Gambling with Our Genetic Future: GMOs and the World Food Supply

This sounds like one of the more extreme examples of the proverbial “revolving door,” in which a corporate special interest group (in this case, Monsanto and the biotechnology industry as a whole) is able to dominate government policy over an extended period of time. Which foods in the U.S. food supply are genetically modified and are you aware of any plans to expand this?

The stated goal of the biotech industry, as revealed by consultants and insiders a decade ago, was to genetically engineer one hundred percent of all commercial seeds in the world and patent them. This was described by a representative of Arthur Anderson, Monsanto’s consultant, in a January 1999 conference in San Francisco and reported to me by an attendee.

There have been hundreds of foods in various stages of production, but the only crops that are commercialized today are nine—soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya from Hawaii and China, and a little zucchini and crookneck squash. There’s also milk from cows treated with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, which is linked to cancer and banned in most countries (and now kicked out of Wal-Mart, Starbuck’s, Yoplait, Dannon and most American dairies). Aspartame [NutraSweet] is an example of an ingredient that is created from genetically engineered microorganisms.

The Need to Study Long-Term Effects

In your view, what are the essential, legitimate criteria that should be used to determine whether GMOs should be legally permitted to enter our food supply?

Most fundamentally, they need to be proven safe by independent studies conducted over a long period of time. The technology must be predictable and precise, and the interactions with humans, animals and the ecosystem must be well-defined. This is particularly important because the products of this infant science are being fed to the entire population and released into the environment, where the self-propagating pollution of the gene pool can never be recalled. The genes already released by Monsanto are now part of the gene pool of certain crops and can outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste.

How long-term would studies need to be to determine long-term safety in humans? Since we’re talking about altering the genetic code of living organisms, would we need human studies lasting multiple generations?

I think that we have to be as cautious as we have ever been with any technology, given the unrecallable nature and profound ramifications of this technology. I have interviewed scientists around the world on this very question, and many believe that the current understanding of DNA is insufficient to even create a testing paradigm, because our assumptions and knowledge base on DNA shifts so dramatically, and so too our understanding of the potential side effects of this engineering. Others will conservatively suggest 25 or 50 years of testing; a few might suggest shorter periods.

But unfortunately, we have a situation now where the foods are virtually untested and the few studies that have been done show a huge variety of very serious health problems in animals, as well as case studies of serious problems in livestock and humans. [Note: Extensive annotated references for these studies can be found in Jeffrey Smith’s book, Genetic Roulette, and at www.responsibletechnology.org].

In the European Union, policy is generally based on the precautionary principle, which says that changes with potentially large impacts should not be undertaken until reasonably proven to be safe. In the United States and Canada, the opposite approach is used. Here major changes are allowed unless proven to be dangerous. What are your thoughts about these two competing methodologies?

In the case of genetic engineering, the precautionary principle is the minimum level of criteria, again because of the irreversibility of the technology and its exposure to the entire population by manipulating the most profound level of biology we have encountered.

What we have in the U.S. is a hijacking of the regulatory agencies, of scientific institutions and of reasonable policy. In spite of overwhelming evidence of harm, we are aware that the U.S. government has fast-tracked GMOs, with the intention of economic gain. And even when that hope turned out to be false, and when GMOs cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars (from lost corn sales to Europe, contamination by StarLink corn and unapproved GM rice by Aventis, etc.), the influence by the biotech industry remained in place and the U.S. continues to promote GMOs and bully other countries into doing the same.1

Labeling GMOs

Should GMO-containing foods be labeled as such?

It is my personal opinion that GM foods should be eliminated from the food supply and no genetically modified organism should be allowed outdoors where it can propagate and multiply. While GMOs are on the market, certainly we must give consumers the right to choose whether they want to be part of this uncontrolled experiment. I know of numerous, in fact thousands, of health care professionals, who prescribe non-GMO diets. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine urges all doctors to do so, and not only calls for a moratorium, but for labeling as long as GMOs are on the market. This organization has also identified harm from animal feeding studies,2 including reproductive problems, accelerated aging, immune system problems, organ damage, gastrointestinal disorders and problems with the regulation of insulin and cholesterol.

With the influence that companies like Monsanto exert over both state and federal legislatures and regulatory agencies in the United States, what mechanisms strike you as being most likely to succeed in accomplishing your goals?

There are two ways that we see for how to end the genetic engineering of the food supply, in the short-term. One is through a tipping point of consumer rejection. This eliminated GMOs from Europe, in terms of direct ingredients, and occurred very quickly. Within ten weeks of the gag order being lifted on a prominent scientist in 1999, allowing him to speak about his discoveries of serious harm …