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Issues of Genetically Modified Crops
As Reported in the Press

Prepared by Barbara Boster, Public Affairs
Posted September 15, 1999

This document excerpts many of the points that have been made in the press this year regarding the global genetically-modified (GM) food controversy. The information is organized according to the following outline:

1. Background

2. GM Crop Statistics & Economic Indicators

3. Arguments For GM Crops (Real & Potential Benefits)

Increasing Crop Yields to Feed More People Using Fewer Resources and Pollutants
Enhancing the Nutritional and Disease-Preventing Potential of Food

4. Arguments Against GM Crops (Damaging Studies & Public Concerns)

Health Risks
Environmental Risks

5. Testing & Oversight

6. Labeling

7. Recent Public, Governmental & Corporate Actions

8. Patents/Corporate vs. Public Interest

9. Looming World Trade Conflict

10. Scenarios for the Future

11. Public Attitudes


12. Influences on Public Opinion

13. What to do?


The genetic engineering of plants has been developing over the past 20 years, and genetically-modified (GM) crops have become an increasingly important economic force and fractious world trade issue. The potential benefits and risks of GM crops have spawned considerable controversy, mostly in Europe thus far, but public debate is spreading globally.

Although researchers are developing many different applications for GM technology, including nutritional and disease-preventing food enhancements, the vast majority (two-thirds) of the GM crops growing today are designed to tolerate herbicides. This technology is currently dominated by Monsanto. In 1996, the company introduced its "Roundup Ready" soybeans, which withstand the company's own Roundup herbicide. In 1998, Roundup Ready soybeans grew on approximately 10 million hectares, or a third of the U.S. farmland devoted to soybeans. (Technology Review, "Biotech goes wild," Jul-Aug/99) Herbicide tolerant crops are created by inserting bacteria, viruses, or genes from tobacco or petunia plants into soy, corn, cotton, and canola. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)

The next most common GM crop is an insect-resistant corn, called Bt corn. Two companies dominate this crop: Dekalb (recently acquired by Monsanto), and AgrEvo, a joint venture of Hoechst and Schering. Bt corn principally targets corn borers, and in the U.S. these crops now occupy 6.5 million hectares, representing one-fifth of the country's corn production. (Technology Review, "Biotech goes wild," Jul-Aug/99) Bt corn is created by inserting into the crops a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacteria found naturally in soil; this gives the plants a toxic protein that kills the pests that feed on them. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99) Bt corn targets corn borers, which annually consume an estimated $1 billion worth of American corn. (Sacramento Bee, "Kernel of doubt: Does pest-resistant corn kill butterflies?" 5/28/99)

GM Crop Statistics & Economic Indicators

  • There are roughly 70 million acres of transgenic plants growing worldwide this year. "Some experts predict this area will be tripled in the next 5 years." (Science, "The Plant Revolution," 7/16/99)
  • The U.S. grows 74% of the world's transgenic crops. (Science, Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • Besides the U.S., countries with sizable acreage devoted to GM crops currently include Argentina, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Spain, France, and South Africa. GM acreage has increased 16-fold in the last two years, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)
  • According to the USDA, roughly 4,500 GM plant varieties have been tested in the U.S., more than 1,000 of them last year alone. Fifty varieties have been approved for unlimited release, including 13 varieties of corn, 11 tomatoes, 4 soybeans, and 2 squashes. Hundreds more are in the works, including GM plants that will produce industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals. (Technology Review, "Biotech goes wild," Jul-Aug/99)
  • Currently, there are five principal GM crops: soybean, maize, cotton, rapeseed/canola, and potato. (Science, Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • More than 40% of the corn, 50% of the cotton, and 45% of the soybean acres planted in the U.S. in 1999 will be transgenic. (Science, "Facing Fear of Biotechnology," 7/16/99)
  • Total GM seed sales grew from $235 million in 1996 to $1.2 to $1.5 billion in 1998. The market has been projected to increase to $3 billion by the year 2000, to $6 billion in 2005, and to $20 billion in 2010. Since 1996, more than 25 major acquisitions and alliances valued at $15 billion have taken place among agrobiotech, seed, and farm chemical firms. (Science, Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99) According to a Salomon Smith Barney representative, global sales of products containing GM ingredients have soared from $4 billion in 1997 to $19 billion last year. (San Francisco Chronicle, "Test-Tube Crop Divides Brazil," 8/17/99)
  • "With the exception of explicitly organic food, which flows through independent 'identity-preserved' food streams, nearly everything made with soy, corn or cotton in this country ends up containing at least some gene-altered ingredients. That's a lot of different foods. Soy protein can be found in about 60 percent of all processed food, including frozen meals, baby food, yogurt and other products. And corn, in addition to being the main ingredient in tortilla chips and corn starch, provides the high-fructose sweeteners found in many 'natural' sodas, fruit drinks and other products." (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • GM ingredients have been included in the foods of major U.S. companies like Frito-Lay, General Mills, Gerber, Heinz, Kraft, Nabisco, Pillsbury, Procter & Gamble, and the Quaker and Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)

