Elizabeth Wilcox, who runs a consortium of small family philanthropies in Oakland, Calif., wasn't particularly interested in the controversy surrounding bioengineered food until she heard Nell Newman speak in October.
Ms. Newman, the daughter of actor Paul Newman and head of the organic division of Newman's Own Inc., spoke to foundation chiefs gathered near Monterey, Calif., to discuss funding environmental causes. She shared her concerns about the potential polluting effects of genetically modified seeds, noting that she tries to ensure that Newman's Own tortilla chips are free of bioengineered ingredients.
Inspired by Ms. Newman, Ms. Wilcox decided to recommend that money from her foundation, Common Counsel, go to antibiotechnology causes she had largely ignored.
"We are seeking to inform and counterweigh the momentum of the market," Ms. Wilcox says. "We talk about creating the perfect food, and the perfect body, and you don't want to cry eugenics, but this issue is really scary."
Serious money is starting to flow to the antibiotech movement in the U.S., even amid debate over whether the opposition is mostly about a scientific threat, an aversion to big business or a wariness of the unknown.
Until recently, the fervor seemed to be confined to Europe, where a wave of protests looks as if it could make an entire continent free of genetically modified organisms. But as demonstrations at the World Trade Organization forum in Seattle and elsewhere showed, the issue -- particularly when coupled with inchoate fears about biotechnology -- is capable of arousing an emotional response in the U.S., too.
Some of the biggest companies at the center of the turmoil have taken action recently that suggests defensive moves in the face of this growing opposition, though the companies say their main motivation was the way the slumping farm economy has hurt pesticide sales. AstraZeneca PLC and Novartis AG earlier this month announced plans to spin off and merge a chunk of their agribusiness, while the board of Monsanto Co. has been debating spinning off its agribusiness interests while holding on to the lucrative pharmaceutical lines.
Monsanto says it welcomes the new funds flowing even to potential critics. "I believe that long-term there is wonderful room here for compromise and discussion," says a spokeswoman, adding that "anytime there is a new technology ... people have to work their way through ethical and moral issues."
New Type of Donor
The funds to attack bioengineered food, as well as biotechnology in general, are still coming in fitfully and are modest compared with the millions of dollars producers of genetically modified seeds have pledged for their own public-relations offensive. But what is striking is the number and nature of the donors that have begun to take notice and dive in -- from Ms. Wilcox's small Common Counsel fund to the mighty Rockefeller Foundation. Some are explicitly backing the antibiotechnology movement; others, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, are taking more measured steps that, nonetheless, could spell trouble for the companies behind genetically modified seed.
"A few years ago, few foundations could even spell biotechnology," says Pat Mooney, an influential Canadian antibiotech activist. "Now we find it has gone from small organizations to midsize foundations that are not the radical hippie types."
Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, says he is earmarking $3 million for a broad new effort that will, pending board approval, include: funding a mediation and conflict-resolution firm to study how warring factions can be brought together; funding consumer activists who want strict labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients, which the biotech industry opposes; supporting bioethicists to study the ethical implications of bioengineered food (as well as other biotech issues such as cloning); and sponsoring a global "dialogue" about genetically modified food geared mainly toward giving the opposition a public forum.
A Hot Issue
"There is a buzz," says Amy Lyons, program executive at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, a San Francisco foundation with a $368 million endowment. "It is one of these hot issues" in the foundation world, she says. The fund awards the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which is aimed at grassroots environmentalists.
One key behind-the-scenes player is Chris Desser, an environmental lawyer, experienced activist and seasoned fundraiser who works for the Funders Working Group on Biotechnology, an alliance of several dozen foundations concerned about the biotech issue.
In the past eight or nine months, Ms. Desser, who is based in San Francisco, has brought together activists and mainstream foundation chiefs on both coasts. Ms. Desser was active in the Monterey gathering; among other things, she arranged for Ms. Newman, her friend and Buddhist meditation partner, to speak. This year she has also been in touch with Rockefeller Financial Services, which handles money for individual Rockefeller family members, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
"There is more money than there has ever been," Ms. Desser says. To tap into it, "I am keeping the tent as wide as possible," she adds. Her strategy is simple: She intends to piggyback on the mainstream environmental movement.
In June, she invited several dozen big West Coast foundations to a biotech briefing in San Francisco and invited as keynote speaker Marc Lappe, a health-policy expert and former academic who is the director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics, in Gualala, Calif. The center is fiercely critical of genetically modified food. Afterward, the Goldman Fund, which gives 40% of its grants to environmental causes, awarded the center $120,000 over a two-year period to produce a white paper to outline ethical concerns surrounding biotechnology and propose a set of ethical guidelines.
"For us, it is a dramatic turning point," Dr. Lappe says. The gift to the center was the Goldman Fund's first major biotech grant, Ms. Lyons says, adding, "We wanted to support a group that is helping to open up and stimulate the debate" about genetically modified food.
Likewise, as a result of her change-of-heart in Monterey, Ms. Wilcox of Common Counsel proposed channeling $5,000 to the American Corn Growers Association, Tulsa, Okla. The grant is pending approval from the board. Gary Goldberg, the association's director, says the group has received a total of $85,000 recently in response to a broad fund-raising push centered on concerns about genetically modified seed corn. The biggest chunk -- $50,000 -- came from the John Merck Fund, a Boston philanthropy with a $200 million endowment that is a major contributor to environmental causes in New England.
The Merck Fund's executive director, Ruth Hennig, says the organization has given several hundred thousand dollars in biotech-related grants for the first time. "There is a lot of money out there trying to convince the public and decision-makers" -- that genetically modified organisms -- "should without question be a part of the food supply, and all we are saying is let the other side of the debate be heard," Ms. Hennig says.
