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Date: Wed, 23 Dec 1998 22:18:08 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
Thanks to: "NLP Wessex" firstname.lastname@example.org for posting this
The Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald has reported (17 December 1998) that County Councillors have banned genetically modified food from school dinner halls across Warwickshire.
Warwickshire is the latest in a string of Local Authorities to introduce such a ban.
Ann Robinson, client catering manager for the County Council, told the Herald: "If you look at the progress of BSE there wasn't a problem. It was empirical research over a long period of time that showed there was a problem there."
Warwickshire County Council is also writing to the government calling for clear and simple food labelling. Queries from both councillors and parents have prompted the County Council's investigation.
Date: Wed, 23 Dec 1998 22:18:08 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
Thanks to Michael Hansen email@example.com at the Consumers Union USA for posting this.
By Cathy Bolt,
Australian Financial Review
Dec 18, 1998
The food industry has suffered a defeat in its bid for a smooth introduction of transgenic foods in Australia after a ruling by health ministers yesterday that will require all food containing genetically modified material to be labelled.
The 6:4 majority decision by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council was immediately branded a politically cheap option by the Australian Food Council, which claimed it would deliver the most restrictive labelling regime in the world for such products and could see Australia challenged under World Trade Organisation rules.
"Even the Europeans haven't gone this far for the very reasons we implored the ministers to consider," said the council's executive director, Mr Mitch Hooke.
"It will be meaningless to consumers, unenforceable, impractical -- and impose unnecessary costs."
But the food policy officer at the Australian Consumers' Association, Mr Matt O'Neill, said the decision reflected consumers' basic right to know how the food they ate was produced. Surveys showed more than 80 per cent of consumers wanted full labelling.
"It's a clear message for food producers that consumers won't be force-fed new food technology without being able to make a choice," he said.
The Food Standards Council moved last August to fill a vacuum in Australian food laws governing transgenic products by requiring compulsory labelling where such foods were substantially different in taste, nutrition or use. The law is to take effect next year.
But a decision has been deferred on the more controversial issue of labelling where they are substantially equivalent, for example, products which have ingredients derived from soy bean or cotton plants genetically engineered for pest or herbicide resistance but which are otherwise identical.
Under the majority decision yesterday -- the opponents of which included the Federal Government, New Zealand and Victoria -- compulsory labelling will be required where the manufacturer knows the food contains genetically modified material.
The Australia New Zealand Food Authority -- which also argued against labelling of substantially equivalent foods -- has been asked to draft an amendment to the Food Standards Code to put the decision into effect.
But in another decision which continues to blur the issue, the ministers also asked ANZFA to develop a definition of genetically modified food.
Controversy over the transgenic foods now starting to reach consumers after decades of development has been building in Australia since late 1996, when imported soy beans were the first food to arrive which might have contained transgenic material.
Mr Hooke said there was little benefit to consumers in having the vast majority of products within the next few years on supermarket shelves labelled "may contain".
Date: Wed, 23 Dec 1998 22:18:08 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
Thanks to Gabrielle Kuiper Gabrielle.Kuiper@uts.edu.au for posting this good news from Australia and New Zealand
The Royal Society of New Zealand
Science and Technology Alert 61 23 December 1998
The Australian and New Zealand Governments were outvoted in a surprise move by a group of Australian states favouring the special labelling of "substantially equivalent" genetically modified food. The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council's controversial decision was taken at a meeting held in Canberra last Thursday attended by the New Zealand's Associate Minister of Health, Hon Tuariki Delamere, and his Australian Federal and State counterparts. Not only did the 6-4 decision go against the wishes of the two national governments but it was in conflict with the earlier recommendation of the Australian New Zealand Food Association (Anzfa).
Good manufacturers are warning that a decision favouring the mandatory labelling of some genetically-modified food will be unworkable. Labelling activists are rejoicing at the outcome of the decision. Governments have the task of deciding whether to accept the Standards Council decision and, if so, how to implement it. The Royal Society insists that any labelling requirements imposed must have reasonable validity in scientific terms and not be capable of misinterpretation by the consumer. Watch this space.
Science and Technology Alert is published by The Royal Society of New Zealand, which is a statutory body incorporated under The Royal Society of NZ Act, 1997: see http://www.rsnz.govt.nz/about/rsnz-act97.html
Date: Sat, 26 Dec 1998 11:50:04 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
From genetics firstname.lastname@example.org Dec 25, 1998-- GE - christmas GE news
By Margaret Munro, National Post (Canada), Dec. 22/98 A13
Genetically engineered crops, which are revolutionizing agriculture in the Midwest, could, according to this story, pose serious problems for monarch butterflies.
Dr. Chip Taylor, head of the University of Kansas entomology department and director of Monarch Watch, a group dedicated to the conservation of the celebrated butterflies, was cited as saying the new corn and soybean crops
Dr. Len Wassenaar, an Environment Canada scientist in Saskatchewan, was citing as agreeing the new transgenic crops, which are being increasingly used from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, are something to be very concerned about. varieties of corn and soybeans, which have been engineered to withstand applications of the herbicide Round-up, could drastically reduce the amount of milkweed in farmers' fields. Milkweed, which is killed by Round-up, is the host plant that monarch caterpillars live on. They may eventually allow farmers to adding that he and his colleagues have found about half the monarchs that winter in Mexico originate in the Midwest of the United States, where milkweed has long proliferated in corn and agricultural fields.
