BioDemocracy News #40
Quotes of the Month
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
An unnamed State Department
official, commenting on Zimbabwe and other nations’
resistance to accepting shipments of US food aid containing
genetically engineered ingredients
Washington Post 8/2/02
“Mandatory labeling will only
frighten consumers. Labeling implies that biotechnology
products are unsafe.”
Tommy Thompson, US Secretary
of Health and Human Services
Associated Press 6/10/02
Contrary to the claims of a literal army of public relations flacks,
indentured politicians, and scientists, the first wave of
genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops have apparently
suffered a fatal hemorrhage.
Future historians will likely record
Tuesday, July 30, 2002 as the beginning of the end, the day of
irreversible decline for
Monsanto and the Gene Giants.
On that day, facing mounting global
opposition from farmers, consumers, and even major US food
transnationals such as General Mills, Monsanto was forced to
announce that they were backing off “indefinitely” from plans to
wheat, the most important new billion-dollar crop in the
Previously, Monsanto had promised Wall
Street that the first GE wheat would hit the market in 2003. Earlier
this year, facing heavy opposition, they pushed the date back to
Now Monsanto’s highly-touted GE wheat joins the growing list
of obituaries of Frankenfoods and crops:
the Flavr Savr tomato (RIP 1996)
the Endless Summer tomato (RIP
Bt potatoes (RIP 2001)
GE flax (RIP 2001)
herbicide-resistant sugar beets
StarLink corn (RIP 2000)
RIP = Requiescat in pace -
Rest in peace
controversial crops such as GE
rice have been put on indefinite hold.
Monsanto’s controversial recombinant
Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
has been banned in every major industrialized nation except for the
US, Mexico, and Brazil. Recombinant pig growth hormone (rPGH) has
been approved in only one industrialized nation, Australia. Other
biotech crops, including squash and zucchini, are grown by so few
farmers that it’s difficult to determine if they are even
For the first time, major US food corporations, like their EU and
Asian counterparts, are telling the biotech industry to back off.
As Austin Sullivan, senior
vice-president of General Mills told the Chicago Tribune June 28,
“Candidly we have told the biotech
industry that we are in a perilous situation…”
When asked why General Mills and other
large food makers don’t just stop using genetically engineered
ingredients altogether, since consumers don’t want them, Sullivan
“That’s a question we ask ourselves
from time to time.”
Shortly before Monsanto’s latest
capitulation, a large EU grain miller bluntly told wheat industry
leaders that his company would “stop buying US or Canadian wheat at
once” if GE wheat was allowed on the market.
Other leading EU, Japanese, and US
buyers have echoed the same sentiment.
Farmers in the US and Canada have also
made it clear that bringing GE wheat to market would lead to a
billion dollar meltdown in North American wheat exports. Desperately
trying to downplay its defeat and prevent its stock from falling
even further, Monsanto characterized their surrender on wheat as a
“delay” until sometime beyond 2005, when consumers and industry are
ready to accept gene-altered wheat, and strict grain industry
segregation procedures are in place.
But as Monsanto, and even Wall Street,
now recognize, consumers are never going to accept GE wheat.
Frankenwheat, for all practical purposes is dead. RIP.
Bush administration, for PR
(public relations) reasons, may still try to approve it for
commercialization, but it will never be sold on the market.
Compounding this crushing blow to Monsanto and the biotech industry,
whose earnings and stock value since the first of the year have
plummeted, a US Federal District court in Maine approved a
settlement July 29 that prohibits a major factory fish farm,
Heritage Salmon, from bringing its GE salmon onto the market.
The Maine ruling, resulting from a
lawsuit filed by the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG)
and the National Environmental Law Center, sets an important
legal precedent that threatens to block any future commercialization
of GE fish - until now the second most important biotech blockbuster
being readied for market.
The Maine court settlement will likely
impact future legislative deliberations as well, such as the recent
debate in the California legislature on a moratorium for GE fish.
Frankenstein’s Life Support
Of course BioDemocracy News and groups like Greenpeace
have been charting Frankenfood’s slow but steady global decline for
Leading up to agbiotech’s late-July
disasters were a series of other significant blows:
On July 3, the European Parliament
moved to tighten labeling requirements for genetically
engineered foods, lowering the threshold triggering mandatory
labeling from one percent to one-half of one percent and
declaring zero tolerance for shipments of conventional food
containing GE ingredients not approved for sale in Europe.
US bureaucrats in Brussels
complained that the labeling requirements,
“will seriously impair trade in
agricultural biotech products,” while the pro-biotech US
Farm Bureau characterized the move as “a slap in the face.”
Few analysts believe that the US
will actually follow through on its often-repeated threat to use
the World Trade Organization (WTO)
to challenge the EU’s labeling laws, since this move would set
off a trade war that could destroy the WTO.
