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Guest Comment: On The Pro-GE Media Lobby

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an article on the manipulation of the media for the purposes of promoting Genetic Engineering. There is no author disclosed. The article is offered for distribution and no copyright is asserted.

For a story that is at heart technical, about the future not the present, the debate about Genetic Modified Foods in New Zealand has claimed a substantial amount of media attention.

“It’s about science” says Act. “If we don’t go ahead New Zealand will become a 3rd world country” says National. “We don’t want frog genes in our potatoes” say Greens.

In this debate, the remarkable news story is being completely ignored. Where are we getting all this conflicting information and why the passions over something probably less than a hundred New Zealanders actually understand?

The real story is about New Zealand’s national sovereignty in defence of its most revered treasure, democracy and freedom of debate.

The real story lies not in the reams of paper collected by the Royal Commission, but in some very dry reading lodged with the United States Security and Exchange Commission, a remarkably candid interim disclosure made by one of the most visible proponents of Genetic Engineering, Monsanto.

Before reviewing it, a brief lesson on modern business is helpful. At one time, gold rushes were about gold, wealth was in owning things, like metals, land and slaves. Later owning the means to create wealth, factories became fashionable. Most recently, however, creating channels where one owns the tollgate is seen as the easiest way to get rich.

The concept of intellectual property was created to reward years of research with subsequent years of return. However, as of late, business has lost the distinction between wealth creation and wealth conversion. Gain a patent, control the market channels and millions of people must pay you a toll, what the market will bear, since the competitive nature of capitalism is locked out by virtue of your exclusive ownership.

So let us now go to the Monsanto SEC report (SEC File 1-16167):

“The family of ROUNDUP herbicides is a major product line. Patents protecting ROUNDUP in several countries expired in 1991, and compound per se patent protection for the active ingredient in ROUNDUP herbicide expired in the United States in September 2000. These herbicides are likely to face increasing competition in the future. . .We expect to increase ROUNDUP sales by focusing on brand premiums, providing unique formulations and services, offering integrated seed and biotech solutions through cross selling and the growth and introduction of ROUNDUP READY crops”

It’s not about science, feeding the third world or finding cures, it’s about loss of patent protection.

However, Monsanto has a problem. Millions of consumers want Personal Computers because PCs greatly extend our capabilities to write, calculate and create. Because of this value to the users, Microsoft gets to charge a huge toll on every PC sold, making Bill Gates one of the richest people in the world. However, people see no huge advantage in eating genetically modified foods. Food is food, and there is nothing compelling to make a consumer want to eat Monsanto’s patented seed foods. For example, on page 31 of a recent Rural News, the national farming newspaper that arrives free in farmers’ mailboxes, in “Tegel goes chicken on GM”, the story reports “independent research revealed that three-quarters of consumers wanted chickens that had not been fed GM soy meal.” Ironically the cover story that week reads “Government giving in to Greens?” a pro-GM story.

The problem Monsanto and its peers face is a huge strategic error. After seeing the huge profits derived from technology coming out of the university computer departments, business rushed over to the biology departments to see what wealth could be mined from these brilliant minds. Billions were invested in transforming genetic lab experiments into product lines. But in the rush to market, the analysts glossed over the fundamental business fact that market-driven demand neither existed, nor was the product compelling enough to generate its own market.

To stave off the looming financial catastrophe, and to salvage the careers of the key influencers who channelled the venture capital in the first place, the industry then turns to a powerful new science, one without a name. Combining traditional fields of advertising and public relations with advanced psychology, sociology and technology, industry “manufactures” public debate.

Again, let’s look at the Monsanto SEC report:

“We continue to address concerns of consumers, public interest groups and government regulators regarding the agricultural and food products developed through biotechnology. We are investing significant amounts in 2000 to address these concerns, including participating in an integrated, industry-wide initiative involving major companies with an interest in agricultural biotechnology. This initiative includes using consumer media to provide consumers with improved information sources on biotechnology.”

“Significant amounts” for a company that in the same report discloses a nine month profit of US$2.3 billion (NZ$5.75 billion) is a lot of money and a lot of influence. “Consumer media” means the New Zealand Herald, among others.

Such initiatives begin by identifying the industry’s objectives, invariably based on pecuniary interest not the common good. They then fund in-depth surveys and studies to determine the key influencers, and the choice of words that sit comfortably with such target groups. Once the strategy is in place, for-hire trusted-advisors are identified who can deliver the selected messages to the key influencers. Such intermediaries are retained, funded by the industry, but usually channelled through international charitable, scientific or academic organisations, which present a mantle of respectability.