Dr. Taylor was cited as saying that equally worrying is a new variety of corn that has been genetically engineered to produce a toxin that is deadly If the toxin is in the pollen the corn sheds, it would be a very significant biotoxin for anything
Date: Sat, 26 Dec 1998 11:50:04 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
From genetics email@example.com Dec 25, 1998-- GE - christmas GE news
December 23, 1998
RISHIKESH - Inter Press Service via NewsEdge Corporation : Farm experts and activists from across theworld who met in this north Indian town in the Himalayan foothills have sought checks on new crop technologies which they say threaten food security in poor nations.
The meeting, held against a backdrop of protests in India against field trials of genetically modified seeds by the American agribusiness company Monsanto, noted that such technology is "highly hazardous" and must be introduced with the "fullest caution."
About 40 people attended the Biodiversity Rights of Rural Communities and Implications of GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) meet which was jointly organized by the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation of Switzerland and the Indian non-governmental organization DISHA.
According to Edward Hammond of the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the area sown with transgenic species has risen dramatically from 1.7 million to 27.8 million hectares in the past two years.
Going by seed industry forecasts, by the turn of the century, transgenic seeds of major crops like rice and wheat could cover 177 million hectares in South Asia, China, Brazil and large parts of Europe, he said.
The commercial sales of such seeds have grown from eight million dollars in 1995 to $1.35 billion this year and are likely to surge up to three billion dollars by the year 2010.
Although transgenic seeds now account for only six percent of the world's commercial seed market, RAFI estimates that this share will shoot up to 25 percent by the year 2005 and two-thirds by the year 2010.
Speakers alleged that while some transnational seed companies claim to be developing pest-resistant crops, the real aim of transgenic seed trials is to make developing world farmers dependent on the new seeds. The bulk of farmers in countries like India still use seed saved from every harvest.
They cited examples of farmers who had suffered losses which, they claimed, were caused by using transgenic crops.
A joint statement issued by the meet demanded a moratorium on commercial release of such seeds till it has been ensured that "this helps, and does not disturb, genuine food security of people and sustainable farming systems. "
"We note with concern that a lot of work relating to GMOs has been shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. We call for complete transparency on the part of governments as well as corporations on all issues concerning GMOs, " it added.
Vivek Cariappa of the Karnataka State Farmers' Association which is spearheading the agitation against the Monsanto trials in India, described how association activists burnt the Monsanto crops on the company's experimental farms in southern India. Trolle Arnaud told of similar protests in France.
The Terminator seed technology came in for particular criticism with RAFI's Hammond pointing out that this would be commercialized by the year 2005.
"We should clearly say 'no' to the Terminator technology and all related technologies having a similar aim," he said. Terminator genes embedded in such seeds make them go sterile after one harvest.
Kunwar Prasun from India and Lianchamroon Witcon from Thailand said that such know-how undermines traditional farmers' rights. "Seeds belong to farmers and not to corporations. Farmers have always protected the wide biodiversity on their fields," they asserted.
Vijay Jardhari, a well known farmer activist from a Himalayan foothill village not far from here, stressed the vital role tillers play in conserving seeds.
[© Copyright 1998, Inter Press Service]
Date: Mon, 28 Dec 1998 16:39:20 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
Thanks to: Paul Davis firstname.lastname@example.org for posting this:
By Robin McKie, Science Editor, 27 Dec 98 UK Observer
Europe's biotechnology industry is in crisis. Consumer antagonism to genetically modified foods threatens to undermine its science and cripple farming production, researchers have warned.
This stark message was outlined at a recent meeting of the European Biotechnology Forum, held to discuss public attitudes to the field.
Researchers, senior EU officials and politicians all expressed deep gloom that public opposition had hardened so much over the past 12 months that European science and agriculture could be irrevocably damaged.
"It is not just a matter of people simply disliking biotechnology," said one delegate at the Brussels meeting. "People will happily take medicines and vaccines made by genetic modification techniques - because they realise they bring benefits.
"But they don't see any advantage in growing or eating genetically modified food. The only obvious beneficiary seems to be Monsanto."
Such remarks revealed a widespread irritation with the US biotechnology company, an antipathy that was almost as intense as that reserved for Green activists who have so successfully opposed gene crop growing.
Many scientists believe the seeds of their woes were sown when Monsanto tried to bulldoze its genetically modified soya into Europe last year mixed with standard soya products, thus confusing the issue of labelling and triggering the current battle against biotechnology.
"If you have oil that comes from a genetically modified plant, and it is chemically identical to the oil that comes from a standard plant, is there any need to label it as being derived from a genetic crop?" asked Dr Julian Kinderlerer, of the Sheffield Institute for Bioethics and Law." The answer is yes, because we label foods not just for safety but to allow people to make informed choices."
This choice was blocked by Monsanto when it brought modified soya mixed with standard soya into Europe, although in the past few months intense lobbying has led supermarkets to mark some foods - such as cake mixes and breadcrumbs used on meat and fish - as "possibly containing genetically altered foods".
