The Food Revolution - Genetic Engineering, Part I

Editor's Note: Continuing our Food Revolution series, John Robbins tackles transgenic crops (GMOs). This is the first installment of three parts on this important topic, and includes info on a modified bacteria that could have wiped out our entire food supply and more.

Pandora’s Pantry

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

Can answers to world hunger, human health, and environmental problems be found in the genetic engineering of our food supply? Genetic engineering involves the permanent alteration of the genetic blueprint of a seed. By modifying a seed’s hereditary makeup, scientists hope that a plant grown from the seed, and its descendants forever, will have certain characteristics.

For example, the first genetically engineered food sold in the United States was the “FlavrSavr” tomato. The Calgene Corporation (now a subsidiary of Monsanto) isolated the tomato gene that codes for a ripening enzyme, then found a way to alter the gene to block the expression of that enzyme. The company hoped thereby to produce a tomato that would have an extended shelf life; after it was picked, it would not continue to ripen but would instead remain firm.

The FlavrSavr tomato was announced with great fanfare in 1995, and the company planned to bring the variety to market as a high-end gourmet product. But things didn’t work out as the people who created it had wanted. The tomato turned out to have reduced yields and disease resistance. And contrary to Calgene’s expectations, the tomatoes were so soft and bruised so easily that they had no appeal at all as fresh produce.

At first, Calgene put labels on the tomatoes saying they were genetically engineered, hoping that the scientific aura of such a label would heighten demand for the tomatoes and allow them to be sold for a higher price. But when consumers responded warily to the labels, not only Calgene but the entire genetic engineering industry learned a lesson it would not forget.(1) Since that time, the industry has not labeled any genetically engineered foods. And it has gone further than that. With its political allies, the industry has fought unceasingly against labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods.

Having been burned when it informed consumers that the FlavrSavr tomato was genetically engineered, Calgene next tried marketing the very same genetically altered tomatoes under the friendly sounding “MacGregor” brand name. The new name was deliberately chosen to obscure the reality that the tomato had an altered genome. The company had learned well the value of nondisclosure.(2)

Genetically engineered foods go by different names. They are sometimes called “genetically modified,” “genetically altered,” “transgenic,” and “biotech” foods—all of which mean the same thing. Of course, though the terms are synonymous, they carry different emotional associations. The corporations behind genetic engineering greatly prefer the term “biotech,” and have spent tens of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns with the goal of getting Americans to refer to the industry as “biotechnology” instead of one of the “emotionally charged labels” such as “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs.

As it turned out, the MacGregor tomato also flopped, even though consumers didn’t know that it was genetically altered. Calgene’s genetic “miracle” was a bust because the altered gene turned out to have many other effects besides the one they had planned. The engineered tomato looked like the real thing, but serious questions arose about its nutritional value. Furthermore, there was evidence that pathogenic bacteria in the intestines of people who ate the tomato could become resistant to antibiotics.(3)

The FlavrSavr (or MacGregor) tomato was pulled from the market in 1996, only a year after its introduction—the same year that Calgene was purchased by Monsanto.

Grand Hopes

For countless centuries, plant breeders have sought to alter the characteristics of plants in order to create desired effects. But they have always been limited to working with characteristics that were already present in the species. An orange could be crossed with a different kind of orange, but it could not be crossed with a gorilla. You had no choice but to deal with “apples and apples.”

In genetic engineering, on the other hand, genes are usually taken from one species and then inserted into another species in an attempt to transfer a desired trait. After the FlavrSavr, for example, the next engineered food in line to be grown commercially was a strawberry that had a gene from an arctic fish (the flounder) inserted into it to make the strawberry more frost-resistant. It, however, also failed.

Though the technology is still in its relative infancy (the first large-scale commercial plantings of genetically engineered crops took place in 1996), many people have dreamed that genetically engineered foods could be an answer to humanity’s prayers. We have hoped that they might bring solutions to world hunger, that they might allow us to do away with pesticides, that they might provide healthier foods, and that they might help the Third World to leapfrog over the environmental dangers of the Industrial Revolution into a brighter, healthier, and more sustainable future.

In 2000, Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Grains of Hope.”(4) The article excitedly described the development of a genetically engineered “golden rice,” so named because it incorporated genes from viruses and daffodils and produced beta-carotene, something no variety of rice had ever done before. Golden rice, said Time, could be a godsend for the half of humanity that depends on rice for its major staple. Nearly a million children die every year because they are weakened by vitamin A deficiencies, and an additional 350,000 go blind. The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A.

It was, it seemed, compelling and inspiring evidence that genetically engineered crops could help reduce malnutrition. Time quoted Jimmy Carter, reminding everyone what was at stake. “Responsible biotechnology,” said the former president, “is not the enemy, starvation is.”

