The battle to keep GM food off your plate
1st November, 2007
It was a bad year for the biotech barons. At a conference in January 1999, the consulting firm Arthur Andersen revealed Monsanto executives’ vision of an ideal future – a world in which natural seeds were virtually all extinct and where commercial seeds were genetically modified (GM) and patented.
Andersen Consulting then worked backwards from that goal, developing the strategy and tactics to help Monsanto achieve industry dominance in a GM world. At the same meeting another biotech company, apparently with the same aspiration, showed a graph that projected a 95 per cent replacement of all natural seeds by GM varieties in just five years. Within weeks, their ideal future crashed.
By mid-February, Parliament had invited scientist Aìrpaìd Pusztai to tell what he knew. Just a few years earlier, in 1996, Pusztai had been given a grant of £1.6 million by the UK Government to design a rigorous safety assessment protocol for testing GM foods. In the course of his studies under the auspices of the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Pusztai, a pro-GM scientists with a stellar reputation, discovered that the GM potato he was working on caused massive systemic health problems in rats. Virtually every organ in the animals’ bodies was affected by eating the GM potato – their brains, livers and testicles were generally smaller, pathological changes in the thymus and spleen were detected and the animals’ immune systems were damaged.
Since most GM foods were created using the same process and genetic material, the results raised serious questions about the safety of all GM foods. Pusztai went public in 1998 and paid dearly for his integrity: he lost his job of 35 years, was silenced with threats of lawsuits, his 20-member team was disbanded and the project terminated.
In the same year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) records – 44,000 pages of them, kept secret since 1992 – revealed that references made by US government scientists to ‘unintended negatives effects... were progressively deleted from drafts of the policy statements (over the protests of Agency scientists)’ and that the FDA was under orders from the White House to promote GM crops.
Concern about the safety of GM food was growing. Pusztai’s parliamentary invitation forced the Rowett Institute to lift its longstanding gag order. When the scientist finally spoke out about the GM potatoes that had caused such substantial damage to rats, and how the biotech industry had scrambled to protect its reputation by rubbishing his, the press went wild. By week’s end they had spewed out 159 ‘column feet’ of text, which, according to one columnist, ‘divided society into two warring blocs.’ An editorial stated, ‘Within a single week the spectre of a food scare has become a full-scale war.’
The resulting overwhelming consumer resistance was too much for the food industry. GM food became a liability and, in April 1999, Unilever publicly committed to removing GM ingredients from its European brands. Within a week, nearly all major food companies followed suit, leaving Monsanto’s ideal future in tatters. That rejection by manufacturers has kept nearly all GM foods (other than milk and meat products from GM-fed animals) out of Europe in spite of official approvals of GM varieties by the EU Commission.
But the biotech industry did not roll over. It has steadily pushed its agenda, but more quietly than before. Nearly every natural food crop now has a genetically engineered version produced in a lab somewhere, with at least 172 species grown outdoors in field trials. With pressure from the industry and the US, and in spite of doubts over their impact in terms of health and the environment, the European Commission last year approved new GM crops for cultivation for the first time since the 1999 consumer revolt, and in a vote in June this year, the European Commission allowed accidental GM contamination of organic products at levels up to 0.9 per cent.
Animals reject GM
Eyewitness reports from farmers and scientists across North America describe how, when given the choice, several varieties of animals – including cows, pigs, deer, elk, raccoons, geese, squirrels, mice and rats – avoid eating GM plants and feed. It’s possible the animals instinctively know or sense what we are only just beginning to see.
Lab animals forced to eat GM food showed damage to virtually every system studied. They had stunted growth, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially pre-cancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshapen cell structures in the liver, pancreas and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed brains and testicles, enlarged livers, pancreases and intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar levels, increased death rates, higher offspring mortality and immune system dysfunction.
