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Why Americans are happy to swallow the GM food experiment



                                      
          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
                                  section.
                                      
   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
                                 modified.
                                      
   '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
                        telecommunications engineer.
                                      
   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
                                  fresher.
                                      
     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
                                 argument.
                                      
   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
                                 struggle.'
                                      


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