Trouble in the Garden: More Bad News for Monsanto & Biotech

Trouble in the Garden: More Bad News for Monsanto & Biotech

Postby admin » Sun Jan 10, 2016 5:32 am

Trouble in the Garden: More Bad News for Monsanto & Biotech
By Peter Montague
Rachel's Health & Environment Weekly
Feb. 3, 2000
Part 1



Wall Street investors lost confidence in agricultural biotechnology during 1999.[1,2,3] Agricultural biotechnology is by no means dead, but investors drove down stock prices of ag biotech companies during 1999 in a stunning reversal for the industry. The WALL STREET JOURNAL said Jan. 7, 2000, "With the controversy over genetically modified foods spreading across the globe and taking a toll on the stocks of companies with agricultural-biotechnology businesses, it's hard to see those companies as a good investment, even in the long term."[2]

Hardest hit was Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical giant that had spent 5 years and billions of dollars morphing itself into a "life sciences" company, betting its future on biotechnology in pharmaceutical drugs and agricultural crops. As the WALL STREET JOURNAL wrote December 21, 1999, "Billions of dollars later, that concept of a unified 'life sciences' company -- using technology to improve both medicines and foods -- has become an affliction itself for Monsanto. The crop-biotechnology half of the program has grown so controversial that Monsanto has agreed to a deal that is likely not only to push biotech to the back burner, but also to cost Monsanto its independence. And investors are reacting harshly."[3]

Monsanto agreed late in 1999 to merge with Pharmacia & Upjohn, Inc. and the combined company will be run not from St. Louis but from Pharmacia headquarters in Peapack, New Jersey. Monsanto's ag biotech business will be spun off into a separate company and as much as 19.9% of it will be sold.

Two other leaders in ag biotech, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, and the Anglo-Swiss drug firm AstroZeneca PLC, announced during 1999 that they will combine their ag biotech divisions into one and sell it off, "effectively washing their hands of crop biotechnology," the WALL STREET JOURNAL said.[3]

Thus by the end of 1999, ag biotech companies found themselves in trouble, worldwide, for the first time. Here is a short list of reasons why:

** A lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forced the release of government documents showing that FDA scientists had expressed grave doubts about the safety of genetically modified foods even as the agency was publicly declaring such foods "substantially equivalent" to traditional crops.[4] It seems clear from these documents that the scientific integrity of the U.S. regulatory system has been compromised for political purposes, to provide a "fast track" for the rapid, large-scale introduction of genetically modified foods.

** The insurance industry has consistently refused to write policies covering liability for harm caused by genetically modified organisms. Steven Suppan, research director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, said last June, "It is worth asking what kind of regulatory system approves for commercialization a technology whose risks are so undetermined that the products developed from the technology have not been insured? An intuitive response is that the U.S. rejection of liability suggests that U.S. agribusiness and the U.S. government have less confidence than is proclaimed publicly in the safety of the products approved and in the integrity of the product review process," Dr. Suppan said.[5]

** A growing body of literature has begun to show that genetically modified crops are creating new kinds of environmental problems for farmers, and that genetically modified crops are exacerbating already-severe economic problems on American farms.[6]

** Europeans and others overseas have continued to insist that the safety of genetically modified foods has not been sufficiently documented and that import of such foods must be prohibited, or they must be labeled. The doubts expressed by FDA scientists, and the growing list of economic and environmental problems are likely to stiffen European resistance to genetically-modified seeds, crops, and foods.

** It became apparent in 1999 that the public rationale for promoting genetically modified foods -- that such foods would "feed the world" -- was based on wishful thinking, not economics. It is now clear that U.S. genetically modified crops are too expensive to "feed the world."[6]

** The rationale for refusing to label genetically modified foods came unraveled in 1999 as biotechnology companies began to announce new crops with special traits (rice with increased vitamin A, for example). For years, biotech companies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and FDA have argued that labeling genetically modified foods was impossible because it would require food companies to segregate genetically modified crops from conventional crops and it simply couldn't be done. All the crops were mixed together in the grain elevator, so labeling would be impossible, they said.

This silly and disingenuous argument evaporated in 1999. As soon as biotech firms announced specialty foods created by genetic engineering, the labeling problem miraculously disappeared. Labeling is suddenly easy -- indeed, required -- because consumer's can't be expected to pay premium prices for specialty foods if those foods aren't clearly identifiable on the grocery shelf.