According to the recent Greenpeace
report “Risky Prospects,” more than 35 countries have laws in
place or planned which require the mandatory labeling of food
containing GE ingredients, or else laws, which restrict the
import of some gene-foods.
These countries comprise more than
half the world’s population.
Bush administration adamantly
opposes labeling, recognizing that this will be the death of
agbiotech, major polls conducted last year by Rutgers University
and ABC News both found that 90% of American consumers support
Even in Texas, Bush’s home turf, a
2001 poll carried out by Texas A&M University found that 90% of
Texans want mandatory labeling, and that 60% “strongly
On June 12, Monsanto announced that its second largest customer
for GE soybean seeds, Argentina, was bankrupt, and that
its soybean farmers would no longer be able to receive seeds on
With this announcement, Monsanto was
also forced to admit to investors that its global profits would
decline by as much as 20% this year.
Over the past three years, Argentina
has become the world’s second largest producer of GE crops
(their only crop being Roundup Ready soybeans), accounting for
more than 16% of all global GE acreage - largely due to Monsanto
selling GE soybeans on credit, as well as offering the beans at
bargain basement prices. Argentina’s economic meltdown means
that global acreage of GE crops will level off and start to
decrease this year, contrary to claims made earlier by
Monsanto and the USDA.
For the first time in US history, voters at the state level will
get a chance to vote on mandatory labeling for GE foods.
On July 23, Oregon’s Secretary of
State announced that a ballot initiative organized by
anti-biotech activists, Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe
successfully gathered almost 100,000 signatures from the state’s
3.3 million residents - more than enough to place it on the
ballot November 5.
Although powerful biotech and
agribusiness lobbies such as the Farm Bureau, the Grocery
Manufacturers of America, and the Biotechnology Industry
Organization have vowed to defeat the initiative, the basic fact
is that 90% or more of US consumers have consistently supported
mandatory labeling of GE foods.
According to Jean Wilkenson
of the Oregon Farm Bureau, an agribusiness front group, industry
views the measure as,
“an attempt to stop all
biotechnology by running up costs.”
If Oregon voters pass the
initiative, anti-GE campaigners have vowed to place similar
measures on the ballot in a dozen states, including Colorado,
Washington, and California.
On June 8, the Organic Consumers Association,
Greenpeace, and the Genetic Engineering Action Network
carried out coordinated protests in over 100 cities against US
supermarkets, pressuring major grocery chains such as,
...to remove all GE ingredients from
their brand name products.
Coalition spokespeople pointed out
that three major natural food supermarkets,
...with combined sales of over
five billion dollars, have already responded to consumer
pressure and gone GE-free for their house brands, while even
larger chains such as Shaw’s and Safeway are
coming under grassroots pressure to do the same.
An even larger GE-Free Markets national mobilization is planned
for several hundred US cities the week of October 30.
Last spring activists from the OCA and the Genetically
Engineered Food Alert leafleted and protested outside
supermarkets in 200 US cities, part of a national campaign
against Kraft and other food giants.
On Earth Day, GEFA activists staged
a protest outside Kraft’s annual shareholders meeting in East
Hanover, NJ. Similar protests in 200 cities are planned for Oct.
Displacing Mad Science
For the past decade, biotech’s mad scientists have been telling
consumers not to worry about Frankenstein foods.
They tell us GE crops such as Bt corn
are non-allergenic and safe for human health and the environment.
They say bovine growth hormone (rBGH) injected into dairy cows
doesn’t increase your risk of getting cancer. Gene-altered mutants
are the same (“substantially equivalent”), they say, as traditional
foods. Gene-splicing is an exact procedure, sort of like laser
Gene transfer or genetic pollution is
nothing to worry about. Antibiotic resistant marker genes,
embedded in nearly all Frankenfoods, pose no health
risks. They say GE companies like
Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont,
Bayer, and BASF are not just bottom line companies, obsessed by
quarterly profit reports, stock options, and stock prices.
The real bottom line of the Gene Giants
is to help feed the world, eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in
agriculture, and make us all healthier and happier.
For five years BioDemocracy News and the website of the
Organic Consumers Association
have had another story to tell. The biotech industry and governments
have done almost no safety testing of GE foods.
No serious animal feeding studies (with
the exception of Dr. Arpad Pusztai’s experiments in Scotland in
1996-98, which found that GE potatoes devastated lab rats) have been
carried out. No volunteer human feeding studies have been conducted
(except for the rather alarming British study described below).
Obvious risks like human allergenicity to foreign proteins spliced
into GE foods, and transfer of antibiotic resistant genes into the
human gut have been, for the most part, ignored.
Millions of acres of GE crops are
spreading genetic pollution, creating superweeds and pests,
disrupting the balance between pests and natural predators, and
killing butterflies and beneficial soil microorganisms. The more we
learn about Frankenfoods and crops, the scarier they appear.
