CORPORATE FOCUS: Biotech Challenge

Fearful of a public backlash that might drive the biotech industry into oblivion, Monsanto is reaching out to its critics.Last week, Jeremy Rifkin, the biotech critic, flew to Monsanto's world headquarters in St. Louis to address something called the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.According to a report in the New York Times, the multinational giants wanted Rifkin to help them "paint a portrait of the biotechnology landscape of the year 2030 and how it evolved."Also last week, Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, met with Monsanto's directors in Washington, D.C. to persuade them to drop the terminator gene. It used to be that farmers would plant seed, the crop would come up and be harvested, except for a handful of plants, which the farmer would let go to seed, and save that seed for next year's planting. With the terminator gene, the crop comes up, but there are no seeds. So the farmer has to go to Monsanto to buy more seed.Conway told Dow Jones Newswires he is worried that the backlash over the terminator gene, which is years from reaching the commercial stage, is damaging public support for crop biotechnology in general, which might slow research that could benefit poor farmers overseas. "We have a lot of people to feed and biotechnology is one of the answers," said Conway.Whatever you feel about citizens of conscience meeting with corporations to seek to persuade them to do the right thing, (and we are not of one mind on this), it is clear that the biotech industry is in a panic over its beloved high-tech future.The masses in Europe are in full revolt over the issue (with the Prince of Wales leading the charge against the corporatist Labor Party in the UK). And a lawsuit that the mainstream press has largely ignored -- a lawsuit that threatens the well-being of Monsanto, Norvartis and other biotech firms -- is making its way through the courts.In May 1998, a number of public interest groups sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), alleging that the agency violated federal law by allowing biotech foods onto the market without first adequately testing the foods for safety and then without adequately labelling those foods so that consumers know whether, for example, they are eating fish genes spliced into their tomato sauce.The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act incorporates the precautionary principle -- a new food additive is presumed unsafe until established safe through standard scientific procedures. But the FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically engineered foods are not new food additives. In the FDA's critical 1992 statement of policy on biotech foods -- the policy that opened the floodgates that allowed biotech foods to pour into the marketplace -- the FDA claims that it was "not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new [biotech] methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."In fact, internal reports and memos obtained during the course of discovery for the lawsuit reveal the FDA's own scientists warned that foods produced through recombinant DNA technology entail different risks than do their conventionally produced counterparts.But these scientists were consistently disregarded by the bureaucrats who approved the agency's current policy of treating bioengineered foods the same as natural foods that have been changed by conventional breeding practices."There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering which is just glanced over in this document," warned Dr. Louis Priybl of the FDA's Microbiology Group in criticizing a 1992 FDA draft policy paper on the issue.Dr. Linda Kayl, an FDA compliance officer, complained that the FDA was "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole" by concluding that "there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices.""The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks," Kayl said.Kayl and other FDA scientists recommended that genetically engineered foods undergo special testing. To no avail.So, Americans are now eating genetically engineered foods. And for the most part, they don't know it.The main genetically engineered crops in the United States are soy, corn, canola, cotton, potatoes, papayas, and raddichio. (You might say -- hey, I don't eat cotton. But cottonseed oil is in many vegetable oil blends, which are in many processed foods.)It has been estimated that corn and soy alone are in 70 to 80 percent of U.S. processed foods. And since 40 percent of this season's soybean crop and 30 percent of the corn crop have been genetically engineered, you are probably eating genetically engineered foods, whether you like it, or know it, or not.Steven Druker, the executive director of the Iowa City-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity, is the driving force behind the lawsuit against the FDA.The lawsuit has received little media publicity since being filed last year, but Druker predicts that when the American people learn the details of the FDA's deception, we'll see an earthquake of public reaction against biotech foods."The FDA has been intentionally unleashing a host of potentially harmful foods onto American dinner tables in blatant violation of U.S. law," Druker told us. "And they have been covering up the fact that they have been acting so wrongly. I don't like that. And most people who learn the facts do not like it."Bon appetit.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1999,

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