Polls have shown that more than 80% of American consumers want genetically modified foods labeled as such. Now that labeling is acknowledged as feasible, will the biotech industry, USDA, EPA, and FDA bend to the public will and start labeling ALL genetically modified foods? Not on your life. Government and industry argue with one voice that labeling is not necessary because genetically modified foods are "substantially equivalent" to the conventional foods they have replaced. They even say labeling would be "misleading" because it would imply that there are differences between biotech foods and conventional foods.

Federal regulations governing biotech foods are founded on the premise that there are no "material differences" between genetically modified crops and conventional crops. This argument, it turns out, was thoroughly discredited by FDA scientists before the regulations were issued.

The FDA spent 1989-1992 developing regulations governing genetically modified foods for humans and feed for animals. This was back when President Bush and Vice-President Quayle were advocating "regulatory relief" for industry.

FDA's rules -- which were announced by Mr. Quayle in 1992 -- allow a biotech company like Monsanto or DuPont to decide for itself whether its food products are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). If a company decides that its new genetically modified corn or soybean or potato or wheat is "generally recognized as safe" then no safety testing is required before the products are introduced into the food supply. FDA said these rules -- like all their rules -- are based on "sound science."

However, during 1999 a lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity in Fairfield, Iowa, forced the FDA to release some 44,000 pages of internal documents for the first time.[4] Among them was a series of memos from FDA scientists commenting on the FDA's proposed "substantially equivalent" policy for biotech foods.

A key issue is whether "pleiotropic effects" will occur when new genes are inserted into plants to give the plants desirable new traits. Pleiotropy means that more than one change occurs in a plant as a result of the new gene. For example, a gene that allows a plant to grow better under drought conditions might also make the entire plant grow smaller. The smaller size would be an unexpected "pleiotropic" effect.

FDA regulations assume that pleiotropic effects will not occur when new genes are inserted into conventional foods such as corn or potatoes or wheat or soybeans. Therefore, FDA says, genetically modified crops are "substantially equivalent" to conventional crops.

Internal memos make it abundantly clear that FDA's scientific staff believes pleiotropic effects will occur when new genes are inserted into food crops. [In the following quotations, words inside square brackets have been added for clarity but words inside normal parentheses were in the original memos.--P.M.]

Commenting on the FDA's proposed biotech regulations in early 1992, Louis Pribyl, an FDA microbiologist, wrote March 6, 1992, "It reads very pro-industry, especially in the area of unintended effects.... This is industry's pet idea, namely that there are no unintended effects that will raise the FDA's level of concern. But time and time again, there is no data to backup their contention, while the scientific literature does contain many examples of naturally occurring pleiotropic effects. When the introduction of genes into [a] plant's genome randomly occurs, as is the case with the current [genetic modification] technology (but not traditional breeding), it seems apparent that many pleiotropic effects will occur," Dr. Pribyl wrote. "Many of these effects might not be seen by the breeder [meaning Monsanto or DuPont or other biotech firm] because of the more or less similar growing conditions in the limited trials that are performed. Until more of these experimental plants have a wider environmental distribution, it would be premature for FDA to summarily dismiss pleiotropy as is done here," Dr. Pribyl wrote.

On the same subject, a memo from the Division of Contaminants Chemistry within FDA's Division of Food Chemistry and Technology said November 1, 1991, "Pleiotropic effects occur in genetically engineered plants... at frequencies up to 30%. Most of these effects can be managed by the subsequent breeding and selection procedures. Nevertheless, some undesirable effects such as increased levels of known naturally occurring toxicants, appearance of new, not previously identified toxicants, increased capability of concentrating toxic substances from the environment (e.g., pesticides or heavy metals), and undesirable alterations in the levels of nutrients may escape breeders' attention unless genetically engineered plants are evaluated specifically for these changes. Such evaluations should be performed on a case-by-case basis, i.e., every transformant should be evaluated before it enters the marketplace."

Instead of heeding the concerns of its scientific staff, FDA issued biotech food rules that assume no pleiotropic effects will occur, therefore no safety testing is required. All biotech foods are assumed to be safe. The stage was thus set for confidence in biotech foods to plummet as soon as word leaked out that the scientific underpinnings of the regulatory system had been compromised.

To be continued next week.



[1] I am indebted to Steven Suppan, research director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, who provided me with several brief, thoughtful summaries of the state of agricultural biotechnology. Contact: Telephone (612) 870-3413.

[2] Christina Cheddar, "Tales of the Tape: Seed Co. May Yet Reap What They Sow," WALL STREET JOURNAL January 7, 2000, pg. unknown.

[3] Scott Kilman and Thomas M. Burton, "Biotech Backlash is Battering Plan Shapiro Thought Was Enlightened," WALL STREET JOURNAL December 21, 1999, pg.A1.

[4] The FDA documents are available at And see Marian Burros, "Documents Show Officials Disagreed on Altered Foods," NEW YORK TIMES December 1, 1999, pg. A15.

[5] Steven Suppan, unpublished paper, "National Summit on the Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods, June 17, 1999, Capitol Hilton Hotel, Washington, D.C. 2 pgs.

[6] Some of this literature is summarized in Charles M. Benbrook, "World Food System Challenges and Opportunities: GMOs, Biodiversity, and Lessons From America's Heartland," unpublished paper presented January 27, 1999, at University of Illinois. Available in PDF format at IWFS.pdf .

Descriptor terms: biotechnology; monsanto; dupont; novartis; pharmacia; astrozeneca; agriculture; hunger; fda; regula
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Re: Trouble in the Garden: More Bad News for Monsanto & Biot

Postby admin » Sun Jan 10, 2016 5:33 am

Trouble in the Garden: Sustainability & Agricultural Biotech Biotech
By Peter Montague
Part 2



How will genetically modified seeds, crops and foods affect the sustainability of U.S. agriculture? During 1999, agricultural economist Charles Benbrook tried to answer that question.[1] Benbrook has a long history of analyzing all aspects of agriculture as an employee of the executive branch, the Congress, and the National Academy of Sciences, and more recently in the private sector.[2]

Benbrook defines "sustainable agriculture" as a food system that:[1]

** Provides a reasonable rate of return to farmers, to sustain farm families, agricultural infrastructure, and rural communities;

** Assures a reasonable rate of return to public and private providers of farm inputs (seeds, fertilizers, etc.), information, services, and technologies;

** Preserves and regenerates soil, water, and biological resources upon which farming depends, and avoids adverse impacts on the natural environment;

** Increases productivity and per-acre yields at least in step with the growth in demand;

** Adheres to social norms and expectations in terms of fairness, equity, compliance with regulations, food safety, and ethical treatment of workers, animals, and other creatures sharing agricultural landscapes.

First we should acknowledge that, by these criteria, U.S. agriculture is not sustainable now and hasn't been for many decades.[3] Loss of profitability is almost always the immediate cause of unsustainability in farming, Benbrook says. "All too often in the U.S. in recent decades, the only thing that really changes is that energetic and ambitious managers willing to accept lower returns per bushel find the capital to expand, maintaining their income only by expanding their acreage base," Benbrook says. Of course when one farm expands its acreage, often another farm family has to move off the land. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of the Census stopped counting "farm residents" in 1993 because there were so few of them left; their numbers had dwindled to fewer than 2% of total U.S. population (4.6 million people).[4] (In contrast, in 1900, farm residents made up 35% of total population.)

Benbrook believes that genetically modified seeds, crops and foods will amplify recent trends and will have the following effects on farms:

** Increasingly serious economic surprises and setbacks for farmers because many emerging biotechnologies are more expensive to bring to market, for several reasons:

(a) Biotechnology results from mergers of seed companies and pesticide companies. For example, as a result of a series of acquisitions and mergers, DuPont and Monsanto together now own 73% of corn seed producers in the U.S.[5] Seed companies have traditionally had a relatively low profit margin (around 12% to 15%), whereas pesticide producers have had a higher profit margin (20% to 30%). As pesticide companies try to raise the profit margins of their newly-acquired seed companies up toward the levels expected of pesticide companies, the cost of seed and chemicals will probably continue to rise for farmers.

This has, in fact, been happening, Benbrook shows. In the midwestern farm belt, corn and soybeans are the major crops. Since 1975, for soybean farmers, the share of the farmer's gross income per acre devoted to seed plus chemicals has risen more than 50%, from 10.8% to 16.3%. For corn farmers, the increase has been even larger (from 9.5% of gross income to 16.9%, 1975-1997).

