MAKE MINE ORGANICHelke Ferrie May 1, 2004
The Marketplace Continues to Resist GMO Foods, as Consumers Embrace the Organic Movement
“Necessity is the excuse of every tyranny,” observed the 18th century British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, when he failed to persuade Mad King George to ease up on the economic repression of the American colonies, so they successfully revolted.
Today, the biotechnology industry tries to persuade us that genetically engineered foods are absolutely necessary to eradicate world hunger, save the environment, and bring us magical therapies through pharma-foods. The situation is indeed dire, but mostly for the biotech companies whose allergy to facts and truth is ruining their financial health; the world’s hungry agree with the world’s over-fed that we need biotechnology about as much as a belly-ache or cancer. Looks like the decision by Monsanto, Aventis, Dow and Dupont to pump $50 million (US) into advertising the benefits of biotech hasn’t worked. (Washington Post, April 4, 2000) Even advertising eventually does need the support of experience and evidence to convince.
January 2004 was a very bad month for the biotech industry. The European Union rejected GE rice known as LL Rice 62 because of serious environmental and health concerns; the U.S. Justice Department is investigating Monsanto and Pioneer for anti-trust violations, or price fixing (New York Times, Jan. 6, 2004); and in an ironic twist of events, Monsanto was bullied for a change, forcing it to halt sales of all Roundup-ready soya beans because the company is losing money to the black market in countries where governments won’t enforce patent laws (New York Times, Jan. 21, 2004). Adding insult to injury, the Swiss Re (which insures insurance companies) published a report on GMOs stating they “pose the likelihood of new types of loss patterns” and that the technology itself “represents a particularly exposed long-term risk.”
Meantime, in Canada, not one but two earthquakes began to rumble throughout the biotech industry. Firstly, on January 10 the Canadian government abandoned one of its favourite private sector buddies Monsanto on the GE wheat trials issue because Japan, the EU and others had made it clear they wouldn’t buy the stuff, or any other Canadian wheat for that matter, if trials were permitted, as it might become GE contaminated. And secondly, a week later Canada’s Supreme Court heard the case of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser whom Monsanto accused of stealing their patented GE seeds when some blew over from a neighbour’s field. (A favourable decision for Schmeiser would establish that people have the right to farm as they have for the past 10,000 years by saving seed, that GE seeds do travel with the wind after all, and that the world’s food supply may not be solely controlled by corporations.) During cross-examination, the incisive questions posed to Monsanto’s lawyers by the “Supremes” (as lawyers refer to the judges) illuminated the lies and deception of biotech such as to make the audience occasionally gasp. The decision has not yet been handed down.
CONFERENCE PUTS SPOTLIGHT ON ORGANIC MOVEMENT
On the weekend of January 23, farmers, scientists and journalists gathered for their 23rd annual conference at Guelph University to assess the progress of the organic movement. Here are some highlights from among the speakers.
• The keynote speaker was George Siemon of Wisconsin whose co-op “Organic Valley” has become North America’s largest organic food source grossing close to $200 million (US) this year. Siemon, who looks like the archetypal American farmer; tall, bony, wind-burned, huge rough hands, described with the humour and relaxed self-assurance of a Taoist sage his journey from a small organic milk co-op “with a mere wisp of a hope in 1990” to a nationwide organization involving hundreds of farms in 19 states providing 40% of the natural foods supply. Asked why more and more farmers join, he replied, “Rewarding work is rare. Everybody seeks meaningful work.”
Success was not easy, being up against huge multinational bullies. Yet, as he pointed out repeatedly, the consumer runs the show; people want real food. In June 2001, ABC News conducted a poll showing that 93% of Americans want GMO foods labeled, so they can avoid them. This was confirmed by a Rutgers University poll a year later when 98% wanted labeling. Today, 30 million Americans buy organic food.
Real food means: no synthetic fertilizers (which reduce essential minerals for plants, animals and humans such as magnesium); no pesticides (which are toxic to all life); no genetic engineering (source of allergies, cancer and immune dysregulation); no prophylactic antibiotics in animal feed (prolonged use causes cancer in animals and humans and makes bugs antibiotic resistant — a currently unfolding medical disaster, especially for tuberculosis); no sewage sludge (full of synthetic medicines and frequent source of mutant disease agents); no irradiation (kills vitamins E and B).
Furthermore, the farming methods used to grow real foods serve to stop soil erosion, prevent toxic run-off into the water supply, and protect biodiversity and human health.
