On February 22, Connecticut’s General Assembly began its first round of hearings to gather public testimony regarding the proposed passage of HB 5117. The bill would require all genetically engineered foods sold in the state to be labeled by law. In California, signatures are currently being gathered to put a similar GM labeling initiative on that state’s ballot.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. While genetically modified foods have been a regular fixture on plates and grocery shelves for more than a decade, the debate surrounding our current lack of regulatory controls to ensure the safety of these products has grown from a groundswell to a multi-industry fever pitch. Members of the scientific community, grassroots organizations, citizen journalists and millions of American consumers are now calling for more transparency into the manufacturing practices behind these foods and further research into what potential effects they may have. So far, these wishes have been kept at bay, as corporate food manufacturers, industry groups, members of Congress and even White House cabinet members with ties to bio giants have been successful at plugging the dyke of swelling regulation. The alleged dangers of GM foods have been debated as long as they’ve been making an appearance in grocery stores, but now, due to new scientific findings, a crop of lawsuits against biotech companies and the recent appearance of regulatory bills aimed at engineered foods on multiple state dockets, one can’t help but wonder if the debate over genetically modified foods has entered a second stage.
A modified history
In terms of food, genetic modification refers to the process wherein specific changes are made to an organism’s genetic structure, either by incorporating foreign genetic material into the organism or the deletion of specific genes, typically to make the crop more efficient, more attractive, or more resistant to insects, draught or herbicides.
The United States grows about 45% of the world’s genetically modified food. As of 2010, 93% of all soybeans, 93% of all cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.
To date, the United States does not require genetically modified foods to be labeled such. Moreover, GM foods do not require special approval by the FDA.
Beginning with the “Flavr Savr” tomato, the very first GM food to be granted license for public consumption, scientifically engineered foods have been a topic guaranteed to induce internal controversy. When producer Calgene first submitted the Flavr Savr to the FDA in early 1992, government scientists believed its genetic alterations, which included an added gene to extend the fruit’s shelf life, might result in uniquely high toxicity levels. Later feeding studies found some rats fed the tomatoes developed stomach legions. FDA scientists believed rushing the food into diets without additional knowledge of its effects could be dangerous, and recommended further testing before it was approved for commercial use.
Outside consultants thought differently. They concluded the tomato needed no further regulation because it shared the same essential physiological characteristics of a conventional tomato. The FDA determined the Flavr Savr was “as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means,” and that no additional labeling on the food was required. The FDA approved it in May 1992. The Monsanto Company later bought Calgene.
Dangers of GM debated
To date, there have been no epidemiological studies to determine the effects GM crops may have on people. However, a series of independent reports analyzing the effects of GM testing on animals have offered a damning second opinion.
In the late 1990s, scientists in Scotland who fed conventional as well as GM potatoes to mice reported 36 different physiological changes in animals fed the latter. The controversial study, carried out by biochemist Árpád Pusztai, suggested that genetic reconfiguring of the potatoes, not the presence of pesticides, caused these health problems.
In Vienna, scientists performing long-term studies found GM corn fed to mice led to infertility. And in 2006, Russian Academy of Sciences scientist Dr. Irina Ermakova published research showing rats fed GM soy flour lost more than half their offspring within three weeks after birth.
A study published in the December 2009 edition of the International Journal of Biological Sciences discovered traces of Hepatoxicity, or chemically driven liver damage, in rats fed Monsanto GM corn, as well as heart and kidney damage. Finally, a June 2011 report by Earth Open Source found that glyphosate — the weed-killing herbicide found in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup product — caused birth defects in frog and chicken embryos. The defects were discovered during tests using glyphosate dilutions that were much lower than what’s currently used in standard agricultural practices.
These findings echo anecdotal claims heard in the U.S. farming community for years, where rampant reports of fertility problems in livestock have allegedly coincided with the introduction of GM products to animal feed.
Regardless of data that suggests otherwise, it bears mentioning: to date, there has not been a single documented case of any human illness tied to the consumption of genetically modified food. A 2008 Royal Sciences of Medicine review concluded that no reports of ill effects have ever been reported from the consumption of GM crops. However, the aforementioned scientific studies highlight an underlying notion that the GM industry and its proponents can’t ignore: to date, no one knows what the true, long-term effects of consuming GM foods really are.
Given its prevalence in U.S. diets, the current dearth of research into the long-term effects of GM foods — either by Federal agencies or independent scientific inquiry — seems grossly inadequate. This fact is complicated by the notion that most of the available studies touting GM’s benefits have been funded or compiled by the industry giants that produce GM foods.
In other cases, members of the scientific community have been outright attacked by the biotech industry and the front groups that support them. Scientists have reportedly been fired or had their professional reputations damaged if they went public with findings critical of the existing GM machine.
Consider the case of Ignacio Chapela, a Microbial Ecologist and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. When Chapela traveled to rural Mexico to study the genetic differences between U.S. GM corn and indigenous corn in the area, he randomly discovered transgenic DNA material in the latter, or genes revealing a natural transference of material from other organisms. Mexico has a moratorium on growing GM corn. Chapela’s findings then, suggested that genetic material from GM corn had somehow migrated thousands of miles and had grafted onto wild maize populations.
