The Spud America didn't like
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- Date: Sat, 27 Feb 1999 03:03:11 -0800 (PST)
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The Spud America didn't like
The US wasn't worrying about GM food. Now the genie is out of the bottle.
By Emily Green. The New Statesman (http://www.newstatesman.co.uk)
The British tend to assume that something "American" is either odious, or
new and improved. In the case of genetically modified foods, the public
thinks the former, the Prime Minister thinks the latter. But how are
"Frankenfoods" seen in America itself~
In most cases, they aren't seen at all. Estimates vary as to how many cows
in the US are regularly injected with the genetically engineered growth
hormone "Posilac", or bovine somatotropin (BST). Monsanto couldn't tell me.
It might be 7 per cent, it might be 15, it might be 30. Anywhere from
700,000 to three million cows receive it, and their milk is not labelled,
nor is the cheese or yoghurt that's made from it.
An estimated 45-50 million acres of GM crops (ofthe 69.5 million planted
globally) now grow in the US. These, too, go unnoticed by the average
citizen. They are grown on huge, isolated farms and then sold in bulk to
distributors and processors from where they slip undeclared into all manner
of products - as soy beans into sauces, as potatoes into chips at
McDonald's, as corn into tins of minestrone, as cotton into garments.
According to Monsanto, this is because GM crops are safe and desirable.
According to their detractors, they do so because of decades of political
cosiness between government and agri-business.
Both sides agree, though, that Monsanto won the first round of the battle in
1993, when BST became, in Monsanto's words, "the first product of
biotechnology approved for commercial sale". Ronnie Cummins, director of the
Campaign for Food Safety, a pressure group based in Minnesota and
Washington, DC, is still fighting its use. "It's crack for cows," he says.
"You can make some money if you're going to discard your cows after two or
three years. The only reason Monsanto keeps it on the market is that it
would be a disaster to admit that it was wrong."
Most of the developed world appears to agree with him. No industrialised
country outside the US has licensed Posilac BST. Last December the Canadian
government again declined to approve it.
In the US, according to Cummins, media and public awareness of GM foods
seemed to begin and end with that battle over BST. "When the soy and corn
and cotton started to be planted on a widespread basis, there was no media
Last autumn, this changed. On 25 October 1998,the New York Times published
an 8,579-word article about Monsanto's "New Leaf" potato, a spud containing
a transgene for a soil bacterium fatal to certain beetles, Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt). "There are not many articles that make a difference,"
says Margaret Mellon, a molecular biologist at the Union of Concerned
Scientists in Washington, DC. "Everybody read it. People began to think
differently and harder."
"I worked on it for ever," Michael Pollan, the author, recalls. "I spent a
couple of months persuading them [Monsanto] to co-operate.
"When I got into it, I was just shocked. I come from New England, where the
farms are really small." Monsanto took him to the vast potato farms of the
west, where the transgene Bt potatoes were one way to cut down the use of
pesticides and herbicides, which were not only toxic, but ruinously
expensive. He met farmers who felt "trapped by the chemical inputs required
to extract the high yields they must achieve in order to pay for the
chemical inputs they need. The economics were daunting: a potato farmer in
south-central Idaho will spend roughly $1,965 an acre (mainly on chemicals,
electricity, water and seed) to grow a crop that, in a good year, will earn
him maybe $1,980."
Anybody who reads Pollan's accounts of farmers trapped between chemical and
transgenic technologies - neither method strictly chemical-free, both
dependent on science that the farmers did not understand - is likely to
conclude that organic farming looks very appealing.
The bombshell was Pollan's explanation of how transgenic products could be
entering the food chain unlabelled. Pollan found that the gene was not
considered a "food additive" but a pesticide. It was therefore not under
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) jurisdiction. He was referred to the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "When I called the EPA," he wrote,
"and asked if the agency had tested my Bt potatoes for safety as a human
food, the answer was . . . not exactly. It seems the EPAworks from the
assumption that if the original potato is safe and the Bt protein added to
it is safe, then the whole New Leafpackage is presumed to be safe."
"This is a regime set up by the former Republican vice-president Dan Quayle,
an enemy of regulation," Pollan explains to me. "Every agency thought it was
the job ofthe next agency."
Legislators have slept through the controversy, say critics of GM. "The
Democratic Party has decided this is one ofthe star technologies that it
wants to support," says Pollan. "You just don't get a meaningful political
debate when both political parties are on the same side."
But media interest has perked up since Pollan's article. Reports critical of
Monsanto have appeared in the mainstream media, not least onABC nightly
news, and in Time and the Washington Post. Accordingto Ronnie Cummins, two
separate lawsuits are being f~led, one demanding bovine growth hormone be
withdrawn from the market, the other that all crops containing the Bt gene
be banned. He is still relishing a recent Monsanto humiliation, an own-goal
in which the corporation lobbied to change organic standards to accept
transgene crops. The bigger the humiliation in Europe, and the more
controversy about GM food production, Cummins thinks, the better for
America. "I think we're going to see a situation in the US where organic -
real organic - is going to be a gigantic market," he says.
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