Gene giants lose their lustre

Global resistance to the genetically engineered (GE) food industry has thrown the financial viability of this techno-logy into question.

In the past year Monsanto’s stock price has more than halved from over $35 to less than $15 today. In March it reported losses of more than $6 a share. Monsanto is responsible for more than 90% of worldwide GE seed sales. The share price of Syngenta, the world’s second-largest GE seed seller, has also taken a knock as profits have dropped.

Deutsche Bank and other analysts have long recognised this industry as a high-risk investment. A report from Innovest Strategic Value Advisers recently gave Monsanto the lowest investment approval rating, triple C. Most small biotech start-ups have either disappeared or have been consolidated into the gene giants.

The European Commission reports that in the past four years nearly two-thirds of GE research in the European Union has been cancelled because of controversy and consumer resistance. The industry has failed to deliver on its promise of improved health and nutrition, and has often been reported to have suppressed damaging results from trials.

But the gene giants still enjoy government support. The United States Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were board members of Monsanto subsidiaries before assuming office. Linda Fisher, deputy administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for regulation of GE crops, was previously vice-president of government affairs for Monsanto. This pattern of friends in high places recurs globally.

Do we even need GE crops? The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation said last month that present agricultural practices could provide sufficient food at least until 2030 without the use of biotechnology, let alone GE. By then low-risk technologies such as marker-assisted breeding and other non-invasive breeding innovations will provide solutions.

But the industry’s spin doctors have regularly misled media to promote its vested interests in a partisan manner.

A recent example occurred in India where claims were made that commercial GE cotton had been a resounding success in its first year of cultivation. The analysis was not based on this year’s commercial crop, but on the 2001 trials designed to gain regulatory approval of GE cotton by Monsanto-Mahyco, Monsanto’s Indian subsidiary.

Independent data about this year’s crop have clearly shown that GE cotton has failed, though the conventional local varieties have thrived. The quality of the GE fibre was also inferior to conventional cotton, depressing farm prices. The farmers have initi-ated legal action against Monsanto.

Two weeks ago the Indian government’s GE approval committee rejected Monsanto’s GE cotton for planting in north Indian states because of these shortcomings.

This case fits an established pattern that suggests this industry is founded upon bad science and questionable statistics. In January a widely circulated report stated that trials on GE sugar beet in the United Kingdom benefited wildlife and insects. The study from which this information was extracted had no scientific data backing the claim.

Recent reports appeared in news-papers around the world claiming that the standard Cavendish banana was about to become extinct because of disease and viral attack. The only solution, the reports said, was GE bananas. But the reports ignored the numerous options to provide resistance that do not rely on transgenic technology.

Kenya’s Assistant Environment Minister Wangari Maathai recently said that those pushing GE food into Africa were cynically exploiting the poverty of African markets to promote the technology.

“America must feed the world,” US President George W Bush said at the start of his term. Either through subsidised food products or by US-patented seed varieties, one presumes, judging by the “eat GE or starve” message recently passed to Zambia when it refused GE food aid from the US.

Globally, between 70% and 95% of people want GE products to be labelled. The gene giants instead rely on friends in high places and on massive pressure to escape meaningful labelling legislation.

If GE food were based on sound science, scientists apprehensive about this technology would be silenced. Instead, the many predictions of the dangers of these crops have proven to be substantive. Experts and the public remain sceptical of the necessity or the desirability of these crops that remain hidden in our diet.

This is the reality reflected in the GE companies’ plummeting share prices.

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