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TITLE:  The covert biotech war
        The battle to put a corporate GM padlock on our foodchain is being
        fought on the net
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by George Monbiot
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,842999,00.html
DATE:   Nov 19, 2002

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


Comment
The covert biotech war
The battle to put a corporate GM padlock on our foodchain is being fought 
on the net

The president of Zambia is wrong. Genetically modified food is not, as far 
as we know, "poison". While adequate safety tests have still to be 
conducted, there is as yet no compelling evidence that it is any worse for 
human health than conventional food. Given the choice with which the people 
of Zambia are now faced - starvation and eating GM - I would eat GM.

The real problem with engineered crops, as this column has been pointing 
out for several years, is that they permit the big biotech companies to 
place a padlock on the food chain. By patenting the genes and all the 
technologies associated with them, the corporations are manoeuvring 
themselves into a position from which they can exercise complete control 
over what we eat. This has devastating implications for food security in 
poorer countries.

This is the reason why these crops have been resisted so keenly by 
campaigners. The biotech companies have been experimenting with new means 
of overcoming their resistance.

Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all of which are suffering from the current 
famine, have been told by the US international development agency, USAID, 
that there is no option but to make use of GM crops from the United States. 
This is simply untrue. Between now and March, the region will need up to 2m 
tonnes of emergency food aid in the form of grain. The UN's Food and 
Agriculture Organisation says that there are 1.16m tonnes of exportable 
maize in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Europe, Brazil, India 
and China have surpluses and stockpiles running into many tens of millions 
of tonnes. Even in the US, more than 50% of the harvest has been kept GM-
free. All the starving people in southern Africa, Ethiopia and the world's 
other hungry regions could be fed without the use of a single genetically 
modified grain.

But the US is unique among major donors in that it gives its aid in kind, 
rather than in cash. The others pay the world food programme, which then 
buys supplies as locally as possible. This is cheaper and better for local 
economies. USAID, by contrast, insists on sending, where possible, only its 
own grain. As its website boasts, "the principal beneficiary of America's 
foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80% 
of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign 
assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural 
goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant 
hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans".

America's food aid programme provides a massive hidden subsidy to its 
farmers. But, as a recent report by Greenpeace shows, they are not the only 
beneficiaries. One of USAID's stated objectives is to "integrate GM into 
local food systems". Earlier this year, it launched a $100m programme for 
bringing biotechnology to developing countries. USAID's "training" and 
"awareness raising" programmes will, its website reveals, provide companies 
such as "Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto" with opportunities for 
"technology transfer" into the poor world. Monsanto, in turn, provides 
financial support for USAID. The famine will permit USAID to accelerate 
this strategy. It knows that some of the grain it exports to southern 
Africa will be planted by farmers for next year's harvest. Once 
contamination is widespread, the governments of those nations will no 
longer be able to sustain a ban on the technology.

All that stands in the way of these plans is the resistance of local people 
and the protests of environment groups. For the past few years, Monsanto 
has been working on that.

Six months ago, this column revealed that a fake citizen called Mary Murphy 
had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the 
scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops. The 
computer from which some of these messages were sent belongs to a public 
relations company called Bivings, which works for Monsanto. The boss of 
Bivings wrote to the Guardian, fiercely denying that his company had been 
running covert campaigns. His head of online PR, however, admitted to the 
BBC's Newsnight that one of the messages came from someone "working for 
Bivings" or "clients using our services". But Bivings denies any knowledge 
of the use of its computer for such a campaign.

This admission prompted the researcher Jonathan Matthews, who first 
uncovered the story, to take another look at some of the emails which had 
attracted his attention. He had become particularly interested in a series 
of vituperative messages sent to the most prominent biotech listservers on 
the net, by someone called Andura Smetacek. Smetacek first began writing in 
2000. She or he repeatedly accused the critics of GM of terrorism. When one 
of her letters, asserting that Greenpeace was deliberately spreading 
unfounded fears about GM foods in order to further its own financial 
interests, was reprinted in the Glasgow Herald, Greenpeace successfully 
sued the paper for libel.

Smetacek claimed, in different messages, first to live in London, then in 
New York. Jonathan Matthews checked every available public record and found 
that no person of that name appeared to exist in either city. But last 
month his techie friends discovered something interesting. Three of these 
messages, including the first one Smetacek sent, arrived with the internet 
protocol address 199.89.234.124. This is the address assigned to the server 
gatekeeper2.monsanto.com. It belongs to the Monsanto corporation.

In 1999, after the company nearly collapsed as a result of its disastrous 
attempt to thrust GM food into the European market, Monsanto's 
communications director, Philip Angell, explained to the Wall Street 
Journal: "Maybe we weren't aggressive enough... When you fight a forest 
fire, sometimes you have to light another fire." The company identified the 
internet as the medium which had helped protest to "mushroom".

At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly the company's director of 
internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had 
used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites 
listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. 
Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of 
them established by Monsanto's PR firm Bivings). He told them to "think of 
the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your 
competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed".

While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow 
that he "spends his time and effort participating" in web discussions about 
biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he "ensures his company 
gets proper play". AgBioWorld is the site on which Smetacek launched her 
campaign.

The biotech companies know that they will never conquer new markets while 
activists are able to expose the way their operations damage food security 
and consumer choice. While working with USAID to open new territory, they 
also appear to have been fighting covert campaigns against their critics. 
Their products may not be poisonous, but can we say the same of their 
techniques?

 

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