What first brought you to this issue?
Back in 1983, the United States government approved the release of the first
genetically modified organism. In this case, it was a bacteria that prevents
frost on food crops. My attorneys immediately went into the federal courts to
seek an injunction to halt the experiment. The position I took at the time was
that we hadn't really examined any of the potential environmental consequences
of introducing genetically modified organisms.
We were making the first step out of the age of chemistry and physics, and into
the age of biology. All of our regulations had been set up in an era in which
physics and chemistry ruled. It seemed to me that we needed to have a thorough
and thoughtful global discussion on the potential environmental implications
of reseeding the earth with genetically modified organisms. At that time, the
only discussion that had been held was a 20- to 25-minute meeting in a
congressional committee that was overseeing this particularly genetically
modified organism for release.
President of The Foundation on Economic Trends, he is a longtime opponent of
biotechnology. Rifkin outlines why GM food is radically different from classical
breeding and discusses how there are better ways to apply bioengineering to
agricultural products. He also counters the argument that GM food is a solution
in helping to feed a hungry world and talks about the threat of life science
companies like Monsanto employing antitrust tactics in their patenting of gene
technology. (Interview conducted August 2000.)
So my attorneys brought litigation in the U.S. federal courts. The judge ruled
in our favor. We had an injunction that barred the government from conducting
this first experiment. Then the government appealed, and we won in the appeals
court. . . .
Before this, you had GMOs in labs, but this was the first time they would be
released. Why was this a bigger deal?
They had taken a bacteria that's normally found in nature, Pseudomonas
syringae, which plays a role, they believe, in the formation of rain. They
took the actual gene out that allows ice crystals to form, and they created an
ice-minus version of this bacteria. The idea was to seed our agricultural
regions with the ice-minus bacteria, which would edge out the traditional
bacteria that makes frost.
So you protect potatoes.
Absolutely. . . . What concerned us was the commercial introduction of this
genetically modified organism. What if ice-minus were introduced, as they
planned, across entire agricultural regions of the world, and it edged out the
traditional ice-forming bacteria, which we think plays a role in rain patterns?
There could be significant long-term ecological implications. . . .
When you introduce a genetically modified organism into the environment, it's
not like introducing a chemical product, or even a nuclear product. Remember,
genetically modified products are alive. So at the get-go, they're inherently
more unpredictable in terms of what they'll do once they're out into the
environment. Secondly, GMOs reproduce. Chemical products don't do that.
Third, they can mutate. Fourth, they can migrate and proliferate over wide
regions. And fifth, you cannot easily recall them to the laboratory or clean
So when we're dealing with genetically modified organisms, we're dealing with a
whole new genre of environmental and health questions, totally different than
when we introduce chemical or even nuclear products into the environment. . .
Were GMOs properly regulated?
There was a regulatory vacuum, and there is a scientific vacuum. There has
been ever since. Back in the mid-1980s, congressional hearings were held after
we brought this litigation, and held up the first experiment. At that time, I
went in front of Congress, along with the major agencies involved with this.
And I asked Congress to make sure that, for every dollar spent in research and
development to put these GMOs into the environment, we spend an equal dollar on
the R&D to see if we can come up with a risk assessment methodology to
judge the risk of introducing these into the environment. At the time, all the
agencies--the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, the National Science Foundation--pledged that they would devote
whatever money was necessary to develop a methodology to judge risk. . . .
Here we are 17 years later. Those agencies never did come through. Even the
USDA, the only agency that has a budget, spends maybe $1.5 million. You can't
even do one risk assessment experiment with that amount of money. . . .
What about the issues of liability? . . .
The public should know that the liability issues here have yet to be resolved,
or even raised. If you're a farmer and you're growing a genetically
engineering food crop, those genes are going to flow to the other farm. You
can't stop that from happening. So if a conventional farmer or an organic
farmer goes to market and they find that their finished product has genes for
herbicide tolerance or pest resistance, and they can't then sell their product,
who's liable for those losses? The insurance companies aren't covering that.
Should Monsanto be liable for these losses? Should the state government?
Who's going to cover the losses? . . . The fact is, here's an industry with no
long-term liability in place.
