Rammed down our Throats - Sept 2005

Rammed down our throats—September 2005

Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, the best-selling book on genetic engineering, spills the beans to Noseweek about the hidden dangers in the foods we eat and the way massive seed and agrichemical corporations such as Monsanto are manipulating governments and science to foist their questionable products on us. South Africa (along with Brazil and India) is one of Monsanto’s key targets.

Noseweek: What motivated you to write Seeds of Deception?

Jeffrey Smith: In addition to having the inside scoop on many of the dangers of GM foods, I was also aware of several scandalous stories about the biotech industry that would make good reading. Scientists were offered bribes or threatened. Evidence was stolen. Data was omitted or distorted. Government employees who complained were harassed, stripped of responsibilities, or fired. Laboratory rats fed a GM crop developed stomach lesions and seven of the 40 died within two weeks. The crop was approved. When a top scientist tried to alert the public about other alarming discoveries, he lost his job and was silenced with threats of a lawsuit. The warnings of US government scientists were ignored and denied by the Food and Drug Administration, whose policy chief was a former attorney, and later vice president, for Monsanto. A University of California professor claimed he was threatened by a senior Mexican government official who allegedly implied, “We know where your children go to school,” trying to get him to withdraw an incriminating paper from publication. And news reports about GMOs were cancelled due to threats from Monsanto’s attorneys.

I figured that these stories alone would be fascinating to readers. So I weaved the science and facts about the technology into the stories, and the book became the international bestseller on the topic.

What is your interest in Africa?

Many senior African officials I have met at various international conferences have confided that they have been pressurised by the US government and biotech companies, and have little access to the type of information that I have documented. I hope to pierce the biotech myths that advocates propagate, so that the public and Africa’s leaders can make decisions based on facts, not spin.

Scientists representing the biotech industry claim that GM foods have been extensively tested and are safe. They say that anti-GM campaigners like you are unscientific and base their arguments on emotion. Can you comment?A recently published linguistic analysis of biotech advocates concludes what many of us have observed for years. Using unscientific, emotional, and even irrational arguments, GM proponents attack critics as unscientific, emotional and irrational. In reality, critics demand more science, not less. We demand facts, not PR hype.

There are many ways in which a GM food could create toxins, allergens, carcinogens, or nutritional problems. The process of inserting a gene into a DNA can dramatically disrupt the normal genes. One study showed that as many as 5% of the natural genes changed their levels of expression when a single gene was inserted. Genes can get turned off or deleted, switched on permanently, scrambled, duplicated, or relocated. Gene insertion coupled with growing cells from tissue culture, creates hundreds or thousands of mutations throughout the genome. On top of all this, the inserted gene can get mutated, truncated, or blended with the crop’s natural gene code. And it appears that the inserted genes get rearranged over time as well. Any of these changes can create serous problems in themselves, or set in motion a chain of reactions that can lead to problems.

Tragically, the studies conducted on GM crops are not designed to identify the vast majority of possible problems. When scientists understand the dangers involved with GM technology and then discover what studies are actually conducted, they’re shocked. They realize the extent to which consumers are being used as guinea pigs, just so the biotech industry doesn’t have to spend the money doing the proper research. There are fewer than 20 peer-reviewed animal-feeding safety studies. And many of these are industry-funded and clearly rigged to avoid finding problems. No, GM crops are not adequately tested for safety. Part of my work is to bring that to the public’s attention.

In Seeds of Deception, you cite a study by a leading expert on genetic modification, Dr Arpad Pusztai, which showed that a strain of GM potatoes retarded the growth of rats and damaged their immune systems. But is there any evidence of GM foods harming humans?

First of all, let’s summarize the evidence collected from animals. Pusztai’s government-funded study demonstrated that rats fed a GM potato developed potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, partial atrophy of the liver, and inhibited development of their brains, livers and testicles. Rats fed a GM tomato developed stomach lesions, and seven of 40 died within two weeks. Mice fed GM maize had problems with blood cell formation as well as kidney and liver lesions. Those fed GM soy had problems with liver cell formation, and the livers of rats fed GM canola were heavier. Pigs fed GM maize on several Midwest farms developed false pregnancies, sterility, or gave birth to bags of water. Twelve cows fed GM maize in Germany died mysteriously. And twice the number of chickens died when fed GM maize compared to those fed natural maize.

Remarkably, there have been no human clinical feeding trials, and no post market surveillance of possible health effects in humans. The UK’s Food Standards Agency had asked supermarket executives for the purchasing data from the 20 million consumers using loyalty cards, so they could see if those eating GM had higher rates of cancer, birth defects, or childhood allergies. When the study was made public, the embarrassed government cancelled their plans.

Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50%. Without follow-up tests, we can’t be sure if genetic engineering was the cause, but there are plenty of ways in which genetic manipulation can boost allergies. For example, the most common allergen in soy is called trypsin inhibitor. GM soy contains significantly more of this compared with natural soy.

I have also documented how one epidemic in the 1980s was caused by a brand of the food supplement L-tryptophan, which had been created through genetic modification. The disease killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness or disability in about 5,000–10,000 others. The Food and Drug Administration withheld information from Congress and the public, in an apparent attempt to protect the biotech industry.

If GM foods do affect the human immune system, what are their potential risks in South Africa where we have a high incidence of HIV/AIDS?

If the foods were creating health problems in the population, it might take years or decades before we identified the cause. The L-tryptophan epidemic provides a chilling example. The only reason that doctors were able to identify that an epidemic was occurring, was because the new disease had three simultaneous characteristics: it was rare, acute, and fast acting. Even then it took years to discover and was nearly missed entirely.

If GM foods affect the immune system, which has been shown in animal models, there are numerous ways that could manifest in humans, from mild symptoms to serious diseases. Certainly it could worsen existing diseases or create complications. Since no human studies are conducted, however, we don’t know. It’s best just to avoid eating GM products.

Critics of Monsanto demonise the company, but it has publicly pledged itself to the principles of ‘dialogue, transparency, sharing, sharing in benefits, and respect’. Doesn’t this indicate that their heart is in the right place?

Actions speak louder than words. Consider just a few of the facts about this company:

In 2005, Monsanto paid a $1.5 million fine to the US justice department for giving bribes and questionable payments to at least 140 Indonesian officials, trying to get their cotton approved without an environmental impact study.

Six government scientists testified before the Canadian Senate that a Monsanto official offered them a bribe of $1-2 million, if they approved the company’s GM bovine growth hormone (rbGH) without further study.

Legal threats from Monsanto resulted in the cancellation of a TV news series about rbGH, the cancellation of a book critical of Monsanto, and the shredding of 14,000 issues of a magazine dedicated to exposing Monsanto.

Monsanto’s PR firm created the so-called “Dairy Coalition” in order to pressure major US newspapers to withdraw stories critical of rbGH.

Documents that were stolen from the FDA showed that when Monsanto researchers wanted to show that rbGH didn’t interfere with fertility, they allegedly added cows to the study that were pregnant, prior to injection.

Other researchers supporting rbGH had pasteurized milk 120 times longer than normal and even spiked the milk with huge amounts of powdered hormone, to try to claim that pasteurization destroyed the hormone.

Monsanto omitted incriminating data altogether from their 1996 published study on GM soybeans. When it was later recovered by an investigator, it showed that GM soy contained significantly lower levels of protein and other nutrients, and toasted GM soy meal contained nearly twice the amount of a lectin that may block the body’s ability to assimilate other nutrients. Furthermore, the toasted GM soy contained as much as seven times the amount of trypsin inhibitor, a major soy allergen. Monsanto named their study, “The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans.”

In the feeding portion of the same study, they fed mature animals instead of the more sensitive young ones, diluted their GM soy with non-GM protein 10- or 12–fold, used too much protein, and never weighed the organs or examined them under a microscope. These and other flaws have made it the subject of peer-reviewed critiques, which exposed how GM food studies are designed in such a way as to overlook detection of even significant problems.

