GENET archive


9-Misc: Let's do a Monsanto

genet-news mailing list

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

TITLE:  Let's do a Monsanto
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by George Monbiot,3604,974024,00.html
DATE:   June 10, 2003

------------------ archive: ------------------

Let's do a Monsanto

The government says that it wants a 'great debate' about GM - we must
call its bluff

Something about the launch of the government's "great GM debate" last
week rang a bell. It was, perhaps, the contrast between the ambition of
its stated aims and the feebleness of their execution. Though the
environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, claims she wants "to ensure all
voices are heard", she has set aside an advertising budget of precisely
zero. Public discussions will take place in just six towns.

Then I got it. Five years ago, Monsanto, the world's most controversial
biotechnology company, did the same thing. In June 1998, after its
attempts to persuade consumers that they wanted to eat genetically
modified food had failed, it launched what it called a public debate "to
encourage a positive understanding of food biotechnology". As the
company's GM investments were then valued at $96bn (60bn), the
proposition that it might desist if the response was unfavourable seemed

To Monsanto's horror, it got the debate it said it wanted. A few days
after it launched its new policy, Prince Charles wrote an article for the
Telegraph. His argument, as always, was cack-handed and contradictory,
but it shoved genetic engineering to the top of the news agenda.
Monsanto's share value slumped. Within two years it had been taken over
by Pharmacia, a company it once dwarfed.

Like Monsanto, the British government has already invested in genetic
engineering. In 1999, it allocated 13m (or 26 times what it is spending
on the great debate) "to improve the profile of the biotech industry", by
promoting "the financial and environmental benefits of biotechnology".
This, and its appointment of major biotech investors to head several
research committees and a government department, ensured that it lost the
confidence of the public. So, like Monsanto, it now seeks to revive that
confidence, by claiming - rather too late - that it is open to
persuasion. Again, the decision to introduce the crops to Britain appears
to have been made long before the debate began.

Last year, an unnamed minister told the Financial Times that the debate
was simply a "PR offensive". "They're calling it a consultation," he
said, "but don't be in any doubt, the decision is already taken." In
March, Margaret Beckett began the licensing process for 18 applications
to grow or import commercial quantities of GM crops in Britain. Her
action pre-empts the debate, pre-empts the field trials designed to
determine whether or not the crops are safe to grow here, and pre-empts
the only real decisions which count: namely those made by the EU and the
World Trade Organisation. The WTO must now respond to an official US
complaint about Europe's refusal to buy GM food. If the US wins, we must
either pay hundreds of millions of dollars of annual compensation, or
permit GM crops to be grown and marketed here.

Why should this prospect concern us? I might have hoped that, five years
after the first, real debate began in Britain, it would not be necessary
to answer that question. But so much misinformation has been published
over the past few weeks that it seems I may have to start from the beginning.

The principal issue, perpetually and deliberately ignored by government,
many scientists, most of the media and, needless to say, the
questionnaire being used to test public opinion, is the corporate
takeover of the food chain. By patenting transferred genes and the
technology associated with them, then buying up the competing seed
merchants and seed-breeding centres, the biotech companies can exert
control over the crops at every stage of production and sale. Farmers are
reduced to their sub-contracted agents. This has devastating implications
for food security in the poor world: food is removed from local marketing
networks - and therefore the mouths of local people - and gravitates
instead towards sources of hard currency. This problem is compounded by
the fact that (and this is another perpetually neglected issue) most of
the acreage of GM crops is devoted to producing not food for humans, but
feed for animals.

The second issue is environmental damage. Many of the crops have been
engineered to withstand applications of weedkiller. This permits farmers
to wipe out almost every competing species of plant in their fields. The
exceptions are the weeds which, as a result of GM pollen contamination,
have acquired multiple herbicide resistance. In Canada, for example, some
oilseed rape is now resistant to all three of the most widely used modern
pesticides. The result is that farmers trying to grow other crops must
now spray it with 2,4-D, a poison which persists in the environment.

The third issue, greatly over-emphasised by the press, is human health.
There is, as yet, no evidence of adverse health effects caused directly
by GM crops. This could be because there are no effects, or it could be
because the necessary clinical trials and epidemiological studies, have,
extraordinarily, still to be conducted.

There is, however, some evidence of possible indirect effects. In 1997
the Conservative government quietly raised the permitted levels of
glyphosate in soya beans destined for human consumption by 20,000%.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient of Roundup, the pesticide which
Monsanto's soya beans have been engineered to resist. "Roundup Ready" GM
crops, because they are sprayed directly with the herbicide, are likely
to contain far higher levels of glyphosate than conventional ones. In
1999, the Journal of the American Cancer Society reported that exposure
to glyphosate led to increased risks of contracting a type of cancer
called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The defenders of GM crops say we can avoid all such hazards by choosing
not to eat them. The problem is that we can avoid them only if we know
whether or not the food we eat contains them. The US appears determined
to attack the strict labelling requirements for which the European
parliament has now voted. If it succeeds in persuading the WTO that
accurate labelling is an unfair restriction, then the only means we have
of avoiding GM is to eat organic, whose certification boards ensure that
it is GM-free. But as pollen from GM crops contaminates organic crops,
the distinction will eventually become impossible to sustain. While
banning GM products might at first appear to be a restriction of consumer
choice (someone, somewhere, might want to eat one), not banning them
turns out to be a far greater intrusion upon our liberties.

The only chance we have of keeping them out of Europe is to ensure that
the political cost becomes greater than the economic cost: to demand, in
other words, that our governments fight the US through the WTO and, if
they lose, pay compensation rather than permit them to be planted. So let
us join this debate, and see how much the government likes it when "all
voices are heard". Like Monsanto, it may come to wish it had never asked.

- On Thursday June 12 at 2pm, George Monbiot will be live online at
Guardian Unlimited to discuss his new book, The Age of Consent: A
Manifesto For a New World Order. You can post questions now at


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

phone:  +49-531-5168746
fax:    +49-531-5168747
mobile: +49-162-1054755
email:  genetnl(at)