GENET archive


8-Misc: An analysis of the European GE-food crisis

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  As biotech FrankenfoodsΠare stuffed down their throats,
        consumers rebel
SOURCE: The Nation, USA, by Maria Margaronis
DATE:   December 27, 1999

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As biotech FrankenfoodsΠare stuffed down their throats,
consumers rebel

A year ago, Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro had the future in
his pocket. His vast "life sciences" corporation was at the
cutting edge of the new agricultural revolution, genetic
modification; the spread of GM seeds throughout the United
States, he told his shareholders, was the most "successful launch
of any technology ever, including the plow." The little matter of
European distaste for the new crops would, he felt sure, be
resolved by the right kind of PR and some careful scientific
reassurance. As Ann Foster, the company's personable British
flack, patiently explained to anti-GM campaigners here, "people
will have Roundup Ready soya, whether they like it or not."

So far, things have not gone according to plan. The European
Union has a de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of GM
crops, pending further discussion (the only exception is the
Swiss company Novartis's Bt corn, currently being grown in
Spain). Austria, Luxembourg, Italy and Greece have total or
partial bans on the technology. Even the Blair government, in
love with the sleek promises of high-tech business and keen to
keep Clinton sweet, has bowed to public pressure and put off the
commercial planting of GM seeds in Britain for at least three
years. (Environment Minister Michael Meacher, whose views on the
subject are carefully tracked by the CIA, has reportedly said in
private that GM crops will never be grown commercially here.)
Shoppers have rejected GM food in droves, prompting a breathless
race among the supermarket chains to go GM-free. As a report by
the British government's Science and Technology Committee put it,
"At the current rate at which food manufacturers are withdrawing
GM ingredients...from their products, there will be no market for
GM food in this country."

US soy exports to Europe are down from $2.1 billion in 1996 to
$1.1 billion in 1999, and anxiety about GM crops (or genetically
engineered crops, as they're generally known in the United
States) is blowing across the prairies. Last spring and summer a
series of reports by the influential Deutsche Bank urged
investors to pull out of agricultural biotechnology altogether:
"The term GMO [genetically modified organism] has become a
liability. We predict that GMOs, once perceived as the driver of
the bull case for this sector, will now be perceived as a
pariah." In October a chastened Shapiro apologized to Greenpeace
for his "enthusiasm," which, he acknowledged, could be read as
"condescension or indeed arrogance." Monsanto's stock has gone
seriously pear-shaped, and the board has reportedly considered a
company breakup.

What happened? How did a loose assemblage of European
environmental activists, development charities, food retailers
and supermarket shoppers stop a huge multinational industry,
temporarily at least, in its tracks?

* * *

The first protests against genetic modification took place in
America in the late seventies, when activists from a group called
Science for the People destroyed frost-resistant strawberries and
delayed the construction of Princeton's molecular-biology
building. Then they fizzled out. Americans, by and large, trust
the FDA to keep the levels of toxicity in their daily bread down
to a psychologically manageable level and don't worry too much
about the source of the goodies that fill their horn of plenty.
The great grain factories of the Midwest work their magic far
from the places most people visit to enjoy nature. In much of
Europe, though, nature and agriculture go hand in glove,
occupying the same physical and social space. Europe's layered
patchwork of farming and culinary landscapes has taken shape over
2,500 years, altered by small and large migrations, the conquest
and loss of colonies, wars and revolutions. Europeans feel
strongly about what they eat: Food is a matter of identity as
well as economy, culture as well as nurture.

The most dramatic changes in European farming in this century
came about partly as a result of the experience of famine during
World War II: The much-reviled Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
of the European Union has its origins in the determination that
Europe should never again see mass starvation. By protecting and
supporting their farmers against the vagaries of trade while
simultaneously investing in intensive agriculture (a
contradiction in terms, you might say, since roughly 80 percent
of Europe's farm subsidies go to 20 percent of its farmers),
European governments hoped to insure long-term food security for
their people. But, as they usually do, the contradictions
eventually came home to roost. "The fourth agricultural
revolution," says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames
Valley University and one of the new food movement's intellectual
lights, "is beginning just as the third one--agrochemicals and
intensive farming--is unraveling." The unraveling has made itself
felt both in the economic crisis that affects many of Europe's
farmers and in a series of food-safety scandals caused by
deregulation and overintensive production. The outbreak of bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Britain's cattle in the
eighties and its appearance in humans as the fatal new-variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the nineties was the most powerful
catalyst for the public's loss of faith in governments and food
producers. In one terrifying package, BSE tied together the new
"economical" farming practices (in this case the feeding of
ground-up cow carcasses to cattle), the easing of health and
safety standards, and government's willingness to lie for the
food industry even at the cost of human lives.