In July 1999, independent researchers published a study showing that GM soy contains 12-14% less cancer-fighting phytoestrogens. Monsanto responded with its own study, concluding that soy’s phytoestrogen levels vary too much to even carry out a statistical analysis. Researchers failed to disclose, however, that they had instructed the laboratory to use an obsolete method of detection – one that had been prone to highly variable results.

Documents made public from a lawsuit revealed that FDA policy on GM foods was deceitful. The policy claimed that the agency was not aware of any meaningful or uniform differences between GM and non-GM foods, and therefore did not require any safety studies. The disclosed memos showed, however, that the overwhelming consensus among the FDA’s own scientists was that GM crops were significantly different, and that they urged their superiors to require long term safety testing due to the possible presence of unpredictable toxins, allergens and new diseases. The person in charge of policy at the FDA who apparently ignored the scientists was Monsanto’s former attorney. He later became Monsanto’s vice president.

One FDA scientist arbitrarily increased the allowable levels of antibiotics in milk 100-fold, in order to facilitate the approval of Monsanto’s rbGH. She had just arrived at the FDA from Monsanto.

Monsanto consistently reported increased yields on GM soy, canola and cotton, whereas independent studies show decreases. For example, scientists published a study demonstrating a nearly 80% increase in Indian cotton yields based only on test plot data supplied to them by Monsanto. In May, 2005, however, a study by the government of Andrah Pradesh found a decrease of about 18%. When they told Monsanto to pay about US$10 million compensation to the farmers, the corporation refused and was kicked out of the state altogether.

Monsanto has a long history of wrongdoings. They had claimed PCBs were safe, DDT was safe, Agent Orange was safe. They were wrong. In fact, court documents revealed that the company withheld evidence about the safety of their PCBs to the residents of the town that was being poisoned by their factory. On February 22, 2002, a court found Monsanto guilty of negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass, and outrage. Outrage, according to Alabama law, usually requires conduct “so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.”

Monsanto’s detractors criticize the fact that the company has patented seeds and other genetic material. Surely they are entitled to protect their intellectual property, just like any other inventor?

There is enormous controversy about patents on life. Further, many believe that patenting genes is more about discovery than invention, and is therefore privatizing what should remain in the public commons. It’s also interesting how Monsanto chooses to enforce its patents. They have sued 150 farmers in North America and received more than $15 million in judgments. In one case, they sued a farmer who had the company’s seeds blow onto his land from a nearby farm and by passing trucks.

Have Monsanto ever tried to silence you?

Because my book is now influencing policy in many regions, I occasionally hear criticism from biotech advocates who try to dismiss the book as a whole. They don’t challenge specific details, however, since the book is carefully documented and has been through a thorough review by many senior scientists.

The website www.health24.com says that ‘there are exhaustive tests to ensure that any genetic change in a foodstuff does not increase the allergenicity of the food.’ If GM food is as questionable as you say, why have US regulatory authorities allowed products that contain GM material onto supermarket shelves?

The FDA’s own scientist Carl Johnson wrote in a memo, “Are we asking the crop developer to prove that food from his crop is non-allergenic? This seems like an impossible task.” It is impossible to guarantee that a GM crop isn’t an allergen. People tend to develop allergies after being exposed to a substance over time. But the proteins newly introduced into GM crops typically come from bacteria and have never before existed in the human diet.

The World Health Organization developed a list of criteria designed to minimize the likelihood that a foreign protein from a GM crop will be allergenic. Unfortunately, the GM soy, maize, and papaya already on the market fail those criteria.

In addition, the process of gene insertion can disrupt the DNA and increase a known allergen or create a new unknown allergen.

Not only is there no comprehensive allergy testing before GM foods are released, remarkably there is no post market surveillance. When it was revealed that soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% after GM soy was introduced into the UK, it’s simply amazing that no follow up studies were conducted to see if GM soy was more allergenic.

You are clearly concerned about the way GM foods are being developed and marketed, but do you think the technology has any potential benefits?