Arguments For GM Crops (Real & Potential Benefits)

Increasing Crop Yields to Feed More People using
Fewer Resources and Pollutants

  • The world population is increasing by roughly 86 million each year, mostly in the poorest countries. (Science, "The Plant Revolution," 7/16/99) Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug estimates that to meet projected food demands by 2025, average cereal yield must increase by 80% over the 1990 average. According to a report in Science, this "transformation will require access to and ability to apply technological advances, since future growth in food production will have to come largely from agricultural intensification on existing land. Most land suited to agriculture is already in use. More efficient use of water, energy, and labor is also essential." (Science, "Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • Cornell researchers are getting 20% to 40% higher yields from Chinese rice hybrids that have received genes from wild rice relatives. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has achieved 30% higher yields by redesigning rice to divert growth and food stores to the grain, which means the stalks are shorter and grains are larger. (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • It is hoped that GM crops could build upon the progress achieved in the past fifty years by the "Green Revolution," which made it possible to feed "more than twice as many people as lived in 1950...from essentially the same 37% of the planet's land area that we farmed in 1950. Higher crop yields have saved more than 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat from being plowed for low-yield traditional farming. That's equal to the total land area of the U.S., Europe and South America. We got those higher yields with hybrid seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilizer--and pesticides." (Wall Street Journal, "Why Greens Should Love Pesticides," 8/12/99)
  • "Aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth and is highly toxic to plant roots, especially under acidic soil conditions. Over one-third of the world's arable land is acidic and therefore susceptible to aluminum toxicity. In these regions, production losses of up to 80% occur in maize, soyabean, cotton and field bean. In Mexico, researchers have added a single gene which results in slightly higher levels of secretion of citric acid from the roots which, in turn, allows plants to grow on this toxic soil by precipitating the aluminum as a salt. Acidic soils are most often found in tropical regions, where the solution to the consequent low yields has been to cut down yet more tropical forest for temporary agriculture." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • "Insect-protected crops and herbicide-tolerant crops help farmers get better yields while lowering their input costs. Growers in the United States, Canada, Australia and South America, who have access to the [GM] technology, are adopting it at a rapid pace because it makes them better farmers and reverses their heavy chemical dependency which has grown over the past 50 years." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)

  • "Crops with built-in insect protection ... reduce reliance on chemical sprays, which do not distinguish between harmful pests and beneficial insects and which drift on the wind." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99) The transgenic crops planted in the U.S. this year will reduce pesticide use by "millions of pounds." (Science, "Facing Fear of Biotechnology," 7/16/99) According to a spokesman for Monsanto, almost one million gallons of pesticide were saved on GM cotton crops alone over the past three years. (Christian Science Monitor, "Are these new bio-crops safe?" 8/5/99)
  • "Built-in protection against devastating crop viruses may be the most important single achievement to benefit small-scale farmers around the world. In Africa, farmers living on very small plots of land grow enough sweet potatoes, a main dietary staple, to feed their families and maybe sell a few pounds. But when viruses attack their crops, they literally are at risk of starvation. Many times, they have no access to the chemicals that could protect against virus-carrying pests. But potatoes with a built-in virus protection gene (often not available in any natural collection of breeding stock varieties) allow these people to plant seed and harvest as usual." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • The Hawaiian papaya industry was destroyed 30 years ago by a virtually uncontrollable virus. It has now been rescued by inserting a single gene for virus-resistance into a commercial variety of papaya." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • Another potential benefit of these technologies is better soil management to control erosion. (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • One distant possibility of GM crops could be extending the range of natural nitrogen fixation, which could reduce the world's dependence on nitrogen fertilizers. This means the plants could, essentially, fertilize themselves, cutting out the pollution often associated with over-application of nitrogen fertilizer. (National Public Radio, "Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops," 8/13/99)
  • Jerry Caulder, CEO of the biotech company Akkadix, claims that other potential benefits could soon include crops that thrive on less water, plants that produce oils with more of the good lipids that promote a healthy heart, and plants engineered to produce industrial chemicals, fibers, and pharmaceuticals. (Los Angeles Times, "Biotechnology: Developments in Genetic Engineering Continue at a Blistering Pace," 7/25/99)

