Revolts Against Monsanto and Genetically Engineered Foods Throughout Europe
Monsanto Investing News web page.
We're gagging on GM. Monsanto must face up to meltdown
By John Vidal
Friday March 19, 1999
Another grand year for US life science corporation Monsanto's chairman, R=
obert Shapiro. This week, it was reported that his $10 billion-a-year,
Missouri-based company, champion of the GM food revolution, had made
healthy profits, taken over more seed companies and increased earnings for
shareholders. And, by the by, Mr Shapiro has cashed in $18 million of his
own shares on top of his $US = 1.7 million salary.
There was some veiled regret that Monsanto had failed to merge with the
huge American Home Stores, but no word on its widely reported talks with
chemical giant, Dupont. Should this happen, it would create a
biotechnology powerhouse, well able to dominate global agriculture.
There was no word, either, on t= he company's troubles in Europe. Here,
Shapiro's troops are in the bunker, w= ith the company, in PR terms at
least, close to meltdown. What Blair and Clinton = poll analyst, Stanley
Greenberg, reported last year as a potential corporate c= risis is
worsening by the day.
In the past few weeks, Asda and Marks & Spencer joined Iceland in banning
GM products from their own-brand food lines. Safeway followed suit, with
Sainsbury, Waitrose and the Co-Op in the past few days. That leaves
Somerfield and Tesco's. But consumer pressure now embraces many major
environment, development, consumer and health groups, and it may be only
time before they, too, retreat. The big question is which of the giant
(but mostly anonymous) food processors like Unilever, Northern Foods or
Nestle, breaks first and declares its own products GM-free. In the past
fortnight, scientific doubts have been expressed about Monsanto GM soya's
links to allergies, the government's advisor on GM releases has condemned
it (and other companies) for a 'lamentable lack of consideration' for
consumers; and the august Institute of Chartered Surveyors has advised
that growing GM crops could threaten land values and put farm tenants at
risk of legal action.
The National Farmers' Union of Scotland responded that it would now be
'commercial suicide' for farmers to grow the crops if asked. Meanwhile,
British Sugar, which controls all sales of sugar beet seed to British
farmers, has said it has no plans to introduce genetically modified
varieties, even if approved.
But the catalogue of corporate woe goes far beyond Britain. Irish, Swiss,
German, Italian, French and Belgian supermarket chains have all started to
exclude GM ingredients. In the past fortnight, New Zealanders have been
uprooting crops, the Brazilian state environment agency has begun a case
against the company, the Ukraine environment minister has declared his
country should not be an experimental site for GM crops and Indian peasant
farmers are revolting.
Meanwhile leading scientists this week declared BST, a Monsanto growth
hormone engineered to increase the yield of cow's milk but so far banned
in Europe, as harmful to animals with potential human health risks.
Monsanto can do little to resist the global wave of opposition. Instead it
is using a legal weapon, a tactic that may backfire and further damage its
image. In 10 days' time, two women will be tried in a Plymouth court for
'conspiracy to commit criminal damage' for pulling up one of their GM
herbicide resistant maize crops and may have to pay =A3600,000 to the
company in compensation. In April, defendants from Genetix Snowball face
the company in the civil courts.
Monsanto is demanding that the small organisation which last year
published a book on how to take open, (the activists will argue
'responsible') direct action against GM crops, should be forced to hand
over to it the names of everyone who bought the book from them or was sent
a copy. It smacks of corporate policing and the next month will see large
British demonstrations, marches and, inevitably, the public destruction of
more GM trial crops. For the first time, MPs have indicated they may be
prepared to be arrested.
With the popular press and several broadsheets now campaigning against
Monsanto's products, what friends has the company got? Tony Blair, who
has several times spoken to President Clinton about the necessity to
support new technologies like genetic engineering, is cooling. So far he,
senior ministers and civil servants are falling back on the line that
consumers should be able to exercise 'choice'. But, judging from the
Cabinet committee report leaked to the Guardian a few weeks ago,
government doubts that it can control the explosive situation are
mounting. 'How real is the risk of a trade war with America?' Jack
Cunningham asked his senior civil servants. 'Why don't we require a
pharmaceutical type analysis of the safety of these foods with proper
trials? How confident are we that our line that a moratorium would be
illegal is accurate?'
Yesterday, government announced a new labelling regime aimed at enforcing
EU regulations, with fines of up to =A35,000. The controls, which the
trading standards authorities may find unworkable in practice, will force
restaurants, cafes, bakers and delicatessens to declare the GM content of
their foods. The suppliers have largely escaped. It was dismissed as a
red herring and 'already outdated' by opposition MPs who can sense the
government's inability to keep up with such a dynamic situation.
But even as the European Union is looking to introduce full labelling for
GM additives and flavourings, something Monsanto and the other GM food
companies might find intolerable, British retailers have said they will go
further because government reassurances are not enough. What we are
witnessing is one of the greatest revolts against a new technology in
history, dwarfing the European protests against Shell over Brent Spar and
Whether this revolt will be judged by history as a triumph of new
democracy and a significant step in the reining in of corporate power, or
as a backward response to inevitable 'progress', it proposes a new
relationship between politicians, corporations and consumers.
Mr Shapiro's confidence that Monsanto will end up winners might well prove