5 October 2001
TROUBLE ON THE PHARM? RESPONSE FROM JIM THOMAS TO A RECENT RED HERRING ARTICLE, 'AGAINST THE GRAIN', ON THE FUTURE OF PHARMING
Toting 15ft syringes, banners and clad in white plastic suits, we were making a spectacle of ourselves in the middle of nowhere, California - making a big point about a very small field. That was barely 3 weeks ago that Greenpeace protested against transgenic rice altered to produce human drugs. The message was simple: Genetically engineered crops in our food chain was a bad enough idea, transgenic crops leaching pharmaceuticals into our environment is even worse.
So imagine my cynical surprise when I read in 'Red Herring', Mich Hein of Epicyte making the following bluff statement, "I can assure you, Greenpeace has no objection to a cornfield that produces medicines".
Well, sorry Mich, Greenpeace does. And that is certainly not the only assurance of the biotech salesmen that is less than truthful. Stephen Herrara’s article ‘Against the Grain’ was long on desperate hopes, short on practical realities and just a little too trusting of opinions described as ‘facts’.
Consider CS Prakash’s nervous assurance that "agbio is really quite healthy, and if anything the market potential is just increasing." - never mind that Dr Prakash is paid by the US government to promote agbiotech's flagging fortunes abroad, spearheading the scientific equivalent of the gun and tobacco lobby. The truth is that the global market for GE foods is evaporating. Monsanto has withdrawn its GE potato because major processors such as McCains wouldn‚t accept it. Mindful that transgenic corn, canola and soy markets have been lost Canadian flax growers managed to delist biotech flax and now the Canadian wheat board are fighting to prevent biotech wheat. US corn exports to Europe have officially ‘dried up’ according to the USDA because of biotech rejection and for the same reason exports to Japan are down 8%. To make matters worse South Korea's sole food-grade corn buying group, KOCOPIA has recently pledged to indefinitely refuse US GMO corn. No wonder a recent survey of the 14,000 members of the American Corn Growers' Association suggested 78% would abandon GMOs to recover lost export markets. Canada has entirely lost its Canola sales to Europe and is rapidly losing Japanese sales too and American soy is being progressively frozen out of markets across Europe, Japan, NZ, Taiwan, China, Thailand as food producers and even poultry and pig units pledge never to go near GE crops. In just the first half of this year US edible soy bean exports to south Korea dropped 59 percent - so bad that even the rabidly pro-biotech Chairman of the American Soybean Association recently confessed that he would be planting his ‘lowest yet’ acreage of transgenic soy.
Or perhaps consider the strange assumption that agbiotech won’t receive the same kind of resistance in developing countries. Well no - it looks like resistance is stronger. Weigh the combined spectacle of Indian farmers burning Monsanto cotton fields, 800 Phillipino farmers tearing Monsanto's BT corn, 100 Indonesian farmers burning Monsanto cotton, 1200 landless brazillian peasants destroying a transgenic research station or 2000 brazillian women surrounding a supermarket, demanding they stop selling genetically engineered foods. These may not have been reported in Red Herring but they are happening more frequently, representing only part of a swelling opposition in the global south from farmers and peasant groups and those working on indigenous rights and food security. In Thailand, The Assembly of the Poor negotiated with government to stop transgenic field trials and major supermarkets and food producers have pledged to eliminate the use of GE ingredients. In India where the sale of GE food is still illegal Monsanto was refused authorisation to grow BT cotton. So too are transgenic crops barred from Brazil, one of a number of developing countries discovering a tidy profit on the back of their GE-free status. The agribusiness barons messing with the fundamentals of food security fool neither the poor of the global south or the smart money of Wall Street. As Lehman Brothers leading chemical analyst Sergey Vasnetsov puts it, "Let's stop pretending we face food shortages. There is hunger, but not food shortages. GM food is for the rich world. The money from GM is in developed countries. The battle is in Europe."
Yet the most shaky salesman bluff of them all is that pharmaceutical crops will rescue agbiotech from its worldwide image disaster. Has anyone even bothered to do the focus groups? "Would you like blood proteins with your rice? Contraceptives with your corn sir?" I think not. Pharmaceutical crops are the bastard child of the shortlived union between agbiotech and big pharma. That was the "life sciences" model - an overintellectualised business dream that died the day that Novartis and Astra-Zeneca spun off Syngenta to wash their hands of the whole GE food mess. The lesson was clear - safe drugs are produced in a lab, safe food is produced in the field. Keep them apart.
Standing by the flooded field of transgenic pharmrice in the heart of California’s agricultural praries the real world problems loom large and obvious. The transgenic field is surrounded by commercial rice production and the green stalks are bent against a warm wind that can carry millions of grains of fertile pollen. Thousands of ducks and other birdlife pass through these fields, feeding off the rice and perhaps moving seeds kilometres at a time. The standing water and soil of the region make up a complex ecosystem barely understood or studied in which materials and genetic information may be transferred freely by bacteria. Then there are the storage bins and farm machinery of the leaky and unreliable grain handling system. They failed to keep starlink corn out of human food and will do the same with pharmcrops. As much as the biotech salesman may reassuringly chuckle that starlink has caused "not even a belly ache", the unhappy truth is over fifty people came forward claiming allergic reactions including one MD Dr Keith Finger who performed feeding tests on himself and came out in welts. He offered to show to show the EPA his welts. They said they would rather he didn’t and promptly refused to give Starlink human safety clearance. Taco Bell, who were first found to be contaminated, are now reportedly sueing for approving it in the first place.
Finally, what about the L word? For any investor in agbiotech the damoclean sword of liability hangs precariously unresolved with major reinsurance companies such as Swiss Re unwilling to back the risk. In the long shadow of thalidomide the pharmaceutical industry is familiar enough with class-action payouts whenever a product goes wrong. Imagine however the cost of paying out to thousands of families who had inadvertently consumed Epicyte’s contraceptive protein in a taco bell meal ? ouch! now there’s something to chew on.
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