Enhancing the Nutritional and Disease-Preventing Potential of Food

  • More than 800 million people consume food that does not contain sufficient macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Diets with micronutrient (vitamins & minerals) deficiencies are more prevalent. GM technology could enhance the nutritional composition of crops to address these needs. (Science, "The Plant Revolution," 7/16/99)
  • The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute for Plant Sciences recently announced that it had developed GM rice strains that combat common nutritional deficiencies. One of the Swiss institute's new rice varieties possesses higher amounts of beta-carotene, which is metabolized to vitamin A in the body. Reportedly, the lack of vitamin A causes "widespread and devastating nutritional deficiencies that afflict billions of people in countries where rice is a staple food," and it is hoped these new rice varieties could correct this problem. (Wall Street Journal, "Gene-Splicing Hysteria is Brewing," 8/26/99)
  • "The possibility exists to create food high in vitamin E, which is effective in delaying the aging process. Vaccines, more nutritious foods, stronger fiber, faster-growing trees that preserve forest, plants that grow in arid soils or withstand frost--all are realistic possibilities." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)
  • GM plants can reduce the risk of dangerous toxins in crops. For example, as Bt corn "fends off the insect pests, the gene-spliced corn also reduces the levels of Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by insects. This, in turn, reduces the levels of fumonisin, a potent and dangerous fungal toxin that can lead to fatal diseases in horses and swine that ingest infected corn, and cause esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, using the gene-spliced corn for food processing lowers the probability that harmful levels of fumonisin will be found in the final product." (Wall Street Journal, "Gene-Splicing Hysteria is Brewing," 8/26/99)
  • "Cassava, a fleshy root crop, is an important food for more than 400 million people, mostly in the developing world. However, it also contains highly toxic cyanogenic glycosides, which are associated with diseases such as goiter and konzo (paralysis of the legs) when not properly processed. When firewood is in short supply, cooking is inadequate. A Danish research team is working to create GM casava strains that can be eaten, even where processing systems are rudimentary, without a fear of such diseases." (Wall Street Journal, "Let Them Eat Cake," 8/18/99)

Arguments Against GM Crops
(Damaging Studies & Public Concerns)

Health Risks

  • A study at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, found that rats fed GM potatoes suffered damaged organs, stunted growth, and depressed functioning of the immune system compared to rats eating normal potatoes. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99) Arpad Pusztai, the scientist on the project, publicized these findings and was soon afterwards suspended from his job. "[The allegations were] irresponsibility and malpractice; his widely cited findings were preliminary and tentative, and had not been subject to peer-reviewed publication, the usual route for dissemination of scientific findings. This simply fueled the flames. The Institute itself had been backed in part by the American biotech giant Monsanto and journalists smelled a conspiracy." (National Post, "The Frankenstein Food scare that killed U.K. biotech," 5/7/99)

  • In 1995, Pioneer Hi-Bred, a large American seed company, spliced just one of thousands of Brazil nut proteins into soybeans to create a more nutritious soybean. To see if the new bean would cause reactions in people allergic to Brazil nuts, the company asked a University of Nebraska scientist to study their invention. The odds that that one protein was the cause of the nut's allergies were reportedly incredibly low, but, as it turned out, it was the culprit and the modified soybean was allergenic. (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • One controversial study was conducted by a Mendocino County researcher and former health-policy professor who tested the nutritional value of GM soybeans. He found the GM soy had measurably lower amounts of certain isoflavones, which are chemicals that may be beneficial to humans by lowering cholesterol, preventing heart disease and cancer, and relieving symptoms of menopause. Lappe hypothesizes that the GM soybeans "put so much energy into defending themselves against the herbicide, the plants are too pooped to produce sufficient isoflavones." The American Soybean Association quickly discredited Lappe's study on two counts: that all soybeans exhibit isoflavone variability and that Lappe had only studied two of many soybean varieties--too few to generalize. Lappe was also criticized for releasing his findings over the Web before the journal was published, a taboo act in the scientific community. (San Francisco Chronicle, "Researcher Questions Nutritional Value of Genetically Altered Crops," 7/26/99)
  • Tryptophan, a diet supplement produced by genetically engineered bacteria, killed 37 people in 1989, though the exact cause couldn't be determined. This event is raised by some critics as an indicator of how "inserting genes from other species into plants for human or animal consumption is dangerously unpredictable." (Contra Costa Times, "Activists want labeling on genetically modified food," 6/18/99)

