Biotech battle of Seattle, and beyond
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- Date: Sun, 26 Dec 1999 05:46:02 -0800 (PST)
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Biotech battle of Seattle, and beyond
A Your Environment analysis on gene-modified foods
By Francesca Lyman
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and
editor of the American Museum of Natural History book, "Inside the
Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest" (Workman, 1998).
SPECIAL TO MSNBC --- [SPIN ---MSNBC on the Internet combines the worldwide
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Until several months ago, few Americans knew - or cared - that they
were eating genetically engineered foods. Now, fueled by trade disputes
and protests, public concern is growing over their health and
environmental safety. A new bill in Congress would label these foods.
CHEF DE CUISINE Matt Costello was introducing an "extraordinary"
menu to the roomful of diners returning from meetings surrounding the
recent World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Tonight's meal - Alaskan
spot prawns on a bed of locally grown, Washington State pea vines, pumpkin
tortellini made from organic flour, and wild caught salmon - would have
been standard, fresh and eco-friendly fare here at the city's famous
Dahlia Lounge, but for one change.
Tonight, the meal was prepared specifically to avoid any known
genetically engineered ingredients. "It's really important for you to be
able to know what's in the food you eat and how it's made," chef Costello
told the diners, adding that he didn't personally consider genetically
engineered foods to be healthy or safe.
Outside, pepper spray floated in the city air and protesters
continued to march past the restaurant door.
Out on the streets, and inside the Seattle convention center, where
the WTO talks were underway, global trade in genetically modified foods
was among the hottest topics of discussion.
The United States, where 75 percent of these crops are grown, wants
to open new markets for food biotechnology, but a growing number of
countries are saying no. And now, resistance appears to be spreading in
this country, too, judging from WTO protests and the demonstrations that
have welcomed the Food and Drug Administration's forums on the topic
around the country. The forums end today in Oakland, Calif., with public
comments accepted until January 2000.
"Two-thirds of Americans still don't know they're eating these
foods, but as soon as they become aware they'll want to know about their
risks," says Charles Margulis of Greenpeace, one of several environmental
groups that has become increasingly critical of the technology. "The
rising tide of consumer rejection is beginning to be felt."
Consumer groups are increasingly concerned that these foods could
be unhealthy and environmentally harmful, though the dangers may be slow
to appear, and argue that long-term safety tests should be done.
Defenders of food biotechnology, however, consider consumer fears to
be unsubstantiated by "sound science." In fact, the U.S. government itself
regards genetically-modified foods to be no different than their natural
"It's just matter of time before these new foods are embraced by
consumers for their many benefits," says Gene Grabowski, a lobbyist for
the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "We can't feed the planet unless
farmers increase their yields with biotechnology. It's like trying to stop
penicillin or the automobile."
Grabowski's trade group, along with 30 other food industry
organizations, recently formed the Alliance for Better Foods to boost
biotechnology in response to growing consumer resistance. With
biotechnology, scientists can modify crops by moving genes and their
desirable traits at will.
Currently crops are mainly altered genetically make them more
tolerant of weed-killers or to incorporate a pesticide. But farmers, say
biotechnology's proponents, could someday grow plants that could be
drought-resistant or less susceptible to freezing.
Because biotechnology promises, at least in theory, to increase
yield and decrease plants' need for chemical pesticides, farmers have been
encouraged to turn to it. During the last several years, biotechnology in
the United States has quickly spread across the farm states, with about 57
percent of soybeans, 65 percent of cotton and 38 percent of the corn
acreage being altered, according to the Agriculture Department. At
present, some 37 varieties of such foods have already been put on the
market - all unlabeled.
ENTER THE WTO
But as the United States has invested in more plantings, countries
to which we export have become increasingly leery of these foods. During
the last year, European countries have refused to approve genetically
engineered foods, partly in response to consumer protests there. Japan,
Brazil and other countries are also avoiding them. That has caused huge
export troubles for American farmers.
A look at the history of the WTO
Sept. 1943 American and British politicians struggle to stabilize
trade after World War II. They agree on goals such as reducing
international trade tariffs, outlawing discrimination and eliminating
quotas on goods.
Dec. 1945 American and British governments introduce set of
"proposals" that would establish the International Trade Organization
(ITO). Fifteen other countries are invited to join the effort and the
proposals gain momentum.
Feb. 1946 The proposals are accepted by the United Nations
Economic and Social Council. An 18-government committee appointed to
explore the idea of an ITO extends invitations to the rest of the seventy
members of the UN Council.
Oct. 1947 The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is
signed by 23 countries, cutting tariffs as a prelude to an ITO. Meanwhile,
participating countries are busy drawing up the ITO's "Havana Charter."
But ITO plans are abandoned when the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify its
charter. GATT remains in effect, but without an administrative
1949 The second of eight successive GATT negotiations, called
"rounds," begins in France. Some 350 national delegates continue these
meetings every five to six years.