There is an analogy here with the nuclear industry. In the early days, the
nuclear industry realized that the chances of an accident were small, but if an
accident did happen, the damages could be enormous and not coverable. So the
nuclear industry went to the U.S. Congress to pass the Price-Anderson Act.
This act legislates that the nuclear companies are only responsible for a
certain amount of the damages, and then the government pays the rest. The
American taxpayer pays the bill. There's no comparable legislation in place
here. And believe me, the public would never accept comparable legislation in
place here. . . .
Why did this take off in Europe recently?
To begin with, the media played a very important role. The electronic media
introduced this idea to the larger audience very, very quickly. We spent years
and years and years meeting with activists all over Europe to lay the
groundwork for a political response, as we did here. So this did not come as a
surprise to any of the nongovernmental organizations. . . .
I think it hit on such a large scale in Europe because it touched the nerve of
two great political sensitivities: preserving biodiversity . . . and preserving
cultural diversity and the cultural identity of European food and European
agriculture. . . .
This was an attempt to keep US products out, like McDonald's . .
It's broader than that. Remember, half of these life science companies are
U.S. and half are European. We do have Monsanto and DuPont in the U.S., but we
also have Novartis and AstraZeneca and other companies in Europe. This was not
a response to the U.S. This was a response to these new global companies who
were beginning to embark on a radical new approach to agriculture that had
tremendous significance--culturally, economically, and socially.
In an era where Europeans were feeling increasingly unable to control their
individual destinies, and when there was more talk about globalization and a
European Union, the last thing people felt they had some control over was their
diet. So when Monsanto came in heavy and fast into the European market, the
response was immediate, from the UK to France. The public said, "We don't want
these foods. This isn't something that we have invited into Europe." . . .
In this country, the health concerns and the environmental concerns are as deep
as in Europe. All the surveys show that. But here, we didn't have the
cultural dimension. This is a fast-food culture. There is not a seamless web
between culture and cuisine in the U.S. market. So we had half the response
here. . . .
But even in Europe, you didn't have the support of the scientific community
saying this was a safety issue.
Let me respectfully disagree with that. There were different opinions being
expressed in Europe. For example, the environmental ministers and those they
consulted with in the ecological sciences were very much critical and concerned
about the introduction of GM foods in Europe. So there was a constant battle
in various countries between the environmental ministers on one side, and the
agricultural ministers and economic and trade ministers on the other. . . .
How far do you think it's going to go in Europe?
Europe will not accept genetically modified foods. It doesn't make any
difference in the final analysis what Brussels does, what Washington does, or
what the World Trade Organization does. In fact, this is going to be an
interesting test on how ephemeral the power is of these new international and
inter-regional bodies are. . . .
I think the introduction of genetically engineered foods in Europe and in parts
of Asia, and hopefully in America, is going to be considered one of the great
financial miscalculations in the history of introducing a new commercial line
into the marketplace. They're swimming uphill at these life science companies.
I ask the life science companies, "When you look down the line, and the public
response to genetic foods, do you see light at the end of the tunnel?" They
can't tell me they do.
The fact is, as the public in Europe and increasingly in the U.S. and Asia
learns more about genetic foods, they become more concerned. Now, this is
important, because Monsanto argued all along, from the time we began this
discussion back in the 1980s, that people were just ignorant, and if you made
them aware and knowledgeable about genetic foods, they would tend to be more
supportive. The new surveys show us the exact opposite, which I've always
believed. The more knowledgeable people are in genetic foods, the more likely
they are to raise questions and be critical. . . .
So countries will violate the World Trade Organization if they have
Absolutely. President Clinton personally lobbied Prime Minister Blair in the
UK to introduce genetic foods and Monsanto's products into the UK. Of course,
Clinton and Blair are very much involved in third-way politics. They believe
you have to move the marketplace and make sure there are no fetters to
introducing new technologies. Both of these world leaders believe that the
information sciences and the life sciences are the route into the 21st century.
Blair went with Clinton, and championed introducing Monsanto's GMO seeds into
the UK. The public reaction was instant and overwhelmingly in opposition, and
Blair was caught by surprise. Here's a man who was wildly popular. His
political cachet began to lose momentum the moment he sided with President
Clinton and Monsanto. . . .