• Stewart Wells of the National Farmers’ Union quoted Gloria Steinem’s observation that “the truth shall set you free, but first it will make you miserable” when explaining how the Union had made the government miserable by digging up the (publicly-funded!) research truth (buried or ignored by Agriculture Canada) showing that the $50 to 100 million annual damage caused by certain weeds was in fact caused by Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup.
The Union also repeatedly faced down the biotech guilt trip about the need to feed the world by pointing out that distribution monopolies are the problem, not the quantity of food produced. In Saskatchewan, for example, the number of food banks increases annually, even though 80% of all food produced is surplus and exported. (This province also has the largest number of organic farmers: 1,200 of them in a population of merely one million.)
For the rest of North America, the number of organic farmers doubled since 1995. Since 2000, mainstream food producers such as Heinz, Gerber’s, Loblaws and others all started hugely successful organic food lines — watched and tested diligently by Greenpeace and other NGOs.
• Jennifer Sumner, who has taught at Guelph University since the 1970s, described the “corporatization of science”. Biotech dollars pay for most research and so they claim ownership of the results. Unfavourable information is routinely suppressed. But the tide is turning: public and academic pressure has resulted in Canada’s largest agricultural college opening a department for organic research.
• Ken Roseboro from Iowa and editor of the excellent Non-GMO Source Newsletter, talked of the new challenge to organics: as demand is increasing at a steady 20% annually and organic foods have become a major economic force, the problem of unintentional GMO contamination has arisen in every product line. Interestingly, he referred to studies showing that genetically engineered food plants become weaker with every generation and die; Nature’s quality control system can’t be fooled, just like our healthy immune systems routinely destroy tens of thousands of improperly replicated (potential cancer) cells in our bodies daily.
ROUND-UP OF NEWS ON HEALTH HAZARDS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
This time I was one of the speakers at the Guelph conference, and being billeted as an “outspoken writer,” I did my best not to disappoint. I reported on the health implications of genetically modified foods, the main areas being allergy, increased cancer risk, immune dysregulation, acute toxicity, delayed toxicity through increased pesticide residues, reduction in essential nutrients causing malnutrition, health hazards due to environmental degradation, and the creation of new viruses and other pathogens. (For a full discussion and all the scientific sources see the books listed at the end.)
Tyrannical corporations, in persuading people that their measures are necessary, project enormous enthusiasm and flood us with images of a wonderful world to come; of course, dazzling vision and utopian promise can’t let it rain on the parade, so it is essential to suppress contradictory information or dismiss flies in the ointment as irrelevant.
Biotech companies have been exceedingly good at this, especially the suppression of contradictory evidence — a fairly easy task, since most research, medical, agricultural, and even much of the basic science supporting environmental research is dependent upon corporate funding. But what started as a few voices of caution has now become a flood. What began as a mere suggestion to be cautious in the 1999 statement by the world’s scientific community, is now loud protest presented to the governments of the world, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the U.S. Congress urging a total ban on biotechnology for food and in medicine.
Nobody worried about GMOs after their initial introduction in 1995 until Arpad Pusztai of the prestigious Rowett Institute of Edinburgh University, a key researcher and promoter of genetic engineering, reported in 1998 that mice fed GM potatoes showed evidence of serious damage to all major bodily systems. Monsanto (the institute’s major funding source) saw to it that he was fired. Fortunately, Prince Charles, who also happens to be the president of the British Medical Association, stepped in and had him testify before a special committee of the House of Lords. History may well one day see the heir to the British throne as the one who began saving the world’s food supply.
Only about a dozen studies exist to date on health implications of GM foods (see review in Nutrition and Health, vol. 17. 2003). Those show that due to the increased need for pesticides and herbicides that such altered plants require, primary as well as secondary health effects result. While the biotech propaganda traveled on the environmental ticket by assuring the world that less pesticides would be needed for these pesticide resistant plants, in actual fact 70 million additional pounds of these chemicals were used within just one year.
Meanwhile, enough time was passing to allow observations all over the world of several generations of GM crops, many of which had to be withdrawn because they tasted weird and people wouldn’t buy them (e.g., the Flaver Saver tomato, some potato varieties). Due to the increase in chemical use, scientists wondered what pesticides in general did to nutrients: apples, it turned out lost most and sometimes all their vitamin C, as reported in the prestigious Nature (April 19, 2001). And, the much touted “golden rice,” which allegedly had a high vitamin A content to eradicate blindness in Third World children, turned out to be an inhibitor of co-enzyme Q10 synthesis (so the children could die of heart failure instead). Worse, as British geneticist Mae-Wan Ho pointed out, a person would have to eat 15 pounds of rice a day to get the amount of vitamin A required to prevent blindness, while the indigenous legumes, judged to be weeds by biotech companies and targeted for eradication with Roundup and other chemicals, contained a hundred times more vitamin A in just one regular serving in traditional meals (Nature, March 29, 2001).