But in all the excitement about golden rice, several facts seemed to escape attention. One was that we have no assurance, yet, that the genetically engineered strain will grow in the kinds of soil that it must to be of value to the world’s hungry. Researchers said it would take millions more dollars and another decade of development at the International Rice Research Institute to produce golden rice varieties that could actually be grown in farmer’s fields. And even then, they would require large amounts of water, water that might not be available in precisely those areas where vitamin A deficiency is most a problem.(5)

Also overlooked in the hoopla was that there are alternative ways to alleviate vitamin A deficiency that are far less costly and do not carry the dangers of genetically engineered foods. In Bangladesh, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) began such a project in 1993. Working with Helen Keller International and other nongovernmental organizations, they introduced a program to help develop small home gardens with improved cultivation methods. Families without land were shown how to grow vitamin A-rich plants (pumpkins, squashes, and beans) up the walls of their homes. The project swiftly snowballed as the health benefits became apparent. By 1998, the program was helping at least 3 million people grow foods at home that are high in vitamin A.

Independent analyses found that very small areas of land were required to generate sufficient vitamin A, and that the greater variety of vegetables and fruits people ate, the better their intake of vitamin A and other vitamins.(6) Health benefits to the poor from programs like this are enormous.

Advocates of genetic engineering imply that if we don’t get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the Third World will go blind. But on March 4, 2001, both the New York Times Magazine and the St. Louis Post Dispatch revealed that an eleven-year-old would have to eat 27 to 54 bowls of golden rice to satisfy the minimum daily requirement for vitamin A.

Order here (U.S.) or here (Europe)
And a larger issue in all of this is that the golden rice effort, although held up as a shining example of genetically engineered foods benefiting humanity, is not even remotely representative of the genetic engineering industry as a whole. The research that is being done on “wonder crops” such as golden rice is conducted almost solely by a small number of institutions dependent on philanthropy or public funds. But such projects are far from the norm. The vast majority of genetic engineering is undertaken for private profit, funded by corporations such as Monsanto.

In a tactic that has led to enormous public confusion, these biotech corporations have not hesitated to refer to crops like golden rice repeatedly in PR campaigns designed to increase public acceptance for genetic engineering, omitting the fact that the vast majority of their efforts focus in a very different direction.

The Biotech Industry

The Monsanto Corporation, founded in 1901 by a chemist to manufacture saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, is by far the largest player in the world of genetic engineering today. “I want to emphasize,” Monsanto’s CEO, Bob Shapiro, said in 1999, “that we will remain fully committed to the promise of biotechnology, because we believe that it can be a safe and sustainable and useful tool in agriculture and nutrition, in human health, and in meeting in particular the world’s needs for food and fiber.”(7)

It sounds as if his goal is to help the world. But Monsanto, like Astra-Zeneca, DuPont, Novartis, and Aventis, is governed by the profit motive. These five top biotech companies together account for nearly 100 percent of the market in genetically engineered seeds. They also account for 60 percent of the global pesticide market. And, thanks to a flurry of recent acquisitions, they now own 23 percent of the commercial seed market.(8)

Whatever their PR might say, their efforts are filtered through, and focused on, the pursuit of corporate profit. Unlike the developers of golden rice, their intention is not to make the world a better place. It is to make money.

Phil Bereano is a professor of technical communications at the University of Washington, and helped found the Council for Responsible Genetics. He asks, “Who in the corporations determines the design criteria for what form of genetic engineering they’re going to have? It’s the money boys. . . . It’s the guys who are dealing with the bottom line. The projects that are likely to make the most money are the projects that are going to be developed, not the projects that correspond to some authentic ordering of human needs.”(9)

Most of the public, at least in the United States (the home of the genetic engineering industry), believes that the technology is being employed to make food healthier, or to increase yields, or to make the food taste better, or to reduce pesticide use, or to enhance some other characteristic that would benefit humanity or the environment. Unfortunately, up until now at least, that is not the way the industry has functioned.

How does it function? What kinds of crops are being grown? In 1999, the great majority (nearly 80 percent) of the total global transgenic acreage was planted in varieties of soy, corn, cotton, and canola that had been genetically altered by agrochemical companies to withstand massive dousings of their own commercial brands of herbicides.(10) Herbicides, a type of pesticide, are chemicals that kill plants or

disrupt their photosynthesis, and are also known as “weedkillers.”

Up until now, farmers could spray herbicides before planting, but not after, because any herbicide that would kill weeds would also kill the intended crop. They had to use other means to combat weeds. But now, with genetically modified varieties, farmers can spray all they want throughout the growing season and their crops won’t die, as long as they use the weedkiller that their crop has been engineered to withstand.