Environmental Risks

  • A controversial Cornell study found (in the lab) that Bt corn may be toxic to the Monarch butterfly, as well as the caterpillar pest it targets. It has not been confirmed that Monarch butterflies are being harmed in the cornfields, i.e. in non-lab conditions. (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99) Still, the Cornell scientists agree with GM crop advocates that "conventional chemical pesticides generally pose a greater risk since many are harmful to a broader array of life forms." (Sacramento Bee, "Study questions safety of crops grown to make own pesticide," 5/20/99)
  • Some studies have indicated Bt corn may also be killing beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, which feed on pests. (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99) Note: Regarding Bt, the Los Angeles Times reported in July that organic farmers have for decades sprayed their fields with Bt, "a microbe that produces natural pesticides. (Los Angeles Times, "Biotechnology: Developments in Genetic Engineering Continue at a Blistering Pace," 7/25/99)
  • According to the Washington Post, "Now, the EPA faces a potentially larger problem: whether to approve a new kind of Bt corn called Bt cry9C. It's a decision that many observers see as a test case of just where the agency will draw the line on the degree of risk it is willing to accept. While other versions of Bt break down harmlessly in the human digestive tract, the cry9C protein remains stable in the human stomach. And because the protein can survive digestion, it has increased potential to cause allergies." (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • One of the chief concerns of GM critics is for the airborne transfer of genetically altered pollen to organic crops or weeds that could then become resistant to pesticides. (San Francisco Chronicle, "A War Against Techno-Food," 8/16/99) This possibility "alarms some biologists, who believe transgenic crops are being released before the environmental implications are understood. The most immediate worry is whether genetically engineered crops will spontaneously breed with their wild relatives, creating hybrid 'superweeds.' Just as a single Brazilian bee researcher created a continent-wide nuisance by accidentally letting aggressive African bees hybridize with gentle domestic bees, the release of alien genes could, in theory, produce noxious 'killer-bee' plants." (Technology Review, "Biotech goes wild," Jul-Aug/99)
  • A University of Arizona study, reported in the journal Nature, suggested that GM cotton can quickly promote pesticide resistance in pink bollworms. The study concluded that insects' Bt resistance came from a recessive trait, which could be reassuring if it weren't also discovered that the mating cycles of the Bt bollworms were out of synch with those of regular bollworms. This would support the concern that the resistant bugs could only mate with each other, prompting a Bt-resistant population explosion. And, as a result, this could doom the EPA's strategy for preventing the emergence of Bt-resistant insects by planting "refuges" of conventional corn in adjacent fields. This "refuge" strategy is based on the idea that Bt-resistant insects from the GM crops would mate with untainted insects in the adjacent fields, thereby diluting any developing genetic resistance. (Wall Street Journal, "Some Insects Might Develop Resistance to Bug-Proof Plants Faster Than Thought," 8/5/99)

  • Some of the major companies developing GM pesticide-resistant crops are also the manufacturers of the pesticides they're fighting. This makes business sense for them, since their pesticides will be the only option for farmers who purchase their seeds. In anticipation of the evolution of pesticide resistant pests, companies like Monsanto are reportedly "developing new insecticidal genes they can put into crops in order to stay ahead of the bug evolution. The second generation of Monsanto's bug-proof plants might hit the market as early as 2001." (Wall Street Journal, "Some Insects Might Develop Resistance to Bug-Proof Plants Faster Than Thought," 8/5/99)
  • One of the more controversial issues for biotech companies involved in GM crops is the so-called "Terminator Gene Technology," which produces crops whose seeds are sterile. Since the farmers will not be able to resow the seeds of their harvests, as is traditional, this innovation will ensure that farmers return annually as customers to the corporations that developed and produced the seeds. (Science, "Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which sponsors a global network of 16 international agricultural research centers, has announced that it will not release terminator seeds. However, the organization acknowledges that a potential benefit of the terminator technology could be the opportunity to study it and "seek out benign applications, such as a platform that would bond novel transgenes in desirable varieties, preventing their escape through unwanted gene flow." Still, they are cautious about benign applications as well. "If terminator technologies were to become widespread, even if economically feasible and advantageous to the smallholder farmer, what would become of the constant introduction of variability that farmers bring to the plant gene pool? If there were large-scale agricultural homogeneity, what would the loss of local biodiversity mean? Would it destroy the environmental "early warning system" that enabled humans to recognize potential problems before they had major impacts on humans, as in the case of DDT?" (Science, "Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)

