Who and What Is Behind the Drive To GE?

- Christine Dann

Reprinted with permission from Just Trade, GE Special, 15/10/03. Just Trade is an electronic newsletter of the Green Party.

It is worth reiterating that CAFCA is not affiliated with any political party. We were looking for something that analysed who and what was behind the drive to lift the moratorium on the commercial release of genetic engineering in this country, and Christine Dann’s article fitted the bill exactly. Christine needs no introduction – as well as her role with the Greens, she is a renowned author, activist, researcher, feminist, and founder member of CAFCA. Ed.

What's behind the drive to genetically engineer food plants and animals, raise them in open fields, and put the resulting products on supermarket shelves without strict and accurate labels saying what is in the food, how it was produced, and where it is from? Is it

(a) providing healthier food for all?

(b) providing more food for all?

(c) providing tastier food for all?

(d) making more profits for transnational corporations (TNCs)?

The correct answer is of course (d). How do we know this? Let's go back to where it all started.


In the early 1990s there was some experimentation with genetically engineering (GE) vegetables to alter their taste, appearance and keeping qualities, but none of them proved profitable, even when people didn't know they had been engineered. GE food didn't really take off until the mid-90s when giant American chemical company Monsanto, looking for a way to sell more of its proprietory herbicide RoundUp, which was just coming out of patent, engineered soybeans and canola (rapeseed) to be resistant to RoundUp. Monsanto then sold the GE seeds to North American farmers claiming that they would be more profitable for the farmers to use because they would produce higher yields and require less weedkiller. Neither of these claims has been proven to be consistently true, with many farmers getting lower yields and having to use different kinds of weedkillers. RoundUpReady soy, for example, was surveyed across all US states and on average the yield was down 5% compared with normal varieties. GE corn (maize) seeds, which were engineered to have a built-in pesticide, were also not the answer to a farmer's prayer to spend less on inputs and produce more output, and the American Corn Growers Association has been advising growers against growing GE corn for three years now. Further, when consumers in Europe, the main market for North American soy, corn and canola food products and animal feeds, refused to eat GE foods or animals raised on GE feed for safety, health and environmental reasons, farmers could not sell their crop at a profit.

But before consumer and citizen resistance set in, and farmers starting realising what a big mistake had been made, Monsanto made plenty of profit, and if GE food is ever accepted and planted across the world it stands to make more, as it totally dominates the GE seed market. 90% of the 140 million acres growing GE crops in the world today (most of which are in the US, followed by Canada and Argentina) is planted with Monsanto seeds. Monsanto would also have a licence, and a big incentive, to continue diversifying into other GE products, including those of concern to NZ, such as GE dairy products.

The stakes are high – and Monsanto goes to extraordinary lengths to protect its profits. It uses the law, which is biased in favour of corporations and against ordinary citizens. It hounds farmers with private detectives and lawsuits if it suspects them of saving GE seed rather than buying it afresh from the company each planting season. It even sues farmers whose crops have been contaminated with wind-blown GE pollen, and, in an infamous Canadian case, it won damages against a farmer who had counter-sued claiming that Monsanto had polluted his crop and owed him damages. It also sues companies that publicise their products as free of Monsanto-derived ingredients – on July 3, 2003, it filed suit against Oakhurst Dairy in Maine (US), claiming that its’ publicised farmers' pledge of ''no artificial growth hormones'' disparaged Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone product.

It also uses its enormous wealth to grease its way into positions of influence at the highest levels in American politics. In the 2000 election cycle it spent US$2,002,000 on lobbying and making lavish donations to politicians, including George Bush. It has representation on the US government's Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade and the US Food and Drug Administration's Biotech Advisory Panel. Senior staff make good use of the "revolving door" between the American government and US corporations. The most high profile examples include Mickey Kantor, a former US Secretary of Commerce and US Trade Representative, who now sits on Monsanto's board of directors; Michael Taylor, an attorney for Monsanto who moved to the position of Deputy Commissioner for the US Food and Drug Administration in time to play a role in hearing Monsanto's successful application for approval of its controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, and then returned to Monsanto as Vice-President of the company; and Rufus Yerxa, who went from being Chief Counsel for Monsanto to deputy to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General in August 2002.

US Bullies The World, Including NZ, Over GE

So when the US makes its case at the WTO disputes panel that the European Union (EU) should lift its "illegal" five year moratorium on approving new GE products for planting or import, and its new regulations requiring full labelling of GE food and a new approval process, behind the rhetoric about "free" trade and "scientific risk assessment" is the harsh reality that a powerful American corporation is manipulating national and international governmental processes and personnel for its own private gain.

The US has also engaged in GE trade bullying with New Zealand. A former US Ambassador to New Zealand, Josiah Beeman, warned that if NZ insisted on full labelling of GE foods then trade consequences, such as tariffs on NZ lamb sent to the US, could follow. The Government went soft on labelling – but the tariffs went on anyway. The US bullies other countries to accept GE food too, including the despicable trick of forcing it on starving people as "aid". This is what it did to Zambia when drought caused famine there – and it refused to grind the grain supplied so that it could only be eaten, and no seeds were able to be planted and potentially contaminate Zambian seed sources. That this was likely to happen can be seen from the sorry case of Mexico, the home of maize, which despite having a moratorium on growing GE maize, now has GE contamination of native maize in at least nine states. Unable to get other countries to accept GE foods freely, the US is prepared to use force of various kinds.

Sadly, the New Zealand government has decided to side with the US/Monsanto by reserving its right to take third party status in the US case against the EU at the WTO. At home it is doing what it can to make the world safer and more profitable for companies like Monsanto by having lifted the GE release moratorium, refusing to ratify the Cartagena Protocol to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (which sets strict conditions on cross-border traffic in genetically modified organisms [GMOs]), and refusing to take product labelling seriously.

The Greens (along with a majority of New Zealanders) have extensive and valid scientific, environmental, health and safety, economic and ethical concerns about the field release of GMOs and GE in the food chain. But along with critiqueing what type and extent of damage has and could be done by letting GMOs loose in NZ, it is also important to critique why and how it is being forced upon us against the public will. In the case of GE, it comes down to American corporations actively lobbying their own and foreign governments (using industry front organisations, such as the Life Sciences Network in NZ, where necessary) to protect their ability to trade in a product for which there is no consumer demand, which confers no public benefit, and which carries potentially huge risks.

Successive New Zealand governments have shown themselves only too willing to break their contract with the people who elected them, which is to govern well and wisely for the benefit of all, and to make de facto contracts with foreign corporations instead. GE is no exception to this sad trend, which makes a mockery of democracy. In reclaiming our right to safe food and a clean environment, free from unnecessary risks, we must also focus on reclaiming our rights as citizens to put public good before private profit, and community need before corporate greed.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2003.

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