EMERGING ISSUES: Brave New Pizza, Genetically Engineered Foods Give Heartburn to Ag Biotech and Food Companies, November 1999
SOCIAL TOPICS (Archive): EMERGING ISSUES
Brave New Pizza
Genetically Engineered Foods Give Heartburn to Ag Biotech and Food Companies
Published, November 1999
Genetically engineered crops, GMOs, Frankenfoods — whatever they are called, European consumers don’t want to eat them. And that gives heartburn to many companies, governments, and U.S. farmers. Since the early 1990s, the biotech industry and its supporters have promoted patented, genetically engineered seeds and organisms as the major agricultural innovation to increase crop yields, cut pesticide use, and feed a hungry world. But along the way they’ve bred fierce resistance. In Europe, Japan, India and elsewhere, concerns over the potential risks that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose for the environment, human health, organic food production, and independent farmers have ignited a familiar battle between big corporate power and advocates of human and environmental welfare.
With gusto, U.S. farmers have adopted new patented wonderseeds from “life sciences” companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, AstraZeneca, Aventis, and Novartis. Their patented seeds for corn, soybeans, cotton, and other crops are genetically engineered to resist herbicides or pests. In 1996 farmers harvested their first crops of genetically engineered insect-resistant corn and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® soybeans. By 1999 U.S. farmers planted genetically engineered varieties for 55 percent of their soybeans, 35 percent of corn, and 50 percent of cotton. Other genetically engineered crops now in production include canola, tomatoes, potatoes, and squash. Since 1994 U.S. dairy farmers have used Monsanto’s genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) on dairy cows to boost milk production. An estimated 5 to 30 percent of U.S. dairy cows have been injected with rBGH — a drug not permitted for use in the European Union, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
With equal gusto, European consumers, spooked by Britain’s mad cow disease scare, have rejected GMOs. In 1999 several of Europe’s major supermarket chains, with combined annual food sales of over U.S. $175 billion, pledged to remove genetically engineered ingredients from their store brand products. Unilever and Nestlé, two of the world’s largest food companies, have agreed to remove GMOs from foods sold in the UK and other European countries, as have several UK fast food chains. Two of the largest producers of genetically engineered seeds, Novartis and AstraZeneca, have said they may exit the agribusiness sectors.
Why all the Fuss?
In theory, genetically engineered crops have the potential to be a boon for agriculture, making possible crops with new traits unattainable with hybrids of like species. Genes from animals or plants — or more commonly from viruses, bacteria, or insects — are implanted into the genes of plants and animals to give them desirable commercial traits. Crops are being engineered to resist frost, delay ripening, or ward off viruses. Other major crops are being engineered to be insect resistant by inserting a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). And this is only the first round. Next up is increased nutritional quality and drought resistance, for example.
However, the scale of potential damage is enormous. Many fear irreversible disruption of ecosystems and altered biological diversity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, risks include “gene flow,” the creation of new, more persistent “superweeds”; harmful effects on nontarget organisms including monarch butterflies, lacewings, and soil insects; and crossbreeding with wild species. Health risks include creation of unintended allergens, new toxicants, foods with diminished nutritional quality (contrary to industry marketing claims), and diminished effectiveness of antibiotics. Another concern is the loss of valuable resources such as the Bt biopesticide used by organic farmers due to inevitable increased insect resistance to genetically engineered Bt crops.
Additionally, genetically engineered crops favor large-scale industrial agriculture, often to the detriment of small farmers. For the independent farmer, opting for genetically engineered seeds means signing long-term contracts with the likes of Monsanto or AstraZeneca to buy seeds from them every year. Farmers then purchase the herbicides that the crops are engineered to resist (and can then use them with abandon). An example is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® Canola, which is genetically “improved” to tolerate Roundup Ultra® herbicide, a product made by the same firm.
“GMOs are Dead”
The pressure is on. European Deutsche Bank Securities has proclaimed that “GMOs are dead.” In September 1998, the European Union enacted mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand said they would do the same, despite the protests of the U.S. government, which claimed mandated labeling would hurt free trade. Following a study that showed Bt corn pollen can kill monarch butterflies, the European Union enacted a de facto moratorium in July on further approvals of new GMOs until at least 2002. Japan has instituted a similar moratorium for Bt crops.
Dan Glickman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has called the international distrust of GMOs an “infectious disease.” He may be right. With European consumer rejection of genetically engineered foods, the markets for these crops are crumbling. With greater international demand and higher prices for conventional crops, farmers who produce genetically engineered crops are feeling price pressures. U.S. corn farmers have lost a $200 million European export market, prompting one farm leader to declare “GMOs have become the albatross around the neck of American farmers.” Indeed. Archer Daniels Midland Co. surprised its grain suppliers last August when the company announced it would now require segregation of genetically engineered crops from conventional crops. Without systems in place to track and identify GMOs, announcements such as this will continue to cause major headaches for grain storage companies and farmers.
Without comprehensive long-term safety testing for GMOs, consumers and environmentalists will likely remain leery. For five years both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have failed to deliver their promised safety testing programs. In 1992 the FDA issued a policy that approved genetically engineered crops, in most cases without requiring premarket safety testing or labeling. The FDA reasoned they were “substantially equivalent” to conventional crops and therefore were safe. Ironically, the FDA does not regulate the safety of genetically engineered crops such as Bt corn that emit pesticides, because pesticides are under EPA purview.
Following Europe’s lead, right-to-know advocates in the United States are calling for labeling. Labeling would ease the difficulty for food processors and distributors to separate genetically engineered products from conventional products. It would also be a first step toward educating the American public about the extensive use of genetically engineered ingredients. Few U.S. consumers realize how pervasive GMOs are in their food. A Time/CNN poll in December 1998 showed that 81 percent of Americans favored requiring labeling for foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients — only 28 percent said they would buy a product labeled as genetically engineered.
Walden shares many of the concerns expressed by critics of GMOs. At a minimum, we support more rigorous safety testing and giving consumers a choice by requiring genetically engineered products to be labeled as such. This fall, we will continue our dialogue about genetically engineered foods with several European companies, including Novartis, and initiate shareholder dialogues with U.S. seed producers, food processors, and supermarkets. We expect this issue will continue to grow in importance for consumers and investors in the United States as it has in Europe.
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