BioDemocracy News #39 (May 2002)
Exposing Biotech's Big Lies
By: Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association
Quotes of the Month:
"The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic." Dr. Barry Commoner, "Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering" Harpers magazine, February 2002
"Nobody can afford to efficiently and affordably provide two different products.We'll either go biotech or we won't. This is a war that we will win-or that we will lose." Gene Grabowski, Grocery Manufacturers of America. Quoted in the book, Dinner at the New Gene Café, by Bill Lambrecht (St Martin's Press 2001)
"[We're facing] a slow down of at least three to five years in North America.But in Europe the story will be one of using conventional breeding techniques. [In some cases] it will take at least 10 years to develop the new [GE] varieties and win consumer acceptance for them."
Heinz Imhoff, Novartis Seeds, quoted in Galloping Gene Giants, by Tony Clarke and Brenda Inouye, February 2002 www.polarisinstitute.org
Frankenfoods: Beginning or End of the Biotech Century?
Despite repeated claims by the agbiotech industry that they are conquering the world, the global controversy over genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops continues. Are consumers about to roll over and accept drug and chemical companies controlling our food choices? Are the world's two billion farmers and rural villagers willing to become mere "bioserfs" in the employ of Monsanto and the Gene Giants? Or are we about to head in the opposite direction, away from industrial agriculture and genetic engineering, toward a future of organic farming, holistic health, and sustainable development? A review of a number of important developments on the consumer, science, and regulatory fronts indicate that agricultural biotechnology, far from being triumphant, is in deep trouble.
Reading the mainstream press, it's hard to find anything critical of genetic engineering. The public interest think tank, Food First, released a report April 29 demonstrating that 13 of the US's major newspapers and magazines "have all but shut out criticism of genetically modified (GM) food and crops from their opinion pages."
In January the biotech industry boasted that global acreage of GE crops had increased 18% in 2001 over the previous year. In BioDemocracy News #38
we argued that this supposed "increase" in global Frankencrops is misleading, since it is based upon multi-billion dollar US government subsidies and below market cost dumping of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean seeds in Argentina. In March, the US Department of Agriculture predicted that the US's GE crops in 2002 would increase to include 74 of all soybeans, 32% of corn, and 71% of cotton. In addition, 15% of US dairy cows are being injected with Monsanto's controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), while two-thirds of the Canadian and US canola crop is GE.
In early May, CEO Hendrick Verfaillie told Monsanto stockholders that the company could increase revenues by up to a billion dollars next year due to anticipated victories on the global regulatory front including: approval of their Bt cotton for cultivation in India; an "expected" approval for planting Roundup Ready soybeans by a Brazilian appeals court; approval in the US for a rootworm resistant corn and new GE cotton seed; and a loosening of EU import restrictions, where a de facto moratorium on new GE crops has been in place for four years.
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch 5/3/02)
Yet despite Monsanto's rosy predictions, a March 28 Greenpeace report, "Risky Prospects" points out that the agbiotech industry is in the doldrums.
Despite projections made five years ago by Monsanto and the White House that most countries would soon adopt biotech farming, basically only four countries are currently cultivating gene-altered crops (US, Canada, and Argentina, with 96% of total acreage; and China with 3%).
In addition, only two crops, soybeans and corn, account for a full 82% of all global acreage, while two others, cotton and canola, account for 17%. In the year 2000, the seeds of one company, Monsanto, made up 91% of all GE crops, while, for all practical purposes only two other Gene Giants have products on the market, Syngenta (formerly called Novartis/AstraZeneca) and Aventis (now owned by Bayer).
While total sales of agbiotech seeds and rBGH will amount to less than $5 billion this year, global organic food sales will be five times greater or $ 25 billion. While only four countries are growing GE crops on any scale, farmers in 130 nations are now producing and exporting certified organic foods and crops. At the current annual 24% growth rate of the organic sector in the US, organic farming will make up over 50% of US agriculture by 2020. And of course, if current consumer and regulatory trends continue, Frankencrops will be driven off the market long before organic becomes the norm.
