Fred Gurtel, with Tom Masland in Cape Town, Sarah Schafer in Beijing, Ian Mackinnon in New Delhi, John Ness in New York, Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Ginanne Brownell in London
Tony Hall's career has always depended on his command of certain facts about corn. For instance, did you know that last year the United States produced more than 9 billion bushels, 42 percent of the world's supply? And that a year's worth of U.S. exports would fill a train of hopper cars from Paris to Beijing, by way of Calcutta?
BACK IN 1984—when Hall was a U.S. congressman from the corn-belt state of Ohio—he went on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia, which had been suffering from famine, so he could better argue the case in Washington for increasing U.S. food aid. Hall found more than facts. When he and his entourage drove to the plateau north of the town of Alamata, “I walked upon a scene of about 50,000 people just very peacefully lying around, moaning—and dying,” he recalls. “When I came home, I decided that there's lots of things you can do in Congress that really don't amount to much. But this was important.”
Taking up world hunger as your own personal cause isn't the kind of behaviour you'd necessarily expect from an elected politician, but that's what Hall did. He was instrumental in kick-starting several congressional initiatives to combat hunger, and in 1993 he even fasted for 22 days to make his point. Arguably his best shot at harnessing America's vast grain harvest for the world's greater good came last fall, when he arrived in Rome as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies. His timing, however, couldn't be worse. Right now the last thing even the hungriest parts of the world want is genetically modified American food, like Ohio's golden corn.
Europe has for years turned its nose up at American products like corn, tomatoes and soy, which scientists have engineered to contain unnatural genes. Now, in yet another permutation of a global anti-Americanism, the rest of the world seems to be following suit. China, one of the world's biggest agricultural producers, invested billions of dollars in GM crops only to back off last year on imports and on new foreign investment in the development of engineered seeds. Even the world's poor, it seems, don't want America's grain, thank you very much. In November, India froze food-aid shipments of corn and soy from the United States. And in October, Zambia turned away 18,000 tons of U.S. corn, even though 3 million of its citizens teeter on the brink of starvation. “I'd rather die than eat something toxic,” President Levy Mwanawasa told Sky News.
Zambia's rejection, Greenpeace exulted, was “a triumph of national sovereignty.” But to Hall, for one, it was almost a personal affront. “Just when you think you've seen everything, you see food being shipped out of a country where starving people are stoning public officials and rioting,” he says. “This is not an intellectual discussion, it's a moral issue—a matter of life or death.”
What has inspired such opposition to so-called Frankenfoods? The answer has grown as complicated as the gene splicing needed to create them. American officials, isolated and perhaps a bit paranoid, see Europe's influence behind every hesitation over GM crops. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick calls Europe's moratorium on new GM foods “immoral” and “Luddite” and wants to appeal to the World Trade Organization. Europeans deny arm-twisting other regions. “There is no European governmental pressure to do this,” says Alexander de Roo, a Green Party member of the European Parliament. “It's the governments themselves who are rejecting GM foods.” Of course, the European Commission's Health and Consumer Protection directorate general “did give documentation and research to concerned countries,” says spokeswoman Beate Gminder, “but we [do] not make attempts to influence their decisions.”
Americans are suspicious, in part, because engineered corn seems so safe. After all, it doesn't glow in the dark and gives off no lethal radiation. In fact, it looks and tastes just like plain old corn and, genetically, it's almost identical—except for one added gene, which scientists in the laboratory transplanted from Bacillus thuringiensis , a bacterium. The gene confers upon the corn the ability to repel pests like the bollworm, a pesky bug that has the nasty habit of devastating cornfields. The most widely used GM crops—namely, cotton and corn—have this Bt gene.
As the U.S. agriculture industry is eager to point out, the technology has been a big success: it has reduced the amount of pesticides farmers have had to spray on their cornfields, with happy consequences for the environment and human health. U.S. health regulators haven't been able to find anything wrong with eating Bt corn. It is now found in roughly two thirds of all corn products on American store shelves. GM foods already on the market “are unlikely to present a problem to people's health,” says Jorgen Schlundt, director of the World Health Organization's Food Safety Program. Even Europe's officials admit that health risks are minute. So why won't the rest of the world just relax and bake some corn muffins? “Because of doubts, igN.O.R.A.nce, evil,” says Hall.
Perhaps. But there may be more to the skepticism over GM crops. In India, for instance, officials have always maintained European-style safety concerns about genetically modified foods. Although the government approved Bt cotton last March—after a bruising four-year battle—it has never OK'd GM corn or other edible crops. And the controversy over cotton has only stiffened resistance. Last November, authorities demanded a written guarantee that aid shipments from the United States contained no GM grains whatsoever. Relief workers at CARE and Catholic Relief Services couldn't comply. After six months of stalemate, they had the sacks of flour shipped off to Africa. In the meantime, India has allowed no new shipments of U.S. corn-soya flour. Other products have similarly stalled: in November, New Delhi also put off a decision on whether or not to accept GM mustard plants, even though they've been testing them for years.
Regulatory officials are often as afraid of public opinion as of the crops themselves. “We took a lot of flak over GM cotton,” says former Genetic Engineering Approval Committee chairman, Achyut Gokhale. “It was my job to ensure we weren't accused of overhastiness [over GMgrains].” The Indian public, like those in countries from France to Zimbabwe, seems to have equated GM foods with U.S. agriculture—and trust neither. They are afraid of foreign genes somehow contaminating their own crops and fields, and they're afraid their farmers might grow dependent on U.S. companies for GM seeds. “Genetic modification is just a weapon to bring Indian agriculture under the dominance of American corporations,” says Devinder Sharma, chairman of the Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security.
Indian activists remember vividly the row a few years ago over StarLink, a form of GM corn that had been approved for animal feed in the United States, but which was found, to the great embarrassment of the U.S. agricultural industry, to have made its way into Taco Bell burritos and other products intended for human consumption. StarLink had been engineered to contain a foreign protein suspected of causing allergic reactions. Subsequent tests proved otherwise, but the damage was done. Suddenly just about all U.S. grain, GM or otherwise, was suspected of contamination—and loudly opposed.
China's recent about-face on GM foods also has as much to do with politics as with science. The People's Republic was actually an early and enthusiastic adopter of genetic farming. Chai Hongliang and his brother Zhenbo, who farm cotton in Langfang, about 30 miles southeast of Beijing, used to dump tons of pesticides on their crops to keep the bugs from destroying their harvest. Five years ago they started using government-approved Bt cotton, made by U.S. biotech firm Monsanto; the brothers saved so much on pesticides they doubled their profits. They even opened a tiny shop to sell the seeds for Bt cotton. Chinese cotton farmers increased their productivity by 10 percent last year, by some estimates.
But overall, Chinese farmers still could not compete against cheaper U.S. crops, now available after the country joined the WTO. In the spring, officials began requiring labels on all imports of GM crops. Ships loaded up with 1 million tons of soybeans slated for export to China sat in U.S. ports for weeks. Beijing eventually granted a reprieve, but U.S. soy exports to China slipped 20 percent for the year. Beijing has also declared a moratorium on investment by foreign seed companies in the development of several new strains of genetically modified plants.
What's interesting is that Beijing's moves are not simply a protectionist ploy—reimposing de facto trade barriers forbidden under WTO regulations. Backtracking on GM foods extends to China's own growing agricultural industry. Since the late 1980s, Beijing has lavished money on research into genetic farming techniques; it currently spends $100 million a year by some estimates. The idea was to boost productivity and push exports beyond the 5 percent of agricultural production China currently sells abroad. More than 100 labs have sprung up, and researchers have invented 150 different strains of transgenic, or GM, crops. “We all believed this was going to be very important technology,” says Chen Zhangliang, a researcher at Beijing University who developed virus-resistant tomatoes and sweet peppers. But last year, just as labs were ready to commercialize their new crops, the Chinese government stopped approving them.
