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Growing Concerns

Unearthing the dirt behind the rise of GMOs


Published March 31, 2004 at 2:04 p.m.

"In response to concerns raised by our customers over the use of genetically modified (GM) foods and to comply with government regulations, we have decided to remove, as far as practicable, GM soy and maize from all food products served in our restaurant."

- From a sign posted in the cafeteria at the UK headquarters of Monsanto,

the world's largest manufacturer of

genetically modified organisms.

Jeffrey Smith's home in Iowa is surrounded by fields of genetically modified soybeans and corn, but he won't touch the stuff. In fact, he doesn't eat any foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or drink milk from cows that have been injected with genetically engineered growth hormones. Smith, an internationally acclaimed writer and lecturer on GMO issues, isn't making a philosophical statement against biotechnology. He is seriously concerned about what GMOs do to the human body. And he thinks all consumers should be, too.

Smith is the author of a new book entitled Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating. His barnstorming tour through Vermont last week coincided with the Legislature's current debate on three bills to regulate GMOs. The first, which is the most likely of the three to pass this session, would require biotech firms to label all genetically engineered seeds and report their sales annually to the state. The second, known as the Farmer Protection Act, would shift liability for damages caused by GMO crops from the farmer to the seed manufacturer. The third would impose a statewide moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops until long-term, independent safety tests can prove that GMOs pose no threat to human health or the environment. Currently, that research doesn't exist, assert Smith and the bill's supporters.

Smith's tour included a stop Wednesday at the Statehouse, where he spoke to about 60 people, including a dozen or so legislators and other policymakers who may soon determine the fate of all GMO agriculture in this state. While much of the public debate in Vermont has focused on the ecological and economic impacts of biotechnology, Smith presents a frightening picture of the health hazards posed by genetically engineered foods. He accuses the biotech industry of not doing the necessary research that would demonstrate that GMO foods are safe for humans and animals -- or worse, of concealing research that shows GMOs are dangerous. Smith accuses the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of ignoring or silencing the concerns of its own scientists in order to push its pro-biotech agenda and get GMOs approved as quickly as possible.

Smith's expose couldn't be more timely. Vermont's legislation reflects a growing global GMO backlash. Just two hours before Smith's presentation in Montpelier, the Welsh Assembly vetoed the British government's approval of a strain of genetically modified corn. A day earlier, the state of Western Australia banned the planting of all GMO crops. And a week before that, Sudan, one of the world's most famine-plagued countries, asked the United States to certify that all its food aid is GMO-free. In response, the U.S. government withdrew all food aid to the central African nation. Angola is considering banning the planting and importation of all genetically engineered foods, while Italy, Austria and Brazil are in the process of establishing GMO-free zones.

"What we're seeing is that wherever the central government seems to have been compromised in their regulatory process, local governments, state governments and regional governments are saying, 'We're going to protect ourselves,'" says Smith. "So, what's happening here in Vermont is what's happening around the world." Vermont's legislation, he adds, is being watched closely by politicians in Asia, who hope to use it as a model for GMO laws in their own countries.

Smith doesn't simply aim to promote his new book but also to debunk what he calls the prevailing "myths" surrounding genetic engineering. For instance, he refutes the industry's claims that GMO crops produce higher yields and require fewer toxic chemicals to grow than conventional crops -- and he presents scientific evidence to prove just the opposite. He challenges the argument that GMOs are needed to "feed the world" -- and then cites United Nations figures showing that the world produces more food per person today than at any other time in history.

Smith also attacks the idea that GMOs and conventional crops can coexist in nature without cross-contamination, a notion he calls "pure mythology." That statement was of particular interest to Vermont's anti-GMO lobby, since it directly contradicts the official position taken by Governor Jim Douglas, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and its commissioner, Steve Kerr.

Critics might dismiss Smith's expose as just another anti-corporate conspiracy theory, but it's a meticulously researched conspiracy theory nonetheless. And his revelations about what scientists know, or don't know, about the long-term health effects of eating GMOs fly in the face of the FDA's seal of approval, which says these foods are "generally recognized as safe."

"We don't know if genetic engineering is related to the doubling of food-related illnesses in the United States between 1994 and 2001, corresponding to the introduction of genetically modified crops and enzymes in our diet," Smith says. Nor, he adds, do scientists know why soy allergies in the UK soared by 50 percent right after genetically engineered soy was introduced in that country. "No one knows," he says, "because no one has followed up on it."

