During the last decades, corporate dominated mainstream media has increasingly specialized in reporting on scandal. Yet the scandals that receive attention are of a particular type, namely those that do not involve powerful corporate interests. One scandal that is receiving scant media attention but that could be ranked among the biggest of all time, is the surreptitious genetic modification of our food, environment and in time, our own species.
This scandal reeks of corporate totalitarianism in its most vile form. It features regulatory corruption and incompetence that far exceeds the corruption that is often derisively attributed by westerners to bureaucrats in third world countries. The consequences of genetically transforming our food and environment are irreversible, unpredictable and will effect all future generations of species on this planet. For a variety of reasons, though, the corporate media has been all but silent about this transformation.
Although most Americans are unaware of it, more than 60% of the food we eat is genetically modified. This transformation of our food has been rushed through in just a few years. Today, genetically modified (GM) corn, soybeans, and canola are added to much of our processed foods ranging from breakfast cereals to corn chips to soft drinks. Even fresh vegetables are genetically altered.
Genetically engineered crops are created when scientists take genes from one organism and insert them into another. Typically, genes are taken from animals, plants, insects, bacteria or viruses and then inserted into crops with the aim of enhancing or creating a particular trait. For example, scientists have transferred a gene with anti-freeze characteristics from an arctic fish to a tomato. While the goal was to make the tomato more frost resistant, the gene transfer brought with it unexpected side effects: the tomatoes bruised easily and consumers disliked their ‘metallic’ taste.
The near future will see even bolder modifications to our food and environment. Soon, unwitting consumers will be sold genetically modified salmon that have been engineered to grow to full size in half the time. This summer, genetically modified insects are due for release in the US. The first batch of insects are modified with a marker that will enable them to be traced. Later, lethal traits will be engineered in insects such that insect pests can be eradicated when they mate with the GM insects.
The recent introduction of GM crops is not the inevitable outcome of scientific progress. Rather, GM crops have been rammed into our food supply by a handful of large multinational corporations who have only one goal: maximization of profit for their share holders (contrary to what the corporate media often claim, this goal is diametrically opposed to the interests of the majority of the population since the richest 1% own 42% of the stock, the richest 10% own 80% of the stock while the bottom 80% own less than 5% of the stock).
The most important agro-biotech corporations are Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Pharmacia), Syngenta (a recent merger between AstraZeneca and Novartis), Aventis, Dupont and Dow. These companies, especially Monsanto, traditionally specialized in agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides and were the driving force behind the green revolution that was, with the help of the World Bank, thrust on much of the world in the sixties and seventies.
During the green revolution, much of the traditional, often sustainable, farming practices of millions of third world farmers were replaced by large scale, investment heavy, industrial farming techniques that revolved around chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While chemical agriculture initially did result in higher yields of food production, it did little to reduce world hunger and much to increase wealth disparity. In fact, the effect of the green revolution was often to drive peasants off the land and into overcrowded cities where they would serve as an exploitable, superfluous labor force. Furthermore, due to the large investment requirements of chemical agriculture, the green revolution pushed many third world countries further into a paralyzing state of debt. Today, the green revolution is increasingly viewed as having been a catastrophe for the poor. Nevertheless, the agro-chemical corporations profited handsomely, increasing chemical sales and dramatically expanding their control over food production in third world countries.
The introduction of genetically modified crops by these same agro-biotech companies should be viewed as a natural outgrowth of the green revolution. For the agro-biotech companies, the major purpose of GM crops is to increase their chemical sales and to further solidify their control over agriculture. For example, two thirds of the genetically modified crops sold by Monsanto are specifically designed to withstand their chemical herbicide Roundup. This allows farmers to use more Roundup on and around their crops, thereby boosting herbicide sales. Another important feature of GM crops is that they can be patented, making them the intellectual property of the agro-biotech companies. This grants the agro-biotech companies unprecedented control over farmers who use these seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved their best seeds and replanted them. Today, though, farmers buying genetically modified seeds from Monsanto are prohibited from engaging in this practice and must buy new seeds each year. Furthermore, as is implied by a recent court ruling in Canada, farmers whose crops have been contaminated by a GM variety through cross pollination from neighboring farms must pay royalties to Monsanto.
