Food Terrorism Takes The Mayflower
Europe's model for protest crops up in the States

Americans have always had an unavowed envy of Europe. We put on British accents to appear fashionable, we unblinkingly defer to the French on haute cuisine. Now, when we want to play at food terrorism, we're once again taking our cue from the Continent, where tweaked-out Europeans have been waging a very public war against the development of genetically modified (GM) produce.

See also...
... by Heidi Kriz
... in the Scope section
... from October 27, 1999

The hoi polloi have been trampling down GM maize, soya, and corn fields. They've been leading attacks on fast food joints that use the ingredients in their cooking, including commando raids on McDonald's. Though these might seem like typical hippie antics, the furor has escaped to beyond the crop circles and into the scientific and business communities.

Just last week, scientists squared off in the pages of the much respected journals Nature and The Lancet, hotly debating the dangers, or lack thereof, of GM foods. And companies in the business -- a number of them American -- are backpedaling wildly to cap financial and image losses over the controversy.

The Nature of the Problem

Folksy uprisings against GM foods are cropping up everywhere. France even has its own official food martyr. "These actions will only stop when this mad logic comes to a halt!" bellowed Jose Bove on his release from the jail they threw him in for organizing the raid on the McDonald's construction site in Larzac, France -- before it had even been built. These aren't the actions of le Unabomber, it's part of a general trend.

French farmers are dumping truckloads of rotting fruits and vegetables in front of town halls, in protest of the European Union Common Agriculture Policy -- and that's small potatoes compared to the (perhaps apocryphal) story of the Belgian graverobbers who dumped a corpse on the steps of a working McDonald's franchise.

Meanwhile, across the channel, Lord Melchett, a former minister in the Conservative government (and now executive director of Greenpeace), led a team of saboteurs to a field of GM maize in Norfolk. The angry owner of the wrecked acreage had a different name for him -- "Melshit" -- as the eco-warriors trampled a quarter of the six acre site before their vehicle was overturned during a nasty run-in with a tractor and they were all arrested.

For once, this Gallic (and aristocratic) obstinacy has latched onto an issue that's bigger than hating the rest of the world. Bove and his crew are taking up arms not only against the dreaded Big Mac, but against use of genetic modification in agriculture -- he's also awaiting trial for destroying a store of GM corn produced by Novartis.

Inspired by these bolshy Europeans, similar protest groups are popping up in the States. Groups like the California Croppers have been transforming GM fields into makeshift soccer fields. The Minnesota-based Bolt Weevils have it in for Novartis too. First they destroyed one of the company's GM research fields, and then they glued shut the doors of its headquarters.

Aside from producing GM foods, Novartis is number two in the world in the pharmaceutical industry and the biggest manufacturer of crop protection products. In response to all the controversy, Novartis recently announced that it was considering separating the agribusiness section of its company from the rest of the company.

Meanwhile, US-based Monsanto, also in the GM business, has watched its share price fall from $62 to $38 in the past year. After they were publicly called to the mat by academics over their (unfortunately named)"Terminator technology," which was supposed to create deliberately sterile crops that would force farmers to buy new seeds from the company every year, the head of Monsanto issued a sheepish apology to the public. "We forgot to listen," said Robert Shapiro, over a recent video link with a Greenpeace conference in Britain. "We have irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension."

Though Monsanto has officially stopped production on Terminator seeds, it's a case of too little, too late as the company has also antagonized the one group that might have backed it -- Wall Street. Angry investors are clamoring for the breakup of the company for bringing all the unwanted attention as well as losing their money.

The Problem of the Nature

The thrust of all the anxiety is this: How will genetically altered agricultural crops affect the natural life around them, the environment? And what will food from these crops do to people, once they become a standard part of our diet? The question is leading reputable science journalists to name-calling.

Two weeks ago, the science journal Nature claimed that GM plants could not be called "safe" until they had passed the same toxicity tests used on drugs. Outraged GM engineers wrote a counter article in the same journal last week, calling the first article "ill-informed." But perhaps the most alarming and controversial article on the subject was published the same week in the medical journal The Lancet.

It included the findings of Arpad Pusztai, a Scottish scientist who concluded from his research that GM potatoes seemed to affect the immune systems and organs of rats. Pusztai lost his job after he announced his conclusions, and now his experimental methods are being disputed by some scientists. In his experiment, six rats were fed either non-GM potatoes, GM potatoes, or potatoes injected with an insecticide called lectin -- which gives GM potatoes their insecticidal properties. The intestines and stomach linings of the rats fed GM potatoes were apparently affected. Pusztai and his colleague Stanley Ewan concluded that this could be due to the genetic mechanism used to insert the lectin into the potato DNA, or the gene of the lectin itself. If so, these findings might also apply to other GM plants.

Other scientists have pointed out that the rats' diets were protein-deficient, which could account for the changes in the immune systems. Claims that differences are caused by GM foods are "easy to make but difficult to prove," said scientist Harry Kuiper, in a published response to Pusztai and Ewan's paper.

Friends of the Earth has taken a cautious position on the debate, agreeing with The Lancet's Richard Horton that Pusztai's results were "preliminary and non-generalisable," but warning that the government "should not ignore [the paper's] conclusions."Nevertheless, protesters claim there have been other early warning signs. As the result of lab tests conducted in the US, it's widely believed that pollen from GM corn caused damage to the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies. (And hell, as chaos theory tells us, it only takes the beat of a wing of one butterfly to lead to a whole mess of consequences.)

Vive la Resistance!

The money in GM food is in developing crops that are immune to herbicides -- so that you can spray for weeds without threatening the crops themselves. The fear is that these resistant genes might escape into wild plants. A long-term alarmist scenario is that the world could be overrun by super-weeds. The alternative scenario some environmentalists push is that all naturally occurring weeds will be killed off, and along with them the insects and birds that live off them, transforming fertile land into a sterile monoculture. And that's far from the only concern.

Critics see a frightening correlation between GM foods and the rise of the super-disease. See, because farmers have been using antibiotics on their livestock, and human beings worldwide have been using antibiotics indiscriminately, strains of bacteria are developing resistance to most broad-spectrum antibiotics. Labeled "super-disease," The Centers for Disease Control have called this the most "alarming and significant emerging health problem" we face. Could gene modifications to make crops disease resistant cause similar problems with our food supply?

Because of the shrill tenor the debate has reached in the UK, government and industry have agreed to conduct farm-scale trials on GM herbicide tolerant crops, set to begin next year. But Dr. Sue Mayer, the director of GeneWatch UK, an independent monitoring group, warns that trials may be inherently flawed and inadequate.

"Although the trials may last for four years," says Mayer, "the GM crop will only be grown for one season in any one field, so small incremental impacts of growing cannot be detected ... Unless [a more] broad-based approach is taken, not only are the farm-scale trials more likely to resemble a battleground than a scientific experiment, but science will become further discredited as it makes claims to determine safety that are outside its power."

Or, as Lord Melchett told a gathering of neighbors at a town hall meeting near his family's estate: "You can't fudge it down the middle -- this stuff is alive, it will get out, and it will make organic farming in this country impossible."

Let's hope the scientists and the politicians don't sort it all out. Then we'll get to see the Lord of the Manor lead his band of hysterical villagers up to Castle Novartis to take care of this Frankenstein seed once and for all. It is, after all, the European way.

Heidi Kriz crops up in strange circles.