Testing & Oversight

  • The key controversy regarding the regulation and oversight of GM crops is the potential for problems to escape notice because of loopholes in regulatory coverage. The federal agencies involved are the FDA, EPA, and USDA. "Each government agency has a different statutory responsibility, which sometimes leads to anomalies and gaps in regulations. The FDA, for example, doesn't look at the safety of foods that have been engineered to express pesticides, because pesticides are by law exempt from the agency's purview. Nor does the EPA, which is required to treat such foods as pesticides. Because pesticides, of course, are toxic substances, the agency only establishes human 'tolerances' for each compound. (Responding to critic's concerns, the agency announced this spring that it may rethink its approach.) For its part, the USDA simply tries to make sure that the crop grows in the way that the manufacturer says it will.... One worrying consequence of this patchwork of regulations is that no one has direct responsibility for looking at long-term effects on the environment." (Technology Review, "Biotech goes wild," Jul-Aug/99)
  • The FDA has not distinguished between GM crops and those produced through more traditional breeding methods, which means that they don't regulate either type of innovation through mandatory screening or labeling (unless crops are engineered to include genes from known allergenics). (Wall Street Journal, "Food and Drug Administration Faces Biofood Labeling Lawsuit, 8/18/99)
  • In July, however, Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced a long-term study to assess the safety of GM crops. "In addition to asking for an independent, scientific review of the USDA's system for approving biotech products, Glickman proposed creating regional centers to evaluate biotech products more quickly. He also asked that scientists immediately report unexpected effects of genetically altered products and formed an advisory committee on agricultural biotechnology. How such products should be labeled will likely be high on the committee's agenda." (San Francisco Chronicle, "Organic Versus Bio-Tech in the Battle for the Belly," 7/14,99)
  • "The FDA has since 1992 required that allergy tests be conducted on new foods made with genes from milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, legumes or nuts--the foods that account for 90% of American food allergies. ...[But] safety testing is ... difficult because there's no widely accepted way to predict a new food's potential to cause an allergy. The FDA is now five years behind in its promise to develop guidelines for doing so. With no formal guidelines in place, it's largely up to the industry to decide whether and how to test for the allergy potential of new food not already on the FDA's 'must test' list." (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • Another controversy has to do with the issue of how precise genetic modification can be. "While proponents of genetic crop engineering say the selection of genes is precise, critics say inserting a gene into a living cell is highly imprecise, with no control over where in the DNA the new gene is implanted. This can disrupt the natural genetic information encoded in the DNA of a new plant, leading to unexpected and unwanted effects, including potentially increasing toxin levels, changing nutritional values or introducing allergy-causing properties." (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)
  • Proponents of GM foods claim "the scientific consensus is that the risks associated with new biotechnology products are fundamentally the same as for other products. Dozens of new plant varieties improved with traditional techniques of genetic modification, such as hybridization, enter the marketplace each year without special labeling or review.... Scientists around the world also agree that new gene-splicing technology lowers even further the already minimal risk associated with introducing new plant varieties into the food supply. Thanks to this technology, it is now possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transferred a variable number of genes haphazardly." (Wall Street Journal, "Baby food for thought; Anti-technology extremists have cowed Heinz and Gerber away from safer products," 8/23/99)
  • A conflict-of-interest scandal has erupted at the National Academy of Sciences, which has been conducting an important study of GM crops. Before the study's release, Dr. Michael Phillips, the study's director, took a job with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents more than 800 biotech companies. This caused many to wonder how objective he could have been while conducting this research. According to the New York Times, "The study by the academy, which is the leading dispenser of scientific advice to the Federal Government, will be one of the first comprehensive efforts to examine the risks and benefits of the relatively new development of genetically modified crops. The panel is focusing on plants that have been engineered to produce their own pesticides, and whether Federal regulators are properly monitoring the new plants. The biotech industry maintains that the products are safe for the environment and for the humans who consume them, but there is not enough data to verify the claim." The study is scheduled for release this fall. (New York Times, "Biotech Expert's New Job Casts a Shadow on a Report," 8/16/99)
  • The question of bias in the NAS study extends beyond Dr. Phillips to the whole research panel. "Of 12 members, seven have past or present financial ties to biotech or pesticide industries. An attorney and a scientist have represented Monsanto and the biotech industry against federal regulators, four other members receive direct or indirect funding from genetically engineered-seed producers such as Monsanto and Novartis, and another is a consultant for the pesticide industry. During the first public-comment period, biotech funding of proposed panel members was not disclosed on the biographies posted on the NAS Web." (Copley News Service, "Commentary," 8/18/99)


