Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Monsanto Files (4 of 4)

The Ecologist September October 1998

Who are the real Terrorists? by Zac Goldsmith

Unable to rely on courts, politicians, or regulations, 'normal' people have decided to take things into their own hands. They are branded as terrorists, vandals and hooligans. But who are the real hooligans?

By all accounts the people of Europe are more than just skeptical about biotechnology. Indeed numerous studies have shown that the great majority of people are actively opposed to any further development in the field. One recent Mori poll found that 77 per cent of those questioned would like to see an end to experimentation with generically engineered crops in the UK, and a study of UK consumer attitudes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Food. backed by Unilever, the Green Alliance and the University of Lancaster, has shown that consumers "harbor significant unease about the technology as a whole." More importantly it found that consumers have "mixed feelings about the integrity and adequacy of present patterns of government regulation, and in particular about official scientific assurances of safety

Such assurances are, of course. meaningless, since the knock-on effects of biotechnology are inherently unpredictable [see Mae Wan Ho, A. Kimbrell, P Kingsnorth J. Mendelson etc. in this issue]. According to the Soil Association, the organisation responsible for issuing the ‘organic’ label to UK farmers, "once released. the spread of genetically modified organisms in the environment cannot he balled. nor can the consequences be predicted . Genetic engineering is incompatible with sustainable agriculture." There have already been a number of potential disasters with accidentally released GMO’s. In mid-April for example Monsanto announced that it was recalling small quantities of genetically engineered canola seed which contained "an unapproved gene that had found its way into the product by mistake."

Significantly, there has been an 8 per cent increase in public rejection of the technology since 1996, during which time there has been a great deal more information on the subject. What’s more, a study published in Nature shows that the more people learn about biotechnology, the less faith they have in its safety or usefulness. "How much more evidence does the government need that the public does not want genetically engineered food, and that this opposition is increasing?" asks Sue Meyer, Director of Genewatch, the organization responsible for commissioning the Mori poll.

Widespread rejection of genetic engineering stretches far beyond the shores of Britain. In Austria, more than 20 per cent of the population signed a petition to ban genetically engineered food, and test crops have been uprooted in Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. A number of highly respected and usually uncontroversial organizations like, for example, Scottish Natural Heritage and the one million-member Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have clamored for a ban, or at least a moratorium, on genetic engineering. John Vidal of The Guardian newspaper tells us that over 200 whole food companies are calling for a similar moratorium, that Greenpeace has mobilized over 250.000 consumers in Germany, and that riots are expected among small farmers in India if biotechnology takes a grip on their country. Some UK retailers, including Iceland frozen foods and British Sugars, have already begun to exclude genetically engineered foods from their produce.

In March the Genetic Engineering Network, together with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. launched a "protect your food" campaign, designed to name and shame influential food producers, in particular Unilever, that continue to use CMOs. Already, over half a million "disloyalty cards" as opposed to supermarket customer loyalty cards, have been distributed around the UK, in supermarkets and wholefood shops. Holland and Barrett, one of the UK’s leading health food shops. has delisted a number of products as a result of the above campaign, and some Japanese firms have agreed to stop the marketing of processed foods manufactured with genetically engineered tomatoes.

At the same time, as Mae Wan Ho points out in this issue, there has been a massive increase in the popularity of organic foods, which more and more people are coming to see as their only safe haven from biotechnology. And as an unprecedented 220,000 US consumers illustrated in letters to the United States Department of Agriculture earlier this year. in protest against the proposed inclusion of genetically modified foods under the "organic" label [see R. Cummins in this issue]. They are determined to ensure that the term "organic" is not usurped by the likes of Monsanto.

There can be little doubt that most ordinary, independent people reject the genetic manipulation of life, arid yet licenses for such experiments are being handed out by governments like confetti. By April of this year there were 332 test sites in the UK, 70 per cent of which are controlled by just four companies: Monsanto, Agrevo/BGS, Novartis/Hilleshog. and Sharp’s International Seeds Ltd. Indeed not one application so far presented to the British government’s committee of experts on genetic engineering has been turned down.