For gene crops, such action is too little, too late. Green groups, worried about the industrialisation of farming but lacking a focus for their anger, suddenly found the perfect battleground.
"Modified crops encapsulate many unpopular aspects of modern life - multinational companies, intense agriculture and the despoliation of nature," said Dr Bernard Dixon, one of the conference's conveners. "That is why this storm has broken over the industry's heads."
As a result, such plants are not yet grown commercially in Europe, though trial planting is being carried out. However, in the US, Japan and other countries they are grown widely - presenting a clear threat to Europe. If, as scientists predict, genetically modified plants prove to be cheaper and easier to grow, then prices will undercut those of standard varieties. European crops will become uncompetitive on world markets and our farms will require increased subsidies or have to close.
This problem is only intensfied by the EU's 90/220 directive on gene crops, which delays the introduction of new, safer products, added Mark Cantley, head of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development's biotechnology unit. "The directive undermines public confidence, needlessly duplicates existing regulations, generates pointless trade disputes and is causing grave and increasing damage to the competitiveness of European agriculture and industry," he said. "The huge opportunities offered by biotechnology are being squandered in Europe."
Cantley said European biotechnology was now paralysed by self-perpetuating regulatory empires and Green groups with a talent for posing 'what if?' questions. This had induced chaos, a point backed by Dr Maurice Lex of the European Commission. "We have spent £30 million and used the services of 260 laboratories across Europe on researching into the safety of gene crops.
"We have looked and looked and looked and have not seen any problems. How much more taxpayers' money are we supposed to waste?"
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998
Date: Mon, 28 Dec 1998 16:39:20 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson GENews
Thanks to T4shea@aol.com for posting this:
By Bill Lambrecht Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Sunday, Dec. 27, 1998
Democracy gets tested
Fires in India
1998 -- a watershed year in biotechnology's global march
WASHINGTON -- - Farmers from the 10 million-member Karnataka Farmers Association in India burn Monsanto's experimental cotton field in November. "We want Monsanto out of our country," said N. Nanjundaswamy, the leader of the uprising. (Sergui Gerbabdez)
Reporter Bill Lambrecht traveled to four continents this year to investigate the sudden spread of genetically engineered crops and food. Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, is the leader in the drive to sow these modified seeds globally. In many countries, Lambrecht found a starkly different view of the new technology than that of accepting Americans. He also found an embattled Monsanto making some progress thanks to friends in high places. A summation of those travels follows. In the land of the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Irish protesters of 1998 sabotaged fields of the American company genetically re-creating the potato.
In the red soils of India, farmers worried about that same company gaining control over their lives. And despite a plague of pests, they distrusted its promises to deliver magical seeds that give relief. Last month, in a spectacle of fury called "Operation Cremation Monsanto," they torched Monsanto Co. test plots of genetically engineered cotton. These events half a world apart were acts in a global drama this year that has featured St. Louis-based Monsanto, the leader in the drive to bring genetic engineering to crops and food around the world.
The year began with hopes by Monsanto of breakthroughs in global acceptance of gene-splicing technologies. These revolutionary techniques transfer genes from one plant to another to give "transgenic" plants new characteristics, such as resistance to insects. The year ends with the realization that a chasm remains between the attitudes of Americans and people elsewhere. Led by Monsanto and with almost no one outside of agriculture paying attention, American farmers this year planted more than 50 million acres of gene-altered soybeans, corn, cotton and potatoes. Four years ago, that acreage was zero.
Years from now, people may recall the genetic revolution in food and farming as an epochal change as far-reaching as the computer revolution. Yet a historic moment may be passing with few Americans noticing. The same can't be said of the rest of the world. In some nations, Monsanto is a household name.
Newspapers spill over and broadcasts crackle with news of communities' struggles to come to grips with a technology banging at the door. People assemble in noisy forums to debate the morality of altering the building blocks of life. Across the Atlantic, what a Monsanto executive calls the "European Wars" threatens not only Monsanto's plans but also the exports by Midwestern farmers of DNA-modified grains. In Britain, Monsanto's own pollster wrote this bleak assessment in October:
"The latest survey shows an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and genetically modified foods." The author was Stan Greenberg, who was the White House's pollster in this administration. Foreign opposition to Monsanto baffles many Americans.
These questions and the likelihood of 1998 being a pivotal year for Monsanto took a Post-Dispatch reporter on a journey to 10 countries. Some of the findings were surprising - among them the involvement of the National Security Council in the international debate. Some findings - like the sabotage - were disturbing.
The search also yielded provocative glimpses of how people in other lands view Americans. That was the case in Skibbereen, Ireland, near a mass grave of 8,000 people buried during Ireland's farm disaster of the last century.
At her cottage, Mairie Cregan, 37, a farmer and the mother of six, observed that Ireland's long-ago famine lives on in people's minds. She worried aloud that genetic tinkering might threaten a food supply that has grown bountiful. And she asked if Americans talk about Monsanto at their post offices and in their church groups the way they do in her part of southern Ireland.
"This is about our food and what people eat. Americans know that, don't they?" she wondered. "Maybe," she mused, "America has just gotten too big for people to talk to each other."
