Why Should We Be Novartis's Guinea Pigs?


Things move fast in the brave new world of biotechnology. In 2003, only a few years after the first widespread plantings of genetically modified (GM) crops, American farmers sowed 43 million hectares of GM corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. The first drug-producing crops may soon follow. These developments are troubling enough: an analysis by the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center found that the planting of GM crops in the United States since 1996 has increased pesticide use by a total of about 23 million kilograms, contrary to the producers' pesticide-reduction claims.

But there's also a new and disturbing form of pollution to consider. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently tested ordinary American seed varieties and found that at least 50 percent of the corn and soybean varieties and 83 percent of the canola varieties were contaminated with DNA from GM versions. Such widespread contamination risks creating totally unintended combinations of engineered traits-and biotechnologists are now field-testing, or seeking to test, hundreds of varieties genetically tweaked to produce drugs, vaccines, plastics, industrial chemicals, and even human proteins (see "Silent Winter," May/June World Watch). Are we ready for Viagra in our cornflakes?

Yet that might be the least of our worries. Such scattershot contamination will eliminate choice in the marketplace, neutralizing one of the most powerful tools wielded by common citizens. It will doom organic farming, which bans engineered seeds. It will trample the rights of shoppers who buy organic to avoid GM foods. And it will render futile any attempts by small farmers, backyard gardeners, and communities everywhere to create GM-free oases by saving their own seeds or passing local ordinances to keep the stuff out.

In effect, these rights are being stolen by biotech companies. You don't have to be a conspiracy nut to wonder if they had contamination in mind all along. The industry was "not surprised by this report," according to a U.S. Biotechnology Industry Organization spokesperson. Its history is one of attempting to slip GM organisms and related products in under the radar by resisting tighter controls on field experiments, taking advantage of lax regulation, and blocking labeling requirements.

But it's not the biotech companies' business to choose our risks for us. We should have the freedom to exercise caution in our choice of foods, whether by avoiding poorly understood GM foods or factory-farmed chicken that might harbor antibiotic-resistant microbes. The industry must be held accountable for keeping its creations out of the fields and mouths of those who don't wish to be experimented on.

How? Consumer protest does work: after a sustained, global outcry, Monsanto announced in May that it was dropping plans to sell its GM wheat. But where are the regulators when we need them?


Brian Halweil, Senior Researcher