Not So Stellar StarLink-- Genetic Engineering Update
by Jean English
The strangest genetic engineering (GE) story of late is that of engineered lab pigs from the University of Florida that ended up in sausages at a funeral dinner. After the pigs, engineered to develop a disease similar to diabetic blindness, were killed by injection, an animal technical stole three of them, selling one and giving two away. The two went to a butcher, who made sausage from some of the meat and brought it to a funeral dinner. The butcher said he didn't eat the sausage because "it didn't taste right." The technician was fired. ("Tainted Pigs Show up in Sausage at Funeral," AP report, June 3, 2001)
StarLink DebacleFor almost a year now, the unintended release and widespread distribution of genetically engineered (GE) StarLink corn has shown just how uncontrollable and potentially harmful GE foods can be. StarLink contains a powerful, engineered protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) called Cry9C; the variety was approved for animal consumption but not for human consumption because it is 50 to 100 times more potent than other Bt-spliced varieties and could trigger allergic reactions. On Sept. 18, 2000, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA) coalition (www.gefoodalert.com) announced that it had had tests done that showed that StarLink was in Kraft taco shells. Later, GEFA announced that further testing had shown StarLink contaminated Safeway corn taco shells, Mission Foods corn products, and Western Family brand corn tacos. The coalition includes Friends of the Earth, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. (BioDemocracy News #30, Nov. 2000, at www.purefood.org)
Japan, where consumers have adamantly rejected GE foods, told the United States not to export StarLink to its market, yet traces of the corn were found in snack foods and in animal feed there last fall. (BioDemocracy News #30, Nov. 2000, at www.purefood.org)
By December 2000, StarLink had been found in over 300 brand-name products. Farmers filed class-action lawsuits against the manufacturer, Aventis, in Illinois and Iowa (BioDemocracy News #31, Jan. 2001, at www.purefood.org), and as a result, Aventis agreed to pay farmers in 17 states (including Maine) up to 25 cents per bushel for tainted corn and reimburse them for other losses (Bangor Daily News, Jan. 24, 2001; "Biotech corn agreement gives farmers millions," by Mike Glover, The Associated Press), and it agreed to cover documented losses of grain elevator operators (AP report, 3/8/01). Aventis was also required by Attorney General Jay Nixon of Missouri to issue a $25 million bond to compensate farmers and grain handlers for losses due to StarLink. ("Biotech News," by Richard Wolfson, Alive: Canadian J. of Health and Nutrition, April 2001) By March, the U.S. government had agreed to buy as much as $20 million worth of corn seed that was still contaminated with StarLink from small seed companies that had never agreed to sell StarLink themselves. Companies that had been licensed to sell StarLink were to bear their own losses. (AP report, 3/8/01)
Japan cut its corn purchases from the United States by more than 50% in 2000, and South Korea banned the import of U.S. corn--because of StarLink. In the United States, more than 50 consumers complained to the FDA that StarLink products had made them suffer rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, itching and life-threatening anaphylactic shock, and the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA investigated the allergy potential of this biotech crop. (CBS News, 5/17/01) The CDC said that the people it tested who had complained of possible allergy attacks did not have the antibodies in their blood that were linked to the StarLink protein. These tests were later criticized by Friends of the Earth (fact sheet, June 2001, at www.foe.org/safefood), which says that the group of 18 to 20 people tested is too small; that the allergy test was flawed because it used Cry9C grown in E. coli bacteria rather than that extracted from StarLink corn (the two differ in molecular structure and weight); and that the special risks to infants and young children were not assessed. According to Reuters ("StarLink Bio-Corn Found in White Corn Products," July 4, 2001), Florida optometrist Keith Finger, one of those whom the CDC had tested, later ate some Kash 'n Karry White Corn Tortilla Chips, believing that white corn was not engineered. He suffered intense itching and other allergic reactions and reported them again to FDA--which found that the chips contained StarLink, even though no white corn has been engineered to contain the StarLink gene.
Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. warned farmers that it would buy only crops 'that have full feed and food approval worldwide." (BioDemocracy News #31, Jan. 2001, at www.purefood.org) Likewise, the National Corn Growers Association warned farmers not to buy corn that was not certified as StarLink-free. (AP report, 3/8/01)
In light of the release and spread of StarLink, New Scientist magazine (Oct. 7, 2000; U.K.) asked: If biotech companies and the FDA can't keep an unapproved variety out of the human food chain, how will they contain the next generation of GE crops, which are slated to contain vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs? "We can't ignore the taco fiasco," said New Scientist; "Why was it left to Friends of the Earth to commission the tests that found StarLink in taco shells? The food industry needs to get its act together before the new generation of modified plants arrives. Next time, the consequences could be serious." (BioDemocracy News #30, Nov. 2000, at www.purefood.org) Four Canadian scientists wrote a similar letter of warning to the Toronto Globe and Mail (May 2, 2001) stating that genetic drift or pollution from GE plants that make medicinal drugs or industrial chemicals is a potential disaster. The four--retired Agriculture Canada scientist Bert Christie; former McMaster University science dean Dennis McCalla, McGill University animal science professor Dick Beames, and Dr. Hugh Lehman of the University of Guelph--warned of a "high probability" that StarLink-like contamination could occur if crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals were tested in the open. Some experiments now underway that concern them involve adding human DNA to alfalfa plants, enabling canola plants to produce plastic-making polymers, and trying to make blood protein grow in rubber plants.
