Biotech’s Dirty Tricks Exposed in New Documentary Scientists Under Attack

Film by Bertram Verhaag and Denkmal Films. 60 minutes, Plus 30 minute bonus documentary: Monster Salmon.

“One question means one career.” This was the harsh warning of UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela for those daring to conduct independent research on genetically engineered foods and crops. “You ask one question, you get the answer and you might or might not be able to publish it; but that is the end of your career.” Both he and biologist Arpad Pusztai dared to asked questions and do the research. And then all hell broke lose.

Using stunning visuals filmed on three continents, veteran German filmmaker Bertram Verhaag tracks the fate of these two scientists at the hands of a multi-billion dollar industry that is desperate to hide the dangers of their genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

BR Online says of the film, “Belief in noble and incorrupt research and science is reduced to absurdity.” Arthouse says the “movie shows how purchased truth becomes the currency in the perfidious business between science and multinationals.” And GMWatch writes, “Original research showing problems with GM crops is buried under a deluge of smears and follow up studies are not done.”

The insect-killing, career-ending potato

“As a scientist looking at it and actively working on the field, I find that it’s very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.”— Arpad Pusztai, UK’s World in Action TV show

When Dr. Pusztai voiced his concerns about the health risks of genetically modified (GM) foods during a nationally televised interview in August 1998, his was not simply just another voice in a contentious debate. Pusztai was the world leader in his field, and he had received major government funding to come up with the official method for testing the safety of GM foods. His protocols were supposed to become the required tests before any new GMO entered the European market. Pusztai was an insider, and an advocate of GM foods—that is until he actually ran those tests on supposedly harmless GM potatoes.

The high-tech spuds were engineered to produce their own pesticide. “The point of the whole genetic modification experiment was to protect the potato against aphids, which are one of the major pests in Scotland,” he said. His team inserted a gene from the snowdrop plant into the potatoes, which did in fact protect the GM crop from the insects.

As part of his safety studies, he fed that insecticide producing GM potato to rats, along with a complete and balanced diet. Another group of rats ate natural potatoes. A third was fed not only the natural potatoes, but they also received a dose of the same insecticide that the GM potato produced. This way, if the insecticide was harmful, he would see the same health problems in both the group that ate the GM potatoes, and those that ate the diet spiked with the insecticide. To his surprise, only those that ate the GM potato had severe problems—in every organ and every system he looked at.

Massive health problems linked to GMOs

“After the animals were killed and dissected,” Pusztai recalled, “we found out that in comparison with the non-genetically modified potatoes, their internal organs developed differently.” The intestines and stomach lining, for example, increased in size, the liver and kidneys were smaller, and the overall rate of growth was retarded. And the immune system suffered. Pusztai emphasized, “They found in those data 36 – 36! – very highly significant differences between the GM-fed animals and the non-GM fed animals.”

Since the rats that ate the natural potatoes plus the insecticide did not have these issues, there was one obvious conclusion—the process of genetically engineering the potatoes caused unpredicted side effects, turning a harmless food into a dangerous one.

When Pusztai saw the extensive damage that his potatoes caused in the lab animals, he also realized that if biotech companies had done the safety studies, the dangerous potatoes would have easily made it to market. He knew this because a few months earlier, he had reviewed the confidential submissions from the biotech companies which allowed their GM soy and corn onto the market. “They were flimsy,” he said. “They were not scientifically well founded.” They would never detect the changes in GMO-fed animals.

Reading the industry studies was a turning point in Pusztai’s life. He realized what he was doing and what the industry scientists were doing was diametrically opposed. He was doing safety studies. Companies like Monsanto, on the other hand, were doing as little as possible to get their foods on the market as quickly as possible.

Pusztai also realized that the GM soy and corn already on the market had been produced using the same process that had created his dangerous potato. Thus, the GM crops being consumed in the UK and the US might lead to similar damage in the gut, brain and organs of the entire population.

Thus, during his TV interview, Pusztai flatly stated: “If I had the choice, I would certainly not eat [GM foods] until I see at least comparable experimental evidence which we are producing for genetically modified potatoes.”


After the TV show aired, Pusztai was a hero at his prestigious Rowett Institute, where the director praised his work to the press, calling it world-class research. After two days of high-profile media coverage throughout Europe, however, the director received two phone calls from the UK Prime Minister’s Office.

“It’s only when we think there was political pressure coming from the top that the situation changed,” said Pusztai. “And then the director, to save his own skin, decided that the best way to deal with the situation [was] A) to destroy me, B) to make me shut up.”

Pusztai was told the next morning that his contract would not be renewed, he was silenced with threats of a lawsuit, his team was disbanded, and the protocols were not to be implemented in GMO safety assessments. And then came the attacks.

Coordinated between the Institute, biotech academics, and even the pro-GMO UK government, a campaign to destroy Pusztai’s reputation was launched. They were determined to counter the negative media coverage and protect the reputation of GMOs—even if it meant promoting blatant lies and sacrificing a top scientist’s career. Because Pusztai was gagged, he said, “whatever they did say on TV, radio and wrote in the newspapers, I could not deny it, I could not correct it, I could not say what was the real situation.”

“The most hurtful thing of all,” remembers Pusztai’s wife Susan, “was that he wasn’t allowed to talk to his colleagues and his colleagues were not allowed to talk to him. So whenever he entered a room, they went silent within seconds.”

After seven excruciating months, a committee at the UK Parliament invited Pusztai to speak. This lifted the gag order, which allowed Pusztai to ultimately publish his research, and be interviewed for this film.