Irish protesters spared the Monsanto test plot on the County Cork farm of Richard Fitzgerald, pictured here with his sugar beets. He says environmentalists growing a few potatoes organically "won't feed the world." (Bill Lambrecht/Post-Dispatch In conversations elsewhere, the fears of an unproved technology are pitted against the hopes that genetic engineering can be a powerful tool for good.
A potent and even violent opposition to genetic engineering has sprouted in many places. Often, Monsanto stands alone in these firestorms. Others have invested heavily in genetic engineering and farming: Novartis, the Swiss company, and the German company AgrEvo, to name two. But around the world, Monsanto is the acknowledged ringmaster of the genetic change in food:
Everywhere, people see an American company stepping in to promote - indeed force - changes in how their food is grown. It's as though the Cardinals or Yankees had swaggered across the world's soccer fields and declared: "We'll be playing baseball now." There is acceptance, too.
Amid the global turmoil, genetically engineered plants are taking root. This year, the acreage outside the United States more than doubled to nearly 23 million - still less than half what is grown in the United States.
This year, Monsanto raced between tense showdowns that commanded news nearly everywhere but in the United States. Fighting country-by-country for approvals has enmeshed Monsanto in public policy around the world.
Often, the company frames its campaign in the rhetoric of a crusade, trumpeting the potential to protect the environment and feed the hungry. "Doing well by doing good," is a company catch phrase. Yet laudable motives in themselves don't inspire trust.
Europeans ask why there is so little debate in the United States on genetic change. There are two main answers:
And this year, organic growers led a revolt against the Agriculture Department's allowing modified foods to be labeled organic. Until then, the only issue of genetics and food to percolate to the surface in the United States was the Food and Drug Administration's approval four years ago of a Monsanto-engineered hormone that induces dairy cattle to produce more milk.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been America's most aggressive regulator, using existing powers to govern pesticide traits engineered into plants. That is why Monsanto and farm groups are pressuring the EPA to reject proposals for larger protective "refuges" around fields of varieties of modified crops.
The FDA exercises limited authority because genetic traits are not considered food additives. Unlike Europe, which has passed a continentwide labeling regulation, the FDA has made no move to require labeling in the United States.
(In Europe, Monsanto supports this labeling; in the United States, the company says it doesn't support labeling because it is not an issue.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates in the dual role as regulator and ardent booster of biotechnology. For most field trials in the United States - like those bringing fears in Europe - companies simply notify the department.
But the Agriculture Department couldn't have foreseen that one of its laboratory successes would create such problems for Monsanto. That success is a genetic technology known as the "Terminator" because it renders the seeds of crops sterile so that they can't be collected and saved. It was patented in March by the Agriculture Department and a Mississippi seed company, Delta and Pine Land - which Monsanto is acquiring - as a means to help companies protect their investments in genetically modified crops.
Since then, from Ireland to India, Monsanto has been skewered by critics and mainstream scientists alike who see Terminator as a blunt weapon to hasten genetic change.
Master chef Darina Allen is an author and television personality known as the "Irish Julia Child." She advises her followers to avoid food produced by genetic engineering. (Bill Lambrecht/Post-Dispatch) Genetic engineering is about more than farming. In Europe, the debate touches the environment, economics, religion and the relationship between science and society. Jean-Marie Pelt, director of the European Institute of Ecology, said in Brussels that, "Scientifically, we are able to do things. But from an ethical point of view, we don't have to do them."
The European backlash against Monsanto has a lot to do with a deteriorating faith in science. In Europe, an outbreak of a mysterious brain malady called bovine spongiform encephalopthy - better known as "Mad Cow Disease" - brought human deaths, the slaughter of 11 million cattle and a scar on the European psyche. In hearings this month in Britain, people continue to ask what went wrong in science and government regulation.
Europe's skepticism also is connected to attitudes toward food - even though no dangers from eating modified foods have been proved. Europeans typically worry more than Americans about food: where it comes from, how it is presented on the table, how it tastes. Those sensibilities were on display at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland's County Cork, where Darina Allen was testing the flakiness of a student's salmon-filled pastry.
Allen made headlines this year when she denounced Monsanto's plan to conduct tests in Ireland on genetically engineered sugar beets. One plot was adjacent to her 100-acre farm with its gardens, boxwoods and organically grown produce.
Irish people listen to Allen. She is their foremost chef, a public personality with her own television program; she is the author of best-selling cookbooks; and she sits on Ireland's Food Safety Authority. She's the Irish Julia Child, with more spice.
Students who pay upward of $3,000 for courses can get gardening and "lifestyle" tutoring from Allen, as well as lessons in sumptuous cooking. She takes them to the slaughterhouse to teach them about meat. They get to know the farmers who bring around the vegetables, and they meet the salmon fishermen from nearby Ballycotton Harbor. On her cooking show she tells viewers that the most important thing they do each week is grocery shop for their families.
In the cooking school dining room, Allen, dressed in her white apron, said she can't fathom why scientists would want to be "fiddling around with the genes" of foods. Nor, Allen said, can she understand why Americans would abide a system in which genetically engineered foods are not so labeled. "It's a basic human right to be told what's in your food," she said.