The current technology used in GM crops on the market is based on science that is 40 years old. Many of the key assumptions used as the basis for safety claims have been overturned. We know very little about how the DNA functions, and our paradigms are being shifted every few months with new discoveries. I am not against DNA research. And perhaps in the future we can safely manipulate genes for crops or food. But at this stage, it is irresponsible to feed the products of this infant science to millions of people or release them into the environment where they can never be recalled.

My focus, by the way, is not on medical uses of biotechnology, which has an entirely different equation of risk versus benefit.

South Africa has authorized the growing of GM maize for human consumption. Do you know the nature of this modification? What is its intended outcome? The primary trait added to GM corn is the insertion of a gene that creates the Bt-toxin, which is a pesticide. The industry claims that Bt is safe, since it has been used in an organic pesticide for years. This is utter nonsense.

The GM Bt-toxin is engineered to be far more toxic than the natural spray.

We are the only country in the world where a GM staple food has been authorized. How will this affect people where 80-90% of their diet consists of maize meal and fresh maize on the cob?

The GM Bt-toxin in maize is hundreds or even a thousand times more concentrated than the spray.

The spray degrades in the sunlight in a few days, but the GM variety is produced by every cell of the maize, around the clock, and eaten by the consumer.

Mice exposed to Bt-toxin developed an immune response equal to that of cholera toxin, developed a greater susceptibility to allergies, and developed abnormal and excessive cell growth in their small intestines. Farm workers exposed to even the low dose Bt spray showed evidence of allergic sensitivity, and blood tests showed an immune response. Preliminary evidence found that thirty-nine Philippinos living next to a Bt maize field developed skin, intestinal, and respiratory reactions while the maize was pollinating. Tests of their blood also showed an immune response to the Bt. The only human feeding study ever conducted showed that genes inserted into GM soy actually transferred into gut bacteria. Imagine if the gene that produces the Bt-toxin were to transfer from the maize we eat into our gut bacteria. It could theoretically transform our intestinal flora into living pesticide factories.

In the US, we eat only 3-5% of our caloric intake as maize. I dread to think what might happen to those eating GM maize as the majority of their diet. Some farmers who fed 100% GM corn to their livestock had catastrophes. Twelve cows died on a German farm. And about 25 farmers in North America say their pigs became sterile or had false pregnancies, or gave birth to bags of water.

In the US, GM potatoes were withdrawn from the market due to consumer pressure, but in South Africathe Agricultural Research Council with additional funding from USAID are fast-tracking GM potatoes, ostensibly to benefit resource-poor small farmers. Will GM crops benefit Africa’s poor and starving?

The US decided to fast track GM food in 1992, because the Council on Competitiveness identified it as a promising area for increasing US exports and gaining control over the lucrative food supply. USAID has been trying to implement the US agenda in Africa, and many believe that they consciously use contamination as a means to promote acceptance of GM. In fact, University of Washington professor Phil Bereano reported in the Seattle Times in 2002 that Emmy Simmons, assistant administrator of USAID, “said to me after the cameras stopped rolling on a vigorous debate we had on South African TV, ‘In four years, enough GE [genetically engineered] crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent.’”

There are many safe, sustainable, and life-supporting technologies that can benefit Africa’s poor and starving. Perhaps genetic engineering technology will progress to the point someday that it can also be a worthy candidate. But in its current version, I say, “Run away.”

There is an interesting feature about GM potatoes that makes them potentially more dangerous than most other GM crops. We know that the process of gene insertion combined with tissue culture typically results in hundreds or thousands of mutations throughout the genome. Many of these mutations can be corrected through the process of outcrossing – mating the GM crop with non-GM crops. Potatoes are not propagated through outcrossing, and the massive number of mutations created from the transformation process may theoretically remain intact in the GM potatoes on the market. Scientists typically don’t identify the genome-wide mutations before putting GM crops onto the market. It’s a form of gambling with every bite.

South Africa, along with the US, is one of the very few countries in the world that allow the use of genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) on its dairy cows. Is drinking milk from cows injected with rBGH safe?