Oops—GMOs weren’t supposed to be there

Ignacio Chapela, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, had “a long-term relationship with a group of indigenous communities” in Mexico. Although GM corn was not yet legally grown in the country, Chapela decided to equip the Mexicans with a laboratory that could test for its presence, in case GMOs were eventually introduced. To help with the training, his colleague David Quist brought GM corn from the US. For the non-GM control corn, Chapela said, “we thought we should just use the local corn, which, of course, is going to be clean and wonderful. And the surprise came when the negative control started coming out positive. That means we started finding transgenic materials where they were not supposed to be.”

Chapela says, “The reason why our findings were so astounding was because it was thought that there was no transgenic corn being planted in Mexico at all. And people wanted it that way. . . . Why? Because Mexico is the center of origin of corn. The Mexican government was worried about maintaining the integrity of the land races.” Apparently GM corn imported as food was unknowingly being grown, and had already started contaminating the source of corn’s biodiversity.

According to Chapela the industry “had been telling the world that they really had control over these crops, that if they planted . . . transgenic corn in one field, that transgenic corn would not go anywhere else. So our discovery that we were finding transgenic corn maybe a thousand miles from the nearest legal transgenic corn field was a huge problem for them because it really showed very simply, and with real evidence, that they really did not have control.”

Chapela and Quist wrote up the finding, which was accepted for publication by the prominent journal Nature. This made “many people within the industry very nervous and very unhappy,” says Chapella. They “started a discreditation campaign for the paper. They did not want the paper to be published.”

Unable to stop Nature, however, a Monsanto PR company – the Bivings Group – deployed plan B. “They created two fictitious characters, two doctors,” recounts Chapela. “And these two doctors went on the internet and started spreading rumors that what we had said was false and that the paper was flawed.” The disinformation campaign went viral. It put huge pressure on Nature, spread the false notion that contamination had not taken place, and resulted in a campaign against Chapela by biotech advocates in his University.

“In my case,” says Chapela, “I was pushed out of the university at least three times. Every time I fought back and we managed to keep my job. But it’s been very difficult.”

Trashing scientists worldwide

The treatment of Pusztai and Chapela illustrates what happens around the world to scientists who discover harm from GM crops. The work of Russian scientist Irina Ermakova, for example, was viciously attacked, and there were repeated attempts to intimidate her: papers were burnt on her desk and samples were stolen from her lab.

Peeking through these stories of personal attacks are the very real dangers of GMOs, which compel the audience to question the use of GMOs in their own diets. Consider the impact of Ermakova’s research on young women planning to raise a family. After she fed genetically engineered soy flour to female rats, more than half of their offspring died within three weeks.

The film also unravels the claims of biotech benefits on the farm level. A visit to Brazil introduces herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready soybeans, engineered to make weeding a field easier. Farmers can spray Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide right on the field, and the GMOs survive. But this has led to massive overuse of Roundup, which in turn has led to the emergence of herbicide-tolerant superweeds—no longer controllable with Roundup.

A natural reaction to these stories might be to ask why isn’t the government telling us the truth and protecting us. Unfortunately, they are part of the problem.

FDA cover up

The FDA scientists who reviewed GMOs in the early 1990s were uniformly concerned about their health impacts, according to attorney Andrew Kimbrell, who runs the D.C.-based Center for Food Safety. He was on the team that sued the FDA in 1998, forcing them to turn over nearly 60,000 pages of secret internal memos. Kimbrell extracts key memos from massive filing cabinets in his office, reading the scientists’ warnings: toxins, nutritional problems, loss of biodiversity, change in water use, etc.

“So the scientists asked for these studies,” says Kimbrell. “But the politicians at the FDA and in the administration at that time said no. They suppressed the science. And these questions, these studies, have never been done.”

Instead, the US government maintains the illusion that nothing is wrong, and that this science works just as the biotech companies are telling us. This is beautifully illustrated with excerpts of biotech apologist Nina Fedoroff, the former science advisor to the Secretary of State. Her bland assurances about the safety of GMOs crumble with each new revelation in the film.

Unprecedented risks; no benefits

“No one gets up in the morning saying I want to go buy a genetically engineered food,” says Kimbrell. “They offer no benefits, no more nutrition, no more flavor, no nothing. They only offer risks.” He says the average rational person would ask, “Why would I buy a food that offers me no new benefits but only risks?” Kimbrell, who wrote the book Your Right to Know, says it was “critical for the industry to get these foods out without anyone knowing, because if they knew, they would obviously choose not to buy them.”

But as Chapela’s discovery of self-propagating GMO contamination illustrates, the risk of GMOs extends well beyond individual considerations. He warns, “We are manipulating life in a way that we really do not understand, we cannot control, and then we’re letting it go into the environment. So it’s a change that is radical, that is unprecedented, that is beyond anything we can understand, and it is irretrievable. We cannot get it back. That’s my concern!”

Scientists Under Attack is recommended for all those who love nature, and for everyone who eats. To view the trailer, click here.

Bonus film

The Scientists Under Attack DVD includes a 30 minute bonus film Monster Salmon, also by Bertram Verhaag. It describes the efforts by the US firm AquaBounty to bring fast growing genetically engineered salmon to market in the US. Given the FDA’s recent attempts to fast-track this controversial fish, this additional documentary is important and timely.

Film by Bertram Verhaag and Denkmal Films. 60 minutes, Plus 30 minute bonus documentary: Monster Salmon.