Lies and Damn Lies on the Biotech Front
PR flacks and gene engineers are generating more and more column inches of print every month on the "marvels" of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the "scaremongering" or "irrationality" of its critics. The problem with this propaganda offensive is that Frankenfoods proponents, lacking solid evidence, are resorting more and more to outright lies and distortions to make their case. Lies and distortions include statements that all biotech foods have been properly safety tested (none have been), that biotech crops increase yields (the world's dominant biotech crop, Roundup Ready soybeans, decreases yields) or that new crops like Golden Rice will solve the nutritional deficiencies of the world's poor. When the public learns that a malnourished child would have to eat 15 pounds of Golden Rice every day to meet their needs for vitamin A, the Gene Giants will find their already limited credibility diminished even further. Another case in point is the recent scientific controversy over the genetic pollution of traditional corn varieties in Mexico, resulting from the US dumping six million tons of unwanted GE corn on Mexico annually.
In November 2001, the prestigious scientific journal Nature published an article by University of California scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist indicating that GE corn, despite a supposed government ban on planting, had polluted non-GE corn varieties in over a dozen communities in Southern Mexico. The article, widely publicized in the media, fueled global criticism of the "genetic pollution" or gene flow of GE crops and led to calls for banning the planting of GE crops in areas of genetic origin and high diversity (i.e. corn in Mexico and Meso-America, canola in Canada and Europe, soybeans in Asia). For more on this see BioDemocracy News #37.
But after intense pressure by the biotech industry and pro-biotech scientists, Nature's editors issued a retraction, or rather a partial retraction, of Chapela's article on April 4, stating that the article "should not have been published." News media all over the world, encouraged by PR firms working for Monsanto and other companies, reported Nature's retraction as a "big public relations victory for the biotechnology industry" (Associated Press 4/18/02) and as, one pro-GE scientist stated, a "testament to the technical incompetence" of biotech critics (New York Times 4/5/02).
The fundamental problem with most of these post-April 4 media reports, the biggest story of the year so far on a biotech, was that they were wrong. Most reporters and editors either didn't read the Nature "retraction" closely or else didn't understand what they were reading, since even the critics of Chapela and Quist did not contest their central research conclusions-that indeed widespread genetic pollution of traditional corn varieties has occurred in Mexico. Instead critics were simply contesting whether or not gene-altered DNA constructs, once they had polluted traditional corn varieties, were then "fragmenting and promiscuously scattering throughout genomes."
On April 18, Chapela and Quist's findings were vindicated when the Mexican government announced at a biosafety convention in the Netherlands that massive GMO contamination of traditional varieties had indeed occurred, not only in Oaxaca, but also in the neighboring state of Puebla. According to Jorge Soberon, executive secretary of Mexico's biodiversity commission, the level of contamination "was far worse than initially reported."(London Guardian 4/19/02) Up to 95% of corn plots were contaminated by gene-altered DNA. In one field 35% of all plants were contaminated, and overall 8% of all kernels examined were contaminated, showing that genetic pollution or cross-pollination had occurred, according to Soberon, "at a speed never before predicted.This is the world's worst case of contamination by genetically modified material because it happened in the place of origin of a major crop. It is confirmed. There is no doubt about it."
(Daily Telegraph, UK 4/19/02).
Explosive news, especially when millions of acres of genetically engineered rapeseed (canola) and corn are polluting non-GE varieties and plant relatives across the US and Canada right now. The problem is that while this alarming news made headlines in Europe and Mexico, in the US and Canada it was all but ignored by the media.