Reports of StarLink contaminated foods continued to appear in the news. A press release from Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org.uk; "Kellogg's Corn Tests Positive for Illegal Gene Altered Variety," March 8, 2001) stated that Kellogg's Morningstar Farms Corn Dogs tested positive not only for StarLink, but the corn dog and two other products also tested positive for GE soy--even though Kellogg's said it was moving away from GE ingredients.
On March 18, 2001, the Washington Post ("Biotech Corn Tainted Vast Amounts--Company's Report Expands Estimates") reported that more than 430 bushels of corn in storage nationwide contained some StarLink. This corn was to be rerouted to animal feed and ethanol production. An AP report (4/24/01) said that more than one-quarter of the nation's seed suppliers had found corn seed contaminated with traces of Cry9C. On May 17, 2001, the Boston Globe reported that of 118,000 samples of corn tested by USDA since November, about 9% contained StarLink; but of 6,000 tested with more accurate methods since February, 22% tested positive. Aventis claimed that the amounts found were so negligible that "the risk of allergic reaction approaches zero." ("Bioengineered Corn Shows Up in Far Higher Numbers than Previously Reported," by Anthony Shadid)
In response to the massive problems and expenses (more than $90 million in 2000, according to Pesticide Action Network Updates Service, May 23, 2001) incurred by StarLink, Aventis asked the EPA "for a change in federal regulations to allow some level of the engineered corn, known as StarLink, in human food. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001) It requested a "tolerance level" of 20 ppb for StarLink in shipments arriving at corn mills for food processing. An EPA advisory panel had previously said that consumers ran a "medium likelihood" that StarLink could cause allergies, rashes, diarrhea or even anaphylactic shock. ("Will Bio-Corn Get to the Plate?" Reuters, 4/24/01) At the same time, Aventis decided that it wanted to sell its CropScience unit and focus on pharmaceuticals... (just-food.com, 4/25/01)
StarLink wasn't the only unapproved GE crop to jump the fence. On April 26, Monsanto recalled Quest brand GE canola from Canada because it was contaminated with a variety of GE canola that is not approved for human consumption in Japan. ("Against the Altered Grain--Some North American Crops Grown from Bioengineered Seed Face Bans in Certain Lucrative Export Markets," by Anthony Shadid, Boston Globe, May 2, 2001)
Engineered plants are growing even where they've never been planted, as well. In Canada, GE canola, engineered to resist herbicides, is becoming a weed as it grows in field after field where it was not sown. The seeds may be spreading through applications of cattle manure, speculate scientists. ("Genetically Modified Canola Becoming a Weed," CBC Radio, June 22, 2001; more on rogue GE plants later in this article) Martin Entz, a plant scientist at the University of Manitoba, says that GE canola has "spread much more rapidly than we thought it would. It's absolutely impossible to control." (BioDemocracy News #34, July 13, 2001, at www.purefood.org)
Engineered genes are showing up in foods where they shouldn't be, according to The Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2001, by Patricia Callahan and Scott Kilman). The newspaper had 20 food products that were labeled "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" tested and found that 11 contained evidence of genetic material used to modify plants, while five more contained more substantial amounts. DuPont Co., which supplies soybean powder to companies promoting their non-GMO brands, told the reporters that it doesn't guarantee its product as GE-free. "To get the figure to zilch is very difficult," said Nigel Hill of DuPont, because of the cross-pollination problem. For example, while StarLink corn was planted on only 0.4% of U.S. corn acreage, it showed up in 10% of the corn at some big grain processors. (Likewise, according to CropChoice News, 5/1/01, StarLink was planted on 1% of Iowa farmland and by harvest time, 50% of the crop registered positive for the engineered gene.) Hain, maker of Health Valley products, questioned the accuracy of The Wall Street Journal data, since its own supplier found no GE contamination before the Health Valley cereal was made. Likewise Clif Bar Inc. said that tests of its supplies before making its bars showed no GE seed. The Journal's tests found from 1.2% to 6.6% GE soy in samples from 3 bars. GeneScan USA, which did the tests for the Journal, said that it discourages clients from saying their products are GE free because of the possibility of contamination. Some of that contamination occurs when seed from many sources is mixed at large grain processors. The Journal noted that "across the country, small grain mills are springing up to fill the demand for non-GM ingredients."
