One tomato, two tomato, three tomato . . . hey, where'd they all go?
In the case of Calgene Inc., which introduced its FlavSavr tomato in 1994, they're off the market, having succumbed to sentiment against genetically modified organisms and (maybe more significantly) production problems.
Ditto the tomato paste engineered by Zeneca Plant Sciences, a subsidiary of Zeneca Group plc; the NatureMark NewLeaf potato from Monsanto Corp. (which bought Calgene for $240 million in 1997); and StarLink corn, from Aventis CropScience.
Who can forget Bt 176 corn, sold by Mycogen Corp. and Novartis AG, the pollen of which was found fatal for monarch butterfly caterpillars? The study making the claim was contradicted by other research, but the corn was pulled anyway.
Patrick Kelly, director of state government relations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said the right questions never got asked as is often the case, when anti-GMO activists seize upon what looks like valid scientific evidence to make their points.
"Any scientist familiar with it would have said, 'Yeah, we knew that was going to happen,'" he said. "But what's the likelihood a caterpillar is going to land on a milkweed plant during 10 days in August, and there would be such a concentration of pollen on a leaf of corn that it would kill this caterpillar? [Activists] went after the Bambi of the insect world. Their objective is to cast aspersions and run away."
In some cases, Kelly noted, their objective is more dramatic and direct. Last year, for example, "farmers were essentially being terrorized by activists, particularly in the Grain Belt, where they were burning the crops down and driving tractors through the fields."
The GMO war, once limited to Europe, had come to the U.S. in a big way even if, as in the case of the monarch-murdering corn and Monsanto's potatoes, the "anti" group's claims were not well investigated, Kelly said.
In the latter case, suspicion was cast upon the potato following publication in the Lancet of research that involved feeding it to rats, which developed ulcers.
"Absolutely, when you feed a rat a food product high in starch for two weeks, and they're not used to eating it, they're going to develop stomach problems," Kelly said. "There was an academic repudiation of [the experiment] that was swift. It was junk science."
But that wasn't enough to keep the potato on the market. Every time a transgenic product is driven off the shelves, activists gain more strength.
"There's a lot of fear mongering, and I'm not sure why they are opposed," Kelly told BioWorld Financial Watch. "Is it because of the science, or because of the companies? This is a very difficult environment to go into, from an industry perspective. We're not going to try to ascribe motives, but address the issue."
Federal lawmakers are struggling with it as well, although terrorism and war are likely to take up more of their time in the near future. Much of the battle has shifted to the state level, says the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think tank funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.
The group says in a new report that 130 pieces of legislation (112 bills and 18 resolutions) were introduced in 36 states, with 22 states passing them into law. About 30 percent of the bills focused on protecting GMO crops from "willful destruction by radical anti-biotechnology activists."
D.J. Nordquist, director of communications for the initiative, said the legislation fell into seven key categories, and about a third of the proposals had to do with protecting crops from destruction. Regulation was the subject of 18 percent, and labeling of 17 percent.
She acknowledged that most of "the ones that passed were in the Farm Belt. North Dakota was the most active. New York was very active, too, but it didn't pass anything," although eight proposals related to labeling there, three to a potential moratorium, three more relating to a possible study, and two to punishing crop destruction.
The initiative, Nordquist said, "doesn't really have an agenda, except to become an honest broker in the debate, which has become quite fractious. That's really why we put together this research. We were just curious what's out there."
Pew didn't make comparisons between last year and previous ones, she said.
"The research for 2001 took us so long that we didn't go back any further," Nordquist told BioWorld Financial Watch. "It looks like there were 50 bills in 2000, so it's more than doubled."
The situation almost seems parallel to that involving Medicare and drug pricing, where the states are growing impatient about the lack of federal action, and so they are taking their own. Nordquist wasn't sure.
"It depends on the issue," she said. "My background is labor economics, and I've noticed that starts in the states, and groups push it at the state level in the hopes it will get legislators' attention. Sometimes, it's vice versa. If you just end up getting a lot of diverse laws, you'll end up with a move to try to equalize everything on the federal level."
Kelly said BIO helped Pew compile its research.
"There was a lot of legislation last year, but the ones that actually passed were the kind that put in place restrictions against destroying crops," he said. "Most [others] didn't see the light of day. Let's not delude ourselves. [Activists] are behind most of the bills that are out there but we were able to derail the more onerous provisions."
Comparisons are not apt between the state-level skirmishing over prescription drug benefits in Medicare and the battle over GMO foods, which "would happen at the state industry regardless. We've been fighting this at the state level since the 1990s. It's not a result of frustration with Washington."
For activists, "the grassroots power is at the state level," he said. "In Washington, by hook or by crook unless you're fairly well heeled like Greenpeace you don't have the influence you need. Your best bet is to hope it percolates up [from the state level]."
Anti-GMO activity "has waxed and waned," he said. "This year, going into a general election cycle, we're going to look at some ballot initiatives." One, pending in Oregon, is in the signature-gathering phase, and would require a label on any product in which GMOs were used, he said.
"It's a [public-relations] campaign yes, they should require a label or no, they shouldn't and it's probably a subsequent court case," Kelly said.
For all the talk of hooks, crooks and percolating upward, he said, the anti-GMO activists don't have much footing.
"It's not luck," he said. "They just don't have the science on their side. We hope, we're under the impression, that the science is with us."