Issue#30 - Dedication Theme:
Freedom of Information in the Genetically Modified Age
Lack of transparency might be the worst problem of genetically modified foods
“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.”
Text & Images by Julie MARDIN
Written for The Light Millennium
[Lightmillennium.Org] Since the early 1990's when Calgene introduced the Flavr Savr tomato, the American public has been kept in the dark as to the alarms raised by genetically modified (GM) foods, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Through a law suit which uncovered internal documents from the Federal Drug Administration, we learned that the FDA's own scientists had called for more testing and raised many warning flags, which were ignored by their superior political appointees.(1) Instead the White House instructed the FDA to promote biotechnology and a new position was created for former Monsanto attorney Michael Taylor. We were reassured that the transgenic tomato was perfectly safe and the so called genetically modified genie was let out of the bottle.
It was the first Bush White House and political appointee Michael Taylor, an attorney who has been shuffling between the government and Monsanto since 1976, and is currently our "Food Safety Czar", who oversaw the "substantial equivalence" policy. This was to provide the fig leaf for all subsequent GM foods. Deemed the same as their conventional counterparts, genetically modified foods have, amazingly, not been required to undergo any pre-market testing in the US, not since its earliest days, when inconvenient questions were raised. The EPA requires scanty month-long tests for those crops engineered to produce their own insecticide, but tests for all other GM crops are conducted at the manufacturers' own discretion, and the results, of course, are proprietary.
Do you trust the company that told us PCBs were safe,
and gave us Agent Orange and DDT, to conduct their own safety tests?
Even the studies used to prove safety are not readily available for public scrutiny. When Monsanto's MON863 was recommended for acceptance by the European Food Safety Authority, Greenpeace sued in order for Monsanto to release the referenced study. In this way Dr. Giles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France was able to emulate the protocol himself, with one difference. His study lasted for two years, not the three months of the original study, and went on to uncover severe liver and kidney toxicity in all the groups fed GM corn, as well as glyphosate alone, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. In addition he found an inverse hormone relationship between the males and the females, and an increase and earlier onset of tumors.(2)
Back in 1998, Dr. Arpad Puzstai, a world renowned food safety expert at the Rowett Institute of Scotland, was the first high profile scientist to raise inconvenient questions. His lab had been chosen to study and come up with a protocol by which all genetically foods would be approved in Europe. And yet early on he observed stunted growth and suppressed immune systems in the rats fed a certain kind of GM potato, designed to express its own pesticide through a gene from the snowdrop plant. Upon postmortem examination he found that the rats fed the diet of GM potatoes had smaller brains, livers, and also thickening of the stomach and gut lining, which contradicted the industry assertion that these GM proteins do not survive digestion. His admission on a short television interview that he himself, at this time, would not eat the foods if he were given the choice, and that it was unfair to use their fellow citizens as guinea pigs, caused an uproar that cost him his job and shattered his reputation. He was gagged with the threat of a law suit, his laboratory shut down, and all his data seized. An anonymous board of scientists were called in to refute his work, and this man who had been at the top of his field was discarded overnight. And yet his single courageous, and in a way, desperate, act, put a brake on full blown introduction of GM foods into the European marketplace.
Part of the basis of his dismissal was that he should not have spoken publicly about research that had not yet been peer reviewed. And yet he later explained that he felt he had to do something when he realized he was just being used as a rubber stamp. His superior had in fact encouraged the interview at the time.
After the gag order was lifted by an invitation to speak at the British Parliament, Dr. Pusztai was able to send his audited report and rebuttal to all the scientists that had requested it, and twenty one international scientists released a statement in support of his work. His study was published in The Lancet.(3) He has said that he had no regrets about the interview. It was publicly funded research, and the public had a right to know.
“I made my 150-second testimony on TV's World in Action because I had facts that indicated to me there were serious problems with transgenic food. It can take two to three years to get science papers published and these foods were already on the shelves without rigorous biological testing similar to that of our GM potato work. I did indicate my concern and it cost me my job but I would do it again. If I had not done it, we would now be eating these potatoes and not discussing the safety of GM food.“
—Arpad Pusztai (3)
Wrapped Fruit, Julie Mardin, 2014
Proprietary research in itself is a questionable practice, and many have argued that it sets back science. And yet, when the same secrecy shrouds studies that are conducted with tax-payer funds, we have to understand that governments also are controlled by the same private interests. The US in any case has been continuing on its trend to defund government agencies, and outsource their traditional functions and responsibilities to the private sector. With less federal funds available research universities have also grown much more reliant on corporate sponsors. This corporate dominance influences in drastic as well as subtle ways, not only the type of science that gets carried out, but the range of opinions as well.
