*This article was written with Jeffrey St. Clair.

"It's agricultural asbestos!" That ripe phrase is how one British farmer described the menu of genetically modified (GM) crops being offered by Monsanto, a food biotechnology company in the United Kingdom. It became a rallying cry for farmers and environmentalists across Britain seeking to keep GM seeds out of English soil. For its part, Monsanto, and the Blair government, dismissed such charges as the ravings of Luddites. But now, a three-year study by British scientists, commissioned by Blair's own environment minister, Michael Meacher, reveals that the environmental risks of GM crops may be even greater than previously believed.

            The Farm-Scale Evaluation study, conducted by the Royal Society, is the first large-scale field test of GM crops. It compared the biodiversity in fields planted with three GM crops -- corn, sugar beet and oilseed rape -- with the crop of similar non-GM crops in adjacent fields. The study found that the super-charged pesticides required to grow GM crops dealt a severe blow to local farmland wildlife species, killing bees, butterflies, insects, wildflowers and birds. The GM version of RoundUp is so potent that it kills almost every non-GM plant in its path, including non-GM versions of the crops themselves. The study's findings, ignored by the U.S. press, landed on the front pages of the London papers at the end of last week, striking yet another blow to the Blair government, which nuzzled up to Monsanto early on, despite condemnations from Prince Charles and hostile poll numbers that outpaced even opposition to British involvement in the Iraq war.

            A few days before release of the Royal Society's study, some major insurance groups in the United Kingdom delivered a potentially lethal punch to Monsanto's hopes by announcing they would not write policies covering farmers using GM seeds against possible lawsuits, indicating that GM products could land them in a morass of claims, such as those that followed the linking of thalidomide and asbestos to fatal or crippling conditions. The Royal Society report was followed a week later by an even more damning study produced by English Nature, the Blair government's wildlife agency, which concluded that the introduction of GM oilseed rape, in particular, would "seriously degrade" England's bird population. The crop is Britain's most important for providing feed for birds, producing up to 30 times more sustenance than the average grain fields. The RoundUp weed killers used with the GM crops resulted in a fivefold decrease in seed production and a 25 percent decline in native flora and fauna fears.

            This has prompted fears that species such as the skylark could be driven to extinction within 20 years if GM farming goes ahead. Populations of skylarks in the east of England, which has a large concentration of oilseed rape, are deemed at particular risk. "These crops would seriously degrade biodiversity in a short period, says Dr. Brian Johnson, biotechnology expert for English Nature. "Clearly, this would take farming in the opposite direction from the Government's stated objectives of farming less intensely and enhancing farmland bird populations." GM beet fields fared nearly as bad, showing 40 percent fewer wildflowers in field margins than in the adjacent non-GM crop fields.

            Monsanto, clearly on the run, says it's abandoning Europe for now. Following Bill Clinton's lead, Blair stocked his cabinet with Monsanto flacks and fought off attempts by the European Union to ban GM crops. The lone holdout in the Blair camp was Meacher, the environment minister, who vowed last year that the government would ban the crops if the studies produced negative results. But Blair sacked him last year, after Meacher publicly savaged Blair's support of the Monsanto machine. So far, the top levels of the Blair government have taken a low-key posture about the study, saying only that they will "carefully reflect" on the results. All this hits Monsanto, already bruised by declining sales, at a bad time. A week after the British study was released, the agricultural-chemical giant announced that it was laying off 10 percent of its U.S. workforce in a desperate attempt to slash costs associated with its RoundUp and biotech business.

            If there's any hope for the company, it probably lies here in the United States rather than Europe. Americans don't like the idea of eating GM food, but, thanks to an indifferent press, they also know next to nothing about it. A case in point: A recent survey by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University found that 75 percent of Americans believe that their palette has never been contaminated by GM foods. Yet, almost everyone in the United States has eaten lots of GM foods. It's part of our daily diet. More 80 percent of processed foods contain some GM crops. "Americans have no idea that foods with genetically modified ingredients are already for sale in the U.S.," says William Hallman, author of the Rutgers study. "But the bottom line is: If you eat processed foods, you're probably eating GM ingredients."

            It's not just a matter of processed foods. GM crops have come to dominate nearly every vegetable crop grown in the United States. A recent report from the Department of Agriculture shows that GM crops are rapidly monopolizing the fields of the farm belt. More than 80 percent of U.S. soybean fields are planted with GM seeds. Similarly, GM seeds account for nearly 75 percent of cotton and 40 percent of corn grown in the United States. One reason so many Americans remain ignorant about the prevalence of GM foods in the U.S. diet is that Monsanto and other biotech companies, with the help of the Clinton and Bush administrations, have fended off calls to label GM foods. The Rutgers study showed that 94 percent of those polled want labels on foods with GM ingredients. The Monsantos of the world know that labels represent a death knell for their business. After all, three out of four Americans believe they are GM virgins.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.