While genetically modified crops serve the very narrow interests of large agro-biotech corporations, they currently offer no benefits to consumers and pose in some cases major health and environmental risks. According to Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications, “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.” “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” Yet the FDA has ruled, with heavy industry influence and infiltration (see the revolving door side bar), that GM crops do not need to be approved. To be fair, though, the FDA does encourage corporations to perform voluntary pre-market safety tests.
Lax federal regulations have remained in place since the early nineties despite recent scandals such as the StarLink debacle. Furthermore, even in the face of massive public outcry, the FDA continues to side with the biotech industry in its refusal to require mandatory labeling of GM crops.
The Thistle views this example of rampant corporate abuse not as an isolated incident but as part of a larger pattern. Many of the problems in the world ranging from poverty to out of control environmental pollution are caused by the actions of large tyrannical and unaccountable private institutions called corporations. Almost half of the 100 largest GDP’s of the world are multinational corporations. Due to their tight hierarchical and dictatorial structure, the actions of these monolithic entities are beyond the democratic control of the populations of our planet. The thistle argues that a necessary step in progressing to a better and safer world is the dismantling of corporations by revoking their charter, followed by their replacement with democratic institutions in which all stake holders - workers, communities, future generations - play an equal role in decision making. Only in a society free of totalitarian entities can we expect technologies such as biotechnology to serve a useful purpose for humanity.
The myth of regulation
The US federal regulatory agencies have the reputation of being among the strictest in the world. Yet when it comes to regulating genetically modified foods and animals, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The lax regulatory policies surrounding genetically modified organisms originated in the first Bush administration and were continued by the pro-industry Clinton administration.
In the late eighties and early nineties, biotech stocks were not performing to expectations because of slow approval rates of the new technology by regulatory agencies. The Bush administration, in an attempt to promote the nascent biotech industry adopted the policy that regulations should not be created in such a way as to be a burden on the industry. Then in 1992, the FDA ruled that GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to crops obtained with traditional breeding techniques and therefore do not need to be approved (unless the transferred genes are known to induce a human allergen). The 1992 FDA ruling of “substantial equivalence” is highly contested by many prominent biologists, including professors at MIT and Harvard, as well as scientists within the FDA itself. In 1992, for example, Dr. Louis J. Pribyl of the FDA’s Microbiology Group warned (in an internal memo uncovered in a lawsuit filed) that there is “a profound difference between the types of expected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering.”
Under the ruling of “substantial equivalence”, the FDA does not require any mandatory pre-market safety testing of the GM crops. Prominent biologists argue that the genetic alteration of food should at least go through the same safety and toxicological tests required of all “food additives.” This would require testing for such things as unknown allergens, novel toxins and changes in nutritional content. In favor of the bio-tech industry, though, the FDA continues to refuse to make these basic tests mandatory.
The FDA also does not require that GM crops are labeled denying consumers the freedom of choice in the market place. Opinion poll after opinion poll, including one performed by the FDA itself, has consistently shown that the American public overwhelmingly (by 70-90%) wants GM crops to be labeled. Nevertheless, the FDA steadfastly upholds the biotech industry’s wish that these crops are not labeled. Often, genetically modified crops are mixed in with their natural variants, thereby making it impossible to trace potential deleterious health effects associated with this new technology.
In addition to being corrupted and infiltrated by the industry it is supposed to regulate, the federal regulatory agencies that deal with genetically modified organisms, namely the FDA, the USDA and the EPA have severe institutional deficiencies that often make them unsuited to regulate this new technology. GM corn and potatoes that have been engineered to produce their own insecticide are primarily regulated by the EPA because it is this agency that has jurisdiction over insecticides. When scientists transfer genes from bacteria and viruses that are regulated by the USDA, it is the USDA that claims jurisdiction over the GM crops. In some cases, it is unclear which federal agency should have jurisdiction. In the case of genetically modified salmon, which scientists fear may wreak havoc on the ecosystems that they are released in, will probably be regulated by the FDA. It will have jurisdiction because the genetically engineered fish’s extra growth hormone is considered a drug. Although it has no experience in performing environmental studies, the FDA’s jurisdiction over this fish means that it will be performing the studies investigating the interaction between the GM fish and the environment.