Her views resemble those of another prominent United Kingdom citizen standing in the way of the transgenic march. Britain's Prince Charles drew a line in the sands of European public opinion in June by writing: "I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic manipulation, nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests."
Back in County Cork, Ireland, farmer Richard Fitzgerald was more concerned about his fields than about the famous. Fitzgerald consented this year to turning over a swath of land to Monsanto to test genetically modified sugar beets, a softball-size vegetable that provides one-third of the world's sugar. Gliding along the Irish seacoast in his black BMW, Fitzgerald seemed nervous about his decision. He had reason to fret.
Late on a foggy night, an Irish group called the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front descended on a Monsanto test plot of genetically engineered sugar beets in County Carnow where, in the words of one saboteur, we "ripped out, slashed and beheaded" plants.
Fitzgerald, a stocky, florid-faced man who had given up his beloved Guinness for Lent, gazed toward the Irish Sea and said: "Who is going to feed the burgeoning population? It's not going to be the environmentalists growing a few potatoes organically." Fitzgerald's farm was spared in 1998 - though a second Monsanto test plot was destroyed.
You lose some, you win others: After a fight, Ireland's High Court last summer upheld Monsanto's planting permits. That means the Irish might expect modified cotton and other transgenic crops in their soils - perhaps even the potatoes that loom large in Ireland's history and that Monsanto is stacking in the United States with new genetic traits.
The outcome of the Irish case was a cautionary lesson for genetic engineering's critics. Clare Watson, the Dubliner who forced the court test, was socked with court costs of more than $400,000. Watson, 36, described what the episode means for her in real-life terms. For the foreseeable future, she will be allowed only a living wage for food and housing. She can't own property or accumulate wealth because it would be taken from her. "I have my moments when I scream and feel like hitting my head against the wall," she said.
Monsanto prepares for uprisings. Last fall, when the Irish debate was brewing, the company flew a group of Irish journalists to the United States for a tour of its labs. In Washington, the journalists received a surprise: They were taken to the White House for a visit to the Oval Office.
"Our little heads peeked around that historic room," said Vivion Kilferther, a reporter from the Examiner in Cork, describing what few White House visitors see.
How did Monsanto orchestrate that? It helps if you've hired the president's director of intergovernmental affairs, which Monsanto did in putting Marcia Hale on the company payroll. Monsanto has often displayed its connections while fighting this year for approval for its products.
When Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern arrived in the United States for a St. Patrick's Day visit, he was greeted by Sandy Berger, director of the National Security Council. The primary topic of their discussion at a lunch in the Capitol wasn't the Irish peace talks or any of the world flare-ups that send the rumpled Berger scrambling in front of CNN's cameras. The issue was Ireland's pivotal vote on a pending European decision on Monsanto's corn engineered for insect-resistance - common in the United States but banned, like most engineered crops, in Europe.
The 15-member European Community is vital to Monsanto for reasons beyond its thriving market of 350 million people. Europe is the gateway for modified foods; life-science companies want a European imprimatur on products they hope to sell to former European colonies around the world.
But Europe also is the center of opposition to a barely understood technology studded with red-hot buttons getting pushed. Germany, with its robust Green Party and its lingering memories of Nazi-era experiments, is strongly opposed. Austria and Luxembourg want nothing to do with modified crops. Britain and France, among others, have doubts. This is divergent not just from American public opinion but also from American policy, which explains scurrying at the top of the U.S. government.
"In this post-Cold War era, America's national interests have changed, and crises aren't always military crises," a National Security Council official said.
Berger's wasn't the only voice Ahern heard. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., and several members of Congress collared Ireland's prime minister, as did others in President Bill Clinton's administration. Toby Moffett, Monsanto's Washington-based international business head and a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, later marveled at the smothering of Ireland's prime minister.
"Everywhere he went, before people said `Happy St. Patrick's Day,' they asked him, `What about that corn vote?' " Moffett said. "I'm 54 years old and I've been in a lot of coalitions in my life, but this is one of the most breathtaking I've seen."
Successful, too. The next day, the European governing body said yes to plantings of gene-crossed corn by Monsanto and two crops of rivals. The decision also meant that American farmers staking their futures on exporting modified crops could rest easier. Now all eyes turned to the French, who would have the last word for Monsanto's hopes and for the future of U.S. farm exports. But American farmers also have something to fear.
In Switzerland, authorities in March seized grain barges from the United States laden with a corn product containing what authorities called "suspicious DNA." The term "suspicious DNA" is not something you would hear in the United States, because Americans don't often view science with suspicion. Especially farmers.
If there's a gene that promotes trust in technology, American farmers have it. The drive to do what it takes for better yield - more fertilizers, more pesticides, more machinery - sets American farmers apart from counterparts in Europe, where farmers depends more heavily on subsidies and quotas.
And many U.S. farmers are reporting savings from genetically modified seeds - as much as 50 cents for each bushel of soybeans, said the Agriculture Department's Arnold Foudin.
One technology American farmers lack is the mechanism to separate genetically altered grain before exporting. Those bins on the edges of Midwestern towns hold the harvests from farmers nearby. In Illinois, about 40 percent of soybeans and 25 percent of corn in those repositories - modified and unmodified mixed together - will head by truck or rail to the Mississippi River to begin their voyage to foreign lands.