Jeffrey M. Smith is the author of Seeds of Deception, the world’s bestselling book on GMOs, which also presents the stories of Arpad Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela. He is also the author of Genetic Roulette, and the Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. The Institute’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide website, iPhone app, and pocket guide, help people navigate to healthier non-GMO foods. Mr. Smith appears in the film Scientists Under Attack, and has arranged for its distribution in the US.

Monsanto’s Roundup Triggers Over 40 Plant Diseases and Endangers Human and Animal Health

The following article reveals the devastating and unprecedented impact that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is having on the health of our soil, plants, animals, and human population. On top of this perfect storm, the USDA now wants to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa, which will exacerbate this calamity. Please tell USDA Secretary Vilsack not to approve Monsanto’s alfalfa today. [Note: typos corrected from Jan 16th, see details]

While visiting a seed corn dealer’s demonstration plots in Iowa last fall, Dr. Don Huber walked past a soybean field and noticed a distinct line separating severely diseased yellowing soybeans on the right from healthy green plants on the left (see photo). The yellow section was suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), a serious plant disease that ravaged the Midwest in 2009 and ’10, driving down yields and profits. Something had caused that area of soybeans to be highly susceptible and Don had a good idea what it was.

The diseased field on the right had glyphosate applied the previous season. Photo by Don Huber

Don Huber spent 35 years as a plant pathologist at Purdue University and knows a lot about what causes green plants to turn yellow and die prematurely. He asked the seed dealer why the SDS was so severe in the one area of the field and not the other. “Did you plant something there last year that wasn’t planted in the rest of the field?” he asked. Sure enough, precisely where the severe SDS was, the dealer had grown alfalfa, which he later killed off at the end of the season by spraying a glyphosate-based herbicide (such as Roundup). The healthy part of the field, on the other hand, had been planted to sweet corn and hadn’t received glyphosate.

This was yet another confirmation that Roundup was triggering SDS. In many fields, the evidence is even more obvious. The disease was most severe at the ends of rows where the herbicide applicator looped back to make another pass (see photo). That’s where extra Roundup was applied.

Don’s a scientist; it takes more than a few photos for him to draw conclusions. But Don’s got more—lots more. For over 20 years, Don studied Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate. He’s one of the world’s experts. And he can rattle off study after study that eliminate any doubt that glyphosate is contributing not only to the huge increase in SDS, but to the outbreak of numerous other diseases. (See selected reading list.)

Sudden Death Syndrome is more severe at the ends of rows, where Roundup dose is strongest. Photo by Amy Bandy.

Roundup: The perfect storm for plant disease

More than 30% of all herbicides sprayed anywhere contain glyphosate—the world’s bestselling weed killer. It was patented by Monsanto for use in their Roundup brand, which became more popular when they introduced “Roundup Ready” crops starting in 1996. These genetically modified (GM) plants, which now include soy, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beets, have inserted genetic material from viruses and bacteria that allows the crops to withstand applications of normally deadly Roundup.

(Monsanto incentivizes farmers who buy Roundup Ready seeds to also use the company’s Roundup brand of glyphosate. For example, they only provide warranties on the approved herbicide brands and offer discounts through their “Roundup Rewards” program. This has extended the company’s grip on the glyphosate market, even after its patent expired in 2000.)*

The herbicide doesn’t destroy plants directly. It rather cooks up a unique perfect storm of conditions that revs up disease-causing organisms in the soil, and at the same time wipes out plant defenses against those diseases. The mechanisms are well-documented but rarely cited.

  1. The glyphosate molecule grabs vital nutrients and doesn’t let them go. This process is called chelation and was actually the original property for which glyphosate was patented in 1964. It was only 10 years later that it was patented as an herbicide. When applied to crops, it deprives them of vital minerals necessary for healthy plant function—especially for resisting serious soilborne diseases. The importance of minerals for protecting against disease is well established. In fact, mineral availability was the single most important measurement used by several famous plant breeders to identify disease-resistant varieties.
  2. Glyphosate annihilates beneficial soil organisms, such as Pseudomonas and Bacillus bacteria that live around the roots. Since they facilitate the uptake of plant nutrients and suppress disease-causing organisms, their untimely deaths means the plant gets even weaker and the pathogens even stronger.
  3. The herbicide can interfere with photosynthesis, reduce water use efficiency, lower lignin, damage and shorten root systems, cause plants to release important sugars, and change soil pH—all of which can negatively affect crop health.
  4. Glyphosate itself is slightly toxic to plants. It also breaks down slowly in soil to form another chemical called AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) which is also toxic. But even the combined toxic effects of glyphosate and AMPA are not sufficient on their own to kill plants. It has been demonstrated numerous times since 1984 that when glyphosate is applied in sterile soil, the plant may be slightly stunted, but it isn’t killed (see photo).
  5. The actual plant assassins, according to Purdue weed scientists and others, are severe disease-causing organisms present in almost all soils. Glyphosate dramatically promotes these, which in turn overrun the weakened crops with deadly infections.
Glyphosate with sterile soil (A) only stunts plant growth. In normal soil (B), pathogens kill the plant. Control (C) shows normal growth.

“This is the herbicidal mode of action of glyphosate,” says Don. “It increases susceptibility to disease, suppresses natural disease controls such as beneficial organisms, and promotes virulence of soilborne pathogens at the same time.” In fact, he points out that “If you apply certain fungicides to weeds, it destroys the herbicidal activity of glyphosate!”

By weakening plants and promoting disease, glyphosate opens the door for lots of problems in the field. According to Don, “There are more than 40 diseases of crop plants that are reported to increase with the use of glyphosate, and that number keeps growing as people recognize the association between glyphosate and disease.”

