Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


March 1999
Seeds 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.” India’s minister of agriculture was so troubled by Monsanto’s 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 don’t 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 nutrients—something 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 Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ soybeans—soybeans that have been genetically altered to be resistant to the pesticide Roundup—create 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 Monsanto’s 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 wake—something 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 don’t 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 child’s 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 sprayed—as 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 cow’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 tomato—which was engineered to have a better flavor and be a firmer fruit. It was also removed because consumers didn’t accept it. Bailey says that the consumers didn’t 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 again—this 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 Monsanto’s 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 people—people 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 they’re 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: Their website address is


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.