In their eagerness to make their products appear beneficial to the public, the biotech companies repeatedly say that genetically engineered crops require less pesticide. This sounds wonderful, but the reality is decidedly different.

With so called herbicide-tolerant crops, otherwise impossible amounts of a given herbicide can be oversprayed on the crop to kill surrounding weeds while leaving the commodity virtually unscathed.(11) Thus, almost 80 percent of the world’s genetically modified acreage is planted in crops whose only advantage is their ability to tolerate massive and virtually unlimited applications of particular herbicides.

And the other 20-plus percent of the planet’s genetically modified acreage? This land is planted in crops that have been engineered to produce pesticides in every cell of the plants throughout their entire life cycle.(12) One of these, a potato Monsanto has given the welcoming name “New Leaf” potato, is typical. The name “New Leaf” makes it seem as though the variety was the kind of organic food you’d find in a health food store. But in reality, Monsanto’s New Leaf potato technology, which kills any potato beetle that dares take a bite, is itself required to be registered as a pesticide with the EPA.(13)

Rounding Up Profits

An essential part of 'the system'
By the year 2000, 80 million acres worldwide, an area far larger than the entire land mass of the United Kingdom, were planted with genetically engineered herbicide-resistant varieties of soy, corn, and canola.(14) In every case, the agrochemical companies that created and sold these varieties also manufactured and sold the corresponding herbicide.

It is no coincidence that the five largest biotech companies in the world also include the world’s five largest herbicide companies, and, indeed, are the world’s leaders in all kinds of pesticides. The genetically altered varieties they have developed ensure a continuous and ever-expanding market for their agrochemicals.

The bestselling herbicide in the world is Monsanto’s Roundup. In 2000, this one brand of weedkiller brought in almost $3 billion to Monsanto, and the corporation was planning for sales to grow prodigiously in the future. The reason? Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” varieties of soy, corn, and canola had come to account, by themselves, for more than half of all the transgenic plantings in the world.

Roundup Ready crops are genetically engineered to withstand repeated doses of Roundup, enabling farmers to spray their fields and kill weeds without killing the Roundup Ready crop. This is the crops’ only benefit, and no farmer ever grows a Roundup Ready variety without applying the herbicide.

In 1998, Monsanto was on track to spend nearly a billion dollars building new factories worldwide to manufacture more Roundup.(15) And it was doing this unfazed by the fact that the U.S. patent on Roundup ran out in the year 2000. This was not a problem, because Monsanto had come up with a clever plan to extend its monopoly rights on the herbicide indefinitely. It’s actually quite simple. Farmers who grow Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are required to sign a contract that requires them to buy only Monsanto’s brand of the herbicide.(16) Despite high-minded talk of golden rice and ending hunger, Monsanto seems to have a few other motives.

Is Roundup safe? By pesticide standards, it’s relatively benign, and certainly does not belong in the same toxicity class as DDT, Alachlor, or Butachlor, which Monsanto also makes. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 74 plant species that are potentially endangered by excessive use of glyphosate, the primary active ingredient in Roundup.(17) Glyphosate kills fish in concentrations as low as 10 parts per million, impedes the growth of earthworms and increases their mortality, and is toxic to the soil microbes that help plants to take up nutrients from the soil.(18) In the early 1990s, it was also the third most commonly reported cause of all forms of pesticide-related illness in California (the only state that keeps track of such statistics).(19) Symptoms include eye and skin irritation, cardiac depression, and vomiting.(20)

In 1997, Monsanto was forced to remove advertisements that billed Roundup as “totally safe” and “environmentally friendly” after the New York attorney general’s office complained about the toxicity of Roundup’s supposedly inert ingredients, one of which had been cited as the cause of toxicity in nine deaths.(21) As well, studies have linked exposure to glyphosate to an increased risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a serious cancer that affects young people, and the third fastest-growing cancer in the United States.(22)

Monsanto’s key selling point for Roundup Ready seeds has been to tell farmers that one or two good dousings with Roundup will solve all their weed problems. The corporation placed print ads telling farmers that Roundup was “the only weed control you’ll ever need,” even while, in the words of University of California Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology J. B. Neilands, “the quantities of Roundup Monsanto is planning to apply to their proprietary Roundup Ready cultivars [varieties] humbles the imagination.”(23)

Because so much Roundup is used on Roundup Ready crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the residues of Roundup’s active ingredients that can remain on the crop.(24) Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues to enable a company’s success reflects an attitude in which corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety, but the increased levels have remained in force.

Advertisements and glossy brochures, seeking to convince farmers to plant Roundup Ready seeds, speak proudly of “clean fields”—clean in this usage meaning enormous fields with nothing growing in them but soybeans or corn or cotton or canola. This is intended as a selling point, and many farmers go for it, but it is an odd use of the word. The fields are actually so chemicalized that they are virtually sterile, and they bear no resemblance whatsoever to a healthy, flourishing, and biodiverse ecosystem. The soil, relatively void of decaying plant matter, and often impoverished of the worms, insects, and bacteria that feed off it, becomes completely dependent on chemical fertilizers.