Still, the Organic Federation of Australia reportedly says that organic products such as corn and canola imported from North America can no longer be guaranteed GE-free, and independent U.S. certifier Farm Verified Organic has alerted the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) that contamination of corn, canola and possibly soybeans is so pervasive that "we believe it is not possible for farmers in North America to source seed free from it... the potential of GMO pollution exists in the seed itself, not to mention the potential for field and post harvest contamination." ("GM Pollution Now Pervasive: Agency," by Claire Miller at www.theage.com.au/news/2001/04/30) CropChoice News quoted David Gould of Farm Verified Organic: "Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United States is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more. Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties." ("Organic Crop Certifiers Decry Transgenic Contamination," www.cropchoice.com, May 1, 2001) Because of GE pollution, U. S. conventional corn growers have essentially lost their $200 million annual market to Europe. ("Against the Altered Grain--Some North American Crops Grown from Bioengineered Seed Face Bans in Certain Lucrative Export Markets," by Anthony Shadid, Boston Globe, May 2, 2001) Despite that lost market and planting bans in Europe, Greenpeace tests on three corn varieties in Europe showed contamination with Novartis and Monsanto GE corn. ("Greenpeace Reveals More Genetic Contamination of Seeds in European Market," Greenpeace press release, May 4, 2001, at just-food.com/news_detail.asp?art=31899&app=1)
Some people believe that the GE food industry is just waiting (or has plotted) for so much contamination of non-GE crops to occur that the public will become overwhelmed and give up the fight. Says Jeremy Rifkin: "They're hoping there's enough contamination that it's a fait accompli. But the liability will kill them. We're going to see lawsuits across the Farm Belt as conventional farmers and organic farmers find that their product is contaminated." (The New York Times, June 13, 2001)
What's Out There?An estimated 33% of the U.S. corn acreage was GE in 1999; acreage fell to 25% in 2000. Fifty four percent of the U.S. soy crop is engineered, and 60% of processed foods contain soy or soy derivatives. The leading producers of GE crops are the United States (74% of all GE crops), Canada (10%) and Argentina (15%). (BioDemocracy News #30, Nov. 2000, and #31, Jan. 2001, and #33, May 2001, at www.purefood.org) Varieties of transgenic corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops cover some 70 million acres in the United States--approximately one-quarter of U.S. farmland--and nearly 100 million acres globally ("Small Core of Scientific Evidence on Environmental Benefits and Risks Limits Effective Regulation," press release, Henry A. Wallace Center, Arlington, Virginia, May 2001), and Monsanto seeds account for 94% of the total area planted in commercial GE crops worldwide. (Reuters, June 22, 2001) Meanwhile, conventional corn acreage is up 27% in Brazil this year...as Argentina, with its GE crop, is losing its export market. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001) Likewise, since GE crops were introduced in 1996, U.S. farm exports have fallen 15%, from $60 billion to $51 billion per year.
Among vegetables, varieties that may soon be marketed are Attribute sweet corn from Novartis; Freedom II squash from Seminis; Endless Summer tomato from DNA Plant Technology; and Seed Link radicchio. Growing for Market lists over 1500 applications for field trials received by USDA, over 200 of which have been issued. They cover carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, melons, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, squash and tomatoes. The Growing for Market website, www.growingformarket.com, links to a database with information about these field trials and to a Union of Concerned Scientists list of GE seeds now on the market. ("Coming Soon to a Field Near You: Genetically Engineered Vegetables," Growing for Market, Dec. 2000) And among grains, Monsanto expects to put its herbicide resistant wheat on the market as early as 2003 ("FDA Issues New Biotech Foods Rules," by Philip Brasher, Infobeat, Jan. 18, 2001.), and Roundup Ready alfalfa is expected in 2004 or 2005. (Weekly Market Bulletin, N.H. Dept. of Ag., May 9, 2001)
'Golden' rice has been the poster child of the biotech industry, which claims that this food, engineered to contain beta-carotene, will cure vitamin A-induced malnutrition, hunger and blindness. (Beta carotene is broken down into vitamin A in our bodies. Nearly 3 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, most in the Third World) Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva has highlighted the problems with this public relations "hoax." ("The 'Golden Rice' Hoax," by Vandana Shiva, Genetic Engineering News, Oct. 25, 2000, at www.natural-law.ca/genetic) The goal of engineering the rice to contain 33.3 micrograms per 100 g of rice "will be totally ineffective in removing vitamin A deficiency," says Shiva, since the daily average requirement of vitamin A is 750 micrograms, and one serving contains 30 g of rice, dry weight. Thus, a serving of Golden Rice would provide only 9.9 micrograms, or 1.32 percent of the required amount.
Because raw milled rice has a low fat content and fat is necessary for vitamin A uptake, Shiva says Golden rice could even aggravate vitamin A deficiency. The rice is also low in protein and iron, both of which are required for the metabolism of beta carotene.
"A far more efficient route to removing vitamin A deficiency is biodiversity conservation and propagation of naturally vitamin A-rich plants in agriculture and diets," says Shiva. She lists 19 foods that are rich in vitamin A and are common in Indian foods, from curry leaves (1,333 micrograms/100 g) to mango (500 micrograms/100 g) and spinach (600 micrograms/100g). "Even the World Bank," continues Shiva, "has admitted that rediscovering and use of local plants and conservation of vitamin A-rich green leafy vegetables and fruits have dramatically reduced vitamin A deficiency-threatened children over the past 20 years in very cheap and efficient ways. Women in Bengal use more than 200 varieties of field greens. Over 3 million people have benefited greatly from a food based project for removing vitamin A deficiency by increasing vitamin A availability through home gardens. The higher the diversity [of] crops, the better the uptake of pro-vitamin A.
"The reason there is vitamin A deficiency in India in spite of the rich biodiversity base and indigenous knowledge base in India is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of herbicides which destroy field greens."
"Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy," says Frances Moore Lappe (Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2001). "Thus it can never be solved by new technologies, even if they were to be proved safe. It can only be solved as citizens build democracies in which government is accountable to them, not private entities."
"Seventy-eight percent of countries reporting child malnourishment export food," says Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First. India, she adds, has one-third of the world's hungry--and a grain surplus of 42 million tons. ("Food Fight--International Protests Mount Against Genetically Engineered Crops," by Martin A. Lee, San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 27, 2001)
In addition to crops, microbes may be engineered--including legume inoculants. A posting on the Sustainable Agriculture Network Discussion Group warned that organic growers should check with suppliers and certifiers to ensure that the inoculants they use are not engineered.
Monsanto claims that its recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone is being injected into 30% of U.S. dairy cows, but "dairy farmers and analysts tell BioDemocracy News that the real figure is closer to 10%."
