The BOOKPRESS March 2000

Seeds of Doubt

Tony Del Plato


For years, agribusiness has been quietly slipping genetically modified ingredients into the food chain, making Americans the largest group of guinea pigs in the history of the world. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are grown on millions of acres of farmland, interacting with other plants, insects, and birds. The people of the United States currently swallow hormones in their milk, eat genetically altered tomatoes and processed products containing bt-corn (Bt, produced by the bacillem bacillus thuringensis is a naturally occuring toxin. Bt-corn has been altered to contain the bt gene thereby rendering it resistent to insect damage) and gene-laden Roundup Ready soybeans. (Roundup Ready soybeans have been genetically altered to make the plants resistant to herbicides and pesticides.) Some estimates suggest that 75% of processed foods test positive for GMOs. The most common genetically engineered foods are soybeans, potatoes, rape seed (canola), and cotton.

"Life science" corporations, biotechnology institutes, research centers, and even some farmer organizations have been operating as if the use of transgenic technologies in the production of food is "substantially equivalent" to conventional or organic methods. Americans have slowly awakened to these developments, demanding more information and choices in what kind of food they’re eating. A food fight is simmering in America.

What is genetic engineering? When a piece of genetic material is artificially transferred, from one organism to another, the resultant organism has been "genetically engineered." If this artificial transfer is done within a species, the change is said to be "vertical." A "horizontal" modification occurs when the genetically modified organism (GMO) has lost its parental identity due to the addition of genetic material from another species, such as from an animal to a plant or vice versa. GMOs do not occur in nature, and unlike automobiles or other "technological products," once they grow, mutate and travel on their own, they cannot be recalled.

In January, Michael K. Hansen, Research Associate at the Consumer Policy Institute/Consumers Union, testified before the Food and Drug Administration:

The science is so clear that this unique and identifiable process of genetic engineering creates a new and unique potential for unexpected effects, due to the unique nature of the material being inserted, from a genome which has not previously interacted with the host genome, due to lack of control over the location at which the gene is inserted, and due to the introduction of the Cauliflower Mosaic virus ‘promoter’ gene, which overrides the existing genetic programming...There are also predictable risks, such as potential risks of toxins, allergens and nutritional changes and antibiotic marker genes, which the FDA should address...The details of what safety review entails should be developed through a further process of notice and comment.

In a London Guardian article (10/5/99), reporter James Meikle wrote on the work of Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in England, who fed rats with potatoes modified with an insecticide gene from snowdrops and detected damage to their organs and immune systems. The Royal Society of England judged that Dr. Pusztai’s work was "half-cocked selected pieces of information from the Rowett." But the Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, thought his results worthy of publishing and did so. Two papers by Japanese scientists on GM rice and soya reinforced Pusztai’s concerns—stating that the position effect (of genes) has to be taken into consideration because drastic changes could result from the process of gene insertion.

Challenging one of the basic assumptions of genetic modification of foods—the substantial equivalence of conventional and GM foods—Pusztai said in an interview in GMFree Magazine (summer, 1999):

This concept states that there is no need for biological safety tests because the plants must be of similar composition as the parent line. This is the basis on which GM crops are being released. However, they cannot be substantially equivalent to the parent because you’ve introduced new genes. That’s why I don’t give tuppence for substantial equivalence...GM foods have been introduced on the back of just one published paper. Just one—in fifteen years of genetic modification. It was written by a Monsanto scientist and published in 1996. In the study Roundup Ready soya was fed to rats, catfish, chicken and cows...The researchers appear to have done their utmost to find no problem. They were using mature animals which are not forming body tissues and organs like young, growing animals. With a nutritional study on mature animals, you would never see any difference in organ weights even if the food turned out to be anti-nutritional...Most of this high overall dietary protein was used by the rats for energy, thus masking any possible effect of the GM soya protein.

Furthermore, the Monsanto study did a poor post-mortem of tested animals. Instead of weighing animal organs for more precise facts, the Monsanto scientists eyeballed them for differences. "I must have done thousands of post-mortems so I know that even if there is a difference in organ weights of as much as 25%, you wouldn’t see it," Pusztai said. "This is my field, so you can take it for granted that if I had had the chance of refereeing that paper, it would never have passed."