GM Food and the Media
The quality of the mainstream media, though never very good, has declined significantly in the last few years. This is in large part the outcome of record breaking media consolidations that have taken place lately. Today eight mega- media corporations control more than half of all media outlets. Each one of these corporations control a vast array of TV, cable and radio stations, along with news papers, magazines and publishing companies. Increasingly, media is treated just as any other business arm of a large corporation in which the bottom line has priority. The effect is that professional journalism suffers (see for example Robert McChesney’s latest book “Rich Media, Poor democracy”). To save costs, the journalistic staff is downsized and costly investigative reporting is significantly reduced or eliminated all together. Thorough investigative reporting of powerful people or institutions is considered bad for profits as it tends to provoke lawsuits. Currently, there are more people working in the public relations industry than there are reporters. Overwhelmed journalists often resort to prepackaged news stories fed to them by public relations firms.
But corporate media by design will always propagate a pro-business bias. Con trary to what is often claimed, the consumers of the media and the news, i.e. the general public, are not the real customers of the media corporations. Instead, they are a product sold by media corporations to advertisers (see e.g. Manufacturing Consent by E. Herman and N. Chomsky). Among the biggest advertisers are the pharmaceutical, chemical and biotech industries. To maintain a good working relationship with their customers, and therefore a healthy profit margin, the corporate media are always careful not to offend their biggest advertisers. This is reflected in the news stories that are covered. Companies such as Monsanto and the biotech industry in general have been very aggressive in using their clout as customers to mold or suppress news stories about GM crops.
In 1997, two investigative reporters for a Fox-owned TV station in Tampa, Florida, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, prepared a story about Monsanto’s genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone used to boost milk production in cows. In the piece, they reported that while the hormone had been banned in Canada and Europe, millions of unwitting Americans were drinking milk from rBGH-treated cows. They mentioned studies linking its effects to cancer in humans. They also noted that although rBGH negatively impacts the health of milk cows, it had nevertheless been approved by the government as a veterinary drug without being subjected to sufficient tests to determine its effects on consumers of rBGH milk.
Shortly before the documentary was scheduled to air, Monsanto threatened to stop advertising with the Fox network if the documentary was not rewritten. When Akre and Wilson failed to sufficiently white-wash the piece after 83 rewrites, they were fired. Fox later aired a modified version of the documentary which included many of the lies that Akre and Wilson refused to write in themselves. Akre and Wilson filed a whistle-blower law suit against Fox and won. A jury awarded Akre almost half a million dollars. Fox is now appealing the ruling. It argues that “there is no law, rule or regulation against slanting the news.”
The scientific understanding of how genes work in organisms is in its infancy. In fact, university undergraduate biology curricula are continually modified to keep up with the latest discoveries in this field. The scientific field of ecology is even less developed. Very little can therefore be predicted about the effects of releasing the genetically modified organisms into our food supply and environment. Yet, despite our ignorance, independent or government sponsored research investigating the risks of GM crops and animals is almost nonexistent. Even industry sponsored studies published in the open literature are scarce and have been criticized as being inadequate and of low quality. Despite limited scientific understanding, though, a large body of scientists do agree that risks associated with GM crops are significantly larger than those associated with traditional breeding methods. Scientists point out that genetic engineering introduces novel proteins in food that have never been in our diet before. Such proteins can produce new allergens, toxins and illnesses as well as new sources of cancer and epidemics. (The FDA admits that eight percent of all US children suffer from food allergies and that the situation is getting worse). In 1996, the New England Journal of Medicine warned that unlabeled genetically modified foods are “uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable.”
The first independent non-industry funded study investigating the effects of GM crops was performed in 1998 by Arpad Pusztai, a scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland. He investigated the effects on mammals of genetically modified crops. In his study, Pusztai fed rats potatoes that had been genetically engineered to contain lectin, a protein to make the plant pest resistant. Simultaneously, a control group of rats was fed a diet of unmodified potatoes and lectin. After the experiment, Pusztai discovered that the rats fed the GM potatoes suffered from internal organ damage, slowed brain growth and thickening of the digestive tract while the rats fed the natural potatoes mixed with lectin were normal. The significance of this outcome is that it is not necessarily the foreign genes transferred to the food crops that may induce damage to those eating the crop, but the side effects of the process of genetic engineering itself that causes damage.