Controversy over GE fish is growing as the possibility that federal regulators could approve the proposal of Aqua Bounty Farms of Waltham, Mass., to begin marketing its GE salmon this year. The salmon produces hormones in a way that enables them to reach marketable size in 18 rather than 36 months. Aqua Bounty is working on GE tilapia and trout as well. The responsibility for regulating the fish falls under the realm of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine in this case, because the FDA says that the growth-promoting gene is analogous to a drug. ("Fish or Foul? Coming Soon to a Dinner Table Near You: DNA Fillet!" Mother Jones, March/April 2001, at www.motherjones.com/magazine/MA01/xgenic.html)
Safety Questions AriseTwo fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. LaReesa Wolfenbarger and Dr. Paul Phifer, questioned the safety of GE foods in the Dec. 15, 2000, issue of Science. After reviewing 35 peer-reviewed studies, they pointed out that almost no peer-reviewed research had been published showing that GE crops are safe for the environment or that they have any ecological benefits. They warned, "As more economically useful and health-related genes are identified and isolated, it appears that the variety of genetically engineered organisms will increase dramatically. This increase may collectively represent an environmental risk. The quality of modifications and modified products may also differ from those available through selective breeding. Traditional breeding is limited by the available genetic variability in the target organism or its relatives. The great potential, as well as risk, of genetic engineering is that it removes those limits." Likewise, Dr. Arpad Pusztai--originally a biotech researcher and now a critic--surveyed the scientific literature on animal feeding studies and found only four peer-reviewed articles on GE foods. (BioDemocracy News #31, Jan. 2001, at www.purefood.org)
Even published studies can be misleading. On Jan. 7, 2001, Barbara Keeler and Marc Lappe reported in the Los Angeles Times that the FDA apparently ignored data published by Monsanto in the Journal of Nutrition (March 1996)--data "camouflaged in a table on unrelated information," say Keeler and Lappe. The data suggest that Roundup Ready soy, relative to conventional soy meal, contained 27% more trypsin inhibitor, "a potential allergen that interferes with protein digestion and has been associated with enlarged cells in rat pancreases." Engineered soy meal that was toasted several times had nearly double the concentrations of lectin, another allergen, as conventional soy. (BioDemocracy News #31, Jan. 2001, at www.purefood.org) Also, Monsanto said that its study showed that Roundup-tolerant soybean seeds were equivalent to conventional; but combined data from the three experiments that Monsanto did actually showed significant differences in concentrations of fat, carbohydrates, ash and some fatty acids. Also, choline (necessary for brain functioning) was 29% lower in lecithin from Roundup Ready soy; lecithin is a common source of choline. Likewise, protein and phenylalanine (an essential amino acid) were lower, and male rats that were fed RR soy meal gained less weight than controls, while cows receiving the meal produced milk with more fat. ("Some Food for FDA Regulation," by Barbara Keeler and Marc Lappe, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7, 2001) "[T]he studies do confirm that transgenic foods need rigorous testing--by someone other than the affected industries and the researchers they fund--before they're released into the food supply," write Keeler and Lappe. "They also suggest that consumers may not be adequately protected when the FDA leaves the question of biofood safety up to the companies selling the biofoods."
Studies can be misleading when they are poorly designed, too. In an American Scientist editorial, "What is Significantly Safe?" (March 15, 2001, at http://americanscientist.org/articles/01articles/marvierp2.html), Calgene's petition to the USDA for a Bt cotton variety was reviewed. Four replicates of earthworms, 10 worms per replicate, were placed in soil holding ground leaves from either transgenic or nontransgenic cotton for 14 days, then survival was noted. Only one worm died, so Calgene concluded that transgenic cotton leaves did not affect earthworm survival. American Scientist points out, however, that 14 days is a short time; especially since an earthworm can live longer than several years; and that weight could be a more sensitive indicator of treatment effects. In the Calgene experiments, worms exposed to Bt cotton leaves gained 29.5% less weight than control worms...but because the experiment had such a small sample size and considerable variation among replicates, this difference was not statistically significant. If the same difference were found with twice the sample size, it would have been significant.
Likewise, American Scientist cited Monsanto's technique of throwing out data to yield a desired result. When Monsanto petitioned for approval of its Bt potato, it submitted data from experiments that were repeated only when statistically significant nontarget effects of Bt toxin were found. "If no effect was detected, the investigators did not repeat the experiment. This methodology strongly favors finding no effects even if a true effect exists. Essentially, this method resembles throwing out data--although somewhat less blatantly--unless it yields the desired answer."