Reports from the field are similarly alarming. About two dozen US farmers report that GM corn varieties caused thousands of pigs to become sterile. Some also reported sterility among cows and bulls. German farmers link cow deaths to one variety of GM corn, while Filipinos link another variety to deaths among water buffaloes, chickens and horses. When 71 Indian shepherds let their sheep graze on Bt cotton plants after harvest, within five to seven days 25 per cent had died. The 2006 death rate for the region is estimated at 10,000 sheep. This year, more deaths were identified and toxins were also found in Bt cotton fields. Post mortems showed severe irritation and black patches in the intestines and liver of the sheep, as well as enlarged bile ducts. Investigators concluded that preliminary evidence ‘strongly suggests the sheep mortality was due to a toxin... most probably Bt-toxin.’
Should humans be worried?
The biotech industry argument is that millions have eaten GM foods for years without a problem – but how would it know? There is no surveillance system in place that could identify problems if they did arise. The Canadian government announced in 2002 that it would undertake such monitoring, but abandoned its plans within a year on the grounds that it was too difficult. There are not even human clinical trials. Some GM varieties are approved before any human has ever eaten them.
Soon after GM soya was introduced into the UK, researchers at York Nutritional Laboratory, Yorkshire, reported that allergies to soya had skyrocketed by 50 per cent in a single year. Although no follow-up studies were done, there are many ways in which genetic engineering could be the culprit. Allergic reactions occur when the immune system encounters something it interprets as foreign, different and offensive, and reacts accordingly. All GM foods, by definition, have something foreign and different about them. And several studies show that they provoke reactions.
Although biotech advocates describe genes in terms of Lego, snapping cleanly into place, the process of creating a GM crop can produce massive collateral damage in plant DNA. Native genes can be mutated, deleted or permanently turned on or off, and hundreds may change their levels of protein expression. The result may be an increase in an existing allergen or the production of an entirely new one. Both appear to have happened in GM soya. Levels of one soya allergen, trypsin inhibitor, were as much as seven times higher in cooked GM soya when compared with a non-GM variety. Another study verified that GM soybeans contain a unique, unexpected protein, not found in controls, that reacts with immunoglobulin E (IgE), the principal antibody involved in allergic reactions. This suggests the potential for dangerous allergic reactions. The same study revealed that one human subject showed a skin-prick immune response to GM soya only, not to natural soya.
In addition, a protein in natural soya crossreacts with peanut allergies. This means soya may trigger reactions in some people who are allergic to peanuts. This cross-reactivity could theoretically increase in GM varieties. Thus, the doubling of US peanut allergies in the five years immediately after the introduction of GM soya might not be a coincidence.
GM soya also produces an unpredicted side effect in the pancreas of mice – a dramatic reduction in the production of digestive enzymes. If fewer enzymes cause food proteins to break down more slowly, there is more time for allergic reactions to develop. Thus, digestive problems from GM soya might promote allergic reactions to a wide range of proteins, not just to soya.
To make matters worse, the only published human feeding study on GM foods verified that portions of the gene inserted into GM soya transfers into the DNA of human gut bacteria. This means that, years after people stop eating GM soya, they may still be exposed to its potentially allergenic protein, which is continuously produced inside their intestines.
Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ GM soya is planted in 89 per cent of US soya acres. A foreign gene from bacteria (with parts of virus and petunia DNA) is inserted, which allows the plant to survive applications of the otherwise deadly Roundup herbicide. Because people aren’t usually allergic to a food until they have eaten it several times, we don’t know in advance if the protein produced by bacteria, which has never been part of the human food supply, will provoke a reaction.
As a precaution, scientists compare the amino acid sequence of the novel protein with a database of known allergens. If there is a match, according to criteria recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others, the GM crop should either not be commercialised or additional testing should be done. Sections of the protein produced in GM soya are identical to known allergens, but the soybean was introduced before WHO criteria were established, and the recommended additional tests not conducted.