As recent developments show, good science is starting to undermine
the credibility of mad science.
Even mainstream, pro-biotech
institutions like the National Academy of Sciences in the US, or
publications such as New Scientist and Nature
Biotechnology, are starting to speak out against the dangers of
rushing headlong into risky territory like biopharming -
gene-splicing drugs, vaccines, and industrial chemicals into common
food plants such as corn, which in turn spread pollen throughout the
In an unprecedented move, even the Bush
Food and Drug Administration is
finding the need to tone down its rhetoric - no doubt preparing to
insulate itself from the massive liability lawsuits which loom on
the horizon after biopharms pollute the human food chain or after
every variety of
Bt corn turns out to be
allergenic, not just the
Among the most significant scientific
revelations over the past three months are the following:
Frankengenes are getting into the human
Genetic Modified Genes Found in Human Gut
On July 17, the British Food Safety
Standards Agency released a scientific study indicating that
herbicide resistance genes from Roundup Ready soybeans have been
found in the bacteria of the small intestines of three out of
seven people in an experimental feeding test who consumed a soy
burger and a soy milkshake containing Monsanto’s GE soybeans,
the most commonly used GE food ingredient in the world.
The biotech industry has long
maintained that gene-altered material is destroyed during
digestion and that engineered DNA will not combine with bacteria
found in the human gut.
The British study, conducted by
researchers at Newcastle University, has set off alarm bells
throughout the medical establishment. If the antibiotic
resistant marker (ARM) genes found in most gene-foods (such as
kanamycin in herbicide resistant soybeans and ampicillin in Bt
corn) are getting into the human gut and combining with
preexisting bacteria, which this study suggests, then doctors
and their patients may find that serious infections no longer
respond to antibiotics.
The findings are especially
worrisome for infants and children, as well as those with
compromised immune systems, whose digestive systems are weaker
and more permeable than mature, healthy adults. In 1999, the
prestigious British Medical Association called for a global
moratorium on GE foods and crops, citing, among other risks, the
threat of antibiotic resistance marker
genes combining with bacteria in the human
Even the World Health Organization
and the rabidly pro-biotech American Medical Association have
called for a phase-out of ARMs in GE foods.
Biopharming is out of control
Friends of the Earth and the
Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA) coalition
released an explosive report on July 16, which revealed that
secret biopharm crop experiments are being carried out at over
300 undisclosed locations across the US. On these farms,
powerful pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines, viruses (some related
to the AIDS virus), and industrial chemicals, gene-spliced into
common food plants, are being grown in the open environment.
In at least 200 test plots, powerful
drugs and chemicals have been genetically engineered into corn,
a plant notorious for spreading its pollen (and its altered
genes) far and wide.
As Larry Bohlen of Friends
of the Earth warned:
“Just one mistake by a biotech
company and we’ll be eating other people’s prescription
drugs in our corn flakes. The USDA must prohibit the
planting of food crops engineered with drugs and chemicals.”
Even pro-biotech scientists in the
journal Nature Biotechnology recently warned that “current gene
containment strategies cannot work in the field,” and that
potent biopharm chemicals could end up in the food supply.
ProdiGene, the industry leader in
biopharming, has predicted that millions of acres of US corn
will be laced with drugs and industrial chemical by the year
But of course one incident like the
StarLink corn contamination crisis will likely spell the
end of biopharming.
All varieties of Bt corn are likely
allergenic, not just the StarLink corn variety
As Friends of the Earth and
the other members of the Organic Consumers Association’s
GEFA coalition have pointed out, StarLink is similar in
composition and characteristics to other Bt varieties grown on
millions of acres in the US.
As indicated in recent issues of
BioDemocracy News, there is mounting evidence that Bt corn may
be harming the immune and digestive systems of animals and
As Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union told a
gathering of farmers and academics in Mexico August 2,
“There is increasing
evidence - from both epidemiological studies and lab studies
- that the various Bt endotoxins - including those from
maize, cotton, and potatoes - may have adverse effects on
the immune system and/or may be human allergens.”
“Bt Crops: Inadequate
Testing,” Lecture delivered at Universidad Autonoma,
Chapingo, Mexico 8/2/02
Pesticide residues on GE corn and
soybeans may be carcinogenic
A chemical component of
Roundup Ready herbicide,
sprayed on millions of acres of herbicide resistant soybeans and
corn, has been linked to increased risks for cancer.
Recently the World Health
Organization issued a warning that a potent nerve toxin and
carcinogen, also linked to birth defects in animals and humans,
was turning up in a variety of vegetables.
At first the WHO suggested that the
presence of the chemical,
acrylamide, probably arose from
cooking the vegetables at high heat. Now according to a Canadian
scientific expert, Dr. Joe Cummins, another, perhaps even
more basic explanation is that the acrylamide in foods is
actually a residue of a surfactant, or chemical additive,
routinely used to enhance the effectiveness and reduce spray
drift of a number of herbicides including Monsanto’s Roundup
herbicide, the most widely-used pesticide in the world.
