Frankenstein Foods?

Don't look for the southern French town of Montredon on your globe. It isn't even on local road maps, perhaps because it has only 20 inhabitants. But one of them, a Parisian intellectual turned activist-farmer named Jose Bove, may change that. He's the leader of the mobs of farmers who've trashed several McDonald's in France lately. Last week, with 200 supporters chanting outside the jail, Bove declined a Montpellier court's offer of bail and remained behind bars, the better to spotlight his cause. And that would be? "To fight against globalization and advance the right of people to eat as they see fit," he explained. Grievance No. 1: the U.S. desire to export genetically modified crops and foods. So far, so French, right? But spin that same globe to Peoria, Ill., home of U.S. agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. There, even as Bove's judges readied their decision, the self-styled "supermarket to the world" was demonstrating that the customer is, indeed, always right. In a fax to grain elevators throughout the Midwest, ADM told its suppliers that they should start segregating their genetically modified crops from conventional ones, because that's what foreign buyers want. It didn't matter that GM crops are widely grown by U.S. farmers, and that there's no evidence that the taco chips and soda you're enjoying right now are anything worse than fattening. ADM had noticed something new sprouting under the bright, warm sun of economic interdependence: a strange hybrid of cultural and economic fears. So it decided to act before the problem got any bigger.

Public opposition to GM foods in Europe has been mounting for more than two years, especially in Britain and France. Both Prince Charles and Paul McCartney have come out against the stuff. Now the protests and the tabloid headlines about "Frankenstein Foods" have reached such a pitch that they're reverberating across the Atlantic. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, a longtime backer of biotechnology, admitted as much in a key speech in July. So did Heinz and Gerber when they announced the same month that they'll go to the considerable trouble of making their baby foods free of genetically modified organisms. Groups such as Greenpeace, which have long fought biotech on both continents, are crowing. U.S. trade officials, who face a tough fight keeping markets open for American agricultural products, are worrying. And U.S. consumers, who have never really thought much about genetically modified foods, are just plain confused.

As well they might be, given the vastly different experiences the United States and Europe have had. In the United States, the FDA issued a key ruling in 1992 that brought foods containing GM ingredients to market quickly, and without labels. Companies such as Monsanto introduced herbicide-resistant soybeans and corn that makes its own insecticide. U.S. farmers loved the products; by 1998, 40 percent of America's corn crop and 45 percent of its soybeans were genetically modified. In Europe, meanwhile, there was no real central regulator to green-light the technology and allay public concerns, and many more small farmers for whom biotech represented not an opportunity but a threat. Leaders have tried to steer a course between encouraging a new industry and giving the voters what they want, including labeling rules.

So, to each his own, right? Not in 1999. If Europe is selling America Chanel perfume and Land Rovers, America will want to sell Europe its soybeans and corn--and maybe even its fervent faith in progress. While European biotech companies such as Novartis avoided the limelight, St. Louis-based Monsanto decided to press its case. The timing was terrible. GM fears were already running high last summer when Monsanto ran an informational campaign; Britain's 1996 bout with mad-cow disease, though unrelated, had weakened European confidence in regulators and industrial-strength agriculture. Monsanto's PR effort only made the mood worse, as have a string of bad-news food headlines since then: dioxin-contaminated chicken in Belgium last spring; tainted Coke in Belgium and France this summer, and a punitive U.S. tariff on imports of foie gras and other products, imposed in July because Europe won't accept American hormone-fed beef.

That last, also nongenetic, dispute actually triggered the vandalism at McDonald's last month. But to many of France's famously irascible small farmers, it's all of a piece. Even among the broader public in France and Britain, the GM-foods issue seems to be intersecting with second thoughts about globalization. French farmers protest American imperialism. But just last week their biggest customers, grocery giants Carrefour and Promodes, announced a $16.5 billion merger that will position them well in a global battle with America's Wal-Mart--and put further cost pressures on farmers. Britain is a hotbed for Internet start-ups. But Brits still tune in to the BBC radio soap "The Archers" to see if young Tommy will go to jail for helping a group of eco-warriors wreck a GM-crop trial site on his uncle's land.

Would an American jury let Tommy go? Probably not. Consumers Union, whose Consumer Reports magazine features a big piece on GM foods this month, has put together an array of poll data suggesting Americans would like to see GM food labeled, but remain interested in its benefits. Of course, if Tommy's trial were held in Berkeley, Calif., where the school board has announced a ban on GM foods, he might walk.

U.S. activists, encouraged by the successes of their European brethren, hope to build on such sentiments. Some of the rhetoric is extreme, and one group--or perhaps it's just one person--has resorted to vandalism, trashing a test-bed of GM corn at the University of Maine last month and crediting the act to "Seeds of Resistance." But there's science going on, too. A Cornell University study published in the journal Nature in May found that half of a group of monarch-butterfly caterpillars that ate the pollen of insecticide-producing Bt corn died after four days. What if the pollen spreads to the milkweed the monarchs lay their eggs in? "The arguments aren't enough to say we shouldn't have any biotechnology," says Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund. "But they are enough to say we should be looking before we leap."

Of course we should, says Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and an agricultural ecologist. Invited to speak to the Monsanto board in June, he used the forum to talk about the need to go a little slower. But, he adds, don't worry about the monarch. Bioengineers can stop the pesticide (which is supposed to kill caterpillars; they eat the corn) from being expressed in pollen. "There are always problems in the first generation of a new technology," he says. And, he adds, successes. The foundation just unveiled a genetically modified rice grain it funded to improve nutrition in the developing world. If a shouting match over GM foods should derail such not-for-profit efforts, he says, "that would be a tragedy."

Agriculture Secretary Glickman doesn't see Americans growing as fearful as Europeans, mainly because he thinks Americans have more faith in their regulators. He also thinks that labeling of GM foods is a big part of the answer--not mandatory labeling, which industry opposes and activists demand, but voluntary labeling. "I'm not going to mandate this from national government level," he told News-week, "but I believe that more and more companies are going to find that some sort of labeling is in their own best interest." Especially companies that want to export.

Because, as ADM showed with its heartland-stopping announcement on Thursday, it isn't only up to Americans anymore. Brian Kemp, a Sibley, Iowa, farmer, made an urgent call to his elevator on Thursday to see if it would still buy his GM corn. It will--this year. "Europe is so important to the industry that it could mean we'll really have to pull back on growing GM crops in this country," says Walt Fehr, head of Iowa State University's biotech department. "Given the choice, who wants to grow GM?"

Glickman says the trade issue--which is sure to generate plenty of heat at the November World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle--will be a tough one to resolve. "But I think over the next five years or so we can get it done." That's a mighty slow pace, considering how quickly the industry came along in the previous half decade. But then, you generally do travel faster when you travel alone.