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Frankenstein is dead

by Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association

(Aug. 15, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Contrary to the claims of a literal army of public relations flacks, indentured politicians, and scientists, the first wave of genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops have apparently suffered a fatal hemorrhage. Future historians will likely record Tuesday, July 30, 2002 as the beginning of the end, the day of irreversible decline for Monsanto and the Gene Giants. On that day, facing mounting global opposition from farmers, consumers, and even major US food transnationals such as General Mills, Monsanto was forced to announce that they were backing off "indefinitely" from plans to commercialize herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready wheat, the most important new billion-dollar crop in the biotech pipeline. Previously, Monsanto had promised Wall Street that the first GE wheat would hit the market in 2003. Earlier this year, facing heavy opposition, they pushed the date back to 2005.

Now Monsanto's highly-touted GE wheat joins the growing list of obituaries of Frankenfoods and crops: the Flavr Savr tomato (RIP 1996); the Endless Summer tomato (RIP 1996); Bt potatoes (RIP 2001); GE flax (RIP 2001); herbicide-resistant sugar beets (RIP 2000); and StarLink corn (RIP 2000). Other controversial crops such as GE rice have been put on indefinite hold. Monsanto's controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) has been banned in every major industrialized nation except for the US, Mexico, and Brazil. Recombinant pig growth hormone (rPGH) has been approved in only one industrialized nation, Australia. Other biotech crops, including squash and zucchini, are grown by so few farmers that it's difficult to determine if they are even commercially available.

For the first time, major US food corporations, like their EU and Asian counterparts, are telling the biotech industry to back off. As Austin Sullivan, senior vice-president of General Mills told the Chicago Tribune June 28, "Candidly we have told the biotech industry that we are in a perilous situation." When asked why General Mills and other large food makers don't just stop using genetically engineered ingredients altogether, since consumers don't want them, Sullivan admitted, "That's a question we ask ourselves from time to time." Shortly before Monsanto's latest capitulation, a large EU grain miller bluntly told wheat industry leaders that his company would "stop buying US or Canadian wheat at once" if GE wheat was allowed on the market. Other leading EU, Japanese, and US buyers have echoed the same sentiment. Farmers in the US and Canada have also made it clear that bringing GE wheat to market would lead to a billion dollar meltdown in North American wheat exports. Desperately trying to downplay its defeat and prevent its stock from falling even further, Monsanto characterized their surrender on wheat as a "delay" until sometime beyond 2005, when consumers and industry are ready to accept gene-altered wheat, and strict grain industry segregation procedures are in place. But as Monsanto, and even Wall Street, now recognize, consumers are never going to accept GE wheat. Frankenwheat, for all practical purposes is dead. RIP. The Bush administration, for PR reasons, may still try to approve it for commercialization, but it will never be sold on the market.