Bill Clinton's chief foreign political ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been slipping on the ice these past ten days, while carrying water for one of the US Administration's favorite corporate partners, the Monsanto Corporation.
Throughout mid-February, the UK news media has stoked the fires beneath a regulatory scandal involving genetic engineering, the science sector upon which Monsanto, as well as many other multinationals like Novartis, Bayer and Dow, have risked their future business competency.
The blowup has gone beyond Dolly-The-Cloned-Sheep, which was apt fare for UK newspapers like The Sun and The Star , but now these so-called tabloids- as well as the more official London Telegraph and The Guardian- are the venue where one finds a comprehensive examination of the implications that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) portend for agriculture and human health.
The story first started to smolder last fall when the printer of The Ecologist, Britain's leading environmental journal, trashed 14,000 copies of the September-October issue for fear that distributing Brian Tokar's in-depth story on Monsanto would land them in a libel suit.
The news story that grew big enough to crowd Monica from a Londoner's view in the last few weeks began with the reconfirmation of one of the UK's highest ranking researchers, Dr Arpad Pusztai. In the fall of 1998, Dr. Pusztai was dismissed from the Rowett Institute after he released research indicating that test animals had been harmed after eating genetically modified potatoes. Monsanto has developed a GMO potato, which is now offered for sale here in the US. Rowett called Pusztai a bumbler, better fit for retirement, and he disappeared from the media radar.
Unfortunately for Rowett, and Mr. Blair, Pusztai had built a lifelong reputation as a quality scientist. His colleagues sensed that something was amiss. A few weeks ago, 20 imminent research fellows backed up Pusztai's work, and set in motion the current disaster for the Labor government, fueled without mercy, and quite paradoxically, by pro-business Tories. It did not help the pro-GMO camp when the press discovered that Rowett Institute received a recent grant of 140,000 British pounds from Monsanto. It was the kind of research even money couldn't buy.
Eventually, the UK press focused on the allegedly illegitimate influence wielded by Lord Sainsbury, CEO and majority owner of Sainsbury's stores, the UK equivalent of Safeway, Kroger or Albertsons. Sainsbury also serves in Mr. Blair's cabinet as Science Minister. It is his responsibility to determine the safety of things which impact our health and the environment. If the labeling of GMOs at consumer point of purchase and the proposed moratorium on field production of these "novel foods", as the UN defines them, succeed, Sainsbury stores and all their vendors will have to adopt costly, tedious, and probably ineffective methods to assure that the GMOs are either labeled or not in their products. It is now a well documented fact that GMO food products are not segregated, and because so many consumer products are processed with ingredients such as soy lecithin, the proposed restrictions would effectively disrupt the food industry internationally. Since Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland pretty much have the soy and corn processing game sown up, I believe it is fair to assume that segregation is not probable.
In Ireland, the Ross Seven are set for trial for partially destroying a field of GMO sugar beets in an act of civil disobedience. One of the defendants, John Seymour, is the Irish version of the late Robert Rodale, the much revered father of the organic farming movement. When a criminal trial drama combines the attributes of Rachel Carson and Mohandas Gandhi, I suppose it will remain a compelling story, especially since it is now linked with the larger political main event in London.
We find the current UK government beset by conflict-of-interest concerns while a number of equally important conversations are being held, the most important being the UN-sponsored negotiations for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosecurity. The Cartagena, Columbia talks are part of the unfinished business of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The director of the Von Humboldt Institute, Christian Samper, believes the proposed treaty "is equivalent to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change". The Colombians are weighing in pretty heavily on the side of adopting a " precautionary principle," for biotechnology in agriculture.
As the host country, Columbia has the opportunity to frame the discussion and introduce proposed policy. Jairo Montoya, the director of multilateral entities for the Colombian Foreign Ministry, told an Inter Press Services correspondent attending the week-long meeting that the " lack of clear scientific evidence on the possible consequences of the introduction of GMOs is sufficient grounds for a country to bar their importation."
Like the Kyoto Protocols on global warming, the Cartagena biodiversity talks boil down to a North-South, have and have-not, scenario. The South has much potentially economic biodiversity and somewhat untapped production capacity, the North has the money and the technology. The neocolonialist North also has a synthetic chemical sector ( Monsanto, Novartis, et. al.) which has staked its future on the "silver-bullet" solutions that genetic engineering holds for manufacturers. Over a decade and a half ago the multinational ag-chemical giants recognized that the chemicals they produced were no longer acceptable environmentally.
Ergo, Monsanto has attempted to remake itself as a "life sciences" organization, hoping to utilize some of its most profitable products, like the herbicide Round Up, by creating crops that are engineered to be resistant to the chemical. Long ago, the agricultural chemical sector and the United States Department of Agriculture adopted this chemical phase-out plan, and mutually poured billions into research and development on plant genetics. It has made little difference which political administration has been in power. Career nonpolitical officials at USDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have been propelling this technology forward. It has become a universally desired Holy Grail for a multitude of scientific and economic applications.
Like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton may someday have to defend his own administration's seamless relationship with biotech manufacturers in the private sector. During the recent Senate trial of the President, as the obstruction of justice article was debated, first Congressman Hutchinson, and then Presidential Counsel David Craig both underscored the fact that "it is very important for public officials to never make decisions based on a quid- pro-quo agreement."
Come again? After you pick yourself up off the floor, back up to the 1996 State of The Union address and may be fairly easy to see why such a bald-faced lie as that is rarely questioned, despite the fact that the reverse is true: politics is nothing if not a transaction involving power in return for the means to deliver it. During that 1996 speech, Mr. Clinton paused to mention Monsanto by name, saying that " they're on board" his social agenda bandwagon, in that case the "welfare to work" plan to alleviate poverty and cut government spending on programs much in disfavor with conservatives. What, one may ask, did Monsanto get in return for their support?
They obtained the power of the US government to defend the new technology at every turn. Despite Mr. Clinton's early promise that members of his government would be forsworn from tending the business of those that they once had overseen officially, the "revolving door" used by regulatory and policy officials has never moved quite as quickly into the high level offices of the companies they had earlier regulated according to law, and on behalf of the public.
Former Commerce Secretary and US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor was quickly seated on the Monsanto Board Of Directors when he left the Clinton administration. The Edmonds Institute, a public interest, nonprofit group in Washington State lists some of the other quick-change artists serving "Frankenstein Incorporated," as the biotech sector occasionally has been called, by a growing number of critics, many of whom are scientists.
Marcia Hale moved from assistant to the President of the United States for intergovernmental affairs to serve as a senior official with Monsanto, coordinating public affairs and corporate strategy in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Ms. Hale cooperates with Linda Fisher, Monsanto's vice president for federal government affairs who mapped pesticide policy in the EPA during the Bush administration. Michael R. Taylor, former deputy FDA commissioner, was hired to facilitate long range planning at Monsanto.
Vice President Al Gore, who is well-known in the US for his writings and speeches on the environment, has been a vocal supporter of biotechnology since his days in the US Senate. Mr. Gore's Chief Domestic Policy Advisor, David W. Beier, was formerly the Senior Director of Government Affairs at Genentech, Inc. Current White House Chief of Staff John Podesta's lobbying firm represents high-technology companies and trade associations in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Genentech was one of them.
Also signing up for a tour in the GMO wars last summer was L. Val Giddings. Mr. Giddings' went from being a biotechnology regulator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA/APHIS) to being the vice president for food and agriculture at the Monsanto-backed Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Giddings, a solid GMO neocolonial, is the fellow most often quoted by the mainstream press in Cartagena, who probably have to run their copy by Mr. Podesta or his lobbying firm to make sure it says exactly what Mr. Kantor wants.
In the US, the press seems to sense that something very large is treading outside their corporate offices, but they have had a hard time getting a firm grip on it. The genetic engineering issue just won't seem to stick to the wall as easily as a sex scandal.
" The medical stuff sounds OK, but what about having all these viruses and antibiotics embedded in the food supply?"
CNN and ABC have run careful bits in the past half year. National Public Radio must be looking at some truck from that Supermarket To The World in their rearview mirror, so tepid has been their coverage of the technology and the crisis the biosphere faces because of this madness. Maybe it isn't that truck that has them edgy but instead the House Appropriations helicopter hovering overhead with a hook.
Terminator Technology had a fairly good press run for a while, once the technology became a bit more transparent. The Terminator, developed at Texas Tech University and co-owned by the USDA and Delta Pine and Land ( a cotton seed producer Monsanto would like to absorb), allows GMO-sector seed companies to sell seed that will grow but be infertile, obligating farmers to return every year to get more of the same seed, and protecting the technology against unethical seed producers or scalawag farmers. Monsanto has already sued a few farmers, sort of hanging their hides on the corporate fence to warn other techno-thieves.
Not that a few unfettered minds haven't tried to open up a dialogue. The New York Times devoted a November, 1998, cover story of its Sunday magazine to biotech's unresolved questions, and nationally syndicated Fort Worth Star Telegram columnist Molly Ivins gave Monsanto both barrels in a recent column. But where it counts most, in the Des Moines Register, the Kansas City Star Bulletin and the Omaha World Herald, editors have not merely been reluctant to bite the hand that feeds, they continue to amp biotech's now dubious yield potentials and cost efficiency, with nary a word to farmers and commodity handlers whose market in Europe is not just stymied, but may evaporate entirely. Poor commodity prices are blamed on the Asian recession and Brazil's big '99 soybean crop, but the uncertainties in Europe are also affecting trade. Ag radio and the farm journals hardly comment at all about this impending fiasco, even as farmers begin to lay in GMO seed for the 1999 season. They're more interested in upping the Loan Deficiency Payments-for crops that may not have a market next year.
