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US genetic engineering on the skids

By Bob Phelps - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

An end to the short and chequered history of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) is in sight, at least in food, farming and human cloning. The United States government and its genetic engineering (GE) companies, driving the breakneck commercialisation of gene technology and its products have lost public confidence.

Their plans to industrialise all living beings - microbes, plants, animals and humans - are being comprehensively restricted and rejected everywhere. The tens of billions of dollars already poured into agricultural GE have been spent, so this is make or break time – commercialise or collapse.

Contamination Uncontained

Aventis is the latest casualty of the GE backlash, recently selling its genetech business to the European drug and agrochemical giant Bayer. Aventis got into hot water when the US food supply was contaminated last year with its Starlink GE corn, which had not been approved for human consumption. It was only approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) for feeding to animals because the insect toxin (Bt) produced in every cell of the crop was a potential human allergen.


Starlink was only about 1% of the US corn crop, but in September 2000 Starlink was found on US supermarket shelves, forcing the recall of over 300 product lines. It also turned up in 'pure' corn seed produced for the organic and conventional markets and in foods in Japan where it was also not approved. Japanese orders for US corn collapsed by 85% immediately, followed by Korean purchases.

Aventis has already paid out millions of dollars to buy up contaminated produce and to compensate farmers & grain handlers, with court cases from food companies and allergy sufferers still to come.

Contaminated corn stocks that can't be sold as food are offloaded cheaply for animal feed, ethanol production, or US government food aid and disaster relief. According to the US Farmers Weekly, US government subsidies now provide 70% of US soybean farmers' income, prompting challenges from Brazil and Europe to the WTO. About 250,000 tonnes of US soy are now imported annually from the USA into Australia for animal feed.

US corn exports to Europe in 1995/96 were 2.8 million tonnes, around 20% of total US production, but these markets have now evaporated, leaving US farmers very unhappy. Starlink was the final nail in the coffin of declining corn sales. After Starlink, desperate processors turned to white corn, a specialty crop grown under carefully segregated conditions but it was also contaminated with foreign genes.

The genetic pollution of corn has also had wider impacts. In October 2001 the Mexican government said their heritage corn stocks were contaminated, even though GE crops are not officially grown in Mexico. Yet the future of corn breeding (for disease resistance, productivity, etc) depends entirely on the seedstocks of corn biodiversity. This survives only in centres of genetic diversity like Mexico, where our food crops were first developed. Even genetic engineers depend on nature. They do not create new genetic material, merely cutting and pasting the gene they find in nature.

The Worm Turns

StarLink has also aroused a sleeping giant - US public opinion – which is now turning against GE food and crops. Even prior to the StarLink controversy 70% of Americans told a Reuters poll that GE foods should be treated with caution and public demand for GE food labelling is now over 90%. The Canadian government, also a great GE promoter, under intense public pressure to label GE foods has caved in to US pressure and narrowly defeated the proposed labelling laws.


Public resistance and GE contamination have prompted major food industries to reject GE. Monsanto's GE potato went out of production when McDonalds and Frito Lay refused to serve potatoes their customers rejected. The US sugar industry will not use GE sugar beet and, following European warnings, Canadian wheat growers want their government to ban GE wheat.

Farmers Disillusioned

Farmers and the GE companies are now at loggerheads. Many growers are suing Monsanto over cotton crop failures, yield losses in Roundup Ready soybeans, and lost price premiums because non-GE crops were contaminated.

Adding to the mutual mistrust, Monsanto (with 94% of the commercial GE crop market) has sued farmers over alleged violations of patents on GE crops. The company gathers evidence through anonymous tip-off phone lines and has agents taking samples from private farms.

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About the Author

Bob Phelps is Executive Director of Gene Ethics.

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