The Big Lie: Biotech Foods, Crops, and Nutraceuticals Are Safe
The biotech industry's recent corn disinformation campaign is simply the latest installment of the Big Lie, repeated ad nauseum, that genetically engineered foods and crops, as well as their new "pharm" products, are safe for human health and the environment. Although Biotech's Big Lie, aided and abetted worldwide by governments' refusing to carry out any serious safety-testing of GE foods and crops, keeps being regurgitated in the press, the truth continues to emerge, albeit in bits and pieces or in heavily-censored form. Even a brief summary of a dozen biotech disasters and near-disasters over the past decade is enough to take your appetite away.
Unfortunately the list of biotech horrors could go on and on. One future revelation, assuming it ever comes out in the mass media, that will tarnish the "safe" image of genetic engineering, is the fact that the deadly anthrax spores sent through the US mails last year were genetically engineered, and that the likely culprit was not an Arab terrorist, but rather a US biowarfare scientist working for the military. http://www.organicconsumers.org/corp/anthrax022502.cfm
In terms of environmental hazards, GE crops are polluting organic and non-GE crops; damaging soil fertility; killing beneficial insects and soil microorganisms; creating Superpests and Superweeds; and threatening to undermine the utility of non-GE biopesticides such as Bt sprays. Use the search engine on our website www.organicconsumers.org to find out more about the environmental damage of Frankencrops.
With a track record like this no wonder 350 million Europeans, 125 million Japanese, and 50 million Koreans are refusing to eat Frankenfoods. No wonder more and more consumers, even in the North American heartland of biotech, are demanding mandatory labeling in order to avoid possible harm to themselves or their families. No wonder organic farmers in Canada are suing Monsanto and Aventis. No wonder the Bush administration fears that US/EU trade disputes over labeling, safety testing, and patenting of GMOs could destroy the free trade regime of the World Trade Organization.
Global Food Fight: Who's Winning?
.. Reuters reports (5/3/02) US corn sales to Korea fell 55% (from 2.1 million tons to 1.1 million) over the past year, while falling 6% to Japan (from 16.3 million tons to 15.3 million) due to the controversy over GE crops. This comes in the wake of the US losing its entire $200-400 million annual market for corn in Europe and Canada losing its $400 million annual canola market in Europe.
.. China agreed in March to once again accept imports of genetically engineered US soybeans while it evaluates the safety of the beans under new Chinese rules for GE crops. Soybean exports from the US (which total a billion dollars a year) were suspended in February, throwing Monsanto, grain traders, and the White House into a panic.
China bought 5.2 million tons of US soybeans in 2001, out of total US exports of 27 million tons. China still remains skeptical, however, about planting GE crops in the country, with the exception of Bt cotton. China has recently been selling more and more non-GE corn and other crops to Asian and EU buyers. A recent poll in Hong Kong found 90% of Chinese consumers want GE foods labeled.
.. Brazil has increased its global market share of soybeans over the last two years, from 24% to 30%, while the US market share has declined from 57% to 46%. A farming association recently said that it would be "very foolish" for Brazil to authorize GE crops, for "we would risk throwing away a market we have worked very hard to win".
(The Guardian, UK 4/17/02)
.. European market developments. France has increased its non-GMO soya imports from Brazil five-fold, while French feed industry giants are demanding that suppliers label products as GE or non-GE. German feed dealers are turning to Brazil also. The majority of EU animal feed will likely be GE-free within the next two years. The latest EU Commission poll found 80% of Europeans opposed to GE food.
.. Eastern European nations, such as the Czech Republic and Croatia, are also starting to buy non-GE soya from Brazil. Croatia is considering an outright ban on GMOs, while mandatory labeling is required in the Czech Republic. The 13 countries in Eastern and Central Europe applying for admission to the European Union are all realizing that planting and importing GE crops from the US and Canada is a risky proposition-given that they will all eventually be covered by EU regulation of GE crops, including strict labeling and safety testing requirements.
.. Other regulatory developments. Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, is expected to introduce labeling legislation this year.