According to Cummins, frying foods
containing acrylamide residues would then likely increase their
concentration even more.
This is yet more bad news for
Monsanto, who derived 70% of their profits last year from sales
of Roundup herbicide. It’s also bad news for the animal feed and
meat industry, since non-organically raised animals are now
ingesting record amounts of Roundup (and acrylamide) residues in
the soybean hulls and other soy and corn-based feeds they are
Gene-splicing foods is imprecise
In a recent paper circulating on the
internet, Professor David Schubert of the Salk Institute
in San Diego, California, points out that the current crude and
imprecise nature of gene-splicing foreign DNA into common foods
is inherently troubling and potentially dangerous because,
introducing the same gene
into two different cell types or body parts in an
organism can cause very different proteins to be
produced, with radically different activity
introducing new genes into
cells significantly disrupts inter-cellular activity and
introduction of foreign
genes can produce new biomolecules which can be toxic or
Recent advances in gene chip
technology are enabling scientists such as Schubert to
quantitatively measure cellular disruption caused by
In one experiment, the introduction
of a foreign gene caused a disruption of a full 5% of all genes
in single-cell bacteria. In layperson’s terms this means that
15,000 of the 300,000 genes in a plant could be disrupted by a
single routine act of gene-splicing.
This means that plant genes could be
turned off, amplified, or turned up more, either producing more
or fewer proteins (some of which are beneficial to humans, some
of which are toxic) and chemical activity.
Frankenstein Rising -
Nailing the Coffin Shut
Frankenstein appears to be mortally wounded, but of course this
beast has the ability to rise from his coffin unless we nail the lid
Farmers and consumers, joined by a
number of brave scientists, have now, for the first time in modern
history, stopped a new and dangerous technology dead in its tracks.
Public acceptance and farmer use of
agricultural biotechnology has peaked and is now moving down in a
slow but inevitable decline. No new blockbuster Frankenfoods or
crops are likely to gain approval for commercialization on the
global market. Those already approved (such as Bt corn) will come
under increasing pressure as scientific evidence mounts that they
are dangerous for human health and the environment, and as labeling
becomes mandatory in most nations.
This is ground for celebration and
reason for hope. The battle against genetically engineered foods and
crops over the past decade has shown that the global Civil Society
can stand up to transnational corporations and indentured science
and government and literally change the dynamics of the marketplace,
alter public perceptions, and eventually transform public policies.
Congratulations to all of you. This is
our common victory. We’ve turned the tide of the battle, but there
are still major tasks that lie ahead.
Specifically we need
mandatory safety testing and
labeling of all GE foods and crops in all nations,
especially the United States, Canada, and
Argentina, where 96% of all GE crops are produced
marketplace pressure campaigns
for removal of all GE soy, corn, canola, and cottonseed from
pressure on major clothing
companies to stop using gene-altered cotton in their
pressure on major supermarket
chains and food makers, especially in North America, to
remove all GE ingredients from their brand name products
continuing public education and
pressure to prevent new Frankenfoods and crops (animals,
fish, pharm drugs, lawn grass, trees) and human genetic
engineering from being commercialized.
In North America we have a special
obligation, and now an opportunity, to do what our counterparts in
Europe, Japan, and other nations have already done:
to put so much pressure on major
supermarket chains like Shaw’s, Safeway, and Loblaw’s (Canada),
and food and beverage giants like Starbucks and Kraft, that they
voluntarily ban the use of GE ingredients in their products.
Although it has taken Greenpeace, the
Organic Consumers Association, and allied US activists several years
to gather the resources and volunteers to take on the major
supermarket chains and put the heat on food giants such as
Kraft/Philip Morris in hundreds of cities at the same time,
activists are confident that marketplace pressure from this point on
will snowball until a critical mass is achieved.
As Simon Harris of the OCA put it
at a recent activist gathering in Minnesota,
“The dominos are starting to fall.
First, Trader Joe’s supermarkets, a major regional chain removed
GE ingredients from their store line brands. Now we see even a
much larger company, General Mills, telling the Gene Giants they
don’t want GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their
Over the fall we will be gathering
momentum in hundreds of cities. Shaw’s supermarkets in New
England will be the next to fall, but gradually even the largest
companies like Safeway and Kraft, are going to face the kind of
pressure that has broken their support for GMOs in Europe.”
Meanwhile activists in Europe and the
rest of the world have begun positioning themselves to go after the
jugular vein of Frankencrops - corn, soy, canola, and
cottonseeds in animal feed - which is where 80% or more of the
world’s GE crops are now funneled.
Analysts estimate that 30% of all animal
feed in the EU, the world’s largest agricultural market, is already