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Friday, September 17, 1999 Published at 20:50 GMT 21:50 UK

Business: The Economy

GM giants face court challenge

Protests against GM crops have reached the gates of Downing Street in the UK

By Rodney Smith

It is possible that no industry in modern commercial history has failed so miserably to win public support as the life science companies; the designers and manufacturers of genetically modified seeds.

Food under the microscope
Companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Aventis.

The latest attack on them, by what its supporters say is an international alliance of concerned farmers, is led by the Washington lobby groups the Foundation for Economic Trends, and the National Family Farm Coalition.

It aims to bring the biggest anti-trust case ever. (It may have to squabble with the US Government/Microsoft case on that).

The claim is that these big companies are exploiting bio-engineering techniques to dominate world agriculture.

[ image: The BBC's Rodney Smith]
The BBC's Rodney Smith
The fear is that within a decade, world food processes will be controlled by maybe ten large privately owned American and European companies. The scope for abuse would be enormous, they say.

The lobbyists have done a good job of expressing their case in Washington legal circles.

They've won the backing of 20 law firms, all on "no-win, no-fee" terms.

Seattle round of WTO talks

Michael Hausfeld is a partner in Cohen Milstein Hausfeld and Toll. He does not think they will win. He says he is taking the case on principle.

He expects the case to come to court by late November, or December, when it may coincide with the Seattle round of World Trade Organisation talks.

It would be the first truly global challenge to the life science companies.

At the core of the protestors' case is the principle that the life science companies will own the offspring of the seeds they sell - if any.

International law on intellectual property rights has granted them this power.

Opposition to the GM food programme is widespread, but probably at its weakest in developing countries where cost advantages are attractive to poor farmers.

Infertile seed

In Argentina, Professor Carlos Correa at the University of Buenos Aires says that some of these companies will not need the protection of copyright law.

He points out that the so-called "terminator seeds" - usually linked with soya beans - carry their own copyright protection.

Since they produce infertile seeds, the technology stays with the manufacturer. The farmer must return to the manufacturer for more seed, year after year. GM companies say that terminator seeds have yet to be fully developed and some say that it will be five years before they will be ready for market.

There is something of the near-hysterical, though, about the anti-GM food lobby.

It is unlikely that the directors, senior managers, scientists and other employees of the life science companies are piratical buccaneers bent on taking over the world.

They see themselves as manufacturers competing in a tough world just like any other industry.

They are right, of course. It's not their competitive spirit that baffles many of those members of the international public who have not yet been won over.

Case good for all sides

It's the fear that neither the companies nor anyone else knows what the long term effect of these genetic experiments may be.

When the nuclear power industry was in its infancy, in the 1950s, and appeared to its many admirers to be the answer to all the world's energy problems, a news note in the respected popular scientific magazine New Scientist reported in a short paragraph an accident at the Windscale nuclear power plant - now known as Sellafield.

The accident has raised questions about safety, said the report, but (the author) believes atomic industry to be no more dangerous than conventional industry. Radioactivity is easily detected, some chemical hazards are not.

Little was known about the 1957 Windscale leak and subsequent ground contamination for many years.

Even now it is hard to get all the facts. The area concerned is secured and unapproachable.

A large, long and public anti-trust case in the United States could be the best thing for the GM industry as well as its detractors.

It would offer a forum, even if a combative one, where all sides of the argument could be aired - and where, hopefully, good science and good sense will win the day.

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