In effect, we have allowed a small number of very large corporations, which are by definition concerned almost exclusively with short-term profit, to gamble with our very existence on Earth. The rhetoric can be quite compelling. Monsanto. for instance, is apparently keen to ensure that we are "fully aware of the facts before making a purchase". They have ‘"often provided more information [on the subject] than necessary," they tell us. Yet the very same company is doing all in its power to prevent any form of labeling which might inform consumers of the genetically modified nature of their products [see Gore-lick in this issue. The company also tells us that they believe food should be grown with fewer pesticides and herbicides. Yet in their 1994 report to shareholders they point out that, "approximately 90 per cent of the world’s farm lands suitable for conservation tillage remain to be converted to this technique. For herbicide manufacturers this untouched potential means significant opportunities for sales growth.’

Robin Page, Director of the Countryside Restoration Trust is rightly skeptical "We have heard it all before," he points out. "DDT-based chemicals were going to help feed the world —instead they created an environmental catastrophe. BSE was another product of high-tech husbandry, involving a mixture of junk cattle food and organophosphates chemicals. Now again we are seeing a science described as ‘no risk’, when we have good reason to believe that there are major risks involved."

Other influential voices of opposition include f’lorianne Koechlin, who ironically comes from the Geigy Pharmaceuticals Empire. "Genetic engineering", she says, "is like a jumbo jet with bicycle brakes." Koechlin helped organize demands for a Swiss referendum on the issue. The campaign was a success until the tables were turned on them by the Swiss biotech company. Novartis, which among other things threatened to abandon the Swiss economy in favour of more sympathetic policies elsewhere.

The biotechnology industry is keen to suggest that public opposition to genetic engineering is essentially "emotional", and that science is on industry’s side. But given that the vast majority of resources funnelled into research on the subject come from industry itself, it would be naive to suppose that such research is entirely "objective". No institution can he expected to fund self-discrediting research. Numerous examples of misleading "findings" are listed in the pages of this magazine. Collectively they make it quite clear that we simply cannot believe the likes of Monsanto when they tell us that "we know.... that biotech’s seeds and plants are safe for human consumption, for farm animals and the environment?

But even in cases where science does raise serious doubts about the safety of individual experiments it is largely ignored, unless its findings are consistent with the interests of industry. For example, Swiss research into a genetically modified strain of maize, designed by Novartis as a poison to the larvae of the corn borer, has shown that it can kill beneficial insects as well as pests, and therefore disrupt the entire food chain. And yet still the European Union has declared that approval of the GM maize can be withdrawn only if new scientific evidence raises questions of safety. But, as Dr Ian Taylor of Greenpeace points out, that is exactly what the Swiss scientists have provided. Perhaps for the EU, research can only be classified as scientific if it serves to promote the interests of the biotechnology industry

If official assurances of safety are so unsatisfactory, where can consumers turn for honest information? As Peter Montague illustrates in his article on the sacking of two veteran news reporters from Fox TV Florida, for scrutinizing Monsanto’s involvement in BGH, the media seem unable to provide such a service. The likes of Monsanto are, after all, very major advertisers in television and the print media throughout the world, and therefore often exercise a determinant influence over what we, the public, get to see or read.

Even governments are to a worrying and increasing extent, controlled by these corporations. They too depend primarily on science generated by industry itself to form their views on biotechnology, and in any case tend to be obsessed by short-term economic indicators, frequently at the expense of more fundamental considerations of environmental health or human wellbeing. In the name of "inward investment" nations offer special trading terms and subsidies of every conceivable sort to woo the TNC’s to their shores. Keeping big business happy is now one of the basic governmental priorities — both left and right — in every country of the world. As a result corporate "irregularities" are routinely overlooked. For example, even though by 1994 Monsanto had been named by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a potentially responsible party at a great many Superfund sites (sites of unacceptable environmental damage), the company was able to assure its shareholders that "Monsanto’s liquidity, financial position and profitability are not expected to be materially affected."