Roundup promotes human and animal toxins

Photo by Robert Kremer

Some of the fungi promoted by glyphosate produce dangerous toxins that can end up in food and feed. Sudden Death Syndrome, for example, is caused by the Fusarium fungus. USDA scientist Robert Kremer found a 500% increase in Fusarium root infection of Roundup Ready soybeans when glyphosate is applied (see photos and chart). Corn, wheat, and many other plants can also suffer from serious Fusarium-based diseases.

But Fusarium’s wrath is not limited to plants. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, toxins from Fusarium on various types of food crops have been associated with disease outbreaks throughout history. They’ve “been linked to the plague epidemics” of medieval Europe, “large-scale human toxicosis in Eastern Europe,” oesophageal cancer in southern Africa and parts of China, joint diseases in Asia and southern Africa, and a blood disorder in Russia. Fusarium toxins have also been shown to cause animal diseases and induce infertility.

As Roundup use rises, plant disease skyrockets

When Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996, Monsanto boldly claimed that herbicide use would drop as a result. It did—slightly—for three years. But over the next 10 years, it grew considerably. Total herbicide use in the US jumped by a whopping 383 million pounds in the 13 years after GMOs came on the scene. The greatest contributor is Roundup.

Over time, many types of weeds that would once keel over with just a tiny dose of Roundup now require heavier and heavier applications. Some are nearly invincible. In reality, these super-weeds are resistant not to the glyphosate itself, but to the soilborne pathogens that normally do the killing in Roundup sprayed fields.

Having hundreds of thousands of acres infested with weeds that resist plant disease and weed killer has been devastating to many US farmers, whose first response is to pour on more and more Roundup. Its use is now accelerating. Nearly half of the huge 13-year increase in herbicide use took place in just the last 2 years. This has serious implications.

As US farmers drench more than 135 million acres of Roundup Ready crops with Roundup, plant diseases are enjoying an unprecedented explosion across America’s most productive crop lands. Don rattles off a lengthy list of diseases that were once under effective management and control, but are now creating severe hardship. (The list includes SDS and Corynespora root rot of soybeans, citrus variegated chlorosis (CVC), Fusarium wilt of cotton, Verticillium wilt of potato, take-all root, crown, and stem blight of cereals, Fusarium root and crown rot, Fusarium head blight, Pythium root rot and damping off, Goss’ wilt of corn, and many more.)

In Brazil, the new “Mad Soy Disease” is ravaging huge tracts of soybean acreage. Although scientists have not yet determined its cause, Don points out that various symptoms resemble a rice disease (bakanae) which is caused by Fusarium.

Corn dies young

In recent years, corn plants and entire fields in the Midwest have been dying earlier and earlier due to various diseases. Seasoned and observant farmers say they’re never seen anything like it.

“A decade ago, corn plants remained green and healthy well into September,” says Bob Streit, an agronomist in Iowa. “But over the last three years, diseases have turned the plants yellow, then brown, about 8 to 10 days earlier each season. In 2010, yellowing started around July 7th and yield losses were devastating for many growers.”

Bob and other crop experts believe that the increased use of glyphosate is the primary contributor to this disease trend. It has already reduced corn yields significantly. “If the corn dies much earlier,” says Bob, “it might collapse the corn harvest in the US, and threaten the food chain that it supports.”

A question of bugs

In addition to promoting plant diseases, which is well-established, spraying Roundup might also promote insects. That’s because many bugs seek sick plants. Scientists point out that healthy plants produce nutrients in a form that many insects cannot assimilate. Thus, farmers around the world report less insect problems among high quality, nutrient-dense crops. Weaker plants, on the other hand, create insect smorgasbords. This suggests that plants ravaged with diseases promoted by glyphosate may also attract more insects, which in turn will increase the use of toxic pesticides. More study is needed to confirm this.

Roundup persists in the environment

Monsanto used to boast that Roundup is biodegradable, claiming that it breaks down quickly in the soil. But courts in the US and Europe disagreed and found them guilty of false advertising. In fact, Monsanto’s own test data revealed that only 2% of the product broke down after 28 days.

Whether glyphosate degrades in weeks, months, or years varies widely due to factors in the soil, including pH, clay , types of minerals, residues from Roundup Ready crops, and the presence of the specialized enzymes needed to break down the herbicide molecule. In some conditions, glyphosate can grab hold of soil nutrients and remain stable for long periods. One study showed that it took up to 22 years for glyphosate to degrade only half its volume! So much for trusting Monsanto’s product claims.

Glyphosate can attack from above and below. It can drift over from a neighbors farm and wreak havoc. And it can even be released from dying weeds, travel through the soil, and then be taken up by healthy crops.

The amount of glyphosate that can cause damage is tiny. European scientists demonstrated that less than half an ounce per acre inhibits the ability of plants to take up and transport essential micronutrients (see chart).

As a result, more and more farmers are finding that crops planted in years after Roundup is applied suffer from weakened defenses and increased soilborne diseases. The situation is getting worse for many reasons.

  1. The glyphosate concentration in the soil builds up season after season with each subsequent application.
  2. Glyphosate can also accumulate for 6-8 years inside perennial plants like alfalfa, which get sprayed over and over.
  3. Long-term Field 2.jpg
    Wheat affected after 10 years of glyphosate field applications.

    Glyphosate residues in the soil that become bound and immobilized can be reactivated by the application of phosphate fertilizers or through other methods. Potato growers in the West and Midwest, for example, have experienced severe losses from glyphosate that has been reactivated.

  4. Glyphosate can find its way onto farmland accidentally, through drifting spray, in contaminated water, and even through chicken manure!