The campaign then begins. The message varies by nation. In the UK, appeals to aid third world countries and cure disease are popular. In New Zealand, the fear New Zealand might otherwise become a third world country is used. New Zealand’s insecurity about its international ranking in science, business or other realm of the big boys is another effective message line.

Traditionally, information on debates about safety came from university research, funded by governments to assure the research is unbiased. However, this is changing. Have a look at the transcript from a debate in the British House of Lords, a debate asking for more funding, that incidentally mentions “£2.5 million was awarded for plant and microbial genomics to provide help for those making decisions about GM foods”:

“First, I declare an interest in this debate as the Dean of the Business School at the University of Leeds. I want to make a few introductory remarks about some of the things going on in my university in order to make the point that the issues that many of us are raising in this debate are not a whinge; they are not simply a plea for more, without thought; they arise from universities that are doing enormously good work and getting on with the job. But that does not mean that they are not serious problems that need to be addressed.

"In my university, which has some 26,000 students, external research awards were obtained during the past 12 months totalling some £66 million, an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year, and about £2.5 million was awarded for plant and microbial genomics to provide help for those making decisions about GM foods.” (http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199900/ldhansrd/vo 99 1208/text/91208-04.htm)

Note: Lord Woolmer of Leeds did not say the funding was for pure research. He said it was to “provide help for those making decisions about GM foods”. In other words, the private sector bought the mantle of respectability specifically to influence consumers, public interest groups and government regulators.

Now, the industry will protest, saying it is only defending itself against the Luddite attacks on their industry by an uninformed rabble of Greens, hippies and anarchists. However, again the industry’s own reports cause one to question this.

One of the key stock phrases the National Party uses is “robust safety procedures”, presuming we are capable, qualified and funded to control such a new, fast-moving industry. The problems with safety are about the unknown, not just the known. In the wake of the unprecedented horror of the American hijackings, a leading security expert was interviewed by USA Today. “This type of hijacking has never been seen before. . .” “This has never really happened before like this. We all will have to take a new look at security. . .” “We've never seen this happen before. This may change all the rules. . .”

Remember the Space Shuttle report which read “. . .Explosion 73 seconds after liftoff claimed crew and vehicle. Cause of explosion was an O-ring failure in right SRB. Cold weather was a contributing factor." The Rogers report noted: "It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management...” “NASA managers were anxious to launch the Challenger for several reasons, including economic considerations, political pressures, and scheduling backlogs. . .”

Does this apply to GM? The same internet search (Google keywords financial analysis Monsanto investment in genetic,) turned up a speech given to the Monsanto Board of Directors by Rockefeller Foundation’s Prof. Gordon Conway in the quarter just prior to that covered by the SEC report:

“The rush to get products to market has led to mistakes, misunderstanding and a backlash against plant technology. Biotechnology could be one key to food security in the next century. But unless there is a conscious effort to proceed at a pace that is gradual enough to observe unforeseen effects - before they do harm, that is - this rush may remove the opportunity to benefit from biotechnology. . .

“Others point out that the new genes added to GM crops might escape via pollen to nearby weeds or other plants and the sudden changes would significantly disrupt the environment. This is a legitimate concern. For example, in 1993 a group of scientists advising the Rockefeller Foundation's rice biotechnology program concluded that the likelihood of gene transfer from cultivated rice to weedy relatives that exist in Asia is of sufficient magnitude that over the long term some gene transfer probably will occur among closely related species. They recommended that field test facilities be designed with an extra degree of caution and be located at considerable distances from any wild relatives.”

“A further area of concern has to do with plants that are modified to contain genes from viral pathogens of crops which might exchange these genes with other viral pathogens, creating entirely new viral strains with unknown properties. An epidemic of African Cassava Mosaic Virus currently devastating the cassava crop in East Africa has been shown to be the result of natural recombination. Researchers need to make sure that viral genes added to a plant to confer resistance do not also lead to the creation of new viruses. Researchers are designing strategies for reducing such the risk. But until the mechanisms involved are better understood, this type of transgenic crop needs to be used cautiously and monitored closely.”

