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Monsanto and the Codes of Life

 Monsanto is reinventing itself, the company says on its Web site: ”We're now a life-sciences company, exploring the natural connections between food, medicine, and health.”

However, many people – scientists, farmers, retailers, and ordinary citizens – find Monsanto's manipulation of the codes of life most unnatural; around the world, they remain unconvinced that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will “help us all to thrive,” as the company claims. According to Donella Meadows, columnist, author, and sustainability activist, people in India have set Monsanto's genetically modified test crops ablaze; in England, protesters have pulled up fields of genetically engineered potatoes and corn; and, perhaps most telling of all, GMOs have earned the unflattering moniker "frankenfoods" from protesters.

The good news is that Monsanto is backing down in at least one area – development of the controversial “terminator technology.” The company said it would not market terminator seeds until completion of studies on the environmental, economic, and social effects. Terminator seeds are engineered to become sterile after one planting so farmers must buy new seeds for each growing season.

Philip Angell, Monsanto's director of communications, told The Washington Post that “the reaction to terminator in a lot of different quarters in many countries was clearly becoming the dominant discussion about biotechnology.” Angell added, “We need some level of public acceptance to do our business."

That public acceptance is getting harder for Monsanto to come by. Last March, the company withdrew applications for approval of their herbicide resistant (Roundup Ready) soybeans in Brazil, the second largest exporter of soybeans in the world. This decision came in the wake of protests by environmental and consumer groups as well as scientists and lawmakers in Brazil, according to Greenpeace. In addition, the governor of Brazil's major soybean growing state, Rio Grande del Sul, declared that his state will remain a “GM-free zone.”

Also in March, UK retailer J. Sainsbury's announced that it would not sell GM products under its own label. J. Sainsbury's has formed a coalition of major European retailers in six countries who will only stock GM-free products.

Because the full effects of GMOs are still unknown, the European Parliament announced last February that labels must be placed on foods containing GMOs – a move Monsanto has been fighting hard. Although the Parliament has supported the continued development of genetically engineered crops in Europe, it did demand that GM products contain no anti-biotic-resistant genes or traces of toxic or pathogenic substances.

Even in the U.S., where people have been less vociferous about GMOs, 81 percent of respondents to a Time magazine poll said that transgenic foods should be labeled. With all of the backtracking that Monsanto is doing over its genetically modified foods, it appears that the biotech giant may soon have to reinvent itself – yet again.

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