  • Several polls in the U.S. over the past four years have found increased demand for the labeling of GM foods. In one study, conducted by the USDA in 1995 in New Jersey, 84% of the respondents said they wanted mandatory labeling of GM fruits and vegetables. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)
  • This past spring, a petition calling for GM food labels was submitted to Congress. The petition carried 500,000 signatures. Last summer, the FDA was sued by two consumer groups claiming the agency's lack of GM food labeling violates the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which requires labeling of food additives not "generally recognized as safe." (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99)
  • USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has said the administration is considering asking the food industry to voluntarily provide labels on GM foods. (New York Times/SF Chronicle, "U.S. Plans Long-Term Testing of Gene-Altered Crops," 7/14/99)
  • One reason industry is opposed to labeling is the fact that companies are not set up for keeping their crops separate. GM products are combined and shipped with non-GM products. To start segregating them would be costly. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99) And these costs would be passed along to the consumers, to the tune of "millions of dollars." (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99)
  • The biofood industry feels labels would incorrectly imply that the safety and nutritional content of the foods was compromised. (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99) As a result, they fear product boycotts and their attendant economic effects if strict labeling is required. (Wall Street Journal, "Food and Drug Administration Faces Biofood Labeling Lawsuit, 8/18/99)
  • The Grocery Manufacturers of America is planning to launch a $1 million advertising campaign to fight anti-biotech, pro-labeling movements. (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99)
  • In September, the European Union enacted a law requiring GM foods be labeled, but there's been a great deal of bickering over how this law will be enforced. For example: "The European law did not specify how much gene-altered material must be present to trigger a label. Now EU ministers are having to negotiate whether a food can avoid the label if it has less than, say, 1 percent engineered ingredients. They must also decide whether '1 percent' means 1 percent of the whole product or 1 percent of the ingredient in question. Complicating the issue, altered DNA or proteins can disappear during processing, so products can test negative despite their gene-altered origins. At the same time, even a sprinkling of engineered cornmeal or soy flour from a previous shipment can make an entire grain silo or rail car of otherwise unengineered food test falsely positive as engineered." (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99)

Recent Public, Governmental and Corporate Actions

  • The European Union has temporarily curbed the import of all genetically engineered products; and Italy, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Denmark are blocking authorization of new GM crops in fields and markets throughout the EU. (San Francisco Examiner, "You say potato, they say pesticide," 7/11/99)
  • The British Medical Association has warned that transgenic crops could cause new allergies and spur the evolution of microbes resistant to antibiotics. Other activist groups have warned that insecticide-resistant bugs or "superweeds" could evolve. (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • Australia's health minister has also just announced he would take control of regulating the issue and use of GM products pending state and federal legislation and the establishment of an agency to oversee such issues. (Wall Street Journal, "Australian Government to Regulate Commercial Use of GMO Products," 8/23/99)
  • A federal judge in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has temporarily banned Monsanto from marketing "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds until Brazil's government can regulate and define the rules of bio-safety. This decision may have been influenced by economic pressure from Europe, since the state's secretary of agriculture has noted that Europeans appear willing to pay more for conventional soybeans. He has recently received delegations from British and French food producers and supermarket chains. (San Francisco Chronicle, "Test-Tube Crop Divides Brazil," 8/17/99)
  • As many supermarkets and fast-food chains in Europe have decided to reject GM foods, Gerber & Heinz recently capitulated to Greenpeace pressure by promising to immediately halt their use of GM ingredients. The Gerber reaction is particularly notable, since the company is owned by Novartis, a firm that is heavily invested in GM crops and which strongly believes GM foods are safe to consume. It is expected that the new organic ingredients will cost Gerber twice as much. (Wall Street Journal, "Genetically-Altered Baby Foods Are Being Rejected -- by Adults," 7/30/99)
  • In reaction to Gerber's decision, a Wall Street Journal reporter commented that "the whole undertaking is a dicey matter, because by shunning ingredients it has used for years, Gerber risks confusing or frightening its core customers, as well as appearing to endorse food fears that the company itself proclaims to be invalid. And who is to say more Greenpeace demands won't follow if this one is met?" (Wall Street Journal, "Genetically-Altered Baby Foods Are Being Rejected -- by Adults," 7/30/99)
  • Indeed, following Gerber's decision, Charles Margulis of Greenpeace's Genetic Engineering Campaign, publicly suggested that "Novartis, Gerber's parent company and a leading biotech crop producer, may be realizing that public opposition is based on legitimate concerns." (Wall Street Journal, Letter from Greenpeace's Margulis to the Editor, 8/23/99)

  • Japanese beer makers Sapporo and Kirin have also recently announced they would not use GM corn in their beer. According to a spokesman for Kirin, "We believe [gene-spliced] corn is safe. But as long as consumers are worried about its safety, we want to take measures that will wipe out their worries." (Wall Street Journal, "Gene-Splicing Hysteria is Brewing," 8/26/99)
  • Activists in Europe regularly vandalize newly planted plots of gene-altered crops, grocery chains are refusing to carry engineered food, and food processors are hiring DNA fingerprinting labs to verify their product's genetic purity. (Washington Post, Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions, 8/15/99)
  • Attacks on GM crops in fields worldwide have increased, especially in Europe. Some of these attacks have been directed at farms where experiments were being conducted to answer the biotechnology-safety questions the protesters themselves pose. (Wall Street Journal, "Greenwar," 8/9/99)

