Biotech firms found persuasion didn't work, so they are using a new tactic: coercion
Special report: what's wrong with our food?
Monday August 20 2001
I've always been a little uncomfortable about the term "Frankenstein food". It smacks of both sensationalism and trivialisation. In politics, as in shopping, the cheaper the device, the less likely it is to last. But the label is becoming ever more germane. For not only are GM crops cobbled together out of bits of other organisms, but they have also begun to demonstrate a ghoulish ability to rise from the dead, given a sufficient application of power.
A year ago, the biotech companies' grave had been dug. They had failed repeatedly to refute the three principal arguments against deployment: that GM crops enhance corporate power by allowing companies to patent the food chain; that the long-term safety tests to establish whether or not they pose a risk to human health have never been conducted; and that consumers don't want to buy them. The companies might bluster about children in the developing world turning blind if we don't eat up our GM cornflakes in Europe, but there's no shortage of evidence to suggest that corporate control of the food chain has devastating effects on nutrition. But, though we have won the argument, we are losing the war. For the GM companies have rediscovered the old way of dealing with reluctant customers: if persuasion doesn't work, use force.
The new opium wars are being waged in the fields of North America, where many farmers are beginning to shy away from engineered seed. GM crops, they have found, are harder to sell. There is evidence that some varieties yield less while requiring more herbicide. But farmers are swiftly coming to see that the costs of not planting GM seed can greatly outweigh the costs of planting it.
Last month, lawyers warned a farming family in Indiana that the only way they could avoid being sued by the biotech company Monsanto was to sow their entire farm with the company's seeds. Two years ago, the Roushes planted just over a quarter of their fields with the company's herbicide-resistant soya. Though they recorded precisely what they planted where, and though an independent crop scientist has confirmed their account, Monsanto refuses to accept that the Roushes did not deploy its crops more widely. It is now demanding punitive damages for the use of seeds they swear they never sowed. The Roushes maintain that they are, in effect, being sued for not buying the company's products. So next year, like hundreds of other frightened farmers, they will plant their fields only with Monsanto's GM seeds. Like the opium forced upon a reluctant China by British gunboats, once you've started using GM, you're stuck with it.
But the solution proposed by the Roushes' lawyers was a prudent one. In April, a Canadian farmer called Percy Schmeiser was forced to pay Monsanto $85,000, after a court ruled that he had stolen Monsanto's genetic material. Schmeiser maintained that the thinly- spread GM rape plants on his farm were the result of pollen contamination from his neighbour's fields, and he had done all he could to get rid of them. But Monsanto's proprietary genes had been found on his land whether he wanted them or not. Following the time- honoured convention that the polluted pays, Mr Schmeiser was forced to compensate the company for what he insists was invasion by its vegetable vermin.
Where the courts won't enforce compliance, governments will. In 10 days' time, Sri Lanka will introduce a five-year ban on genetically engineered crops, while scientists seek to determine whether or not they are safe. The United States, worried that thorough testing could destroy the value of its biotech companies, has threatened to report the ban to the World Trade Organisation.
In Britain, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously that Wales should be a GM-free zone. But the Westminster government has ignored the ruling and licensed trials of Aventis's genetically modified maize there. The trials are supposed to determine whether or not the new variety is safe to plant. But Aventis has already received consent to grow it commercially, even if the "experiments" show that planting is an ecological disaster. Welsh activists suggest that the purpose of the trials is to lend credibility to a done deal.
Monsanto will never repeat the mistake of seeking to persuade consumers that they might wish to purchase its products. In future, it won't have to. Like the other biotech companies, it has been buying up seed merchants throughout the developing world. In some places farmers must either purchase GM seeds - and the expensive patent herbicides required to grow them - or plant nothing at all.
The European environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom warned in March that the EU could be sued by biotech firms if it upheld its ban on the sale of new GM foods. "We cannot afford," she explained, "to lose more years of not aiding the biotechnology industry". Biotech companies have been pressing to raise Europe's legal limit for the contamination of conventional crops with modified genes: in time, they hope, genetic pollution will ensure that there is so little difference between GM and "non-GM" food that consumers will give up and accept their products. The US government has begun pressing for a worldwide ban on the labelling of GM food, to ensure that consumers have no means of knowing what they're eating.
The monster has begun to walk. The technology which, we were promised, would broaden consumer choice, is becoming compulsory. This is the free trade which George Bush and Tony Blair have promised to the world. It is the freedom which, they have assured us, will overthrow vested interests, challenge market concentration, enhance competition and empower consumers. It is the freedom we must be forced to swallow.
When protesters against this forced emancipation were arrested by the freedom-loving police in Genoa, some of them were tortured, then shown a photograph of Mussolini. They were obliged to salute it and shout "Viva il Duce!" Presumably because this enthusiastic defence of market forces is compatible with free trade, neither Tony Blair nor Jack Straw saw fit to complain. Had they done so, they would have spoken to one of the most senior members of Italy's borderline-fascist government, the foreign minister Renato Ruggiero. Before becoming a minister, he was director-general of the World Trade Organisation, the body responsible for enforcing free trade.
Mr Ruggiero has not changed his politics: he has long upheld the right of the strong to trample the weak, of corporate power to crush human rights. The organisation he ran has now chosen as the venue for its next summit meeting one of the most repressive nations in the rich world. In November, WTO delegates will be discussing freedom in Qatar, safe in the unassailable fortress of a country which tolerates no dissent. This is the force behind market forces.
It has become fashionable of late to claim that we can buy our way out of trouble: that through the judicious use of shares and shopping we can force companies to change the way they trade. But it is surely not hard to see that consumer choice is an inadequate means of curbing corporate power. Trapped inside PFI hospitals or sponsored schools, forced through lack of choice to buy cars, shop at superstores and eat GM food, we cannot escape the coercion which facilitates free trade. If market forces operate outside the market, then so must we.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited