Public Concerns and Protests on GE Food

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  • by Anup Shah
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To assume that the public is ignorant is not only patronising, but inaccurate and damaging. Global Environmental Change Programme research reveals that people's understandings of the issues are very much better developed than these characterisations imply.

The Politics of GM Food: Risk Science and Public Trust1, ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme (1999), Special Briefing No. 5, University of Sussex.

All over the world, scientists, ordinary citizens and farmers have raised concerns about the rush of GE technologies in our food chain. While some are completely against it, others are urging approaches that are more cautious. Regardless, they all want the ability to actually determine that GE technologies are proven safe for consumption, which is currently not happening. Even if it were, would still take some time to get definitive answers.

There have been all sorts of campaigns and actions around the world in protest, as the remaining part of this page will show.

One of the main problems of contention is that much needed public discussion and debate has not been part of the process. When things like labeling is not allowed or food and agricultural departments face a lot of lobbying -- even financial support and incentives -- from GE technology promoters, informing the public about contents of the food that is consumed and what the effects could be, becomes less than adequate. That, combined with the potential that just a handful of biotech companies from the wealthy North can drive the priorities of food production that also affect the majority South, and that there is a real risk of increasing dependency upon these companies has led to much protest in the South, or developing/third world.

An important issue such as the food we eat and the processes involved in its production need to be made more democratic, transparent and accountable. (UK-based Global Environmental Change Programme suggests a similar point in a review2 that draws on years of research. It is worth checking out.)

On this page:

  1. The WTO and GE Food
  2. Europe dissents.
  3. UK, as an example has seen an increase in public debate
  4. It's not just Europe that Dissents.
  5. Even the home of some of the major influential corporations has seen some reaction
  6. But There is Still a Way to Go.

The WTO and GE Food

One of the (many) points of contention regarding the international political arena on GE Foods is regarding the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is a medium for international trade interests to be expressed.

Via the Production and Processing Methods rule, the WTO argues that discrimination should not be made on how and where something is produced. In some ways, this makes sense. However, in other ways, while promoted as part of the notion of free trade, if a country imposes additional restrictions and safety concerns on products that are thought to be unsafe, or may have been produced in sweatshop-like conditions etc, they can all be overruled.

While the WTO generally helps3 US, European and Japanese corporations, European people and governments are increasingly concerned at the way the WTO is limiting their ability to provide safe products for their populations. (For more on these aspects of free trade and some of the current problems, check out the trade related4 section of this web site.)

Since the Seattle WTO ministerial conference has ended, the biotech industry has increased their campaigns5 to promote GE Food.

In the case of the Banana Trade War6 and now, possibly GE food, GE food supporters (usually large corporations through lobbying their governments) can argue to the WTO that a country cannot say no to it on the grounds of safety. Instead, they have to prove that it is unsafe, rather than the producers having to prove that it is safe7.

This means that even simple measures such as labeling products for safety concerns could come under threat. The corporate lobbies in the US are strong, including the biotech and agribusiness industries that stand to benefit from genetically engineered foods. As a result, Washington has long been considering making a formal complaint to the WTO8 claiming that labeling GM products is unfair discrimination against US goods and therefore a restriction on trade. Fears of another trade war therefore looms close.

As an example of this, in 1999 and beginning of 2000, various EU member nations started to label some foods containing modified ingredients, as part of this moratorium. When the moratorium was first started, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg demanded that traceability and labeling regulations are needed before any more genetically modified organisms are approved for release in the European Union. Since then others such as Austria, Belgium and Germany have also supported this moratorium.

In the middle of January 2002, Friends of the Earth Europe received a confidential World Trade Organisation (WTO) document9 of the US's response to the WTO over such European Union (EU) proposals to improve the safety testing of GM foods and to widely increase consumer choice and information. As Friends of the Earth charge10, the U.S. "is putting increasing pressure on Europe to weaken its proposed laws on GM foods and crops".

One of the interesting things mentioned in the document by the U.S. was highlighted11 by the Environment News Service (January 16, 2002), who pointed out that the United States "complains that 'decisions will still be made through political process' and therefore 'individual Member States will continue to be able to hold the approval process hostage to political concerns.'"

This is interesting way of putting it! That is, the "political process" referred to hear is that democratic process in which many citizens in Europe have been voicing their concerns and desires to have GM food labeled and be traceable, etc. Yet, the United States seems to be afraid that this democratic process gets in the way of market concerns! (In the document, the U.S. makes a point that they go through rigorous testing to ensure that the GM foods meet similar standards to normal food. However, as mentioned in the safety12 section on this site, long term safety is not known.)

Furthermore it would make sense that people have a right to know how something is produced (even if the WTO and others don't feel that is the case). As an example of this then, European citizens have demanded such rights to know. Yet the U.S. position has been much aligned with that of the biotech companies. As the Environment News Service also reported on this aspect, "Juan Lopez, adviser on genetic engineering at Friends of the Earth International, said the U.S. pressure on other countries to interfere in their decision making processes is 'outrageous.'" and that "The U.S. is effectively saying not only that citizens' demands should be ignored but also that EU Member States should not have the right to take decisions about the GMO authorization process'".

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Europe dissents.

Europe, to some extent, has resisted a full-scale adoption of genetically engineered food. The level of concern led to a European Union (EU) moratorium in October 1998. Since then, no new genetically modified products have been approved.

In 1999 and beginning of 2000, various EU member nations started to label some foods containing modified ingredients, as part of this moratorium. As mentioned above, nations such as Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium and Germany have also supported this moratorium.

Also, in prior years, there have been a lot of controversy and significant events resulting from citizen pressure and activism to demand more open information and choice on this controversial issue:

The world's two largest food production companies committed to withdrawing their acceptance13 of genetically modified foodstuffs. Unilever UK and Nestle UK have said they will phase out genetically engineered foods.

Spain's largest supermarket14, Pryca, also rejected GM Food in its own products.

A leading medical organization, the British Medical Association (BMA), was the first to comment on GM Food15. Their report16 mentioned that because we still do not know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or human health, caution should be taken. This has been received negatively in the US, as Capitol Hill is more worried about the trade ramifications17, because one of the suggestions from the BMA was to consider banning imports of food if the manufacturers or countries where they are manufactured refuse to label such food as being genetically modified.

The rise in the number of protests and of activists calling for more research, or even a ban on genetically modified crops and testing has seen some interesting actions! As a small set of examples:

  • Two tons of transgenic maize plants from France, Germany and Switzerland were dumped18 in front of the toxic waste incinerator of the Novartis international headquarters Switzerland on Monday, 14th September 1998.
  • In Holland, there was uproar when a small amount of GE sugar was mixed with normal sugar.
  • There were further protests in France where crops were destroyed and Monsanto was criticized for making this a green revolution -- a green dollar19 revolution, that is.
  • There have been numerous, similar protests in other EU nations, such as the UK.

At the end of May 1999, in Austria, the cultivation of certain GM maize, produced by Monsanto, was banned20 after scientific studies showed that the modified maize killed useful insects.

European food retail chains have decided to get rid of genetically modified ingredients21 and additives from their own brand of food products. This is quite significant and shows the level of debate in Europe, compared to the US.

However, despite these successes in being able to take more cautious approaches, there is increasing pressure22 on the EU member states from nations such as the United States, and US-based biotech corporations, to allow imports of GM foods. While the EU is trying to strengthen laws on how the food is released into the market, some fear that US threats to go to the WTO with complaints will lead to a rush in creating these measures.

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UK, as an example has seen an increase in public debate

The UK, like other countries has seen some successes and some disappointments. For example, in 1998 the UK government considered banning23 widespread farming of GE crops, which resulted in a 3 year moratorium. There have been also, many criticms on numerous government policies as well, as various press releases24 from Friends of the Earth UK provide examples of.

With so many issues and campaigns towards the end of the 1990s, there had been intense public debate25 in UK and many other European countries. As a result, in UK, many foods are labeled such if they contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The BBC News26 has reported on a few GE stories, which has helped to raise additional public debate on GE food in the UK. One of their articles is very interesting and talks about a research study that found that rats suffered stunted growth and, more worryingly, immune system problems, after only 100 days27 of eating GE potatoes. What was also interesting was that the scientist doing the research claimed that he would not want to eat GE food. Fellow scientists who criticized his work initially disgraced this person. However, it is now emerging that his initial findings stand28 quite strongly.

Since 1998 and before, campaigners in UK have been putting increasing amounts of pressure29 on supermarkets and trying to raise awareness with consumers. A major supermarket in UK, Asda, has even banned GE food30. Others such as Marks & Spencers and Sainsburys have also done so.

The Court of Appeal in UK ruled that the Government acted unlawfully31 in allowing a genetic maize trial in Devon to go ahead (although the court has not ordered a destruction of the crops). An organic farmer, who is one of the largest producers of organic vegetables in the UK, has fields that are next to this trial. He lost the appeal32 to get the maize removed and it is possible that he could lose his organic status33 due to the risk of genetic contamination. The government will have to re-evaluate the whole issue as over 160 genetically engineered seeds have been tested around UK.

The following article34 from the United Nations Environment and Development-UK Committee site (UNED-UK35) provides a short article listing the "pros" and cons of genetically engineered food and mentions how the major supermarkets in UK will deal with the labeling issues of genetically modified food.

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It's not just Europe that Dissents.

"We are often told that while is easy for Northern consumers to say they don't want GE foods, it would be imperialism of the worst sort to impose our health and ecological concerns on the hungry people's of the South. Yet it is precisely in the Third World where peasant and poor people's movements have been most militantly outspoken in saying they don't want this latest technological export from the North."

Anatomy of a 'Gene Spill'36, Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First)

In fact, all over the world where polls37 have been conducted, an overwhelming majority of people have said they would prefer to see labeling of GE Food (usually so they know what to avoid). While large corporations may worry about this from a profit point of view (due to possible reduction in market access if some countries decide to enforce labeling of GE Food), more and more people are becoming aware38 of the issues at hand and are voicing their concerns.

In Australia39, a panel of people who did not have prior knowledge about genetic engineering, delivered a report to the president of the Australian Senate, after hearing views of experts on both sides of the argument, urging for more public participation, labeling of GE Food and to generally take a more precautionary measure.

Monsanto also suffered a minor setback40 in Bangladesh where a deal broke down. However, they still plan to go ahead with their plans and they slowly seem to be buying more and more biotechnology companies all over the world.

They also suffered another set back in Canada, where they were unable to get the Canadian government to accept their controversial genetically engineered milk hormone, rBGH, which is fed to cows. (There were even claims of bribery41 by Monsanto. The previous link also describes the pressure that France has had directly from President Clinton, Vice-President Gore and Secretary of State Madeline Albright to accept Monsanto's genetically modified seeds.)

For many in the developing world, there is the additional concern that the technology that biotech multinationals are pushing forward will increase their dependency upon them and their host countries. This will have a huge impact on food security as the powerful nations and their biotech companies would be able to use their muscle if needed to change food related policies if their "national interests" are felt to be threatened.

While consumers in Europe have protested against gm [genetically modified] commodities such as modified tomatoes appearing on their shelves without proper labelling, poor farmers in the South have protested against technologies that would end up making them entirely dependent on the MNCs [multinational corporations] for seeds.

Miami Group vs Rest of the World, Down To Earth, Vol 9 Number 18, February 15 2001, Centre for Science and Environment.

The Sri Lankan government has gone as far as banning imports42 on genetically engineered food, on the grounds of unknown long term effects and hence possible safety concerns for consumers. This has been possible due to the Biosafety Protocol signed earlier in January 2000, which, amongst many other things, allowed labeling of genetically engineered ingredients (although loopholes exist) and banning imports. This is a legally binding agreement. (For more information, see this web site's section about the Biosafety Protocol43.)

People in Japan44, for example, are also causing a stir, as well as in Zimbabwe45.

In May 2001, China46 passed regulations requiring clear labeling of GE products.

Debate is also increasing in Africa. Some scientists make good points as to why GE food and technology should be accepted47 as a means to help alleviate food and hunger problems, but others also argue that the dangers at this stage are real and technologies like terminator seeds will not help African people.

In Mexico, there is also a call for caution and an attempt to research that is more intensive48.

In Latin America, scientists say that genetically engineered food may be ok49, but care and precautionary measures should be taken as society needs to make certain decisions and the public should be kept informed50. However, some of the technical expertise required to do all this is hard to find.

In Argentina, for example, many favor GE food and the industry is prominent. As an expert on plant genetics in this report51 mentions, people are making a fuss over genetically engineered food, but not similarly engineered drugs and medicines and if allowed time to prove that GE foods are safe, they could be more readily accepted. (It is interesting to note, that as this Yahoo news report52 mentions, "commercial cultivation of GM crops was restricted to about 15 countries, of which four--the United States, Argentina, Canada, and China--accounted for 98 percent of the worldwide total". Yet, as January 2002 sees Argentina suffer major political and economic crisis, Inter Press Service reports that a food crisis53 is also being faced. A country that is one of the major GM crop growers (and already has strong agriculture) yet still has a food crisis indicates many other factors affecting and causing hunger. Hence, on its own GM technology may not be sufficient to solve world hunger, without looking into these deeper and more significant causes, as detailed in the hunger54 part of this GE Food section.)

In Brazil, though, a federal court judge suspended commercial release of soy from Monsanto, pending further tests, as workers are destroying Monsanto and other GE crops.

Furthermore, ranchers in some areas of Brazil have said to have targeted and even killed55 some GM-free farmers.

Also throughout Brazil, there have been many protests56 at GE food, but also, more generally, the state of the agricultural system which is related to impositions of international trade regimes, that force dumping of cheaper goods into Brazil, where local farmers don't have a chance to compete. As a result of such dumping, hunger around the world has actually increased, as well as poverty. GE food is related to this in that it is the larger companies that can create and dominate food markets, and biotechnology is another way to capitalize on that.

An open letter sent to the UK media written by Tewolde Gebre Egzhiaber, Chief Spokesperson for Africa and the Like-Minded Group of nations in the Biosafety Negotiations, opened by saying: "We the undersigned, are appalled at the use made of the poverty of the rural people of the South to justify genetically modified food to Northern consumers." The letter went on to say:

We, as informed Southerners, know that the South's poverty is caused by deep-seated structural economic imbalances which were established during the periods of slavery and colonialism and are continuing now. We know that though individual technological inputs can help in food production, given that other conditions are equally as important, those single technological inputs are insignificant on their own.

Anatomy of a 'Gene Spill'57, Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First)

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Even the home of some of the major influential corporations has seen some reaction

Farmers in the United States are facing lower prices than expected for many bioengineered crops, as many European and domestic markets are boycotting altered foods. Some industry experts are predicting that demand for genetically modified seeds will be dramatically reduced next year, and fear that there may no longer be enough non-modified seeds to meet farmers' needs.

ENS News Wire58, September 1999

As this link59 puts it, Europeans are raising interest vital to American consumers.

Many Americans fo not seem to be as worried about genetically engineered food, because they not had a health scare60 or problem like the BSE problems plaguing Europe, UK especially.

However, in many polls conducted in the United States, for example, a majority of people in these polls have been found to be concerned61 about the way the food that they consume has been produced.

In USA, the Department of Agriculture has decided to rollback62 on the proposal that would have allowed sewage-containing fertilizers, genetically modified or irradiated food to be termed as "organic". This was achieved after a huge63 campaign where over 200,000 people complained in writing and email at the proposal. It is now going to be readdressed.

In addition, in USA, a coalition of scientists, religious leaders, health professionals and chefs filed a lawsuit64 against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for failing to protect the public's health or provide information about what people eat by not labeling genetically modified food. The lawsuit names many genetically engineered whole foods that are sold without labeling or any safety testing. The lawsuit also reveals documents which show that even the agency's own scientists have doubts65 about the safety of genetically modified foods, as pointed out by Salon.

A group of farmers in the United States have expressed their concerns66 both about the effectiveness or necessity of GE food and also the activities and practices of Monsanto, which, they suggest makes GE food more expensive due to the fact that they would be forced into expensive contracts which are not efficient when it comes to crop maintenance etc.