“Scientists who do go against the general consensus do so at great risk
to their personal reputation and livelihoods...“
“One question means one career.”
Scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist uncovered GMO contamination of indigenous maize in Mexico,(4) and the publication of their findings caused an uproar that almost lost Chapela his job at UC Berkeley three times. His work showed evidence that the industry had no control over their product, and unleashed a viral internet campaign to discredit him and his study, and to have it retracted. “You ask one question, you get the answer and you might or might not be able to publish it; but that is the end of your career,” he warns in Bertran Verhaag’s 2011 documentary “Scientists Under Attack.”(5)
Those in the foreground of the defamation campaigns are usually scientists, or even fake scientists, with undisclosed affiliations, and/or an undisclosed stake, such as being a patent holder in the technology. This was the case with the campaigns to discredit both the Seralini team and Chapela and Quist studies. GMWatch’s investigation uncovered a labyrinthian world of fake scientists, fake journals, UC Berkeley, Novartis, all tied back to Monsanto’s internet PR firm.(6)
It is said to be harder to find anyone who does not have some form of conflict of interest even in the legitimate science world. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 also granted universities and their professors rights to own and commercialize federally funded research. While purported to help spur innovation, it also leads to questions of the independence and objectivity of these individuals and institutions.
Needless to say those scientists who do go against the general consensus do so at great risk to their personal reputation and livelihoods, and can expect concerted PR and intimidation campaigns against them.
Another example perhaps better known is the story of Dr. Tyrone Hayes, also of the University of California Berkeley. He was hired by Novartis, which turned into Syngenta, to study Atrazine, the second most widely used herbicide after Roundup. Their relationship turned sour when his work started yielding alarming results, showing sex changes of some of his frogs from male to female, with males actually laying viable eggs. When Syngenta stalled and intended to bury the results, Dr. Hayes chose to break away.(7)
What followed was 15 years of harassment by Syngenta, who were trying to prevent Hayes from replicating and publishing his work, or to prevent others from taking him seriously. UC Berkeley started charging his lab exorbitant fees and withdrew funding. Finally two class-action suits were brought against Syngenta by twenty-three Midwestern cities and towns. They accused Syngenta of “concealing atrazine’s true dangerous nature” and contaminating their drinking water, and used Dr. Hayes’ work as scientific backing.(8) Emails and internal memos were unsealed by the trial and revealed some of the shameless tactics that the company had been using to try to discredit and intimidate Dr. Hayes and other members of an EPA review panel, including commissioning a psychological profile on Hayes, hiring private detectives, and making physical threats against Hayes and his family. They also maintained a stable of ‘independent experts’ who were paid to write about the economic virtues of atrazine, downplay the risks, without revealing their industry connections. It would seem that the company’s approach to safety had more to do with spin and intimidation than actual science.(9)
“Syngenta speaks directly to the public, whereas scientists are publishing their research in magazines you can’t buy in Barnes and Noble.”
It is no wonder that Dr. Don Huber has been very slow to publish his most current investigations with food scientists and veterinarians working in the midwest, having to do with the discovery of a previously unknown organism in the tissue of diseased plants and animals, where Roundup Ready and other GMO technology is implicated. With fifty years of experience with the US Government and Military, this distinguished plant pathologist has nevertheless been on a mission to spread awareness of the increase in ‘aids-like’ diseases in plants as well as the alarming rates of miscarriage and infertility among live stock who have been eating Roundup Ready grain. Even outside of any formal scientific study, one has to pay attention to the real world experience of the farmers and their livestock, who are on the front lines with genetically modified feed.
Part of Dr. Huber’s presentation includes a statement that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association had given to the Senate back in 2002, describing an alarming increase in abortions and infertility, and discoveries of premature aging when calves were sent to slaughter.
“Cattle ranchers are facing some puzzling - and, at times, economically devastating problems with pregnant cows and calves. At some facilities, high numbers of fetuses are aborting for no apparent reason. Other farmers successfully raise what look to be normal young cattle, only to learn when the animals are butchered that their carcasses appear old and, therefore, less valuable.”
“The sporadic problem is so bad both in the United States and abroad that in some herds around 40-50 percent of pregnancies are being lost.”
“The viability of this important industry is threatened.”
