"We already know today that most of the problems that are to be addressed via Golden Rice and other GMOs can be resolved in matter of days, with the right political will." Hans Herren, winner of the World Food Prize 1995
Issue #7 G E A N U p d a t e Feb 17, 2001
Published by Genetic Engineering Action Network, USA
A while has passed since our last Update. And so much has been going on! In this special issue we'll catch up with some of the major events.
*It's been a long road since the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990. But soon U.S. federal organic standards will go into effect. In December, the Agriculture Department released an almost- final organic rule. It's not perfect, but it's far more honest effort than the travesty released in 1997, which would have allowed genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge into organic food production. More than 270,000 comments from citizens seem to have done the trick. (Philip Brasher, "National Organic Standards Released," Associated Press, Dec. 21, 2000.)
*Also weighing in during the presidential interregnum was the Food and Drug Administration, with its squirrely new proposed regulations for genetically engineered foods. The FDA would make it compulsory for companies to notify it when introducing a new genetically engineered crop, but would require no new safety testing. And far from requiring labels on engineered food, the regulations would prohibit the designation "GMO free" - replacing it with bureaucratese like "not derived through biotechnology."
As Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said, "It seems the aim of this proposal is purely public relations. It tries to convince consumers that their government is protecting them. In fact, the government is protecting industry." Activist groups have called on their supporters to make their opinions known. (Tina Hesman, "FDA Rejects Mandatory Labeling of Biotech Food," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 18, 2001; Center for Food Safety, http://centerforfoodsafety.org/.)
*In issuing its proposals, FDA disregarded its own focus groups, which it had convened to find out how ordinary folks feel about eating strange genes. A secret FDA report leaked by U.S. Public Interest Research Group reveals that participants reacted with "outrage that such a change in the food supply could happen without them knowing about it." (Mark Kaufman, "Consumers Want Engineered Food Labeled," Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2001.)
*If they become final, the FDA's new rules will cramp the efforts of companies which are responding to growing public demand for GMO free food. Gardenburger has announced that it will begin making its soyburgers from non-GMO beans. In response, Boca Foods, which is owned by the Kraft Foods unit of Philip Morris, is offering an organic line of soyburgers. (Gardenburger, http://www.gardenburger.com/our_co/prg_12132000.html; Just-food.com, http://www.just-food.com/news_detail.asp?art=23088.)
*Meanwhile, a thorough review of the environmental effects of transgenic crops raised more questions than it answered. The report, published by two respected U.S. government scientists in Science magazine, found that the basic research to address the dangers of biotech agriculture has just not been done. In a pointed analysis for the New York Times, Carol Kaesuk Yoon wonders whether it ever will be. "For example," she writes, "some scientists have estimated that that answering just a single question of risk for a single organism - whether a type of biotech corn harms the monarch butterfly - would cost $2 million to $3 million, more than the Agriculture Department typically grants each year for the study of environmental risk." A spokesman for the biotech industry told her that though more research on risks should be done, the industry should not have to pay for it. (Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "What's Next for Biotech Crops? Questions," New York Times, Dec. 19, 2000.)
*StarLink, the rogue variety of corn that ends up everywhere it shouldn't, has stayed in the news. Its producer, Aventis, has reached a settlement with the attorneys general of seventeen states which will result in the company paying somewhere between $100 million to $1 billion to farmers. After the settlement, further lawsuits by farmers against Aventis will still be possible. ("Recompense Set on Altered Corn," Associated Press, Jan. 24, 2001.)
*To mark the changing of the guard in Washington, Greenpeace dumped a ton of StarLink outside new EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman's office. Whitman is reportedly about to appoint ex- Monsanto lobbyist Linda Fisher as her deputy. All in all, the pro-biotech tilt of the new administration seems not too different from that of the old one. Dan Glickman, who as Bill Clinton's Agriculture Secretary was a staunch biotech advocate, has been rewarded with a position at the influential lobbying firm Akin Gump. One of his responsibilities will be - you guessed it - biotechnology. (True Food Network, http://truefoodnow.org/inside_scoop/archives/010207-tf-dcdump.html; Al Kamen, "Fisher Being Seconded to Whitman," Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2001; Judy Sarasohn, "Ex-USDA Chief Glickman Joins Akin Gump," Washington Post, Feb. 8, 2001.)
*New clouds of confusion have been wafting over biotechnology from the direction of human genetics. The sequencing of the human genome, hyped as one of the great scientific achievements of all time, turned out to be an embarrassing anticlimax, as the bulk of the anticipated 100,000 human genes seem to have gone missing. Neither Craig Venter, impresario of Celera Genomics, nor the taxpayer-funded Human Genome Project could find more than 30,000 or so. In fact, Venter admitted that he has identified only three hundred human genes which do not also appear in mice! (Nicholas Wade, "Genome's Riddle: Few Genes, Much Complexity," "Genetic Sequence of Mouse Is Also Decoded," New York Times, Feb. 13, 2001.)
The very definition of the word "gene" was suddenly in play, as Venter's rival, William Haseltine of Human Genome Sciences, held fast to his claim of having identified 100,000 genes using a different method. The showmen sparred, to the chagrin of journalists and investors who had been led to believe that this drama was very much further along than it is. (Andrew Pollack, "Double Helix with a Twist," New York Times, Feb. 13, 2001.)
Once fervent genetic determinists are now beginning to mute their views, realizing that we've barely begun to understand the complex relationships between an organism, its genes and its environment. As Venter himself recently conceded, "We don't know shit about biology." (Ralph Brave, "Decoding the Genome," salon.com, Jan. 9, 2001.)
*Yet we continue to fool around with it. A rhesus monkey has now been cloned in Oregon. Monkeys, of course, are higher primates - our close cousins. Gerald Schatten, the leader of the project, has disclaimed any interest in making designer babies. (Maggie Fox, "Scientists Genetically Engineer a Monkey," Reuters, Jan. 11, 2001.)
*Not so shy is Panos Zavos, the latest entry in the human cloning sweepstakes. Zavos seems more serious than other aspiring cloners like physicist Richard Seed or the Raelian cult. A professor of reproductive physiology, Zavos runs a Kentucky fertility clinic with his wife, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist. He plans to perform his experiments somewhere in the Mediterranean region an with international team of researchers. Asked about the human suffering that would ensue if something went wrong with the procedure, Zavos replied, "Tell me any invention that didn't have its failures first." (Rick Weiss, "U.S. Fertility Expert Announces Effort to Clone a Human," Washington Post, Jan. 27, 2001.)
*With so many scoundrels on the scene, it's pleasant to be able to be able to report on a hero. That would be Jose Bove, the fiery French sheep farmer who's taken his global crusade against corporatization of agriculture to Brazil. On January 26, while attending the World Social Forum, a response to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Bove joined more than a thousand members of the Landless Workers Movement as they took over a Monsanto experimental farm and pulled up genetically engineered corn and soybean plants. Though biotech crops are illegal in Brazil, Monsanto was growing them through a controversial arrangement with the federal government. ("French Activist Arrested in Brazil," Associated Press, Jan. 30, 2000.)
Jose Bove came to prominence after serving time in jail for trashing a McDonald's that was under construction. He was protesting punitive American tariffs against Roquefort cheese, imposed in retaliation against France's refusal to accept American hormone-raised beef. Later, Bove played an important part in the Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization. He's likely to turn up in Quebec City, where massive anti-globalization protests are planned against the April negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.