Later that year, Pusztai appeared on British television in which he shared his preliminary findings. The disclosure of these results produced public uproar about GM food in Britain. The director of the Rowett Institute, responded by denying that Pusztai’s research existed. He then fired Pusztai and cancelled similar research projects at the institute.
It has since come to light that Monsanto had given a $224,000 research grant to the Rowett institute before the TV appearance of Pusztai. An internal audit also proved the existence of Pusztai’s research and a peer-reviewed paper supporting Pusztai’s research appeared in the British medical journal Lancet (Pusztai was also a coauthor on the paper). Since then 24 international experts have declared that Pusztai’s data is of good quality and should serve as a basis for further research. Nevertheless, independent or government sponsored research on the effects of GM food on mammals is not being performed in the US or the UK according to Ben Lilliston, author of “Genetically Engineered Food, A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers”.
Evidence is mounting that GM crops also pose significant hazards to the environment that could jeopardize our food supply. For example, it has been discovered that GM crops designed to withstand particular herbicides can transfer their herbicide resistance traits to weeds through cross pollination. The spread of such “superweeds” will destroy the effectiveness of modern herbicides.
Indenturing of farmers
In an attempt to enforce its intellectual property, Monsanto has resorted to the standard techniques of intimidation practiced by the likes of Stalin and Latin American dictators. Farmers buying Monsanto seeds are required to sign a “Technology Use Agreement” which stipulates that they cannot save seeds and that they must give Monsanto the right to take samples of their crops for a period of three years after the purchase of the seeds. The right to trespass enables Monsanto to perform random DNA tests on plants of farmers who had bought its seeds in previous years. To help out, Monsanto has hired full-time Pinkerton investigators and retired Canadian Mounted Police.
According to a 1999 Washington Post article, Monsanto kept farmers in line by setting up a toll-free “tip line” to “help farmers blow the whistle on neighbors” who were suspected of saving seeds. Furthermore, during the harvest season, Monsanto, ostensibly for “education” purposes, placed radio adds that listed the names of farmers who had been caught saving seeds. One farmer who admitted to saving seeds, settled with Monsanto by paying the company $35,000 and then surrendered part of his first amendment rights by “signing an agreement that forbids him from criticizing the company”.
So far, Monsanto has sued or threatened thousands of farmers in both the US and Canada for saving seeds. Monsanto has also pursued farmers who had never signed a contract with the company.
In late March, Monsanto won a precedent-setting case in Saskatchewan Canada against a 70 year-old, fifth generation farmer named Percy Schmeiser. In 1998, Monsanto investigated Schmeiser’s canola crop and found it to test positive for its patented herbicide resistant variant. Schmeiser, who had not bought the seed from Monsanto but had cultivated his own seeds over many years, claimed that his crop had been contaminated by pollen from genetically engineered canola plants that had blown onto his property from neighboring farms. According to a Washington post article (March 30), the court ruled that Schmeiser was liable for damages, even if he hadn’t deliberately planted the GE canola. The ruling implies that farmers will be required to pay royalties if their crop becomes tainted by patented genes through genetic drift from neighboring farms, even if they are unaware of the contamination. In 1999,Schmeiser commented that “[Monsanto’s] Roundup Ready pollen from other farmers’ fields is blowing everywhere in the wind” and that he had seen “big brown clouds of canola seed blowing off loaded trucks as they speed down the road around harvest time”.
The Thistle believes Stalin would have been very impressed by the folks at Monsanto.
The Revolving door
Assume, hypothetically that the FDA regulated tobacco as a drug. Would you trust the FDA to do its job if high level scientists, executives and lobbyists from the tobacco industry assumed jobs at the FDA for a while and then returned to their former tobacco companies? The Thistle sure wouldn’t. But this kind of revolving door between business and federal regulatory agencies is alive and thriving. The revolving door is especially well lubricated between Monsanto and the current and previous administrations as well as with federal regulatory agencies. Here are just a few examples:
A top decision maker at the FDA during the critical period when the approval and labeling policy regarding GM crops was set was Michael Taylor. He previously worked for the King & Spaulding law firm, which had Monsanto and its subsidiary Searle as major clients. After Taylor left the FDA he once again went back to work for King & Spaulding. Now he heads the Washington D.C. office of Monsanto Corporation.
