GENTECH archive 8.96-97
forwarded message from Judy Kew
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From: Judy_Kew@txinfinet.com (Judy Kew)
Subject: No Way Around Roundup
Date: Thu, 30 Jan 97 09:49:31 CDT
No Way Around Roundup
Monsanto's bioengineered seeds are designed to require more of the
By Mark Arax and Jeanne Brokaw
Monsanto's efforts in plant biotech are aimed not only at boosting crop
yields but at helping the company retain a market for its cash cow, the
herbicide Roundup. As the biggest-selling weed killer in the world,
Roundup accounts for 17 percent of Monsanto's total annual sales of $9
billion. Roundup is what's known as a broad-spectrum herbicide, because
it kills nearly anything green. But its main ingredient, glyphosate,
breaks down quickly in soil, so that little or no toxic byproduct
accumulates in plant or animal tissue -- a detail that Monsanto
highlights when describing itself as an environmentally friendly
Monsanto's U.S. patent on Roundup runs out in three years, and if the
company is to keep its dominant market position beyond the year 2000, it
needs a new spin. Enter Roundup Ready soybeans and Roundup Ready cotton,
seeds genetically manipulated so that they can survive direct
applications of Roundup. Farmers who once confined their use of the weed
killer to the borders of their planting area can now douse entire fields
with Roundup instead of using an expensive array of sprays that each
target just one or two weeds. "It expands the Roundup market," says Gary
Barton, a Monsanto spokesman.
The only catch: Farmers using Roundup Ready seeds can only use Roundup,
because any other broad-spectrum herbicide will kill their crops. So,
with every Roundup Ready seed sale, Monsanto sells a season's worth of
its weed killer as well. The company also keeps close tabs on the crops'
progress: Farmers must sign a contract promising not to sell or give
away any seeds or save them for next year's planting, and the company
inspects its customers' farms for violations.
Monsanto says that the new technology will benefit the environment,
arguing that the more farmers rely on Roundup, the less they will need
But studies show glyphosate, which has been described by the
Environmental Defense Fund and by Vice President Al Gore as safer than
other herbicides, is not as benign as it is billed. Glyphosate is less
toxic than many other herbicides, but it's still the third most commonly
reported cause of illness among agricultural workers in California. For
landscape maintenance workers, it ranks highest. And, according to the
Journal of Pesticide Reform, the herbicide also damages the ability of
bacteria to transform nitrogen into a usable form for plants, and it
harms fungi that help plants absorb water and nutrients. Residues of the
herbicide have been found in lettuce, carrots, and barley that were pla
nted a year after the soil was sprayed.
Critics also contend that as farmers plant more Roundup Ready seeds and
spray their fields with increased doses of Roundup, herbicide "drift"
may increase significantly. If this happens, neighboring farms may be
forced to switch to the Monsanto seeds in order to keep their crops from
being destroyed by the airborne herbicide.
Monsanto needs a big win with Roundup Ready seeds because the company
has invested so heavily in biotech. James Wilbur, an analyst with Smith
Barney, told the Wall Street Journal that "if genetic technology doesn't
work on a product like this, it calls into question the whole long-term
strategy of the company." But it may be human nature rather than Mother
Nature that puts a dent in Monsanto's marketing plans for biotech
products. The United States sells about 40 percent of its soybeans to
Europe, where consumers and environmentalists are in an uproar about
Roundup Ready soybeans. Even though these soybeans have been approved by
the European Union, many consumers aren't convinced they are safe. In
fact, surveys show up to 85 percent of Europeans would shun genetically
altered food if given the choice. EuroCommerce, a trade group
representing one-third of European wholesalers and retailers, has
demanded that gene-altered soybean products at least be labeled -- a
task that U.S. companies and officials say is impossible under current
distribution methods, since soybeans from different sources are mixed
together for shipment.
=46urthermore, the German subsidiaries of packaged food companies Unilever
and Nestl=8E said last year they will not buy Roundup Ready soybeans, and
canceled their U.S. soybean orders -- an amount that equaled 7 percent
of total U.S. soybean exports to Europe in 1995.
The threat of a European boycott of genetically altered food products is
significant, says Tim Galvin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Labeling is a hot topic, and far from played out." But the USDA opposes
labeling, claiming that gene-altered foods are no different from other
foods. And Galvin thinks the issue will blow over.
But will it? "Companies like Monsanto were caught off guard," says Ron
Barnett, president of Genetic ID, a small Iowa company that produces a
test capable of detecting genetic alterations in crops. Barnett said the
test has generated considerable demand from overseas importers who want
to avoid buying altered crops.
So far, American consumers have been mostly silent. But the Washington,
D.C.-based Pure Food Campaign, which was founded to combat bovine growth
hormone, is organizing a telephone campaign aimed at getting companies
such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's to shun genetically altered soy and
corn. Greenpeace ran a full-page ad in USA Today on Halloween, accusing
Monsanto of playing "tricks" with children's chocolate bars. And Central
Soya, one of the nation's biggest soybean processors, has barred Roundup
Ready soybeans from one of its grain elevators so that the different
beans can be compared.
U.S. officials say that consumers here and abroad are being irrational.
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, speaking on behalf of the United
States at the World Food Summit in Rome last year, said, "Biotechnology
can give us a quantum leap forward in food security by improving disease
and pest resistance, increasing tolerance to environmental stress,
raising crop yields, and preserving plant and animal diversity."
"As world leaders, we shouldn't fight sound science," Glickman argued.
"Countries that choose to turn away from biotechnology should recognize
the consequences of their actions to the world."
But critics insist the government and companies like Monsanto are
missing the point. "I'm not scientifically qualified to say whether the
crops are safe or not," says Dan McGuire, former executive director of
the recently disbanded Interstate Grain Commission, which arranged grain
sales between the United States and Europe. "But how can you be
market-oriented if you don't give the market what it wants?"
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