% less cotton, and
9% less soybeans. The Winnipeg Free Press reported on April 24 that farmers
in Canada are reducing the amount of acreage devoted to GE canola, perhaps
by as much as 10%.
* American grain dealers starting to segregate GE crops. A May 4 report on
the New York Times website
<www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/financial/04tsc-foods.html> indicates that
many of America's grain wholesalers are segregating GE and non-GE corn and
soybeans for overseas export, even though they've been telling the public
for years that segregation is impossible. "We are encouraging farmers to
segregate crops," said Larry Cunningham, senior vice president for
corporate affairs at Archer Daniels Midland. "And we have an opportunity to
also benefit from it. In Europe and Japan some people are willing to pay a
premium for segregated crops."
According to the Times, "a study conducted by Pioneer Hi-Bred , a
subsidiary of DuPont, indicated that, of the 1,200 U.S. [grain] processors
surveyed, 24 percent were planning to segregate corn crops this year, up
from 11 percent in 1999, and 20 percent were planning to segregate soybean
crops, up from 8 percent last year."
* Opposition to GE foods increases in Canada. A nationwide campaign
against Loblaw's, the nation's largest supermarket chain, has the food
industry worried. On May 9 the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club, and a
coalition of public interest groups filed a legal petition against the
federal government for failing to protect public health and the environment
in regulating genetically modified organisms. Under Canadian law, the
government is required to respond to the challenge within 120 days.
According to a March 31 poll conducted for the Council of Canadians,
three-quarters (75%) of Canadians familiar with GE foods are worried about
their safety and almost all (95%) want GE foods labeled as such. A
similarly high number (95%) want consumers to be able to buy non-GE foods,
and over two-thirds (71%) would even be willing to pay more to get them.
Moreover, most respondents (56%) are not confident in the federal
government's ability to protect their health and safety when it comes to GE
foods--although grocery retailers say they depend on consumer confidence in
* Anti-GE protests increase in the US. Four thousand people demonstrated
against genetically engineered foods in Boston, Massachusetts on March 26,
marching in front of the national convention of the Biotechnology Industry
Organization (BIO). Over the past three months "Frankenfoods dumps"
outside supermarkets in Boston, San Francisco, and at the annual
shareholders meeting of the Safeway supermarket chain, organized by the
Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Friends of the Earth, have
generated significant media coverage and rattled the nerves of the biotech
industry. Meanwhile sabotage of biotech crops has continued in the US,
with an April 8 announcement by the "Petaluma Pruners" that they had
destroyed GE grape plants grown by the Vinifera corporation in Petaluma,
* On March 21 anti-GE protesters, led by a group called Grain RAGE
(Resistance Against Genetic Engineering), wearing white biohazard suits and
respirators, blocked the road to the Cargill corporation's international
headquarters outside Minneapolis for several hours. Cargill, the world's
largest grain dealer, is one of the most strident proponents of GE crops.
ln September Cargill donated $10 million to the University of Minnesota for
a plant genetics research facility. Cargill also has strong ties to
Monsanto. Cargill sold its international seed business to Monsanto in 1998
and has agreed to manufacture commercial livestock and poultry feeds
produced from Monsanto's proprietary germ plasm. On May 15 Reuters reported
that Ernest Micek, the chairman of Cargill, told a globalization conference
sponsored by the Economic Strategy Institute that "while some American
consumers are raising concerns
about genetically modified foods, they are ignoring the safety risks of
organically grown corn, soybeans and other grains."
