IN THESE TIMES * (Chicago, Illinois) NOVEMBER 11, 1996
RECIPE FOR DISASTER
By Joel Bleifuss
Agribusiness corporations have long hoped to make GMOs (genetically
modified organisms) a permanent, and inescapable, feature of our
daily diet. But to get to that point, chemical giants such as
the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.and the Swiss company Ciba-Geigy
AG will have to overcome consumer, environmental and public health
organizations that fear this pell-mell rush to a genetically modified
future. And they'll have to somehow get past the roadblocks Mother
Nature has put in their way.
Three of Monsanto's bioengineered marvels are in the process of going bust. The company's artificial bovine growth hormone (rBGH), introduced in February 1994, has not lived up to its promise. Although the drug does increase milk production, the resultant health problems in cattle outweigh the benefits from the extra milk produced, as critics warned they would. In April, Business Week reported that Wall Street insiders were predicting that rBGH would be pulled off the market by the end of the year. Furthermore, the Pure Food Campaign obtained a letter, signed by 10 scientists who have done
rBGH research for Monsanto, that reveals a 55 percent drop in
sales of the wonder drug between February 1995 and February 1996.
After two years in stores, the Flavr Savr tomato is now off the
market and heading for the dumpster. The tomato, which was developed
by a company in which Monsanto has a half stake, had been genetically
engineered to taste like a homegrown tomato yet be sturdy enough
to ship across country. (The current grocery store tomato lost
its taste in the process of being bred for ease of packing and
shipping.) The Flavr Savr's problem is that it was developed in
California and won't grow well in Florida's sandy soils and different
Now, Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton, Bollgard, is proving
a failure. The cotton, which accounts for 13 percent of the nation's
annual crop this year, had been altered to produce a substance
that acts as a natural pesticide to three insects that eat cotton.
But the Bollgard cotton is not working as planned. As James Wilbur,
an analyst with Smith Barney, told the Wall Street Journal, "if
genetic technology doesn't work on a product like this, it calls
into question the whole long-term strategy of the company."
Monsanto had sold the Bollgald seeds to farmers with brochures that pictured a bollworm and advised: "You'll see these in your cotton and that's okay. Don't spray. Just relax. Bollgard will protect your cotton." But a heavy bollworm infestation this summer, combined with the failure of Bollgard to perform as expected, forced the company to change course. Monsanto began telling farmers that spraying might be necessary to save their crops. In fact, Abbott Laboratories marketed its DiPel insecticide, "which contains
a blend of five or more toxins," as the chemical solution
for growers who planted Monsanto's Bollgard. [Of course, they
didn't back up their promises by giving the farmers this pesticide
In theory, Bollgard cotton works because it has been genetically engineered to contain genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is harmless to humans but in high enough doses kills insects. Yet the long-term implications are frightening. Bt, a natural substance, is a key weapon in organic farmers' battle with pests. By making this natural pesticide an integral part of cotton and other crops such as soybeans and corn,
Monsanto and other biotech firms will hasten the evolution of
Bt-resistant insects. Indeed, Monsanto itself admits that it is
only a matter of time before the bugs develop a resistance to
Earlier this year Monsanto introduced another genetically altered
product likely to turn out as ill-advised as rBGH, Bollgard and
the Flavr Savr tomato: the Roundup Ready soybean. Roundup Ready
has been altered to include a gene from a bacterium that makes
the plant resistant to Glyphosate, the key toxin in Monsanto's
Roundup herbicide. Farmers who plant Roundup Ready beans will
he able to spray the herbicide on their fields without killing
Ciba-Geigy has similar plans for Maximizer, a corn hybrid loaded
with three altered genes, which the company introduced last spring.
Like Monsanto's cotton, Ciba-Geigy's corn contains a Bt gene that
makes the corn toxic to pests, in this case the corn-borer larvae.
Like Roundup Ready, Maximizer is also built to resist one of Ciba-Geigy's
herbicides, in this case glufosinate, manufactured under the brand
Maximizer has been approved for sale in Canada and the United
States, but European countries, in particular Britain, Sweden,
Austria and Denmark, are balking. The European Union has so far
refused to approve the corn for import. The impasse could escalate
into a trade war between the United States and Europe.
