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A "gold rush" for the biotech bosses

August 3, 2001 | Page 13

BIOTECH COMPANIES like Monsanto claim that genetically modified (GM) foods are perfectly safe. But there's growing evidence of their potential environmental and health hazards. NICOLE COLSON looks at Corporate America's "biotech gold rush."

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EARLIER THIS year, a Canadian court ordered farmer Percy Schmeiser to pay $20,000 to the biotech giant Monsanto.

What exactly was Schmeiser's crime? Genetically altered rapeseed from a Monsanto experimental field blew onto Schmeiser's farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. The seed took root--and Monsanto claimed that Schmeiser had stolen its "intellectual property."

The case highlights some of the most disturbing elements of the corporate rush to use genetic engineering in the production of food for both humans and livestock.

Humans have used different scientific techniques--including forms of genetic engineering--in agriculture for thousands of years. But the current GM craze is being driven by corporate greed--with little regard for the potentially devastating environmental and health consequences.

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CHANCES ARE good that you eat food containing genetically modified organisms every day, without even knowing it. Roughly 70 percent of food sold in U.S. supermarkets contains genetically modified ingredients.

But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)--under pressure from biotech companies and corporate-friendly politicians--classifies GM food as "substantially equivalent" to non-GM food.

This means that GM food is exempt from pre-market testing. Essentially, the biotech companies have gotten a green light to use consumers as guinea pigs.

It's true that by tinkering with genes, companies have produced some food that may stay fresher longer, look more attractive or be more resistant to pests. But the potential long-term consequences of eating GM food are simply unknown.

It's unclear, for example, whether inserting bacteria, insect genes or herbicide and insecticide implants into products like corn and soybeans could cause harmful reactions for people with allergies. Some studies suggest that GM foods can affect the digestive tract and people's immune systems.

Yet because the FDA doesn't require GM food to be labeled--as it is in Europe--no U.S. consumer can be sure whether what they're eating has been genetically "enhanced" or not.

Then there are the environmental consequences. Take Monsanto and its chemical herbicide Roundup as an example.

Farmers have long used Roundup as a weed killer. But they could never spray it directly on crops--because it's toxic to the crops as well as weeds. By genetically engineering seeds for soybeans, corn, canola and cotton, Monsanto came up with versions of these plants that could tolerate Roundup--allowing farmers to spray the herbicide throughout the growing season.

Of course, this meant big profits for Monsanto. But environmentalists fear that Roundup will be overused by growers, leading to soil and water contamination.

There's also a danger of cross-contamination. A recent Cornell University study showed that pollen from "Bt corn"--corn which produces its own internal pesticide through an added bacteria gene--killed nearly 50 percent of the Monarch butterfly population that ate it. Currently, 25 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is Bt corn, yet there's no way to know if the impact on Monarchs will show up in other species.

Contamination of non-GM crops is occurring with more and more frequency. Last year, more than 300 food products containing corn were recalled when StarLink--a variety of GM corn that hasn't been approved for human consumption--was found in them.

These genetic "oil spills" are inevitable--since pollen from GM crops can be carried dozens of miles by the wind. "It's like a genie in a bottle," says Doug Parr, author of a Greenpeace report on genetic engineering. "Once it's out, you can't put it back."

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SUPPORTERS OF GM technology say that it can stop hunger and disease in poor countries.

You may have seen recent TV ads showing starving children gratefully receiving large bowls of vitamin-enriched rice. These ads are part of a new propaganda campaign to market "Golden Rice," a genetically altered, vitamin-enriched rice.

According to the manufacturer Syngenta, this new "super rice" will help combat Vitamin A deficiency--a condition resulting from malnutrition that causes severe illness, including thousands of cases of blindness each year. But the average child would have to eat two dozen bowls of Golden Rice a day to get the minimum recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A.

Syngenta's Web site claims that one of its missions is to "keep food production in line with population and economic growth." But what biotech companies like Syngenta won't admit is that food production is in line with population growth. According to researchers for Food First, the real cause of global hunger isn't that not enough food is produced, but that the poor lack access to food--because they're too poor.

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SOCIALISTS ARE in favor of technology--when it's used to better the lives of ordinary people. GM crops, however, are a clear example of technology being used to line the pockets of the bosses without any concern for the potential consequences.

Executives at corporations like Monsanto have little reason to care about the havoc that their GM crops might wreak--as long as the profits keep flowing in. George W. Bush has little reason to care, either. After all, his Cabinet contains several people with direct or indirect ties to Monsanto, including John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson, Donald Rumsfeld and Ann Veneman.

But it is possible to fight this biotech gold rush. Across the globe, as farmers and consumers have found out more about the risks of GM foods, protests have grown.

In Europe, GM crops have been ripped up by protestors, and in India, several of Monsanto's GM crops were set on fire during a campaign by landless peasants. In Brazil, the Landless Workers' Movement has taken a stand against growing Monsanto soybeans.

We have to challenge a world where the poor are left to rot and our environment is destroyed for the sake of profit.

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