* On March 21 the Center for Food Safety, the OCA, Greenpeace and 51 other
groups filed a legal petition against the FDA in Washington, D.C. calling
for a moratorium on all GE foods and crops unless the FDA can prove through
stringent, long-term safety-testing that these products are safe for human
health and the environment. For further information on the legal petition
* In Washington 52 members of the US House of Representatives are now
co-sponsors of a bill introduced by Dennis Kucinich (Democrat from Ohio)
calling for mandatory labeling of GE foods. Kucinich has also drafted a
House bill on safety-testing. The Kucinich GE labeling bill has drawn angry
criticism from the biotech industry, agribusiness, and the Grocery
Manufacturers of America--who maintain that mandatory labeling would unduly
alarm consumers and thereby kill the industry. Companion bills on safety
testing (Patrick Moynihan, Democrat from New York) and labeling (Barbara
Boxer, Democrat from California) have been introduced in the US Senate as
well. For further information on the grassroots lobbying campaign to get
these bills passed in Congress see <www.thecampaign.org>
* More than two dozen bills related to gene-foods have been filed in US
state legislatures over the past year year in at least 13 states; dealing
with issues such as the "Terminator" seed technology, registration of
farmers planting GE crops, and labeling gene-altered foods. Although these
bills have been held up in committee or rejected in the face of concerted
lobbying by powerful biotech and agribusiness special interests, their
proliferation is evidence that more and more politicians are feeling the
heat from constituents on GE foods.
* Swiss panel slams EPA. A prestigious panel of Swiss scientists,
commissioned by Greenpeace, on April 19 issued a peer-reviewed critique of
the shoddy science endorsed by the EPA to certify the environmental safety
of Bt corn. The EcoStrat report reveals that tests submitted by the biotech
companies Novartis and Mycogen to determine whether their GE corn could
harm non-target insects were so poorly designed that there was virtually no
chance that adverse effects would be observed. Despite the flawed
methodology, EPA accepted the tests as scientific evidence that the
gene-altered crop was harmless to non-target insects, and continued to
accept the same flawed testing procedures for approval of other companies'
insect-resistant "Bt" crops. According to Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, a science
advisor to Greenpeace, "We now know that EPA's approval of
insect-resistant crops was based on false assumptions, shoddy methodology,
and skewed results." For more information on the EcoStrat report see
* Investors rebel against gene-foods. Anti-GE shareholder activism in the
US has increased considerably since the first of the year. According to the
New York Times "Twenty-one resolutions calling for restraints on the use of
genetically modified ingredients are on the annual meeting agendas at some
of America's leading food and seed manufacturers this year, up from zero a
year ago... Shareholders at Coca Cola, Kellogg's, Phillip Morris ,and
PepsiCo have already voted on the resolutions, which garnered a respective
8.3 percent, 5.6 percent, 4 percent and 3.2 percent of the support of
voting shares." As activists point out, once a company faces opposition
from 10-15% of its shareholders on an unpopular position such as using GE
ingredients in its products, it will usually change its company policy.
Pharmageddon Strikes Back: Disinformation, TV Ads, Regulatory Reforms
Fearful that the global backlash against gene-foods is spreading to the
U.S., Monsanto, Aventis, Novartis, Dow, BASF, Zeneca, DuPont, and the
Biotechnology Industry Organization have launched a $50 million a year
public relations campaign to confuse and mislead the American public.
Fronting for the Gene Giants, the so-called Council for Biotechnology
Information has paid for cheery "biotech is great" national television ads,
launched a Web site <www.whybiotech.com>, opened a consumer information
hotline, carried out focus groups and polls, and enlisted prominent
scientists and public figures (including Andrew Young, ex-ambassador to the
United Nations and former Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Watson) to serve as
messengers for pro-biotech propaganda. According to the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch on April 4, the Council says it may spend as much as $250
million on the campaign over the next five years. In the CBI's opening
national TV ad, the narrator tries to equate the potential benefits of GE
crops with the more widely accepted uses of biotechnology in medicine.
Flashing between scenes of farm fields and medical labs, the 60-second ad
proclaims: "A patient has a medicine she needs. A boy can survive a
childhood disease. A
cotton crop helps protect itself from certain pests because discoveries in
biotechnology, from medicine to agriculture, are helping doctors and farmers
to treat our sick and to protect our crops."
Based upon in-depth interviews and focus groups with American consumers,
the Council for Biotechnology Information has begun to hammer home the
following points--all of which of course are false:
* GE foods have been thoroughly tested by U.S. government agencies and
found to be safe.
* Biotechnology increases the nutritional content of foods, makes them
taste better, and can help feed the world's hungry.
* GE crops reduce the use of toxic pesticides.