(b) Genetically modified crops are requiring more herbicides than farmers were initially led to believe they would, thus driving up weed management costs. Take Roundup Ready crops. These are crops genetically modified to withstand dousing with Monsanto's premier weed killer, Roundup. The idea was that farmers would give their crop one good dousing with Roundup and that would solve their weed problems. Monsanto placed print ads telling farmers Roundup was "the only weed control you'll ever need." You can see one of these 1998 ads on the Iowa State University Herbicide Ad "Hall of Shame" web site.[6]

Roundup Ready crops offered farmers a modest reduction in costs per bushel if everything worked as advertised. However, the reality is different from what Monsanto promised in its ads. Farmers using Roundup Ready crops find they have to use two or three applications of two or more herbicides to control weeds. Some farmers are finding they must use as many as four different herbicides after planting a seed that supposedly makes weed management easier. This disappointing trend is putting more of farmers' income into the pockets of the seed and chemical giants. As Charles Benbrook points out, the full Roundup Ready system is now costing farmers "an amazing $68.77 per acre in 1999, about 50% more than the cost of [other] seed plus weed management systems in the Midwest in recent years." This trend promises to deliver "significantly lower average returns to growers," Benbrook predicts.

(c) Some weeds are developing resistance to Roundup -- notably hemp weed or pig weed -- so Roundup is becoming less effective, requiring additional measures for weed control, raising costs for those relying on Roundup Ready crops.[7]

(d) There is evidence that low-dosage herbicides can disrupt beneficial soil microorganisms and perhaps interfere with plant uptake of phosphorus, an essential nutrient. Benbrook believes this can have an important negative impact on plant health and farm profitability.

(e) There is evidence of a "yield drag" associated with some Roundup Ready crops, meaning that per-acre yields are not consistently as high as it was once thought they would be. A yield drag quickly translates into a profitability drag.

There are additional reasons why genetically modified crops are likely to produce economic surprises and setbacks for farmers:

(f) The costs of creating and protecting intellectual property are already high and they are bound to rise, Benbrook believes;

(g) The regulation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seems likely to increase, and so will regulatory costs;

(h) Biotechnology is being promoted and used in a way that tends to reduce diversity on the farm -- precisely the wrong direction for farms to be going, in Benbrook's view. Successful pest management requires a diversified system that spreads the burden across differing mixes of chemical, biological, genetic, and cultural (farming technique) tools and tactics. Reliance on a single approach to pest management will fail because pests will successfully evolve and thrive in response to single approaches, Benbrook says.

(i) Trouble has appeared in another line of genetically modified crops -- those containing the pesticidal Bt gene. Bt is a bacterium that is toxic to a large class of common insect pests called lepidopterans. Lepidopterans are butterflies and moths; during the caterpillar stage of their life-cycle, lepidopterans eat leaves and can cause great damage to leafy crops. Because of the damage they inflict, lepidopterans provoke some of the greatest use of pesticides world-wide.

Bt is a naturally-occurring killer of lepidopterans. As such, it is a priceless gift from nature to row-crop farmers who need to control outbreaks of lepidopterans. Charles Benbrook makes this comparison: Bt is to the control of lepidopterans what antibiotics are to the control of human diseases. If Bt loses its effectiveness, it will have major consequences for vegetable farmers across the U.S., many of whom use Bt (in one form or another) as a foliar spray.

By inserting a gene from the Bt bacterium into plants, Monsanto and others have created crops that are themselves pesticidal to lepidopterans. For example, Monsanto's "New Leaf" potato, which is now sold in U.S. grocery stores, is itself a registered pesticide because every cell in every potato contains the Bt gene.[8] (Notably, it is one of the few registered pesticides that is not labeled as such.)

From the beginning, Monsanto and others have acknowledged that their Bt-containing crops might conceivably induce Bt resistance among lepidopterans, but they have insisted that the likelihood is "remote." Resistance is a well-understood phenomenon. When a group of insects is sprayed with a poison, those that are least affected survive and reproduce. Soon the only remaining insects are unaffected by that poison -- they have developed resistance to it.

When Monsanto approach EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] for permission to market Bt-containing plants, they came armed with numerous studies showing that resistance to Bt might take 30 years to develop, if indeed it developed at all. Because genetically-engineered Bt-containing crops had been developed in almost total secrecy, when EPA asked for public comment on Monsanto's proposal, the nation's agricultural experts had little to say. EPA assumed their silence meant all was well.

Traditionally, farmers get reliable information from the land grant colleges that Congress created in 1862. However, beginning with the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, Congress has systematically reduced the role of the public sector in U.S. agriculture. Now development of genetically engineered crops is largely in private hands and the new technology is cloaked in secrecy. The veil of secrecy "raises an important public policy issue," says Benbrook. "When scientists are unwilling to share data, are constrained in what they can report, and/or have no opportunity to study new technology, public institutions and regulators have to fly blind for a period of time." So, flying blind and basing its decision on Monsanto's science, EPA approved crops with the Bt gene inserted into them.

