Antibiotech Effort Bloomed Despite
Little Funding and Lack of Consensus

By Steve Stecklow, staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal
Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal
November 30, 1999

It was a chance meeting in Washington 13 years ago that led Benedikt Haerlin to take up the fight against bioengineered food.

Mr. Haerlin, then a German Green Party member serving in the European Parliament, had come to Washington with a delegation to discuss social-security programs. He was staying in a shared house, and one of the tenants suggested that he might want to meet her boss.

Her boss was Jeremy Rifkin, a Washington activist and corporate gadfly who had been sounding alarms about the potential risks of biotechnology since 1976, but with little success. Mr. Rifkin briefed the young German on his concerns.

"The thing that I remember touched me most was that there was a completely new and artificial way to alter and create creatures," Mr. Haerlin, now 42 years old, says over lunch in Berlin. "And that it was actually being done without a lot of people really knowing or caring about it."

That meeting had a profound impact on Mr. Haerlin -- and, ultimately, on the world's agricultural and biotech industries. Mr. Haerlin went on to lead Greenpeace's international campaign to stop the production and sale of bioengineered food. Mr. Rifkin began making regular trips to Europe, seeking more allies. What emerged was an unusual coalition of environmental, consumer, farm, church and nature groups. And by the time the European Union decided in April 1996 to allow Monsanto Co. to begin selling genetically modified soybeans in Europe, an activist network was already well-versed on the issue and ready to pounce.

The movement has since created widespread controversy, catching many multinational corporations and governments off-guard. Concerned that bioengineered food crops such as corn and soybeans could have unintended environmental and health effects, activists have managed to stir up consumers and prod European food manufacturers and retailers to reformulate thousands of products -- everything from hamburger rolls to chocolate -- to rid them of genetically modified ingredients.

This, in turn, has had reverberations in the U.S., where once-indifferent consumers are awakening to the European controversy. American farmers and food exporters, threatened by a loss of sales to Europe, are now rethinking their widespread adoption of genetically altered seeds.

As it turns out, the campaign against bioengineered food in Europe hasn't been particularly well-organized or highly financed (Greenpeace International has budgeted just $250,000 for it this year). Indeed, many organizers were slow to respond, doubting at first that they could have much impact; some remain surprised by the magnitude of their success.

Ironically, it was an American who stirred their interest. Before his meeting with Mr. Haerlin, Mr. Rifkin had been a voice in the wilderness. In 1977, he and a partner were running a nonprofit educational organization called the Peoples Business Commission, a group that described itself as "dedicated to challenging the abuses of corporate power and to mobilizing public support for democratic alternatives to the present economic system."

That year, Mr. Rifkin and his partner published "Who Should Play God?" -- a deliberately alarmist book that told of new advances in genetic engineering that could lead to the creation of new life forms. Those life forms "may be as destructive to humanity as the horrors of nuclear holocaust," the book warned.

The book made few mentions of genetically engineered food; what references there were focused mostly on a bizarre-sounding experiment by a General Electric Co. scientist to create a special tablet that could allow people to "eat and digest hay, like cows." The book noted that the tablet "might even be introduced, initially, as a new food alternative for welfare recipients on food stamps."

The scientist, A.M. Chakrabarty, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the book gave an overly simplistic description of his project, which was ultimately scrapped. He says that he never suggested targeting welfare recipients. "This is what he invented to incite people," he says of Mr. Rifkin. Mr. Rifkin says he stands by the book's account.

During the 1980s, Mr. Rifkin continued hammering the biotechnology issue, while turning his organization into more of a think tank. The organization, renamed the Foundation on Economic Trends, became "less pop and much more policy oriented," he says. His intent, he adds, was to stir up public debate on what he views as a radical experiment on the natural world that is driven by commercial interests.

Mr. Rifkin organized protests and mounted legal attacks on the biotech industry and the federal government, challenging gene patents and stalling several research projects, including testing of a genetically engineered, ice-resistant bacterium that was to have been sprayed on strawberry plants and potatoes. He also organized, with some success, a boycott of bovine growth hormone, a biotech milk booster for cows that later was banned in Europe, though not in the U.S.

The Royal 'We'

Although Mr. Rifkin often was quoted in the news media, and talks of his work in those years in the royal "we," he failed to gain the support of most major environmental groups, which were focusing instead on petrochemical pollution, nuclear power and other issues. "We worked fairly alone," he says. "It was rough."

At that time, most environmental groups, especially in Europe, were hopeful that genetically modified crops could reduce pesticide use, Mr. Rifkin says. In fact, some bioengineered corn and other altered crops do contain built-in insecticides. But Mr. Rifkin and many groups argue that the technology has failed to live up to its early promise. They say that making every plant into a bug-killer is equivalent to dousing every stalk with insecticide, and increases the likelihood of killing beneficial insects. Moreover, they note, some bioengineered soybeans are designed to resist herbicides, allowing farmers to blanket a field with chemicals without killing the soybean plants.

Some Europeans, notably Mr. Haerlin, agreed with Mr. Rifkin early on. When Mr. Haerlin met Mr. Rifkin in 1986, the German activist hadn't yet started working for Greenpeace. But he was impressed by Mr. Rifkin's arguments, and when he returned to Germany, he founded the Gene Ethics Network, a small group that distributed information about biotechnology.

The Specter of Eugenics

The group initially focused on broad topics, such as whether companies should be allowed to receive patents on genes, rather than on the issue of genetically modified food. In Germany, Mr. Haerlin says, the debate over biotechnology largely centered on human applications, such as gene screening for diseases and artificial reproduction. That's because those issues raised the specter of eugenics, always a sensitive issue in the country where Hitler had championed the idea of a master race.

