The Food Revolution - Genetic Engineering, Part II

Editor's Note: Continuing our Food Revolution series, John Robbins tackles transgenic crops (GMOs). Moving on from last week, this is the second installment of three parts on this important topic. The post is longish, as it covers a lot of ground, including human casualties from modified bacteria, government infiltration, bribes, lawsuits, a Monsanto cafeteria that - due to staff demands - won't serve food containing GMOs, and the loss of democracy -- 80 - 95% of the U.S. public want labelling for all transgenic products.... Settle into your swivel chair for an alarming exposé on the world of genetically modified foods.

Farmageddon

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'.

I don’t particularly enjoy contemplating the difficulties and dangers that could develop as a result of genetic engineering. It’s far more exciting to think that the technology might open the door to a brighter future. It can feel wonderful to imagine the possibilities for good and the expansion of human power and potential the technology might bring. The industry tells us we’re going to put vaccines into common foods like bananas, thereby saving millions of lives. We’re going to have fish that grow faster, pigs whose excrement is less toxic, and cows that produce less methane. Foods like golden rice will be designed to contain higher levels of the things we want, like vitamins, and fewer of the things we don’t, like cholesterol and saturated fat. Pigs will be bred to grow human organs for transplants. Scientists are even isolating DNA from species long extinct, such as mastodons and Neanderthal people, in the hope of restoring them to life.

It sounds as if the sky is no longer the limit. Genetic engineering and the biotech companies can seem to hold the key to the promised land.

Dr. David Suzuki’s genetics research lab was once the largest in Canada, and he co-wrote the most widely used introductory genetics textbooks in the world. He introduces a note of balance into the discussion:

“Genetics has enormous implications; it is full of promise to benefit and improve human lives, but equally heavy with potential to destroy and cause untold suffering. . . . The word ‘engineering’ conjures up images of roads and bridges and buildings, all designed and constructed to precise specifications. But as a geneticist, I can assure you that genetic engineering is based on trial and error, rather than on precision. For instance, if I want to insert a gene from a fruit fly into a daffodil, I can’t pluck out just that gene and set it down exactly where I want it to go in its new home. The technique just doesn’t work like that. Some geneticists even use a kind of molecular shotgun to blast the genes into the cells. And they never know exactly where they’ll end up.”(1)
Most of us think that a characteristic can be transferred from one species to another simply by moving the gene responsible for the given characteristic into the new species. But it’s far from being that simple. For example, you might have a gene that in a mouse produces a hormone that regulates growth. But that gene will not necessarily produce the same hormone with the same effect in another species. It could produce a totally different effect, and there’s no way of knowing. As genes are moved from one species to another, the effects are almost totally unpredictable. The science of genetics allows us to predict how genes will be expressed within a given species. But once we cross species boundaries, as the techniques of genetic engineering allow us to do, we have, according to David Suzuki, “absolutely no idea what might happen.”(2)

To make things even more uncertain, conditions in the environment affect the way a gene is expressed in a plant. The same gene can produce different effects, depending on soil conditions, climate, chemical exposures, and a host of other environmental variables. This is why a plant that appears predictable and safe after a few years of observation on a small test plot may turn out to have entirely different consequences when grown in the variety of conditions that occur in the real world.

Suzuki is concerned that we are rushing ahead with a staggeringly powerful technology without adequate understanding of what we are doing. “The biotechnology industry makes anybody who brings up such matters look hysterical,” he says. “Unfortunately, history shows us that all kinds of things—petrochemicals, CFCs, toxic dumps and nuclear power—that we thought, even insisted, were benign, turned out to be extremely dangerous. History informs us that caution is well warranted when it comes to buying into a powerful new technology.”(3)

When genetic engineers shot “eye genes” from mice into fruit fly DNA, they produced fruit flies with extra eyes, all right, but the eyes were all over the flies’ bodies. The scientists were not able to predict or control how many extra eyes would exist or where they would appear. In fact, they created flies with eyes on their wings and legs.(4)

Those extra eyes were visible and obvious. We don’t know what other changes took place in the flies. Similarly, it is entirely possible that the transgenic plants we are releasing into the global ecosystem, and growing by the tens of millions of acres, could carry tragic flaws that are not apparent at first observation.

Of course, the lack of precision and certainty that we note in genetic engineering is normal with any new technology. The difference is that, in this case, with staggering potential consequences we are growing hundreds of thousands of square miles of genetically modified crops without having conducted any long-term testing whatsoever.

Proponents of genetic engineering say it is simply the latest in a seamless continuum of biotechnologies practiced by human beings since the dawn of civilization, from bread and winemaking to selective breeding.(5) They do not pretend that there are no risks associated with genetic engineering. But they say that these risks are no different from those for similar plants bred using traditional methods.

Order here (U.S.) or here (Europe)
This can seem persuasive. But in traditional forms of breeding, traits are developed and accentuated that already exist within a species. In genetic engineering, on the other hand, we’re taking genes from one species, or from several species, and inserting them into a completely different species.

We’re taking flounder genes and putting them into tomatoes. We’re taking human genes and putting them into salmon. We’re taking genes from bacteria and from rats and putting them into broccoli. The Roundup Ready varieties that in 1999 made up more than half of the entire U.S. soybean crop and a third of the entire U.S. corn crop contain genes from viruses and petunias.