Imagine the shock of farmers who spread chicken manure in their fields to add nutrients, but instead found that the glyphosate in the manure tied up nutrients in the soil, promoted plant disease, and killed off weeds or crops. Test results of the manure showed glyphosate/AMPA concentrations at a whopping 0.36-0.75 parts per million (ppm). The normal herbicidal rate of glyphosate is about 0.5 ppm/acre.

Manure from other animals may also be spreading the herbicide, since US livestock consume copious amounts of glyphosate—which accumulates in corn kernels and soybeans. If it isn’t found in livestock manure (or urine), that may be even worse. If glyphosate is not exiting the animal, it must be accumulating with every meal, ending up in our meat and possibly milk.

Add this threat to the already high glyphosate residues inside our own diets due to corn and soybeans, and we have yet another serious problem threatening our health. Glyphosate has been linked to sterility, hormone disruption, abnormal and lower sperm counts, miscarriages, placental cell death, birth defects, and cancer, to name a few. (See resource list on glyphosate health effects.)

Nutrient loss in humans and animals

The same nutrients that glyphosate chelates and deprives plants are also vital for human and animal health. These include iron, zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium, calcium, boron, and others. Deficiencies of these elements in our diets, alone or in combination, are known to interfere with vital enzyme systems and cause a long list of disorders and diseases.

Alzheimer’s, for example, is linked with reduced copper and magnesium. Don Huber points out that this disease has jumped 9000% since 1990.

Manganese, zinc, and copper are also vital for proper functioning of the SOD (superoxide dismustase) cycle. This is key for stemming inflammation and is an important component in detoxifying unwanted chemical compounds in humans and animals.

Glyphosate-induced mineral deficiencies can easily go unidentified and untreated. Even when laboratory tests are done, they can sometimes detect adequate mineral levels, but miss the fact that glyphosate has already rendered them unusable.

Glyphosate can tie up minerals for years and years, essentially removing them from the pool of nutrients available for plants, animals, and humans. If we combine the more than 135 million pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides applied in the US in 2010 with total applications over the past 30 years, we may have already eliminated millions of pounds of nutrients from our food supply.

This loss is something we simply can’t afford. We’re already suffering from progressive nutrient deprivation even without Roundup. In a UK study, for example, they found between 16-76% less nutrients in 1991, compared to levels in the same foods in 1940.

Livestock disease and mineral deficiency

Roundup Ready crops dominate US livestock feed. Soy and corn are most prevalent—93% of US soy and nearly 70% of corn are Roundup Ready. Animals are also fed derivatives of the other three Roundup Ready crops: canola, sugar beets, and cottonseed. Nutrient loss from glyphosate can therefore be severe.

This is especially true for manganese (Mn), which is not only chelated by glyphosate, but also reduced in Roundup Ready plants (see photo). One veterinarian finds low manganese in every livestock liver he measures. Another vet sent the liver of a stillborn calf out for testing. The lab report stated: No Detectible Levels of Manganese—in spite of the fact that the mineral was in adequate concentrations in his region. When that vet started adding manganese to the feed of a herd, disease rates dropped from a staggering 20% to less than ½%.

Veterinarians who started their practice after GMOs were introduced in 1996 might assume that many chronic or acute animal disorders are common and to be expected. But several older vets have stated flat out that animals have gotten much sicker since GMOs came on the scene. And when they switch livestock from GMO to non-GMO feed, the improvement in health is dramatic. Unfortunately, no one is tracking this, nor is anyone looking at the impacts of consuming milk and meat from GM-fed animals.

Alfalfa madness, brought to you by Monsanto and the USDA

As we continue to drench our fields with Roundup, the perfect storm gets bigger and bigger. Don asks the sobering question: “How much of the hundreds of millions of pounds of glyphosate that have been applied to our most productive farm soils over the past 30 years is still available to damage subsequent crops through its effects on nutrient availability, increased disease, or reduced nutrient of our food and feed?”

Instead of taking urgent steps to protect our land and food, the USDA just made plans to make things worse. In December they released their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa, which Monsanto hopes to reintroduce to the market.

Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the US, grown on 22 million acres. It is used primarily as a high protein source to feed dairy cattle and other ruminant animals. At present, weeds are not a big deal for alfalfa. Only 7% of alfalfa acreage is ever sprayed with an herbicide of any kind. If Roundup Ready alfalfa is approved, however, herbicide use would jump to unprecedented levels, and the weed killer of choice would of course be Roundup.

Even without the application of glyphosate, the nutritional quality of Roundup Ready alfalfa will be less, since Roundup Ready crops, by their nature, have reduced mineral . When glyphosate is applied, nutrient quality suffers even more (see chart).

The chance that Roundup would increase soilborne diseases in alfalfa fields is a near certainty. In fact, Alfalfa may suffer more than other Roundup Ready crops. As a perennial, it can accumulate Roundup year after year. It is a deep-rooted plant, and glyphosate leaches into sub soils. And “Fusarium is a very serious pathogen of alfalfa,” says Don. “So too are Phytophthora and Pythium,” both of which are promoted by glyphosate. “Why would you even consider jeopardizing the productivity and nutrient quality of the third most valuable crop in the US?” he asks in frustration, “especially since we have no way of removing the gene once it is spread throughout the alfalfa gene pool.”

It’s already spreading. Monsanto had marketed Roundup Ready alfalfa for a year, until a federal court declared its approval to be illegal in 2007. They demanded that the USDA produce an EIS in order to account for possible environmental damage. But even with the seeds taken off the market, the RR alfalfa that had already been planted has been contaminating non-GMO varieties. Cal/West Seeds, for example, discovered that more than 12% of their seed lots tested positive for contamination in 2009, up from 3% in 2008.

