Antoni's Wire Service

From Sat Mar 20 22:16:22 1999
Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 22:12:40 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
Subject: agbiodevestation2tech

Continuing the trend of the past months March has seen considerable activity in the area of agricultural biotechnology. This has included direct action against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), merging of major agbiotech firms and seminal civil society (i.e. non-corporate, non-governmental) conferences.

According to a report from Seoul's Policy & Information Center for International Solidarity (1) a group of South Korean students blocked access last week to a National Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology greenhouse where test production of GMOs was underway. The protesters chained themselves in place in a bid to publicize the absence of GMO regulation in their country (a deficit which the failed Biosafety Protocol talks in Cartagena, Colombia was meant to have made good.) Eventually the protesters were removed by the police, arrested and held for a few hours.

Concurrently activists in New Zealand were deracinating GM potatoes being grown at Lincoln University's Crop and Food Research Institute. A novel (to me, at least) feature of this operation was that the "eco-warriors" left their clothes behind at the scene so as to minimize the possibility of spreading GM material.

Nonetheless this proved insufficient to forestall criticism. Stephanie Mills, described as a Greenpeace campaigner, was quoted as saying that "Greenpeace does not support pulling of plants because it could increase the risk of dispersal, and it is also property destruction" (2). Although the point is well-taken that direct actions of this type must be managed with circumspection I see no reason to dismiss them as unacceptably hazardous. As veteran anti-corporate activist Tony Clarke remarked recently : "The only way to tackle Monsanto which has 300 million dollars to play around with and regularly buys out scientists and policy makers is to slowly bleed it by burning crops, sueing it in court and occupying its offices" (3). Without interventions of the sort seen at Lincoln University (and earlier in India, Ireland and other countries) government authorities are otherwise unlikely to consider the GMOs so urgent a matter as to require legislative remedy.

Earlier this month there had been rumors that Monsanto was on the verge of melding with the giant US chemical concern DuPont. Monsanto is perceived to be struggling under a heavy debt burden contracted in the course of a spree of acquisitions last year and is widely thought to require a significant cash infusion. It had attempted to address this by hooking up with American Home Products but in the end no deal could be reached between the two firms.

In light of the above the announcement on March 15 that DuPont has bought out Pioneer Co. comes as a serious blow to Monsanto. Pioneer, the world's largest seed company, was already 20% owned by DuPont. Given that Monsanto and Pioneer are one another's main rivals it was generally supposed that had DuPont merged with Monsanto it would have had to divest itself of its Pioneer holdings or risk facing an anti-trust suit. Perhaps in conjunction with concerns about Monsanto's solvency and ongoing image problems DuPont evidently decided that integrating more closely with Pioneer alone would be simpler than attempting a combination which would include Monsanto.

The news has both good and bad elements for activists. Certainly, Monsanto has been by far the most aggressive of all corporations in its drive to promote biotechnology and its uniquely close relationship with the Clinton administration has helped propel biotechnology promotion to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. As a result setbacks suffered by this one firm are likely to have a disproportionate impact on the development of agbiotech in the short term. Still, as the DuPont/Pioneer conglomerate takes shape it is probable that it will move to fill any vacuum arising from Monsanto's difficulties. It is also possible that Bill Clinton will prove unwilling to see Monsanto decline, especially if this gives rise to the publicly unpalatable specter of DuPont/Pioneer monopolising the seed market.

Colloquia on GMOs have lately concluded in a number of countries, including examples of so-called 'consensus conferences'. Such conferences bring together juries composed of individuals previously unacquainted with the subject being examined. Members of the jury are given access to unaligned authorities in the relevant fields and after interviewing these experts at length the jury makes recommendations. With the exception of Denmark, in all nations currently employing this system consensus conferences have no binding force but their powers of moral suasion can be considerable.