It is this crossing of, and violation of, Nature’s species barriers that makes the process unprecedented and uniquely powerful. It is also, however, what makes it uniquely dangerous.

Nature has not made it easy to cross species boundaries. Dogs cannot breed with cats, much less fish with tomatoes. But genetic engineering overcomes the formidable barriers that Nature has erected, and that have almost never before in billions of years of life on Earth been transgressed, by creating “vectors.” Derived from viruses and bacteria, these vectors are specifically designed to break down species barriers and to shuttle genes between a wide variety of species.

In genetic engineering, these vectors are attached to the genes that are to be transported, and then together they are shot into the genetic material of the recipient species. This is what makes the technology possible. But it is also what raises the likelihood that the genetic traits being transferred can jump from their new home into yet other organisms. The genetically modified crop isn’t necessarily the end of the line. The same vector that enabled the trait to get into the transgenic organism can enable it to spread from there.

Contemplating some of the nightmarish scenarios that could occur can be frightening. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do it, that just wants to believe that things will be fine. No doubt we’ll make a few messes and screw up plenty, I want to think, but we’ll find a way to muddle through.

Perhaps. But if we are going to tamper with the code that generates all life, shouldn’t we first know what we are doing? If we are going to plant 100 million acres in transgenic crops after only four years of commercial deployment, shouldn’t we consider every danger?

The biotech industry frequently implies that those who question it are reacting from emotion rather than reason, and that concerns about safety or health are irrational and exaggerated. But the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve seen that there are bona fide issues here of scientific uncertainty, health risks, and environmental dangers. And the more it seems to me that it’s not the people who challenge genetic engineering who are blinded by emotion, but rather those who want to rush headlong into it, reckless with the excitement of overcoming Nature’s most ancient and inviolate boundaries.

Is That So?

“The biggest mistake that anyone can make is moving slowly, because the game is going to be over before you start.” — Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto’s Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (6)

“I have a feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate. . . . You cannot recall a new form of life. . . . It will survive you and your children and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard of, so unthinkable in previous generations, that I only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.” — Erwin Chargaff, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, Columbia University, and discoverer of “Chargaff’s Rules,” the scientific foundation for the discovery of the DNA double helix(7)

John Fagan is a molecular biologist who for more than twenty years was funded by the National Institutes of Health to conduct genetic engineering research. But in 1994, he returned more than $600,000 to the NIH and withdrew his proposals for another $1.25 million. Then he launched a global campaign to alert the public about the hazards of genetic engineering. According to Dr. Fagan,
“Genetic engineers can cut and splice genes very precisely in a test tube, but the process of putting those genes into a living organism is extremely imprecise, inaccurate, and uncontrolled. Such manipulations can cause mutations that damage the functioning of the organism. Once a gene is inserted into an organism, it can cause unanticipated side effects. Mutations and side effects can cause genetically engineered foods to contain toxins and allergens and to be reduced in nutritional value.”(8)
Dr. Richard Strohman is a renowned molecular biologist. Past chair of the prestigious department of molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, he agrees with Dr. Fagan that the stakes are high. The trouble with genetically engineering, he says,
“is that it often doesn’t work. And when you put a biological entity out into the environment, or into a human being, and you’re not completely certain—and you can never be certain in this business, in my opinion—your ability to do damage is very, very high.”(9)
Strohman and others point to the dangers inherent in gene-splicing techniques. When scientists snip a bit of DNA from one organism and insert it into another, it doesn’t travel alone. It can include genetic parasites, such as viruses. Genetic parasites are naturally specific to certain species. They are contained by genetic species barriers, and indeed this is one of the reasons why Nature has kept species barriers so intact and inviolate. But with genetic engineering, we are transgressing the gene-transfer barriers that normally exist. In the eyes of many scientists, this is deeply troubling, because in the past few years, there have been an increasing number of reports of new pathogens arising from the kind of horizontal (across species barriers) gene transfer that is the basis for genetic engineering.

Within the past twenty-five years, we have seen a rash of new diseases arising, including Ebola, aids, hepatitis C, Lyme disease, and hanta-virus, and no doubt we will see more emerge in coming years. There is much we don’t know about these emerging diseases, but we know they take a terrifying toll on humanity. And we know that many of these new pathogens seem to stem from horizontal gene transfer. This means they have come from other species and have jumped to us.

This happens rarely in Nature, which is fortunate, because when it does, the results can be disastrous. The flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more than 22 million people worldwide, is thought to have been caused by horizontal gene transfer. Aids is now thought to stem from a virus that originated in chimpanzees and somehow jumped to humans who ate the chimps or exchanged blood with them. Mad Cow disease is now understood to be the result of horizontal transfer of an infectious protein that kills sheep.

With so much at stake, you might think that those involved would be moved to humility. Sometimes, they are. Then again, sometimes they aren’t. . .

Is That So?

