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Wall Street Journal | October 12, 1999 | By Lucette Lagnado, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE, N.Y. - It was, by all appearances, a typical corporate retreat.

Top officials from several multinational enterprises jetted in last week from six continents to a secluded camp in the Adirondack Mountains. For six days, they strolled along babbling brooks, huddled before roaring fires and mapped out how to crack the hard-to-penetrate American market.

But these were no CEOs. At the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York, the 22 participants from 12 countries descended on this sylvan setting to plot the first all-out assault on the U.S. biotech-food industry.

Several of the activists, attorneys and scientists on hand helped orchestrate previous campaigns against food made from genetically modified crops in continental Europe, the U.K. and elsewhere. Benny Haerlin, for one, is the international coordinator for Greenpeace in Berlin. He is credited with directing a campaign in western Europe that left major companies scared and scrambling to yank baby food and other genetically engineered groceries, from store shelves last year.

With public opposition galvanized abroad, the group is now setting its sights on the U.S. High on its agenda: gearing public sentiment against genetically modified organisms (GMO) and picking corporate targets.

The U.S. food industry has been tense about this. Half the nation's soybean crop and a third of its corn crop contain transplanted genes. Those crops, in turn, are used in countless food products: the syrup for Coke, McDonald's hamburger buns, Heinz ketchup and General Mills' Betty Crocker cake mixes, to name a few.

While some U.S. food companies have recently begun switching ingredients, a backlash of the magnitude seen in Europe hasn't materialized here. One reason: there is little evidence now that genetically modified crops are even hazardous.

While opponents concede that any real risks to people are unknown, they argue that the biotech industry is treating people as "guinea pigs" by failing to conduct long-term studies first. Some say it's possible genetically modified foods could trigger deadly, if rare, allergies. They also think genetically altered crops raise environmental concerns and cite the monarch butterfly, whose larvae have died in the laboratory when exposed to pollen from genetically altered corn.

In Europe, just the possibility of health or environmental threats - a spark fanned by Greenpeace, among other environmental and leftist groups - has forced food makers, supermarkets and restaurants to go non-GMO.

Companies such as Novartis AG say that, while fears are so far largely unfounded, biotech agriculture already has many proven benefits. Among them are "a major reduction in pesticide use, a major reduction in soil erosion, a major reduction in water pollution and a major increase in yield," says Steve Briggs, director of Novartis Discovery Agricultural Institute in San Diego, a research arm of the Novartis Foundation. Of the detractors, he adds, "They distort the truth."

Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. likewise say they are committed to biotech foods, but are willing to discuss concerns raised by opponents. Charles O. Holliday, chairman and chief executive of DuPont, delivered a speech in September at the Chief Executives' Club of Boston extolling the virtues of biotechnology. Citing the potential to solve world health problems and increase agricultural productivity, he said, "I have great passion and excitement for biotechnology."

The Blue Mountain retreat was organized by a group of American activists who felt the moment was ripe for a U.S. campaign. Activists from all over the globe - India, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Australia, Europe and the Philippines - flew in for the unpublicized meeting.

Pat Mooney, a Canadian who runs the Rural Advancement Foundation International, brought his 10-year-old stepdaughter, Kelsey. Mr. Mooney is credited with coining the phrase "terminator" to describe an experimental gene technology that Monsanto would access through its pending acquisition of a Mississippi cottonseed company. The technique creates sterile seeds.

At one point, he enlisted Kelsey's help to lay out the debate in stark terms. "Is 'terminator' good or bad?" he asked her Thursday night, in front of other activists.

"Bad," the child replied, after a pause.

"Is Monsanto good or bad?" Mr. Mooney asked.

"Bad," she replied, without missing a beat. Mr. Mooney smiled.

It's not at all a given that the ferocity of Europe's biotech-food sentiment will spread here, but resistance may have begun to take root. A couple of months ago, under pressure from Greenpeace, Novartis's U.S.-based Gerber division said it would eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its baby food. H.J. Heinz Co. is taking similar steps. Last week, bowing to public pressure, Monsanto announced it wouldn't market the controversial seed.

Today at Rockefeller Center in New York City, the Blue Mountain activists have scheduled a press conference to present a global front against biotech foods. Next step: U.S. activists will reach out to public-health associations, women's groups and college-student organizations. Already, they say, the movement is stirring up interest on university campuses across the country.

An international network - with regular communications and Internet strategy sessions - was formally created at Blue Mountain to link activists as they take on multinational corporations. When the World Trade Organization meets in Seattle next month, there will be an antibiotech "teach-in" to influence trade officials and the public.

And, following the big tobacco company lawsuits, there is discussion of slapping biotech-food companies with "massive litigation from people suffering from genetic pollution of crops," says Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney who runs the International Center for Technology Assessment, in Washington. His group last year sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in federal district court in Washington to demand that foods containing genetically altered ingredients be labeled as such.

Fund raising is a priority for the U.S. groups. Chris Desser, the coordinator of the Funders Working Group on Biotechnology, San Francisco, says she has reached out to the Ford, Rockefeller and other mainstream foundations. Funding for last week's retreat came from the HKH Foundation, which endows the Blue Mountain mansion, and from Britain's JMG Foundation, which has financed groups opposed to biotech food in the U.K. and France.

Lounging on pillow-strewn sofas and sipping red wine from plastic cups, the Blue Mountain activists discussed their next corporate targets. Monsanto has already been "clobbered," declared Mr. Mooney. Marty Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, Cambridge, Mass., said he's discontinuing the column, "MonsantoWatch," which appears in his group's newsletter. Next up, he says: a column called "NovartisWatch" or maybe just "CorporateWatch."

In India, says Vandana Shiva, protests are already aimed at U.S. companies and "the biotech crops they want to dump." She is a physicist and founder of the anti-GMO Research Institute for Science, Technology and Ecology, in New Delhi. And she compares the Indian demonstrations, in which fields of cotton have been set afire, to Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to end British colonial rule.

"The problems of the entire world have been created in the U.S.," she says, "so we have to bring these issues back home."

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