The health of consumers and the environment--as well as the farm economy--may be endangered by Roundup Ready crops, as Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center reports ("Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields," Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, Sandpoint, Idaho, at www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html) that RR soybeans yield 5 to 10% less than conventional while they receive more herbicide and that increased herbicide use promotes the growing resistance of weeds to Roundup as well as a shift in the types of weeds growing on treated fields. Monsanto claims that no evidence shows that Roundup is losing its efficacy. (Increased sales of Roundup occurred in 2000. According to the Pesticide Action Network Updates Service, May 23, 2001, Monsanto's 8% increase in sales in 2000 was due primarily to sales of Roundup, which accounted for 67% of Monsanto's total sales. Volumes of Roundup sold increased 20% in the United States and Argentina and 16% worldwide) [ed. note: Perhaps some of that increase is due to the U.S. drug war in Colombia, where Monsanto's Roundup is sprayed on coca--as well as on campesinos, who complain of related health problems. In 2000, 145,750 gallons of Roundup were sprayed there. As of June 2001, almost 70,000 gallons had been sprayed. --at an expense of perhaps $1.5 million to U.S. taxpayers. Source: "Toxic Drift: Monsanto and the Drug War in Colombia," by Jeremy Bigwood, CorpWatch, June 25, 2001, at www.alternet.org/story.html?storyID=11088] Benbrook also says that RR soybeans are more susceptible to diseases--and University of Missouri researchers may have found a reason for this. A four-year study at a MU research center found elevated levels of Fusarium fungi in Roundup Ready soybean plots. While yields weren 't affected on these plots, the researchers said that "potential yield impacts in subsequent seasons due to high soil Fusarium populations, resulting from continued use of glyphosate, needs further investigation... studies of ecological impact from transgenic plants should include an analysis of effects on the microbial makeup of the soil." ("Herbicide Impact on Fusarium spp and Soybean Cyst Nematode in Glyphosate-Tolerant Soybean," by R.J. Kermer, P.A. Donald, A.J. Keaster and H.C. Minor, abstract at American Society of Agronomy website: www.asa-cssa-sssa.org/cgi-bin/abstract_database_search.cgi?objective=kremer)
Will herbicide use increase as growers try to get rid of GE crops? In Canada, "gene stacking" may force that issue. There, GE canola varieties are crossing with one another and accumulating, into individual plants, genes that were inserted into individual varieties by different labs. This forces farmers to use the same broad spectrum herbicides, such as 2,4-D, that they were trying to eliminate when they first went to GE canola. ("Genetically Engineered Canola Superweeds Out of Control--Spread Across Canada," by Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 14, 2001) Many of the above concerns are reviewed in Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment, from the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural & Environmental Policy at Winrock International (38 Winrock Dr., Morrilton AR 72110; Tel. 501-727-5435; at www.winrock.org/transgenic.pdf). "The varieties and uses of genetically altered crops have grown much more rapidly than our ability to understand or appropriately regulate them," says the report, adding that "assessments that account for a full range of differences in geography, weather, pests, and management have not been completed." The Wallace Center contrasts the permissive U.S. policy on approval of GE plants with that of the European Union. "The U.S. regulatory structure uses a 'science-based' risk approach, which essentially means that a transgenic crop will be approved for the market if there is no firm evidence that it causes harm. The EU's 'precautionary' approach reverses the priorities: a transgenic plant can be approved for market only if there is firm evidence that it does not cause harm." Two elements of a cautious approach are recommended: 1. Increase investment in public research and development for agricultural biotechnology to ensure that the neglected environmental aspects of transgenic crops receive adequate attention, and to build a credible scientific knowledge base, including a comprehensive monitoring system, by which to evaluate these crops and their environmental impacts; and 2. Develop appropriate regulatory frameworks for transgenic crops, and reform the institutions and regimens, such as intellectual property rights, that control their development and diffusion.
Why would farmers continue to plant GE crops, given the lack of consumer acceptance, potential for yield reduction and other problems? In the case of RR soy, because of massive price support subsidies from the USDA, says BioDemocracy News (#33, May 2001), and to save time. "With 88% of the average farm family's income now derived from off-farm employment, soybean farmers are desperately searching for anything that will save them time," says BioDemocracy News. Why would Monsanto push such a poor crop? In 2000, Roundup and other glyphosate products comprised $2.6 billion of Monsanto's $5.5 billion sales, says BioDemocracy (May 2001)
Safety Questions Muted?The Bush administration is continuing the revolving door policy of the Clinton administration. Linda J. Fisher, for example, was vice president of government and public affairs for Monsanto, heading the company's Washington lobbying office after working for EPA for 20 years. Bush nominated her to be EPA's deputy administrator. ("Bush Names Monsanto Executive for Senior EPA Job," Reuters, May 2, 2001) Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman worked for Calgene, now owned by Monsanto.