“Those of us in industry can take comfort. . . . After all, we’re the technical experts. We know we’re right. The ‘antis’ obviously don’t understand the science, and are just as obviously pushing a hidden agenda—probably to destroy capitalism.” — Bob Shapiro, Monsanto’s CEO (10)

“(Genetic engineering) faces our society with problems unprecedented, not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution. . . . Up to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell. . . . Going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, and novel epidemics.” — George Wald, M.D., Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Professor of Biology, Harvard University

It’s quite an experiment to be undertaking without any long-term testing and without the consent or knowledge of the people involved.

Genetic Roulette

Medical authorities estimate that one-quarter of the population experiences allergic reactions to one or more foods—most commonly dairy products, eggs, wheat, and nuts. We don’t know why some people react adversely and others don’t. But the consequences can be serious, and can result in many problems, including life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

In 1996, researchers at Pioneer Hi-Bred inserted a protein from Brazil nuts into soybeans. Because the genetically engineered soybeans were regarded as “substantially equivalent” to non–genetically engineered soybeans, Pioneer Hi-Bred was not required to test for allergic responses in human beings. But when researchers at the University of Nebraska tested the genetically engineered soybeans on samples of blood serum drawn from people who were allergic to Brazil nuts, they found that if these people had eaten the soybeans, they would have suffered serious, even fatal, allergic reactions.(11) Pioneer Hi-Bred withdrew the product.

In discussing the situation in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers emphasized that tests on laboratory animals are not sufficient to discover allergic reactions to genetically modified organisms.(12) Only tests on humans can do that.

In this case, we were lucky. Knowing that Brazil nuts can be allergenic, Pioneer Hi-Bred undertook the tests of its own accord. But with genetic material from bacteria and viruses continually being inserted across species boundaries into genetically engineered foods, it is seemingly only a matter of time until a genetically engineered food causes adverse reactions in the unsuspecting public. It may in fact already be happening, though impossible to trace to its source.

Today, the FDA requires allergy testing when the organism from which the gene is taken is a known and common allergen. But such tests have never been required of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, even though the genetic engineering process has incorporated genes from petunias and viruses into the soybeans, because petunias and viruses are not known allergens. Of course they aren’t; no one’s ever eaten them before. How would anyone know if they were allergic to petunias? Since soy products are widely dispersed in the American diet, it is entirely conceivable that members of the public are already experiencing harm from transgenic foods.

At present, we can only speculate what adverse reactions might already be occurring. The lack of labeling effectively prevents any attempt to monitor the human health impact of consuming these foods. Laura and Robin Ticciati are the authors of the 1998 book Genetically Engineered Foods: Are They Safe? You Decide. They ask questions like:

“What if we find out in twenty years that genetically engineered foods aren’t safe after all? What if we discover some bizarre disease in the next generation that ends up linked to the (soy or canola) oil we pour on our salads today? What if the French fries our kids devoured last week cause birth defects in our grandchildren? What if we learn that manipulating the DNA of our foods has an effect on a growing fetus after all? Or that genetically engineered foods contain some unknown allergen that produces a reaction that just can’t be cured?” (13)
When a spokesperson for one of the largest producers of genetically engineered seeds called the Ticciatis to task, comparing them to someone who was afraid to cross the street because “what if” a car came just at that moment and hit them, they had an answer. “We look both ways before stepping off the curb,” they said. “Don’t you?”

The L-Tryptophan Story

The food supplement L-tryptophan was safely used by tens of millions of people for decades as an aid to relaxation and sleep. The process by which the supplement was produced involved a particular bacteria. In fact, it’s not too much of an oversimplification to say that the bacteria actually produced the L-tryptophan.

But then, in 1989, Showa Denko, a Japanese company that manufactured L-tryptophan, genetically engineered the bacteria (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens) to greatly increase the amounts of L-tryptophan the bacteria was able to produce. Shortly thereafter, thousands of people who were taking L-tryptophan began to suffer from an extremely serious disease, Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS), that left at least 37 people dead and thousands with permanent disabilities, including paralysis.(14)

Because the batch of L-tryptophan that had been made by genetically engineered bacteria had not been labeled any differently than other L-tryptophan, it was not immediately apparent that it was the cause of the outbreak. And Showa Denko didn’t help matters any by destroying all batches of the genetically engineered bacteria once investigators came knocking. But extremely toxic compounds (Peak E, Peak 97, and EBT) were subsequently found in the L-tryptophan that had been made using the genetically engineered bacteria, and have never been found in brands produced with non–genetically engineered bacteria.(15) And no one has ever been known to contract EMS from non–genetically engineered L-tryptophan.

The batch of L-tryptophan that was made by Showa Denko using the genetically engineered bacteria, like all genetically engineered products, was considered “substantially equivalent” to the L-tryptophan produced normally and had not been subjected to any kind of testing by authorities.

