The Thistle Volume 12, Number 1: June 2, 2000.

American People Participate in Biggest Biological Experiment Ever Conducted

The biotech industry is embarking on a $50 million propaganda campaign to convince the American people that applications of genetic engineering (GE) to many aspects of life are necessary, desirable, and safe. Perhaps more than with any other modern technology, the public intuitively feels that genetic engineering has the potential for great danger. Genetic engineering has met most of its resistance in the context of genetically modified (GM) food. Since the early to mid 90’s, the biotech industry, in collusion with federal regulatory agencies, has surreptitiously converted a large fraction of our naturally grown food supply to one that is derived from genetically modified seeds. Crops that are currently gene-tically modified include corn, soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes. It is estimated that approximately 60% of processed food contain genetically modified ingre-dients. 70 million acres of our country’s farmland is planted with genetically engineered crops.

Although the majority of Americans are unknowingly eating genetically modified foods on a daily basis, many informed scientists express grave concern about the health and environ-mental risks associated with genetically engineered crops. The biotech industry and the FDA claim that GM crops are not demonstrably different from those that have been cultivated through cross breeding and pollination by peasants and farmers over hundreds or thousands of years and are therefore safe. Many renowned biologists, including MIT professor Jonathan King, contend that this claim is false. Genetic engineering has made it possible to combine genes from species that would never exchange genetic material naturally. Nature allows a horse to mate with a donkey to produce a mule, but no matter how hard it tries, a horse cannot successfully mate with an apple tree through any traditional breed-ing techniques. Furthermore, the techno-logy of genetic engineering is more advanced than the science. Its effects cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy. For example, tomatoes have been designed that contain genes from an arctic fish to make the crop more frost resistant. The genetically modified tomatoes, however, are a commercial failure because of unpredicted side effects: they bruise very easily and consumers dislike their metallic taste.

During genetic engineering, genes are taken from animals, plants, insects, bacteria and viruses and are then arti-ficially inserted into the DNA of food crops, bypassing gradual evolutionary processes and creating pathways for diseases and genetic weaknesses to cross over to completely unrelated species. Often genetic engineering techniques use highly mobile genetic vectors that may move spontaneously in the genome and cause unexpected changes in the organ-ism. These changes could have harmful side effects on humans and the environ-ment. Although naturally occurring mutations can have similar side effects, the probability is increased by many orders of magnitude as a result of genetic engineering. Other studies have shown that genetic sequences survive digestion and enter the blood stream through the gut and then invade cells where they can interfere with the immune system or cause cancers. In addition, insertion of foreign genes into crops has a potential to create new allergens.

Not only do genetically engineered crops pose a real danger to human health, they can potentially wreak havoc on the environment. Unlike chemical and nuclear pollution, genetically engineered crops reproduce and cross-pollinate with non-GM crops and closely related wild species. If a genetically engineered plant creates unanticipated problems, it will be impossible for us to withdraw it from the environment. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin said in a New York Times Magazine article (10/25/98), “There’s no way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor misunderstanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don’t get one rude shock after another”.

Despite the potential dangers of GM crops, no long-term health studies are performed before new GM crops are introduced into our food supply. Since the FDA and other regulatory agencies officially deem GM crops as equivalent to natural crops that have been new products containing GM components are approved with no more than a safety assessment performed by the companies intent on selling the product. Further-more, the FDA does not require that processed foods with GM ingredients be labeled with information about their genetically modified origins. In fact, the majority of GM crops are mixed in with their natural relatives (i.e. the genetically unaltered crops). The lack of labeling is a blatant infringement on the rights of consumers to make informed choices about what we eat. In addition, if certain GM foods have deleterious health effects, it will be impossible for epidemiologists to trace the origin of the problems.

The biotech industry recognized early on that the public holds deep-seated suspicions about GM foods. For this reason, the industry has adopted the strategy of keeping the consumer ignorant of the fact that they are eating GM foods to prevent protest. Part of this strategy was to ensure that the FDA would not (and to this day does not) mandate labeling of GM food. The recent uproar in Europe, which has led to an almost complete rejection of GM foods there, along with the growing number of protests in the US against GM foods, has forced the biotech industry to reevaluate this strategy. Now that more people are becoming aware of the facts, the biotech industry is realizing that they need a powerful public relations campaign to engineer a positive attitude among the public toward genetic engineering.

The conversion of our food supply to one that is derived predominantly from GM crops is driven by a small group of corporations including Dow, Dupont, Novartis and most notably Monsanto. These companies, many of which traditionally specialized in chem-icals, are currently portraying themselves as “life science” companies, although they are more accurately characterized as agrochemical companies. The agrochem-ical companies claim that genetically engineered crops are essential to feed the ever-growing world population. Accord-ing to many specialists on world hunger and development including Peter Rosset, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, this claim is false. Hunger is not a result of population density but instead of poverty and inequality. In a New York Times article (9/01/99), Peter Rosset wrote:

In fact there is no relationship between the prevalence of hunger in a given country and its population. For every densely populated and hungry nation like Bangladesh, there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation like Brazil.

The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough is available to provide 4.3 pounds to every person every day: two and a half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs and another of fruits and vegetables - more than anyone could every eat.