Testimony of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, to the Senate Agriculture Committee July 24, 2002
During the 2011 public comment period for GM alfalfa, which is one of the primary crops grown for livestock feed, Dr. Huber had written a private letter to USDA head, Tom Vilsack, speaking of all the published and emerging work relating to the overuse of glyphosate, as well as the discovery of the pathogen “new to science” prevalent in the diseased crops and in the tissue of diseased animals. He urged that funds be allocated for proper independent research, and that the decision to deregulate these crops be delayed.(10) This was the most risky GM crop so far, as it is an insect pollinated perennial, that would make contamination to non GM varieties a sure thing. Not to mention that most conventional alfalfa farmers do not even require herbicide, what was the purpose of an herbicide tolerant alfalfa? Nevertheless, ten days later GM alfalfa was approved, and three weeks later President Obama signed two more Roundup Ready crops into law.
“Roundup is biodgradable and leaves the soil clean.”
Monsanto’s claims before being sued by French and New York courts for false advertising
While Dr. Puzstai's work showed severe problems with the genetic modification process itself, Dr. Huber and others have published over 100 studies on the toxicity of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the increasingly used herbicide Roundup, which is part of the system of growing Roundup Ready crops. .
There are multiple ways that glyphosate is harmful--first, as an endocrine disruptor, as had been shown in the work of Dr. Seralini, similar to the work of Dr. Hayes with Atrazine, demonstrating hormonal havoc in their test subjects. Second, a broad spectrum chelator, it inhibits the plants, and presumably those of us who eat the plants, in our uptake of important micronutrient minerals, such as manganese, cobalt, B12, zinc, copper, thus weakening our defenses against disease. It had also at one time been patented as an antibiotic, and thus wipes out all the beneficial microbes, allowing harmful bacteria or organisms to flourish, both in the soil and in our gut. The glyphosate is not something you can wash off, it becomes systemic in the plant itself, accumulating in the roots, leaching into the soil, where it can remain to affect future plants, depending on the conditions, sometimes for years to come.(11)
Since they are designed to withstand liberal sprays without being killed, herbicide-tolerant GM crops have encouraged greater and greater use of chemicals, resulting in resistance in the target plants, and extensive superweeds in farmland across North America. The Environmental Protection Agency responds by allowing for greater levels of chemicals in our food. Scientists have also begun to stack the herbicide tolerant trait together with Bt technology, which causes a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensus to be expressed throughout the plant.
Some are speculating that the increasing gastrointestinal problems in the United States, leaky gut, Crohn’s and Celiac Disease, could be linked to glyphosate, because of all these synergistic effects, as well as with Bt technology itself, which has been shown to punch holes in human cells in vitro, much the way it punches holes in the digestive system of insects.(12) If this is what it is doing in our guts, foreign proteins and information could escape through the intestinal lining and into our bloodstream, and start effecting how our organs function. A Chinese microRNA study with mice confirmed altered organ function after oral ingestion of three different types of genetically modified corn.(13) This could also be the explanation for how Bt toxin was found circulating in the blood of over 90% of women and their babies tested in a 2011 Canadian study.(14)
Antibiotic resistance and Bt proteins could also be transferred from transgenes. As touched on in Part 1 of the Overview, studies are beginning to show that repeated lateral transfers of these foreign sequences is a real possibility, via the bacterial or viral vectors. They could combine with the DNA of soil microbes, so that future plants are affected by the same genetic alterations. They could also transfer into the gut bacteria of the livestock, or humans, who consume these GMOs, as was demonstrated in the one human feeding trial.(15) There this foreign DNA can perpetually produce allergens, create instability, silence important metabolic functions,(16) or express the desired trait of the transgenic plant, ie. we will produce pesticide within our own bodies.
Is this science fiction or our reality?
It seems evident that there are a multiplicity of problems and unknowns that the biotech industry is in no rush to share or to uncover. We are told that Americans have been eating these foods for two decades, with no great impact. Just as we were told that Roundup is a perfectly safe and biodegradable chemical. In fact Monsanto knew since the 1980s that glyphosate caused birth defects in lab animals. A report by Earth Open Source provides a window into how European regulators reviewed worrying data submitted by industry when it was seeking acceptance of its glyphosate tolerant crops. Regulators rationalized and proceeded to raise the allowable safety levels. Industry and regulators knew about the studies, but the public did not.(17)
As these foods are not labeled, there is really no way to monitor the effect of eating a GM diet. Although, if we look at former Navy scientist Nancy Swanson’s report, we would find a compelling series of graphs plotting the incidence of such diseases as autism, intestinal bowel disorder, or thyroid cancer against such things as the amount of glyphosate sprayed, or the acreage of Roundup Corn planted in the US. The plotted variables remain remarkably in sync.(18)
“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.”
—Phil Angell, Director of Corporate Communications, Monsanto, quoted in New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998
“Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety.”
