of Doubt: Corporations Learn the Value of Non-Disclosure
By Hillary Hoffman
Since the early 1990s, companies like Monsanto,
Novartis, DuPont and Calgene (a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto) have
been creating and marketing foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, soybeans
and milk that have been genetically altered. These products, which contain
the genetic material of other organisms, are often sold unlabeled, even
though scientists are still uncertain of whether genetically modified
foods are safe for human health. As these foods enter the market, it becomes
increasingly difficult to trace the effects or stop whatever consequences
arise from genetically altered foods. According to Mothers for Natural
Law, an activist group fighting against biotechnology, 60 to 70 percent
of the foods on your grocery shelves contain genetically engineered components.
Over the next few years the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) will approve
150 new genetically engineered foods.
Global concern has been increasing over genetically altered food. Across
Europe, activists and governments have expressed their worries and are
working to ban the importation from the United States of any foods which
might be genetically engineered. Recently, delegates to the United Nations
from Africa wrote to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Conference stating their
opposition to genetically engineered products which they deemed neither
safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial. Indias
minister of agriculture was so troubled by Monsantos promotion of
its genetically engineered seeds that he asked the company to leave the
country. Thailand has similarly banned genetically altered rice. There
have been protests against Monsanto and genetically modified food in Australia
and New Zealand, south-east Asia, Japan, and all over Europe.
Against the Grain
In their recently published book, Against the Grain:
Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of your Food, authors Marc
Lappé and Britt Bailey of the California-based Center for Ethics
and Toxins (CETOS), argue that genetic diversity in crops ensures their
survival. They point out that crops that are not genetically diverse can
easily be decimated by a resistant pest or disease. They also show that,
in spite of claims to the contrary, genetically engineered crops dont
yield as well as expected. Last year, farmers in west Texas found that
their Monsanto-produced, genetically engineered cotton plants grew until
they reached three feet. They then fell over and the cotton bolls fell
off. Monsanto said it was caused by the drought that region was having,
but the farmers pointed out that the half of their acreage which was not
planted with ordinary seeds was not affected by drought. When farmers
pulled up the plants, they found that the taproots were crooked and not
getting any water or nutrientssomething CETOS confirmed in a laboratory.
CETOS is having the seeds genome sequenced to determine if there
has been a disruption in its integrity.
For Bailey and Lappé, this technological intervention is not only
dangerous because of the still-unknown potential consequences, but because
of the domination of corporate interests in the promotion of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs). They point out that Monsantos Roundup
Ready soybeanssoybeans that have been genetically altered
to be resistant to the pesticide Roundupcreate an unhealthy economic
loop for farmers. Monsanto owns the soybean seeds and the herbicide that
when used with the bean destroys all competitive plants in the vicinity.
Theoretically, this means the farmer saves money because he or she does
not have to use so much herbicide. However, there is a technology
fee of $8 per acre for farmers using Monsantos products, while
the seeds themselves cost twice as much as non-transgenics. Farmers sign
an agreement promising they will not save seeds from year to year, that
they will only use the Roundup herbicide and will let Monsanto inspect
their fields at any time for up to three years after using their seeds.
In a phone interview with Satya, Bailey suggested that these
stipulations might violate anti-trust laws.
A recent Time magazine (February 1, 1999) article reported that
Monsanto is creating a seed, using technology partly developed by the
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself, which contains
a self-sterilizing gene, making it impossible for farmers to violate stringent
contractual agreements they are forced to sign when using Monsanto seeds.
Critics fear that the pollen from the Terminator plants will
drift and cross with ordinary crops and wild plants, spreading from species
to species, sterilizing everything in its wakesomething Monsanto
has argued against. In the shops, the noose is also being tightened. Bailey
says that 80 percent of vegetable oil is soybean oil. It is becoming harder
and harder to obtain organic sources of soybeans. There are no manufacturers
producing organic soy lecithin; all soy lecithin is engineered.
Keep it Real
It is safe to say that we dont know the potential
health risks of genetically altered foods. However, there is already an
issue with allergens. Earlier this decade a biotechnology company named
Pioneer put genes from brazil nuts into soybeans only to discover in a
test that allergens could travel across genes. The project was dropped.
For Gary Barton, a media relations person for Monsanto, this was evidence
that companies are aware of potential problems and dealing with them at
the source. Nevertheless, we consumers may never know that we are eating
soybeans with bacteria genes spliced in them. Without labeling, it is
impossible to shop so that a person with an allergy to fish will not eat
a tomato that has had fish genes spliced into it, as was the case with
the Flavr-Savr tomato. Barton stated that the Federal Drug Administration
(FDA) decided that product labeling would be required only if there was
a change in the food, if an allergen was created by genetic manipulation,
or if something that had never existed before was created.
CETOS has been looking into 1992 FDA regulations that say that genetically
engineered foods are not significantly different from other foods. Bailey
says that the application of glyphosate (as in the Roundup herbicide)
to bean plants creates a high level of plant estrogen. This estrogen is
known to affect mammals, including humans, especially children. While
plant estrogens may be beneficial to pre- and post-menopausal women, Bailey
says that there is little research about how much one should have and
that it is dangerous to have high circulating levels of plant estrogens
in a childs body.