On the issue of regulations at least, Monsanto has in the past been perfectly honest: ".... . in many cases we and others were writing the rules for this new science as we went along particularly regarding applications in foods and plants", it admitted. It is hardly surprising therefore that in response to Prince Charles’ attack on what he sees as an invasion into "realms that belong to God and to God alone", Monsanto advised the public that "while [he] is an intelligent man and perfectly capable of deciding whether he wants to eat these foods this should be the province of regulatory agencies ".

As Gorelick and others point out in this issue. The revolving door between big business and the regulators operates so smoothly that the two are becoming barely distinguishable.

It is clear that democracy is failing us. Despite unambiguous resistance from the public at large, genetic engineering is being allowed to storm ahead — virtually unhindered. As a result, increasing numbers of people are deciding to take things into their own hands. Angry at the prospect of giving in to corporate bullying, they are setting out to accomplish by "direct action" what their political representatives have so lamentably failed to do on their behalf.

Writing in The Guardian newspaper about Patrick White-field, a lecturer with no history of civil disobedience, John Vidal shows how this is not just a fringe movement, but one which involves a cross-section of "respectable", law-abiding citizens. The same is true in the UK with the anti-road movement which is partly at least responsible for having scaled down government investments in road building from an initial £23 billion, to the present £6 billion.

"After hearing that five women had... gone into a test field and pulled up some genetically modified plants being tested for Monsanto, Whitefield phoned a Manchester-based group called Genetix Snowball and offered to do the same. Should he do so he risks being sued, fined and given a criminal record. Within weeks of his offer, a Manchester community worker, a Welsh lawyer and at least 250 others including TV chef Antony Worrall-Thomson had phoned to support or to join others taking ‘non-violent direct action’ against the controversial crops."

From the Lincolnshire Loppers, who pulled up a demonstration crop of genetically engineered Spring wheat. to the Kenilworth Croppers, who destroyed a display of GM wheat at the Royal Agricultural show; from the decontamination of an experimental crop of oilseed rape near Coventry to) the destruction of a plot of AgrEvo’s basta-resistant rapeseed in Australia by "Mothers Against Genetic Engineering"’: from the decontamination of 30 tons of transgenic maize seeds in France by 120 members of the farmers’ Confederation Paysanne to mass gatherings outside Monsanto’s Headquarters in Missouri, the clear message is that "normal" people are not prepared to allow their leaders to license away the stability of the living world.

So determined are an increasing number of people that the world should remain free from the possibility of infection by "Frankenstein foods", that direct action organizations are appearing as if from nowhere. As one participant in a Norfolk occupation pointed out, "it now seems that direct actions of this kind are the only way left to put the genie back in the bottle."

"Biotechnology companies must realize that they will be taken to task for their actions," warned another group of Scottish campaigners.

Not surprisingly this demonstration of public resistance has generated a backlash from the mainstream. Congressman Bill McCollum, for instance, condemned direct action as "terrorism in the name of Mother Nature", while Congressman Riggs described activists as "terrorists engaged in a criminal conspiracy". Some newspapers in England have complained that a number of campaigners were on government-funded educational grants. But to what greater use could students possibly put their grants than towards ensuring the world remains viable for future generations?

These dedicated people, from the old to the young. From mothers to grandmothers, from students to scientists, are referred to as ‘hooligans’, ‘vandals’ and ‘terrorists’. But in the end we should stand back and ask ourselves honestly, "Who are the real terrorists?"

Copyright © The Ecologist 1998


Sorrow said...

The demon gods of money speak to the souls of the corrupt.
In the US we have several "hooligan groups" that I am a member of, including the organic consumers group.
what a mess.

Ishtarmuz said...

If you liked this, then read the rest of the story:

Why Monsanto, An Ex-Chemical Company, Now A BioTech Company, Is Evil by Ishtarmuz