L-tryptophan was subsequently banned for sale in the United States, but sadly, the L-tryptophan tragedy could potentially be a harbinger of things to come. Bacteria are also used to produce many vitamins. In 1996, the United Kingdom approved a new process to manufacture riboflavin (vitamin B-2) using genetically engineered bacteria. They did so based on data that identified only those contaminants found at levels greater than 0.1 percent. But this would not have been a fine enough screen in the case of the L-tryptophan made by genetically engineered bacteria, because the toxic compounds in that L-tryptophan constituted only 0.01 percent of the marketed product by weight. “Under current international safety regulations,” notes genetic engineering expert and author Luke Anderson, “a product which contained contaminants as dangerous as those found in the (genetically engineered) L-tryptophan could still be passed as safe for human consumption.”(16)

Unfortunately, because of the lack of labeling, there is no way for consumers to tell today whether or not their vitamins and other supplements have been made with the aid of genetically engineered bacteria. One company, NOW Foods of Bloomingdale, Illinois, has begun to augment its vitamin line with non-GMO supplements. “The challenge,” said James Roza, the company’s director of quality assurance, “is enormous. Not only do we have to worry about the contamination of raw materials like corn and soy, but . . . all of the genetically engineered processing aids used to make vitamins as well.”(17)

I wish I could tell you the name of a particular brand of vitamins that you could purchase knowing they were guaranteed to be free from GMOs. But I can’t. It’s ironic, because you can buy a safer car, or one that gets better gas mileage. You can choose an energy-efficient freezer. But the lack of labeling makes it very difficult to choose foods and supplements that don’t contain genetically altered substances.

Milk from Drugged Cows

For some time, bovine growth hormone (BGH) has been used to stimulate milk production in cows. The hormone was too expensive for widespread use, however, until Monsanto came up with a genetically altered hormone, called rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), sold under the brand name Posilac. This genetically engineered hormone is now injected into about a quarter of the cows in U.S. dairies.(18)

There is no controversy about whether rBGH increases milk production. It does. But there are other points of contention. For one thing, the need for the technology has been questioned, because since 1950 U.S. dairy farmers have been producing vastly more milk than Americans can consume. In fact, in 1986–1987, the federal government paid farmers to kill their cows and stop dairy farming for five years, in an effort to reduce the amount of milk produced. More than 1.5 million U.S. milk cows were slaughtered. Even this drastic program, however, did not solve the problem of milk overproduction in the United States.

Another issue is that milk from cows that have been injected with Monsanto’s genetically engineered rBGH contains 2 to 10 times as much IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) as normal cow’s milk.(19) This is significant, because the risk of prostate cancer for men over 60 years of age with high levels of IGF-1 is 8 times greater than for men with low levels.(20) And the risk of breast cancer for premenopausal women with even small increases in blood levels of IGF-1 is up to 7 times greater.(21)

Consultants paid by Monsanto say that milk from injected cows is absolutely safe for human consumption because IGF-1 is destroyed by pasteurization. FDA researchers, on the other hand, report that IGF-1 is not destroyed by pasteurization.(22)

Monsanto also says the hormone is safe because IGF-1 is completely broken down by digestive enzymes and does not enter the human intestinal tract.(23) But researchers not paid by Monsanto say that IGF-1 may not be totally digested, and that some does make its way into the colon and cross the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.(24)

It makes you wonder.

Meanwhile, cows treated with the genetically engineered hormone have a 25 percent increase in udder infections (mastitis) and a 50 percent increase in lameness. To counter the health problems among cows injected with rBGH, Monsanto suggests a greater use of antibiotics. As it just so happens, the company also sells the very antibiotics it recommends.

Health Problems from Eating Genetically Engineered Foods?

Does eating genetically engineered foods pose potential health risks to people? In 2001, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé revealing that Monsanto’s own research had raised many questions about the safety of their Roundup Ready soybeans.(25) Remarkably, the FDA did not call for more testing before allowing these soybeans to flood the marketplace. Since half the soybeans grown in the United States are now Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety, and because soy is contained in such a wide array of processed foods, tens of millions of people are unknowingly eating these experimental foods daily. According to Monsanto’s own tests, Roundup Ready soybeans contain 29 percent less of the brain nutrient choline, and 27 percent more trypsin inhibitor, a potential allergen that interferes with protein digestion, than normal soybeans. Soy products are often prescribed and consumed for their phytoestrogen content, but according to the company’s tests, the genetically altered soybeans have lower levels of phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that affects levels of phytoestrogens. And levels of lectins, which not infrequently are allergens, are nearly double in the transgenic variety.(26)

What might be expected from consuming soybeans containing higher levels of trypsin inhibitor and lectins? At the very least, slower growth in children. And possibly, unexpected and even dangerous allergic reactions.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, senior scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, has published 270 scientific papers, and is widely known as the world’s leading expert on lectins.(27) When he began conducting experiments in which he fed genetically engineered potatoes to rats, he considered himself a “very enthusiastic supporter” of gene splicing biotechnology. However, the rats fed on genetically modified potatoes showed a variety of unexpected and disturbing changes, including smaller livers, hearts, and brains—and weakened immune systems. “Feeding transgenic potatoes to rats induced major and in most instances highly significant changes in the weights of some or most of their vital organs,” he concluded. “Particularly worrying was the partial liver atrophy. . . . Immune organs, such as the spleen and thymus were also frequently affected.”(28) Sadly, the rats’ growth was impired, and some developed tumors and showed significant shrinkage of the brain after only ten days of eating genetically modified potatoes.(29)

I’m not a big fan of animal studies, because I’ve found that a great number of them are cruel and unjustified and their relevance to humans is often questionable. Still, the results of Pusztai’s tests were shocking. “I was totally taken back. No doubt about it,” Pusztai said. “The longer I spent on the experiment, the more uneasy I became.”(30) When he appeared on the major British TV program World In Action, Pusztai was asked, point blank, whether he personally would eat genetically modified potatoes. “No,” he answered, adding that “it is very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.” For this, Dr. Pusztai was suddenly and inexplicably fired. Only later was it discovered that the Rowett Institute is partially funded by Monsanto.