So far, new-variant CJD has killed forty-three people in Britain;
the chief medical officer recently warned that millions may still
contract it from beef they ate fifteen years ago. By some
estimates, the whole affair has cost about $6.5 billion, much of
it put up by the European Union. Elsewhere in Europe, similar
stories break with depressing regularity. Last summer, for
instance, a cover-up of dioxin contamination in animal feed
brought down the Belgian government and part of the Dutch Cabinet
and had worried gourmets across the continent throwing out
chickens, eggs and Belgian chocolate to the tune of $800 million.
(The Coca-Cola crisis that followed, in which 30 million cans and
bottles of the elixir of life were poured down the drain after a
number of people reportedly fell ill, turned out to be a genuine
case of mass hysteria.) The anxiety is only partly contained by
sideshows like the Anglo-French beef war, in which the British
agriculture minister decided to boycott French food in
retaliation for France's refusal to lift its ban on British beef
with the rest of the European Union--simultaneously publicizing
an EU report that found sewage sludge processed into French
animal feed. The happy tabloid trumpeting that ensued momentarily
restored the beef of Old England to its rightful place as a
bulwark against the filthy Frogs, allowing the Daily Mail to
boost its circulation with pictures of cows in berets and toilet
paper necklaces amid cries of "Just say Non!"

* * *

The biotech companies danced into this minefield with all the
grace of an elephant in jackboots.

Ten years ago, agricultural biotechnology was debated only by
what Labor MP Joan Ruddock (former leader of the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament) calls "men in white coats and men in gray
suits," with environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of
the Earth reporting on their activities but mounting no large
scale protests. In 1990 the first GM additive approved for use in
British food, a GM baker's yeast, was swallowed without qualms;
so was the GM tomato paste sold by Sainsbury's supermarket in
1996, at a lower price than its conventional equivalent. The
trouble started that same year when the American Soybean
Association, Monsanto and the US trade associations told British
food retailers that they could not--would not--segregate American
GM soybeans from the conventional kind, undermining the golden
rule of consumer-friendly capitalism: Let them have choice.
Around the same time, media and public awareness of the issue
reached critical mass, and the supermarkets started getting
worried letters from their customers asking them not to use GM
ingredients. The arrogance with which the American biotech firms
approached the European food industry is the stuff of legend.
Bill Wadsworth, technical manager of the frozen-food chain
Iceland, recalls a meeting in September 1997 at which a biotech
executive actually said, "You are a backward European who doesn't
like change. You should just accept this is right for your
customers." A few weeks later Wadsworth was on a plane to Brazil,
where he found a grower and processor of non-GM soybeans and
began to set up a vertically integrated supply chain for
Iceland's processed foods. Iceland began to raise the issue's
profile with its customers, pointing out that while Iceland's
foods were GM free, those of the other supermarkets were
contaminated. Before long every supermarket chain in the country
was inundated with mail and phone calls about GM food and had
begun to follow suit. In June 1998 a poll showed that 95 percent
of British shoppers thought that all food containing GM
ingredients should be labeled.

* * *

Meanwhile, the field testing of GM crops in Britain by Monsanto,
AgrEvo, Novartis and other companies gave a dramatic focus to the
environmental arguments against genetic modification. Media-savvy
eco-activists in decontamination suits or grim reaper outfits
began to pull up trial plantings and leaflet supermarkets; by the
summer of 1998, hardly a week went by without reports of some
new, inventive, nonviolent protest. English Nature, the
government's own environmental watchdog, and the Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds both added their authoritative voices
to calls for a moratorium on planting, citing the unpredictable
and uncontainable dangers of releasing the new organisms into the
ecosystem. Gene transfers could produce herbicide-resistant
"superweeds"; crops genetically engineered to be toxic to insects
might well affect the whole food chain, further damaging the
biodiversity of a landscape already impoverished by intensive
farming. In a country where the membership of environmental and
conservation groups outstrips the membership of political parties
by four to one, the disappearance of cornflowers and skylarks
from fields and hedgerows is a political issue. Prince Charles's
entry into the fray on the side of the green campaigners did much
to enhance the post-Diana credibility of a man who not so long
ago was widely ridiculed for talking to his plants.