A few weeks later, the environmental ministers met in Europe to discuss a
moratorium. . . . The result of that was a de facto moratorium on the
introduction of any further GMO foods in Europe. This was a very, very
important turning point in this debate. With Europe establishing a two-year
moratorium, it meant U.S. farmers had to rethink their choices on whether they
put genetic seeds into the ground. Since Europe would not accept those foods
in export, American farmers didn't want to be caught holding the bag. As a
result, in the year 2000 growing season, for the first time in the three or
four years since introduction, the amount of seeds being bought leveled off and
began to go down.
What makes you think the public debate over GM foods is going to travel to
Every survey that I have looked at in the last few years, when the public is
asked, "Do you want genetically engineered foods?" . . . a majority of the
respondents say they're concerned and 90 percent of the respondents in the
surveys say they want the mandatory labels so they can make a choice. The
industry's not stupid. The industry knows that if those foods are labeled
"genetically engineered," the public will shy away and won't take them. In a
sense, the industry's hiding from its own technology. . . .
Obviously, voluntary labeling is one of things that will come.
. . . An example would be a company like Gerber, whose products would say
"This does not contain GMOs." . . .
Gerber is owned by Novartis, which is one of the two major players in the GMO
food industry. Just this week, Novartis' Food Division announced that they
would not accept any genetically modified food in any of their foods; whereas
Novartis' Agricultural Division is one of the two or three major players in the
world producing genetically engineered seeds. This is a great commercial
story, and I think the media missed this story. Here you have a company where
the executive board of the company is at odds with itself. . . . When a
company like Novartis--which is championing this technology--won't actually
accept the final product, what does it say about the product?
Obviously, humans have been modifying nature genetically for 10,000 years
with selection, breeding, mutagenesis. Why is this qualitatively different? .
In classical breeding, genes are turned on and off when you cross strains. I
have no problem whatsoever with classical breeding, because it's worked itself
over 10,000 years and it's also part of the evolutionary schema. . . .
What's different here is that we have now technologies that allow these life
science companies to bypass classical breeding. That's what makes it both
powerful and exciting. In classical breeding, you can cross close relatives.
Taxonomy is an anthropocentric discipline anyway. You can, for example, cross
various wheat strains and corn strains, etc. . . . You can cross a donkey and
a horse in classical breeding--they're very close relatives--and you can get
But you can't cross a donkey and an apple tree in classical breeding. What the
public needs to understand is that these new technologies, especially in
recombinant DNA technology, allow scientists to bypass biological boundaries
altogether. You can take a gene from any species--plant, animal, or human--and
place it into the genetic code of your food crop or other genetically modified
organism. Crossing genetic information from one species to another is
something we've never seen in 10,000 years of classical breeding. . . .
But we're taking very small bits of it.
Those very small bits can change in qualitative ways when GMO is introduced.
Let's say you take a human growth hormone gene and place it into a salmon.
That's just one gene. But if the salmon gets out into the marine ecosystem,
and it's growing twice as fast and twice as big, it can destabilize millions of
years of relationships in the oceans. So one gene can be very, very powerful.
. . .
Where you're placing a gene from an unrelated species into the blueprint of the
second species, it's like introducing exotic organisms from native to
non-native habitats. Here in North America, we brought a lot of organisms over
to this ecosystem from all over the world. Some of those organisms fit in;
some of them died out; some of them became pests. If you're from the South,
you know about kudzu vine; or in the North, Dutch elm disease or gypsy moth or
chestnut blight or starlings. These are all non-native organisms. When we put
them into North America, they had no natural pest enemies. We can't deal with
them, and they cause billions of dollars of damage. Ecologists tell us that
when we introduce a genetically modified organism with genes from unrelated
species, it's somewhat analogous to introducing exotics. . . .
There's a second generation of genetically modified organisms being readied in
R&D. These organisms are plants that act as chemical factories to produce
genes that code for proteins to produce vaccines and chemicals and drugs and
vitamins. . . . This all sounds very good, except no one has stopped for even
a moment and paused and asked the following question.