Patents/Corporate vs. Public Interest

  • Patenting is a key issue in the evolving biotech industry. "Supporters of patenting point out that if the private sector is to mobilize and invest large sums of money in agrobiotechnology R&D, it must protect and recoup what it has put in. On the other side of the argument is fear that patenting will lead to monopolization of knowledge, restricted access to germplasm, controls over the research process, selectivity in research focus, and increasing marginalization of the majority of the world's population." (Science, Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • One of the arguments against corporate patenting of GM products is that the "applications and their benefits are currently skewed to the markets of the rich and largely exclude the concerns of the poor....The growing gap between the developed and developing worlds in the rapidly evolving knowledge frontier is exacerbated by privatization of scientific research. An emerging 'scientific apartheid' would further marginalize poor people. This results in the ethical dilemma posed by conflict between two competing claims to just and fair treatment. Intellectual property protection and private sector participation in research are keys to continued technological innovations, but there is also a moral obligation to ensure that scientific research helps address the needs of poor people and safeguards the environment for future generations." (Science, Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," 7/16/99)
  • Some of the scientific research on GM crops is being conducted by public organizations that hope to rush their genetic maps for crops into the public domain before private companies can patent the information. (San Francisco Chronicle, "Crop-Stomping Protesters Killed Scientific Progress," 8/9/99)

Looming World Trade Conflict

  • On a lobbying visit to Germany recently, Richard Lugar, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, called the European position on biotechnology an "intellectual epidemic." He said he anticipates the issue will poison the upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), causing a set-back of years in U.S. and European business. The WTO meeting begins November 30 in Seattle. (Wall Street Journal, "Biotech Backfire," 8/19/99)
  • In May, 36 senators wrote a letter to President Clinton warning of a "looming trade conflict" with Europe if Europeans don't ease restrictions on GM foods. (Contra Costa Times, "Activists want labeling on genetically modified food," 6/18/99)
  • USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has said the administration will use all its legal options to force Europe to accept American farm products such as soybeans and corn, even if that means placing tariffs on European-made goods. (New York Times/SF Chronicle, "U.S. Plans Long-Term Testing of Gene-Altered Crops," 7/14/99)

Scenarios for the Future

Monsanto recently hired consultants--from different sides of the GM issue--to come up with possible scenarios of how the biotechnology landscape could evolve by the year 2030. Three scenarios were drawn:

  1. "In the first, none of the critics' warnings about health and environmental hazards proved warranted and biotechnology products gain widespread acceptance. It is not a happily-ever-after story for the companies, though, because success brings wide-ranging consequences and challenges. This scenario may include examples of the social and political impact of large numbers of people living past the age of 100, like pressures to divert public spending and product development to the needs of the elderly. Some biotechnology products in the story might become unprofitable because they become so widespread that they turn into low-margin commodities."
  2. "A second scenario is likely to reflect chaos theory, which holds that complex systems can be changed radically by tiny disruptions that have dramatic ripple effects. This story might turn on an event like publication of a small research report attributing an environmental setback to genetically engineered crops. This in turn could kick off a string of public reactions leading to drastic regulations that stifle many biotechnology applications."
  3. "In the third story, which might be summarized as "thanks but no thanks," consumers and financial markets decide that most biotechnology applications simply are not as appealing as the alternatives. Insurers balk at liability risks and investors flee the industry's meager returns. Agricultural biotechnology markets shrink as farmers and consumers embrace organic food. Biotechnology becomes a tool to improve breeding techniques rather than to move genes among different species."

(New York Times, "Plotting Corporate Futures: Outlining What Could Go Wrong," 6/24/99)

Public Attitudes


  • Opposition to GM foods is most pronounced in Europe, where the products are called "Frankenstein Foods" or "Frankenfoods." A MORI poll recently found that 79% of the British public think that GM field testing should be stopped. (New York Times, "Britons Skirmish Over Genetically Modified Crops," 8/23/99)
  • The public outcry in Europe is loudest in the northern countries, most notably the UK, then France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The southern countries, such as Spain, import and grow more GM crops and products, and in those countries there is less public discussion or concern. (San Francisco Chronicle, "A War Against Techno-Food," 8/16/99)