On March 12 a consensus conference sponsored by the Australian Consumers Association and the Australian Museum issued its counsel on GMOs. While their injunctions were not as strong as I would have wished the Australians did show considerable dubiety about GMOs noting that :

We are...sceptical of the arguments put forward by organisations that stand to benefit from GMO technology that it offers a blanket solution to the issue of world hunger...Australia should support a regulated trade approach in relation to GMOs. This would ensure a precautionary approach to GMO trade, the provision of a specific liability regime and segregation and labelling of all products.Australia should seek to initiate and support international treaties that protect those vulnerable from exploitation by bio-prospecting companies. -

A similar Canadian initiative based at the University of Calgary tendered its report on March 7/99. In some contrast to their Australian counterparts the Canadians seemed more than willing to trust the present federal regulatory process : of their 17 recommendations (4) no fewer than seven included advocated resolution via Ottawa's Biotechnology Strategy Advisory Committee.

I can only suppose that the Calgary conference was unaware of the undue influence exerted by biotech firms over existing official review bodies. In 'The GMO Lobby', which I posted on the AntWire on Feb.28/99, I cited some instances of Monsanto's subversion of due process, including its receipt of confidential documents relating to the examination of a Monsanto product by a World Health Organization (WHO) body.

Last week the Senate Agriculture Committee disclosed its findings that "a registered Monsanto lobbyist" was a member of Canada's delegation to the WHO commission mentioned above. "[Senator Mira Spivak] said her committee learned that BST files were stolen at Health Canada and that government scientists who had expressed doubts about Monsanto s safety tests had been muzzled after they began to talk publicly about the drug review." (5)

The idea of consensus conferences seems well-motivated but, from the perverse results produced by the Calgary group, may need reconsideration. If, going into a conference, jurors believe that certain institutions - such as Ottawa's food and agriculture inspectorate - are competent, adequately funded and immune to external influence then it is understandable that jurors would entrust GMO review to the civil service. Unfortunately, as Monsanto's shenanigans clearly illustrate, the current institutional framework is badly flawed. Inasmuch as consensus conferees are unaware of this they will be unable to choose wisely for their understanding of the relevant context is defective.

A different sort of forum concerned with the same subject matter was Biodevestation 2 in New Delhi which closed on March 12. This international gathering of activists - many of them scientists and/or agricultural workers - concluded their plenary with the determination that Monsanto must be undone (it was at Biodevestation 2 that Tony Clarke, quoted above, was speaking.) In a call to direct action of another kind, Mika Iba, leader of a 300,000-member consumer cooperative from Japan, said her organisation would now work with Indian farmers to undo damage wrought by the adoption of biotechnologies.

Many participants pledged to back the lawsuit brought in India's Supreme Court by Vandana Shiva which has produced a temporary interdiction of GMOs and will also, it is hoped, restrict them permanently. Delegates expressed support for challenges by some European states to the European Patents on Life Law.

The LA Times published an article this week which revealed that there is near unanimous support in Japan for the labelling - if not, indeed, the banning - of GMOs : "More than 80% of those questioned in a 1997 government survey said they have 'reservations' about such foods, and 92.5% favored mandatory labeling."(6)

The Times piece enumerates measures taken against GMOs by consumer groups which have effectively eliminated GM food from the diets of at least 15% of the population. The government has plans to implement a labelling regime feeling that anything less will lead to pressure for an outright ban.

Japan is the largest market for US agricultural exports, importing about a fifth of America's total production. Inevitably then Washington is more than a little perturbed by all of this and has already indicated so to Tokyo. If, as appears likely, Japan moves against GMOs in some capacity Clinton would almost be compelled to react given the scale of trade involved. Howvever, with the US already at "war" with the European Union over bananas and on the verge of same with Canada over split-run magazines one wonders whether Washington can afford to make another enemy.



(1) Policy & Information Center for International Solidarity

(2) 'Toad Gene Potatoes Uprooted in New Zealand', by Andrew Darby

(3) Death To Monsanto, Say World Scientists', By Ranjit Dev Raj, NEW DELHI, March 11

(4) Citizens' Panel on Food Biotechnology - Final Report, March 7, 1999

(5)'Outrage over Monsanto's underhand tactics in EU', by Gregory Palast, The Observer (London), Sunday 14 March

(6)'Japanese Choke on American Biofood', by Sonni Efron, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 14, 1999