In fact the widespread introduction of GM crops in ‘developing’ countries will likely exacerbate world hunger by further increasing inequality. People in poor countries lack access to funds and land that enable them to grow an adequate food supply. IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programs impose severe restrictions on ‘developing’ countries, forcing them to abandon the production of food for local use and instead focus on the growth of exportable commodities such as coffee, which are subject to wildly fluctuating world market prices. Within this framework, international lending institutions such as the World Bank place more emphasis on the development of large export directed farms at the expense of small family farms. The new genetically altered seeds require high quality soil, large invest-ments in new machinery, and increased use of chemicals. Only large corporate farms are capable of meeting these requirements in ‘developing’ countries. Under this system, family farms suffer and people are driven off the land into urban areas where they serve as a super-fluous, highly exploited and underpaid labor force for international corporations in ‘free trade’ zones, resulting in massive poverty.

The agrochemical companies claim that the introduction of GM crops will be essential to save the environment, since they will reduce the need for pesticides. While a small fraction of GM seeds have built-in pesticides, approximately two-thirds of genetically modified seeds are specifically designed to increase the sales of herbicides and pesticides sold by the same companies developing the seeds. Monsanto has developed corn and soy-beans that are resistant to their herbicide “Round Up” and they plan to introduce “Round Up”-resistant GM wheat in the future. These genetically engineered seeds enable farmers to spray their crops with much higher doses of “Round Up”. In fact, to make the introduction of Monsanto’s “Round Up”-resistant seeds possible, the Environ-mental Protection Agency had to triple the allowable residues that could remain on the crop. A recent study has indicated that farmers planting Monsanto’s “Round Up Ready” soybeans used two to five times as much of the herbicide as farmers planting the non-GM variety. This means that pro-cessed food using soy products, such as baby food, carry increased chemical residues.

Although the present purpose of GM seeds is to boost the sale of herbicides, the ultimate goal of the agrochemical corporations is to obtain control of the world’s agriculture. This has been made possible by the strict patent and intel-lectual property rules that have recently been enshrined within the World Trade Organization's (WTO) set of ‘free trade’ agreements. Within the last several years, Monsanto has systematically bought seed companies with the aim of monopolizing the seed market. For millennia, farmers have collected seeds after the harvest for use in the next season, a practice that can undermine a potential monopoly of the market. Under the contracts that farmers go into with Monsanto, however, they are prohibited from doing this with Monsanto’s patented GM seeds. Instead, every year farmers are required to purchase seeds from Monsanto. To guarantee that farmers are compelled to abide by these rules, Monsanto deve-loped “terminator” seeds, which grow into crops that are unable to generate new seeds.

Public outrage and criticism forced Monsanto to abandon this technology, but Monsanto is now focusing on “traitor” technology. This technology involves taking a particular trait of a plant and turning it on or off with certain external chemical promoters that only Monsanto would sell. “Traitor” tech-nology will give corporations like Monsanto unprecedented control over farmers and agriculture. The appalling laxness of federal regulatory agencies such as the FDA regarding GM foods, has its origins in policies set by the Bush administration in the early 90’s. Eager to safeguard the world dominance of the nascent US biotech industry, the admin-istration’s policy was to ensure that regulations would not be a burden on the industry. The Clinton administration has whole-heartedly continued this policy to the present. Added to this, companies like Monsanto have cozy relationships both with the Clinton administration and the FDA. Clinton has frequently praised Robert Shapiro, the CEO of Monsanto, (including in a State of the Union address). Monsanto’s vice president for public policy, Michael Taylor, was formerly the executive assistant to the commissioner of the FDA and was also the deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA when critical policy was made regarding GM foods in the early nineties. Mickey Kantor, personal attorney to Clinton and former US commerce secretary and US trade representative, is currently on Monsanto’s board of directors. Within the FDA, scientists have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential dangers of GM foods, but these warnings have had little or no impact on final policy.

The biotech industry often refers to scientists and citizens who oppose the introduction of genetically modified foods as Luddites. This is an attempt by the industry to reduce the argument to “no progress or our progress.” The wide-spread introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into our environment will result in one of the most profound transformations of our fragile ecosystem that has occurred in many millennia. There is currently no need for such a transformation. Efforts to rush to a food supply drawn predomi-nantly from genetically modified crops only serves the corporations that expect to make tremendous profits from the conversion. The rest of the population, who have had no say in this decision (either through political democracy or as informed consumers) only serve as unwitting guinea pigs in a massive experiment. Furthermore, the potential long term dangers of the introduction of GMOs in our environment and our diet are enormous and completely unpre-dictable due to our limited understanding of the immensely complex workings of living beings and ecosystems. People against GM-crops, instead of being Luddites, very scientifically embrace the precautionary principle, which holds that we should not make irreversible changes to our ecosystem and food supply before we fully understand the consequences. The potentials of biotechnology are profound and should not be left in the hands of a small minority whose sights are blinded by dollar signs and whose passions are the aggrandizement of ever more power. Our current capitalist society, with its extreme concentrations of wealth and power and its strong imperialist overtones, is too backward and primitive to deal with tools such as biotechnology in any responsible way. The use of biotechnology, if such uses are ever shown to be necessary, should be determined democratically by all peoples on this planet.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 1: June 2, 2000.