Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Fri, 18 Dec 1998 23:36:32 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Undisclosed recipients
Subject: trouble for biotechies

Hi everybody,

As a corollary to the message I forwarded from RAFI about the Terminator's "image problem" I decided to offer a brief round-up of some other recent reverses suffered by the biotech industry.

Perhaps because it has been so aggressive in its campaigns Monsanto seems to have attracted the greatest amount of negative attention. As a result it has become a preferred target for activists and is now feeling the heat in a number of ways (sometimes literally; see below).

As I reported about a week ago, the Indian NGO KRRS has resorted to direct action in its bid to oust Monsanto from the subcontinent, burning all genetically modified (GM) crops. Now, KRRS has announced that it has asked that criminal charges be filed against Monsanto for allegedly carrying out unauthorized field trials of genetically modified Bollgard Cotton seeds.

Monsanto also faces legal action in the United Kingdom. The British government is suing the company for failure to comply with regulations designed to control the spread of pollen from GM crops.

Monsanto is also experiencing difficulties in North America. This is in large part due to testimony from six Health Canada scientists who, in a brave and unprecedented move, came before the Senate earlier this year with revelations about bovine growth hormone (BGH). Their depositions have led to a continued freeze on the use of BGH in Canada as well as calls from US Senators for an investigation (BGH has already been used by the US dairy industry for several years).

Monsanto has done its best (or perhaps I should say, worst) to pass off BGH as harmless, but to less and less avail. In 1997 Monsanto managed to bully a Fox-TV affiliate station into suppressing a story on BGH. Only two months ago an entire press run of the British environmental periodical The Ecologist was scrapped by its printer (the issue was a special number devoted to criticism of Monsanto; you guess why the printer trashed it). However, recently Monsanto was unable to stop ABC News from airing a highly critical documentary on BGH, featuring damning comments from the Health Canada scientists.

France's Council of State, at least for the time being, has derailed the plans of Swiss multinational Novartis to put GM corn seed on the market. The Council has placed a moratorium on sales pending a decision from the European Court of Justice on whether France must permit the vending of GM seed (as per a directive of the European Commission). It is thought that the Court will not hand down a ruling for up to 18 months.

The Australia-New Zealand Food Standards Council has voted to introduce mandatory lablling of genetically-engineered foods. New Zealand's inveterately neoliberal representative on the Council had opposed the measure but fortunately was outnumbered by the Australian state/territorial appointees.

Having listed these bright spots I nonetheless must weigh in with some cautionary notes.

First, these developments are generally only positive inasmuch as harm has been avoided, not benefit attained.

Second, as RAFI warned in their advisory on the Terminator, having been bloodied Monsanto and its ilk are likely to become twice as cagey - hence twice as dangerous. Already the biotech firms have begun to retrench by moving their operations to regions with fewer resources to fight back as this week's issue of BRIDGES Trade News Digest reveals :

Africa is being targeted by multi-national corporations desperate for a market to sell genetically engineered products which have been rejected elsewhere, environmental groups have warned. Another problem is the privatisation of state-owned seed distribution companies in countries such as Zimbabwe, said participants in the first Euro-African Green Conference, held in Nairobi early this month.

To sum up : as with respect to the international trade agenda, progressives have recently gained ground in the struggle against life patents. Certainly we should be encouraged by this but we can hardly permit ourselves to become complacent.