Smith points out that only 10 studies have measured the long-term health effects of feeding GMOs to animals, and eight of those were done by the biotech industry itself. The two independent studies produced some frightening results. One of these was conducted by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who is among Britain's foremost genetic engineering experts. He fed rats a potato that was engineered to contain an insecticide known to be harmless to humans. Pusztai found that over the equivalent of 10 human years, the rats developed smaller brains, livers, and testicles, as well as partially atrophied livers, damaged immune systems and pre-cancerous cells in their stomachs and intestines.

"But it wasn't the insecticide that caused the problem," Smith explains. "Somehow, it was the process of creating the genetically modified potato. The problem is, Pusztai used the exact same process that they use to create the foods we eat."

How did Tony Blair's pro-GMO government greet this news? Two days after it was released Pusztai was fired, his 20-member research group was disbanded, and all were threatened with a lawsuit if they revealed their findings.

Smith accuses the FDA of engaging in similar science "manipulation" in order to promote its pro-GMO agenda. He makes his case by discussing a product familiar to virtually every Vermont dairy farmer: rBGH, the genetically altered growth hormone that is administered to dairy cows. Smith asserts that Monsanto tampered with its own research by removing sick cows from its studies and tinkered with the levels of hormones that appeared in the cows' milk.

Other research, Smith contends, revealed how rBGH increases the levels of another hormone in the milk, IGF-1, which significantly ups the risk of breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Smith asserts that those findings were deliberately concealed, while scientists within the FDA who voiced their concerns were either "kicked out, muzzled, fired or silenced on the issue."

Research on the genetically modified "Flavr Savr" tomato raised similar questions about consumer safety. Smith notes that seven of the 40 rats fed the GMO tomatoes died within two weeks and were simply removed from the study. Others developed stomach lesions. FDA scientists who study antibiotics were appalled when they learned about the tomato, Smith says, because it contains an antibiotic-resistant marker gene. Their fear was that if this gene survives in the human digestive tract, it may mutate existing bacteria and create pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics. While the biotech industry has long claimed that antibiotic-resistant marker genes are destroyed by the digestive system, Smith says that the industry never did the research to support that claim. In fact, he produces studies that show just the opposite -- that these genes not only survive in the body but enter the DNA of other cells.

Despite such concerns, the Flavr Savr tomato was granted government approval. Why? Smith contends it's because the person in charge of making those decisions at the FDA was Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto attorney who later worked on biotech issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Taylor eventually became Monsanto's vice president of governmental affairs.

Smith asserts that the examples of rBGH and Flavr Savr are symptomatic of the FDA's larger agenda of promoting a technology it's supposed to be regulating. In his book, Smith quotes Dan Glickman, the former secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton and longtime backer of GMO technology, who describes a culture within the government where "it was almost immoral to say that [biotechnology] wasn't good because it was going to solve the problems of the human race and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And if you're against it, you're a Luddite, and you're stupid."

Contrary to what Smith's audience might assume, he is neither anti-biotechnology nor against researching the science of genetic engineering. He simply believes that, based on how little we know about their effects on human health, DNA and the environment, GMOs shouldn't be consumed by the public for decades, if at all.

"We're in a situation where we're feeding the products of an infant science to millions of people and releasing them into the environment where they can never be recalled," Smith says. "The pro-biotech people call me anti-science. I say, 'Look at the science.' An independent person looking at the science would never allow these foods to be fed to humans or animals."

Many of the state officials who attended Smith's presentation say they were impressed by his breadth of knowledge, though they reached differing conclusions about what to make of it. Representative Bill Botzow (D-Bennington), a first-term lawmaker who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, describes his attitude about GMOs as "open-minded." As one of the legislators who visited Monsanto's research facility in Mystic, Connecticut, earlier this year ("But I paid my own way," he emphasizes), Botzow says that Smith offered him a very different perspective on genetic engineering.

"If this is something for the public good, who gets to make the decision of which genes and which traits get expressed?" Botzow asks. "I don't think it's entirely a boardroom or market-driven decision."

Agriculture Commissioner Kerr says he was also impressed with Smith's presentation and believes that his "aggressive approach" offered plenty of food for thought. But Kerr remains unconvinced by Smith's allegations about the health risks posed by GMOs, and asserts that "the preponderance of evidence in both the U.S. and Europe suggests that GE crops are safe."

And while Kerr appreciates Smith's critique of the federal regulatory process, he would have preferred a presentation that included experts on the other side of the debate who could refute Smith's scientific claims and indictments of the regulatory process. Kerr is also skeptical of Smith's conspiratorial tone. "I'm suspicious of corporations, but I'm also suspicious of people who have conspiracy theories about corporations," Kerr says. "It's just too easy an answer, and life isn't that simple."