Proposition 37 in California, billed as “The Right to Know” ballot initiative to label products that contain genetically modified organisms in that state, has drawn an intensive amount of interest from the country at large, and ire from biotech corporations and their employees in the science.
A recent peer reviewed long term feeding study by Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini from France caused Russia to immediately ban all US grain imports on concern that they likely contain GMO (genetically modified) product. The study also spawned a wealth of criticism from biotech scientists all across the US. It seems like debunking Seralini’s study is the new favorite pastime of many employed in the biotechnology field, and we’ll look at some of those detractors later in this article.
But we’ve been genetically modifying for millennia!
Before going any further, there appears to be an awful lot of confusion out there about what genetic modification/engineering is, and how long it has actually been around. When something is genetically engineered, it contains the genes of a different species in it, not just particular traits of various breeds of the same species.
For instance, in plants, there are two primary types of modification, the introduction of a virus or bacterium within the DNA of a plant, and the mixing of plant DNA with animal DNA. The first method creates a plant resistant to an otherwise plant killing substance or pest. The introduction of animal genes and/or viruses into plants, are supposed to aid in frost tolerance, lengthen shelf life, or enable “non-invasive” vaccination of a population. These new life forms are patented and may only be planted for one season by the farmer. If a farmer saves the seed and replants, he is in violation of the contract he accepted with the biotech company owning the patent by simply planting their seed to start with.
Then there are hybrid plants. These plants are not patented, but varieties developed by crossing different varieties of plants together. Hybrids do not usually reproduce truly from saved seed, but they do not pose any real danger to the environment through cross-pollination.
Finally, there are open pollinated and heirloom seeds. Open pollinated seeds will reproduce truly and can be hybridized through cross pollination with other plants of the species. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated seeds that have been bred and kept true in reproduction for more than 50 years.
When people say we have been “genetically modifying” plants and animals for thousands of years, they misconstrue modification (unnatural alteration of the genes) with breeding for particular traits and hybridization. Genetic modification is done in a laboratory, by smashing or splicing the DNA of one species into a different species.
Never in nature has a spider or a human crossed with a goat, a human with a cow, nor has a mouse coupled with a pig, or a fish combined with a cat. Nor has a bacterium inserted itself into a plant or a chemical herbicide entered the germplasm of a plant and propagated itself.
It’s like the “Island of Doctor Moreau” has come to life. The problem is that these life forms can get out and ‘blend’ with the naturally occurring species they appear to be, both in plant or animal form. And as Prop 37 should indicate, in the US, there is no labeling required of food containing GM products.
Why aren’t these GMO products labeled?
In about 40 countries around the world, labeling of genetically modified food is required. But in the US, it is SOP to put the cronies of the biotech industry into positions of top authority in the agencies that are supposed to regulate these things. Biotech has nothing to fear from the regulators, because they effectively own them. Not only that, they also pay for the research conducted by universities that usually find GMO’s to be “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” because the natural variety of the species is safe for human consumption.
Michael Pollan wrote a very good essay on his experiment with Monsanto’s New Leaf potato in 1998. He accurately and succinctly describes the process followed by the FDA and the EPA in regulating GM products (please read the article here) while trying to find out from an FDA representative (Maryanski) if it is safe to eat these New Leaf potatoes he grew. Here is the excerpt:
”That’s easy,” Maryanski said. ”Bt is a pesticide, so it’s exempt” from F.D.A. regulation. That is, even though a Bt potato is plainly a food, for the purposes of Federal regulation it is not a food but a pesticide and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
Yet even in the case of those biotech crops over which the F.D.A. does have jurisdiction, I learned that F.D.A. regulation of biotech food has been largely voluntary since 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle issued regulatory guidelines for the industry as part of the Bush Administration’s campaign for ”regulatory relief.” Under the guidelines, new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless they’re pesticides), but as Maryanski explained, ”the determination whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company.” Companies with a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to consult with the F.D.A. by following a series of ”decision trees” that pose yes or no questions like this one: ”Does. . .the introduced protein raise any safety concern?”
Since my Bt potatoes were being regulated as a pesticide by the E.P.A. rather than as a food by the F.D.A., I wondered if the safety standards are the same. ”Not exactly,” Maryanski explained. The F.D.A. requires ”a reasonable certainty of no harm” in a food additive, a standard most pesticides could not meet. After all, ”pesticides are toxic to something,” Maryanski pointed out, so the E.P.A. instead establishes human ”tolerances” for each chemical and then subjects it to a risk-benefit analysis.
