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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (29 April 1999)

Food giants turn ge-free

{transcript from Environment News 1999L-04.HTM]

Giant Companies to Phase Out Biotech Foods

LONDON, UK, April 28, 1999 - The world's two largest food production companies are withdrawing their acceptance of genetically modified foodstuffs. Foods giant Unilever UK said Tuesday it would phase out genetically engineered foods, a move that was closely followed by a similar announcement by Nestle UK tonight.

Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch firm, sells over 1,000 brands of foods through 300 subsidiary companies in 88 countries world-wide with products on sale in a further 70 countries. Nestle, headquartered in Switzerland, is the world's largest food production company with 495 factories around the world.

Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (Photo courtesy Nestle)

The announcement by Nestle UK has major implications for the company's international production system, as most of its centralised production facilities produce for the entire European market and not for the UK alone.

The announcements are in response to continued demonstrations by European consumers of a strong resistance to foods containing genetically modified crops. In February, an unprecedented wave of debate on genetic technologies in agriculture swept the country, putting the government and biotechnology firms firmly on the defensive. Fears were founded on research that showed experimental rats had been harmed by eating modified potatoes.

Greenpeace spokesperson Benedikt Haerlin said the Nestle and Unilever announcements represent a major victory for European citizens. "When Monsanto's first GE (genetically engineered) soya beans were shipped to Europe Nestle, Unilever and Monsanto told us there was no way to stop having GE ingredients in our food. Three years later they have learned that there is no way to ignore the concerns and demands of the majority of consumers," said Haerlin.

"With Nestle and Unilever, the two biggest food producers in the world, have now broken ranks with international agro-chemical companies like by Monsanto, Du Pont/Pioneer, Novartis and AgrEvo and started a stampede out of GE food," said Haerlin.

Chairman of Unilever N.V. Morris Tabaksblat (Photo courtesy Unilever)

The UK's Iceland Stores is opposed to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods and has banned all GM ingredients from their own-brand products. Other supermarkets have followed Iceland's lead. Marks and Spencer's own-brand products will be GM free by the end of June 1999. Charles, the Prince of Wales, has come out against genetically engineered crops, saying, "I am not convinced we know enough about the long-term consequences for human health and the environment of releasing plants (or, heaven forbid, animals) bred in this way."

"I suspect that planting herbicide resistant crops will lead to more chemicals being used on our fields, not fewer. But this isn't the whole story," the Prince said. "Such sterile fields will offer little or no food or shelter to wildlife, and there is already evidence that the genes for herbicide resistance can spread to wild relatives of crop plants, leaving us with weeds resistant to weedkiller."

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth UK has criticized U.S. biotech giant Monsanto for trying to use the law to deter public debate and protest over genetically modified food.

Monsanto has obtained an injunction against six named defendants. The company asked the High Court April 19 to order the defendants to hand over a mailing list of recipients of a "Handbook For Action." The Handbook, which outlines ways of protesting against genetically engineered foods, is believed to have been sent to public figures including Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles and the Pope. Monsanto's intention may be to target any individual or organisation who might be held to have "encouraged" direct action against genetically modified (GM) crops, by for example, publishing details of trial sites, Friends of the Earth believes.

In the United States such legal action is known as a SLAPP (Strategic Action Against Public Participation) lawsuit, a tactic sometimes used by large companies facing environmental protests.

Genetically modified corn (Photo courtesy the Prince of Wales)

Friends of the Earth would consider such an order a gross intrusion of civil liberties and "one which would bring our system of justice into disrepute," the group said in a statement.

Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, said, "Monsanto have lost the public arguments over GM crops, and are now resorting to legal strong-arm tactics in response. I'm not the least bit surprised, given Monsanto's track record. They would be better advised to accept the failure of their marketing strategy and to accept the opinion of the British public who do not want GM food foisted upon them."

The first farm to take part in the UK government's farm scale trials of GM crops may be forced to plough up seed that it planted over the Easter weekend. Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to suspend farm scale trials of genetically modified crops at Lushill Farm, in Hannington, near Swindon, Wiltshire following revelations that AgrEvo, the company undertaking the trials, appears to have broken the law by not informing local people of its plans. AgrEvo, now plans to notify the local public. But it has already planted GM seed on the farm and that the law requires GM seed firms to notify the public prior to planting.

[transcipt for educational not-profit purposes only]

ecoglobe [yinyang] news (29 April 1999)
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