Ironically, we’re spraying our fields and food with a toxic substance to make use of a sophisticated technology that is largely unnecessary. There are simpler mechanical ways to deal with weeds, including no-till farming, mulching, and companion cropping. But of course, none of these Earth-friendly methods can be patented and sold for profit, and none fit with massive mono-cultures and reliance on chemicals, so they hold no interest for Monsanto and the other agricultural chemical companies that dominate the business of genetic engineering.(25)

The clean fields, devoid of all weeds, that Monsanto likes to tell us will help end malnutrition, may be doing something very different. Dr. Vandana Shiva, director of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Resource Policy, points out that killing every single weed in a field can deprive the poor of needed sources of key nutritional elements.

“In India,” she says, “at least 80 to 90 percent of the nutrition comes from what the agricultural industry terms ‘weeds.’ (Agribusiness) has this attitude that the weeds are stealing from them, so they spray (Roundup or other herbicides) on a field which has sometimes 200 species that the women of the area would normally use in various ways as food, medicinal plants, or fodder.”(26)
Shiva goes on to say that in many cases, people are suffering from vitamin A deficiency not because they don’t have access to golden rice, but because their fields have been doused with too many chemicals.
“At the moment,” she says, “about 40,000 children in India are going blind for lack of vitamin A, only because industrial farming has destroyed so many wild field plants, the sources of vitamin A that were available to the poorest people in the rural areas. With biotechnology they will increase this lunacy.”(27)
Meanwhile, conservation organizations are telling us that increased use of Roundup means trouble for wildlife. Many of the plants the herbicide eradicates are food for other species. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has warned that increased use of Roundup and other herbicides will kill the plants that support the insects and produce the seeds that birds consume. This, they say, could mean extinction for many bird species—including the skylark—that are already in decline due to industrialized farming practices. Graham Wynne, chief executive of the conservation group, says,
“The ability to clear fields of all weeds using powerful herbicides which can be sprayed onto genetically engineered herbicide-resistant crops will result in farmlands devoid of wildlife and spell disaster for millions of already declining birds and plants.”(28)
It’s not just Monsanto. Other agrochemical manufacturers are busy genetically engineering crops to tolerate their herbicide brands. AgrEvo, for example, manufactures the herbicide glufosinate. The company expects sales for the weedkiller to increase by more than half a billion dollars in the next few years, because it is developing genetically modified crops that will be resistant to glufosinate.

The company says glufosinate is “environmentally friendly.” The EPA, on the other hand, says it is toxic to many aquatic and marine invertebrates, even at very low concentrations.(29) Glufosinate is water soluble and readily leaches into groundwater.(30)

Similarly, Calgene/Monsanto has developed a strain of cotton plants (called BXN Cotton) that can withstand direct spraying with the toxic herbicide bromoxynil (sold under the brand name Buctril). Bromoxynil is recognized by the EPA as a possible carcinogen and as a teratrogen (a substance that causes birth defects).(31)

When the EPA licensed bromoxynil for use on Monsanto’s genetically modified BXN Cotton, the agency assumed that bromoxynil had no way to enter the human food chain. But at certain times of the year in the southern United States, cattle in feedlots are fed silage containing up to 50 percent cotton slash and cotton debris. Thus, bromoxynil is today making its way into the human food chain through meat.(32)

What about World Hunger?

The global area planted in genetically engineered foods grew nearly 25-fold in the three years after 1996, the first year of large-scale commercialization. Yet this enormous growth took place almost entirely in only three countries. In 1999, the United States by itself accounted for 72 percent of the global area. Argentina was responsible for another 17 percent, and Canada weighed in with another 10 percent. These three countries together accounted for 99 percent of the entire planet’s genetically engineered plantings.(33)

What We Know

  • Total global area planted in genetically engineered crops, 1995: Negligible (34)
  • Total global area planted in genetically engineered crops, 1996: 4 million acres (35)
  • Total global area planted in genetically engineered crops, 1997: 27 million acres (36)
  • Total global area planted in genetically engineered crops, 1998: 69 million acres (37)
  • Total global area planted in genetically engineered crops, 1999: 99 million acres (38)
Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world’s food supply is to keep up with population growth. But even with nearly 100 million acres planted in 2000, and with genetically engineered crops covering one-quarter of all cropland in the United States, their products had yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. No commercial acreage had been planted in crops which had been engineered to produce greater yields or that had any kind of enhanced nutritional value. There was no more food available for the world’s less fortunate. In fact, the vast majority of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that were destined for livestock feed. (39)

