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26 February 1999

The spud America didn’t like

The US wasn't worrying about GM food. Now, the gene is out of the bottle. ByEmily Green

By Emily Green

The British tend to assume that something “American” is either odious, or new and improved. In the case of genetically modified foods, the public thinks the former, the Prime Minister thinks the latter. But how are “Frankenfoods” seen in America itself?

In most cases, they aren’t seen at all. Estimates vary as to how many cows in the US are regularly injected with the genetically engineered growth hormone “Posilac”, or bovine somatotropin (BST). Monsanto couldn’t tell me. It might be 7 per cent, it might be 15, it might be 30. Anywhere from 700,000 to three million cows receive it, and their milk is not labelled, nor is the cheese or yoghurt that’s made from it.

An estimated 45-50 million acres of GM crops (of the 69.5 million planted globally) now grow in the US. These, too, go unnoticed by the average citizen. They are grown on huge, isolated farms and then sold in bulk to distributors and processors from where they slip undeclared into all manner of products – as soy beans into sauces, as potatoes into chips at McDonald’s, as corn into tins of minestrone, as cotton into garments.

According to Monsanto, this is because GM crops are safe and desirable. According to their detractors, they do so because of decades of political cosiness between government and agri-business.

Both sides agree, though, that Monsanto won the first round of the battle in 1993, when BST became, in Monsanto’s words, “the first product of biotechnology approved for commercial sale”. Ronnie Cummins, director of the Campaign for Food Safety, a pressure group based in Minnesota and Washington, DC, is still fighting its use. “It’s crack for cows,” he says. “You can make some money if you’re going to discard your cows after two or three years. The only reason Monsanto keeps it on the market is that it would be a disaster to admit that it was wrong.”

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Most of the developed world appears to agree with him. No industrialised country outside the US has licensed Posilac BST. Last December the Canadian government again declined to approve it.

In the US, according to Cummins, media and public awareness of GM foods seemed to begin and end with that battle over BST. “When the soy and corn and cotton started to be planted on a widespread basis, there was no media coverage.”

Last autumn, this changed. On 25 October 1998, the New York Times published an 8,579-word article about Monsanto’s “New Leaf” potato, a spud containing a transgene for a soil bacterium fatal to certain beetles, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). “There are not many articles that make a difference,” says Margaret Mellon, a molecular biologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC. “Everybody read it. People began to think differently and harder.”

“I worked on it for ever,” Michael Pollan, the author, recalls. “I spent a couple of months persuading them [Monsanto] to co-operate.

“When I got into it, I was just shocked. I come from New England, where the farms are really small.” Monsanto took him to the vast potato farms of the west, where the transgene Bt potatoes were one way to cut down the use of pesticides and herbicides, which were not only toxic, but ruinously expensive. He met farmers who felt “trapped by the chemical inputs required to extract the high yields they must achieve in order to pay for the chemical inputs they need. The economics were daunting: a potato farmer in south-central Idaho will spend roughly $1,965 an acre (mainly on chemicals, electricity, water and seed) to grow a crop that, in a good year, will earn him maybe $1,980.”

Anybody who reads Pollan’s accounts of farmers trapped between chemical and transgenic technologies – neither method strictly chemical-free, both dependent on science that the farmers did not understand – is likely to conclude that organic farming looks very appealing.

The bombshell was Pollan’s explanation of how transgenic products could be entering the food chain unlabelled. Pollan found that the gene was not considered a “food additive” but a pesticide. It was therefore not under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) jurisdiction. He was referred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “When I called the EPA,” he wrote, “and asked if the agency had tested my Bt potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was . . . not exactly. It seems the EPA works from the assumption that if the original potato is safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf package is presumed to be safe.”

“This is a regime set up by the former Republican vice-president Dan Quayle, an enemy of regulation,” Pollan explains to me. “Every agency thought it was the job of the next agency.”

Legislators have slept through the controversy, say critics of GM. “The Democratic Party has decided this is one of the star technologies that it wants to support,” says Pollan. “You just don’t get a meaningful political debate when both political parties are on the same side.”

But media interest has perked up since Pollan’s article. Reports critical of Monsanto have appeared in the mainstream media, not least on ABC nightly news, and in Time and the Washington Post. According to Ronnie Cummins, two separate lawsuits are being filed, one demanding bovine growth hormone be withdrawn from the market, the other that all crops containing the Bt gene be banned. He is still relishing a recent Monsanto humiliation, an own-goal in which the corporation lobbied to change organic standards to accept transgene crops. The bigger the humiliation in Europe, and the more controversy about GM food production, Cummins thinks, the better for America. “I think we’re going to see a situation in the US where organic – real organic – is going to be a gigantic market,” he says.