After a series of peer-group reviews, Chapela’s findings were published in Nature magazine. Soon after publication, Internet forums and message boards were rife with copy-and-paste claims from two “scientists” bent on discrediting Chapela’s report, complete with apocryphal rumors regarding the report’s origins. It was later discovered the attack was the work of a viral marketing campaign initiated by The Bivings Group, a Washington, D.C.,-based PR firm that held Monsanto as a long-time client.
Regardless of the spurious nature of the criticisms, Nature ran a notice in its following issue distancing itself from Chapela’s findings. In December, The Bivings Group site was allegedly hacked by Internet collective Anonymous. The PR firm has since ceased operations.
Then there’s Professor Pusztai, the Hungarian-born biochemist whose research at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, suggested physiological damage in rats that ate GM potatoes was the result of genetic alterations, not pesticides present in the potatoes. After Pusztai went on television to speak about his findings, he was fired. His colleagues were directed by the University not to speak with him, least they also find themselves terminated.
Corporate, Washington ties exposed
The largest producer of GM seeds is Monsanto. It’s currently estimated that Monsanto’s genetically modified patents are now used in about 80% of all consumer corn grown in the U.S. and about 90% of all soy. Currently, Monsanto is also the world’s largest conventional seed company.
The company’s Roundup product, featuring the patent herbicide glyphosate, has been the number-one seller of its kind for the past 30 years. Monsanto genetically engineers seeds so crops will be resistant to the glyphosate while surrounding weeds die. The genetic structure of these seeds are patented.
Monsanto is also known for its forays into bovine growth hormone. The company introduced its rBST recombinant (commonly known as rBGH), a synthetic hormone injected into cows to increase milk production. The hormone works by stimulating a natural hormone found in both humans and cows, IGF-1, which is responsible for inducing growth in infants. It was later discovered that IGF-1 is a cancer accelerator when introduced to non-infants.
Then there are the company’s notorious business practices. Monsanto famously unveiled its patent “Terminator” seed, which grows into a crop that bears sterile seeds. Farmers, historically accustomed to the practice of saving surplus seeds for the next planting season, must now buy a fresh supply each year. These new pricing systems are proving economically burdensome for farmers. A 2009 report by Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist of The Organic Center in Oregon, illustrated how U.S. GM seed prices have increased dramatically in recent years as non-GM and organic seed costs remained relatively flat. The report concluded: “At the present time there is a massive disconnect between the sometimes lofty rhetoric from those championing biotechnology as the proven path toward global food security and what is actually happening on farms in the U.S. that have grown dependent on GM seeds and are now dealing with the consequences.”
Monsanto is also famously litigious. The company is involved in, on average, 13 lawsuits a year. It routinely sues farmers it believes hold their seeds, and has sued farmers for violating patent rights when it discovers genetic traces of its seeds cohabitating private stock. The practice of genetically modifying seed is efficacious for Monsanto not only because it can produce seeds to withstand its herbicides, but because patenting laws allow the company to impose a virtual monopoly on the U.S. food supply.
With 2011 revenues of $2.4 billion, there’s no question Monsanto is the most important player in the world’s biotech revolution. And with presence comes influence. Former Monsanto Vice President Michael Taylor is currently the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA. Islam Siddiqui, Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative office, is a former Monsanto lobbyist. EPA research ecologist Lidia Watrud is a former Monsanto Senior Researcher. Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, worked with Monsanto to develop some of the earliest genetically modified foods.
The Obama Administration in February denied a Freedom of Information Act request by the Public Employees for Environment Responsibility to disclose the White House’s ties with Monsanto.
Monsanto spent more than $10 million in lobbying during 2011 alone. Several years ago it began an audacious lobbying campaign to ban labels on hormone-free milk and to prevent milk sellers from marketing their products as rBST-free.
It’s clear the biotech industry is now turning its lobbying attention to avoid the prospect of labeling GM foods, least the term “genetically modified” become the next marketing pariah alongside High Fructose Corn Syrup. Perhaps the sentiment can be summed up best when Norman Braksick, President of Monsanto subsidiary Asgrow Seed Co., was quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying: “If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.”
Given Monsanto’s heavy presence in Washington, it doesn’t look like GM labeling transparency will appear as a Federal issue any time soon. The FDA has so far refused repeated requests by U.S. consumer protection groups to consider a labeling initiative for GM foods.
Instead, it’s now happening at the state level. Aside from the introduction of GM labeling-related bills in Connecticut and California, farmers and food industry groups are now involved in a series of historic lawsuits against Monsanto.
A U.S. District Courts in February dismissed a lawsuit brought on by The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, a group comprised of farmers, seed sellers and agricultural professionals. The group preemptively sued Monsanto because they believed the company’s seed-patenting practices could lead farms to be accused of patent infringement should their crops accidentally become contaminated with the company’s GM seed.
Also in February, Monsanto agreed to settle a $93 million class-action lawsuit with the residents of Nitro, West Virginia, due to contamination from the company’s former Agent Orange production facilities in that town. Until 1969, Monsanto produced Agent Orange for U.S. government’s operations in Vietnam.
With public perception of GM foods changing and states taking action in the wake of repeated Federal inaction, it appears this is a battle that has just begun.