By Robin Mather
Eighteen years after the first genetically modified food, the Flavr Savr tomato, came to market, the controversy about genetically modified foods rages. The call to label GM foods continues to build, yet the federal government has not responded. GM foods now illegal in many developed countries have been part of the American diet for nearly two decades. As GMOs have come to dominate major agribusiness sectors, a handful of chemical/biotech companies now control not only genetically modified seeds but virtually our entire seed supply (see the Seed Industry Structure chart).
(You may see genetically modified plants and animals referred to as GMOs, for “genetically modified organisms,” or GE, for “genetically engineered.” The terms are essentially interchangeable. We use GMO as a noun and GM as an adjective. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
“Genetic modification” refers to the manipulation of DNA by humans to change the essential makeup of plants and animals. The technology inserts genetic material from one species into another to give a crop or animal a new quality, such as the ability to produce a pesticide. These DNA transfers could never occur in nature and are not as precise as proponents make them sound.
Some genetically modified crops have been engineered to include genetic material from BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural bacterium found in soil. Inserting the Bt genes makes the plant itself produce bacterial toxins, thereby killing the insects that could destroy it. The first GM crop carrying Bt genes, potatoes, were approved in the United States in 1995. Today there are Bt versions of corn, potatoes and cotton.
Roundup-Ready crops — soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa and Kentucky bluegrass — have been manipulated to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s broadleaf weedkiller Roundup.
These two GM traits — herbicide resistance and pesticide production — are now pervasive in American agriculture. The Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service says that, in 2010, as much as 86 percent of corn, up to 90 percent of all soybeans and nearly 93 percent of cotton were GM varieties.
You’re eating genetically modified foods almost daily unless you grow all of your food or always buy organic. Federal organic standards passed in 2000 specifically prohibit GM ingredients. Other genetically modified crops — none labeled — now include sweet corn, peppers, squash and zucchini, rice, sugar cane, rapeseed (used to make canola oil), flax, chicory, peas and papaya. About a quarter of the milk in the United States comes from cows injected with a GM hormone, honey comes from bees working GM crops, and some vitamins include GM ingredients. Some sources conservatively estimate that 60 percent or more of processed foods available in the United States contain GM ingredients, because most processed foods contain corn or soy.
GM foods are not labeled in the United States because the biotech industry has convinced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that GM crops are “not substantially different” from conventional varieties. The FDA, however, does no independent testing for human or animal safety and relies strictly on the research conducted by the manufacturers of the products. The main GM producer, Monsanto, makes it nearly impossible for independent scientists to obtain GM seeds to study. Meanwhile, many countries require labeling (the European Union, Australia), and some have even banned all GM foods (Japan, Ireland, Egypt).
Genetic modification technology does have extraordinary potential. In the practice known as “pharming,” animals are genetically modified to give milk, meat or blood from which medicines are manufactured, as when GM goats produce milk containing a blood-thinning drug called ATryn. Research laboratories use GM mice to seek cures for diseases. As much as 90 percent of the cheese manufactured in the United States is made with GM rennet. Yet with current minimal levels of oversight on the crops and livestock produced, many people have serious worries about GMO technology. Many of us simply want the right to know what is in our food.
Bt Crops: Boon or Bane?
Monsanto has led the invasion of Bt crops, starting with corn, cotton and potatoes. Syngenta has developed Bt corn as well, as have Bayer, Dupont and others. Such crops are marketed to growers as pest-resistant.
Some researchers have concerns about the effect of Bt crops on human health. Professor emeritus Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “there is evidence that [Bt] will impact directly on human health through damage to the ileum [the final portion of the small intestine, which joins it to the large intestine] … [which] can produce chronic illnesses such as fecal incontinence and/or flu-like upsets of the digestive system.”
In 2000, an Aventis brand Bt-corn variety, ‘Starlink’, which the EPA had approved for animal feed but not for human consumption, was found in supermarket taco shells. Uproar ensued, and a number of countries adopted new laws refusing to import GM corn from the United States, which disrupted corn exports, as the Choices magazine article documents.
Widespread testing and introduction of genetically modified crops coupled with absence of independent oversight make it inevitable that such slips will continue to occur.
