Why Americans are happy to swallow the GM food experiment
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- Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 09:35:15 -0800 (PST)
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Why Americans are happy to swallow the GM food experiment
Americans have never had a food scare, and the industry is backed by
the food regulator and has strong links to the Clinton presidency
By Julian Borger
Guardian London Saturday February 20, 1999
America's vegetable aisles bloom like a multicoloured banner for the
Land of Plenty. In a typical supermarket in the nation's capital,
peppers, sweetcorn, potatoes and onions overflow in the produce
For Vic Foster, stocking up on a day off, it all looks good. He is not
a vegetarian but sees himself as a health-conscious consumer who
rarely eats red meat, due to the possible risks of heart disease and
cancer. He has faith in greens, but admits having not given much
thought to the possibility his purchases might have been genetically
'The way I look at it is that if there was any threat to the consumer,
we'd be told about it, like tobacco or salt. I mean we have the most
consumer-oriented system in the world,' said Mr Foster, a
His assumption that all is well is representative of US opinion. In a
survey this month by the International Food Information Council, 62
per cent of those questioned said they would be more likely to buy
vegetables that had been genetically engineered to taste better or
Compared to Europe, there is little public debate on the issue of
genetically-modified (GM) foods, and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) does not require food labels to inform consumers when a product
has been altered.
Consequently, agriculture has undergone an extraordinary revolution
with none of the sound and fury that has accompanied parallel changes
in computer science and Mr Foster's trade, telecommunications. More
than 50 million acres of farmland are currently sown with GM foods,
mostly soya, corn, cotton and potatoes. Four years ago, that acreage
was zero. More than half the soya products on sale in the US have been
genetically engineered, as have 75 per cent of processed foods.
According to Mark Hertzgaard, author of Earth Odyssey - a book on the
global environment, published in the UK next month - the principal
cause of this resounding silence is political.
'Corporations have a greater control of the debate here,' Mr
Hertzgaard said. 'It's cultural here. Everything is already wrapped in
plastic. You take it for granted. It's like the air you breathe.' The
links between the GM industry and the government have been carefully
cultivated. The dominant corporation in the field, Monsanto, a $7.5
billion (£5 billion) giant with 25,000 employees, has covered all its
bases, making significant financial contributions to both Republicans
and Democrats. It successfully lobbied the Reagan administration in
1986 to persuade it that no new legislation was required to regulate
research and production of GM foods. Congress was thus kept out of the
Monsanto's links with the Clinton presidency are even stronger. One of
its board members is Mickey Kantor, the chairman of Mr Clinton's 1992
presidential campaign and a former chief trade negotiator. Marcia
Hale, another former Clinton aide, is the company's international
regulatory director. When Monsanto brought a group of Irish
journalists to the US recently to combat a spate of bad publicity, the
visit included a tour of the White House.
Administration officials have taken the lead in lobbying for Monsanto
and the rest of the GM food industry, in the trade confrontation with
Europe over the issue. Even Al Gore, the supposedly
environmentally-friendly vice president, was brought on board when it
came to lobbying Paris to permit the sowing of GM crops in France.
An analysis of Monsanto's workings in the St Louis Post-Dispatch in
December found that 'where Monsanto seeks to sow, the US government
clears the ground'.
Significantly, at the cusp of the Bush and Clinton administrations,
when the FDA was drawing up guidelines for deciding whether GM foods
should be labelled, one of the key decision-makers was Michael Taylor,
who had hitherto been a lawyer for Monsanto.
The FDA determined that whether a food had been genetically engineered
was not a 'material fact'. James Maryansky, its biotechnology
co-ordinator, said the FDA would not 'require things to be on the
label just because a consumer might want to know them'. Some
government officials also argue that GM labelling would refer not to
the nature of the product itself, which has 'substantial equivalence'
to naturally-grown vegetables, but to a process - and therefore does
not have to be signposted.
The FDA rules mean that even risk-assessment data can also be withheld
as 'confidential business information'; in some states food companies
can sue competitors under 'veggie libel' laws, if they label their
products as having no genetically-engineered ingredients, on the basis
that this might imply superiority to GM products.
The more optimistic health and environmental activists believe that
although Monsanto and the GM industry may have won almost all the
battles so far, the war has only just begun. Jeremy Rifkin, the head
of the Foundation on Economic Trends, points out that US activists
began the world-wide campaign against the first major GM issue, Bovine
Growth Hormone when it began to be heavily used in the dairy industry
in 1994. And two years ago, when the FDA ruled that GM foods could be
labelled 'organic', 250,000 Americans wrote in to complain. Since
then, Mr Rifkin admits, interest has fallen off. 'Journalists say to
me: This is a non-story.'
The US has yet to undergo a serious food scare on the scale of
Britain's brush with BSE, so consumer faith in food producers
continues. But attitudes have also shown themselves extremely brittle
and could change radically in the event of a mishap. The honeymoon
between the GM food industry is already showing signs of tarnish,
after incidents of crop failure; Monsanto blamed weather, but in
Mississippi cotton farmers successfully sued for damages when their
genetically-altered crop failed in 1997.
Consumer activists argue the relationship with farmers may worsen
further in the aftermath of developments like 'The Terminator' - a GM
seed which self-destructs after its first crop, so farmers are obliged
to return to the manufacturers each season. 'The Terminator seeds
turns farmers into junkies. That's scary,' Mr Hertzgaard said.
But in the absence of some health or production capacity, the
industry's influence and consumer apathy have all but removed the
subject from the national debate.
Even the bullish Mr Rifkin admits: 'It's going to be a 100-year
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