One of the clearest independent voices in the sometimes raucous debate about genetically modified foods is Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, published by the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1999, the journal noted,

“Neither Monsanto nor any of the other genetic engineering companies appears to be developing genetically engineered crops that might solve global food shortages. Quite the opposite. If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry, then Monsanto and the others would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics: a) ability to grow on substandard or marginal soils; b) plants able to produce more high-quality protein with increased per-acre yield, without the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers, or water; c) they would aim to favor small farms over larger farms; d) the seeds would be cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and e) they would be for crops that feed people, not meat animals. None of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development (to the extent that these have been announced) has any of these desirable characteristics. Quite the opposite. The new genetically engineered seeds . . . produce crops largely intended as feed for meat animals, not to provide protein for people. The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world’s hungry.” (40)
If genetically engineered plants were designed to reverse world hunger, you would expect them to bring higher yields. But there is no evidence that they do, and in fact increasing evidence that they do just the opposite. Ed Oplinger, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, has been conducting performance trials for soybean varieties for the past 25 years. In 1999, he compared the soybean yields in the 12 states that grew 80 percent of U.S. soybeans, and found that the yields from genetically modified soybeans were 4 percent lower than conventional varieties. (41)

When other researchers compared the performance of Monsanto’s transgenic soybeans (the number one genetically engineered crop in the world in terms of acreage planted) with those of conventional varieties grown under the same conditions, they found nearly a 10 percent yield reduction for the genetically engineered soybeans.(42) And research done by the University of Nebraska in 2000 found the yields of genetically engineered soybean plants to be 6 to 11 percent lower than conventional plants.(43)

Not that this research has hampered the Biotechnology Industry Organization, widely regarded as the voice of the industry, from repeating their refrain. Genetic engineering, says the organization’s vice president, Dick Goddown, “is the best hope we have, as denizens of this planet, of being able to feed the people who are going to be on it. . . . The potential for agriculture is just phenomenal.”(44)

If this were so, if genetically modified foods really were an answer to world hunger, it would be a powerful and persuasive argument in their favor, and I would take my hat off to the industry. How could anyone stand in the way of feeding desperate and starving people? But Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s foremost experts on world hunger and transgenic crops, is not convinced. The author of many articles and books on genetic engineering, she rejects the claims that biotechnology will help feed the world. The argument, she says, “is on every level a deception. First of all, the kinds of things they’re producing don’t feed the Third World. . . . Soybeans go to feed the pigs and the cattle of the North. . . . All the investments in agriculture are about increasing chemical sales and increasing monopoly control. . . . All this is taking place in the private domain, by corporations that are not in the business of charity. They are in the business of selling. The food they will produce will be even more costly.”(45)

Similarly, delegates from 18 African countries at a meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization responded to Monsanto’s advertisements with a clear statement:

“We . . . strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed. . . . On the contrary . . . it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.” The representative from Ethiopia added, “We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public.”(46)
Not that any of this has sobered Monsanto, which continues to promote genetic engineering as the answer to world hunger.

Is That So?

“Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.” — Monsanto advertisement (47)

“Genetically engineered crops were created not because they’re productive but because they’re patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich." — Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of Rocky Mountain Institute, a resource policy center (48)

One thing is certain. Monsanto and the other biotechnology companies will not soon stop telling us that genetically engineered foods can alleviate world hunger. In 2000, a coalition of biotech companies began a $50 million marketing campaign to keep fears about genetically altered foods from spreading through the United States. Bankrolling the campaign, which included $32 million in TV and print advertising, were Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Swiss-based Novartis, the British Zeneca, Germany’s BASF, and Aventis of France. The ads, complete with soft-focus fields and smiling children, pitched “solutions that could improve our world tomorrow” and aimed to convince the public that biotech foods could help end world hunger.(49)

Suicide Seeds

There is something absolutely miraculous about seeds, tiny units of life that have the capacity to grow into whole plants that will in turn produce thousands of new seeds. Seeds are one of life’s fundamental mysteries, and one of Nature’s most elegant means of continuance. Seeds that have been found in Egyptian tombs have been viable after having lain dormant for thousands of years.

For countless centuries farmers have fed humanity by saving the seed from one years crop to plant the following year. But Monsanto, the company that claims its motives are to help feed the hungry, has developed what it calls a “Technology Protection System” that renders seeds sterile. Commonly known as “terminator technology,” and developed with taxpayer funding by the USDA and Delta & Pine Land Company (an affiliate of Monsanto), the process genetically alters seeds so that their offspring will be sterile for all time. If employed, this technology would ensure that farmers cannot save their own seeds, but would have to come back to Monsanto year after year to purchase new ones.