A subsequent panel of twenty independent scientists from thirteen countries, however, confirmed both Dr. Pusztai’s data and his findings, and the Institute eventually was forced to reinstate Dr. Pusztai. Meanwhile, a ban was imposed on growing genetically engineered crops of any kind in the United Kingdom for three years.

There are now laws in the United Kingdom requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods, and almost every major food chain in the country has pledged to be “gene-free.” Yet amazingly, the industry has continued to forge ahead unabated in the United States, where the federal government, rather than testing and regulating the industry, has been its cheerleader.

The Lancet, widely recognized to be one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, describes the situation candidly:

“It is astounding that FDA has not changed their stance on genetically modified food. . . . Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health.(31)
Regulatory Agencies Out to Lunch

There are three federal agencies that in different ways regulate genetically engineered crops and foods in the United States: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You’d like to think that these agencies are protecting the public and looking out for the common good. But on this issue, according to Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly,

“The heads of all three agencies are on record with speeches that make them sound remarkably like cheerleaders for genetic engineering, rather than impartial judges of a novel and powerful new technology. All three agencies have set policies that:

- No public records need be kept of which farms are using genetically engineered seeds. - Companies that buy from farmers and sell to food manufacturers and grocery chains do not need to keep genetically engineered crops separate from traditional crops, so purchasers have no way to avoid purchasing genetically engineered foods. - No one needs to label any seeds, crops, or any food products, with information about their genetically engineered origins, so consumers have no way to exercise informed choices in the grocery store.”(32)

These policies have two principal effects. They keep the public unaware of the rapid arrival of transgenic foods onto the family dinner table. And they prevent epidemiologists from tracing health effects, if any appear, because no one will know who has been exposed to novel gene products and who has not.

It is astounding how casually the federal agencies have taken the transition to genetically modified foods. Before the first altered foods came onto the market, the FDA determined that these foods were “substantially equivalent” to traditional foods, and therefore should be regarded and regulated as if they were no different. At present, except in cases where there are demonstrably major changes in nutrient composition, or in cases where specific proteins known to cause allergic reactions have been incorporated, transgenic foods in the United States are not subject to any pre-market approval process, public notification, or labeling.

The government leaves it up to the biotech industry to decide when and whether to consult with the FDA. Any safety testing is done by the industry of their own products, and they are asked to notify the FDA only if they suspect a problem. Thus we have a situation where the very companies that stand to profit are the ones that decide whether or not their products are hazardous.

If the goal of public policy regarding genetic engineering is to reduce regulatory costs for the biotech corporations, it is certainly being achieved. But whatever happened to the goal of protecting the public from harm?

The FDA simply allows Monsanto and the other biotech companies to decide for themselves whether their products are “generally recognized as safe.” If the companies decide that they are, no safety testing is required before these new products are introduced into the food supply.

Can we trust these companies to do the job? When independent researchers looked at Monsanto’s tests on Roundup Ready soybeans, they found that the soybeans Monsanto tested were not an accurate representation of the Monsanto soybeans that appear in the store as food. They had not been treated with herbicide, although no one grows any Roundup Ready variety without using Roundup on the fields. When an independent testing firm reconducted the study, genetically altered soybeans grown under real world conditions and sprayed with the herbicide were found to have a 12 to 14 percent reduction in phytoestrogens—nutrients that help protect against heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast cancer.(33)

Suzanne Wuerthele is a toxicologist who has worked for the EPA for 13 years. She says,

“This technology is being promoted, in the face of concerns by respectable scientists and in the face of data to the contrary, by the very agencies which are supposed to be protecting human health and the environment. The bottom line in my view is that we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences.”(34)
What is the reasoning behind these policies? The FDA and the biotech industry say that labels and testing would “mislead” people by implying that there is a “tangible difference” between genetically engineered foods and their natural counterparts. They continue to tell us that transgenic foods are “substantially equivalent” to their natural predecessors. The FDA has steadfastly maintained this position, even when many of the agency’s own scientists expressed grave doubts about the safety of transgenic crops, and even in the case of Monsanto’s New Leaf potato, which has been genetically modified to incorporate a pesticide into every cell (to kill potato beetles), and is itself registered with the EPA as a pesticide.(35)

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the FDA and the biotech industry are talking out of both sides of their mouths. When it comes to labeling, transgenic foods are “substantially equivalent” and do not need to be labeled or tracked in any way. But when it comes to patenting, they are whole new organisms, and can be patented, owned, and sold for a profit.

