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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Genetically Modified Foods on the Defensive

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about recent news in the field of biotechnology. The Agrochemical company Monsanto has announced that it is not planning to pursue a type of technology that makes a crop’s seeds sterile after one planting. Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) says the announcement is just another in a series of PR blunders for the industry.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Joining us now to talk about the latest environmental news is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hey, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hi there, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mark, let's talk about this big news that came earlier this month from the field of biotechnology. Monsanto, the large agrochemical company, said it's not going to pursue seed sterilization technology, also known as Terminator seeds. This is a really big deal, isn't it?

HERTSGAARD: I think it's a very big development in the whole biotech debate, which is shaping up as one of the big debates of the early twenty-first century in the environmental field. The Terminator technology, as you mention, is essentially a seed -- a crop, rather -- that is specifically designed not to produce seeds. So, it produces the crop the year it's put in the ground, but there are no seeds left over. This is, needless to say, as anybody who grew up on a farm would know, humans for thousands and thousands of years have been saving seeds every year, out of every year's harvest. You generally save the best seeds to replant the next year. So, this is an absolutely revolutionary technology, and it's very important that Monsanto is now trying to distance itself from it. But I think that the larger issue here is really the industry itself, not Monsanto per se. And this is an industry that is now very much on the run, having enormous problems with public opposition. And it's now having, also, big commercial consequences. In fact, just recently, Deutsche Bank, the biggest bank in Europe, has announced that it has advised its large institutional clients that they should get out of biotech stocks.

CURWOOD: Why would the Deutsche Bank take that position?

HERTSGAARD: Well, not for any ideological reason. They're just looking at the marketplace, and they see that there is enormous political opposition and consumer opposition to genetically-modified foods around the world. For example, the two biggest baby food companies in the United States, Gerber and Heinz, have said, "We're not going to use genetically-modified foods." In Japan, the two biggest breweries have said, "We're not going to use genetically-modified foods." Japan is one of the biggest Asian importers of U.S. food. Down in Mexico, a 500-million-dollar-a-year market for U.S. corn farmers, the biggest tortilla maker, said, "No genetically-modified corn for us." And you can go around the world. In France and Britain, same kinds of opposition. The European Union is demanding that there be labeling. Japan has just passed a labeling law. So has Australia. Genetically-modified foods are banned in Brazil. All of these things, if you're a Deutsche Bank and you're looking at the long-term prospects for this industry, that's why they're telling their big investors, "You better get out."

CURWOOD: Okay. And what about for the farmers here in the United States? What's happening to them?

HERTSGAARD: They are very upset, as you might guess. And in fact, they have, in a rather remarkable way, made their anger public. And they have publicly accused -- the American Corn Growers Association has publicly accused the biotech industry of having, quote, "misled" American farmers by getting them to plant all these seeds that now there's not a market for. And this has happened very recently, by the way. You know, in 1995 there were no genetically-modified foods planted in the United States. Now, just four years later, over half of all the soybeans grown here and nearly a third of all the corn is genetically modified. So that's 73 million acres worldwide, 50 million acres in the United States. The farmers are not happy about this. And in fact, Archer Daniels Midland, the big food retailer, has now announced that it is paying 18 cents a bushel less for genetically-modified corn than it pays for traditional corn. That gets a farmer's attention.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the role of the U.S. government in this. The World Trade Organization meeting is coming up next month in Seattle. I imagine this is going to be a pretty big issue there, right?

HERTSGAARD: Almost certainly, Steve. It has been a big issue in the preparatory meetings. French president Chirac has been saying, leading the charge and saying: Look, we should not be putting these products out into the market until we've tested them. The United States has blocked that, along with help from Canada. So you're going to see a very big fight about this, there's no question, and of course there are going to be a lot of activists outside in Seattle for whom this is shaping up as one of the big fights of the environmental sphere in the new century.

CURWOOD: Is the concern about this technology legitimate?

HERTSGAARD: The concern about this technology -- look, people are going to differ about this. There is a lot of opposition. There are a lot of people who say the opponents aren't thinking clearly. It's very reminiscent, in my mind, to everything that happened with nuclear technology in this country in the 50s and 60s. The industry got out front and said we're going to give you electricity too cheap to meter, but they were in such a hurry that they didn't bother to convince the public, and to make the technology safe enough for the public, to get public support. And so, in the 1970s, when public opposition began to arise, the industry reacted with arrogance. And instead of selling a lot of nuclear plants, they ended up on the ropes and basically finished as an industry. Biotechnology is in danger of that very same thing, and in fact Monsanto's chairman, Robert Shapiro, seems to have acknowledged this. He said recently that the company had, quote, "lost the public relations war by appearing arrogant." And that is something that they are trying to change now, but we'll see if it's quick enough. Because people around the world, now, I think, are pretty upset with this, and the Terminator technology is just the most extreme manifestation of this. So, this is a story that we need to keep watching. There are going to be a lot of developments between now and Seattle in November.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Mark. We're out of time. Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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