In their EIS, the USDA does acknowledge that genetically modified alfalfa can contaminate organic and non-GMO alfalfa, and that this could create economic hardship. They are even considering the unprecedented step of placing restrictions on RR alfalfa seed fields, requiring isolation distances. Experience suggests that this will slow down, but not eliminate GMO contamination. Furthermore, studies confirm that genes do transfer from GM crops into soil and soil organisms, and can jump into fungus through cuts on the surface of GM plants. But the EIS does not adequately address these threats and their implications.

Instead, the USDA largely marches lock-step with the biotech industry and turns a blind eye to the widespread harm that Roundup is already inflicting. If they decide to approve Monsanto’s alfalfa, the USDA may ultimately be blamed for a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Please send a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging him not to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa, and to fully investigate the damage that Roundup and GMOs are already inflicting.

*The earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Monsanto requires farmers who buy Roundup Ready seeds to only use the company’s Roundup brand of glyphosate.

Throwing Biotech Lies at Tomatoes – Part 1: Killer Tomatoes

Remember the pictures of the fish tomatoes? For years they were an unofficial emblem of the anti-GMO movement. They depicted how anti-freeze genes from an Arctic fish were forced into tomato DNA, allowing the plants to survive frost. Scientists really did create those Frankentomatoes, but they were never put on the market. (Breyers low-fat ice cream, however, does contain anti-freeze proteins from Arctic fish genes, but that’s another story.)

The tomato that did make it to market was called the Flavr Savr, engineered for longer shelf life. Fortunately, it was removed from the shelves soon after it was introduced.

Although there are no longer any genetically modified (GM) tomatoes being sold today, the FDA’s shady approval process of the Flavr Savr provides a lesson in food safety—or rather, the lack of it—as far as gene-spliced foods are concerned. We know what really went on during the FDA’s voluntary review process of the Flavr Savr in 1993, because a lawsuit forced the release of 44,000 agency memos.

(Those same memos, by the way, also showed that FDA scientists had repeatedly warned their superiors about the serious health risks of genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. They were ignored by the political appointees in charge, who allow GMOs onto the market without any required safety studies.)

Bleeding stomachs

Calgene, the tomatoes’ creator-in-chief (now a part of Monsanto), voluntarily conducted three 28-day rat feeding studies. Before I share the gory details, I must commend the Calgene scientists who were committed to transparency and full disclosure with the FDA. Unlike all other subsequent voluntary submissions from biotech firms to the agency, Calgene provided detailed feeding study data and full reports. Dr. Belinda Martineau, one of Calgene’s tomato makers, writes in First Fruit about their commitment to an open process while they attempted to introduce the world’s first GM food crop.

Calgene tested two separate Flavr Savr tomato lines. Both had the same gene inserted into the same type of tomato. The process of insertion and the subsequent cloning of the cells into GM plants can cause lots of unique and unpredicted consequences. The two lines, therefore, were not considered identical.

The rats that ate one of these Flavr Savr varieties probably wished they were in a different test group. Out of 20 female rats, 7 developed stomach lesions—bleeding stomachs. The rats eating the other Flavr Savr, or the natural tomatoes, or no tomatoes at all, had no lesions.

If we humans had such effects in our stomachs, according to Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a top GMO safety and animal feeding expert, it “could lead to life-endangering hemorrhage, particularly in the elderly who use aspirin to prevent thrombosis.”

The lab that performed the study for Calgene acknowledged that the results “did suggest a possible treatment related” problem. FDA scientists repeatedly asked Calgene to provide additional data in order to resolve what they regarded as outstanding safety questions. The director of FDA’s Office of Special Research Skills wrote that the tomatoes did not demonstrate a “reasonable certainty of no harm,” which is the normal standard of safety. The Additives Evaluation Branch agreed that “unresolved questions still remain,” and the staff pathologist stated, “In the absence of adequate explanations by Calgene, the issues raised by the Pathology Branch … remain and leave doubts as to the validity of any scientific conclusion(s) which may be drawn from the studies’ findings.”

Oh yeah, some rats died

The team that had obtained the formerly secret FDA documents sent the full Flavr Savr studies to Dr. Pusztai for review and comment. While reading them, he happened across an endnote that apparently the FDA scientists either did not see or chose to ignore. The text nonchalantly indicated that 7 of the 40 rats fed the Flavr Savr tomato died within two weeks. The dead rats had eaten the same tomato line as those that developed lesions. In the other groups, fed the other Flavr Savr line, a natural tomato control, or a water control, only one rat had died.

But the endnote summarily dismissed the cause of death as husbandry error, and no additional data or explanation was provided. The dead rats were simply replaced with new ones.

When I discussed this finding with Dr. Pusztai over the phone, he was beside himself. He told me emphatically that in proper studies, you never just dismiss the cause of death with an unsupported footnote. He said that the details of the post mortem analysis must be included in order to rule out possible causes or to raise questions for additional research. Furthermore, you simply never replace test animals once the research begins.

Questionable follow-up study

Calgene repeated the rat study. This time, one male rat from the non-GM group of 20, and two females from the GM-fed group of 15, showed stomach lesions. Calgene claimed success. They said that the necrosis (dead tissue) and erosions (inflammation and bleeding) were “incidental” and not tomato-related. The FDA staff pathologist, however, was not convinced. He responded that “the criteria for qualifying a lesion as incidental were not provided.” Further, he said that the disparity between the studies “has not been adequately addressed or explained.”

