The past few months have been good ones for those of us who are unconvinced about the idea of having new-to-nature, pharmaceutical drugs and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as the central planks of healthcare and agriculture, respectively.  First of all, we heard that industrial giant BASF was closing its European biotechnology operations.  Then, Monsanto – quite possibly the ultimate ‘crony capitalists’ – announced that it will not be marketing its GM maize, MON810, in France.  Most recently, pharma giant AstraZeneca revealed a drop in profits and a new round of ‘restructuring’, otherwise known as job losses.

So the big boys are on the retreat, right? Well, in a sense, yes – but it’s not quite as simple as that.

The power of public opinion

However things may appear on the surface, with conventional medicine as rampant as ever and GMOs on a seemingly unstoppable march toward our dinner plates, these news items tell a powerfully different story.  Not only are more and more people turning to natural medicine, but as David Phillips from the Royal Society of Chemistry points out, “It's a fact that the easy targets, in the body, for the production of drugs have, essentially, all been used up”.  We are in the dying days of the pharmaceutical era as we have known it for the last few decades.

As for GMOs, only the sheer force of public opinion has repelled the biotech onslaught in Europe.  Left up to governments, Europeans, just like their North American counterparts, would be eating GMOs most of the time, whether they liked it or not.

That said, Big Pharma and Big Biotech – let’s call them Big PharmaTech for short – are nothing if not cunning.

Throwing BRICS at the problem

It would be a surprise if these mega-corporations simply decided that the battle was over – that people don’t want their products and that they’ve run out of ideas anyway – and took their toys home with them once and for all.

It would make more sense if Big PharmaTech looked to other markets to make up the shortfall.  Even if Europeans are irreversibly against GMOs, the same is not true in, say, Asia or the USA.  And while sales of drugs might be dropping in Western countries, with no imminent replacements in the R&D pipeline, the generic – or unbranded – drugs market is booming in places like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the so-called ‘BRICS’ countries.

Tactical use of resources

BASF has stated its intention to focus on non-European markets already, and a scroll through Monsanto’s mergers and acquisitions list reveals its recent buy-out of several Brazilian and other South American firms.  These companies, as always, will take the path of least resistance to maintain their profit margins.  They don’t care that much about what – or to whom – they sell.   They care mainly about maximizing their profit margins, and of course that’s what their shareholders want.  The problem for many of us is the extreme lack of ethics implicit in Big PharmaTech’s business model, which reveals no empathy for victims of their technology or any seeming concern for the long-term health of humans or the wider environment.

According to the Pharmaceuticals & Biotech Industry Global Report — 2011, “Global pharma players continue to penetrate the burgeoning emerging markets by acquisition of domestic generics and manufacturing companies”.   For its part, AstraZeneca announced its intention to buy a Chinese antibiotic firm at the end of 2011, a purchase that will dovetail nicely with its $200 million investment in a Chinese manufacturing facility.   The company also has an Indian arm.

The world’s biggest pharma company, US giant Pfizer, is in the process of buying a stake in a Brazilian pharma company, Laboratorio Teuto Brasileiro, and has acquired “certain assets” of Strides Arcolab Ltd., an Indian company – among other deals.

Worldwide pressure needed

What we are most likely witnessing is a process whereby Big PharmaTech has realised that the tables have turned in Europe.  It’s then decided to try its luck elsewhere.   This strategy is being mirrored by Big Tobacco, and Big Agro’s dumping of hazardous pesticides in developing countries.

Biotech companies currently have the USA sewn up and plan to do the same in Asia, while Big Pharma wants a slice of the tempting pie of enormous potential profits from generic drugs in places like China and India.  Ideally, of course, it would like the whole pie.

If public campaigns to oust Big PharmaTech and their wares is to have the same success worldwide as has been achieved in Europe, Big PharmaTech must be given no place to hide.   We’ve seen that public opinion can make the biggest companies turn tail and run in Europe – and there is no reason the same can’t be achieved in other parts of the world.

Call to action

As an individual, you are empowered to make significant positive change to the world in which you live. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is to alter your behaviour as a consumer and citizen. So here’s our advice:

  • Stop consuming any products that might contain GMOs! This includes animals that are fed on GMO feed, this being a large proportion of non-organically certified meat, farmed fish and dairy products
  • Non-European countries will now be under extra pressure from multinationals like BASF and Monsanto to accept and widen access to GMOs.  Wherever you live, keep up the pressure on your elected representatives! Let them know, in no uncertain terms – while remaining polite and respectful, of course – that you don’t want GMOs in your country
  • Write to your elected representatives and ask them to consider a complete freeze on outdoor growing of GMOs.   For reasons of diplomacy, it seems to work if you add, “….at least until the science on the matter is settled”
  • Also alert them to the 10-year moratorium on GM technology recently announced by Peru
  • Remember, the science is on your side!  Use and distribute information from organisations like ANH-Europe, ANH-USA and Jeffrey Smith’s Institute for Responsible Technology
  • If you live in the USA, head to the ANH-USA site and get involved with their Action Alert, which supports two Bills currently in Congress:

  1. HR 3553, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, requires labeling of all genetically engineered organisms—including fish
  2. HR 3554, the Genetically Engineered Safety Act, prohibits open-air cultivation of genetically engineered pharmaceutical and industrial crops, to prevent cross-pollination and contamination, and establishes a tracking system for crops and their by-products