  • "Although many of the relevant technologies used in modern crop improvement were codeveloped in the United States and Europe, the response of the public to resulting products on the two continents has been very different. In Europe, factors such as concern over mad cow disease, dioxin contamination in animal feeds, lack of effective and transparent regulatory oversight, and the mistrust of government and large organizations appear to promote the current furor. The public response to field tests in Europe during the early 1900s failed to draw governmental agencies into the discussion. In contrast, the initial U.S. field tests in 1986 and 1987 followed open discussions among scientists, regulators, farmers, and environmentalists. Questions and data were shared, experiments were conducted to address concerns, and appropriate decisions were made." (Science, "Facing Fear of Biotechnolgy," 7/16/99)
  • "Americans may simply be unaware of the extent to which transgenic foods now dominate grocery shelves. In a recent poll by the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C., almost half of respondents thought their food was not genetically engineered." (San Francisco Chronicle, "A War Against Techno-Food," 8/16/99)
  • One of the explanations for greater American acceptance of GM foods, compared to Europeans, is that "Americans are quicker to embrace change in the name of progress and are less wedded to traditional farming." (Los Angeles Times, "Public Distrust May Halt Next Phase of Genetically Altered Food Production," 7/16/99)
  • "Consumer groups cite studies indicating that 80 to 90 percent of American think gene-altered food ought to be marked, and 50 to 60 percent say they would choose nonengineered food if they could. But other studies have found that those numbers drop precipitously when people are given additional information, such as that the FDA has deemed the food safe and nutritious." (Washington Post, "Next Food Fight Brewing is over listing genes on labels," 8/15/99)

Influences on Public Opinion

An international study of public attitudes toward biotechnology was conducted in 1996-1997 in Europe and the U.S. The authors of the study concluded that no one influence could account for the greater fear of food biotechnology in Europe, but that three primary factors could explain the difference in attitudes:

  1. In contrast to the popular assumption that positive or negative media coverage influences public perception, the study supports the hypothesis that "in technological controversies, it is the sheer quantity of press coverage that is decisive: The greater the coverage, the more negative the public perceptions... Although the trend in European press coverage was more positive than that in the United States, by 1996 public opinion in Europe was more negative."
  2. The influence of public trust in governmental regulation plays a part in the evolution of public opinion. While 90% of U.S. respondents trust the USDA and 84% trust the FDA, minimal percentages of Europeans trust their regulatory authorities: 23% believe in environmental organizations, 16% trust consumer and farming entities, 4% trust national public agencies, and 1% trust industry.
  3. It is uncertain how knowledge affects public perceptions. A common theory is that scientific understanding breeds support for science and technology. And yet this study found that Europeans, who have greater scientific literacy than Americans, saw more [falsely] threatening imagery in genetic engineering. As a result, the study concluded that the "greater prevalence of menacing food images may be related to the recent food safety scares in Europe, most notably that surrounding bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). These have sensitized large sections of the European public to potential dangers inherent in industrial farming practices and the lack of effective regulatory oversight."

(Science, "Worlds Apart? The Reception of Genetically Modified Foods in Europe and the U.S.," 7/16/99)

What to do?

  • Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle:

So the debate over genetic foods continues. The question is in what spirit. When the argument first arose in Europe, industry characterized its critics as irresponsible and treated their concerns as a contagion to be quarantined. I heard this sentiment voiced at a recent biotech conference in Berkeley, when an industry lobbyist noted "the first signs of irresponsibility" in the U.S. media reports.

Now, I don't mind if the industry rags on Europe. And I'd be willing to admit that some Bay Area folks may be influenced by an excess of free radicals in their bloodstreams. But in recent weeks, even sober characters like Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman have suggested that genetically modified foods should be labeled--something critics have demanded and industry has resisted.

In short, it's time for industry to stop dissing its critics and to mount an honest effort to prove whether the fruits of science are indeed as good as the nutritional bounty of Mother Nature." (San Francisco Chronicle, "Researcher Questions Nutritional Value of Genetically Altered Crops," 7/26/99)

  • Roger N. Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO:

To what extent are scientists to blame for the current hysteria and doubt, and how can we move forward? Today, concurrent with growing activism, some scientists report the results of poorly designed experiments that have little or no relevance to agriculture, environment, food safety, or medical reality. The popular press also often inflames rather than informs. It is important for scientists to realize that times have changed and to engage in dialogue with the public rather than retreat from it. And it is important to convey to the public that the great majority of reputable scientists working in the field consider both the processes and the products of agricultural biotechnology to be beneficial to the environment and safe for the consumer.

Scientists should submit editorial pieces to the local and national press to report errors and correct misconceptions. Participation in appropriate radio and television interviews can be risky, but silence can be more so. Scientists must learn to use the news media to advance the work of science and to gain the trust of our stakeholders, including the consumer. But be prepared! Write the op-ed pieces and have them checked by a neutral party to ensure accuracy and that the message is what you intend. If scientists do not participate in the discussion, we risk encouraging a misinformed and enraged public to believe that they will not benefit from the results of our work. What a tragedy that would be, in light of the challenges facing our planet." (Science, Facing Fear of Biotechnolgy, 7/16/99)


September 15 - 21, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 6)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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