By the time Monsanto launched its too-clever-by-half ad campaign
to sell biotechnology to the British public in the summer of
1998, the bonfire had been prepared. The united front of
environmentalists, shoppers and food retailers, animated in part
by fury at the hubris of multinationals' trying to pull the wool
over their eyes, was joined by an army of development NGOs
outraged by Monsanto's efforts to corner Third World seed markets
with a technology that could destroy farmers' livelihoods while
pretending to "feed the world." The spark that lit the flames was
the broadcast that August of a television documentary about the
work of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at a government-funded
institute who claimed that feeding GM potatoes to laboratory rats
had slowed their growth and damaged their immune systems. Dr.
Pusztai rapidly lost his job amid assertions that his work was
flawed and incomplete, but the whole affair catapulted GMOs into
the tabloid firmament. With its usual brash enthusiasm The
Express launched a populist crusade against "Frankenfoods," and
pretty soon not a man, woman or child in Britain was left in the
dark. The GM controversy even made The Archers, BBC radio's
venerable daily soap about an English farming family: To the
relief of fans everywhere, young Tommy Archer was recently found
not guilty of criminal damage after destroying a test crop of GM
oilseed rape in one of his uncle's fields. Downing Street has
remained largely unmoved by all this protest, allowing Tory
leader William Hague (who has himself been caricatured as a
genetically modified vegetable) to make political hay out of
Labor's urban unconcern for the environment and dazzled obeisance
to the biotech firms. To Tony Blair, pro-business to his
toenails, the GM revolution is part of the white heat of new
technology that will carry the British economy through the next
century. In the words of the government's Chief Scientific
Adviser, Sir Robert May, "We have played a hugely
disproportionate part in creating the underlying science: are we
going to lose it like we lost things in the past?" Dolly the
sheep, after all, was cloned here.

If we do "lose it" in the long run, it will be in part because of
the government's serious misreading of the public mood. Had they
proceeded from the start in an open and careful manner,
acknowledging all the unanswered questions about genetic
modification and treating the population as intelligent citizens
instead of superstitious children, the eventual outcome might
have been different. But even if--in some parallel universe--that
had been New Labor's way, the biotech firms and the American
growers in their thrall would never have allowed such caution.
Blair may be predisposed to favor all kinds of high-tech
business; he is also, as the environmentalist and writer George
Monbiot puts it, "having his balls bust by Clinton."

For the United States, Britain is the gateway to Europe--and
Europe is, if anything, even less enamored of biotechnology,
despite the efforts of homegrown firms like Novartis and Zeneca.
In Britain, Germany and elsewhere, resistance to GMOs has been
led by green activists and consumers. In France, it has also
involved the Confederation Paysanne, the country's second-largest
farmers' union and political home of Josi Bovi, famous for taking
apart a new "McDo" in Millau to protest American food
imperialism. Last year Bovi was one of 120 farmers who destroyed
silos-full of Bt corn--a GM variety that has been shown to affect
lacewings, bees, ladybugs and monarch butterflies--then being
grown in France. At his trial Bovi made a passionate speech
explaining his actions: "When were farmers and consumers asked
what they think about this? Never. The decisions have been taken
at the level of the World Trade Organization, and state machinery
complies with the law of market forces.... Genetically modified
maize is...the symbol of a system of agriculture and a type of
society that I refuse to accept. Genetically modified maize is
purely the product of technology, where the means become the end.
Political choices are swept aside by the power of money."

* * *

Since then France has reversed its decision to grow the corn, for
environmental and health-related reasons, and--after a timely
intervention by Greenpeace and activist Jeremy Rifkin with the
prime minister's advisers--has argued for an EU moratorium on
further approvals of GM crops. In spite of stubborn British
opposition, the moratorium is effectively if not officially in
place: France, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg have
declared that they will block the issue of any new licenses until
new regulations have been agreed. In addition, all foods sold in
Europe that contain a significant percentage of GM ingredients
now have to be labeled--a decision that immediately rebounded on
US agribusiness, pushing giant grain traders like Cargill and
Archer Daniels Midland to segregate their silos.

* * *

In the war over the fourth agricultural revolution, the first
round seems to have gone to the citizens. But this is only the
beginning. The global food economy is regulated by the awkwardly
interlocking gears of bodies like the EU and the WTO, themselves
dominated by transnational corporations with budgets larger than
those of many small countries. The patterns of competing
interests and overlapping jurisdictions are dizzying. The Anglo
French beef war was partly a tempest in a teapot over market
share, partly a struggle to determine whether the European Union
or France's own freshly minted food-safety authority gets to vet
what French people eat. The Clinton Administration has used the
WTO to declare Europe's exclusion of American hormone-fed beef
illegal (allowing the United States to levy $117 million in
sanctions), and unless the great salon des refusis that gathered
in Seattle wins some significant victories, it will almost
certainly do the same with Europe's attempts to restrict GMOs.
The loyal Blair government has already challenged Europe's de
facto moratorium as a violation of WTO trade rules.