GM corn is also problematic. Rats fed Monsanto’s GM corn, for example, were found to have a significant increase in blood cells related to the immune system. GM potatoes caused the rats’ immune system to respond more slowly. And, when produced within GM peas, a harmless protein was transformed into a potentially deadly allergen. The peas and potatoes were not commercialised, but they had passed the superficial tests usually carried out in the approval of most GM crops. Crops that did make it to the market, however, may be triggering immune responses in the unsuspecting population.
Cleaning up the food chain
In 2003, I interviewed GMO campaigners worldwide about their methods and successes, in order to develop a plan for the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) that would help remove GMOs from the marketplace. Unlike many other organisations, which are focused on containing GMOs – by limiting the territory of cultivation or preventing new varieties, for instance – IRT’s goal is to eliminate the current generation of GM crops, which it believes is unsafe. Intelligent activism from individual consumers and groups could easily accomplish this in as little as 24 months.
The undisputed driver of the GMO doctrine is the United States. The first Bush Administration fast-tracked the GM approval process in 1992, hoping this would increase exports and US dominance of food markets. The opposite ensued, and soon the government was shelling out $3 billion to $5 billion a year in subsidies to prop up prices on the GM crops no-one wanted. Rather than giving up on the unpopular technology, the US tried to force other countries to accept GM, resorting to World Trade Organization (WTO) lawsuits against the European Union, GM food aid for famine-stricken nations, even threats to withdraw funds for AIDS relief if GMOs weren’t adopted by African nations.
If GMOs are to implode worldwide, the US must be ground zero.
About 9 out of 10 processed foods in the US contain unlabelled GM ingredients, many produced by the same companies that sell only non-GM products in Europe. Why didn’t US consumers react like the Europeans in the wake of the Pusztai scandal? The fact is that the US press did not even mention the story. Project Censored – a group that tracks the news published in independent journals and newsletters and compiles an annual list of stories of social significance that have been overlooked, underreported or self-censored by the major national news media – described it as one of the 10 most underreported events of the year.
Because the US press rarely mentions GM foods at all, if you ask the average American whether he or she has ever eaten a GM food in their life, 60 per cent will so ‘no’ and 15 per cent will say ‘I don’t know.’ GMOs flourish on the basis of consumer ignorance, but this leaves the biotech industry extremely vulnerable. If some campaign or event were to push this issue above the national radar screen, causing sufficient consumer concern, US manufacturers would respond like their European counterparts and swear off GMOs.
The power of the market
The tipping point to trigger a non-GMO food revolution in the US does not require that a majority of shoppers reject GM foods – if even a small percentage started switching brands based on GMO content, major companies would spot the trend, see a loss in market share and respond. This is facilitated by the fact that manufacturers gain no benefits from GM ingredients; requesting their removal is not like asking them to take out sugar or fat. GMOs do not make a product tastier, healthier or more appealing.
Even five per cent of the US population - 15 million people or 5.6 million households - making brand choices based on GM content may be more than the critical mass needed to force change. With little exaggeration, Oprah Winfrey could end the genetic engineering of the food supply in 60 minutes. A popular film such as a GMO version of An Inconvenient Truth might accomplish this as well.
Even if these things are not forthcoming, however, there are several sub-groups within the US that are large enough and receptive enough to drive a transformation. Chief among these are health-conscious shoppers, and they are already being rallied to the cause.
Currently, 28 million Americans buy organic products on a regular basis. Another 54 million are considered 'temperate' organic shoppers. Together they account for approximately 27 per cent of the population. According to a December 2006 poll, 29 per cent of Americans (probably many of the organic buyers) are strongly opposed to GM foods and believe they are unsafe. But most do not conscientiously avoid GM ingredients in their non-organic purchases; they usually don't know how. That's about to change.