Agribiz has a stable of hired hacks they haul out when things get rough for the Biz. Lately, with this biotech blowout, the usual suspects have exploited much newsprint which could have been put to a better use. Former USDA Secretaries Earl Butz and John Block frequently crab about organic farmers and hype the GMO era in the heartland, despite the fact that their most significant credential as agricultural experts is that they were at the helm when over half a million small farm owners were laid flat by Butz-Block consolidation policies. Time-Warner subsidiary "Progressive Farmer" (sic) even had Jimmy "Peanut" Carter slam the GMO naysayers late last year. It's sort of hard to find out if Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro bought any nails for Habitat for Humanity, but Jack Watson, who was chief of staff in Jimmy Carter's presidency, is a Monsanto staff lawyer in Washington.
Dennis Avery, an often-published chem'n-GMO bag-man, who is famous for worrying about feeding the world when commodity prices are the same as they were in the 1950s, can usually get space in the Wall Street Journal, and business editors all over the country use these blurbs to fill space between the computer discount ads. Elizabeth Whelan and Bruce Ames can also be counted on to prop up the monopolists, and editors fail to see that their rants are just an infomercial for poison. Irresponsible is too light a word to characterize such behavior. Can anyone lend these folks a stop sign and some flares? This bridge to the 21st Century is out.
In our era, it seems that wherever we have a problem in maintaining our earthly presence, biotechnology is always one of the ready answers. All the maladies brought through unsafe technology are always measured against economic gains, and those gains are enjoyed by fewer and fewer folks. Instead of treating the disease, we react to the symptoms. Without objective scientific review, the GMO-sector promises complete success without any lingering after-affects.
Heart won't pump? Kidneys failing? We have some GMO hogs we can harvest body parts from. Too many weeds? Round Up Ready corn and soybeans will let you plant fence row to fence row and only pass over the crop once with an herbicide. Insects molesting your corn, potatoes and squash? We have spliced in a biological insecticide that will keep them at bay. The inconclusive guarantees of these "novel" products are well documented with negative research going unheeded. The silence is bought, and the ignorance is driven by politicians obligated to reelection funding and a consolidated media cabal linked to the corporations who advertise with them. Here in the Midwest, talk to some farmers. There are already Round Up resistant weeds in the field, and the cattle will not eat the GMO corn. Even when they are hungry and it's 22 degrees outside.
Synthetic agriculture is a bad tree. No good fruit comes from it. It is "Final Solution" technology, ramped up from WW II. We have gone from killing pigweed, mosquitos and corn borers with toxic chemicals to drawing up Master Race blueprints governing all creation. Nature and Capital seem to exist in a state of war. The next weapon is also nuclear. In this case it is the artificial management of cells.
At the Biosecurity conference, what disturbs the South more than anything is safety not economics. But another feature of concern in the Cartagena talks is that developing nation's Southern biodiversity will be pirated by the North, who will splice the pharmacological properties of native plants, frequently annuals or climate specific varieties, into something ubiquitously grown like corn. Northern corn. To what extent do Monsanto, Bayer and Novartis have the pharmaceutical sector covered? They have been very far ahead of the question. They also control the property rights to most of the corn genetics.
It was reported from Cartagena on the 18th of February that "Colombia argues that the potential impact on economies in the region and on local culture must be taken into account during the stage of analysis prior to the importation of GMOs. It also wants measures by which exporting countries would be held accountable and obligated to pay compensation for any damages to be included in the protocol."
Maybe the insurance sector can put the brakes to this juggernaut.
Earlier this month, Texas poet and organic farmer Reno Travis wrote in his essay " Last One Out":
"By the way, last one out, turn out the lights. As we stare up at gassy Venus in the western sky at dusk, does anyone wonder if once it was a planet blue as this, and in one brief flicker science reversed a billion years of biology?"
We have a little time left to try and cram this ugly genie back in the laboratory beaker where it belongs. This week's opportunity is brought to us by Greenpeace, which on 19 February filed suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency, seeking a court-ordered moratorium on just one segment of this technology. Greenpeace and over thirty co-plaintiffs charge that EPA has failed to competently review whether the use of GMO Bacillus Thuringiensis ( Bt) plant varieties will lead to rapid resistance among target pests.
Bt is now widely used by organic farmers, and conventional farmers too, who apply it judiciously at specific times. If resistance results because Bt is at large in the biospehere, spliced into millions of acres, farmers will lose this valuable pest control material.
Those who helped draw together this initiative hope it will educate the public as well as halt the government's complicity in embarking on a journey which has an unknown destination. Take the time to learn about this action, sell it, send it and use it. The planet you save may be your own.
Last Updated on 5/21/99
By Karen Lutz