Backlash Against GM
Foods Exploding
By Peter Montague
In recent months, opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods has exploded in both Europe and Asia.[1] A powerful consumer/farmer backlash has spread across Europe and the Indian subcontinent, raising eyebrows even in the somnolent U.S.
** In April, the seven largest grocery chains in six European countries made a public commitment to go "GM free" and now they are lining up long-term contracts with growers who can provide GM-free corn, potatoes, soybeans and wheat.
** The Supreme Court of India has upheld a ban on the testing of GM crops even as activists are torching fields suspected of harboring GM plants.
** The third-largest U.S. corn processor, A.E. Staley Co. of Decatur, Illinois, has announced that in 1999 it will refuse to accept genetically modified corn varieties that have not been approved by the European Union. Europeans create a huge market for U.S. crops and the European backlash forces U.S. farmers to think twice about planting GM seeds.
The bellwether event was the announcement last month by seven European supermarket chains that they intend to jointly patronize growers who can deliver food that is 100% free of genetically modified (GM) organisms.[2] Tesco, Safeway, Sainsbury's, Iceland, Marks & Spencer, the Co-op, and Waitrose grocery chains make up the consortium. Last week Unilever, the huge transnational (and aggressive supporter of GM foods), announced it was throwing in the towel and joining the GM-free consortium. One day after Unilever capitulated, the Swiss firm Nestle made the same commitment. The following day Cadbury-Schweppes joined the ranks of the GM-free. It was a complete and unexpected rout for the genetic engineering industry.
According to the London INDEPENDENT, the only major players still supporting GM foods in England are Monsanto Corporation and the Blair government. Just a few months ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had told members of parliament that opposition to GM foods would be "a flash in the pan." Now popular support for the Blair government itself has dwindled as opposition to GM foods has swelled. In his last election, Mr. Blair was supported financially by Monsanto, the leading proponent of genetically modified crops (see REHW #637, #638, and #639).
Several factors seem to be at work in Europe:
1) Older people can still remember Nazi eugenics experiments -- Hitler's plan to create a "super race" by genetic selection. As a result, any genetic manipulation of living organisms to produce "super organisms" is suspect.
2) The recent "Mad Cow Disease" scare in England and France -- which has killed several dozen people so far and was brought on by the unnatural practice of feeding cows to cows -- has seriously undermined government credibility and has made Europeans wary of all unnatural farming practices.
3) Many Europeans -- as distinct from many Americans -- care about the taste and nutritional quality of their food and drink. Many Americans seem happy to subsist on french fried potatoes and iceberg lettuce accompanied by huge portions of low-grade, fat-laden beef. Many Europeans consider such fare barbaric.
4) On February 12 of this year, the first tentative evidence of health damage from GM foods emerged. Beginning in 1996, Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland had been feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats and observing stunted growth and damaged immune systems, including damage to several major organs (kidney, spleen, thymus and stomach). Dr. Pusztai was a senior scientist at the Rowett Institute, having conducted research there for 35 years, during which time he published 270 scientific papers.
In January, 1998 and again in April, 1998, Dr. Pusztai received permission from Philip James, the director of the Rowett Institute, to speak on British television. Although he is not categorically opposed to genetic engineering, in his April TV appearance, Dr. Pusztai said he would not eat genetically modified foods himself and he said it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs."
Proponents of genetically modified foods protested loudly against this expression of informed opinion. On the first day of the controversy, Philip James defended Dr. Pusztai's right to speak his mind, but on the second day Mr. James suspended Dr. Pusztai, condemned his research, made him sign a gag order, and forced him to retire.
An audit report by the Rowett Institute in August, 1998, vindicated Dr. Pusztai's research methods. At that point Dr. Pusztai was once again given access to his own research data and he vigorously reconfirmed his original conclusions. Dr. Pusztai's studies have not yet been published, so details remain unknown.
The "Pusztai affair" lay dormant until February 12th of this year when a group of 20 scientists from 13 countries published a manifesto demanding the reinstatement of Dr. Pusztai and expressing support for his tentative conclusions.
Only later was it discovered that the Rowett Institute is partly funded by Monsanto.
The "Pusztai affair" lit a fire of public outrage that has since grown into a raging conflagration.