When I called the E.P.A. and asked if the agency had tested my Bt potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was. . .not exactly. It seems the E.P.A. works from the assumption that if the original potato is safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf package is presumed to be safe….
So there it is in a nutshell. The ones responsible for assuring that these genetically engineered products are safe for consumption are the ones developing them and selling them into the food supply. It’s “recommended by owner” at it’s best, and the result of the revolving door between agency headship and corporate executive positions.
So who wants their food labeled?
According to polls, more than 90% of Americans believe they are entitled to know if there are genetically modified organisms in their food.
My research shows that there are at least 20 states that have attempted legislation to label GMO products. This spring, Monsanto et al put on a blanket party for Connecticut and Vermont, and now, California looks quite likely to actually succeed in their endeavor to label these products.
Earlier this year, there was a petition with well over 1 million signatures submitted to the FDA requesting that they require labeling of GM ingredients in the food supply. When the FDA received the petition, they effectively erased all but one of those signatures by counting each petition as a single request.
The question is, since the creators of these products are so keen on protecting their patent, so proud of their mutation of DNA, and so certain that there is no potential danger linked to consumption or growing habitats of these new life forms, why not label it?
How can we know this stuff is safe to feed to our children? Who claims there is no difference between these organisms and the natural varieties?
The answer to theses questions are found by looking at the scientists who promote GMO’s and claim they are safe for us to eat and following the money attached to their affiliations.
Science for Sale?
Chief among these is Henry I. Miller, who birthed the Biotechnology Division of the FDA and wrote guidance for the approval of genetically modified drugs. He writes for Forbes and other journals and apparently is quite adept at selling his knowledge of the regulatory processes to those who benefit from getting their biotech products into the market with the least amount of headache possible.
Miller wrote a scathing piece for Forbes attacking the credibility of the recent French study by Gilles-Eric Seralini that caused shockwaves across the world. His cohort, David Tribe linked to the Forbes piece on his blog promoting GMO foods as a great aid to production agriculture and world hunger overall. Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review with Miller’s friend, Bruce Chassey (microbiologist professor at University of Illinois Urbana) co-author of the Seralini attack piece linked above. David Tribe says he only is employed by the University of Melbourne, yet an article he wrote claiming that GMO food is at least as safe as conventional varieties is posted on a site funded by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia), who have developed genetically modified wheat and barley. In the comment section of his article there Tribe is asked repeatedly if he favors labeling of GMO products, he finally answers and says that if it has nutritional differences he would support labeling. So, if the GM barley and wheat containing Omega 3 fatty acids from CSIRO is approved, he would support labeling it….Tribe doesn’t say he would support stating on the label that the Omega 3 is available because of genetic engineering.
Others in academia who have taken public stands against California’s Prop 37 are Colin Carter of UC Davis, and some of his colleagues did a piece for the “No on 37” group claiming massive costs if Prop 37 is implemented. These are professors Julian Alston and Daniel Sumner. According to the Los Angeles Times, these gentlemen received $30,000 for their paper for the “No on 37” coalition. Here is the pertinent excerpt from the Times article as it is rather difficult and aggravating to navigate:
“On the other side of the ballot campaign is, big surprise, the food processing and agribusiness industries. Biggest donors to “No on 37” (as of Aug. 15): Monsanto ($4.2 million), DuPont ($4 million) and PepsiCo ($1.7 million).
They contend, among other things, that the measure would increase California farmers’ costs by $1.2 billion a year. Their source? A study for which they paid two UC Davis agriculture professors, Julian M. Alston and Daniel A. Sumner, at least $30,000. Their paper acknowledges that the direct implications of the initiative for California agriculture “are very difficult to assess,” a disclaimer you won’t find in the No on 37 advertising.
The study assumes that food producers will respond to Proposition 37 by removing genetically engineered ingredients to avoid the labeling. The authors don’t devote much attention to the possibility that producers will respond to the labeling mandate by simply relabeling, which seems the easiest course since as much as 70% of the food in our groceries contains some genetically engineered ingredient.”
UC Davis is one of the universities taking the most corporate funding for research in agribusiness and particularly in food science and safety. When you weigh all of this out, the biotech companies usually get the best science they can buy from the pool of scientists for sale. This somewhat dated paper by Food and Water Watch is an excellent resource on the subject of buying the science to back up your product.
Corporations and their Elected Servants
When looking at a list of donors for the “No on 37” campaign, there are a great deal of companies that one would automatically expect to be there, like Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Dupont. But then there are many one wouldn’t think of at first blush, like Nestle and Sunny Delight, BumbleBee Tuna and others.
