On Organics and GMOs: A Roundup of the Latest Research and Developments in the Global Controversy over Biotechnology

Letters to the Editor: Helke FerrieDo scientists know how dangerous a game they’re playing when they mess with plant and animal genes in the service of biotechnology? I have wondered about this often and finally got an answer.

Last August, the Institute for Responsible Technology published a story by Jeffrey M. Smith about Kirk Azevedo. Robert Shapiro, who was Monsanto’s charismatic CEO in the early 1990’s and known for his devotion to daily Zen meditation practice, had inspired Azevedo by his message of “saving the world through genetic engineering”. Azevedo decided: “Here we go! I can do something to help the world and make it a better place.”

Joining Monsanto in 1996, just as the first genetically engineered (GM) food plants were coming to market, Azevedo quickly rose in the ranks to become one of their top GM cotton sales coordinators. To his astonishment, he found that Monsanto scientists were not required to consider safety assessments of their products; they focused exclusively on producing new plants of importance to world agriculture. Like kids with a Lego set, they were totally focused on producing new and exciting structures that could self-replicate and could also be patented.

When Azevedo pointed out to them that their newly created proteins had the potential to be allergenic or toxic or both, perhaps to animals and plants or even people, they dismissed his fears as nonsense. “Substantial equivalence”, that oft-repeated mantra of the biotech industry, was already firmly in place back then as the key research assumption, implying that GMO plants are as good as, or better, than the real thing. (Yet in 2006, some 70 shepherds in India reported that a quarter of their goat herd died after accidentally grazing on GM cotton plants.) When he then suggested that they should check Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone for prions which cause Mad Cow Disease, he was met with blank stares. Soon everybody avoided him. “Anything that interfered with advancing the commercialization of this technology was going to be pushed aside,” he concluded. Azevedo quit and became a chiropractor.

Biotech scientists may indeed not be bothered to know what they’re doing when working in a context where certain assumptions exclude precautionary considerations. Besides, manipulating those magical genes must be exciting: the most amazing things happen right there in front of your eyes under the microscope! And yet this genetic tinkering can have dire consequences. For example, the recent contamination of apparently all strains of rice by a gene not approved by, or even known, to the FDA is “transforming U.S. rice into a global pariah and sending the industry into the biggest crisis in memory.” (Washington Post, March 11, 2007)

Meanwhile, those biotech apprentices continue their experiments, such as developing genetically engineered insects which are expected to eradicate invasive pests, but are themselves unable to replicate themselves, rather like terminator seeds (email: chrisgupta@alumni.uwaterloo.ca for details).

But now a curious new development has begun as biotech companies and scientists are running into unexpected trouble with the courts and even patent offices. Until last year, the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) came only from a handful of special interest groups:

– farmers’ organizations who found that the promises of greater crop yields and less need for water and pesticides were false, and that in fact the opposite was true;

– scientists increasingly reported findings of toxicity and cancer-promoting properties in GM food products already on the market;

– consumer rejection made some GMO products commercial failures, starting with the Flaver Saver tomato, the very first biotech plant food to enter the market, which only looked like a tomato;

– the ecologically more sophisticated Europeans refused to buy GMO products even when punished by the World Trade Organization for insubordination.

OPPOSITION TO GMOs COMING FROM THE COURTS

In 2006 the courts began to join the opposition by handing down decisions that must be outright traumatizing to many biotech CEOs. In February, California federal judges ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had violated environmental laws when granting approval for Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa (www.centerforfoodsafety.org). This is a financially significant crop and the dust hasn’t settled on this as yet; most alfalfa is of the GM variety and this decision may block its planting throughout the U.S.

In August of last year the federal district court in Hawaii stopped the field trials of GM crops designed to produce drugs because the court found such planting violated the National Environmental Policy Act as well as the Endangered Species Act. These plants were designed to produce vaccines, hormones and cancer drugs.

As reported by the Institute of Science in Society, in February 2007 a federal court in Washington DC ruled against field trials of all GMO crops (current and future) until the requirements of the relevant environmental laws have been met. This will take some sorting out and has the potential of bringing down biotech altogether.

The Organic Consumers Association reported a truly bizarre situation which involved testing for Mad Cow Disease, also known as Kreuzfeld-Jacob disease, about which Azevedo had been worried a decade ago. The Kansas-based meat-packing company Creekstone Farms Premium Beef became worried about its flagging sales to Japan caused by fear of Mad Cow Disease. To reassure the Japanese, Creekstone decided to test all their meat and accordingly advertise it as prion-safe. To their amazement Creekstone found itself opposed in court by none other than the US Department of Agriculture which supported all the other meat producing companies that were not willing to go to such lengths and wanted Creekstone stopped from testing. However, in March this year the court ruled in favour of testing, and it is now expected to become the norm.

In May 2007 the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto’s species-wide patent on genetically engineered soybeans. This patent was granted in 1994, before any GMO products had appeared on the market, and had covered all varieties of soy. It was “the broadest species patent ever granted on plants and seed” (www.no-patents-on-seeds.org).

How all this will play itself out is uncertain, but federal court decisions can’t be easily ignored and are hard to challenge. Most importantly, such decisions equally effect the industry’s ally in government – the FDA. In order to get biotech crops back on track a whole system of existing laws would have to be dismantled first.