Corn borer resistance to Bt is already seen as a problem in GM corn. “Protecting against the development of corn borer resistance is the responsibility of all producers using Bt corn,” wrote Ric Bessin, an Extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture. Bessin cautioned growers that they must provide “refuge plantings” of non-GM corn to battle resistance. The same requirement is true for other Bt hybrids.
Since GM crops are often grown from “stacked hybrids,” or varieties that have been manipulated to express several GM effects at once, pests may be developing resistance to many different GM traits. These “super bugs” may make all types of Bt ineffective at pest control.
Bt may also harm beneficial insects such as green lacewings and lady beetles.
With virtually all GM seed, farmers may soon be unable to save seed from their crops.
GM seed stock can be bred to include “terminator technology,” which prevents the seeds from producing viable second-generation seed for saving. (Most genetically modified crops are hybrids, which wouldn’t breed true anyway. But farmers forced to buy GM seed, as has happened in India and other countries, have lost the food security that centuries of seed-saving brought.)
Although this technology, sometimes called Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), has not been implemented, the USDA has stated its support of it. The USDA said in 2001 that it is “committed to making terminator technology as widely available as possible, so that its benefits will accrue to all segments of society. ARS [the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service] intends to do research on other applications of this unique gene control discovery. When new applications are at the appropriate states of development, this technology will also be transferred to the private sector for commercial application.”
In 2007, Monsanto purchased Delta & Pine, which owned three of the first United States patents on terminator technology as well as patents in Canada and Europe. Monsanto has said that that it will not adopt sterile seed technology, but has also said it “does not rule out the potential development and use of these technologies in the future.” Syngenta, said to hold more patents on terminator technology than any other company, has won additional patents related to this technology in Australia, Russia, Europe, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt and Poland.
GM varieties can pollute neighboring crops in “pollen trespass.” GM corn has polluted traditional varieties in Mexico, threatening traditional culture and genetic diversity. “Native seeds are for us a very important element of our culture,” said Oaxacan farmer Aldo Gonzlez. “The [Mayan] pyramids could be destroyed, but a fistful of corn is the legacy that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren, and today we are being denied that possibility.”
Saving GM seed can land you in court and even bankrupt you. Monsanto has sued nearly 150 farmers for “patent infringement,” alleging that farmers stole the company’s patent-protected seeds, whether by wind-blown pollen, spilled seed on the farmer’s property, “volunteer plants from a neighbor’s property, or in other ways. Monsanto maintains a staff of 75 attorneys, with an annual budget of $10 million, specifically to prosecute these cases, which have resulted in judgments in favor of Monsanto totaling more than $15.2 million. The company requires farmers to sign “technology agreements” before planting its GM seed, authorizing property investigations, but farmers whose property has suffered trespass from neighbors are not protected.
Biotechnology companies can prosecute these cases as patent infringement because they own all rights to the seed. Their ability to patent seeds rises from the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that Ananda Chakrabaty’s GM oil-eating bacteria could be patented even though it was a life form, and therefore could be protected under patent law. The landmark ruling opened the door to all GM patents today.
Roundup: Risky Business?
Roundup is one of Monsanto’s powerful broadleaf weedkillers. Since Roundup’s patent expired in 2000, a number of companies have begun to manufacture products using Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate. The Environmental Protection Agency says that glyphosate is among the most widely used pesticides in the U.S.
Glyphosate is not made using genetic modification. Instead, crops labeled Roundup-Ready are genetically modified to withstand drenching with this weedkiller.
In a 2011 report called Roundup and Birth Defects: Is the Public Being Kept in the Dark?, eight international scientists cited study after study linking glyphosate to birth defects in birds and amphibians, as well as to cancer, endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, and reproductive and developmental damage in mammals, even at very low doses. Moreover, the report said, Monsanto and the rest of the herbicide industry had known since the 1980s that glyphosate causes malformations in animals, and that EU governments ignored these studies. Here in the United States, the EPA continues to assert that Roundup is safe.
Another concern is environmental damage. Roundup ends up in wetlands due to runoff and inadvertent spraying. In one study, the recommended application of Roundup sold to homeowners and gardenerskilled up to 86 percent of frogs in one day, according to University of Pittsburgh assistant professor Rick Relyea. Even at a third of the recommended strength, Relyea found, Roundup killed 98 percent of all tadpoles. Amphibians, living in water and on land, are considered bellwether environmental species.
