Forcing a World Market for GMOs
Faculty Evaluator: Al Wahrhaftig Ph.D., Eric McGuckin Ph.D.
Student Researcher: Larissa Heeren
The Bush Administration, on behalf of the biotech industry, intends to force the European Union (EU) to drop trade barriers against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Their claim is that such a trade barrier is illegal under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and that the distribution of GMOs is a necessary part of the campaign to end world hunger. However, the reason behind U.S. governmental support for GMOs may have more to do with heavy lobbying, campaign contributions and the close relationships between government agencies and biotech companies than actual science and the war against hunger. U.S. industry loses some $300 million a year of possible GMO exports to the EU. Biotechnology promoters like Monsanto and agri-business have strenuously lobbied the administration to bring a formal WTO case against the EU while suppressing studies that show GMOs may have adverse effects on health and the environment.
The connections between biotech companies and US regulatory agencies are deep. According to globalinfo.org, Ann Veneman, US Department of Agriculture Secretary, used to serve on the board of Calgene, the company that brought us the biotech tomato. She also used to head Agracetus, a subsidiary of Monsanto. In another example of the “revolving door” between biotech companies and regulatory agencies, the person who wrote the GMO regulations for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a lawyer who “previously” represented biotech-giant Monsanto. After writing the FDA legislation, the lawyer returned to work for Monsanto.
Another factor that has powerfully influenced the growth of the GMO industry throughout the world is the link between international development organizations (such as the World Bank) and the biotech industry. Under an approved “staff exchange program” the World Bank trades its employees with employees from companies like Dow, ARD, and Aventis. There are also exchanges with academic institutions, governments, and UN development agencies. One startling example involves Eija Pehu, a senior scientist with the World Bank’s department of agriculture and rural development. The former president of a Finnish biotech company, Pehu is also listed as a board member for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), an influential lobbying organization whose funding comes from companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer. The ISAAA’s objective is “the transfer and delivery of appropriate biotechnology applications to developing countries.” They have successfully pursued this program with projects in at least 12 developing nations.
The U.S. has a history of attempting to push GMOs on developing nations through the use of food aid. Yet, despite enormous pressure and Washington PR campaigns, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique have turned down shipments of U.S. GMO aid because of health and environmental concerns. Ronnie Cummins, national director of Organic Consumers, says the real aim of the United States is to frighten poor developing nations into complying and opening their markets for controversial products.
But while GMO companies continue to open new markets abroad, the jury is still out on whether or not their products are likely to provide any real benefits. Controversy and scandal surround the biotech industry and charges that it manipulates the results of research performed on GMOs. Biotech companies create relationships with universities that conduct research on their products by providing sorely needed funding for university research departments. (Over the last three decades, funding provided to U.S. universities by the industrial sector grew faster than any other source.) Researchers who have come forward with evidence showing that GMOs can be harmful claim they have experienced pressure from university research alliances to alter results. Some assert that the priorities of private sponsors influence what should have been impartial findings. One researcher who found less than desirable results, and discussed them publicly, had the misfortune of being blacklisted and the target of a powerful GMO PR campaign to discredit his work. In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, a scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland discovered that genetically modified potatoes caused inflammations and tumors in the lining of stomachs of lab rodents. After publishing his story, his home was burglarized, his research was stolen, he lost his job at Rowett after 30 years of employment, and he was maligned by the Royal Medical Society (after his research was published in the reputable scientific journal Lancet). This story was Censored #7 in 2001.
The European Union denies that it has enacted a trade moratorium and says it simply needed more time to develop systems for tracing and labeling GM foods and feed. However, even if the EU were to abide by the WTO’s rules, “there is no way in hell they can force the European consumers, supermarkets, or farmers to stock GMO tainted crops,” says Ronnie Cummins.
Meanwhile, the anti-GMO movement in the United States is rapidly gaining steam. In March 2004, Mendocino, California became the first county in the U.S. to ban the growing of genetically modified crops and animals.
UPDATE BY KATHERINE STAPP: With public concerns over genetically modified (GM) foods intensifying this year, the agricultural biotechnology industry appears to be focusing even more intently on developing countries, where regulations governing their use are generally more lax.
In April, the European Union announced tougher labeling requirements for genetically modified products. In May, agricultural giant Monsanto said that it was dropping plans to commercialize a variety of GM wheat in the United States and Canada because of consumer and farmer opposition.
By contrast, India's $200-million-dollar National Technology Project (NATP), funded in part by the World Bank, has stepped up experimentation with transgenic cotton, rice, sorghum, groundnut, chickpea and pigeon pea. According to reports from the Pesticide Action Network, dozens or more World Bank-funded projects, in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Peru, Romania, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Kenya refer explicitly to agricultural biotechnology.
In a related development (since many of the same companies involved in biotech also manufacture pesticides), PAN also gave the Bank a failing grade on sustainable farming practices. Its review of 100 Bank projects determined that only nine percent comply with the Bank's stated commitment to reduce pesticide use in its agricultural projects.
This growing divide between North and South is illustrated by estimates from industry groups like the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which tout the spread of GM crops. In January, the ISAAA announced that "7 million farmers in 18 countries — more than 85 percent resource-poor farmers in the developing world — now plant biotech crops, up from 6 million in 16 countries in 2002." Interestingly, since IPS made inquiries, ARD scientist Eija Pehu is no longer listed on the ISAAA's web site as a member of its Board of Directors (although Gabrielle Persley, a long-time advisor to the Bank, is still there).
Activists are also focusing World Bank funding for GM trees through its Prototype Carbon Fund, which facilitates emissions trading to comply with the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases. They fear that pollen drift from these GM "carbon sinks" could contaminate native species, and also open the door for widespread planting of GM trees in developing countries.
The World Bank's lack of accountability to governments or civil society is at the heart of many complaints about its activities, underlining the importance of the independent media in exposing abuses. In terms of the mainstream press' response to the IPS story, I'm not aware that there was one.
More information can be found at PAN's web site (www.panna.org), the Global Justice Ecology Project (www.globaljusticeecology.org), the Bank's Staff Exchange site (www.staffexchange.org), which lists its "corporate partners", and a new book titled "Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger" by Brian Tokar (Toward Freedom press 2004).
Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 12/3/03
Title: "Agriculture: Biotech Boom Linked to Development Dollars - Critics"
Author: Katherine Stapp
Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency, May 14, 2003
Title: “U.S. WTO Dispute Could Bend Poor Nations to GMOs-Groups”
Author: Emad Mekay
CMW Report, Summer 2003
Title: “A Rebuttal to the Tribune”
Author: Liane Casten
SF Weekly, June 2-8, 2004
Title: “Bioscience Warfare”
Author: Alison Pierce