In reality, the new study was not actually a “repeat.” They used tomatoes from a different batch and used a freeze-dried concentrate rather then the frozen concentrate used in the previous trial. Dr. Martineau explained to me that by freeze-drying, it allowed them to put more of the concentrated tomato into each rat. But Dr. Pusztai said that altering the preparation of the food can lead to different results. He also pointed out that humans were more likely to consume frozen concentrate compared with freeze-dried.

In spite of the outstanding issues, the political appointees at the FDA concluded that the lesions were not related to the GM tomatoes. To be on the safe side, however, Calgene on its own chose not to commercialize the tomato line that was associated with the high rate of stomach lesions and deaths. The other line went onto supermarket shelves in 1994.

Faulty science rules the day

This was the very first GM food crop to be consumed in the US. It was arguably the most radical change in our food in all of human history. It was the product of an infant science that was prone to side-effects. Yet it was placed on the market without required labels, warnings, or post-marketing surveillance. One hopes that the FDA would have been exhaustive in their approval process, holding back approvals until all doubts were extinguished. But the agency was officially mandated with promoting biotechnology and bent over backwards to push GMOs onto the market. As a result, their evaluation was woefully inadequate.

Having discovered problems in the stomach, for example, Dr. Pusztai said they should have looked further down the digestive system at the intestines as well, but they didn’t. They should have increased the number of animals in the experiment to strengthen the findings, but they didn’t. And they should have used young (e.g. month-old) and pregnant animals as is done with pharmaceutical studies, but they didn’t.

They did, however, use rats with vast differences in starting weights. This invalidates any conclusions that there were no significant differences in weight gain, feed intake, or organ weights between GM- and non-GM-fed groups. The starting weights in the Flavr Savr experiment ranged from 130 to 258 grams for males, and 114 to 175 grams for females. Contrast that with the hundreds of rat feeding trials conducted by Dr. Pusztai, where the starting weights were within a range of 1 or 2 grams.

Dr. Pusztai also pointed out that the experimental tomatoes were grown at different locations and harvested at different times, which further increases the variability of results.

The FDA’s defense that the bleeding stomachs did not come from the Flavr Savr diet was also an exercise in faulty science. They blamed the lesions on mucolytic agents in the tomato (i.e. components that dissolves thick mucus); but according to Dr. Pusztai, tomatoes are not known to contain mucolytic agents. The FDA also claimed that it might be the food restriction in the rats’ diet—but the rats ate as much as they wanted. Or maybe it was the animal restraint—but the rats were not restrained.

The explanation that stuck to the wall was that the process of force-feeding the tomatoes through tubes was the reason for the stomach lesions. But as Dr. Pusztai and FDA scientists both observed, there was no adequate explanation as to why the rats fed GM tomatoes in the earlier study had the higher rate of lesions.

Dr. Pusztai said the “study was poorly designed and executed and, most importantly, led to flawed conclusions.” He warned, “the claim that these GM tomatoes were as safe as conventional ones is at best premature and, at worst, faulty.”

Fortunately, the Flavr Savr tomatoes lacked flavor. They also got mushy (unless they were handled in such a way that the company spent more money getting them to market than it could sell them for). They were taken off the market by the time Monsanto bought Calgene in 1997.

After the Flavr Savr’s superficial review and controversial approval, no subsequent GMO producer has ever presented such detailed safety test data to the FDA.

Read Part 2 >

Throwing Biotech Lies at Tomatoes – Part 2: The Liars

I write about the Flavr Savr in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. Two biotech advocates, Drs. Chassy and Tribe, created a GMO disinformation site that allegedly discredits all 65 health risks highlighted in the work. I have already shown that their attack on the first risk, Dr. Pusztai’s potatoes, was based on pure PR spin and scientific sleight of hand. Below I respond to their accusations regarding the Flavr Savr.

1. (Chassy and Tribe) FDA records clearly show that experts stated that the process of introducing stomach tubes can damage the rats’ stomachs and/or end up placing test material in the lungs. . . The reader is not told that regulators approved the tomato because their concerns had been fully satisfied that the GM tomato was not toxic.

As indicated in Part 1, the actual scientists at the FDA wrote memo after memo declaring that the higher rates of lesions in the GM-fed group could not be explained away, and that they were not fully satisfied by the explanations. The discrepancy between what the political appointees at the agency stated publicly, and the concerns expressed in private memos by the scientific staff, has been clearly documented.

In fact, one memo reveals that during their Flavr Savr review, the FDA was making blatant and possibly illegal exceptions. One person wrote, “It has been made clear to us that this present submission [Flavr Savr] is not a food additive petition and the safety standard is not the food additive safety standard. It is less than that but I am not sure how much less.” According to attorney Steven Druker, who is an expert in US food safety law, the FDA’s own regulations clearly state that a lower standard should not have been applied in this instance.

As for the stomach lesions, without repeating the study with the same tomatoes, in the same concentration, with larger sample sizes, we can’t be confident that the GM line was the cause. But likewise, we can’t be confident that they were not. It’s another example of too few data.

2. No real differences were seen between groups of animals in the study. Contrary to Smith’s claims, expert pathologists stated that mild gastric erosions were seen at similar levels in both GM and non-GM fed rats.

This is quite a bizarre statement, given that seven female rats had stomach lesions in the first study, compared to none in the other feeding groups. Even the experimenters said that the results suggest a treatment-related effect. I guess if you completely ignore the main rat study in question, which apparently Chassy and Tribe would like us all to do, then you will not see significant differences. But putting blinders on to ignore inconvenient evidence does not prove safety or demonstrate good science.