At least Melvin J. Oliver, the molecular biologist who is the primary inventor of the terminator technology, doesn’t try to convince us that the point of the technology is to halt the spread of world hunger. “Our mission,” he says, “is to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition.”(50)

Critics call the genetically engineered seeds “suicide seeds.” “By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology multinationals will lock the world’s poorest farmers into a new form of genetic serfdom,” says Emma Must of the World Development Movement. “Currently 80 percent of crops in developing countries are grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and going under.”(51)

In October 1999, after facing intense and sustained public opposition to its terminator technology, Monsanto reluctantly declared that it had no immediate plans to commercialize terminator seeds. This was viewed as a victory for those opposed to the technology. But Monsanto also stated, at the same time, that it would continue closely related research designed to enable it to switch off other genetic traits critical to seed reproduction.(52)

When I first learned about Monsanto’s plans to render seeds sterile, I found the prospect chilling. But I have been dismayed to learn that it’s not just Monsanto that’s doing this. Alarmingly, there are others in the biotechnology industry who see the profit potential and have similar aspirations.

AstraZeneca, for example, has patented a genetic process that makes plant growth and germination dependent upon repeated application of the company’s chemicals. Similarly, Novartis has patented a technique that turns off the genes upon which plants depend to fight infections from many viruses and bacteria. Lo and behold, the only way to turn the genes back on is the application of chemicals sold by Novartis.(53)

As of 1999, twelve different companies had obtained more than two dozen patents on genetically sterilized or chemically dependent seeds.(54) It is unlikely these companies went to the expense of obtaining these patents or developing these systems if they didn’t have plans to use them. These agribusiness corporations recognize the astounding profit potential inherent in gaining a substantial measure of control over the food supply of any nation that widely adopts their company’s genetic technologies.

To these companies, the terminator and other seed sterilizing technologies are simply business ventures that have been designed to produce profit. In this case, there is not even the implication of agronomic benefit to farmers or nutritional benefit to consumers. “Monsanto’s goal,” says Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, “is effective control of many of the staple crops that presently feed the world.”(55) Robert T. Fraley, co-president of Monsanto’s agricultural sector, seems to agree. After the company bought up yet another competing seed company, he said,

“This is not just a consolidation of seed companies. It’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”(56)
This shines an interesting light on Monsanto’s corporate slogan—”Doing well by doing good.”

Are the Risks Overblown?

There is a great deal of controversy about the safety of genetically engineered foods. Advocates of biotechnology often say that the risks are overblown. “There have been 25,000 trials of genetically modified crops in the world, now, and not a single incident, or anything dangerous in these releases,” said a spokesman for Adventa Holdings, a U.K. biotech firm. “You would have thought that if it was a dangerous technology, there would have been a slip up by now.” Similarly, during the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush said that “study after study has shown no evidence of danger.” And the secretary of agriculture during the Clinton administration, Dan Glickman, said that “test after rigorous scientific test” had proven the safety of genetically engineered products.(57)

Is this the case? Unfortunately not, according to a senior researcher from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Jane Rissler. With a Ph.D. in plant pathology, four years of shaping biotechnology regulations at the EPA, and a dozen more in biotech science and policy, she is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the environmental risks of genetically engineered foods. Dr. Rissler has been closely monitoring the trials and studies. “The observations that ‘nothing happened’ in these . . . tests do not say much,” she and her colleague Dr. Margaret Mellon (a member of the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology) write. “In many cases, adverse impacts are subtle and would almost never be registered by scanning a field. . . . The field tests do not provide a track record of safety, but a case of ‘don’t look, don’t find.’”(58)

If this had got into the wild, we could all be dead.
When scientists actually look, what they see can be terrifying. A few years ago, a German biotech company engineered a common soil bacterium, Klebsiella planticula, to help break down wood chips, corn stalks, wastes from lumber businesses and agriculture, and to produce ethanol in the process. It seemed like a great achievement. The genetically engineered Klebsiella bacterium could help break down rotting organic material and in the process produce a fuel that could be used instead of gasoline, thus lessening the production of greenhouse gases. And, it was assumed, the post-process waste could afterward be added to soil as an amendment, like compost. Everybody would win. With the approval of the EPA, the company field-tested the bacterium at Oregon State University. As far as the intended goals were concerned—eliminating rotting organic waste and producing ethanol—the genetically engineered bacterium was a success. But when a doctoral student named Michael Holmes decided to add the post-processed waste to actual living soil, something happened that no one expected. The seeds that were planted in soil mixed with the engineered Klebsiella sprouted, but then every single one of them died.(59)

What killed them? The genetically engineered Klebsiella turned out to be highly competitive with native soil micro-organisms, and to suppress activities that are crucial to soil fertility. Plants are only able to take nitrogen and other nourishment from the soil with the help of fungi called “mycorrhysal.” These fungi live in the soil and help make nutrients available to plant roots. But when the genetically engineered Klebsiella was introduced into living soils, it greatly reduced the population of mycorrhysal fungi in the soil. And without healthy mycorrhysal fungi in soils, no plants can survive.(60)

To me, it is testimony to the amazing powers of science that researchers were able to track the mechanism by which the genetically engineered Klebsiella prevented plants from growing. There are thousands of different species of micro-organisms in every teaspoon of fertile soil, and they interact in trillions of ways.