Roundup also damages soil. Two Purdue scientists, professor emeritus Don Huber and G.S. Johal, said in a paper published in 2009 that “the widespread use of glyphosate …can significantly increase the severity of various plant diseases, impair plant defense to pathogens and disease and immobilize soil and plant nutrients rendering them unavailable for plant use. ” The pair warned that “ignoring potential non-target side effects … may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops nonproductive and plants less nutritious.”
Huber is point-blank about glyphosate’s dangers. “Glyphosate is the single most important agronomic factor predisposing some plants to both disease and toxins,” he said in the interview with The Organic and Non-GMO Report. “These toxins can produce a serious impact on the health of animals and humans. The toxin levels in straw can be high enough to make cattle and pigs infertile,” Huber said.
The Importance of Independent Review
As the system now stands, biotech companies bring their own research to the government body overseeing their proposed products. The agency may be the US Dept. of Agriculture, the federal Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.
These government bodies do no independent studies on the safety and efficacy of the proposed products. Instead, they rely strictly on the research conducted by the companies.
“We don’t have the whole picture. That’s no accident. Multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, have restricted independent research on their genetically-engineered crops,” wrote Doug Gurion-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a February 2011 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece. “They have often refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they’ve set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options.”
Concern about lack of independent review extends to university-level research, which is often partly funded and/or controlled by the agrochemical companies, and often gives agrochemical companies exclusive rights to academic discoveries — even though the universities are taxpayer-funded.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska developed a new GM soybean with resistance to an herbicide called dicamba. Their research was partially funded by Monsanto, which gained the company exclusive use of the new soybean through a licensing agreement with the university signed in 2005. Monsanto will “stack” the dicamba resistance gene with a Roundup-Ready genetic change (in other words, creating crops that are resistant to two herbicides, forcing growers to use both).
It seems unlikely that scientists whose research is designed and paid for by agrochemical companies would choose to conduct studies that may reduce or remove that funding, even if they could obtain the seeds they needed to do truly independent research.
Moreover, the agrochemical companies refuse to release their own research, citing concern that “proprietary information” could be disclosed.
Scientific American called on biotech companies to end restrictions on outside research in a 2009 editorial. “Food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny,” the magazine’s editors wrote. “Agricultural technology companies should therefore immediately remove the restriction on research from their end-user agreements. Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market.”
When scientists have obtained agrochemical companies’ research data, usually through freedom-of-information requests, they have found entirely different conclusions than the company did. Three French scientists analyzed the raw data from three Monsanto rat studies in 2009 and found that three GM corn varieties caused liver and kidney toxicity and other kinds of organ damage. The European Food Safety Authority, at the request of the European Commission, reviewed the French report and said that it “does not raise any new safety concerns,” although other scientists continue to insist the French report is correct.
All three corn varieties are now in the human food chain in the United States.
rBST: Genetically Modified Milk
BST (for “bovine somatotropin”) is produced in cows’ pituitary glands. It’s also sometimes called BGH (for “bovine growth hormone”). It occurs naturally and, since the 1920s, has been known to increase milk production. It is a peptide, not a steroidal, hormone.
rBST stands for “recombinant bovine somatotropin,” and is a GM version of this naturally occurring hormone. Injecting the GM hormone causes cows to produce about 10 percent more milk. This report shows the reduction in milk production when rBST injections stop. In 1985, the FDA ruled that meat and milk from rBST-injected cows were safe, and consumers in several states unknowingly ate and drank both while Monsanto, Upjohn and others ran tests on their GM hormone.
The FDA approved the GM hormone in late 1993, saying there was “no significant difference” in milk from injected and uninjected cows. Its ruling meant that dairies could not label their milk as coming from uninjected cows, because doing so, the FDA said, suggested that there is a difference and the FDA said there was no difference.
There is a difference. rBST injections in cows raise levels of the naturally occurring IGF-1, (insulin-like growth factor 1), a protein that stimulates cell growth. The IGF-1 in milk from injected cows is easily absorbed in the small intestine. Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, has warned for more than 20 years that high levels of IGF-1 raise the risk of cancer, especially breast, colon and prostate cancer. He has said that rBST milk is “super-charged with high levels of abnormally potent IGF-1, up to 10 times the levels in natural milk and over 10 times more potent.”