Yet, in the Monsanto SEC report, this warning is not heeded. Again we quote Monsanto:

“Technological Change and Competition: A number of companies are engaged in plant biotechnology research. Technological advances by others could render our products less competitive. In addition, the ability to be first to market a new product can result in a significant competitive advantage. We believe that competition will intensify, not only from agricultural biotechnology firms but from major agrichemical, seed and food companies with biotechnology laboratories. Some of our agricultural competitors have substantially greater financial, technical and marketing resources than we do.”

The pressure to be first when billions of dollars are at stake has been proven to reduce risk assessments by the professionals from one explosion in a hundred tries to one explosion in a hundred thousand. When the explosion occurs within the first 100 tries, it’s too late. A blow out in GM in a nation that derives 60% of its income from agriculture causes one to question the reliability of relying on “robust safety procedures”. After all NASA invented the concept of layer on layer, step by step, countdown safety procedures, yet a simple O-ring and too cold a morning produced the mother of all space disasters. What makes New Zealand believe in an industry far more complex, and with far more variables unknown, it is capable of operating safety procedures superior to the best and brightest of the USA? And why is this our problem in the first place? If the record of other inventions is any guide, the US will buy out any patents derived by New Zealanders long before they are exploited.

The reason that industry is focusing its attention on New Zealand is two-fold. First the Royal Commission called their attention to this far distant land. The last thing the industry needs is European Greens to be shoving a No-GM study from New Zealand into the public eye. Also, New Zealand is a great place to do field tests. Genomes jump, jump from plants to weeds, and no engineer or biologist alive can accurately predict the effects of recombination. If something goes wrong in New Zealand, it’s safe because the 1,500 miles of open sea should contain the disaster… just close the world’s airports and ports to flights and ships from New Zealand. Of course, “safe” as used herein is a relative term, meaning safe for the global economy. An unanticipated genome jump could devastate New Zealand’s economy, like the epidemic of African Cassava Mosaic Virus is currently devastating the cassava crop in East Africa, but in the global context this is survivable. New Zealand as collateral damage might be upsetting for us, but at 0.05% of the world’s population, it is a reasonable calculated risk for them, not for us. So with all this concern on the downside, and little real return on the upside, why the battle in the media? The answer is found in the Monsanto SEC report. It’s about patents and profits.

The real story the media should be investigating in the great New Zealand GM debate is a story tracking money. How many of the submissions to the Royal Commission were funded directly by the “integrated, industry-wide initiative involving major companies with an interest in agricultural biotechnology"? What “facts” imbedded in the submissions were funded by this “integrated, industry-wide initiative involving major companies with an interest in agricultural biotechnology”? How many New Zealanders have been employed, contracted or influenced by this “integrated, industry-wide initiative involving major companies with an interest in agricultural biotechnology”? How much money has indirectly funded the barrage of words, claims and information?

The problem with getting these answers has to do with the extent to which the initiative uses the system. Like the Normans who conquered England, what they lacked in numbers, they overcame through control of the pressure points within the system… political acupuncture. The GM forces lack the votes, and in a free democracy, their excesses would be curbed by the democratic and capitalist systems.

However, because the checks and balances system has failed, we are witnessing a battle being fought far from the board rooms where the red ink should be flowing. This is fundamentally an American issue, but New Zealand has become a pawn in the battle. It is no accident the newspapers feature story after story on the GM battle. Well-educated, well-paid people are executing a careful campaign using American money and carefully selected Kiwi key influencers.

The protection of the people lies in information, and its voice, the news reporters who ferret out the truth. That system has not been corrupted, but it has been manipulated. Editors and reporters will ask the tough questions when prodded. But they must see the issue as one of national sovereignty, not a replay of 60’s hippies vs their grey fathers’ establishment.

So, let us conclude with a challenge to the media. Probably less than 1% of the people involved in this debate could actually discuss with any knowledge, the subject matter of engineering of genes. Where is all the focus coming from, and who is paying for the information? Is there any connection between the money Monsanto says it is spending with the sources of your stories?

We predict in this question you will find a much bigger story: a story about New Zealand sovereignty.


COPYRIGHT AND SOURCE NOTE: The above writing and any copyright is released by the author into the public domain, no reference to the author is appropriate or permitted. Please feel free to distribute widely. Please feel free to edit appropriately. Please feel free to publish in newspapers, advertisements or the web. Please try to approach the debate from a non-partisan, non-political position. The subject matter is serious, and we need to have every person who eats, or who feeds a child, to give the subject the attention it deserves.


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