There are a few known differences between milk from cows injected with rbGH and natural milk. Typically, rbGH milk has more pus, due to increased infections, more antibiotics, used to treat the infections, and more bovine growth hormone.

The hormone level that most critics are concerned about, however, is insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Natural milk contains IGF-1. Milk drinkers increase their levels of IGF-1. Studies suggest that pre-menopausal women under 50 with high levels of IGF-1 are seven times more likely to develop breast cancer. Men are four times more likely to develop prostate cancer. IGF-1 is also implicated in lung and colon cancer. Milk from cows treated with rbGH has significantly higher levels of IGF-1. (No comprehensive study has yet evaluated a direct link between rbGH and human cancer.)

Up to 30% of the soya grown in SA is GM. Soya is used as a protein source by many poor people and in infant formulas. It is also routinely fed to prisoners and mineworkers. What are the implications?

In addition to all that was said above, we know that:

These are only a few of the reasons why people should just say no to GM soy.

Science is supposedly objective, yet many university academics defend the use of GM crops while others condemn their introduction vigorously. Why?

What may come as a shock to people is the extent to which science is no longer independent and objective. Studies show that the source of funds has a lot to do with the research outcome. Industry-funded studies favour industry’s products. Many scientists admit to making changes in their findings to suit funders. In the field of plant biotech, practically all jobs are funded directly or indirectly by industry. We know of many examples of scientist who lost their jobs, or were threatened or penalized, after expressing concerns about GM products. Attacks on scientists can get quite vicious. As a result, those scientists who still dare to challenge biotechnology are often of retirement age and feel less vulnerable.

So-called independent panels and committees are often stacked with industry representatives. This is part of the industry’s plan, as revealed in leaked documents. They have been remarkably successful at this.

As the technology flounders, revealing how unsafe and unpredictable it is, the industry promotes their biotech myths more vigorously. It appears that they are trying to prop up the image of the technology so they can recoup their investment before the public and the regulators figure out what’s really going on.

On May 23, 2003, President Bush proposed an Initiative to End Hunger in Africa using genetically modified (GM) foods. He also blamed Europe’s “unfounded, unscientific fears” of these foods for hindering efforts to end hunger. Bush was convinced that GM foods held the key to greater yields, expanded US exports, and a better world. His rhetoric was not new. It had been passed on from president to president, and delivered to the American people through regular news reports and industry advertisement.

The message was part of a master plan that had been crafted by corporations determined to control the world’s food supply. This was made clear at a biotech industry conference in January 1999, where a representative from Arthur Andersen Consulting Group explained how his company had helped Monsanto create that plan. First, they asked Monsanto what their ideal future looked like in 15 to 20 years. Monsanto executives described a world with 100% of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented. Andersen Consulting then worked backward from that goal, and developed the strategy and tactics to achieve it. They presented Monsanto with the steps and procedures needed to obtain a place of industry dominance in a world in which natural seeds were virtually extinct.

Integral to the plan was Monsanto’s influence in government, whose role was to promote the technology worldwide and to help get the foods into the marketplace quickly, before resistance could get in the way. A biotech consultant later said, ‘The hope of the industry is that over time, the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender’.


Jeffrey Smith has studied the issues around genetic modification for nearly 10 years. He has lectured on the subject, consulted with a nonprofit group trying to get GM foods labelled, run for US Congress to raise the public awareness about the issues, worked as the vice president for marketing communications at a genetically modified organism (GMO) detection laboratory, and has extensively interviewed scientists and experts worldwide. Over the past two years, he has toured more than 150 cities on five continents, debated with scientists, testified before various government committees, and interviewed activists, scientists, politicians, and farmers. He collaborates with numerous scientists on a monthly syndicated column and is preparing material for two more books on GMOs.

From: Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey Smith 

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from September 2005 Spilling the Beans newsletter
© Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey M. Smith. Noseweek has granted permission to reproduce this in whole or in part, by acknowledging them as the source. For commercial use in South Africa, please check with us first.

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