When we seed millions of acres of land with these plants, what happens to
foraging birds, to insects, to microbes, to the other animals, when they come
in contact and digest plants that are producing materials ranging from plastics
to vaccines to pharmaceutical products? There hasn't been as much as a single
congressional hearing, and as far as I know, there hasn't been a single
parliamentary debate anywhere in the world on introducing this second
generation of pharmaceutical and chemical-producing plants.
They're introducing plants--corn, soy, cotton--that have herbicide-tolerant
genes and pest-resistant genes. If your corn has a herbicide-tolerant gene, it
means you can spray your herbicides and kill the weeds; you won't kill your
corn because it's producing a gene that makes it tolerant of the herbicide.
The problem here is that what makes it beneficial also makes it environmentally
harmful. It means you're going to be able to kill a lot of weeds but not
damage your corn. The problem is, you can't kill all the weeds. That means
that the more virulent weed strains will become dominant and build up
resistance quicker even than you had with petrochemical-based farming. . .
I visited a farmer in the Midwest, and they just used two applications of
Roundup Ready, one at the beginning of the season and one halfway through. It
was much less than they've ever used before. . . .
I know quite a few farmers all over the United States who have tried this and
have said the opposite, that they have to use more herbicides, not less. The
same holds true with BT. Monsanto says, "Look. We're going to introduce a
little gene into the plant that codes for a pesticide." Every cell of the
plant is producing that pesticide, so the insect tries to eat the plant and
dies when it tries to digest the material. Monsanto says, "This is a leap
forward. We're ending pesticides, groundwater contamination."
Well, yes and no. Yes, they're ending the use of pesticides. But now they're
introducing more toxin than they ever introduced with pesticides. When you
spray a pesticide, it's infrequent, it's periodic. When you are putting the
same toxin in the form of a gene into the plant, that plant is producing that
toxin 24/7, perpetually over millions of acres. . . . A major study just came
out in Science or Nature this year--a big study--showing
that, when you introduce the gene for toxicity, it is going into the ground
soil. . . .
Regarding the issue of resistance, Monsanto and the EPA requires that
farmers plant a refuge. . . .
A refuge is supposed to prevent what? The genes from flowing out of sight? .
. . This refuge idea won't stop insects from moving across boundaries. That's
absurd. How many farmers are actually creating these refuges? . . . I've
talked to enough farmers that say that it's too much time and trouble to do it.
Even if they did do it, and followed it chapter and verse the way they're
supposed to by the licensing arrangement, insects will pass through refuges at
will. The idea that you can constrain them is absolutely absurd. Ask any good
ecologist worth their salt, who's not on the corporate payroll of Monsanto, and
they'll tell you what I've just told you.
The issue is not whether insects move across the refuge. The issue is the
buildup of resistance, isn't it?
You're going to get insects all crossing the refuges. The insects that are
vulnerable to BT will die. Those that aren't--the more virulent insects--will
reproduce. That one gene resistance cannot deal with more virulent strains of
When you do classical breeding, you cluster for hundreds of genes in a plant
that allow it to be resistant to a particular insect. Here, it's like one-gene
resistance. It's like the French Maginot Line before World War II. The
French thought they had a strong wall against potential German invasion, and
the tanks went right over the wall. When you only have one-gene resistance, it
will only take a few growing seasons--we're not talking about generations--for
resistant strains of insects to build up and to overcome that one gene. Then
the companies will have to come up with another gene, and another gene, and
another gene. It's not defensible from a systems point of view.
But these are empirical questions. We don't know whether a refuge works or
not. . . .
Monsanto says it does know the answer. The United States government that's
OK'd all of this says it knows the answer. They're saying that refuges work.
My question back to the U.S. regulatory agencies and to Monsanto is, "You're
saying the refuges work. Show me the results. Where are the tests? Have you
tested this across ecosystems around the world where this is going to be
planted? Where is your risk assessment methodology that shows you that this is
There obviously have been tests, like in Arizona.
There's been virtually nothing. The amount of field testing to develop a
methodology for risk assessment is almost nil. What we have here is a lot of
rhetoric about protocols, but with very little science to back it up in the
fields. . . .
