Planet Waves | How England Kicked Out Monsanto | By Eric Francis



Crop circle in a wheat field near Stonehenge, Wilts, England, July 7, 1996. Photo from Crop Circle Connector.

How The UK Defeated
Genetically Modified Foods

Planet Waves for October 2000
by Eric Francis

Related Article: It's Life, But Not As We Know It

The first time I ever heard of Monsanto was when I was a kid visiting Disney World, where the company sponsored a free movie. I don't remember what it was about, but it was one of those American Dreamy corporate propaganda flicks about how fabulous life is, with the company logo tacked on. That made a good impression. It did on millions of Americans.

The second time I heard of Monsanto was Dec. 29, 1991, when their products exploded and burned on a college campus near where I was working as a journalist. Just a few pounds of their miracle electrical insulation product, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), shut down a whole campus for 31 days and some buildings for years, immediately sent 27 people to the hospital, contaminated hundreds of others, and ultimately caused, at minimum, $50 million in property damage. Toxins spread into the earth, air and groundwater. The health damage is still an unknown and the campus has, as of today, not been cleaned up all the way; to do so would cost hundreds of millions more dollars. Meanwhile, students stew in the toxins, and hardly anybody knows about it.

The third time I heard of Monsanto was when I learned about its foray into the genetic engineering business. Monsanto had graduated from creating industrial chemicals that, as a side-effect they understood but did not tell us about, rewrote the scripts and codes of life. They went on to creating products that did so intentionally. Monsanto's dioxins (a waste product), PCBs (a multi-purpose product manufactured between 1929 and 1977) and herbicides (widely used to this day, and often contaminated with dioxins) find their way into our human bodies and alter genetic information and hormone functioning. This creates birth defects and an insane variety of cancers, endocrine disorders and their associated sexual and metabolic diseases. When I learned that Monsanto scientists were at work cutting-and-pasting genetic code and patching together new forms of life that they planned to turn loose on the world, spending billions on the project, I knew it was not a good thing.

Given that each new day of my life at that point brought ten or twenty revelations about the company's extremely well-documented and truly stunning conduct, which included (for example) repeatedly fabricating cancer research, testing supertoxins on unwitting human subjects and allowing tons of dioxin-tainted Lysol disinfectant onto the market, we were in for trouble. But it was beyond my wildest hopes that the truth would come out in time to make a difference.

But then I started hearing about struggles in the UK to stop genetically modified foods. And then I started hearing about how these struggles were actually getting someplace. Europe, following England's lead, both at the grassroots level and through the European Community, was demanding not just labeling of genetically-altered foods, but also that they not be fed the stuff at all. I was overjoyed. But it was only until recently that I paused to ask myself a question that might not seem to matter to most people: Why the UK?

Each time I meditated on the question, a picture of a crop circle flashed into my mind. Crop circles are intricate geometric patterns that suddenly appear in fields of grain, and there have been a lot of them showing up in the UK, particularly England, in recent decades. Nobody has come up with a good explanation for where these things come from, they are too vast and intricate for people to make in a rush-job, and there have been many of them. They are the result of some entity, whether human or otherwise, speaking in symbols through fields of grain. With crop circles, we can look at food in its natural state, and wonder about the nature of reality. And as I gathered my research for this article and the follow-ups to come, crop circle images were never far from my thoughts.

I began corresponding with a British writer and ecological activist named Merrick, to whom I was introduced by AOL-UK/Mystic Gardens writer G.T. Oakley. I put the question to Merrick: Why the UK? Merrick had some grounded insights.

"Firstly, for the last five years there have been numerous environmental direct action campaigns," he writes in his newest article, It's Life, But Not As We Know It. "Whilst those campaigns have been focused on other issues (mostly road-building), they have familiarised the public with the idea of direct action, and have generated a lot of sympathy towards it for addressing issues ignored by the short-term and urban-based thinking of professional politics."

Translation: People in the UK tend to care about the issues, at least more than Americans do, and they are accustomed to the idea that people can in fact do something when there is a problem. There is real dialog between people, and in the press. This is something that is grossly missing from United States life, and because it's been missing for many years, people don't exactly notice.

"The second key factor," writes Merrick, "is the string of food scares that have hit the UK over the last 10-15 years. Every year or two there's a major news story about a threat to public health through food. Salmonella in eggs, botulism in yogurt, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or 'mad cow disease') causing the human equivalent Creutzfeld Jakob Disease ('CJD', which leaves people's brains literally rotting inside their skulls), E-coli in cooked meats, and the list goes on. (Incidentally, many people have noticed how these things are always problems with animal products).

"The campaign against GM tapped into the fears that the food scares have created," Merrick continues, "and a large part of the discussion was concerned with the unknown effect of putting new and unnatural genetic combinations into the genetic organism of humans. Environmental concerns were given a good airing, and so were some of the questions of morality, spirituality and principle, but the focus is more on the immediate and self-concerned issue of food."

Spiritual Leader Jerry Falwell.
AP photo

Merrick mentions morality as it is associated with altering the structure of life for corporate profit. In America, "morality" is still about the sinfulness of reproduction, which is telling, since genetic engineering is a reproductive issue if there ever was one. Here in the States, there is commonplace violent murder (more than 50,000 shooting deaths a year as compared to about 100 in England), poverty, homelessness and disease, and the only thing you can create a moral crisis over is sex. Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubbie who lived in peace for years on the British airwaves, pocketbook and all, is a case in point. When he arrived in the States, evangelist Jerry Falwell was able to raise a hue and cry from the public by accusing a cartoon character of being homosexual.

"As a Christian I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children," Falwell said in February 1999. With this kind of moral leadership, can you blame Americans for not understanding that genetically mutated foods are a moral concern that should really be thundered from the pulpits across the land on Sunday mornings? Need I state the obvious here?

Merrick explains that in the UK there is both understanding by the media and cooperation among environmental groups that has helped immensely. It helps that in England, environmental groups are not automatically perceived as being bands of troublemaking hoodlums whose only job is to take away jobs by participating in the Communist conspiracy against the American Dream.

"All of these issues have been understood and publicised by the environmental groups in the UK, with it being the highest priority issue for centralised Greenpeace, localised Friends of the Earth, and the autonomous direct action groups like Earth First!. The co-operation between these groups has also been impressive, and this has added to the strength and effectiveness of the campaign. While each of the groups have done work under their own name, there have also been new groups formed, often comprised largely of people from these established organisations, but because they're under a specifically anti-GM banner they feel more able to work together without having to refer to established methods and concerns."

Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Health and Environment newsletter offered the insight that many living Europeans still remember the handiwork of Adolph Hitler, one of whose hallmarks was creating the superior race and exterminating everyone else. Creating the superior race of tomatoes is not so different than creating the superior race of people. Many living Britons personally sat under the rain of Hitler's bombs, and lived for many years after the war on skimpy rations as they rebuilt their devastated nation. To borrow the current coinage, people in England, and indeed Europe at large, know that "shit happens." For Americans, the corresponding phrase is, "television happens."

"Many Europeans -- as distinct from many Americans -- care about the taste and nutritional quality of their food and drink," Montague continues. "Many Americans seem happy to subsist on french fried potatoes and iceberg lettuce accompanied by huge portions of low-grade, fat-laden beef. Many Europeans consider such fare barbaric." Indeed, throughout Germany, "Bio" foods, planted by the lunar calendar and grown without pesticides, are part of everyday life.

But Montague and others note that there was also compelling scientific evidence emerging from the UK that people were listening to.

"The first tentative evidence of health damage from GM foods emerged" in February 1999, Montague wrote. "Beginning in 1996, Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland had been feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats and observing stunted growth and damaged immune systems, including damage to several major organs (kidney, spleen, thymus and stomach). Dr. Pusztai was a senior scientist at the Rowett Institute, having conducted research there for 35 years, during which time he published 270 scientific papers Although he is not categorically opposed to genetic engineering, in an April 1998 TV appearance, Dr. Pusztai said he would not eat genetically modified foods himself and he said it was 'very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs'."

Apparently Dr. Pusztai is one of the big reasons why GM food is not well received in the UK. He thinks the problems have something to do with the fact that in order to move bits of DNA around you have to use viruses (which are problematic themselves). One can never tell where a genetically modified gene is going to end up, and what effect the DNA it's carrying will have on the neighboring genes in any one specific case. Some will do what you expected, some won't. The analogy of a blind person shooting arrows is pretty appropriate. Monsanto has been trying really hard to discredit Dr. Pusztzi and invalidate his research to allay the fears of European consumers. It has not worked.

More problems emerge every week. There is the issue of "superweeds," plants that become invincible to herbicides because they mate with plants that are engineered to be invincible to those herbicides (which means Monsanto and others sell more chemicals). In the US there now 80 kinds of superweeds. In the UK there are 19 varieties, and in Canada there are 32. There are hundreds worldwide. Some are resistant to three different chemicals. They can only be killed by applying Agent Orange, a dioxin-tainted product currently made by Monsanto under the name 2,4-D.

One of the tricks of genetic food modification is to turn the plants into insecticides, such as a potato that is lethal to the potato beetle. Supposedly, they are perfectly harmless to humans, just like all other kinds of perfectly harmless insecticides. According to New Scientist magazine, insect-killing toxins secreted from genetically modified corn plants leach into the soil and persist for weeks, which can have a tremendous impact on very delicate soil ecology, and which kills friendly insects that are part of the life-cycle. But these kinds of issues seem to stir the British more than they do the Americans. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that literacy is valued in England and Europe far more than it is in the United States.

But in the end, seeking an answer for why it happened there and not here, my mind is more at rest with the numinous.

England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are enchanted places. Deep within the psyche of the people is a respect and love of nature and an embracing of mysticism that has no parallel in the United States. Most of us simply cannot imagine this. Mysticism suggests a deep reverence for life and an understanding that if anything is sacred, it is the coding and structure of living creatures. This respect is rooted in the land, and in the relationship between the people and the land. I am not saying that residents of the British Isles are perfect people, but I am saying that they have something that most transplanted Europens in America distinctly don't have.

The British astrologer Robin Heath points out that the UK 1801 horoscope is within hours of the discovery chart of the asteroid Ceres, which, were it discovered today, would be classified as a planet. Astrologer Melanie Reinhart, the London-based Chiron and small planet specialist, gives this chain of associations: "Ceres = cereal = cereal crops = crop circles = grain goddess = Demeter/Persephone = queen of the asteroids," who was, incredibly, discovered the very day that the modern United Kingdom was formed. Ceres is one of the great goddesses, whose realm is that of food.

Then there is the crop circle connection. I asked Melanie and was not surprised to get this answer. "Walking one day in a crop circle (a truly amazing experience) I suddenly 'got' that these geometric forms, whether made by known human or other agency, are the expression of a force of spirit that is changing the molecular structure of the grain, and by symbolic extension, a lot else besides. I believe there is research being done about this. So, in our typically Faustian way, the GM issue represents humanity trying to transform something, rather than allowing itself to be transformed, i.e., DOING instead of BEING."

Apparently, citizens of the United Kingdom and their European neighbors, given their impressive performance of blocking Monsanto from taking over the entire food supply, are a lot better at both than are Americans.++

Additional research by Debbe Faulhaber and Rob Heyn

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