Like all victories, however partial, this one offers valuable
pointers for the future. The opposition to GMOs in Europe has
been informed and led by environmental organizations like
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth--part of the tidal wave of
campaigning groups that filled the vacuum left by government in
the neoliberal eighties. But the foot soldiers who really blocked
the biotech firms' confident advance are the women and men who
refused to buy their products--consumers, or citizens of global
capitalism, voting in the only way they can. In the European
movement against GM food, Ralph Nader's old strategy of
organizing consumers at the point of consumption has found its
best vindication yet.

Consumer politics, though, has its limitations. Transnational
corporations are many-headed hydras, with the capacity to sprout
new body parts in the blink of an eye. Once it had seen the
writing on the wall, Monsanto immediately set about regrouping;
at a series of closed meetings with environmental organizations
earlier this year, it offered to use its gene databases to help
farmers create new varieties of crops through traditional
crossbreeding methods. Not surprisingly, Monsanto has also tried
to push forward into countries where it believes people have more
pressing worries than the possible risks of eating GMOs. In
Georgia, for example, it held illegal trials of GM potatoes for
two years before being exposed by Greenpeace and Elkana, a
Georgian organic-farming group.

The challenge facing the great Internet-linked coalition of
activists that makes up the new food movement is to keep on
thinking globally while acting locally. In Europe, the GM debate
has brought people's concern about the safety of what they eat to
critical mass: British shoppers' demand for organic food has
increased by 40 percent in the last year, as evidenced by the
advance of pricey, rustically packaged organic produce--70
percent of it imported--along the shelves of Sainsbury's and
Safeway. Farmers are slower to catch up, although some are
trying. The government's program for organic conversion had
exhausted its budget for 1999-2000 by March of this year, in
spite of a $17 million top-up; Labor MP Ruddock has introduced a
bill to increase the amount of land under organic cultivation
over the next ten years. The Iceland chain, ever at the cutting
edge, has begun a drive to provide affordable organic food by
buying ingredients from places where conditions allow intensive
cultivation with a minimum of chemical assistance--for instance,
wheat from western Canada. Bill Wadsworth's strategy for the
future is based on extending the principle of vertically
integrated supply--"Grow me my soybeans that will go into my
beefburger." But what will this mean for producers in poorer
countries? Are we looking at a new United Fruit scenario, in
which tropical islands grow wall-to-wall organic pineapples for
Northern supermarkets while their people eat genetically
engineered mush peddled by Monsanto's subsidiaries?

In November nine Indian farmers visited Britain, sponsored by
Iceland and an international exchange group called Farmers' Link.
Crammed into a small meeting room in Westminster, they told
Ruddock about their intense frustration at being shut out of the
WTO discussions that will determine their future. In India, where
75 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture,
trade liberalization has had a devastating effect: Importing
cheap food means importing unemployment. "Your people have
rejected GM food," said Vivek Cariappa, an organic farmer from
southern India who is active in his country's thriving anti-GM
movement. "Where will it go? It won't go into the sea. It will go
to countries like ours." With careful honesty, Ruddock explained
to the farmers that their British colleagues, on the whole, don't
share their concerns: "Britain has been run as multinational
farming enterprises with subsidies from the CAP. It is mostly
people in urban areas, pressure groups, pushing for change in
agricultural practice, except for a small organic minority." When
Juli Cariappa asked if Britain really wants to leave its food
basket in the hands of the multinationals, Ruddock paused, looked
her in the eye, and said, reluctantly, "Yes."

* * *

If the biotech companies have their way we could soon be on
course for William Gibson's nightmare future, in which the rich
eat real food grown by artisan farmers and the poor eat
genetically engineered "vat stuff" when they eat at all. As long
as food is treated as a commodity like any other and traded to
maximize profits, there is little chance of a reduction in world
hunger or of a significantly safer diet for the fortunate few. As
Tim Lang puts it, "We have to see that it is the production of
food that matters, not just its consumption." Or, in the crisp
words of Josi Bovi, "We are faced with a real choice for society.
Either we accept intensive production and the huge reduction in
the number of farmers in the sole interests of the World Market,
or we create a farmer's agriculture for the benefit of everyone."
The shape-shifting global coalition that tripped the advance of
genetically modified crops in Europe and staged the carnival of
protest in Seattle has its work cut out for it. But the genie is
out of the bottle. Food--which in its progress from seed to
stomach links ecology, labor, poverty, trade, culture and health
-will be a key item on the menu of the next century's struggles
for democracy against the arbitrary power of the giant

Maria Margaronis is a Nation contributing editor living in
London. Thanks to D.D. Guttenplan for additional reporting on
this piece.


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