The other major problem with introducing GMOs is gene flow. This is as
significant as buildup of resistance, probably more significant. During
pollenations, genes flow everywhere. Now, of course the company will say,
"Well, the genes won't flow offsite. We have refuges, etc." Nonsense. There
has now been a number of peer reviewed studies . . . that show that genes will
jump way offsite during pollination, either by the wind or by transport by
insects, etc. If you have a herbicide-tolerant gene, or a pest-resistant gene,
and it flows off a site, what happens when wild relatives of those crops are
invaded by that pollen? . . . How do you deal with a whole ecosystem where
wild grasses and weeds have become herbicide-resistant, pest-resistant, and
There are a couple of potential technical fixes. Take genetically modified
salmon, for example. You make your salmon sterile. With plants, you make the
so-called terminator gene. . . . If that was done, wouldn't this be reassuring
The problem is that we know very little about how genes code for proteins and
how they're turned on and off. So when you talk about all these fixes that
they're going to come up with, you have to realize that whether a gene turns on
and off and mutates depends, a great deal of the time, on the environmental
factors and triggers. You can't get a guarantee that genes are going to turn
on and off the way you want them to. You're dealing with life. It's too
If we had a risk assessment science in place, a really full-blown methodology,
then maybe you could make some of these suppositions. But right now, these
companies are running blind, saying, "We're going to make this fix and this fix
and this fix." . . .
When I talk to environmental scientists, they're very, very uneasy about the
idea that you can create a quick fix at each step of the way with this. It may
be that everything the life science companies are telling us will turn out to
be right, and there's no problem here whatsoever. That defies logic. When you
introduce a powerful new technology that can radically change the environment,
as they hope these technologies will, it's naive or disingenuous to think that
that same introduction won't create equally troubling disharmonies and
Remember, these are the same companies that brought us the petrochemical
revolution. They used similar arguments to the ones they're using now, saying,
"Look. We'll have a quick fix. We'll make sure that the chemicals don't ruin
the environment. All of the alarm on the other side is unfounded and
misguided." Now they're embarking on an adventure that's much more radical
than chemical introduction, and that is actually changing the genetic
instructions in microorganisms--plants and animals--and placing them into the
environment, a lot of it through clonal propagation, on a very large scale. .
Is food safety an issue here, as you see it?
Yes, because what we're dealing with is the introduction of new genetic foods
that have genes that code for proteins that we've never consumed. So when you
place a Chinese hamster gene into your food crop, for example, and we consume
it in raw or processed food, we just don't know what the reaction's likely to
be. The fact is, we know that with traditional foods, 8 percent of children
and 2 percent of adults have allergenic reaction to traditional foods. We
spent a long part of our history testing various things we could eat, and a lot
of people have died as part of this grand experiment to see what we could
consume. . . .
Many of the genetically modified foods will be safe, I'm sure. Will most of
them be safe? Nobody knows. The fact is, even the Food and Drug
Administration, in internal documents by their own scientists that were forced
out in a lawsuit, suggested that these foods could pose some potentially
serious allergenic and toxic reactions among consumers.
But everyone's aware of allergenicity as an issue, aren't they? This is not
a secret. . . .
The American public is not aware that there might be potential allergenic and
toxic reactions. . . . With regular food, at least people know which foods
they have an allergy to. People know if they have an allergenic reaction to
peanuts, for example. Here, you don't know, because the foods aren't labeled.
Because these genes that they're placing in the foods have never been tested in
the human diet, it's one big health roulette gamble. . . .
Of course, you can remove allergenicity genes, can't you? . . .
Only if you know they are allergenic. You can eliminate, for example, a Brazil
nut gene if you know that it will create an allergenic effect. The problem
here is, they're going to be introducing hundreds, then thousands and thousands
of genes that code for proteins that we've never consumed. We simply don't
know if they cause allergenic or toxic reactions. . . .
But you just said there was no way, in practice, that we could
This is the Catch-22. So do you want to take the risk when you don't need to?
Maybe at some point down the line, the new genetics will tell us a lot more
about the genomic makeup of all of our creatures. . . . We may be able to know
which genes code for proteins against every single genetic profile on earth.
We don't have that now. I don't think the activists in the public are
over-reacting. I don't think there's any hysteria in the streets here. What
there is, is guarded and careful response. And I think the public is saying,
"Why should we be put in jeopardy? Why should we be the guinea pigs in this
experiment?" . . .