— FDA, “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties” (GMO Policy), Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 104 (1992), p. 22991
A threat even greater than nuclear technology -- brought to you by Monsanto
The Emperor, our Democracy, and our Scientific Establishment, all have no clothes. There have been billions invested into the business, and there will be billions more to be made, and so there is no room for inconvenient studies or bad news. Which explains the rushed and secretive nature of the science, as well as the almost intentional lack of control over the environmental impact of their products, which is an underhanded way to increase and take over market share.
One of the most insidious and nefarious properties of scientific models is their tendency to take over, and sometimes supplant, reality. —Erwin Chargaff
It is important to remember the person and the words of Erwin Chargaff, biochemist, some call the father of genetics, as he discovered two rules that led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. When he met young Watson and Crick who were later to get the Nobel prize for the discovery, he wrote, “They impressed me with their extreme ignorance.” He was called a misfit and he embraced the term, not happy with much of the direction of science. When gene manipulation was beginning to be discovered he accused scientists of practicing biochemistry without a license. He called the threat of genetic engineering greater than nuclear technology, “an irreversible attack on the biosphere, something so unheard of, so unthinkable to future generations, that I only wish mine had not been guilty of it.”(19)
Chargaff was marginalized in his later years, and he is not the household name that Crick and Watson are. That someone so distinguished in accomplishments can be dismissed so casually by the scientific community is instructive. Previously eminent scientists can be shunned simply for holding a contrary view to the commonly accepted paradigm. The scientific community of today is as dogmatic and restrictive as the Catholic Church had become in the heights of its power.
Just as one has to get the money out of politics, one has to get the money out of Science as well.
We know that within 20 years the staple GE crops of corn, soy, cotton and canola have all grown to be close to 90% or higher in the United States. One cannot assume the technology has spread of its own virtue. One has to take into account the willingness to lie, to false advertise, to sponsor fraudulent science, all of which Monsanto has been convicted of,(19) the ease of contamination, as well as the highly litigious approach to small farmers who have done nothing except be in the way of the technology.(20)
Meanwhile, the mainstream media reported on the introduction of the new technology in glowing terms. With the introduction of Bt Cotton in India, Devindir Sharma called the World Bank report and the subsequent media coverage “a scientific fairytale.”(21)
To be continued.
Please check back soon when we explore the fate of the small farmer in the face of this technology, hidden somewhere behind the veil of the non-disclosure form.
“You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosals; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. Once you have constructed a viable E. coli cell carrying a plasmid DNA into which a piece of eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, 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 to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.“
—Erwin Chargaff, Letter to the editor, Science, Vol 192, p936, 1976
3) Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine,
Dr Stanley WB Ewen, Stanley, FRCPath, Arpad Pusztai PhD, The Lancet, Volume 354, Issue 9187, Pages 1353 - 1354,
16 October 1999
4) Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, Quist, D, Chapela, I,
Nature 414, 541-543 (29 November 2001) | doi:10.1038/35107068; Received 26 July 2001; Accepted 31 October 2001
5) http://www.responsibletechnology.org/posts/biotech’s-dirty-tricks-exposed-in-new-documentary-scientists-under-attack/ - http://www.psrast.org/pusztinterv.htm
6) Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses,
Tyrone B. Hayes, Atif Collins, Melissa Lee, Magdelena Mendoza, Nigel Noriega, A. Ali Stuart, Aaron Vonk, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
2002 April 16; 99(8): 5476–5480. doi: 10.1073/pnas.082121499, PMCID: PMC122794 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC122794/
12) Mesnage R, Clair E, Gress S, Then C, Szekacs A, Seralini GE. Cytotoxicity on human cells of Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac
Bt insecticidal toxins alone or with a glyphosate-based herbicide. J Appl Toxicol. 2013;33 (7):695-699.
13) Lin Zhang, et al, Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation
by microRNA Cell Research (2012) 22:107–126. doi:10.1038/cr.2011.158; published online 20 September 2011
14) Aris A, Leblanc S. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships
of Quebec, Canada. Reproductive Toxicology, 2011, 31, 528-33
15) Netherwood, et al, “Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract,”
Nature Biotechnology, Vol 22 Number 2 February 2004.
18) Swanson, N.L., Genetically Modified Organisms and the deterioration of health in the United States, 4/24/2013 http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/glyphosate/NancySwanson.pdf
19) Chargaff, Erwin, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature, Paul & Co Pub Consortium, 1978.
22) Sharma, Devindir, “A scientific fairytale,” India Together, 1 February 2003. http://indiatogether.org/scicoverup-op-ed
Updated on July 14, 2014.