In late 1999, a consortium of large organizations supporting biotechnology wrote President Clinton,

“If the FDA were to change its policy and require special labeling for biotech foods, such labeling could have the effect of misleading consumers into believing that biotech foods are either ‘different’ from conventional foods or present a risk or a potential risk. . . . Such special labeling of biotech foods could lead to the very kind of consumer confusion that labels are designed to prevent. . . . Changing the current policy to require special labeling could impact significantly consumers’ perception of the safety of biotech foods and undermine the credibility the FDA currently enjoys. Furthermore, such a change in policy would have the effect of validating the charges and claims being advanced by opponents of modern biotechnology.”(36)
The letter was signed by 38 organizations, including the American Crop Protection Association (a consortium of pesticide manufacturers), the American Meat Institute, the National Turkey Federation, the Biotechnology Industry Association, the United Egg Association, International Dairy Foods, and the National Chicken Council.

Advocates of genetic engineering don’t always respond graciously to criticism. In 2000, biotech proponent Jack Kemp, the former Republican nominee for vice president, came up with a whole series of names for those calling for safety testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods. They are, he said, “ill-considered, anti-progress, left-wing, self-appointed . . . anti-technology activists.”(37)

How is it, I have wondered, that the U.S. government could be so totally in the pocket of the biotech industry, and so asleep at the switch when protecting the public? How is it that, rather than require that the biotech industry prove that genetic engineering is necessary and safe, the government has seemed to view public resistance as something to be conquered? How is it that these products have been put on the market without public input or labeling? How is it that little recourse is left for someone who doesn’t want to eat genetically modified organisms, new viruses, and bacteria, or vegetables containing genes from toads and fish?

The revolving door of staff in industry and government agencies
It’s shameful how often people have moved back and forth between high-level positions in government regulatory agencies like the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA and highly paid positions with biotech corporations like Monsanto and DuPont. Mickey Kantor, who was Secretary of the Department of Commerce and President Clinton’s trade representative, became a member of Monsanto’s board of directors. William Ruckelshaus, former Chief Administrator of the EPA, also joined Monsanto’s board. Clayton Yeutter, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, became a member of the board of directors of Mycogen Corporation, owned by Dow AgroSciences. Marcia Hale, who was Assistant to the U.S. President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, left the White House to become Director of International Government Affairs for Monsanto. Josh King, former Director of Production for the White House, became Director of Global Communication for Monsanto.(38)

The revolving door between government agencies and the biotech industry continued when George W. Bush became president in 2001.(39) The new second-in-command at the EPA, Linda Fisher, was Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at Monsanto. Bush’s new Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was president of a company (Searle Pharmaceuticals) that was bought by Monsanto. The new Attorney General, John Ashcroft, received more money from Monsanto than any other Congressional candidate in the previous election, and was a leading advocate of policies to force Europe to accept genetically engineered foods. Bush’s new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, had, while Governor of Wisconsin, used state funds to set up a $300,000,000 biotech zone, and was one of a handful of governors to launch a campaign, partially funded by Monsanto, to persuade Americans of the benefits of genetically modified crops.(40)

And most significantly, Bush’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, was a former board member of the biotech company Calgene, owned by Monsanto.

Shortly after Veneman took over, her predecessor, now-former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, made a startling revelation. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he acknowledged that the climate in the government regarding genetically engineered foods had been so pervasively pro-biotech that even as the top agricultural official in the nation he had literally felt unable to speak or act in the public interest.

“What I saw . . . was the attitude that the technology was good and that it was almost immoral to say that it wasn’t good. . . . There was a lot of money that had been invested in this, and if you’re against it, you’re Luddites, you’re stupid. There was rhetoric like that . . . here in this department. You felt like you were almost an alien, disloyal, by trying to present an open-minded view on some of the issues being raised. So I pretty much spouted the rhetoric that everybody else around here spouted. It was written into my speeches.”(41)
Ironically, the very day Glickman was describing how controlled he had been by the overwhelmingly pro-biotech atmosphere at the Department of Agriculture, the New York Times was running a feature story revealing that the government had been playing into the hands of Monsanto ever since the Reagan administration:
“In late 1986, four executives of the Monsanto Company, the leader in agricultural biotechnology, paid a visit to Vice President George Bush at the White House to make an unusual pitch. . . . In the weeks and months that followed, the White House complied, working behind the scenes to help Monsanto—long a political power with deep connections in Washington—get (what) it wanted.

“It was an outcome that would be repeated, again and again, through three administrations. What Monsanto wished from Washington, Monsanto—and, by extension, the biotechnology industry—got. . . . Even longtime Washington hands said that the control this nascent industry exerted over its own regulatory destiny—through the EPA, the USDA, and ultimately the FDA—was astonishing.

‘In this area, the U.S. government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do,’ said Dr. Henry Miller, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute, who was responsible for biotechnology issues at the FDA from 1979 to 1994.”(42)

Labeling It Like It Is

In 1995, very few genetically modified plants had yet been grown for commercial sale. Four years later, nearly 100 million acres of genetically modified crops were planted worldwide, more than 70 million of them in the United States. By 2000, more than half of the American soybean and cotton crops and one-third of the corn crop were genetically engineered. By then, too, much of the Canadian canola (rapeseed) crop was also transgenic.(43)

For this rapid change to have occurred with a minimum of resistance from consumers, the FDA had to insist that genetically engineered foods not be labeled. It could not have happened if there had been labeling. Polls have consistently found that 80 to 95 percent of the American public wants genetically engineered food to be labeled.(44)

American consumers also overwhelmingly support the labeling of milk produced with the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rBGH. But the FDA has said such labeling would unfairly stigmatize rBGH milk as less healthy. The FDA official responsible for this policy is Michael R. Taylor, whose occupation prior to joining the FDA was as a partner in the law firm representing Monsanto when it applied for FDA approval for rBGH. His employer after he left the FDA, by the way, was Monsanto.