With food, we don't have an absolute standard of safety, obviously. The
food supply that we have is not safe. So the question is about balancing risks
and benefits. . . . One example is the papaya story, where a viral pathogen on
the Hawaiian Islands was destroying all of the crops. The only solution anybody
can think of is a transgenic crop. Is that a good risk-benefit calculation? .
. . That's a risk-benefit where the benefits are immediate. . . .
This is the same thing we faced with the nuclear industry and the petrochemical
industry. Obviously, there were short-term benefits in introducing nuclear
power and petrochemical-based technologies and agriculture. The problem is,
nobody at the get-go wanted to look at the long-term potential environmental
and health risks down the line. In the long run, we saddled the environment
and future generations with tremendous environmental and health costs. So when
you talk about cost-benefit, the problem is, the benefits are always here and
now. The costs always come later. . . .
This is why I've been involved in this discussion for more than 25 years now.
I wanted to make sure that this be the first scientific and technology
revolution in history in which the public thoroughly discussed all the
potential benefits and all the potential harms, in advance of the technology
coming online and running its course.
But your aim, then, isn't to stop it? . . .
The issue here is, how do we apply that science in the commercial arena, in our
social life, and in the political life of the country and civilization? I
believe there's a hard-path and a soft-path way to move into the age of
biology. . . .
What's the hard path? Genetic foods. You turn that little piece of corn into
a soldier in the fields, a little warrior. That little piece of corn is armed
with all sorts of weapons--a gene for pest resistance and viral resistance and
herbicide tolerance. This is hard path, old-fashioned nineteenth-century
applied science. It's reductionist; it's not a systems approach; and it won't
deliver ultimately in the field.
What's the soft path? We could use this same information we're learning on
genomic nature of our plants and our ecosystems to create a sophisticated,
market-driven, cheap, efficient organic-based approach to agricultural
production in the 21st century. In the soft path, there's no gene splicing
between species. Instead, we upgrade classical breeding with state-of-the-art
genomic science. . . . You use the genomic information in your plants to find
out which strains are best integrated into the environment. The environment's
not the enemy. The environment's the partner. . . .
What I'm suggesting to you is that this could be a renaissance. We may be on
the cusp of a future which could provide a tremendous leap forward for
humanity. Instead of playing God and being an architect and creating a second
genesis, and trying to rearrange millions of years of genetic blueprints, what
we ought to be doing is understanding the genomic makeup of the world around us
and how genes interact with environments and ecosystems. Then we can be a
steward, so we can better integrate our social and productive activity into
nature's activity. . . .
I haven't spoken to the chemical companies yet. I have spoken to scientists
at Cornell, UC-Davis, mainstream academic agricultural scientists. . . . Some
of the mainstream agricultural scientists are not that concerned about the
production of GMOs.
Many of the mainstream agricultural scientists, especially at the agricultural
schools, but at all of our major universities, are tied into all sorts of
contractual relationships and consulting relationships with the life science
companies. There's been a growing debate in recent months about the close
commercial ties between our academic institutions involved in this research,
and the companies that are in the life science field. You really can't find a
good molecular biologist or geneticist worth their salt who isn't involved in
some equity relationship or consulting relationship or involved in some startup
You think they're compromised, in other words?
. . . You may have seen in the New York Times, where there's been some
big stories in the last few months . . . about the change in the relationship
between the academy and the academic sector and the commercial sector. We have
biologists across the United States and around the world whose research grants
depend on corporate financing. We have major players in the agricultural
field, as well as the other sciences, who are all involved in equity relations
and have stock options and are part of these companies. You can find some
independent scientists, but they are few and far between. We now have whole
labs, especially in our ag schools, that are contracted out to Monsanto and
Novartis. . . .
There's a lot of GM stuff out there--not just soybeans and corn-- but if you
include genetically engineered enzymes, there's also cheese, beer, bread,
sodas. This revolution has happened. What makes you think it's
One thing I've learned over these last 30 or 40 years is that people make
history. There's no fait accompli to any of this. We're on the cusp of a
revolution in science. . . . The biotech century is going to be as complicated
as the Industrial Revolution. Remember, in the Industrial Revolution there
wasn't one agenda. For every capitalist, there was a socialist. For every
entrepreneur, there was a trade unionist. For every Enlightenment philosopher,
there was a Romantic poet. There were many agendas and issues. It was
complex. There was great upheaval. . . .
