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Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology - Biotechnology Corporations Respondto Challenges About Gm Foods

crops products world council

There are two things that most of us feel. We feel hurt and we feel angry. … We had real leadership. …We had … faith in this science when others were dubious, and it all seemed to be working. So we painted a big bull's-eye on our chest, and we went over the top of the hill.

—Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto, in the New Yorker, April 10, 2000

Corporations involved in genetic engineering research and production of genetically engineered crops and other products are alternately viewed as industry leaders providing valuable products and services or villains perpetrating economic, environmental, and health hazards on unsuspecting consumers throughout the world. Mounting consumer opposition to GM foods, especially outside the United States, prompted many of the giants in the agricultural biotech industry to scale back or even entirely halt production of some GM products.

For example, in 2000 Monsanto closed its NatureMark plant in Maine, a transgenic laboratory and greenhouse that had produced Bt potatoes since 1992. Bt potatoes are gene-spliced with the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to repel the Colorado potato beetle. In November 1999 McCain's and Lamb-Weston, two of North America's largest potato processors, told farmers they would no longer accept gene-altered potatoes; and the United States' leading potato purchasers, including McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay, and Procter & Gamble, eliminated Bt potatoes from their French fries and potato chips. The Bt potatoes joined the growing list of GM foods abandoned by Monsanto. In 1996 Monsanto-Calgene "Flavr Savr" tomatoes were withdrawn from the market after they failed to meet expectations in terms of sales figures. Other major U.S. food corporations (including Gerber, Heinz, Mead-Johnson, and Frito-Lay) and several supermarket chains (such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Genuardi's) have announced plans to entirely forgo GM foods and products.

In 2000 Monsanto executives were dismayed by University of Nebraska research findings that gene-altered "Roundup Ready soybeans" produced 6 to 11% less yield than conventional soybeans and required two to five times more herbicide per acre than conventional soybeans sprayed with other modern low-dose pesticides. Other companies faced public relations challenges. Advanta Seeds, a division of biotech giant AstraZeneca, publicly conceded that genetic drift from gene-altered canola fields in Canada had contaminated seed certified as "nongenetically engineered," which was exported to four European nations.

In May 1998 opponents of GM products convened in St. Louis, Missouri, the site of Monsanto's corporate headquarters, for a "Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering." At the event researchers described the unintended and often untoward consequences of genetic engineering (including how it requires greater quantities of herbicides), and farmers complained that they had suffered lower yields rather than the improved harvest promised by GM crops. Since the 1998 event, both the biotechnology industry and opposition to it have grown. From May 18 to 20, 2003, the World Agricultural Forum held the conference "Working Together to Create the Future and Disable the Barriers" in St. Louis. Presenters from biotech firms Nestle, Cargill, and Monsanto offered their intent to pursue free trade as well as their plans for using GM crops to help address world hunger. Protestors held a competing event, the "People's Agricultural Resistance," and the Biodevastation series returned to sponsor its seventh annual meeting, "Genetic Engineering: A Technology of Corporate Control," which described the relationship between international threats to farms and farmers, crop contamination, and the future of indigenous agriculture.

In May 2004 a coalition of fifteen environmental organizations from Europe, Asia, and the Americas—GeneWatch, UK; Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, UK; Five Year Freeze, UK; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK; The Center for Food Safety, USA; Council of Canadians; Polaris Institute Canada; Grupo de Reflexión, Argentina; Center for Human Rights and the Environment, Argentina; Gene Campaign, India; Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, India; Fundación Sociedades Sustentables, Chile; Greenpeace International; Californians for GE-Free Agriculture; and the International Forum on Globalisation—submitted a report to the World Trade Organization panel considering a complaint against the European Union. The Coalition's submission contended that:

  • Corporations create and market GM crops primarily to meet the needs of large farmers in the developed world.
  • Intellectual property rights and monopoly control of seeds by multinational corporations mean that poor farmers in developing countries are unlikely to benefit from GM crops.
  • Herbicide use may increase as a result of GM crops, and GM crop yields are variable.
  • Argentina is suffering harmful social, environmental, and health effects from the introduction of GM crops, especially soy.

The report also stated that, despite claims made about their safety, the risks posed by GM crops to the environment are serious and may be irreversible. The report cited two specific ecological risks—that increased use of chemical weed killers may damage wildlife, and contamination of non-GM crops and related wild species may arise—and observed that there has been insufficient monitoring of GM crops for adverse effects.

To counter consumer opposition to GM foods and products, in 2000 the Council for Biotechnology Information aired television advertisements and launched a Web site to inform consumers of the potential benefits of GM foods. The media campaign emphasized that GM foods have been tested by U.S. government agencies and found to be safe; that biotechnology increases the nutritional content of foods, improves food quality, and can help feed the world's hungry; and that GM crops reduce the use, and environmental consequences of, toxic pesticides. In 2003 the Council for Biotechnology Information publicized the conclusions of a USDA study conducted in August 2002. The USDA study found that ethanol production is becoming increasingly energy-efficient because corn yields are rising, less energy is required to grow it, and ethanol conversion technologies are becoming more efficient. These findings resulted from the use of GM corn crops. The council also offered as evidence the results of a 2002 National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy study that found that "six GM crops planted in the United States—soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash, and canola—produced an additional 4 billion pounds of food and fiber on the same acreage, improved farm income by $1.5 billion and reduced pesticide use by 46 million pounds."

Furthermore, scientists and biotechnology industry experts generally accept the likelihood that not all genetically engineered products will be immediately usable—many will require refinement and some will be scrapped altogether—and they also understand consumer resistance to new products, especially when consumers receive conflicting messages about the safety of GM products. To date, neither of these issues appears to be significantly slowing the research and development efforts of biotechnology firms. The front-page story "It Came from the Gene Lab" (Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2003) reported that bioengineered "superfish" were in development. Examples of these experimental superfish are salmon with an eel gene inserted that grow five times as fast as conventional salmon; GM salmon that produce antifreeze in their blood, enabling them to endure icy waters; and a tropical zebra fish endowed with the green fluorescent gene of a jellyfish that glows in the dark.

In 2004 and 2005 the Council for Biotechnology Information continued to advance its premise that GM foods are safe and enlisted the support of other organizations including the American College of Nutrition, American Medical Association, International Society of Toxicology, and World Health Organization to attest to the safety of foods developed using biotechnology. An article at the Council's Web site, "Food and Environmental Safety: Experts Say Biotech Food and Crops are Safe," asserts that more than 3,300 scientists, including twenty Nobel Prize winners, have signed a declaration in support of biotechnology and its safety. The article quotes Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois, as commending the rigorous scrutiny GM crops undergo: "In the United States, there are nine separate steps in the regulatory process that typically take seven to ten years to complete—a far more rigorous process than is required for conventional foods. Crops produced through biotechnology have proven to be as safe or safer than crops produced by conventional breeding" (Council for Biotechnology Information, 2004, http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=3994).

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