decades, the Monsanto Corporation of St. Louis has
been slowly dominating the world's supply of seed for staple crops (corn,
soybeans, potatoes) -- a business plan that Monsanto's critics say is nothing short of
diabolical. Monsanto says it is just devilishly good business.
To use these patented seeds, farmers must buy new seeds from Monsanto every year. Thus, a farmer who adopts genetically modified seeds and fails to retain a stock of traditional seeds could become dependent upon a transnational corporation.
Nations, whose farmers are dependent upon corporations for seed, might
forfeit considerable political independence. The Clinton/Gore administration has been
aggressively helping Monsanto promote new, untested gene-altered products, by-passing U.S.
health and safety regulations.
This strategy has successfully prevented consumers from exercising informed choice in the marketplace, reducing the likelihood of a consumer revolt, at least in the U.S., at least for now.
Earlier this year, opposition to genetically modified
foods exploded in England and quickly spread to the European continent. Burgeoning consumer opposition
has now swept into Asia and back to North America.
However, the U.S. government has publicly protested
against such labeling laws, and has privately lobbied hard against them, unsuccessfully.
About 1/2 of U.S. Corn Crop is Grown from GMO seeds
Gerber and Heinz, the two leading manufacturers of baby foods in the United States, announced that they would not allow genetically modified corn or soybeans in any of their baby foods.2 After the baby food announcements, Iams, the high-end pet food producer, announced that it would not purchase any of the seven varieties of genetically modified corn that have not been approved by the European Union. This announcement cut off an alternative use that U.S. farmer's had hoped to make of corn rejected by overseas buyers.
As the demand for traditional, unmodified corn and soy has grown, a
two-price system for crops has developed in the U.S. -- a higher price for traditional,
unmodified crops, and a lower price for genetically modified crops. For example, Archer-Daniels-Midland
is paying some farmers 18 cents less per bushel for genetically modified soybeans,
compared to the traditional product.1
In its most recent report, Deutsche Bank said, "...[I]t appears the
food companies, retailers, grain processors, and governments are sending a signal to the
seed producers that 'we are not ready for GMOs [genetically modified organisms].'"
"But we count ourselves surprised at how rapidly this forecast appears to be playing out," they told the London Guardian.3
In Europe, the ag-biotech controversy is playing out upon a stage created by an earlier -- and ongoing -- scientific dispute over sex hormones in beef.4
Over 90% of U.S. beef cattle are treated with sex hormones -- three naturally-occurring (estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone) and three synthetic hormones that mimic the natural ones (zeranol, melengesterol acetate, and trenbolone acetate). Hormone treatment makes cattle grow faster and produces more tender, flavorful cuts of beef.
Since 1995, the European Union has prohibited the treatment of any farm animals with sex hormones intended to promote growth, on grounds that sex hormones are known to cause several human cancers. As a by-product of that prohibition, the EU refuses to allow the import of hormone-treated beef from the U.S. and Canada.
The U.S. asserts that hormone-treated beef is entirely safe and that the European ban violates the global free trade regime that the U.S. has worked religiously for 20 years to create. The U.S. argues that sex hormones only promote human cancers in hormone-sensitive tissues, such as the female breast and uterus.
Therefore, the U.S. argues, the mechanism of carcinogenic action must be
activation of hormone "receptors" and therefore there is a "threshold"
-- a level of hormones below which no cancers will occur. Based on risk assessments, the
U.S. government claims to know where that threshold level lies. Furthermore, the U.S.
claims it has established a regulatory process that prevents any farmer from
exceeding the threshold level in his or her cows.
Secondly, the EU spot-checked 258 meat samples from the Hormone Free Cattle program run jointly by the U.S. beef industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program is intended to raise beef cattle without the use of hormones, thus producing beef eligible for import into Europe. The spot check found that 12% of the "hormone free" cattle had in fact been treated with sex hormones. EU officials cite this as evidence that growth hormones are poorly regulated in the U.S. beef industry and that Europeans might be exposed to higher- than-allowed concentrations if the ban on North American imports were lifted.
"These revelations are embarrassing for U.S. officials," reports
Nevertheless, the U.S. government continues to assert that its hormone- treated beef is
The EU's position is clearly precautionary: "Where scientific evidence is not black and white, policy should err on the side of caution so that there is zero risk to the consumer," says the EU.6
The Danish pediatric researcher, Niels Skakkebaek, MD, says the burden of proof lies with those putting hormones in beef: "The possible health effects from the hormones have hardly been studied -- the burden of proof should lie with the American beef industry," Dr. Skakkebaek told Chemical Week, a U.S. chemical industry publication that is following the beef controversy closely.6
It appears that European activists have seized upon hormones in beef, and upon Monsanto's seed domination plan, as a vehicle for opposing a "global free trade" regime in which nations lose their power to regulate markets to protect public health or the environment. The New York Times reports that the Peasant Confederation of European farmers derives much of its intellectual inspiration and direction from a new organization, called Attac, formed last year in France to fight the spread of global free trade regimes.7
The Confederation has destroyed several McDonald's restaurants and dumped rotten vegetables in others. Patrice Vidieu, the secretary-general of the Peasant Confederation, told the NY Times, "What we reject is the idea that the power of the marketplace becomes the dominant force in all societies, and that multinationals like McDonald's or Monsanto come to impose the food we eat and the seeds we plant."
What began as consumer opposition to genetically-modified seed appears to be turning into an open revolt against the 25-year-old U.S.-led effort to impose free-trade regimes world-wide, enthroning transnational corporations in the process. If approached strategically by alliances of U.S. activists and their overseas counterparts (and it must not be viewed as merely a labeling dispute), genetic engineering could become the most important controversy in this century.
Although not mentioned in the above article, Monsanto's #1 consumer product is the highly toxic herbicide called Roundup.
Also note that Monsanto's US patent for this pro0duct expired in September, 2000 and the Scotts Company may be licensed by Monsanto, or has gotten around the Monsanto trademark, since a check of Google will show they offer the product Roundup as well.
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