Monsanto’s track record in these matters tends to be a tad shady. During Canada’s scientific review of Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH, Canadian health officials said Monsanto tried to bribe them, and government scientists testified that they were being pressured by higher-ups to approve rBGH against their better scientific judgment. Canada’s policies have been almost as ardently pro-biotech as those of the United States, but in 1999, Canadian health authorities, after eight years of study, rejected Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH.(45) In so doing, Canada joined the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, all of whom have banned rBGH because of scientific health concerns.

In the United States, however, milk produced with the genetically engineered hormone is not only legal, it is also not labeled. And it is not only not labeled, but Monsanto has fought to make it impossible to reveal, truthfully, when it’s not in milk.

When several companies that produced milk without rBGH, including the Pure Milk Company of Waco, Texas, and Swiss Valley Farms of Davenport, Iowa, factually advertised their milk as rBGH-free, Monsanto’s response was to sue these companies, forcing then to refrain from telling their customers the truth.(46)

Monsanto’s actions and ensuing lawsuit represent a new twist in libel litigation. For the first time, telling the truth was contended to be objectionable. Monsanto claimed that a statement of actual truth could be false advertising, because actual facts could induce consumers to believe that Monsanto’s product was less than exemplary, and thereby cost the company money.

Currently, neither milk made with rBGH nor any other genetically engineered food product in the United States, is labeled. Biologist Brian Goodwin, who has been deeply involved in this controversy understands the consequences.

“You would never allow a new drug to be produced without a clear label, without knowing what company produced it, without knowing exactly where it was produced and even under what conditions, what batch it came from and so on. Genetically modified foods ought to be put in the same category as drugs because of their potential harm. They’re actually even more dangerous than drugs, because after all, we eat a lot more food during the course of our lifetime than we take drugs. Even if there are small effects, they can accumulate over years. And therefore people should have the right to say, ‘I’m not going to eat genetically modified food because I have no confidence that this is going to be safe for the whole of my lifetime.’”(47)
As citizens of a democratic society, most of us assume that we have the right to decide what to put into our bodies. But in order to do that, we have to know what’s in the things we eat. That means they have to be labeled. If you cannot identify which foods have been genetically altered, it is very difficult to avoid eating them.

But the people who do not want them labeled have their own point of view. In explaining why genetically modified food should not be labeled, Janet Bainbridge, head of the U.K. Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, displayed something less than complete respect for democratic choice. She said that “most people don’t even know what a gene is. . . . Sometimes my young son wants to cross the road when it’s dangerous. Sometimes you just have to tell people what’s best for them.”(48)

She may be right that some people don’t know what a gene is, but I’ll bet you most people know a reckless and self-serving industry when they see one. Certainly in England the public has risen up in protest against genetically engineered food. Even employees at Monsanto’s own headquarters, apparently, are less than enamored at the prospect of ingesting their company’s creations. In December 1999, a statement was posted in the cafeteria of the Monsanto Corporation’s United Kingdom headquarters in High Wycombe, England, that truly gives me pause. It read as follows:

“In response to concern raised by our customers . . . we have decided to remove, as far as is practicable, genetically modified soy and maize (corn) from all food products served in our restaurant. We will continue to work with our suppliers to replace GM (genetically modified) soy and maize with non-GM ingredients. . . . We have taken the above steps to ensure that you, the customer, can feel confident in the food we serve.”(49)
Continue to the next article in this series - The Emperor's New Foods.

Further Reading:

References:

1. Suzuki, David, and Dressel, Holly, From Naked Ape to Superspecies (Toronto/New York: Stoddart Publishing, 1999), p. 102. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid., p. 143. 4. Nash, M. J., “Jeepers! Creepy Peepers!” Time, April 3, 1995. 5. Ho, Mae-Wan, “The Unholy Alliance,” Ecologist, July/August 1997, p. 153. 6. Quoted in Lappé, Marc, and Bailey, Britt, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998), p. 50. 7. Quoted in Anderson, Luke, Genetic Engineering, Food, and our Environment (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999), p. 35. 8. Quoted in Ticciati, Laura, and Ticciati, Robin, Genetically Engineered Foods: Are They Safe? You Decide (New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1998), pp. 4–5. 9. Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 106. 10. Shapiro, Robert, “The Welcome Tension of Technology: The Need for Dialogue about Agricultural Biotechnology,” Center for the Study of American Business, CEO Series 37, February 2000. 11. Nordlee, J. D., et al., “Identification of a Brazil Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans,” New England Journal of Medicine 334:11 (March 14, 1996): 688–92. 12. Ibid. 13. Ticciati, Genetically Engineered Foods, p. 44. 14. Mayeno, A., et al., “Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome and Tryptophan Production . . .,” Tibtech 12 (1994):346–52; cited in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 17. 15. Raphals, P., “Does Medical Mystery Threaten Biotech?” Science 249 (1990):619; see also Love, L., et al., “Pathological and Immunological Effects of Ingesting L-tryptophan . . .,” Journal of Clinical Investigation 91 (March 1993):804–11. 16. Anderson, Genetic Engineering, p. 18. 17. Quoted in “Genetically Engineered Foods—Are They Safe?” Safe Food News; 500,000 copies of this newsmagazine were distributed in late 2000 to health food stores and other venues in the United States. 18. Teitel, Martin, and Wilson, Kimberly, Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), p. 56. 19. Mepham, T., Challacombe, D., et al., “Safety of Milk from Cows Treated with Bovine Somatotrophin,” Lancet 344 (1994):197–8; Epstein, S., “Unlabeled Milk from Cows Treated with Biosynthetic Growth Hormones: A Case of Regulatory Abdication,” International Journal of Health Services 26:1 (1996):173–85; Epstein, S., “Potential Health Hazards of Biosynthetic Milk Hormones,” International Journal of Health Services 20:1 (1990):73–84. 20. Chan, J. M., et al., “Plasma Insulin-Like Growth Factor-I and Prostate Cancer Risk: A Prospective Study,” Science 279 (1998):563–6; see also Cohen, P., “Serum Insulin-Like Growth Factor-I Levels and Prostate Cancer Risk: Interpreting the Evidence,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 90 (1998):876–9. 21. Hankinson, S. E., et al., “Circulating Concentrations of Insulin-Like Growth Factor-I and Risk of Breast Cancer,” Lancet 351 (1998):1393–6. 22. Juskevich, J., et al., “Bovine Growth Hormone: Human Food Safety Evaluation,” Science 249 (1990):875–84. 23. Daughaday, William, et al., “Bovine Somatotropin Supplementation of Dairy Cows: Is the Milk Safe?” Journal of the American Medical Association 264 (1990):1003–5. 24. Epstein, “Unlabeled Milk”; Epstein, “Potential Health Hazards”; Mepham, Challacombe, et al., “Safety of Milk”; Coghlan, Andy, “Arguing Till the Cows Come Home,” New Scientist, October 29, 1994, pp. 14–5; Juskevich, et al., “Bovine Growth Hormone.” 25. Keeler, Barbara, and Lappé, Marc “Some Food for FDA Regulation,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2001. 26. Keeler, Barbara, and Lappé, Marc “Some Food for FDA Regulation,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2001. 27. “Biotech: The Pendulum Swings Back,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, #649, May 6, 1999; Rampton, Sheldon, and Stauber, John, Trust Us, We’re Experts!, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2001, p. 153. 28. Rampton, Sheldon, and Stauber, John, Trust Us, We’re Experts!, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2001, p. 154. 29. Stanley, W., Ewen, S, and Pusztai, A., “Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes . . . on rat intestines,” Lancet, Vol. 354, No. 9187, October 16, 1999. 30. Rampton, Sheldon, and Stauber, John, Trust Us, We’re Experts!, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2001, p. 154. 31. Quoted in “FDA Genetic Food Policy Denies Americans the Right to Know What They Are Eating,” Greenpeace, January 17, 2001. 32. “Against the Grain,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, 637, February 11, 1999. 33. Lappé, M., et al., “Alterations in Clinically Important Phytoestrogens in Genetically Modified, Herbicide Resistant Soybeans,” Journal of Medicinal Food 1: 4 (1998/1999): pp. 241-5 34. Quoted in Ticciati, Genetically Engineered Foods, 14. 35. 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): pp. 571–86. 36. November 12, 1999; see Biotechnology Industry Organization Web site, www.bio.org/food&ag/1112letter.html. 37. Kemp, Jack, “Resistance Dropping Toward Biotech Foods,” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2000. 38. This list, and others, found in Anderson, Genetic Engineering, pp. 93–6. 39. These industry ties were widely discussed in the European media. See The Guardian, February 1, 2001. 40. Ibid. 41. Lambrecht, Bill, “Outgoing secretary says agency’s top issue is genetically modified food,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 25, 2001. 42. Eichenwald, Kurt, et al., “Biotechnology Food: From the lab to a debacle,” New York Times, January 25, 2001. 43. Halweil, Brian, “Transgenic Crop Area Surges,” Vital Signs 2000, Worldwatch Institute, p. 118. 44. “Compilation and Analysis of Public Opinion Polls on Genetically Engineered Foods,” Center for Food Safety, 2000. 45. “Monsanto Picks Up Its BGH and Goes Home,” Good Medicine (Spring 1999), p. 22. 46. Nader, Ralph, and Smith, Wesley, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (New York: Random House, 1996), pp. 186–92. 47. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 150. 48. Quoted in Splice 4:6 (August/September 1998). 49. Statement signed by Mike Batchelor, Quality Systems Director of Granada Food Services Limited, Fall 1999; see also Kirby, Alex, “Monsanto’s Caterers Ban GM Foods,” BBC Online, December 22, 1999.

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