Because GMOs are the results of a relatively new technology, there is
not enough information about what the long-term effects will be on the
people and farm animals these substances are fed to. Nevertheless, the
disadvantages to the environment, and consequently, nearby humans and
animals, are obvious. Because spraying the weeds that could choke genetically
altered crops does not affect the crops, farmers are able to spray more
than double the amount of pesticides and herbicides as before. This leads
to damage of the water supply, soil, and harm to nearby animals whose
foods sources are on or near the land being sprayedas well as workers
on that and nearby farms who ingest or inhale the pesticides. Pesticides
and herbicides can drift and kill neighboring organic crops, forcing farmers
to either give up or give in, in favor of genetic engineering.
Of Milk and Tomatoes
Monsanto is no stranger to controversy over artificial
products. It is the producer of Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)a
synthetic variant of a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates milk
production in cows. The synthetic variant prolongs a cows lactation
period by another two to three months and increases the amount of milk
in her udders from 12 pounds to 50 or 60 pounds. The result is more milk
for consumers and enormous stress for the cow, along with an increased
risk of mastitis (inflammation of the udders) which causes cows to secrete
white blood cells (pus) into their milk. Barton argues that there is careful
monitoring of herds and milk to make sure that there are no traces of
the antibiotics used to treat the cows. Monsanto, apparently concerned
about consumer reactions, lobbied the FDA not to make labeling mandatory
on rBGH milk. As it happens, the drug has proven a bust. Barbara de Lollis
of the Fresno Bee reports that of farmers who tried rBGH, 40 percent
gave it up because it either didnt improve profits, caused health
problems or required too much time to manage.
A similar fate befell the much-heralded Flavr-Savr tomato, launched
by Calgene in 1994. Engineered to delay ripening characteristics, and
therefore to have a longer shelf life, the tomato failed because people
didnt buy it. According to Peter M. Ligotti, an activist against
genetically engineered foods and products, the tomato tasted bad and fell
apart during shipping. DNAP Holding Corporation came out with the Endless
Summer tomatowhich was engineered to have a better flavor and be
a firmer fruit. It was also removed because consumers didnt accept
it. Bailey says that the consumers didnt like the taste or the fact
that it was genetically engineered. Because both these tomatoes had been
labeled as genetically engineered, Calgene put its tomatoes on the market
againthis time unlabeled. As Lappé and Bailey write, The
apparent lesson learned from the introduction of Flavr-Savr, as seen through
industry eyes, is the value of nondisclosure.
Regulations? What Regulations?
For Bailey, the common ground that unifies Novartis
and DuPont, Monsanto and Calgene is chemistry: These are chemical
companies who have turned to life sciences [and] who are now buying seed
companies. The regulations on their endeavors seem to be zero. The
USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FDA have continually
bowed to corporate pressure on labeling and consumer safety. Not only
has the FDA virtually endorsed Monsantos argument that rBGH is no
different than regular milk, but the USDA would have cavalierly allowed
genetically engineered foods to be called organic had not
280,000 letters temporarily stopped them. Testifying at the Public Hearing
on National Organic Standards, Robert Cohen, author of Not Milk,
alleged that Monsanto employees often go to work for the FDA and the USDA
when laws need to be passed governing genetically engineered foods, only
to return to Monsanto after the deed has been done. Barton told Satya
that there are very clear policies and procedures within the government
on how those things are handled, and said that Monsanto wants
to hire the most knowledgeable peoplepeople who often move between
government and industry.
Monsanto is clearly threatened by revelations about its products and business
practices. Against the Grain was canceled by its original publisher
after Monsanto sent a threatening letter to the original publisher. Lappé
and Bailey make a compelling case about the health risks from the herbicides
and pesticides used on transgenic crops, about the danger these novel
genes may migrate to other nearby plants and weeds, of the allergenic
or toxic properties of the plants, and of the higher concentrations of
pesticides used to grow them.
Because of governmental backing of biotechnology companies, and because
the biotechnology companies seem to be bulldozing their way to the bank
without regard for those theyre feeding, it is the responsibility
of consumers to raise concerns. More research needs to be done on products
to prove that they are not harmful to people, animals or plants. The encroachment
on anti-trust laws by Monsanto needs to be held in check and carefully
watched for future corporate takeovers of our food supply. And it should
be recognized that consumers have a right to know what they are eating
and to decide what they put in their bodies.
This article is based on the book, Against the Grain: Biotechnology
and the Corporate Takeover of your Food by Marc Lappé, Ph.D.
and Britt Bailey (Common Courage Press: Monroe, ME, 1998) and on interviews
with Britt Bailey herself. For more information on this subject, you can
back order Satya #33 or go online. The Center for Ethics and Toxins is
eager to answer questions and give information. They can be contacted
at 707-884-1700 or by email: email@example.com.
Their website address is www.cetos.org.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.