British scientist Dr. Christopher Williams started calculating the world-wide health effect of GM crops, after demonstrating that the genetic alteration process, combined with the increased use of chemicals they required, resulted in serious essential mineral deficiencies (zinc, magnesium, iron). About 1.5 billion people were thought to already be in “sub-clinical decline” by 2000 which would show up later in impaired brain development, he reported to the British Economic and Social Research Council. And it became well-nigh impossible to suppress some 8,200 university-based studies showing that GM crops have a significantly lower yield than conventional varieties. Research in the UK and in Venezuela showed that crops genetically engineered to be immune to certain pests caused these pests to adapt and then destroy the now totally defenseless crops; this raised the specter of agricultural catastrophe (The Independent, March 30, 2003). So much for feeding the world.
As early as 1995, the Chinese reported that stir-frying food in Canada’s GM canola oil released carcinogenic chemicals (Wall Street Journal, June 7, 1995). Since then, animal experiments involving canola oil showed damage to the heart, kidneys, adrenals and thyroid gland; it is also implicated in the destruction of the myelin sheath protecting nerves (as in multiple sclerosis). Remember that the next time you walk down the supermarket aisles carrying oils, maybe you best consider virgin olive oil instead.
When the biotech wizards came up with the bright idea in November 2002 of using human colon cancer genes to speed up crop growth, medical scientists everywhere woke up and the European parliament said no thanks.
In late 2003 Nature Biotechnology (vol. 22/2) reported that controlled experiments with humans had shown that GM corn passes through the human gut undigested, thereby providing no nutrition at all. Human digestive enzymes don’t know what to do with those figments of human imagination coming down the pike. Even more refined research (Environmental Health Perspectives, January 29, 2004) shows just exactly how the hormone-disrupting pesticides so liberally used on GMOs disrupt the chemical signaling in the body such as to interfere with normal gene activity.
The April 22 Nature seems to deal the death blow to genetic messing around in agriculture. In polite but clear language the cons (pun intended) are summarized, and no pros are left. The biotech party appears to be over.
Not quite … big bullies with world-domination on their minds don’t go away easily. The Council of Canadians is conducting nationwide information workshops concerning the government’s current move towards “deep integration” with the U.S. In a document entitled “The Canada We Want” they analyze the international treaties and tools (e.g. WTO, GATT, TRIPPS, NAFTA, etc.) and show how these made possible the wholesale highjacking of of entire sectors — from water privatization to food production. The organic movement is nothing less than enormously successful passive resistance against a dominant economic model of control and coercion. The COC also outlines how we can extricate ourselves from this system to avoid an escalation of this social and biological nightmare.
We need to support the COC. Call 1-800-387-7177 and visit www.councilcanadians.org. Our personal health and running the world are too important to be left to mad scientists and somnambulant politicians. Send COC an email to get a copy of “The Canada We Want” and find out how you can participate.
• Barstow, C. The Eco-Foods Guide: What’s Good for the Earth is Good for You! New Society Publishers, 2002 (the best single-volume tour through all aspects of politics, science, health — and how to shop — regarding genetic engineering and organic food; highly recommended)
• Fumento, M. Bio-Evolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World, Encounter Books, 2003 (biotech industry’s view of our brave new world)
• Rampton, S. & Stauber, J. Trust Us, We’re Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science, Tarcher-Putnam, 2001
• Rowell, A., Don’t Worry — It’s Safe To Eat: The True Story of GM Food, Earthscan, 2003 (first rate exposé of the biotech food skullduggery, recommended)
• Tokar, B. ed. Redesigning Life? A Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, McGill-Queens University press, 2001 (with contributions on all aspects of biotechnology by the world’s leading scientists) www.socialecology.com is Brian Tokar’s site and contains the in-depth history of Monsanto
• www.cspi.net is the site of The Center for Science in the Public Interest (one of its directors is Marcia Angell, editor for 19 years of the New England Journal of Medicine), first-rate information provided by world-class scientists on GMOs, pesticides, environmental issues, the politics of medicine etc., explains genetic engineering step by step
• www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/engineer explains genetic engineering step by step
• The Greenpeace site for “true food shopping” www.truefoodnow.org
• Tapes of Guelph event: Content Management (905) 889-6555