The Institute of Science in Society ( issued a statement on January 12, demanding a moratorium on the production and marketing of genetically engineered or modified plants and food until further protocols, testing and labeling were established. 238 scientists from around the world signed the "Letter to the Governments of the World," 129 from universities and research centers throughout the United States. None of the American scientists were from Cornell University. Nevertheless, Cornell researchers have recently released a study showing that bt-corn pollen kills Monarch butterfly larvae. Environmental Protection Agency scientists announced on October 7, 1999, that they would analyze new field test data from seed companies that sell genetically-engineered bt-corn to determine if the pollen is dangerous to Monarch butterflies. "There are extensive tests going on right now," Janet Andersen, EPA’s director of biopesticides, told a Senate Agriculture committee hearing on biotechnology and crops.

When did this kind of "food engineering" begin? In 1992, the FDA determined that genetically engineered foods were "substantially similar" to conventional crops. Therefore there would be no requirements for labeling and safety testing before they would be allowed to enter the marketplace. The biotechnological revolution sprouted, and billions of dollars were invested in developing genetic engineering.

The various government agencies which were supposed to serve as watchdogs of the public good were at best overcome by the rush of biotechnological events. But the government has also been complicit with the "life sciences" industry, using public resources to subsidize giant factory farms.

In a story in The New York Times (12/1/99), Marion Burros writes:

Several Food and Drug Administration officials have disagreed with the agency’s conclusion that genetically engineered foods can be regulated in the same way as conventional food varieties, according to internal agency memorandums read Tuesday [11/31/99] at a public hearing.

One of the memoranda, written in the early 1990s, accuses the agency of siding with industry and giving short shrift to consumers. An advocate of labels on genetically modified food, Steven M. Druker, obtained the documents in a lawsuit and read them at a hearing about the safety and labeling of such foods.

On July 14, 1999, Dan Glickman, the Secretary of the USDA, said, "Some type of informational labeling is likely to happen." At the time, he laid out five general principles the government would use in reviewing and evaluating GE foods. He declined to specify what kind of information the labels might carry. Then, on January 10, 2000, Glickman reversed himself, saying that the U.S. is unlikely to require manufacturers and grocers to put labels on GM foods.

By advancing the production and sale of GM/GE foods, the Clinton/Gore administration has continued the policies of the Reagan era. As a matter of fact, presidential hopeful Gore has the former head of government affairs for Genentec (a leading biotech company), David. W. Beier, as his chief domestic policy advisor. The revolving door between government and industry has also swung for Michael Kantor, former Secretary of the Department of Commerce and former trade representative for the U.S., now a member of the board of directors of the Monsanto Corporation; Margaret Miller, a former lab supervisor for Monsanto, now Deputy Director of Human Food Safety and Consultive Services for the FDA; and Clayton K. Yeutter, former Secretary of the USDA, now a member of the board of directors of Mygogen Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company. And the list goes on.

Fortunately, Representative Dennis Kusinich of Ohio has introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, HR 3377, which has been co-sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, among others. If passed, this legislation will require labeling and ensure the right of Americans to know whether the foods we purchase have been genetically altered in any way.

Dr. Ralph Hardy, President of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, affiliated with the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, has been silent on the subject of labeling legislation, while Charles J. Arntzen, President and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute, told a recent conference on "Sustainable Cuisine" at the Culinary Institute of America that he wants to stop the hysteria around genetic engineering biotechnology. I had the privilege of attending this collegial gathering in Hyde Park of writers and experts from government, industry, and environmentalist and consumer groups. Judging by the buzz in the audience of about 300 people, it was evident that many in the audience, especially women, strongly objected to being called hysterical.

According to its campaign brochure,

the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research has conducted basic and applied research targeting the most pressing issues in the plant sciences since 1924. Moving from Yonkers, New York in 1978 to Cornell University allowed the BTI to utilize the resources at Cornell to further its mission: expand the frontiers of plant biology and related areas of science while continuing a tradition of using science and technology to protect the environment and improve human health and well-being.

Nice words. The reality is far more complex when we consider that "Throughout the institute’s seventy-five years of operations, the financial resources required to support research have been generated from its substantial endowment, a diverse group of supportive sponsors, and other sources" (BTI 1998 Annual Report). Who are the diverse group of sponsors and other sources? In the Gift Report there are lists of donor levels. John M. Dentes, part of the Scientist’s Circle ($500-$999), writes in his Finance and Investments report that "The institute has been exceptionally well endowed since its inception...with the initial $10.7 million endowment of cash, securities, mortgages, and real estate by William Boyce Thompson." Thompson made his money in the fast-paced world of minerals investments. "Since that time, its [BTI’s] endowment values have risen to $68.8 million from foundations, industry, government, and others...In the 1980’s the investment goals changed (from income to support operating needs) to emphasize total returns." The institute is a not-for-profit corporation investing for profit and dividends. Is any of this taxed? Where does BTI invest its money?