Now it turns out that Monsanto's science was woefully weak and incomplete. New studies show that resistance to Bt is not nearly as rare in lepidopterans as Monsanto claimed it was, so resistance can be expected to develop much more rapidly than Monsanto initially projected. Furthermore, it is now clear that Bt-corn can adversely impact populations of key beneficial insects. Lacewing larvae, which eat lepidopteran larvae, are killed by Bt, thus removing a natural control on lepidopterans. It now seems clear that farmers who become reliant upon genetically modified crops containing the Bt gene can expect unpleasant surprises in the short term and loss of the effectiveness of Bt in the medium term.[9] It will be a grave loss indeed.

In sum, genetically modified crops seem poised to reduce diversity on farms, reduce farm profits, and make U.S. farms even less sustainable than they already are. For the U.S. food system, this hardly seems like progress.


We owe an apology to the Los Angeles Safe Schools Coalition (LASSC) who did the work that resulted in the path-breaking new pesticide policy adopted last year by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which we described in Rachel #684.

The new policy says Los Angeles schools will look for the least damaging way to control pests, in accord with the precautionary principle, and that the goal is to control pests by non-chemical means whenever possible. The policy represents a major step forward in environmental decision-making.

LASSC is a coalition of 20 organizations, including Pesticide Watch, Physicians for Social Responsibility, United Teachers Los Angeles, the Parent Teachers Association, and Action Now.

Six individuals made up the core group that successfully persuaded the Los Angeles Unified School District that "better safe than sorry" is the best pest management philosophy:

** Dr. Kirk Murphy of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who inserted the precautionary language into the draft policy;

** Sandy Schubert, a lawyer who negotiated the terms of the policy. Though not a member of any of LASSC's constituent groups, she contributed her writing skills and her extensive knowledge of California pesticide policies

** Robina Suwol, a parent who saw her child disappear in a cloud of pesticidal fumes as she dropped her child off at school one day; her tenacity and commitment ultimately drove the coalition to success.

** Yvonne Nelson, a member of Action Now, who culled through reams of school pesticide-use reports and documented the widespread mis-use of pesticides in Los Angeles schools;

** Christina Graves, a community organizer with Pesticide Watch, hired to help the coalition find the political strength it needed to overcome the opposition of the pesticide corporations and their friends in high places.

We implied in Rachel #684 that the new pesticide policy in Los Angeles resulted from efforts by Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR). CPR and Pesticide Watch jointly raised the funds that paid the community organizer who helped build LASSC, and CPR generated support and publicity for the new policy at a crucial moment, just as it came up for a vote. But LASSC worked tirelessly for two years to make the new policy a reality and it is they who deserve the credit for this important public policy innovation. --P.M.



[1] Charles M. Benbrook, "World Food System Challenges and Opportunities: GMOs, Biodiversity, and Lessons From America's Heartland," unpublished paper presented January 27, 1999, at University of Illinois. Available in PDF format at http://- Dr. Benbrook gave a talk based on his paper; if you have an audio-enabled computer, you can listen to the talk and see the slides via the world wide web: ... edule.html.

[2] During the early 1980s Benbrook served as an agriculture policy analyst for the President's Council on Environmental Quality, then as staff director of the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture of the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives; from 1984 to 1990 he was executive director of the Board of Agriculture, National Academy of Sciences. Since 1990 he has operated Benbrook Consulting Services.

[3] David Tilman, "The Greening of the Green Revolution," NATURE Vol. 396 (November 19, 1998), pgs. 211-212.

[4] Associated Press, "Too Few Farmers Left to Count, Agency Says," NEW YORK TIMES October 10, 1993, pg. 23.

[5] Ann M. Thayer, "Ag Biotech Food: Risky or Risk Free?" CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS [C&EN] November 1, 1999, pgs. 11-20.

[6] ... ttonad.htm.

[7] ... future.htm.

[8] The amazing story of the New Leaf pesticidal potato was told in Michael Pollan, "Playing God in the Garden," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE October 25, 1998, pgs. 44-51, 62-63, 82, 92-93.

[9] On Bt resistance, see

Descriptor terms: agriculture; farming; biotechnology; pesticides; herbiocides; resistance; genetic engineering; bt; roundup ready; monsanto; dupont; charles benbrook; economics;
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