1973 With 120 participating countries, GATT's Tokyo Round breaks
new ground with agreements on non-tariff barriers. But most of the
agreements are left largely non-binding to many members.
Sept. 1986 A new negotiating round, called the Uruguay Round,
begins. It is the most ambitious trade negotiation to date. The ministers
are able to accept an expanded agenda which, for the first time, covers
trade in services and intellectual property. (GATT had only covered trade
in goods.) The ministers gave themselves four years to complete their
December 1990 At a new round in in Brussels, disagreement on
agricultural trade reform leads to a decision to extend the Round. For two
years, the negotiations lurch continuously from impending failure to
predictions of imminent success. Differences between the United States and
European Community become central to the hope for successful conclusion.
December 1993 All outstanding issues from the Brussels Round on
market access are finally resolved and an agreement is prepared.
April 1994 The World Trade Organization is created when ministers
frommost of the 125 participating governments meet in Marrakesh, Morocco,
to sign the agreement. The WTO is to become a formal international
institution, joining the ranks of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund (IMF).
January 1995 The WTO debuts as the embodiment of the Uruguay Round of
December 1996 The first meeting of WTO ministers takes place. It
provides the first in-depth review and assessment of WTO operations,
establishes a precedent for future meetings and gives member countries an
idea of how the organization will set policies.
Enter the WTO talks. The Clinton administration, along with the
biotechnology industry, hoped that they would help to fast-track approvals
and pave the way for greater trade. Along the way, the administration
suggested a working group on biotechnology, and behind the scenes,
business groups, such as the Alliance for Better Foods, lobbied for its
support. Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo) read a letter in favor of biotech signed
by 300 scientists, most from industry.
But their gambit failed, when the European Commission, initially
interested, rejected any attempts "to deal with biotech exclusively on
trade grounds," arguing that serious issues still existed surrounding the
health of the foods.
European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne
said, "The biotechnology industry has moved forward very fast with what
would appear to be a disregard for the concerns of society and an
unwillingness to educate society as to the benefits of this technology. I
appreciate that the opposition to these products has to date been largely
found in Europe, but I am aware of growing concerns in the U.S. as well."
Environmentalists were quick to applaud the collapse of this elusive
deal, preferring for the issues to come up as part of the biosafety talks
under the United Nations' Convention on Biodiversity, to be held in
January in Montreal.
Meanwhile, dozens of teach-ins and workshops focusing on genetic
engineering and its social implications raged in downtown Seattle churches
and meeting halls attended by thousands.
UNINTENDED SIDE EFFECTS
Biophysicist Mae Wan Ho, of the Open University in the United
Kingdom, warned of the unintended side effects on human health, such as
mutations resulting from gene transfer. - These new viruses that keep
appearing are caused by horizontal gene transfer," she told one group.
In Ho's view, genetic engineering of crops, far from being a minor
extension of traditional breeding techniques, is a radical departure
because cross-breeding (like splicing fish genes into tomatoes or viruses
into fruit) would never occur in nature. Thus, it could produce unintended
side effects, she said.
Other speakers addressed the negative impacts on the world's farmers
and rural villagers of biotechnology. Vandana Shiva, author of Biopiracy,
argued that the world's indigenous farmers shouldn't have to give up their
biological treasures and Third world knowledge to corporations seeking
"Food biotech, she said, is a "threat to their survival and a threat
to biodiversity itself." Shiva also criticized the high intellectual
property fees developing countries may have to pay to countries with
But perhaps the biggest single debate surrounding modified food is
genetic or transgenic pollution, which critics contend is largely
unstudied. Environmentalists fear that genes from GMOs could spread to
wild plants and native species, resulting in herbicide-resistant
superweeds, or other over-colonization by dominant species.
Participants in a protest of an international union of family farmers
against gene-modified foods during WTO talks.
A recent study by Cornell University scientists showed that pollen
from GE corn, designed to produce a bacterial toxin to protect it from
corn borers, killed Monarch butterflies and other beneficial species.
Since then, another study, in Nature, found that a toxin produced by
genetically engineered corn to kill pests can also poison the soil.
For now, critics of the technology want there to at least be
"transparency" (to use a favorite WTO word) when it comes to these foods..
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) recently introduced a bill in Congress that
would call for a label that says "GENETICALLY ENGINEERED: United States
Called the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, the
legislation was introduced in mid-November with 20 co-sponsors and
Kucinich (D-Ohio) says it is gathering momentum as he seeks more support.
"Food is a very personal, even spiritual thing," Rep. Kucinich told
a forum on the subject. "But I consider it a fundamental consumer right to
know what's in the food we're eating."
A criminal is a person with predatory instincts without sufficient
capital to form a corporation. Clarence Darrow
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