The U.S. farm establishment doesn't want the complications of a separate system. Nor do farmers want to acknowledge that what they're growing is any different from what always has sprouted - even though sensors can detect wisps of "suspicious DNA." But until other nations sort out their concerns, growing modified crops for international markets could be risky.
In Auburn, Ill., Tim Seifert planted 1,300 acres of black, central Illinois soil with genetically modified soybeans and corn. He had been hearing plenty about people in other countries concerned about the modified grains that Americans send them, and it troubled him. When a Japanese group visited him this year, Seifert demanded that they explain their country's qualms.
"We weren't afraid to try your technology," Seifert said, lecturing his visitors.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, several dozen cotton farmers had their own worries about genetic engineering: They demanded damages from Monsanto this year after their 1997 crop of genetically altered cotton faltered. Some of them farm near the intersection of Routes 61 and 49 where, blues aficionados will tell you, guitar legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for success. Farmers making their case against Monsanto sounded as though they were repenting a Faustian bargain with Monsanto.
The Mississippi Seed Arbitration Council sided with these farmers, and many took home handsome settlements from Monsanto. (The company insists that weather was the culprit.) One farmer, Randy Talley, of Bobo, Miss., offered a lesson in the allure of technology. After swearing that engineered crops had failed him in 1997, he planted 750 acres of a gene-spliced cotton seed this year.
But back in Europe, more sabotage had destroyed hopes for a breakthrough year in genetic farming.
Farmer Rene Riesel led a raid on a French storehouse, destroying seeds owned by a Monsanto rival. The raid assured that France's first commercial planting of genetically altered crops would fail. (Bill Lambrecht/Post-Dispatch)
By June, the critical approval that Monsanto thought it had won in Europe for its corn looked shaky. What's more, a plan for an American shipment of $200 million of genetically altered grain to Spain and Portugal was in jeopardy. In each case, the problem was the French, who were refusing to sign what the European Community had agreed to in March.
Farmer Rene Riesel was part of the reason. Riesel, a grain and sheep farmer from the south of France, led the raid earlier this year that destroyed a cache of modified seeds and all but wrecked France's first commercial planting of modified corn. This time, the victim was Novartis.
The diminutive and tightly wound Riesel, 48, smoked non-filters from a pack he carried in his rust-colored flannel shirt. Speaking English at the Concorde Cafe near the French National Assembly, he recalled the procession of trucks and autos, carrying 120 farmers, that snaked its way to the center of a small town near Toulouse. Asked to describe what they had done, Riesel pulled out his knife and slashed at the air. Then they sprayed the seed with fire extinguishers, he recounted. Others said that the farmers had urinated on the mess.
While eating French fries and spiced, raw ground beef, Riesel spoke defiantly of French farmers' commitment to block genetic engineering and to "take out" the fields of those who abet the technology. Riesel was fined $80,000 for the raid but avoided jail. "It will be quite possible for we French to farm without transgenics," he said confidently.
Later, in the town of Le Genest Saint Isle in western France, farmers said they worried that the consolidation of seed companies by Monsanto and rivals around the world ultimately will diminish farmer choices and even force them to use modified seeds against their will. But one farmer shook his head and admonished fellow growers that they need to keep an open mind. "First, there must be a debate, and then we will see," said this farmer, Denis Boulanger.
Leave it to France to stage a debate like the country had never seen before.
At the same time France was host to - and winning - the World Cup soccer championship, its Parliament decided to convene a citizens conference to guide the nation's policies on genetically modified foods. Soccer won the battle for attention, but the conference held as many surprises. For the French gathering, 14 people were chosen randomly from a population of 60 million and brought secretly to the National Assembly in Paris for the proceedings.
What happened in Paris during a public, three-day gathering was stunning for its tone and its conclusions. The initial reaction to Monsanto from people from all walks of life - housewives, an insurance inspector, a bank clerk and a librarian - was uniformly negative.
"They're sorcerer's apprentices," declared Francine Maeght, 50, a mild-mannered bank employee.
Three days later, after an all-night argument, the French citizens presented recommendations with champagne and caviar. They offered no glowing endorsement. But they declined to endorse a freeze on genetic testing, the blunt instrument European critics seek. The French offered another lesson in the persuasiveness of this technology. The citizens' thinking softened as they heard scientists tell them how, in its next generation, genetic engineering might put more nutritious vegetables - even disease-fighting foods - on dinner plates.
Claire Falhon, 28, an administrator in a suburban Paris medical clinic, had begun the gathering by lecturing Monsanto for barging into her country. Her response was reminiscent of the coca-colonization chants in Paris streets in the 1950s protesting the introduction of Coca-Cola.
The French, like many skeptics of genetic engineering, see Monsanto influencing their culture, not just their farming. Falhon confided afterward that she had fought against the freeze. She also warned that her country must have a "great debate" and a new regimen of rules before saying yes to Monsanto. But Monsanto wanted that "yes" right now. And once more, the company turned to its most powerful ally - the U.S. government.