Labels and Polls, Bans and Moratoriums...A market-driven movement away from GE foods is occurring. Grain processors, such as ADM and ConAgra and Cargill, are moving into the non-GMO market (Cropchoice News, Sept. 29, 2000, at www.cropchoice.com), and McDonald's--at least in Europe--is appeasing consumers by saying that at its Danish, Swedish, German and British restaurants, it will serve chicken that was raised on GE-free feed. This could affect U.S. soybean exports, since this country's GE soy has been funneled into animal feeds in Europe. (BioDemocracy News #31, Jan. 2001, at www.purefood.org) In Maine, the Maine Corn Growers Cooperative has applied for a $500,000 federal grant for startup capital to provide GE-free corn for Global Protein Products of Waterville, which makes a corn protein into food packaging film. (Bangor Daily News, June 28, 2001)
Thirty-five countries have or are developing GE labeling laws. ("Soon All Our Foods Will Be Polluted by Genetic Modification," by Naomi Klein, The Guardian, London, June 21, 2001). Taiwan announced last fall that, like other Asian and Pacific countries, it would require mandatory labeling of food with GE ingredients in 2001. (BioDemocracy News #30, Nov. 2000, at www.purefood.org) On April 6, 2001, the government of Thailand banned all GE crops...followed by Sri Lanka on May 1...with China, in between (April 18), banning the cultivation of GE rice, corn, soy and wheat. Importers in Japan and South Korea are increasingly looking to Brazil, China and Australia for GE-free corn, soy and canola. (BioDemocracy News, #33, May 2001, at www.organicconsumers.org) Japan passed legislation this March that sets zero tolerance for imports of unapproved GE products, especially StarLink corn. The country was also seeking mandatory labeling for GE ingredients in food products and voluntary labeling for GE-free products. ("Japan's New Rules for Biotech Crop Imports," Reuters, Marcy 29, 2001)
As U.S. exporters have tried to dump GE corn in Mexico, where it is supposedly banned, indigenous groups there have called on the Mexican government to ban bioprospecting and biopiracy by GE companies. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001)
In yet another poll in the United States, consumers were clear that they didn't trust GE foods. ABC News polled 1,024 adults in June with the following results:
Consumers' perception of safety of GE foods:
Men vs. women on perceived safety:
Buying food labeled as GE
Buying food labeled as organically raised
In addition, 93% said that the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it had been engineered. "Such near unanimity in public opinion is rare," according to "Behind the Label--Many Skeptical of Bio-Engineered Food," by Gary Langer (June 19, 2001, at http://more.abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DailyNews/poll010619.html). Likewise, a public opinion poll released in March by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that three-fourths of Americans want to know if they're eating GE foods. ("Most Americans Want to Know if Eating Bio-Foods," by Julie Vorman, Reuters, March 26, 2001)
Farmers are falling into line with consumers. A poll of farmers done this June for the American Corn Growers Association found that 77% feel that consumer and foreign market concerns about GE foods are very or somewhat important; and 56% believe that Congress should require labeling of GE foods. ("American Corn Growers Third GM Survey: 77% Believe Consumer Concerns Important," Cropchoice, 7/16/01, at www.cropchoice.com)
The United States continued bucking the international trend and the desires of U.S. consumers to have GE foods labeled. On Jan. 17, 2001, the FDA proposed federal regulations that did not call for mandatory labeling or safety testing of GE foods. Instead, it proposed that biotech companies would have to notify FDA at least four months before selling new GE foods or ingredients, and it proposed voluntary labeling guidelines for foods that are GE-free or for processors who want to promote their biotech ingredients. Even the U.S. food industry, long trying to assure the public that GE foods are safe and needn't be labeled, is waking to the need for more regulation. On May 4, the Grocery Manufacturers of America told the Bush administration that new varieties of GE food should not be approved "unless there is a way to test for them." (BioDemocracy News, #33, May 2001) According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. sugar refiners and companies such as Hershey are telling farmers not to grow GE sugar beets sold by Monsanto and Aventis, and the Canadian Wheat Board wants Canada to ban GE wheat. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001)
North Dakota tried to legislate a moratorium on GE wheat (which has not been commercialized yet), but Monsanto lobbyists managed to kill it. "Monsanto's aggressive lobbying angered many US wheat farmers," reports BioDemocracy News (#33, May 2001), "who fear losing their one billion annual export sales to Europe and Japan." Engineered, herbicide-resistant wheat is expected to reach the market in 2003, but Europe and Japan have already said that they will not accept the crop. ("Farmers Joining Efforts Against Bioengineered Crops," by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, March 24, 2001) And in Maine, a bill passed in May requiring manufacturers and dealers of GE seeds and plants to instruct growers on minimizing potential cross-contamination. (See "Legislative Report" in the Sept.-Nov. issue of The MOF&G.)
A proposed ballot initiative in Denver, Colorado, in November will ask voters whether GE foods should be served in area schools, given that they have not been proven to be safe. (BioDemocracy News #34, July 13, 2001)
A partial ban on GE fish was passed in Maryland on April 12. That state says that GE fish cannot be raised in ponds that connect with state waterways, so that the GE fish cannot escape and breed or compete with native fish. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001) More than 60 environmental and fishermen's groups asked the FDA for a moratorium on the approval of GE fish, stating that the environmental and health risks had not been adequately studied. (New York Times, May 9, 2001)
ProtestsAfter years of raising consciousness about GE foods, the Organic Consumers Association, along with other members of the GEFA --Genetically Engineered Food Alert--(Friends of the Earth, Rights Action (Canada), Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network, and Sustain) began a more active campaign to end practices that they deem harmful to agriculture and the health of consumers. Noting that "there is diminishing tolerance among a significant proportion of Americans and others around the world for transnational corporations who use the rhetoric of social responsibility and environmental stewardship while continuing to outsource products from global sweatshops, whether in the factory or the field," the group targeted Starbucks in "the largest coordinated protest against genetically engineered foods (as well as the largest protest against agricultural sweatshops) in US history." On March 20, 2001, while Starbucks held its annual shareholders meeting, GEFA organized protests in front of Starbucks cafes in up to 100 cities nationwide because "Starbucks stubbornly refuses to guarantee that the milk, beverages, chocolate, ice cream and baked goods they are serving or selling are free of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and other genetically engineered ingredients (including soy derivatives and corn sweeteners)."
