Gateway Green Alliance/Green Party of St. Louis
The following appeared in the December 29, 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch as part of a debate. Both this editorial and the one supporting genetic engineering can be found at www.postnet.com
Monsanto Should Halt Genetic Engineering
by Don Fitz
If Monsanto is in trouble, the St. Louis community takes note. No one likes she thought of a relative or friend losing a job.
When Monsanto announced in November that it would lay off 2,500 of 28,000 employees, many attributed it to merger problems with American Home Products. But the company's problems run deeper. The planned downsizing could symptomize a poor business strategy of focusing on genetic engineering. It may be time for Monsanto to explore a new direction.
The 1990s have seen an increasing demand for "organic" food grown without genetic engineering, irradiation, animal cannibalism or the use of sewage sludge. Greens would like to see Monsanto abandon its current practices and research organic agriculture.
Natural-farming research would develop the best techniques to grow a variety of crops in varied ecosystems. Organic farming principles assume food is grown as close to the consumer as possible. Growing food on mega-farms assumes large use of fuel and highways for cross- continental shipping-a process that is not organic. There is enormous potential for ongoing research on how locally diverse agricultural production can have the smallest effect on natural species.
This would be a 180-degree turn for Monsanto, which has gained the ire of environmentalists for creating virtually all PCBs in the U.S. (widely used in electronic products until their ban in 1976), for producing the infamous Agent Orange (linked to cancer and reproductive problems in Vietnam Vets), and for manufacturing pesticides (responsible for groundwater contamination). Monsanto is a "potentially responsible party" at 93 Superfund sites identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Monsanto recently sold off most of its chemical divisions, though it retains production of the herbicide Roundup. The St. Louis-based corporation now focuses its research on genetic engineering, which it claims will produce crops with higher yield, tolerance to drought, and protection against damage by pests.
But European farmers and environmentalists have joined forces against genetically altered crops. They claim that, in addition to exposing consumers to unknown food allergies, biotechnology practices could cause the evolution of "superweeds" or "superbugs" that would be resistant to chemical control and crowd out crops and native species. Farmers who do use its patented products find themselves labeled "seed pirates" if they replant them.
Monsanto's press reports claim that the company hired Pinkerton detectives to scrutinize 1,800 U.S. farmers. Farmers across the globe have protested loudly against the "terminator" technology-a seed that kills its own offspring while providing no increase in food production. Terminator technology was developed by Delta and Pine Land, which Monsanto is acquiring. Critics charge that terminator seeds were developed to bloat corporate profits at the expense of 1.4 billion farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America who depend on saved seed. In October the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR-the world's largest farm research network) announced that it would ban terminator technology from its crop breeding programs. The terminator rebuke comes at a time when governments are listening more attentively to criticisms from environmentalists.
Canada has not allowed introduction of the first genetically engineered product-recombinant bovine growth hormone. Currently, Canada is examining reports from Consumers Union which suggest that, in order to receive the 1993 approval for bovine growth hormone from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Monsanto may have withheld data showing damaged thyroid and prostate tissue in rats given high doses of the hormone.
Proponents of genetic engineering downplay the likelihood of "genetic pollution." But according to British press accounts, the British government expects to charge Monsanto saying that pollen from its Roundup-resistant canola test site in Lincolnshire spread to an adjoining non-genetically engineered canola plot. Many European consumers rejected genetically engineered products throughout 1997.
In response, Monsanto mounted a 1 million advertising campaign this past summer. But on Nov. 18, the London Guardian reported that an internal Monsanto memo leaked to Greenpeace documented that, for the first time, an absolute majority of British people reject genetically engineered foods. The proportion of consumers rating genetically engineered foods as "unacceptable" went from 35 percent in 1997 to 44 percent before the summer of 1998 to 51 percent after the Monsanto campaign.
Additionally, executives for major supermarkets were angered by what they perceived as Monsanto's high-handed tactics of mixing genetically engineered soya products with normal ones so consumers would have no choice.
The leaked British documents came on the heels of a Brazilian judge's blocking approval for planting Monsanto's genetically altered soybeans. Brazil has the world's second largest soybean crop and the opportunity to use genetically engineered varieties during its fall 1998 planting season was missed.
Thus, the failure of the merger with American Home Products was only one chapter in difficulties of a corporation which has spent billions in acquisition of seed and research companies.
Some may laugh "Absurd!" at the proposal that Monsanto turn to organic agriculture. But such a dramatic about-face may be exactly what Monsanto needs.
Don Fitz is director of the Gateway Green Foundation, which hosted the July 1998 "First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering." He is a member of the Missouri Green Party and The Greens/Green Party USA.
Back to Gateway Greens home page