While the FDA was approving Monsanto’s genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) during the Clinton administration, top scientists at the FDA included Susan Sechen and Margaret Miller who had previously worked for Monsanto as researchers. The FDA approved the controversial growth hormone. Europe and Canada have banned it because it is believed to increase the risk of cancer.
Michael (Mickey) Kantor: former secretary of the US Department of Commerce and former US Trade Representative is now a member of the board of directors of Monsanto Corporation.
William D. Ruckelshaus: former chief administrator of the EPA, then a member of the board of directors of Monsanto Corporation.
Lidia Watrud: former microbial biotechnology researcher at Monsanto, now with the EPA environmental effects laboratory.
The connections between Monsanto and the new Bush administration are also very solid. G.W.’s pop, Bush Sr. appointed Clarence Thomas, a Monsanto attorney, to the Supreme Court. Thomas played a key role in the selection of G.W. as president. John Ashcroft, the current attorney general, was the top recipient of Monsanto contributions when he recently tried to get reelected to the U.S. Senate. Donald Rumsfeld, the current secretary of defense, was president of Searle Pharmaceuticals, now owned by Monsanto. Tommy Thompson, now the secretary of Health and Human Services, helped the biotech industry by getting the state of Wisconsin to set up a $37 million biotech zone there. He received $50,000 from the biotech industry for his reelection campaign. The current secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, was on the board of directors of Calgene Pharmaceuticals, an affiliate of Monsanto. Recently, Linda J. Fisher, a former Monsanto official, was nominated by Bush to be second-in-command at the EPA. She was Monsanto’s representative in Washington from 1995 to 2000 and coordinated the company’s strategy to blunt resistance to genetically modified food.
The Star-Link Scandal
The inadequacy of the current regulatory policy regarding GM crops was exposed with the recent StarLink catastrophe. In September of 2000, a coalition of environmental and food safety groups known as GEAlert sent samples of Taco Bell taco shells to an independent laboratory to test for contamination by GM corn. These tests showed that the tacos contained a genetically modified corn called StarLink that had only been approved for use in animal feed because it was engineered to produce an insecticidal protein that is known to cause allergies in humans. Starlink is made by Aventis corporation. Soon after, it was discovered that Safeway brand taco shells, Western Family brand corn tacos, Mission Foods Co. corn tortillas, taco shells and snack chips were all contaminated with Starlink. By November, the FDA recalled more than 300 products. At the same time, a 55,000 ton shipload of US corn was rejected by Japan after testing positive for Starlink.
Despite the rapid recalls of tainted corn products, 44 people claimed to have gotten ill after eating foods contaminated with Starlink. They suffered rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, itching and life-threatening anaphylactic Shock. Thirteen went to doctors for treatment, and two needed emergency care after eating corn chips and flour tortillas.
The Starlink debacle has also led to several hundred million dollars in losses for Aventis, Kraft, Safeway, Shaw’s and many others. Even taxpayers are footing part of the bill. Almost 80 seed companies discovered corn seed contaminated with traces of Starlink. To prevent the planting of these contaminated seeds, the USDA agreed to buy them at a cost of $20 million.
According to David Gould, from Farm Verified Organic, a leading US organic certifier “Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United states is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more. Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties.”
It is clear that in the short term, the Starlink catastrophe was a financial and public relations nightmare for the bio-tech industry. The Thistle, though, is suspicious that the bio-tech industry may welcome and even actively encourage this wide-spread contamination of our food supply with GM variants. According to Don Westfall, vice-president of Promar International, a Washington-based food and biotech industry consultant firm, “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with genetically engineered organisms] that there’s nothing you can do about it, you just sort of surrender.”
With this attitude permeating the industry, only a naive fool would be surprised to discover that many leading US natural food brands with “GMO-Free” labels are actually contaminated with significant quantities of GM ingredients, as was recently reported in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal (April 5).
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