NEW EVIDENCE ON THE DANGERS OF BIOTECH

Meanwhile, scientists have continued their investigations with some astonishing successes. European research has shown that the current problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria and some of the new super-viruses appear to have been promoted over the past decade by GM crops and their attending agricultural methods. These findings have been denied by the industry for a number of years, but denial is becoming increasingly difficult.

In May 2007, German researchers proved that genetically altered crops do not maintain their genetic integrity, but the foreign genes inserted into those crops jump the species barrier. On May 28, The Observer in the UK reported the findings of geneticist Hans Heinrich Kaatz of Jena University, showing that “the herbicide-resistant genes in the rapeseed transferred across to the bacteria and yeast organisms inside the intestines of young bees.” This finding, if supported by further and already ongoing research, would shatter the myth upon which GMO approvals everywhere rest – namely the assertion that GMO products are “substantially equivalent”. Naturally evolved plants don’t pass their genetic material on to other organisms.

Given that GMOs appear to be based on shoddy science at its worst, it is also reassuring that some of Europe’s most prominent scientists have come together to demand that the European Union support independent scientific evaluations of genetic engineering research (www.i-sis.org.uk) – research that isn’t paid for or controlled by biotech companies.

Indeed, it looks as if North America is becoming disconnected from the rest of the world which either mistrusts GM products or is at the very least ambivalent towards this food technology. Now Venezuela has become the first country in this hemisphere to ban GMOs outright. In April 2007 president Hugo Chavez passed a law that prohibits the planting and sale of any genetically engineered plants, declaring such crops “contrary to the interests and needs of the nation’s farmers and farm workers.” He also announced the creation of a large seed bank which will maintain and promote indigenous seeds for peasant movements right around the world. (Green Left Weekly, May 5, 2007)

In Canada, on May 31, private member’s bill C-448 was introduced in the federal parliament by Alex Atamanenko, the NDP agriculture critic, for the purpose of banning terminator seeds by law. These seeds, originally developed by Monsanto, are sterile. Being unable to reproduce themselves, the seeds provide complete patent and commercial control to their corporate owner – with devastating results and potentially crushing dependence for farmers using them. Despite immense international pressure against the deployment of such seeds, the lobbying for their approval has not stopped. But this bill seeks to stop such technology altogether.

Although it is unlikely that bill C-448 will pass while a Conservative government is in power, it is encouraging that the process has begun to suggest that governments should once again act in the public interest. Readers can support this bill by contacting their own federal Member of Parliament by e-mail through the website www.Rightoncanada.ca. More information is found on the Ban Terminator website and the website of the Canadian Biotech Action Network as well as on www.atamanenko.ca.

An especially sinister part of the entire biotech food industry is, of course, cloning. Cloned farm animals became a reality within the last couple of years, but consumer resistance is so enormous that even the biotech industry is being cautious about pushing this product. I was really surprised when I saw a guest editorial on the topic of “restoring public trust” through proper labeling of GM foods, especially cloned animals’ products, in the March 15, 2007, issue of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. This publication is so consistently pro-biotechnology that such a topic as this was unthinkable as being even acknowledged within its pages. But there it was – an editorial flatly pointing out that the public doesn’t trust biotechnology as being the solution to the world’s ills, and that cloned food-producing animals might be outright dangerous to the consumer! Yet cloning was always portrayed as producing perfect animals because they would supposedly be identical to the carefully chosen source animal. Well, this editorial quotes one of the leading cloning scientists in the world, Rudolph Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying exactly the opposite: “You cannot make normal clones. The ones that survive will just be less abnormal than the ones that die early. There has been no progress – none – in the last six years in making cloning more safe.”

THE RISE OF ORGANICS IN THE MARKETPLACE

The truth that food quality really matters is beginning to make an impact at last on hospitals. More than 2,000 hospitals in the U.S. no longer serve the nutrient-empty junk that is typical of most hospitals. Instead they serve 100% organic fare, and fair trade coffees and teas! They even make sure the milk products they buy are free of bovine growth hormone, and this in spite of the fact that currently Monsanto is in the courts trying to stop all dairies which label their products as free of BGH from doing so. (Organic Consumers Association July 20, 2006)

In my opinion, organic food must be awfully good if Wal-Mart goes out of its way to lie and cheat about it; such deception is, after all, deep down an indicator of value. Recently, the US Department of Agriculture identified several cases of outright fraudulent labeling of foods as “organic” in Wal-Mart stores. You can see them on the web page of the Cornucopia Institute which has a special photo gallery devoted to these improperly labeled items.

It appears that the brick wall of reality is coming closer and closer. The conflict between quality and quantity, the requirement for real food versus fake food designed to create dependence of the many for the profit of the few, is far from over. But the battle is becoming increasingly more interesting and is, at the very least, serving to raise awareness and educate consumers.

References

L. Armstrong et al, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, New Society Publishers, 2007

M.-W. Ho & R. A. Steinbrecher, Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of the Joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology & Food Safety Report, Third World Network, 1998

M.-W. Ho et al, Gene Technology in the Etiology of Drug-resistant Disease, Third World Network, 1998

M.-W. Ho & L. L. Ching, GMO Free: Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology, Vital Health, 2004

G. Merzer, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth From The Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat, Touchstone, 1998

M. Nestle, What to Eat, North Point Press, 2006

A. Smith & J.B. MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet, Random House, 2007

Institute of Science and Society: www.i-sis.org.uk

Institute for Responsible Technology: www.responsibletechnology.org

Organic Consumers Association: www.organicconsumers.org

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