Injecting cows in the same places over and over increases the chance of infection at injection sites, plus rBST-injected cows frequently suffer from chronic mastitis, an infection of the udder. Mastitis is uncomfortable for the cow, causing its udder to swell and making it painful for her to lie down or be milked. Milk from cows with mastitis is lower in the calcium and solids that cheese makers need and oftenhas a “ropy,” unattractive appearance. Both injection site and mastitis infections must be treated with antibiotics.
As the public reacted to rBST by reaching for organic milk instead, American retailers began to pledge not to sell rBST milk. rBST is illegal in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and the European Union banned it permanently in 1999.
In 2008, a group of rBST-using farmers formed a group called American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, or AFACT, with help from Monsanto. AFACT tried to ban no-rBST labeling claims in many states, but dropped those efforts in most states — except Ohio, where the ban effort ended in a lawsuit. An Ohio circuit court found in 2010 that there was a compositional difference between rBST milk and milk from untreated cows, and that the FDA’s position was “inherently misleading.” The court found higher levels of a cancer-causing compound, lower-quality milk because of higher fat and lower protein, and higher white cell counts, which means the milk sours more quickly.
Packaging for injectable rBST lists a number of other side effects for cows, including abscesses, ulcers on udders, reduced pregnancy rates, visibly abnormal milk and hoof disorders.
Despite Monsanto and other biotech companies’ claims that rBST would be a boon for farmers, the University of California at Davis reported that its use in California between 1994 and 1996 “probably resulted in an increase in milk production of less than 1 percent per year.”
Can GMOs Feed the World?
Fans of GMOs assert that genetically modified crops and livestock can help end hunger. They also claim that GMOs can help stop climate change, reduce pesticide use and increase crop yields.
Are these claims true? We conclude no.
The international report The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes outlined the evidence in detail gleaned from many sources.
Genetically modified crops do not produce more food or use fewer pesticides, the report said. As resistant weeds and bugs develop, farmers have to apply ever more herbicides and insecticides. “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture, and we need to be going in the opposite direction,” says Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.
If GM crops don’t increase yield, don’t reduce pesticide use and show no significant promise for feeding the world, why should government and industry promote them?
If GMOs fail, shareholders in Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta will see their investments plummet. And who are those shareholders? Very possibly, you. According to Yahoo! Finance, more than 80 percent of Monsanto’s stock is held by institutional holders and mutual funds such as Vanguard, Davis, Fidelity and Harbor Capital.
If GMOs don’t benefit the farmers who pay more to buy GM seed, and if they don’t benefit the customers who eat them unknowingly, who gains from GMOs?
Stockbrokers. And you, if you have investments that own stock in Monsanto or other biotech companies.
Seed Company Monopolies
Monsanto now controls so much of the world’s seed stock that the U.S. Justice Department launched an “unprecedented series of public meetings” into the company’s business practices as part of a formal antitrust investigation in March 2010. “The price of a bag of soybean seed, for example, has roughly quadrupled since Monsanto began licensing genes,” the Wall Street Journal reported in that article.
The Seed Industry Structure chart demonstrates how tightly and startlingly consolidated the seed industry has become. That’s one reason why Monsanto’s name comes up again and again in any conversation about GMOs: The company is far and away the largest involved in GM patented seed.
(The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes also includes an appendix detailing Monsanto’s long corporate history of misleading research, cover-ups, bribes, and convictions in lawsuits covering a range of issues, from Agent Orange to toxic waste discharge to GM soybeans.)
GMO Food Labeling: The Right to Know
The FDA and GMO supporters say that labeling genetically modified foods would be cumbersome and costly, ultimately raising food prices.
Labeling proponents point to the European Union, Russia, Brazil, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, all of which require labels for GM foods, and report costs are far lower than the industry and the FDA claim.
Survey after survey and poll after poll have shown that consumers overwhelmingly favor labeling.
In October 2011, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, filed a petition demanding the FDA require labeling on all food produced using genetic engineering. The center filed the petition on behalf of the Just Label It! campaign, a coalition of more than 350 organizations and individuals concerned about food safety and consumer rights. The FDA’s governing rules require it to open a public docket where citizens can comment on the petition.
That doesn’t mean the FDA will listen to those comments, however. The agency received nearly 6,500 comments on its proposed 1992 policy, and more than 80 percent demanded mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Despite that outpouring, the FDA did not respond to those comments and decided against labeling.