Europeans are concerned that Ciba-Geigy's corn will lead to the
development of Bt-resistant corn borers. They also fear that
the genes that make Roundup Ready soybeans and Maximizer corn
resistant to the Monsanto and Ciba-Geigy herbicides could transfer
to weeds, making those weeds impervious to the herbicides. [**]
Such resistance has already been observed in Denmark, where rapeseed,
a native European plant used to make vegetable oil, was genetically
altered to resist a pesticide. That resistance then jumped from
the rapeseed plant to neighboring weeds.
[**] Finally, some European scientists are worried about a bacterium
gene in Ciba-Geigy's corn that conveys resistance to the antibiotic
ampicillin. Ciba-Geigy claims that this gene serves no purpose
other than as a handy marker for scientists to determine which
plants have the added genes. Some scientists, however, fear that
the gene could be passed to the cattle who eat the corn, and from
there, spread to people who eat the cattle. Both animals and humans
would then become resistant to ampicillin, an antibiotic doctors
and veterinarians commonly use to fight infections. For this reason
the British government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and
Processes has sought to ban the doctored corn.
On top of all this, some genetically modified foodstuffs have proved dangerous to people who suffer from allergies. For example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Des Moines based seed company, developed a genetically modified soybean using genes from Brazil nuts. But the company had to abandon the product before it hit the market because people with nut allergies, which occasionally are fatal, were found to be allergic to the new
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that genetically
modified organisms derived from products to which many people
are allergic be tested and labeled. But an editorial in the New
England Journal of Medicine last March argued that the policy
did not go far enough: "Because FDA requirements do not apply
to foods that are rarely allergenic or to donor organisms of unknown
allergenicity, the policy would appear to favor industry over
consumer protection." The editorial called for the labeling
of all foods containing genetically altered organisms, concluding
that industry benefits when the public is convinced that transgenic
foods are safe, and stronger federal regulations would encourage
such public confidence."
Europeans seem to share this sentiment. According to recent surveys,
85 percent of Europeans would choose not to eat genetically modified
foods if given the choice. This mistrust of bioengineered foods
has put U.S. soybean growers-- who export 40 percent of their
crop to Europe--in a precarious position. Even though the European
Union approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans earlier this
year, EuroCommerce, the Union's major trade association, has demanded
that genetically altered soybeans be labeled and separated from
Last month, the German unit of the Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever
canceled all 1996 orders for U.S. soybeans, totaling 650,000 metric
tons, unless they could be guaranteed "Roundup Ready soybean-free."
Aa a Unilever spokesperson explained, "We are a consumer-driven
company and we have to take their wishes into account." Even
though Roundup Ready makes up only 2 percent of the U.S. soybean
crop, U.S. soybean suppliers cannot comply with the demand of
Unilever's German unit because the Roundup Ready beans are not
separated from the traditional varieties.
A similar consumer backlash may be brewing in the United States. "Where agribusiness has miscalculated is in thinking that you can operate in today's global economy under the rules of the consumer be damned," says Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Pure Food Campaign, which is spearheading the opposition to bioengineered foods in this country. His group is calling for a global boycott of 10 processed foods that will soon
contain Roundup Ready soybeans and Maximizer corn, including Coca-Cola,
Fritos corn chips, Kraft salad dressings, Similac infant formula
and McDonald's french fries.
The U.S. government, however, shows no sign of abandoning its support of bioengineering. Campaigning last month in Iowa, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the United States will stand behind its genetically altered produce and oppose any European labeling requirements as a trade violation. "We've got to make sure that sound science prevails, not what I call historic culture, which is not based on sound science," he said. "Europe has a much greater sensitivity to the culture of food, as opposed to the
science of food. But in the modern world, we just have to keep
the pressure on the science. Good science must prevail in these
decisions." [Just showing his ignorance!]
But in supporting Monsanto's right to grow and export genetically
engineered food crops, Glickman appears interested less in "good
science" than in making sure "corporate science"
prevails--the kind of science that historically has guaranteed
short-term profits for corporate America and long-term problems
for the rest of us.