GENTECH archive 8.96-97


Fwd: Mother Jones: No Way Around Roundup

Forwarded message:
From: (Epstein)
Date: 97-02-01 12:07:08 EST

Mother Jones, Jan-Feb 1997

No Way Around Roundup

 Monsanto's bioengineered seeds are designed to require more of the
 company's herbicide. 

 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 company. 

 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

 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

 Monsanto says that the new technology will benefit the
 environment, arguing that the more farmers rely on Roundup, the
 less they will need harsher herbicides. 

 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 planted a year after the soil was

 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

 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. 

 Furthermore, the German subsidiaries of packaged food companies
 Unilever and Nestlé 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

 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

Dr Ron Epstein				
Philosophy Department			
College of Humanities			
San Francisco State University		
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