In late spring, U.S. trade officials complained to the French government about the refusal to sign the piece of paper approving Monsanto's genetically engineered corn. Only then could $200 million worth of corn head down the Mississippi River toward European ports. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright approached the French, as did U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Both leveraged their appeals with ultimatums: If the French didn't relent, President Clinton would have something to say about it when France's new prime minister, Lionel Jospin, visited the United States in June.
The French didn't budge, and Jospin got an earful, administration sources said. Monsanto had rallied the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, America's trade representative and U.S. senators. That left only Vice President Al Gore, who didn't stay on the sidelines for long.
In July, Gore telephoned the French prime minister. On July 30, on the eve of the announcement of plans for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Monsanto received the good news: the French had said yes. That meant that Monsanto's modified corn can be planted in France next spring and that there will be no prohibition against 15 European countries importing similar corn.
A $7.5 billion company with 25,000 employees needs to be well-connected, and Monsanto works to keep it that way. The company plies political parties equally and recruits people with deep ties in Washington. By virtue of a friendly relationship between Monsanto chief operating officer Robert B. Shapiro and Clinton, Monsanto is identified in Washington as "a Democratic company."
Monsanto and its employees spread the political contributions. In the last two years, donations to Democrats totaled about $100,000; Republicans received $140,000. The company invests much more in bringing aboard influential people.
In wielding its clout abroad, Monsanto has been adroit, lucky - or both. At this juncture, the interests of Monsanto, the U.S. government and American farmers are much the same: seeing to it that the world drops its barriers to an American-hatched technology. Government officials feel the heat sizzling around Monsanto. At a World Food Summit in Rome, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was pelted by seeds thrown by naked protesters. "My mother worried when she saw me on CNN," Glickman joked recently.
Pressing foreign leaders on these matters "is at the top of my agenda," Glickman said. "I am not a shill for any company. Though we're all generally going in the same direction, we're not riding in the same car."
U.S. Special Ambassador Peter Scher, the specialist for agriculture and biotechnology, visited France several times this year on biotechnology's behalf and leads a brand-new U.S.-European council trying to head off more trouble.
"I would define this not only as a trade issue, but as a domestic economic issue, an environmental issue and, frankly, a food security issue," he said.
In India, Monsanto is moving aggressively - and meeting aggressive resistance.
Three decades ago, India was the testing ground of a farm revolution that promised more food - and delivered. There, in the 1960s, science and modern farming introduced the "Green Revolution," which fought starvation with high-yield grains and chemical fertilizer. Now, India is debating whether to play host to the Gene Revolution. In many places, the fear rivals the need.
In the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, an extraordinary drama is unfolding: 500 Indian farmers have killed themselves in a year's time. All told, 700 farmers in the country committed suicide since last year. Nothing like this has happened before in India. The farmers' preferred way of death is swallowing insecticides and then dying in fields that failed them. The real reason, victims' relatives said, was the volatile combination of debt and farm chemicals that no longer worked to kill pests.
"He could not bear the burden," said Ileakomru Shanker, whose son, Damera, 28, had swallowed a fatal concoction in February. Monsanto's insect-resistant seeds - engineered to produce their own insecticide - might help. The company's first field trials in India with engineered cotton also showed a 20 percent increase in yield.
But even amid such despair, Monsanto is viewed with hostility. In India, opposition to those seeds is fueled not by concerns about the environment, as in Europe, but by a strain of dedicated nationalism. Farmers and intellectuals preaching the mantra of self-sufficiency inveigh that foreign companies must not gain a foothold on India's farming and food.
The Terminator - the genetic technique to forestall seed-saving - is not yet owned by Monsanto and may not be in fields for years. Yet Monsanto's detractors hold it up as the symbol of the drive by multinationals to take control.
A few months ago, Monsanto's strategists saw India as their next battleground after Europe. What loomed recently in the smoke wafting from torched fields in southern India was the likelihood of fighting on two fronts at once.
In what they described ominously as Operation Cremation Monsanto, 200 farmers of the 10-million member Karnataka Farmers Association in southern India uprooted and burned cotton plants in two Monsanto test plots. "We want Monsanto out of our country," said N. Nanjundaswamy, the leader of the uprising.
Wherever Monsanto seeks to sow, the U.S. government clears the ground. In Japan last month, Agriculture Secretary Glickman and Trade Representative Barshefsky each told their government hosts that labeling modified foods wouldn't suit Uncle Sam.
This month, U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley trumpeted biotechnology at his four-nation trade mission to Africa to promote U.S. industries. A Monsanto executive was on the plane. "We made the case that they (Africans) ought to take a serious look" at gene-altered crops, said Daley, speaking by phone from Ivory Coast. "We strongly encouraged them to make sure that any decision they make is based on science and not on this hysterical political reaction."
From the White House and the National Security Council on down, the apparatus of the U.S. government worked this year on behalf of biotechnology.
For Monsanto, at this moment, it is like having an Olympic basketball team with several Michael Jordans. But Monsanto's clout notwithstanding, U.S. leaders are unlikely to be rushing to the court once corn and soybean issues get resolved. At year's end, saboteurs in India vow more attacks on Monsanto's fields.