Most people are unaware that high fructose corn syrup and soy in many different guises are in almost all packaged products. Mars and the USDA have also joined together in a venture to genetically modify cacao. Ostensibly, this is because they perceive some kind of a shortage of chocolate in the future. More likely because they can see the potential for great financial gain by patenting not only the modified plant, but the gene sequence, and then corner the market on chocolate worldwide.
In July, the US Senate passed their version of the every five year Farm Bill. There was an amendment offered to “allow” states to label GE products. It lost by a huge amount, and you can see the votes here. As of this writing, the 2013 Farm Bill has not yet passed through Congress. In the 2013 Farm Bill there is Section 733 known as the “Monsanto Rider”. It would limit the ability to regulate biotech products among other things.
A Rueters article on the Monsanto Rider gives viewpoints from both sides of the issue. Here is an excerpt:
“Litigation from anti-biotechnology groups has caused uncertainty for growers and has been a drain on USDA resources for several years,” said Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher. “This provision provides an important assurance for farmers planting crops which have completed the U.S. regulatory process.”
Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company spent $6.37 million on Washington lobbying last year and $1.4 million so far this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics….
Few people know that Monsanto is actually 85% owned by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Monsanto and Upjohn joined together to form Pharmacia and Pfizer bought majority in that company. Then There is the Novartis/Syngenta complex, Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Crop Science. Big Pharma is in bed with Big Pharm and the agencies of the US Federal Government are complicit in approving their products for our consumption. Yet there has only been one long term feeding study done, and the results of that study are frightening and have drawn criticism from the scientists paid by the creators of GMO listed above.
Let’s look at the Seralini Study
Seralini’s study was the first actual long term feeding study conducted on Monsanto’s genetically modified “Round Up Ready” corn (NK603) and “Round Up” together.
Seralini followed standard internationally accepted protocols for long term feed testing on 200 rats divided into four groups for their entire lifespan of two years. One group was fed NK603 that had been sprayed with Round Up. The second was fed NK603 that had not been sprayed with Round Up and a third was fed only “acceptable” levels of Round Up in their water, while the control group was fed no Round Up and no Round Up corn. The findings are pretty jarring to say the least. Here is the abstract from the study which you can download and read for yourself here.
•The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb in water), were studied 2 years in rats.
• In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly.
•This difference was visible in 3 male groups fed GMOs.
• All results were hormone and sex dependent, and the pathological profiles were comparable.
•Females developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before controls, the pituitary was the second most disabled organ; the sex hormonal balance was modified by GMO and Roundup treatments.
•In treated males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5–5.5 times higher. This pathology was confirmed by optic and transmission electron microscopy.
•Marked and severe kidney nephropathies were also generally 1.3–2.3 greater.
•Males presented 4 times more large palpable tumors than controls which occurred up to 600 days earlier.
•Biochemistry data confirmed very significant kidney chronic deficiencies; for all treatments and both sexes, 76% of the altered parameters were kidney related. These results can be explained by the non linear endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, but also by the overexpression of the transgene in the GMO and its metabolic consequences.
There has been a great deal of criticism of Seralini’s methods by those in the biotech scientific community, yet they fail to address the fact that all of the studies claiming GMO are safe have followed the same recommended protocols as Seralini, but for a much shorter time. Also, rarely mentioned by detractors of Seralini’s study, is the fact that consumption of “Round Up” itself has not been previously studied over any length of time. The accepted science based opinion on Round Up is that it evaporates before we consume it. However, it has been found to be present in the drinking water of many municipalities in the levels Seralini used in his study, so it doesn’t appear to be evaporating as quickly as Monsanto would like you to believe.
There are some very serious questions about the safety of Round Up as even a USDA scientist, Dr. Huber, found a new pathogen had developed and caused 40% mortality in cattle fed Round up fodder. There was another study done that linked Round Up to birth defects. Yet we, the American public, are supposed to be content eating plants that are heavily sprayed with this herbicide without our knowledge or consent.
It is clear that even if Seralini’s study leaves some questions that need to be answered, the door is now open for legitimate studies on the GM “food” and the chemicals created to go along with these engineered plants.
It seems to me that the American people should at least be afforded a choice between consuming genetically engineered food or not. Considering that more than 90% of soy and at least 85% of corn is genetically engineered in this country, it is certainly pervasive enough that a label shouldn’t cause much concern…..unless they have something to hide. And if they have something to hide, I think they are the ones who should be the subjects of the human experimentation, and we can be the control group.