But the scientists discovered something else in these experiments, something that sent chills down their spines. They found that the genetically modified bacteria were able to persist in the soil, raising the possibility that, had it been released, the genetically engineered Klebsiella could have become established—and virtually impossible to eradicate.(61)

“When the data first started coming in,” says Elaine Ingham, the soil pathologist at Oregon State University who directed Michael Holmes’ research on Klebsiella, “the EPA charged that we couldn’t have performed the research correctly. They went through everything with a fine tooth comb, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with the experimental design—but they tried as hard as they could. . . . If we hadn’t done this research, the Klebsiella would have passed the approval process for commercial release.”(62)

Geneticist David Suzuki understands that what took place was truly ominous. “The genetically engineered Klebsiella,” he says, “could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying.”(63)

Meanwhile Monsanto and the other biotech companies are eagerly developing all kinds of genetically modified organisms, hoping to bring them to market. How do we know if they’re safe? David Suzuki says, “We don’t, and won’t for years after they are being widely used.”(64)

It’s not a prospect that helps calm the nerves and restore confidence in our collective future. And in fact it can seem incredible that these things actually are happening. Surely, I’ve wanted to believe, when the chips are down, they would never do anything that would jeopardize life on Earth. Surely, the people who run these companies or the government officials who oversee them would never allow something that dangerous to occur. Surely, I’ve wanted to believe, the dangers of genetic engineering can’t be that great.

But then again, this wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve wanted to believe something that turned out to be only wishful thinking. And it wouldn’t be the first time that corporations like Monsanto have brought us new products they promised would make life better for everybody and that turned out to do something very different. This is the same company, after all, that brought us PCBs and Agent Orange. Even the product the company was originally formed to produce, the artificial sweetener saccharin, was later found to be carcinogenic.

Of course, Monsanto tells us that this time we don’t have to worry. . . .

“These [genetically engineered] products are absolutely safe. For the most part you wouldn’t know [if you were eating them] but the point being that you wouldn’t need to know.” (Bryan Hurley, Monsanto spokesman)(65)
The Industry No One Will Insure

You and I are repeatedly told by the biotech industry that genetically engineered crops are completely safe. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, for example, tells us, “Crops and foods improved through biotechnology have been modified with incredible precision. They have also been examined in advance in more depth and detail than any other crops and foods in human history. . . . Each and every food allowed on the market has been found to be at least as safe as the foods already available to consumers.”(66)

The insurance industry, however, does not seem to agree. To date, no insurance company has been willing to insure the biotech industry.

“How do commercial interests usually protect themselves from liability claims?” asks geneticist Dr. David Suzuki. “Through insurance. In fact, in our society, the litmus test for safety is insurance. You can be insured for almost anything if you pay enough for the premium, but if the insurance industry isn’t willing to bet its money on the safety of a product or technology, it means the risks are simply too high or too uncertain for them to take the gamble.”(67)

There is today no insurance whatsoever against the kinds of catastrophic losses and tragedies that could ensue from introducing transgenic organisms into the environment and into the human food chain. The insurance industry has consistently not been willing to place insurance premiums on the potential for loss that is involved.(68)

The European Community has expressed a few concerns as well. In 1999, London’s newspaper, the Independent, announced that “European governments are drawing up contingency plans for a nuclear fallout-style emergency involving genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A five-point Emergency Response Plan has been formulated by the European Commission, designed to cope if genetically modified plants result in widespread illness or the death of wildlife. . . . The plan is designed to prevent a human health disaster and stop genetically modified plants from breeding wildly with native species.”(69)

Make sure you check out Part II - Farmageddon

Further Reading:


1. Lappé, Marc, and Bailey, Britt, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998), p. 117. 2. Ibid. 3. Teitel, Martin, and Wilson, Kimberly, Genetically Engineered Food (Rochester VT: Park Street Press, 1999), pp. 20–2, 41. 4. Nash, J. M., “Grains of Hope,” Time, July 31, 2000, pp. 39–46. 5. Shiva, Vandana, “Genetically Engineered Vitamin A Rice: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention,” February 14, 2000; blind_rice.html. 6. Warwick, Hugh, Splice, March/April 2000; 7. Shapiro, Robert, Address to Greenpeace Business Conference, London, U.K., October 6, 1999. 8. “Seedless in Seattle,” Rural Advancement Foundation International News Release, November 26, 1999. 9. Quoted in Suzuki, David, and Dressel, Holly, From Naked Ape to Superspecies (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1999), p. 131. 10. Halweil, Brian, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” Vital Signs 2000, Worldwatch Institute, p. 118. 11. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, p. 23. 12. Halweil, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” p. 118. 13. Pollan, Michael, “Playing God in the Garden,” New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998; see also Wrubel, R., et al., “Regulatory Oversight of Genetically Engineered Microorganisms . . .,” Journal of Environmental Management 21:4 (1997):571–86. 14. Halweil, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” p. 118. 15. Anderson, Luke, Genetic Engineering, Food, and our Environment (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999), p. 24; Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, p. 58. 16. “Monsanto Releases Seed Piracy Case Settlement Details,” Monsanto Press Release 12, September 1998, cited in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 23; Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, pp. 53, 57. 17. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 24. 18. “Glyphosate: Environmental Health Criteria 159,” World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Program, Geneva, Switzerland, 1994; cited in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, pp. 24–5; Abdel-Mallek, A., et al., “Effect of Glyphosate on Fungal Population, Respiration and the Decay of Some Organic Matters in Egyptian Soil,” Microbial Research 149 (1994):69–73. 19. Pease, W., et al., “Preventing Pesticide-Related Illness in California Agriculture,” Environmental Health Policy Program Report (Berkeley, CA: University of California School of Public Health; California Policy Summary). 20. Cox, C., “Glyphosate, Part 1: Toxicology, Herbicide Factsheet,” Journal of Pesticide Reform 15:3 (Fall 1995), from the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. 21. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, p. 54; Presley, Amanda, “Reckoning for Roundup . . .,” E, September/October 2000, p. 64. 22. Harden, Lent, and Eriksson, Michael, “A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides,” Cancer 85:6 (March 15, 1999):1353–60. 23. Foreword to Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, p. viii. 24. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, pp. 75, 125. 25. Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 114. 26. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 115. 27. Ibid. 28. Quoted in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 27. 29. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 24. 30. Cox, C., “Herbicide Factsheet: Glufosinate,” Journal of Pesticide Reform 16:4 (1996):15–9; cited in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 24. 31. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, pp. 41–6. 32. Ibid. 33. Halweil, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” p. 118. 34. Halweil, Brian, “Transgenic Crops Proliferate,” Vital Signs 1999, Worldwatch Institute, p. 122. 35. Ibid. 36. Ibid. 37. Ibid. 38. Halweil, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” p. 118. 39. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, p. 147. 40. “Against the Grain,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly 637, February 11, 1999; see also Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, pp. 88–9. 41. Holzman, David, “Agricultural Biotechnology: Report Leads to Debate on Benefits of Transgenic Corn and Soybean Crops,” Genetic Engineering News 19:8 (April 15, 1999). 42. Lappé and Bailey, Against the Grain, pp. 82–4. 43. Lean, Geoffrey, “Research Backs Charles: GM Crops Don’t Deliver,” Independent, June 11, 2000. 44. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 117. 45. Ibid., p. 118. 46. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, pp. 55–57. 47. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 116. 48. Loving, Armory and Loving, Hunter, “A Tale of Two Obtains” (April 2000); 49. Albright, Mark, “Biotech Battle Now a War of Words,” St. Petersburg Times, May 10, 2000. 50. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 66. 51. “Biotech: The Pendulum Swings Back,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly 649, May 6, 1999. 52. “Terminator Terminated?” Rural Advancement Foundation International News Release, October 4, 1999; Brasher, Philip, “Terminator Seeds,” Associated Press, October 31, 1999. 53. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 68. 54. Ibid. 55. “Genetically Altering the World’s Food,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly 639, February 25, 1998. 56. Quoted in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 88. 57. Ibid., p. 96. 58. Ibid., p. 32. 59. Hill, H., “OSU Study Finds Genetic Altering of Bacterium Upsets Natural Order,” Oregonian, August 8, 1994. 60. Holmes, M., et al., “Effects of Klebsiella Planticola on Soil Biota . . .,” Applied Soil Ecology 326 (1998):1–12. 61. Suzuki, and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, pp. 120–1. 62. Quoted in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, pp. 39–40. 63. Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 121. 64. Ibid., p. 122. 65. Quoted in Kemp, Christopher, “Hot Potato,” Cleveland Free Times, June 14–20, 2000. 66. “Does the Biotechnology Industry Oppose Labeling of Biotech Foods?” Biotechnology Industry Organization Web site; 67. Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 144. 68. “Biotech In Trouble,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly 696, May 11, 2000. 69. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 142.

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