For its part, Monsanto has admitted that no one knows -- or can know -- what will happen when genetically modified organisms are put directly into the human food chain and are released into the natural environment, as is the case with genetically modified crops. Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto, said October 28, 1998, "We don't seek controversy, but obviously it has been thrust on us. It is a direct consequence of a role we have chosen. And it is a role which we can blame only ourselves for.... we realize that with any new and powerful technology with unknown, and to some degree unknowable -- by definition -- effects, then there necessarily will be an appropriate level at least, and maybe even more than that, of public debate and public interest."[3]
It is clear that Monsanto's best-laid plans are coming unraveled. In the mid-1980s Monsanto convinced the U.S. government to agree that genetic engineering would not be subject to any new regulations, on the theory that a genetically modified potato is nothing more than a potato. Monsanto contributes bountifully to presidential candidates of both parties, and to key members of Congress who sit on food safety committees. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken a "hand off" approach to the introduction of this powerful new technology whose consequences are unknown and unknowable. And President Clinton -- who has been amply rewarded by Monsanto at election time -- has named Monsanto's Shapiro a "special trade representative" of the U.S. In sum, the U.S. federal government is forcefully aiding Monsanto as the corporation prepares to conduct a large-scale, uncontrolled experiment on the general public here and abroad.
A key part of the Monsanto strategy was to mix genetically modified foods with traditional foods, and keep them all unlabeled so that no one would know what they were eating. By the time anyone figured out that they were eating "Frankenstein food" -- as it is now known in Europe -- it would be a done deal.
Europeans are now hell-bent on reversing this mixture. As a spokesperson for the Tesco chain of supermarkets in England said recently, "We will remove GM ingredients where we can and label where we can't. In the short and medium term I expect the number of products containing GM ingredients to decline steadily, quite possibly to zero." And Fernanda Fau, a spokesperson for Eurocommerce, the association of European food retail chains said, "...the principle that segregation of GM ingredients is possible has now finally been accepted. We first lobbied for this two years ago and were told it was impossible."
With GM foods identified, labeled and segregated, it will be possible for consumers to exercise choice in the grocery store. Then the future of genetically modified foods will be imperiled by the marketplace. Robert Shapiro has bet the entire future of the Monsanto corporation on unknown and unknowable GM foods, so informed choice by consumers is the company's worst nightmare.
Monsanto's plans have gone awry in the Third World, too. Monsanto planned to introduce its genetically modified seeds accompanied by its patented "technology protection system" which makes the seeds from this year's crop sterile. Critics call Monsanto's seed sterilizing technology "terminator" and "suicide seeds." Wherever suicide seed technology is adopted, farmers will have to go back to Monsanto year after year to buy a new ration of genetically modified seeds.
"By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology multinationals will lock the world's poorest farmers into a new form of genetic serfdom," says Emma Must of the World Development Movement. "Currently 80 per cent of crops in developing countries are grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and going under," she says. "More precisely," says Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, "it would speed the consolidation of small farms into the hands of those with the money to engage in industrialized agribusiness -- which generally means higher profits but less employment and lower yields per [unit of land]."[4]
In February in Cartagena, Colombia diplomats from 175 countries met to hammer out a "biosafety protocol" to control the flow of genetically modified organisms across international borders. The U.S. and Canada favored a weak treaty that would not allow any country to prevent the import and release of genetically modified organisms merely to shelter its population from the socio-economic impact of industrialized, capital-intensive forms of farming, or merely on health or environmental grounds.
The "other side" at Cartagena favored a strong treaty that gives countries the right to say no to GM organisms, requires a full study of the effects of GM foods on farmers' livelihoods, as well as health and environmental impacts, and makes biotech companies responsible for the legal and financial consequences if something goes wrong.
The Third World fought Monsanto and the U.S. government to a draw in Cartagena and no biosafety protocol was adopted. But the whole process helped the Third World figure out where it stands on these issues, and this kind of informed, thoughtful deliberation bodes ill for Monsanto's plan for domination of global food supplies.
As Canadian writer Gwynne Dyer sums it up, "The strategy for the high-speed introduction [of genetically modified foods] throughout the world is shaping up as one of the great public-relations disasters of all time. Public suspicion outside North America is reaching crippling proportions, and the reason is not at all mysterious. It is because the biotech firms literally tried to shove the stuff down peoples' throats without giving them either choice or information."[4]
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
[1] Unless otherwise noted, all of the information in this edition of Rachel's was taken from press reports posted on the listserv To subscribe to biotech-l send an E-mail message to; in the body of the message put the words "sub biotech-l Your Name" without quotation marks.
[2] Paul Waugh, "Brit. Stores Tesco and Unilever Ban Genetically Manipulated Products," THE INDEPENDENT (London, England), April 28, 1999, page unknown.
[3] Shapiro quoted in MONSANTO MONITOR, introductory issue (January 1999), pg. 7. MONSANTO MONITOR is published monthly by A Seed Europe, P.O. Box 92066, 1090 AB Amsterdam, Netherlands. Tel. +31-20-468-2616; fax: +31-20-468-2275. Http:// . Email:
[4] Gwynne Dyer, "World View, Biotechnology," [Toronto] GLOBE AND MAIL February 20, 1999, page unknown.
Descriptor terms: genetic engineering; genetically modified organisms; agriculture; farming; food safety; monsanto; arpad pusztai; rowett institute; biotech;
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--Peter Montague, Editor