by Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association
Excerpted from BioDemocracy News #40, August 2002
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 haemorrhage. 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 commercialize herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready wheat, the most important new billion-dollar crop in the biotech pipeline. 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 2005. Frankenwheat, for all practical purposes is dead. RIP.
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 1996); Bt potatoes (RIP 2001); GE flax (RIP 2001); herbicide-resistant sugar beets (RIP 2000); and StarLink corn (RIP 2000). Other 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 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 commercially available.
Also in July, a US Federal District court in Maine prohibited a major factory fish farm, Heritage Salmon, from bringing its GE salmon onto the market. The Maine ruling threatens to block any future commercialization of GE fish—until now the second most important biotech blockbuster being readied for market.
Cutting off Frankenstein’s Life Support
Leading up to agbiotech’s late-July disasters were a series of other significant blows.
Labelling: In early July, the European Parliament moved to tighten labelling requirements for genetically engineered foods and declared zero tolerance for shipments of conventional food containing GE ingredients not approved for sale in Europe. Few analysts believe that the US will actually follow through on its often-repeated threat to use the World Trade Organization to challenge the EU’s labelling laws, since this move would set off a trade war that could destroy the World Trade Organization.
According to the recent Greenpeace report, “Risky Prospects,” more than 35 countries, with half the world’s population, have laws in place or planned which require the mandatory labelling of food containing GE ingredients, or else laws which restrict the import of some gene-foods. Major polls conducted last year by Rutgers University and ABC News both found that 90% of American consumers support GE labelling.
Decline: Monsanto announced in June 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 credit. Monsanto also admitted to investors that its global profits would decline by as much as 20% this year. Argentina’s economic melt down 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 US Department of Agriculture.
Among the most significant scientific revelations over the past three months are the following.
GE DNA in Human Gut: Frankengenes are getting into the human gut. In July, the British Food Safety Standards Agency released a scientific study indicating that herbicide resistance genes from Roundup Ready soy beans were found in the bacteria of the small intestines of three out of seven people who consumed a soy burger and a soy milk shake containing Monsanto’s GE soy beans, 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 genes found in most gene-foods are getting into the human gut and combining with preexisting bacteria, which this study suggests, then serious infections may no longer respond to antibiotics.
Bt allergens: All varieties of Bt corn are likely allergenic, not just the StarLink corn variety. 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 humans.
As Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union told a gathering of farmers and academics in Mexico in August, “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.” (Michael Hansen, “Bt Crops: Inadequate Testing,” Lecture delivered at Universidad Autonoma, Chapingo, Mexico 8/2/02.)
Acrylamide: 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 World Health Organization 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 consuming.
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 shut. 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 labelling 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.
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.
Frankenstein is dead. But the coffin lid still rattles. Stay tuned for the latest news and developments.
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[From WS December/January 2003]