Even McDonald's has bowed to public pressure and decided not to purchase genetically modified spud potatoes.

On 3 May 2000, the Clinton Administration issued the first US regulations on GE food67. However, critics have pointed out that the regulations are weak and have been heavily backed by agribusiness lobbying68 and is designed more to appease consumers rather than protect health.

In fact, as pointed out by the Guardian in this news article69, "foods free of genetically-altered elements are expected to carry an FDA statement that they are not necessarily any safer." That means that the very people who are advertising that they don't have this stuff in their food are forced to advertise the supposed safety of engineered products," said Mardi Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists."

However, as the Institute for Food and Development Policy reveal70 that "US taxpayer dollars are being used through foreign assistance programs to subsidize the export of genetically engineered (GE) foods to the Third World and to finance GE research" thus raising "very serious ethical questions about [U.S. tax payers'] foreign aid dollars." This also has an impact on the poor and hungry, as described in the food dumping71 section on this web site.

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But There is Still a Way to Go.

"If the biotech companies have their way we could soon be on course for William Gibson's nightmare future, in which the rich eat real food grown by artisan farmers and the poor eat genetically engineered "vat stuff" when they eat at all. As long as food is treated as a commodity like any other and traded to maximize profits, there is little chance of a reduction in world hunger or of a significantly safer diet for the fortunate few."

The Politics of Food72, Nation Magazine

Few consumers in Northern countries know that genetically engineered soya beans73 - soya occurs in around 60% of processed foods - have already arrived on supermarket shelves. Products like margarine, bread and chocolate are all affected by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - but the lack and will for labeling has helped protect companies from consumer pressure.

The issue of labeling74 genetically modified food has been hotly debated as food safety75 concerns have increased. While in 1998 it seemed as though there was a failure76 by the international community to agree on mandatory labeling of genetically modified food, it seems that in 1999, according to this link77, only USA and Argentina did not want to label such food. However, according to this link78, the food industry in Australia also did not want to label GM food. The reason to not label does not seem to make sense -- unless of course, we consider the initial dent it would make in profits!

Labeling will also be beneficial to people with allergies79 to certain food types, such as nuts etc, who may be less informed as to what they are eating if labeling is not allowed.

May 2001, China announced that it will label80 GM food to allow its people to choose.

In UK, September 1, 1998, the government announced what it apparently called a triumph for consumers -- the fact that GE foods will now be labeled! The catch? There are too many exceptions, and Friends of the Earth have called this a con81.

A meeting of over 100 nations82 in Montreal in the middle of August 1998 discussed biosafety in the hope to address the safe transfer and use of living modified organisms that could affect the conservation of biological diversity. Unfortunately, delay tactics83 on liability and compensation issues by the European Union lead to fears that genetically engineered organisms could have been transferred and traded between countries without any clear responsibilities or accountability on those companies and counties that are promoting trade in GEOs if things go wrong.

However, another meeting in Montreal, at the end of January 2000 has seen a more successful biosafety treaty that considers various concerns. For example, while not mandatory, products will be labeled to indicate that they "may contain" genetically modified organisms. This is a positive step forward. (Click here84 to go to this web site's section on biodiversity that looks provides more information about this protocol.)

Industry has long labeled the precautionary approach as reactionary, arguing that it stifles research and prevents economic progress. On the contrary, advocates realize that all stakeholders -- including consumers, government, and industry -- benefit from an open and democratic attempt to anticipate any undesirable social and financial surprises. The goal is to apply wisdom and judgement about the potential effects of a new technology before flooding the marketplace with the products of that technology.

Brian Halweil, Portrait Of An Industry In Trouble85, World Watch Institute, February 2000

A lot of the protests and resistance to GE food mentioned above is from people in Europe and other developed nations. So what do the companies promoting GE food do? They go to areas where there is not as much awareness86 of the issues, such as in Africa.

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0 articles on “Public Concerns and Protests on GE Food” and 2 related issues:

Genetically Engineered Food

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Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core. For an issue that goes to the heart of humanity it also has its ugly side.

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