AUSTIN -- Monsanto Co., a naive and innocent little chemical corporation, was engaged in a benevolent scheme to make a better world through genetically engineered crops -- practically without thinking of profit. Last year the company offered its humanitarian products to what should have been a grateful peasantry around the world, but, alas, unpleasant things began to happen.
In India, unhappy farmers torched Monsanto's test plots of genetically engineered cotton in an outburst of fury they called "Operation Cremation Monsanto." In Ireland, ungrateful protesters sabotaged fields of genetically engineered potatoes. French farmers staged a raid on a cache of modified seeds, sprayed it with fire extinguishers and then urinated on it.
Gee. `Quel' Luddites. How can it be, you ask, that all over the world people are raising Cain about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while in this country we hear not one discouraging word? (Well, perhaps one or two -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in Monsanto's hometown, ran an excellent investigative article last month on the company's misadventures around the globe.)
Well, the rest of the world thinks we're making perfect fools of ourselves over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, too, so that just shows you how much the rest of the world knows.
In fact, you might have heard more about worldwide protests over GMOs if it weren't for Monica; the Center for Media and Public Affairs just announced that the Lewinsky scandal got more network news air time than the combined total for the Asian and Russian economic crises, Iraq, embassy bombings in Africa, Middle Eastern peace, nuclear testing in India and Pakistan, and John Glenn in space. What self-respecting medium had time to worry about the food supply?
Another reason we hear so little about GMOs in this country was explained by Bill Lambrecht in his Post-Dispatch article: Americans have no entry into a regulatory system that was fixed during the Reagan administration.
"In 1986, Monsanto and allies persuaded President Reagan's administration to adopt a framework that would operate with no new legislation. This strategy assured that genetic engineering would, for the most part, remain out of the domain of the Congress and therefore away from the forum where people sound their concern."
The Food and Drug Administration has been our most aggressive regulator on food safety issues, but the FDA has limited authority because genetic traits are not considered food additives.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is stuck with a dual role as both regulator of biotechnology and its ardent booster. As we learned with the old Atomic Energy Commission, which had the same conflicting roles over nuclear power, the result is complete bureaucratic impotence.
But what exactly is the problem? If Monsanto can make vegetable seeds that are resistant to bugs, what's not to like?
Some of Monsanto's problems are traceable to greater European skepticism about science in general. And the Continent just went through the experience of mad cow disease in which 11 million cattle had to be slaughtered; that certainly increased people's suspicions about food safety and their doubts about the adequacy of government regulation.
The British paper The Guardian reported in November: "Monsanto, the world's leading genetic food company, is facing public meltdown in Britain and Germany with a `society-wide' collapse of support for its radical technologies, according to leaked internal documents. Amid deepening media problems, and resentment by supermarkets, only senior civil servants have shown support for Monsanto's controversial technologies in the past year."
One nightmarish Monsanto patent is for "The Terminator," a new genetic technology designed to render the seeds of crops sterile. It was invented to block farmers from saving seeds, ensuring that they buy the jazzed-up, genetically improved varieties. The official name is Technology Protection System, but it's called The Terminator all over the globe, and farmers, who have been saving seeds and resowing for millennia, are terrified of it.
Just imagine if that little genetic fix should somehow get loose and start jumping species. In October at the World Bank in Washington, scientists and farm economists voted to condemn the technology and prohibit in the projects of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the world's largest ag research network.
Critics of biotechnology are afraid that seeding farmland with transgenic crops could spread genetic pollution, upset the balance of nature and release uncontrollable food allergies. Jane Rissler with the Union of Concerned Scientists told Agence France-Pressue, "The purpose of biotechnology is to increase the profits of the manufacturers by persuading farmers to use more herbicides."
But aren't these fears just that -- fears without evidence? The problem is that Monsanto has a record.
The company manufactured virtually all the PCBs in the United States until they were finally banned in 1976, and taxpayers are still shelling out to clean up PCB-riddled waste sites. Monsanto also manufactured Agent Orange, which is linked to cancer and reproductive problems in Vietnam War vets. And the company makes pesticides, which contaminate ground water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Monsanto is a "potentially responsible party" at 93 Superfund sites.
In other words, this is a company that has put its faith in technology before without bothering to properly research the consequences.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Star-Telegram. You may write to her at 1005 Congress Ave., Suite 920, Austin, TX 78701; call her at (512) 476-8908; or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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