In Britain, authorities are preparing to prosecute Monsanto for a safety violation that happened when a border around a test plot was accidentally destroyed. The company's hard-won French approval for corn is in jeopardy. France's highest judicial authority has suspended planting permission for rival Novartis at least until 2000, and now Monsanto is being challenged on the same grounds by Greenpeace. Meanwhile, Europeans and Japanese are pushing for a segregated, genetically pure crop, which neither the U.S. government nor American farmers want.
Still, amid the turmoil, Monsanto gained ground in 1998, observed Philip Angell, Monsanto's Washington-based corporate communications chief. He is a former political consultant and waste industry strategist. "What you have is slow and steady, ongoing development and product introduction," Angell said. "Approval by regulatory agencies. People listening to people better and trying to understand these concerns."
Monsanto's Moffett, the former congressman who operates internationally for the company, said that 1998 will be recalled as the watershed year. "We discovered how big our learning curve is about the world and, to some extent, we discovered it because of crises that maybe we should have seen coming," he said.
It may also be true that even Monsanto's best persuasive tactics and many friends in high places can't change attitudes abroad until consumers see benefits in this technology for themselves, not just for big companies and farmers. For now, rightly or wrongly, Monsanto remains bedeviled worldwide by the Terminator, a public relations problem that was on the agenda of a meeting in St. Louis this month between Shapiro and company executives.
In Illinois, genetic farming stalwart Tim Seifert said things are tight this year because of low prices for corn and soybeans. He wondered if farmers are, as he put it, backing themselves into a corner by producing so much. But, said Seifert, his faith in modified crops hadn't been shaken one iota. "I'm not looking back," he said. Seifert's words reaffirmed basic differences between Americans and people elsewhere.
These differences have a lot to do with attitudes toward science and government, but they also speak to outlook on life. In many nations, a prime issue in this debate is choice: the right of consumers to know the nature of their food and the right of farmers to have plenty of choices in what they grow. In the United States, people are willing to trust others to make those choices for us. Few Americans draw a distinction between genetic changes in food and the biomedical research that is yielding insulin and products for our health.
With soybeans in 75 percent of processed foods, most Americans have eaten altered food recently whether they know it or not. In the United States, consumers' groups are pressing the call for labeling these foods. They're working for the first time with environmental groups, organic food growers and farmers' advocates to generate an American debate. So far, Americans have been willing to trust science to direct the course of evolution. That is the difference between us and many of our neighbors abroad.
M.S. Swaminathan, one of India's most prominent scientists, observed recently: "Any technology, you can use it for good or bad. If I have a knife, I can cut you or I can cut your food." As the world sees it, biotechnology at this moment is a knife unsheathed, able to cut either way.
March 3 - The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awards patent No. 5,723,765 for a genetic technology that will become known as "The Terminator," which renders seeds in plants sterile. The patent, which Monsanto is in line to own, will cause a public relations tempest around the world.
March 18 - A European Community comittee votes approval for Monsanto and two European-based companies to plant several genetically modified crops in Europe.
May 8 - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announces that genetically engineered foods can't be labeled organic.
June 7 - In Switzerland, voters overwhelmingly reject a referendum to ban modified foods and genetic experimentation.
June 8 - In Britain, Prince Charles unleashes a salvo against genetically changed foods, accusing companies of taking "mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone."
June 13 - Monsanto begins a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in Britain and France to persuade people about the value of genetic engineering in farming and food.
June 20 - The French government convenes a citizen conference of randomly selected people to advise the government on policies for genetically modified organisms.
June 21 - Farmers and protesters in Ireland attack a Monsanto test plot of genetically modified sugarbeets.
July 4 - In Britain, a group called Genetic Snowball takes credit for attacking a Monsanto test plot near the village of Oxfordshire.
July 18 - In St. Louis, 150 protesters, some from Europe, Japan and India, march at Monsanto's headquarters while an anti-genetic engineering conference goes on at Fontbonne College.
July 27 - In Britain, the Ethical Consumers Organization slashes hundreds of plants believed to be Monsanto's but learns later that the wrong plot was destroyed.
July 30 - The French government, after prodding from U.S. officials, signs off on the planting and import of Monsanto corn engineered for insect-resistance.
Aug. 28 - Monsanto announces that its genetically engineered NewLeaf potato has been successful in helping farmers in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union.
Sept. 18 - A British judge issues an injunction warning that protesters who damage any of 60 Monsanto test plots in England could be sent to prison.
Oct. 27 - Robert B. Shapiro, Monsanto's chief operating officer, is hit in the face with a pie while in San Francisco to make a speech. The Biotic Baking Brigade takes credit.
Oct. 28 - The European Commission's Emma Bonino, who is in charge of consumer policy and health protection in the governing body of 15 countries, asks that a line of foods free of any genetic engineering be established.
Oct. 30 - At the World Bank in Washington, the influential Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research condemns the "Terminator" technology.
Nov. 27 - A Brazilian judge lifts an injunction, allowing Monsanto to grow modified soybeans for seed, a step toward full-scale, commercial planting.
Nov. 28 - Farmers in India uproot and burn a Monsanto test plot of genetically modified cotton and vow more attacks.
Dec. 3 - Monsanto wins approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add the trait of virus resistance to its genetically engineered NewLeaf potato.
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign, for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596 email: email@example.com
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