In a national focus group study carried out last September 14-19 by public
relations powerhouse BSMG Worldwide on behalf of the Grocery Manufactures
of America, a copy of which was obtained by BioDemocracy News, BSMG
recommends broadcasting the above "positive messages" to American consumers
to counteract their negative views on biotechnology. Unfortunately for the
biotech industry, BSMG also learned from interviewing American consumers
that there are some major obstacles to public acceptance of GE foods:
* American women, who generally do the grocery shopping, are more likely
than men to have negative feelings about gene-altered foods. These negative
feelings are "rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of negative consequences
for human health, and resistance to tampering with nature."
African-Americans are also "notably negative" toward gene-foods, as are
* Both men and women overwhelmingly support mandatory labeling of GE foods,
and strongly oppose industry efforts to restrict labeling or to make it
* Only 15% of consumers are aware that the majority of supermarket foods
already contain genetically engineered ingredients.
* Two-thirds of Americans say they are "concerned" about biotechnology
issues. Forty-eight percent say they oppose any use of "genetic
modification" in food production.
Spoiling the Party: The National Academy of Sciences Report & FDA "Reform"
On April 5 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released their
long-awaited report on genetically engineered crops. While the scientific
talking heads at the NAS press conference in Washington tried to reassure
the public that GE foods were safe, national TV networks broadcast a
different image--outside the NAS headquarters, a crowd of protesters
dressed in white lab coats, holding up signs ("The Best Science Money Can
Buy") and giant dollar bills, chanting anti-GE slogans. While the biotech
industry applauded the conclusions of the study, nearly every media
organization in the country reported that the NAS report was plagued by
charges of conflict of interest. The majority of the dozen scientists on
the NAS panel receive money from biotech corporations or labs under
contract to the industry, while the original head of the panel, Michael
Phillips, left the NAS to work as a PR flack for the Biotechnology Industry
Organization. The media also broadcast the criticisms of consumer and
public interest groups that the 261-page NAS report paid little attention
to the potential health hazards of GE foods.
As Rachel's Environment & Health weekly (May 11) <www.rachel.org> points
out, however, a close reading of the NAS report is actually quite damning
for the biotech industry and the nation's regulatory agencies (the FDA, the
EPA, and the USDA). Among other things the NAS report admits that:
* New allergens and toxins may be introduced into foods.
* Existing toxins in foods may reach new levels, or may be moved into
edible portions of plants.
* New allergens may be introduced into pollen, then spread into the
* Previously unknown protein combinations now being produced in plants
might have unforeseen effects when new genes are introduced into the plants;
* Nutritional content of a plant may be diminished.
Instead of a whitewash on the safety of GE foods, the NAS report has turned
into yet another public relations debacle for the biotech industry.
In a similar vein, the Food and Drug Administration's long-anticipated
announcement of "regulatory reforms" on GE foods and crops May 3 was met
with indifference or hostility on the part of the general public. Headlines
across the country emphasized that the FDA was refusing to label GE foods,
while reporters noted that every consumer and environmental group in the US
was denouncing the FDA maneuvers as "too little and too late."
As we predicted months ago in BioDemocracy News the FDA is calling for
nothing more than (1) voluntary industry labeling; (2) non-specific
industry-FDA "consultations" before new Frankenfoods and crops are put on
the market, and (3) non-specific disclosure of research data by biotech
corporations on the internet. As Debbie Ortman, National Field Organizer,
of the Organic Consumers Association put it, "The biotech industry
consulting with the FDA does not constitute safety-testing, nor is
so-called voluntary industry labeling of genetically engineered foods what
90% of consumers want--mandatory labeling."
Of course this is not the end of the debate. Battered by mounting public
criticism and serious market share loss in Europe and Asia, now spreading
to North America, we can expect Monsanto and the Gene Giants to fight back
with all they have. In the next issue of BioDemocracy News we will take a
critical look at the new generation of genetically engineered products
being readied for market: so-called "functional foods," GE fish,
Frankentrees, and other mutants. In the meantime stay tuned to our website
<www.purefood.org> for daily updates, events listings, and action alerts.