ritratto di un' industria in crisi

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Ritratto di un' industria in crisi

(Notate che, ora che il recente Protocollo di Cartagena sugli OGM riconosce il principio di precauzione, e impone il dovere di mettere a punto una normativa sulla responsabilita' civile per i danni, la crisi si fa, almeno potenzialmente, piu' seria)

Spero interessi

Alessandro Gimona

Portrait Of An Industry In Trouble

                              by Brian Halweil

 After four years of stupendous growth, farmers are expected
 to reduce their planting of genetically
 engineered seeds by as much as 25 percent in 2000, as
 spreading public resistance staggers the once
 high-flying biotech industry. (See Figure 1.) Stock prices
 for agricultural biotech companies are
 falling, exports of transgenic crops are tumbling, and
 questions are mounting about the liability for
 what is turning into a major debacle for farmers. At the
 same time, some 130 nations just signed an
 international biosafety agreement prescribing caution.

 Worldwide, the area planted to transgenic crops jumped more
 than twenty-fold in the last four
 seasons, from 2 million hectares in 1996 to nearly 40
 million hectares in 1999. In the United States,
 Argentina, and Canada, over half the acreage for major
 commodities like soybeans, corn, and canola
 are planted in transgenics. (These three nations account for
 99 percent of the global transgenic
 acreage, pointing to the limited global acceptance.)

 But with a growing number of food manufacturers and grocery
 chains in Europe taking products
 containing transgenics off the shelves, the market for these
 crops has been shrinking. American
 exports of soybeans to the European Union plummeted from 11
 million tons in 1998 to 6 million tons
 last year, while American corn shipped to Europe dropped
 from 2 million tons in 1998 to 137,000
 tons last year: a combined loss of nearly one billion
 dollars in sales for American agriculture.

 Investors have reacted harshly to the growing consumer
 rejection of transgenics and the resulting
 reduced sales of engineered seed and complementary
 agrochemicals. In May of 1999, Europe’s
 largest bank, Deutsche Bank, recommended that investors sell
 all holdings in companies involved in
 genetic engineering, declaring that “GMO’s [Genetically
 Modified Organisms] Are Dead.” The
 bank’s report envisioned the development of a two-tiered
 commodity market in which
 non-transgenic crops would command price premiums over
 transgenic crops—a prospect that
 threatens the farmers planting engineered seeds and the
 companies that sell these seeds.

 In fact, top commodity handlers, such as Archer Daniels
 Midland and A.E. Staley, have already
 begun to discount transgenic crops because of this greater
 financial risk. Commodity traders have
 followed suit fearing the loss of export markets as Japan,
 South Korea, Australia, Mexico, the
 members of the European Union, and other nations draft laws
 requiring mandatory labeling of food
 products containing transgenic ingredients.

 Most major food companies have already announced that they
 will avoid transgenic ingredients in
 their products for the European market. But now recent
 surveys indicate that consumer tastes are
 souring on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Several
 food manufacturers, including Gerber,
 Frito-Lay, and natural food retailers Wild Oats and Whole
 Foods, have said that they will avoid
 transgenic ingredients in their products sold in the United
 States—the largest consumer market for
 transgenic crops. If more American manufacturers hop on the
 bandwagon, the drop in demand
 would be devastating for transgenic growers and seed

 Share prices for biotech seed companies that were Wall
 Street’s darlings a few years ago are sinking
 towards all-time lows. Investors in Monsanto Company, the
 industry leader which has born the brunt
 of public criticism, have watched the corporation’s share
 price lose nearly one-third of its value in the
 last year, falling from a high of $50 in February of 1999 to
 a recent low of just $35. (See Figure 2.)

 Brokerage houses have been advising major players in the
 biotech industry to spin off their ailing
 agricultural divisions. Novartis and AstraZeneca both
 followed this advice in December of 1999.
 Dupont had been considering issuing a new stock that would
 track its much-celebrated and nascent
 ag biotech division, but decided in early 2000 to
 indefinitely postpone the stock’s release. And
 struggling to recoup nearly $8 billion in seed company and
 agricultural biotechnology investments,
 Monsanto merged with pharmaceutical and chemical giant
 Pharmacia Upjohn at the end of 1999.
 The new firm quickly decided to turn Monsanto’s agricultural
 unit into a separate company

 Further complicating the financial picture are concerns
 about uninsured liabilities for farmers and
 agribusiness companies. In November 1999, 30 farm groups,
 including the National Family Farm
 Coalition and the American Corn Growers Association, warned
 American farmers that "inadequate
 testing of gene-altered seeds could make farmers vulnerable
 to ‘massive liability’from damage caused
 by genetic drift—the spreading of biologically modified
 pollens–and other environmental effects." In
 December, a group of high-profile lawyers filed a
 class-action lawsuit against Monsanto, on behalf of
 American soy farmers, charging that the company has not
 conducted adequate safety testing of
 engineered crops prior to release and that the company has
 tried to monopolize the American seed

 To many observers, the rapid release of transgenic crops and
 the ensuing financial disarray is
 disturbingly reminiscent of the earlier uncritical
 bandwagons for nuclear energy and chemical
 pollutants like DDT. A combination of public opposition and
 financial liability eventually forced
 retrenchment of these earlier technologies, after their
 effects on the environment and human health
 proved to be far more complex, diffuse, and lingering than
 the promises that accompanied their rapid

 In an effort to avoid this same dismal cycle with the
 introduction of each new “revolutionary”
 technology, public policy advocates have called for the
 adoption of the precautionary principle.
 Under current policy, a technology is all too often judged
 safe until it is definitively proven harmful.
 The precautionary principle holds that when a new technology
 carries suspected harm, scientific
 uncertainty of the scope and scale of the harm should not
 necessarily prevent precautionary action.
 Instead of requiring critics to prove that the technology
 poses potential dangers, the producers of a
 technology shoulder the burden of presenting evidence that
 the technology is safe.

 Industry has long labeled the precautionary approach as
 reactionary, arguing that it stifles research
 and prevents economic progress. On the contrary, advocates
 realize that all stakeholders—including
 consumers, government, and industry—benefit from an open and
 democratic attempt to anticipate
 any undesirable social and financial surprises. The goal is
 to apply wisdom and judgement about the
 potential effects of a new technology before flooding the
 marketplace with the products of that

 The rapid rollout of genetically engineered crops over the
 last four years stands the precautionary
 principle on its head. Widespread commercialization of
 transgenic crops has come before—not
 after—any thorough examination of the benefits and risks
 associated with these crops. The regulatory
 framework devoted to transgenics is inadequate,
 nontransparent, or completely absent. And there
 has been essentially no public discussion about the many
 potential consequences of large-scale
 planting of transgenic crops. For example, U.S. Secretary of
 Agriculture Dan Glickman only recently
 called for studies assessing the long-term ecological
 effects of these crops. But more than half of the
 U.S. soybean crop and nearly as much of the corn crop are
 already genetically engineered.

 Another recent illustration of our lack of precaution was
 presented in a December 1999 article in
 Nature reporting that the insecticide produced by a widely
 planted variety of transgenic corn can
 accumulate—in its active form—in the soil for extended
 periods of time. The authors note that the
 effects on soil organisms and soil fertility are largely
 unknown, but potentially enormous. But, like
 earlier laboratory studies showing that pollen from this
 same corn could be lethal to certain beneficial
 insects, the fact that such effects had not been considered
 prior to planting tens of millions of hectares
 in this crop raises concerns about the adequacy of existing
 safeguards for ecological and human
 health risks.
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