Mr. Goldberg says his group, which represents 14,000 farmers, views itself as neutral on the biotech issue. But farmers, he says, "have gotten only one message from the seed companies and the chemical companies," namely, to stick to planting bioengineered crops. They need to know that they "may consider some alternatives," he says.
The Rockefeller Agenda
The philanthropic-advisory arm of Rockefeller Financial Services has embraced the drive questioning genetically modified food, according to Marcia Townley, an adviser with the firm who helps individual Rockefellers decide where to channel their charitable dollars. Indeed, Rockefeller Financial Services is a member of the Funders Working Group that employs Ms. Desser; it was Ms. Townley who opened the firm's offices to Ms. Desser, other activists and numerous foundation heads in September.
"There are several Rockefeller family members who are concerned about the issues of biotech in agriculture and plants and its impact on the environment and health," Ms. Townley says. "This is a new technology the world has little experience with."
Several months ago, Ms. Townley sent out a letter to several dozen Rockefellers inviting them to pledge money to study the health and environmental implications of genetically modified food. The result: a $200,000 pool of money earmarked to increase awareness of the possible dangers of GM food, she says.
The first grant, $6,000, will cover the cost of a mass mailing to environmental journalists of the summer 1999 issue of the Wild Duck Review, a little-known West Coast publication, which was devoted to allegations about the dangers of biotechnology. The articles went far beyond genetically modified food, raising questions about the patenting of genes and experiments in cloning. One critical piece, "Unnatural Selection or Bad Choice," was written by Ms. Desser. Additional grants will be made after Jan. 1, Ms. Townley says.
As for the Rockefeller Foundation, which was created by the family but isn't otherwise linked to Rockefeller Financial Services, its president, Mr. Conway, is critical of both sides of the issue. The antibiotech movement, he feels, doesn't recognize the beneficial aspects of new seed technology, but the biotech-food industry isn't looking out for the interests of farmers in the developing world.
Indeed, Mr. Conway was influential in persuading Monsanto to withdraw its so-called terminator technology, which would have produced seeds that yield one-generation, sterile crops that would prevent replanting and, he believes, would ill-serve poor farmers by making them beholden to corporate interests for new seeds with each planting.
"Well, we were naive," says Gary Toenniessen, a deputy director at the Rockefeller Foundation, and the foundation failed to realize the degree to which biotech companies were going to be aggressive and gain control of the technology. Mr. Toenniessen says the foundation now suspects the industry doesn't necessarily share its goal of using biotechnology to ease world hunger.
Mr. Conway adds that the foundation made another mistake, failing to predict the extraordinary backlash that would arise abroad. "We were also naive about the extent of the opposition that would arise in Europe," Mr. Conway says. Between these two forces lie the makings, the foundation has come to believe, of a global disaster, threatening to wreck a technology the foundation continues to believe is fundamental to resolving problems of hunger and malnutrition.
Of the $3 million set aside by the Rockefeller Foundation, nearly $200,000 is going to the Hastings Institute, a New York ethics think tank, to study whether an antibiotech movement as emotion-driven as Europe's could take hold in America. Recent evidence suggests the answer is yes.
"Within the past month there were demonstrations in the WTO, where one of the issues was ag-biotech," says Thomas Murray, head of the Hastings Center. "The Food and Drug Administration has been holding hearings around the country, and they are getting demonstrators, and there are all kinds of efforts to foment public concern in the U.S."
The tenor of the debate is crucial to the Rockefeller Foundation, whose broader mission is to end world hunger. As part of that mission, the organization has spent $100 million funding biotech research, including efforts to develop vitamin-enriched rice and to enhance crop yields, all aimed at helping farmers and improving nutrition in poor countries. Now, he says, unless the debate over genetically modified food is intelligent and constructive on both sides, any hype or hysteria could ultimately jeopardize constructive efforts to feed the hungry.
'The Great Middle'
A further $150,000 of the foundation's money will support the work of Carol Tucker Foreman, a distinguished fellow with the Consumer Federation of America, in Washington, D.C. Ms. Foreman wants the government to require labeling and strictly regulate genetically modified foods -- a view the industry opposes. Ms. Foreman, 62, concedes that she is controversial. "I represent the great middle," she says, arguing that if genetically modified food "can be developed in a way that civil society benefits, we should do so, but first you have to demonstrate it is safe."
Another option being weighed by the Rockefeller Foundation: sponsoring a series of "town hall" meetings around the world to foster a dialogue between activists and biotech-food supporters. The foundation is keen to understand the ethical dilemmas, and Mr. Conway believes there are many voices critical of or intrigued by biotechnology that should be heard.
From Ms. Desser's perspective, the Rockefeller Foundation's position on genetically modified food carries a bit more nuance than the stance of some in the Funders Working Group. She believes one key question is whether genetically modified food should exist at all, whereas one focus of the Rockefeller Foundation is how the biotech business should address developing-world issues.
Ms. Newman, for her part, says she expects to give away a sizable sum to the antibiotech cause. She expects to have a pot of more than $400,000 in after-tax profits from Newman's Own to give away this year, though she doesn't yet know precisely how much will go where. "More money will be going to organizations that are going to try to have a total moratorium on the spread of GMOs into the food system," she declares, referring to genetically modified organisms.
Ms. Newman says that because her organic-food business is at stake, funding the activists has become "a save-my-a priority." But she makes it clear that she would rather give away her money "to relieve human suffering" than spend it on safeguarding the tortilla chip.
Write to Lucette Lagnado at firstname.lastname@example.org
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