Australia and New Zealand have adopted mandatory labeling for GE food, which came into force in December 2001. Bolivia passed a law in 2001 prohibiting the import and use of any GMOs for one year. In Paraguay, the use of GE soybeans in the agricultural sector was banned in 2000/2001. In the Philippines there are a number of bills before the Senate and Congress concerning the labeling of GE crops. Labeling legislation is also in preparation in Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico and Brazil. GE food labeling is already mandatory in Indonesia, Latvia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Norway. Public interest groups in Mexico have called for a halt to all US corn exports to Mexico, while the Canadian Parliament is discussing a mandatory labeling law.
.. According to the Greenpeace report "Risky Prospects," cited earlier, more than 35 countries have laws either in place or planned which require the labeling of food containing GE ingredients, or which restrict the import of some GMOs. These countries combined include more than half the world's population. Although the government opposes labeling, the latest US polls in 2001, by Rutgers University and ABC News, both found upwards of 90% of consumers support GE labels.
North America: Movement Grows Against Biotech
In North America protests against GE foods and crops are increasing.
California is debating a bill to ban GE fish, while activists in Oregon are putting a measure on the November ballot to require mandatory labeling of GE food. Twenty-eight Vermont towns recently have voted for mandatory labeling and a ban on growing GE crops.
On Feb. 26-March 2 the Organic Consumers Association leafleted and protested against Starbucks in over 400 locations, demanding that the coffeehouse giant remove all rBGH and GE products from its cafes, as well as brew and promote Fair Trade coffee.
On March 12-14 the GE Free Market Coalition, which includes Greenpeace and the OCA, leafleted and protested at supermarkets across the US, with special emphasis on leading chains such as Safeway (East & West coasts), Shaw's (New England), A&P/Food Emporium (16 states including New York), Publix (Southeast), and Food Lion (East Coast & South).
Another national day of supermarket protests will take place in 100 cities on June 8, coinciding with an activists' conference in Toronto, called Biojustice. The GE Free Market Coalition scored its first major victory last November 14, when Trader Joe's, an upscale supermarket chain agreed to remove all GMOs from its brand name products.
On April 17 the OCA and Global Exchange organized protests, "corn dumps" and press conferences in Canada, the US, and Mexico against US and Canadian corn dumping in Mexico, against untested, unlabeled likely hazardous GE corn being forced on consumers of food products, and for corn farmers throughout the Americas to be guaranteed a fair price for their corn. Farm, indigenous, and public interest NGOs (non-governmental organizations) throughout the continent, including Central America and Brazil also staged protests and land seizures on April 17-part of the Continental Campaign Against Transgenic Corn.
Also on April 17 Canadian and US farmers called for a ban on the commercialization of genetically engineered wheat, now being field tested in Canada and the US.
On April 17-22 activists from the OCA and the Genetically Engineered Food Alert <www.gefoodalert.org> leafleted supermarkets in 200 US cities, part of a national campaign against Kraft and other US food giants. On April 22, Earth Day, GEFA activists staged a protest outside Kraft's annual shareholders meeting in East Hanover, NJ.
Similar protests are planned throughout the coming year.
If you want to help leaflet supermarkets or Starbucks in your local community or join in the Kraft campaign contact
The OCA is sponsoring an eco-organic tour to Chiapas, Mexico July 7-14, called Organic Communities Exchange. The delegation, limited to 15 people, will meet with organic farmers, women's organic garden projects, Fair Trade coffee coops, biodiversity activists, and autonomous indigenous communities. Besides getting a close look at the politics of food and biodiversity in the highlands of Chiapas, tour group members will visits Mayan ruins and community based eco-tourism projects. The OCA guarantees this will be an enjoyable, inspirational, and unforgettable travel experience. Costs for the seven-day trip will be $800 (airfare not included). To reserve your spot, since space is limited, send a $400 deposit check to the Organic Consumers Association, 6101 Cliff Estate Road, Little Marais, MN. 55614. Or else call 218-226-4164 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay tuned to BioDemocracy News and www.organicconsumers.org for the latest news and developments.
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