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) points out that rBGH is banned in every industrialized country except the United States and Mexico, and that Starbucks is one of the largest buyers of milk produced by cows treated with rBGH. (It buys 32 million gallons of milk a year in the United States.) Also, OCA says that Starbucks has not done enough to promote "Fair Trade" coffee--organic or transition-to-organic, shade-grown coffee, as opposed to "corporate plantation coffee, which is grown in the direct sunlight, utilizing pesticides and chemical fertilizers, typically on large plantations where the surrounding forest cover has been completely chopped down. Wages paid to impoverished farm workers on the typical sun-grown coffee plantations supplying Starbucks and other large coffee buyers average approximately $600 per year, less than the annual cost of a daily Starbucks latte in the US, Canada, Japan, or Europe." (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001) Starbucks says that it is researching the price and availability of GE-free foods and that it will start brewing Fair Trade coffee on an ongoing basis (BioDemocracy News #34, July 2001) As with the Starbucks protests, Greenpeace began campaigning against Trader Joe's supermarket chain in the United States because it does not follow the lead of its European parent company (Aldi) and remove GE ingredients from its brand name products. ((BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001)
Voting with dollars can work, as evidenced by the withdrawal of GE tomatoes in 1996 due to lack of quality and of Monsanto's GE Bt-potatoes (NatureMark) in 2001. McCain, a major potato processor, decided not to buy GE potatoes any longer, due to consumers' protests. (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001, at www.organicconsumers.org; Ontario Farmer, June 3, 2001). Monsanto's manager of public affairs, Adele Pelland, told the Ontario Farmer that Monsanto was forced to concentrate its biotech resources in strategic areas: for now, corn, oilseeds, wheat and cotton.
More violent protests have occurred, as arsonists burned a Monsanto depot in northern Italy and spray painted "Monsanto Killer: No GMOs" on the building. (Infobeat, April 4, 2001) A fire at a biology building at the University of Washington in May could also have been started by anti-GE people. The fire began in the office of Prof. H.D. Bradshaw, who has done basic genetic work on trees. The letters "ELF" (possibly Earth Liberation Front) and the phrase, "You cannot control what is wild," were written on the building. ("Blaze Damages Horticulture Center; Eco-terrorists Suspected," by Candace Heckman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 22, 2001) On the same day, another fire destroyed two buildings and several vehicles at a poplar tree nursery in Oregon. Managers of the nursery said that GE trees were not grown there, and U. of Washington researchers pointed out that the fire may have killed 100 showy stickseed plants--a species of which only 300 remain in the wild--as well as decades of research files and slides documenting the revegetation around Mount St. Helens since its May 1980 eruption. Bradshaw said that he has "personally never genetically engineered a tree," but he does do basic genetic research on GE poplars--none of which were damaged in the fire. ("Fires Believed Set as Protest Against Genetic Engineering," by Sam How Verhovek and Carol Kaesuk Yoon, The New York Times, May 23, 2001) In a press release after the fire, Bradshaw said, "The appropriate role of humans in the environment is the legitimate subject of debate, research and non-violent political action. Firebombing will never contribute to finding answers and solutions, and in this case has threatened many of the people and institutions most committed to protecting the Earth." (May 25, 2001, at http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/opinion/24580_bradshawop.shtml)
Craig Rosenbraugh, spokesperson for the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office in Portland, Oregon, countered, "I do find it interesting that students and faculty within the horticulture center were so quick to condemn the ELF action as terrorism, yet at the same time refusing to acknowledge publicly the real and superior threat to life that GM research and crops pose." He said that Bradshaw's basic research on GE trees is funded by several lumber and paper companies; that GE trees can pollinate native trees up to 400 miles away; and that even non-GE hybrid poplars are an "ecological nightmare" because their large-scale monoculture disrupts native ecosystems. Rosebraugh summarized that ELF "has exposed another body of researchers who behind closed doors away from public scrutiny think they can conduct their work no matter how dangerous. Just like the scientists that developed and pushed DDT forward, just like the scientists who developed the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons." (June 7, 2001, "In My Opinion," by Craig Rosebraugh, response to editorial sent to the Oregonian, from email@example.com)
Monsanto Sues Percy Schmeiser...and OthersThe GE food industry seems bent on incurring the disdain of farmers and consumers alike. In addition to opposing labeling, Monsanto has sued or threatened thousands of U.S. and Canadian farmers for saving seeds or for having its GE crop (Roundup Ready canola) growing on their land without paying royalties. Monsanto's most notorious lawsuit to date is one against 70-year-old Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, on whose land GE canola was found in 1998. On March 29, 2001, a Canadian Federal Court judge ruled that Schmeiser was guilty of growing the herbicide-resistant crop and Schmeiser is now supposed to pay $10,000 for licensing fees and up to $75,000 in profits from his crop to Monsanto. Schmeiser says that genetic drift from neighboring farms contaminated his fields with the GE crop. According to the Washington Post ("Farmer Liable for Growing Biotech Crops," by Marc Kaufman, March 30, 2001), Schmeiser knew that RR canola got into his 1997 crop. He used the seed from that crop the following year, but without intending to take advantage of the engineered trait (i.e., without spraying with Roundup). Monsanto claims that 95 to 98% of Schmeiser's fields were growing GE canola, while Schmeiser's independent testing showed a 0 to 40% range. ("Canadian Farmer Loses Biotech Seed Case to Monsanto," by Jane Akre, Environmental News Service, April 3, 2001) In response to the judgement, the National Farmers Union of Canada called for a moratorium on all GE crops. A spokeswoman for the NFU in the United States told the Washington Post (April 30, 2001), "the organization has been following the Schmeiser case with apprehension. We're extremely concerned by what liabilities may unfold for the farmer, particularly with cross-pollination of genetically modified plants." (BioDemocracy News #33, May 2001, at www.organicconsumers.org) Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists called the judge's decision "stunning. This means that people who are in the neighborhood of GM crops will have to pay royalties to the companies for products they never purchased and got no benefits from." ("Farmer Liable for Growing Biotech Crops," by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post, March 30, 2001) Schmeiser's lawyer, Terry Zakreski, said, "This decision has the potential of making every seed saver in Western Canada a patent infringer." ("Canadian Farmer Loses Biotech Seed Case to Monsanto," by Jane Akre, Environmental News Service, April 3, 2001; at http://ens.lycos.com/ens/apr2001/2001L-04-03-01.html)