Governor George Pataki hopes to make New York a major center for biotechnological research and has committed $300,000 of his proposed 2000/2001 budget to Cornell University’s Nanobiotechnology Center. Carl A. Batt, a microbiologist and professor of food science, said in a story by Missy Gloverman for the Ithaca Journal (1/12/00), "We are going to make an effort to transfer the technology into the private sector."

"It’s raining money on the biotechnology sector," says Lawrence M. Fisher in the "Investing" section of The New York Times (1/23/00). But Michele Landsberg wrote in the Toronto Star (12/26/99):

Because of this human propensity to eat and to care about what we eat, a funny thing happened this year to Monsanto, one of the world’s most overweeningly arrogant transnational corporations, as it rushed to the bank. It tripped and fell flat on its face. It got up and fell flat on its face again. And the series of hugely comical pratfalls kept escalating as the year dwindled to its close: most recently, Monsanto tried to hook up with another mega-corporation, only to see its share price (and that of its would-be new partner) tumble.

Shareholders are beginning to get restive over GM products. According to Roger Cowe of The Guardian of London:

A concerted shareholder campaign against GM foods is about to hit corporate America with a flood of resolutions at company meetings demanding a moratorium until proper testing has been done. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an umbrella of 275 religious and other groups, has targeted Coca Cola, Heinz, the U.S. Safeway Stores and McDonald’s for these resolutions. Shareholders are raising questions about the health and safety, loss of control over seeds by farmers, consumers’ right to know what is in their food, and fears about the long-term ecological impact of genetic modification. Other companies being targeted are American Home Products, Dow Chemical and Du Pont, Archer Daniels Midland, General Mills, PepsiCo, Philip Morris and more.

In response to these developments, the biotech industry has launched its own public relations campaign. In a story by David Barboza (11/12/99), The New York Times reported, "Biotech Companies Take On Critics of Gene-Altered Food":

Worried about growing resistance to genetically modified foods, some of the world’s biggest biotechnology companies are mounting a huge lobbying and marketing campaign to counter their critics and combat what they call a rising wave of anti-biotech hysteria.

President Clinton said at the World Trade Organization Ministerials in Seattle, December 1, 1999: "The United States would never knowingly permit a single pound of any American food product to leave this country if I had a shred of evidence that it was unsafe...I say to people around the world, we eat this [genetically modified] food, too, and we eat more of it than you do." Mr. Clinton, like many of those concerned with U.S. competitiveness in the world, has ignored scientific investigations in Europe, as well as in his own agencies. In fact, he ignored concerns raised by scientists within the FDA because they undermined his domestic and foreign policy goals.

The farming community is also in turmoil over the events of the past year. The Wall Street Journal reported November 19, 1999: "Seeds of Doubt—Once Quick Converts, Midwest Farmers Lose Faith in Biotech Crops: As farmers place their orders for spring planting, there is growing evidence that a boom is fading." The story continues to say that this year will bring the first decline in sales of GM seeds after years of growth. Even those farmers who support GM seeds and foods cannot ignore the fact that people are refusing to buy their products. Tens of billions of dollars have been invested in GM crops. What was once sold at a premium is now being dumped into processed foods in America. Robert Wichmann, at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed subsidiary of DuPont is predicting "some slippage" in sales.

The growth of food for people and animals is a matter of great complexity for farmers and consumers alike. What are the values involved in this process? What are the costs and risks in the emerging biotech future? Thoreau wrote: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." It could be said that factory farming burdens our land and lives with a debt of damage to ecological systems. We are poisoning future farms, land, water and communities.

What should be done? David Suzuki, professor of genetics at the University of British Columbia and host of TV’s The Nature of Things says:

We need a better and more systematic testing of these organisms before releasing them into nature, and we need mandatory product labeling. We need to slow down and take a hard look at what is motivating us to leap ahead with revolutionary, uncertain and largely unnecessary technology. But this doesn’t mean research shouldn’t continue.

He continues by referring to the cost of the Green Revolution of the 1970s "in terms of soil erosion, water pollution, a loss of biodiversity and the exacerbation of food inequities." He concludes, "We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can solve social and political problems with technological fixes."

Considering the significance of this new technology, it is reasonable to limit all genetically modified seeds and foods to laboratory research until we have enough information about GMOs to feel confident that we understand their impact upon the web of life.

Tony Del Plato is a cook, restauranteur and resident of the town of Ithaca.

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