CONSUMERS NOT READY FOR ROUNDUP READY SOYBEAN
by Kenny Bruno and Isabelle Meister (in Greenpeace International Toxics
Investigator Third Quarter Number 8.3, 1996, page 21)
This spring, without fanfare, a few U.S. farmers planted the first crop of genetically engineered soybeans. This is a quiet but major mistake for U.S. consumers and for the environment. It also threatens to undermine European consumers' trust in the safety of U.S. agricultural products.
The new soybean was engineered by Monsanto, and is known as Roundup Ready Soybean (RRS). Roundup is Monsanto's trade name for the herbicide glyphosate. There is one benefit of RRS: it can survive exposure to glyphosate, allowing farmers to apply it even after the soybean has started to grow. This benefit mostly accrues to Monsanto, however, since the sales of RRS go hand in hand with sales of Roundup, already one of the company's best selling products.
RRS may cause allergies in humans. For example, the Danish Asthma and Allergies Association has warned about the unknown allergic potential of genetically contaminated food. Allergens can be transferred into plants through genetic engineering. RRS contains genetic material from bacteria, viruses, and petunia. Roundup tolerance is brought by a gene from an agrobacterium which has never formed part of the human diet. So the safety of RRS as human food can only be guessed, not assured.
RRS may lead to "genetic pollution." As an alien plant with no evolutionary development, it may trigger a whole series of negative effects. For example, RRS can invade ecosystems or transfer its alien gene to related wild or crop plants, becoming a new, potentially troublesome weed which competes with and displaces other plants.
RRS may increase the amount of herbicides used. While the purpose of RRS is to use Roundup more efficiently, it also institutionalizes the pesticide "treadmill" whereby farmers are forced to use more pesticides as their weeds become resistant. Glyphosate itself, which Monsanto says is "less toxic than table salt," is the third leading cause of pesticide related illness among agricultural workers in California.
RRS may also be a global threat. Not only are soybeans grown in many places, through international trade soybeans reach virtually everywhere in the world. Already, Monsanto has conducted field tests with RS in Argentina, Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Italy, France, and Japan. The test in the last country is especially worrisome. Soybean originated in Asia and wild, weedy forms of soybean exists throughout the region. In Japan, RRS will almost certainly lead to genetic pollution.
For these good reasons, consumers are wary of genetically engineered products. In the U.S., such wariness has led to slack sales of Bovine Growth Hormone, another genetically engineered Monsanto product of dubious benefit. But European consumers are even more suspicious than Americans, and their concerns about food safety has never been higher than now, in the aftermath of the "mad cow disease" scandal. Monsanto has failed to prove the environmental and human health safety of its genetically engineered soybeans. In the absence of such proof, RRS should be prohibited. European consumers, environmental organizations, and farmers' groups are determined to fight RRS.
According to the American Soybean Association, Europeans buy about 25% of the US $14 billion of soybean products sold by U.S. farmers. Another major market for U.S. soybean is Japan, which has not yet approved the import and use of RRS for human food.
Monsanto downplays the controversy over genetic engineering in Europe. A caller to the company's RRS information line (in the U.S., 800-332-3111) learns only that European Union (EU) approval is "taken care o." There is no mention that three of the EU's member states objected, that import of RRS into Switzerland will be illegal, that the European Parliament opposes RRS, or that formal EU approval came just prior to the "mad cow disease" scandal. The aftermath of this scandal has caused European countries to take a more cautious approach to food issues in general and genetically engineered food in particular. For example, European countries have so far halted the grant of an approval for the commercial use of another genetically engineered crop, Ciba's genetically engineered corn, which is also grown by U.S. farmers. The EU approval for Monsanto's RRS may likely come under challenge again.
In addition, some food companies may avoid the bean. Nutana, the largest Scandinavian producer of canned vegetarian food, has announced that it will not take RRS, and has taken measures to get other soybeans.
Monsanto adamantly opposed labelling of genetically engineered soybeans. The company believes rather in "good information." What choice can the consumer make with that information? Absolutely none, because without a label, there is no way to tell if the many hundreds of products which contain soybeans or soybean oil, from baby foods to margarine, came from geneticall altered beans or not. In other words, Monsanto has already decided for us that we will choose to eat Roundup Ready.
Monsanto's opposition to labelling has nothing to do with "good information" but is based on a legitimate fear that their products, if labeled, won't sell. This is why they opposed consumers' right to know whether the milk they buy contains Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone. In Europe, such labelling could be disastrous for RRS. In Germany, a poll conducted by the Market, Environment, and Society Institute found that 80% of the public is opposed to genetically engineered foods, and 95% of the public favors labelling of genetically engineered[products.
But Monsanto, the American Soybean Association, and the U.S. government are not paying any mind to the consumer. The plan now is to plant one million or so acres of RRS in 1996, mostly in Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and to mix the beans with traditional soybeans at grain elevators in the region. I(n 1997, RRS varieties will be ready for Iowa and Illinois, the biggest soybean growing states. These millions of acres of genetically engineered soybeans will be crushed and processed and become part of hundreds of different products spread throughout your supermarket shelves — unlabelled.
Roundup Ready Soybeans are not cheaper, not healthier, and not tastier. They bring no benefit to the consumer. They do bring high risk — to the consumer, to the farmer, and to the biodiversity which sustains us all. Soybean farmers should avoid them this year and every year.