Schmeiser has filed a counter-suit against Monsanto. Meanwhile, he reportedly has found that the GE canola is inferior to conventional because it "has too many greens inside the kernels...[it] doesn't ripen and you lose 50% of the value." While in India in 2000, Schmeiser received the Mahatma Gandhi Award from Indian farmers for his nonviolent work toward the betterment of humankind. ("Canadian Farmer Loses Biotech Seed Case to Monsanto," by Jane Akre, Environmental News Service, April 3, 2001; at http://ens.lycos.com/ens/apr2001/2001L-04-03-01.html)
Other lawsuits are popping up like unapproved corn in a taco factory. According to Cropchoice (http://www.cropchoice.com, 5/21/01, "Monsanto Still Suing Nelsons, Other Growers," by Robert Mann), Monsanto is also suing Roger, Rodney and Greg Nelson of Nelson Farm in North Dakota--despite the fact that the North Dakota State Seed Arbitration Board found no support for Monsanto's claims against the farmers. Monsanto says that the Nelsons saved Roundup Ready soybean seed in violation of its patent, while the Arbitration Board says that the Nelsons did not plant any saved RR soybean seed in 1998, 1999 or 2000. The Nelsons' attorney, Mark Fraase, is trying to change the venue for the trial from St. Louis to Fargo, North Dakota, because the law states that patent infringement cases must be tried in the state or district where they occurred. However, Monsanto's technology agreement says that patent infringement cases relating to its products must occur in St. Louis. This would seem to be a non-issue, since the Nelsons did not sign technology agreements before March 31, 1999--but Monsanto keeps pushing, not just through the lawsuit, but also by having its law firm send letters to numerous seed distributors in North Dakota and Minnesota instructing them to avoid selling Monsanto products to the Nelsons--a "PR stunt" intended to instill guilt in the family, says Rodney Nelson. Were it not for the financial and PR power that Monsanto wields, it would be laughable to note that 40% of the fields that Monsanto claims it tested in relation to the Nelson case allegedly were not on the Nelsons' farm...
Meanwhile, in Illinois, Eugene Stratemeyer is battling the biotech bully in court. Stratemeyer purchased RR soy to plant in 1998, paying the cost of the seed (about $16 or $17 per bag) plus the $6.50 technology fee per bag. He never signed a technology agreement disallowing him to save seed. When a man came to Stratemeyer and asked to buy some soybean seed for erosion control in the summer of 1998, Stratemeyer reluctantly sold him the seed, charging just $7 per bag--enough to cover the seed cleaning and bagging. Monsanto tested the seeds, found that they were Roundup Ready, and received a restraining order from a U.S. District Court judge. Monsanto seized Stratemeyer's soy harvest and told him he was being sued for patent infringement and breach of contract. Lacking a signed technology agreement from Stratemeyer, Monsanto's company agents allegedly forged his signature on one...misspelling his name! Stratemeyer's lawyer says that Monsanto agents admitted to forging many other farmers' signatures--but Monsanto now says that even without a valid, signed agreement, farmers who buy RR seeds are under an implied contract, since growers commonly know that the company doesn't allow them to save its seed. Stratemeyer's lawyer was able to get the venue for the trial changed from St. Louis to Illinois, and Stratemeyer has filed a counterclaim against Monsanto under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. The latter counterclaim has become a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other Illinois farmers whose names Monsanto forged.
In Mississippi, Mitchel Scruggs, who likes RR soy and cotton but not Monsanto's contract, saved and replanted the GE seed for four years. Monsanto sued. Scruggs countersued, claiming antitrust and saying that Monsanto is trying to control all of the food and fiber in the world by monopolizing the seed industry. Over 18,000 farmers have contacted Scruggs supporting the "Save Our Seed" campaign that he and fellow farmers have started. ("Biotech Soybeans Plant Seed of Risky Revolution," by Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2001)
In eastern Missouri, farmers have filed a class-action suit against Monsanto based on anti-trust and environmental claims under the nuisance and consumer fraud act. The suit seeks anti-trust damages for price fixing and other anti-competitive conduct. The environmental claims relate to economic damages due to regulatory and consumer rejection of GE crops. These farmers want adequate testing of GE crops for human health and environmental effects.
Is Monsanto getting tired of going to court? The company now requires that farmers growing its GE crops sign a contract saying that they have no rights to legal recourse if the crop fails to perform. ("Biotech News," by Richard Wolfson, April 2001, in Alive: Canadian J. of Health & Nutrition)
Can You Be Bought?The GE food industry is trying to gain consumers' approval through a $50 million, three-year PR campaign that includes TV commercials and print ads. The Council for Biotechnology Information, which sponsors the campaign, says that it may spend up to $250 million on the effort. ("Food Fight--International Protests Mount Against Genetically Engineered Crops," by Martin A. Lee, San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 27, 2001) That's enough money to build almost 50 K-8 schools in Maine... . Source/contact:, Jane Rissler, Ph.D., Senior Staff Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists, 1707 H Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006-3919.