Part of the reason for the FDA’s lack of responsiveness may be the revolving door between government and the industries they regulate.
Just one example is Michael R. Taylor, now Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA. Taylor is an attorney who started his career at the FDA in 1976. In 1981, he moved to the law firm of King & Spaulding, representing Monsanto, and developed the firm’s food and drug law arm. While there, he worked to get Monsanto’s GM bovine growth hormone, rBST, approved.
In 1991, Taylor left King & Spaulding to return to the FDA as the newly created Deputy Commissioner for Policy. One of his first acts was to draft and implement language that prevented dairy farmers and milk producers from labeling their milk as coming from cows not injected with rBST. The FDA approved rBST two years later, in 1993.
Taylor moved to the US Dept. of Agriculture the following year, where he became Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service. During his two-year tenure, Taylor oversaw the adoption of the National Organic Standards Act, including its original proposal to have GM crops labeled as organic. The organic industry launched an all-out effort to protect its standards, and the GM proposal was dropped (as was a proposal to allow crops fertilized with raw sewage sludge to bear the organic label).
Taylor next returned to King & Spaulding for a short time, but then joined Monsanto as its vice-president for public policy. He was there until 2009, when he was appointed senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, and was named to his current position at the FDA in 2010.
Among other former Monsanto employees now or formerly holding posts in the agencies which oversees the company’s practices: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Dr. Michael A. Friedman, a former FDA deputy commissioner who subsequently joined Monsanto as a senior vice-president; and Linda J. Fisher, an assistant administrator at the EPA before joining Monsanto as a vice-president and then returned to the EPA as deputy administrator.
FDA officials have openly criticized efforts to label GM crops and food. When Oregon voters considered Measure 27, a mandatory GMO labeling law, in 2002, FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford said in a letter to the governor of Oregon that mandatory labeling could “impermissibly interfere” with the food industry’s ability to sell its products, and could violate interstate commerce laws.
The Oregon initiative was soundly defeated, and money was the reason why. “In campaign financial disclosure reports … Monsanto took the financial lead against Measure 27, with contributions totaling $1,480,000. Next was Dupont, with $634,000. Other large contributions came from biotech companies Syngenta, Dow Agro Sciences, BASF and Bayer Crop Science. Grocery Manufacturers of America [a trade organization], PepsiCo, General Mills and Nestle USA contributed a total of $900,000 by the reporting date,” said Cameron Woodworth in Biotech Family Secrets, a report for the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Other high-ranking federal officials have lobbied against labeling. “If you label something, there’s an implication there’s something wrong with it,” said Jose Fernandez, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for economic, energy and business affairs. He was speaking on an October 2011 panel organized by CropLife International, a trade organization representing the biotech industry.
The assertion that labeling somehow implies inferior quality is transparently specious. Fruits and vegetables labeled “organic” made up the highest growth in sales of all organics in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association, up 11.8 percent from 2009 sales. Total U.S. organic sales were nearly $28.7 billion in 2010, up 9.7 percent from 2009.
What You Can Do About GMOs
- If you think GM foods should be labeled, you can sign on to the Just Label It! campaign and send letters to the FDA and your congressional representatives to urge them to require labeling of GM foods. You’ll find sample language and a petition at the Just Label It! website.
- If you grow your own food, buy your seed from companies that have signed the GMO-free pledge. See the Safe Seed list, maintained by the Council for Responsible Genetics.
- Buy organic whenever possible and look for foods labeled “Non-GMO verified.” The Non-GMO Project is an independent nonprofit that requires independent, third-party verification before awarding its label.
- Help combat seed industry monopolies and build local food security by supporting local growers who refuse to use genetically modified seeds and GM drugs on their livestock, and work to pass food sovereignty laws in your community. Food sovereignty laws can prohibit GM foods in your community. Learn more from food sovereignty expert Dr. Vandana Shiva’s blog.
- Finally, if you have investments, consider moving out of funds that invest in biotech stock. If you are unable to do so, write letters to your fund’s managers to tell them of your objection to this investment policy.
Robin Mather, a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, has written about genetically modified crops and livestock since the early 1990s. She is the author of A Garden of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering and the Future of Food (Dutton, 1995) and of The Feast Nearby (Ten Speed Press, 2011).