In spring 2007, a coalition of food manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the natural products industry along with the IRT, launched an initiative to remove GM ingredients from the entire natural food sector. This comprehensive initiative - called the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America will educate consumers about the health risks of GM foods and promote non-GMO brands through in-store non-GMO shopping guides. Within approximately 18-24 months, it is expected that nearly all the food brands sold in natural food markets will have achieved non-GMO status. At that point the campaign will provide in-store, on-shelf labels for retailers to indicate to consumers any of the few remaining holdout products that still 'May contain GM ingredients'.
Shopper education will be provided through GMO-education centres in natural food stores nationwide, as well as regular features on websites and in magazines and newsletters. By providing health-conscious shoppers with information showing that 'Healthy Eating Means No GMOs', and by offering clear choices in the store, brands that do not contain GM ingredients will have the clear advantage.
The mechanics of the sector-wide cleanout is being orchestrated by an organisation called The Non-GMO Project (www.nongmoproject.org), which is establishing a uniform standard for defining non-GMO and a low-cost, online, third-party verification programme to ensure that farming and production methods meet that standard. The membership of their board of directors illustrates the far-reaching support for this unprecedented initiative in self-regulation. It includes executives from the multi-billion dollar Whole Foods Market and United Natural Foods, as well as industry leaders such as Eden Foods, Lundberg Family Farms, Organic Valley and Nature's Path.
Organic products are included in this programme: they are not allowed to use GMOs and have been an important oasis for non-GMO shoppers - and yet research shows that some batches of organic seed and crops contain tiny amounts of GM contamination. If unchecked, this can grow over time. By including the organic sector in the campaign, organic producers will use GMO testing methods and procedures that will help them clean up seeds and crops and ensure that certified organic foods continue to be a trusted source of non-GMO products. Unlike the recently enacted EU threshold for allowable 'adventitious' contamination of organic products by as much as 0.9 per cent, the standard for non-GMO claims will take into consideration current levels of purity and will in all likelihood require progressively cleaner levels in subsequent years, based on successful efforts to remove GMO contamination.
This initiative, which is akin to an immune response to GMOs by the natural food industry, could easily set the stage for the elimination of GM ingredients throughout the conventional foods industry as well.
Health-conscious individuals and groups outside of the food industry also have a major role to play in cleaning up the food chain. Parents with young children, for example, are the ones most likely to switch to a healthier diet - for the sake of the children. Such care is warranted, as young, fast-growing bodies are more at risk from potential toxins, allergens and nutritional problems – all three of which are associated with GMOs.
With the epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as well as the increased medication of children for ADHD and depression, the focus on their diets, both at home and at school, is now ‘on fire’ in the US and elsewhere. Adding compelling information about the impact of GM foods on children’s health can leverage the media coverage, community organising, and school-meal reorganisation already taking place. In the US this is the role of the GM-Free Schools campaign (www.gmfreeschools.org), which is active in several states.
On the basis of potential adverse health effects, several healthcare organisations in the US are now providing educational materials to healthcare providers in order to help patients follow the prescription to avoid GM foods. Many religious organisations, too, have denounced GM foods on the basis that such mixing of species is against natural law. They equate the concept of ‘GMO’ with ‘God, Move Over’. Large religious organisations have not yet asked their membership to avoid buying and eating GM foods, however. With the ability to activate millions, religions are the sleeping giants in this debate.
On their own, action by any of these groups is capable of forcing the hand of the US food industry. When company executives learn that a major religion is instructing millions of its followers to avoid their brand, that doctors are prescribing the same, that parents believe the company’s foods can hurt children or that millions of trend-setting health-conscious shoppers shun their products, the end is near for GM foods. Over the next two years, through these education-based strategies, the IRT expects the synergy of information and activism to take effect.
A key advantage of addressing the problem of GM food in this way is that it does not rely on governments to step in; it places the mantle of leadership on consumers who are, after all, at the top of our food chain. By making healthier choices for themselves and for their families, they can quite quickly, and quite literally, change the world.
Jeffrey M. Smith is the director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. He is the author of the international best-seller (www.seedsofdeception.com). His latest book is Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered foods (Yes! Books, £15.95).
This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2007
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