Anti-'Frankenfood' Forces Try a New Tactic

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The Microsoft of the genetically modified food industry, Monsanto, is under attack yet again — and, as in the case of the Seattle monolith, its opponents are charging monopoly. Tuesday, lawyers for six farmers filed a class action suit against the seed giant, charging Monsanto with conspiring to control the world's vast seed trade. The suit also claims Monsanto and other companies rush their products to market without testing them adequately for safety. While Monsanto's genetic-engineering business has been the target of many attacks over the past several years, particularly in Europe, Tuesday's suit marks a new tack on the part of "Frankenfood" opponents.

"This economic offensive is just one more portal into a larger discussion of the genetically modified food problem," says TIME science writer Jeffrey Kluger. "We're seeing a critical mass building over modified foods, and Monsanto's opponents know this issue has real traction, and will just keep gathering steam." While the American public has been less vehement than its European counterparts in its hostility toward modified foods, that is likely to change in the coming years, says Kluger. But it may not be this particular suit that breaks the story wide open. "One of two things will happen to bring about widespread public awareness of this issue," says Kluger. "Something huge, like a massive scare, will happen and get people's attention all at once." Or, he adds, there will simply be an incremental pileup of information, culminating, as in the case of global warming, in a raised consciousness. Tuesday's legal action may not be the straw that breaks Monsanto's back, but, as the plaintiffs' lawyers hope, it could be among the first pebbles heralding an avalanche of negative public opinion.