Although officials cite the usual safety and environmental concerns, the prospect of being shut out of export markets may be the more compelling fear. Once GM crops are planted widely, it's difficult, if not impossible, to remove them from the agricultural system. Keeping GM and non-GM grains apart proved difficult in the case of StarLink. What's to keep GM corn crops, with their powerful added gene, from overtaking weaker natural corn strains—especially when Chinese peasants, mindful of their pest-repelling qualities, plant them surreptitiously in their gardens? China fears forever tarring its exports with the GM brush, which would put the kabosh on markets in Europe, not to mention skittish Asian countries like South Korea. It's not a theoretical threat. After China developed GM strains of tobacco, Europe shut the door to Chinese imports in the 1990s. “It significantly affected trade,” said Huang Jikun, director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing. “The government realized the [economic] impact biosafety concerns could have.”
China's turnaround has underscored just how isolated Washington now is. “We figured China was our buddy on biotech,” says a U.S. official. “Most of our resources were going to problem areas like Europe.” That's now changed. The U.S. government recently started training Chinese regulatory officials on transgenic crops. Lobbyists for the U.S. soybean industry, which supplies China with half of its soybeans, buttonhole Chinese officials at conferences and send scientists information about GM soy.
Environmental groups sense Washington's desperation. Greenpeace set up shop in Beijing last summer and began working through the Chinese press and Communist Party-controlled neighborhood committees to “build public awareness of genetically engineered food,” says Zhou Yan, the group's information officer. Greenpeace newsletters can now be found in the waiting rooms of almost any governmental or scientific office that deals with GM crops. In late 2001, Greenpeace teamed up with an environmental group in southern China to produce a report warning of the dangers of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. (Another government organization later pronounced the report unreliable and had it recalled.)
There are signs that the Chinese public is beginning to have doubts. When Huang's agriculture policy center surveyed more than 1,000 Chinese consumers, 3 percent said they would not eat GM food—not many, but more than previous studies have shown. “A few years ago when I talked to policymakers, no one was against GMOs,” Huang said. “But in the past two or three years, when I talk to some officials they say, ‘I'm not going to eat biotech food'.” Says the U.S. official: “One nightmare scenario is that the [trade] protectionists work with the environmental nongovernmental organizations, thinking it would be clever to encourage antibiotech hysteria. That would be a disaster.”
A change in the risk-reward ratio might give GM crops a fillip. So far, genetic technologies haven't led to drastically lowered prices but, as supplies increase, some experts think 30 percent drops are likely. In 2001, GM crops worldwide covered 53 million hectares, 15 percent more than the year before, according to a recent study by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a research organization in the Philippines. Brazil, the world's second-largest producer of soy, has so far eschewed genetically engineered varieties. But Brazilian scientists are developing several types of GM crops. If they come up with tempting new seeds, Brazil may decide to take the plunge sooner rather than later.
What ultimately happens in places like India, China and Brazil, though, will depend a great deal on what happens in Europe. At the moment, GM foods aren't terribly popular with European consumers, whose memories of the fiasco over mad-cow disease are still fresh. Once better regulations are in place, attitudes may soften. This year the EU is putting in place labeling rules. If liability laws were also strengthened, so that consumers felt they had better recourse against food-industry shenanigans, European consumers might alter their resistance to GM crops. “I think GM foods are going to be accepted by European consumers sometime in the next five to 10 years,” says Julia Moore of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. “If the U.S. is smart”—if it doesn't further alienate European consumers with lots of trade-war chest-thumping—”we're talking about closer to five than 10.” The question is, will it be too late to change the minds of consumers in the rest of the world, who won't have the benefit of such protections?