3a. Rats might have been injured . . . by accidental administration of test material into the lung instead of the stomach.

3b. Gastric lesions can be caused by acidosis brought on by fasting.

Neither of these arguments address why 7 of 20 females fed GM tomatoes had lesions while the controls, reared under the same conditions, did not. Furthermore, since the rats did not fast but ate as much as they wanted, why would they throw in this irrelevant point (if not to obscure the truth)?

4. Smith is actually asking the reader to believe that the FDA would approve a lethal product.

Believe it! The FDA approves lethal products all the time. According to a report by the United States General Accounting Office, more than half of the drugs approved by the FDA between 1976 and 1985 had severe or fatal side-effects that had not been detected during the agency’s review and testing. In other words, after drug companies spent an estimated 12 years and $231 million dollars to research, test, and secure new drug approval through a very hands-on FDA approach, most of the drugs had to be taken off the market or required major label changes due to missed safety issues.

With GMOs, the situation is far more dangerous. The FDA doesn’t require a single study, the complex biology of GM crops may produce far more side-effects than drugs, GM foods are fed to the entire population, and they are not labeled or monitored, so symptoms are difficult or impossible to track.

5. There is no evidence of animal deaths. . . . Smith may have confused the words necrosis and dead cells with animal deaths. Careful reading reveals that the regulatory record does not mention any animal deaths which surely would have been of concern had they occurred. . . . This claim (in Pusztai and others 2003) appears to be blatantly untrue.

They would hope it was untrue. But just because they didn’t have access to the 44,000 documents made public from the lawsuit does not mean that the deaths did not occur. I can assure you they did, and that Dr. Pusztai, widely recognized as the world’s leading expert in his field and author of more than 300 studies, would not mistake dead cells for animal deaths.
In fact, on page 18 of the IRDC Report, it refers to “necroscopy data” on each animal. Necroscopy is an examination of a dead body, not dead cells.

The reason why the FDA scientists did not raise this issue is that they apparently either did not read the endnote, or simply accepted the unsupported conclusion on face value, which said that the necroscopy suggested that the deaths were due to a husbandry error and not test-article related. Even the Calgene scientists didn’t raise eyebrows at the finding. It wasn’t until a highly experienced animal feeding study expert like Dr. Pusztai reviewed the original papers that this oversight became apparent.

6. Interestingly, eating too many tomatoes can kill rats.

It is odd that Chassy and Tribe first claim that no rats died and then try to argue that if rats did die, tomato overdose could be the culprit. Since all the rats were fed under similar conditions, their killer-tomato argument fails to explain why 7 of 40 GM-fed animals died, compared to only 1 in the other groups.

7. These products are assessed carefully for safety before they are marketed, and—more importantly—there is no scientific reason to believe they pose and (sic) new or different risks.

To claim that there are no new potential health hazards from GMOs is absurd. Fran Sharples, the Director of the Board on Life Sciences at the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), told me, “The academies have issued numerous reports on assessing the risks of transgenic plants. If the academy believed there were no such potential risks, why would we have delved into these matters in these reports?” One of those NAS reports even acknowledged that the current system of regulating GMOs might not detect “unintended changes in the composition of the food.”

The Royal Society of Canada stated that it is “scientifically unjustifiable” to presume that GM foods are safe and that the “default presumption” is that unintended, potentially hazardous side-effects are present. A WHO spokesperson said that current regulations are not adequate to determine the health effects; the Indian Council of Medical Research called for a complete overhaul of existing regulations; and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine called for a moratorium of GM foods altogether.

Since Chassy and Tribe are fond of using the FDA policy as support for their position, I am happy to quote Linda Kahl, an FDA compliance officer, who directly contradicts their ridiculous assertion. In a memo that summarized the position of FDA scientists about GMOs, she stated, “the processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”

What’s Chassy and Tribe’s real motive?

Many of the arguments presented by Chassy and Tribe are easily and completely countered by the evidence. If one were feeling especially generous, one might guess that they simply weren’t aware of the strong concerns voiced in quotes by FDA scientists, the incidence of stomach lesions in the first study, or the fact that the rats didn’t fast. But these points were contained within the very passage of Genetic Roulette that they were supposedly critiquing. If they actually read the book, which we must assume they did, then they absolutely knew that their counter-arguments were directly contradicted by FDA memos and study reports, and thus were utterly false.

Why then did they construct their website in the first place? It appears that they are not really motivated to make cogent scientific counter-arguments, but instead are hoping that the readers blindly accept their baseless condemnation of Genetic Roulette and never actually read the book.

This tactic is similar to other techniques used by the biotech industry that I describe in Genetic Roulette. GMO advocates, for example, often write up lengthy studies or reports that hardly anyone ever reads in detail. Instead, people generally look at the abstract and/or conclusion and accept the authors’ declaration that the findings demonstrate GMO safety. But when an expert actually takes the time to go through the details, he or she discovers that the conclusions are entirely unsupported and unjustified. In some cases, they are in direct opposition to the data.

It took the biotech industry three years to create their so-called academic review of Genetic Roulette. The mere fact that after all that time they could not put together even the most basic scientific arguments is a tribute to the authenticity of the book. If they could have used science to counter it, they would have. But they didn’t. They used spin.

It will continue to be my delight to go through each of their pages to expose their “scientific” sleight-of-hand. But I am much more motivated to spend my time taking steps that will end the genetic engineering of the food supply, rather than trying to convince the handful of people who accidentally wander onto Chassy and Tribe’s disinformation site. So have patience.