To be sure, genetically engineered food is still selling briskly on grocery shelves in the United States but probably only because GE products are not labeled, so consumers have no idea what they're buying.
At present, an estimated two-thirds of all products for sale in U.S. grocery stores contain GE (also known as genetically modified, or GM) crops, none of which are labeled as such. However, polls show that U.S. consumers overwhelmingly want GE foods labeled.
In a Time magazine poll in January, 1999, 81 percent of respondents said genetically engineered foods should be labeled. Legislation requiring labels on GE foods was introduced into Congress last November by a bipartisan group of 20 legislators.
For five years the GE food industry has been saying their foods couldn't be labeled because it would require segregating GE from non-GE crops -- a practical impossibility, they said. However, in December, 1999, the agricultural giant Monsanto announced that it had developed a new strain of rapeseed (a crop used to make canola cooking oil) that might raise the levels of vitamin A in humans.
Obviously labeling will become possible -- indeed, essential -- when it serves the interests of the biotech corporations.
A pesticide and a potato
Many food suppliers seem to have figured out for themselves how to segregate GE crops from non-GE. According to the New York Times, Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, Nestle USA, and Quaker Oats all sell gene-altered foods in the United States but not overseas. Gerber and H.J. Heinz both exclude genetically modified crops from their baby foods.
For its part, the U.S. government has steadfastly maintained that labeling of GE foods is not necessary -- and might even be misleading -- because traditional crops and GE crops are "substantially equivalent."
For example, the government has maintained that Monsanto's "New Leaf" potato -- which has been genetically engineered to incorporate a pesticide into every cell in the potato, to kill potato beetles -- is substantially equivalent to normal potatoes. However, the New Leaf potato is, itself, required to be registered as a pesticide with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Now the government's position has become untenable. In February of this year, the government signed the international BioSafety Protocol, a treaty with 130 other nations, in which all signatories agree that genetically modified crops are significantly different from traditional crops.
Meanwhile, a groundswell of consumer protest reached a crescendo last year in England and Europe, then spread to Japan and the United States.
Major United States firms that had invested heavily in the technology are now being forced to pull back. Monsanto, Novartis, and AstraZeneca all announced in early January that they are turning away from or abandoning entirely the concept of "life sciences," a business model that combines pharmaceuticals and agricultural products.
The New York Times reported in January that pharmaceutical giant American Home Products "has been looking for a way to unload its agricultural operations." In late February, DuPont announced that it was returning to its traditional industrial chemical business to generate profits.
Investors are not the only ones turning away. The Wall Street Journal announced in late April that "fast-food chains such as McDonald's Corp. are quietly telling their french-fry suppliers to stop using" Monsanto's pesticidal New Leaf potato.
"Virtually all the [fast food] chains have told us they prefer to take non-genetically modified potatoes," said a spokesperson for the J.M. Simplot Company of Boise, Idaho, a major potato supplier.
The Journal also reported that Procter and Gamble, maker of Pringles potato chips, is phasing out Monsanto's pesticidal potato. And Frito-Lay -- which markets Lay's and Ruffles potato chips -- has reportedly asked its farmers not to plant Monsanto's GE potatoes. Earlier this year, Frito-Lay also told its corn farmers to abandon genetically modified varieties of corn for use in Doritos, Tostitos and Fritos.
A spokesperson for Burger King told the Wall Street Journal that it is already using only traditional potato varieties.
According to the New York Times, U.S. farmers have sustained a serious financial blow because they adopted genetically engineered crops so rapidly. In 1996, the United States sold $3 billion worth of corn and soybeans to Europe. Last year, those exports had shrunk to $1 billion -- a $2 billion loss.
The seed sellers like Monsanto and DuPont got their money from the farmers, so it is the farmers who have taken the hit, not the ag biotech firms.
Yet the ag biotech firms say demand for genetically modified crops has never been better. Last year Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto, said bravely, "This is the single most successful introduction of technology in the history of agriculture, including the plow."
But Gary Goldberg, president of the American Corn Growers Association, told the New York Times recently that he believes that genetically modified corn plantings will be down about 16 percent this year, compared to last.
"The [ag biotech] companies are deceiving farmers into thinking their neighbors are planting GM," he told the New York Times.
In coming days, genetically engineered food is likely to get more attention from the public. Last month the National Academy of Sciences issued a report confirming what critics have been saying about GE crops: They have the potential to produce unexpected allergens and toxicants in food, and the potential to create far-reaching environmental effects, including harm to beneficial insects, the creation of super-weeds, and possibly adverse effects on soil organisms.
The Academy pointed out that roughly 40 GE food products have, so far, been approved for sale in the United States but approvals have also been given for an additional 6,700 field trials of genetically modified plants.
The Clinton-Gore administration announced last week that it will "strengthen" the regulatory system for genetically engineered foods but said the new regulations will not require GE products to carry a label, despite overwhelming public demand for labels.
Thus the government's latest regulatory initiative makes one thing crystal clear: what the Clinton-Gore administration and the biotech companies fear most is an informed public.
-- Peter Montague
Peter Montague is the director of the Environmental Research Foundation and writes a weekly column known as "Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly."