Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Sun, 28 Feb 1999 23:18:24 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: the GMO lobby


Although mainstream US and Canadian newsmedia are all but oblivious to the fact, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a cause of great public concern throughout much of the world. This is reflected in opinion polls - e.g. 95% of German consumers surveyed rejected GMOs (1) - and also in the growing corpus of legislation on GMOs.

As I mentioned in my 'February round-up on GMOs' India and the UK have recently placed sharp restrictions on raising GMO crops. Other jurisdictions which had already introduced similar measures include France, Egypt, Austria and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil. Only one country in the world (the US, of course) has authorized the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). New Zealand and Australia have mandated the labelling as such of foodstuffs containing GMOs.

There is reason enough to resist the biotechnology industry's drive to supplant natural processes. The full extent of the deleterious consequences which could stem from genetic manipulation is literally unimaginable but some of the permutations which have been adduced ought to be sufficient in themselves to give pause. For instance, one possibility is that baleful characteristics possessed by GMOs could be passed on to those who consume them. This was confirmed in principle by a Dutch study which, as Reuters reported on Jan.27/99, demonstrated that GMOs could transmit bacterial resistance to antibiotics to those who eat them (2). This mechanism could potentially give rise to incurable infections of epidemic proportions.

Already genetic engineering has claimed lives : in 1989 37 people died and 1500 more were permanently disabled upon taking a genetically engineered form of the food supplement tryptophan (3). Almost more worrying than the incident itself is the realisation that future (or present) occurrences of this type would likely be impossible to identify because the US has enforced protocols which obviate attempts to determine whether products contain GMOs or have in some manner been genetically altered.

Beyond their direct menace to human health GMOs also represent a threat to ecosystems. Once again the ramifications are endless, but one of the considerations which moved the UK to rescind plans for planting GMO crops was the prospect of treated seeds being windblown into surrrounding areas, crossbreeding with natural growth and so introducing their traits into other populations. It was feared that this could produce "superweeds" poisonous to herbivores and resistant to chemical sprays.

With such telling points against them what can be said in favor of GMOs? The most common defences are that, firstly, they will help increase production of comestibles to meet the rapidly expanding human population, and, secondly, that they will lessen the use of pesticides.

The first claim is dubious inasmuch as the factors which produce higher crop yields are too various and unstable to offer serious prospects for successful interventions. Moreover, famine is not caused by a lack of food but by inequitable distribution of existing resources. Rather than trying to grow more food we should concentrate on better sharing what we already possess. That this is well understood in underdeveloped regions is confirmed by the Sunday Independent report of Feb. 28/99 that "The world's hungriest nations have resolved to oppose genetically modified foods" (4).

The marketing habits and the types of life patents sought likewise bespeak a different story. If Monsanto, e.g., were really interested in addressing the problem of world hunger why would it be so supportive of the Terminator? This technology is completely unsuitable for smallholders, especially in the Third World, as the requirement to buy new seed every season demands liquidity that dirt farmers don't have. The Terminator is obviously directed towards (and encouraging of) mammoth agri-business concerns which are oriented towards cash crop production for export, not local sustenance.

The second argument is perhaps less clear. Some items, such as Monsanto's NewLeaf potato, have been engineered to be resistant to certain insects. As a result NewLeaf will not require chemical spraying to deal with the vermin in question. On the other hand, approximately 40% of plant interventions are for the purpose of rendering crops more pesticide resistant - presumably so that they can be dowsed more copiously. Then, too, Monsanto has admitted that the pests NewLeaf repels will ultimately gain immunity and at that juncture pesticide application will once more be required. However, in view of said immunity it may be that more massive chemical treatments than necessary pre-NewLeaf will become necessary.

If, as I am suggesting, the costs of GMOs are so formidable and the benefits so negligible, why would anyone support this business? The answer is that, in the absence of vested interests and/or pressure tactics, no one would. Unfortunately there is no lack of either amongst policymakers.

Apart from biotechnology firms themselves the only major player with a proprietary concern is the US government. Washington evidently sees biotechnology as a means to further tie down the developing world : if Terminator technologies take hold foreign farmers will be dependent on St. Louis-based Monsanto for their seeds; genetic engineering allows crops to be grown in the US which previously would have been uneconomic; life patenting allows the hijacking of traditional knowledge of therapeutic uses of flora and fauna abroad. More generally, political elites in capitalist states have traditionally equated the flourishing of their major domestic corporations with the wellbeing of the country as a whole, and this tendency has become much more pronounced under the influence of neoliberalism.

In light of the above one might well ask why administrations in other OECD countries are not equally enamored of GMOs. Japan is indifferent because it has no company in a position to compete with Monsanto; likewise Canada, the world's seventh largest economy. EU politicians know that their citizens are far more sensitized to these issues than are US (or Canadian) citizens (who in any case are hampered by the first-past-the-post voting system in mobilising their dissent.)

Realising at once the advantages to be gained from backing Monsanto and that it is alone in this the US government has taken extraordinary steps to get its way in the matter. The direction has come from the very top : Bill Clinton has intervened personally to push the UK's Tony Blair and France's Lionel Jospin to be more accomodating to Monsanto (5).

Yet it is also more systemic. The director of America's National Security Council arranged a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in fall of 1998 to persuade him of the importance of voting to allow Monsanto to sell genetically modified corn in Europe. In 1997 Monsanto was provided with confidential information about World Health Organization deliberations on rBGH by Dr Nick Weber of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1994 the FDA promulgated a special rule which makes it illegal for dairies to indicate on labels that a batch of milk is free of rBGH. This followed the FDA's 1993 ruling that rBGH was safe even though, as emerged subsequently (namely, in the 1998 Canadian Senate hearings on rBGH), research indicated that the artificial hormone was hazardous (6).

While it may be correct to say that no government identifies its strategic interests as closely with GMOs as does the US, the UK Labour Party has been a close ally for much of the struggle. In addition to numerous public statements in support of GMOs word has come out that the Health and Safety Executive - the very body constituted as a GMO watchdog - has illegally withheld information from the public on violations by companies growing modified crops (7).

Monsanto partisanship appears to have made some inroads with the Canadian public sector as well. In the Senate hearings on rBGH Dr. Margaret Hayden testified that Monsanto had offered $2 million to her federal department; Hayden stated that she interpreted this as a bribe. An investigation into the allegation was announced but has not gone through.

I trust that the foregoing confirms that, as I posited in 'February round-up on GMOs', the US government is determined by any means necessary to see to it that Monsanto succeeds. With such a champion GMOs will be hard to beat back. On the brighter side though, the suppression of GMOs would not only rid the world of substances as worrisome as nuclear waste, but this victory could entail a profound change in international political economy. Given the intense, propinquitous identification of the US with this issue a reversal could spell the end of the "Washington consensus" and perhaps US hegemony generally.



(1) 'The Unholy Alliance' by Mae-Wan Ho, The Ecologist, volume 27/number4.
(3)'Third World rejects GM', by Geoffrey Lean, Sunday Independent, February 28, 1999.
(5)'World Recoils at Monsanto's Brave New Crops,' by Bill Lambrecht, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, December 27, 1998.
(6) 'Soured milk of "Monsantos's kindness", by Gregory Palast, The Observer, February 21, 1999.
(7) 'GM Foods - Watchdog's silence on the guilty broke law', by Geoffrey Lean, Sunday Independent, Feb. 28/99.