We now have an opportunity, though, to do something we didn't do in the
industrial age, and that is to get a leg up on this, to bring the public in
quickly, to have an informed debate. If ever there was a scientific and
technological revolution that cried out for everybody's involvement, this is
it. This revolution affects the most intimate aspect of life on earth: our own
biology, and the biology of our fellow creatures. . . .
But there is a huge constituency of agricultural scientists who see this as
enormous potential for the developing world, for the hungry, for feeding the
burgeoning population of the world. They fear that the reckless action of
activist groups may kill this.
Let me take some responsibility, since I spawned much of this opposition. It's
a little bit disingenuous for some of the life scientists to say they want to
feed the world, when they create terminator genes designed to made a seed
sterile so it can't be reused by farmers. We are already producing enough food
to feed the world. We already have technology in place that allows us to
produce more than we can find a market for. Here in the U.S. and in Europe, we
pay farmers not to produce. The issue here isn't producing enough food. The
issue really with feeding the world is, how do we create the effective
mechanism, so the fruits of the technologies we already have in place can be
That argument's a little bogus, isn't it?
No. If we really want to talk about feeding the world, we have to talk about
eating lower on the food chain. The fact is, we've had a great change in
agriculture in the twentieth century. . . . Today, one-third of all the food
grown in this world is feed grain, which is then consumed by animals, so that
the wealthier people on the planet can eat high up on the food chain with
The interesting thing is, while we die of diseases of affluence from eating all
these fatty meats, our poor brethren in the developing world die of diseases of
poverty, because the land is not used now to grow food grain for their
families. Rather, it's used to grow feed grain for the animal husbandry
industry. If we would only find it in our hearts as a species to move down the
food chain so that we could free up the land, so that instead of a third of it
being grown for feed grain, it's grown for food grain, we could feed the world
today and tomorrow and for many years in the future. . . .
Do you want to say anything last on patent issues? . . .
We have less than 10 life science companies in the world that have bought up
all the independent seed companies in the last several years. They're now
turning those seeds into intellectual property, so they have a virtual lock on
the seeds upon which we all depend for our food and survival. The issue here
is, can companies like Monsanto use their control of intellectual property to
force the rest of humanity to accept their terms in the commercial arena?
When Monsanto provides a seed to a farmer, there's no traditional sale.
There's no seller, there's no buyer, there's no exchange of the property. When
Monsanto enters into a licensing agreement with a farmer, the farmer is being
given access to the Monsanto network and being allowed to use the intellectual
property in that seed for one growing season. That means the new seeds at
harvest, which traditionally farmers have considered their own, now belong to
Monsanto. If the farmer uses those new seeds, it's a violation of the
intellectual property agreement.
Monsanto, if they had their way, would probably never want to sell another seed
again. They'd much rather that every farm in the world enter into a licensing
agreement and have to access the seeds, the intellectual property in those
seeds, 24/7, every growing season. . . . That's chilling in its potential
Does that raise antitrust issues?
There is now a precedent-setting antitrust lawsuit in the federal courts. The
10 largest antitrust law firms in the United States have gone into the federal
courts charging Monsanto with creating a global conspiracy in violation of the
antitrust laws, to control the global market in seeds. The plaintiffs are
farmers in the U.S. and France. . . .
So it's a bit like Microsoft.
Yes. The antitrust litigation currently in the federal courts in the U.S.
against Monsanto will be the test case in the life sciences, just as the
Microsoft case was the test case in the information sciences. As we move to a
network-based global economy, the real issue here is, can companies like
Microsoft in the information sciences, and Monsanto in the life sciences,
control these networks by controlling the intellectual property in the software
or the wetware?
The difference is that the government was bringing the case against
Interesting enough, the chief litigator for the government was David Boies.
His law firm is also involved in our litigation. The litigation's being
spearheaded by Michael Hausfeld, one of the distinguished trial lawyers and
litigators in the United States. So this is going to be a great test case. .
. . I think it's going to set the framework, if you will, for the life science
revolution, as Microsoft and that case has set the precedents for the future of
the information science revolution.