Greenpeace India announced in November 2004 that Bayer CropScience has ended efforts to commercialize genetically engineered (GE) crops in India. Bayer’s announcement came after weeks of protests, including an 11- hour protest in Mumbai, during which Greenpeace activists chained themselves to Bayer headquarters and unfurled banners proclaiming, “Bayer Poisons Our Food.”
Bayer’s intention to withdraw from GE research in India was expressed in a letter to the environmental organization on Nov. 4, in which the agrochemical giant admitted that “the future lies in conventional breeding.” Greenpeace termed Bayer’s withdrawal “an admission of immense significance for the entire genetic engineering industry.”
Bayer is one of the leading agro-chemical companies of the world, holding nearly one fourth of the market share in the Indian pesticides industry (22 percent) with 52 products, including formulations.
The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in India disclosed earlier this year that Pro Agro (a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer) had conducted field trials of cabbage and cauliflower that were genetically modified with the controversial Cry9C gene. This gene is one of a family of crystalline (Cry) endotoxin proteins produced by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium. The Bt gene is inserted into GE crops to kill pests by disrupting their digestive system. Because Cry9C is less affected by heat than other Cry proteins, and is resistant to degradation by gastric juices, it is considered likely to cause allergic reactions in humans and was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as unfit for human consumption.
The Cry9C gene protein is present in StarLink corn, which was widely grown in the U.S. for animal feed and industrial purposes and in 2000 was found in 300 corn food products in U.S. grocery stores. The contamination caused massive recalls and lawsuits that may ultimately cost Aventis, StarLink’s developer and a subsidiary of Bayer, as much as $1 billion in damages.
In the last few years, the Bush administration has moved to loosen U.S. regulations regarding contamination of food with experimental genetic material, reducing the liability of biotech companies for transgenic contamination. Most recently, on Nov. 19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a new guidance for industry that would allow companies to voluntarily consult with the FDA in order to have their experimental biotech traits deemed “acceptable” as contaminants in food.
The draft guidance states, “FDA believes that any potential risk from the low level presence of such material in the food supply would be limited to the possibility that it would contain or consist of a new protein that might be an allergen or toxin.”
However, Friends of the Earth and others argue that no level of this contamination is safe, noting that after StarLink was found in the food supply, expert scientific advisors to the EPA concluded, “there was no minimal level of StarLink’s Cry9C insecticidal protein that could be judged safe for human consumption.”
While FDA regulations may encourage GE experimentation in the U.S., the difficulties encountered by biotech companies in other parts of the world appear to be having an effect. Bayer’s retreat from testing GE crops in India is only its most recent demur. In March the company pulled out of GE crop research in the UK, and in June it dropped plans to commercialize GE canola in Australia. Monsanto has also limited its research and testing of GE foods, discontinuing plans for GE wheat in the U.S. and Canada and for GE canola in Australia earlier this year.
Greenpeace credits consumers for this turnaround, “It is clear that popular resistance to genetic engineering is not diminishing as the industry had hoped it would,” said Doreen Stabinsky, of Greenpeace International. “No matter what country we’re talking about, consumers are on the same page. They don’t want to eat genetically engineered food. That’s good news for farmers and good news for the environment.”
PANUPS is a weekly news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don’t always get coverage by the mainstream media. It’s produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.
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