When Mr. Haerlin joined Greenpeace in 1991, he became a coordinator for the German office's campaign against toxic chemicals and pesticides. At that time, the environmental organization viewed genetically modified food as an issue to be fought down the road. A fund-raising leaflet sent to Greenpeace members in Britain in 1991, presciently titled "Battles Yet to Come," predicted, "Issues surrounding genetic engineering may well become the central battleground of environmental campaigning in the last years of this century."

Meanwhile, Mr. Rifkin was slowly finding new converts in Europe. One of them was Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French corporate raider who, after a career of acquiring timber, paper, oil and other interests, devoted his final years to environmental causes and politics. Mr. Rifkin says the billionaire invited him to his vast Mexican compound in 1990 to discuss biotechnology. "Jimmy was keen on it and saw it was going to become a big issue in Europe. A very big issue," Mr. Rifkin says.

'The Trap'

Soon after, Sir James began contributing about $30,000 a year to Mr. Rifkin's foundation. Until that time, Mr. Rifkin says his organization was funded largely through his own lecture fees and book royalties.

Sir James, who died in 1997, acknowledged Mr. Rifkin in the 1993 book "The Trap," which tapped a nerve in the European psyche and became a bestseller in France. The contrarian treatise laid out a series of arguments against genetically engineered food: In one chapter, titled "Modern Agriculture and the Destruction of Society," he posited that insects would build up resistance to biotech seeds, resulting in the increased use of pesticides.

Sir James's brother, Teddy, a longtime environmental activist in Britain, also took up the cause against bioengineered food. "The Ecologist," a magazine he has published for three decades, devoted an entire issue last year to attacking Monsanto, in response to a pro-biotech public-relations campaign by the U.S. company in Britain. The issue, reprinted in other languages, has been widely distributed in Europe.

Teddy Goldsmith, a self-professed radical who argues that the real issue of bioengineered food is "corporate domination" of agriculture by the handful of companies that design the seeds, says his family's foundation has underwritten several organizations that are battling bioengineered food, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The groups say the contributions have been modest, about $50,000 each; Teddy Goldsmith and his family's foundation decline to specify the amounts.

Threat to Organic Farming

One unlikely beneficiary was the Soil Association, a 53-year-old British organization of organic farmers, producers and consumers that rarely got involved in activist campaigns. Although the group initially took a neutral position, by 1994 it had decided that bioengineered food posed a threat to organic farming, in part out of fear that the crops could introduce dangerous new traits to wild species or soil bacteria. "The more we knew, the more worried we got," says Patrick Holden, a Welsh farmer and the group's director. The group successfully lobbied the British government, and later the European Union, to require that an organic food product, by definition, couldn't contain any bioengineered ingredients.

Other, better-known environmental groups were much slower to act. As recently as 1995, some organizers within Greenpeace still weren't sure the bioengineered-food issue was worth fighting, because a few bioengineered products already were headed for the marketplace. "Some people thought, isn't that a done deal already? Can we make any difference anymore?" Mr. Haerlin recalls. The group's U.S. affiliate -- beset by poor management, staff cutbacks and declining membership -- essentially decided to sit out, he adds. Friends of the Earth also opted to hold off. "We didn't prioritize it, because there were just so many other things going on: tropical rain forest, climate change, toxics, road building, domestic waste issues and recycling," says Tony Juniper, the group's policy director in London.

Springing Into Action

That all changed in 1996 and 1997, when food containing genetically modified ingredients began appearing in European supermarkets, and consumers took notice. At that point, activists in Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other groups began taking the issue much more seriously.

Greenpeace, with about 15 full-time campaigners led by Mr. Haerlin, began educating consumers, organizing boycotts of genetically modified products and staging demonstrations in Britain, Germany and Denmark, among other actions. Nature groups in Britain urged the government not to approve the planting of genetically modified crops.

Despite the publicity, Mr. Holden says, as of early last year most British consumers had only a "vague idea" about bioengineered food and, as in the U.S., many didn't really care about the issue.

But in June 1998, Britain's Prince Charles, who practices organic farming himself and is the patron of the Soil Association, attacked genetically modified food in an emotional article in Britain's Daily Telegraph. Explaining that he wouldn't eat such food or knowingly give it to his family or guests, he wrote, "I happen to believe that this kind of genetic engineering takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone."

Royal Repercussions

The prince's surprise article helped unleash a fury against genetically modified, or GM, food in Britain, and that sentiment carried over to the Continent. British tabloid newspapers launched anti-GM campaigns, labeling it "Frankenstein food." Activists ripped up fields of bioengineered crops. Shoppers flooded supermarket hotlines, prompting the stores to pledge to rid their own brands of GM ingredients.

Even Paul McCartney got into the act. After a BBC news program reported in February that his late wife's line of ready-made vegetarian meals contained traces of genetically modified soybeans, the musician spent $5 million to rid the product line of all soya. He even announced new packaging with the words, "Say No to GMO," a reference to genetically modified organisms.

"Today you can ask a cabbie in London -- anybody -- and they'll say, 'I don't like it,' " says the Soil Association's Mr. Holden.

Now, European activists such as Mr. Haerlin are helping to plan the next phase of their campaign against biotech food, this time in the U.S. Mr. Rifkin, now 54 and still operating on his own, has no doubt it will succeed.

Genetically modified food, Mr. Rifkin predicts, will become "the single greatest failure in the history of capitalism in introducing a new technology into the marketplace."

Write to Steve Stecklow at

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