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

The Pusztai Affair

Let me ask, who was the scientist and who gagged him?

The scientist, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, was working at the Rowett Institute on a UK government grant to figure out how to evaluate the safety of GMOs. His protocols were supposed to be implemented as part of the European Union regulatory system. He discovered that the process of genetic engineering itself, not the particular gene that was inserted, caused massive damage to the health of his rats in just ten days.

He went public with his concerns and was a hero at his institute, for two days. Then, we are told, two phone calls from the UK Prime Minister’s office, forwarded through the receptionist to the director, resulted in his being fired after 35 years and silenced with threats of a lawsuit. The team was disbanded, they never implemented the protocols, and he was the target of a widespread campaign to destroy his reputation and thereby protect the reputation of biotechnology.

He was invited to speak before the UK Parliament seven months later, which forced the gag order to be lifted. Within one month, over 700 articles on GMOs were generated by the UK press. And ten weeks later, the tipping point of consumer rejection was achieved, when most food companies committed to eliminate GMOs from their European brands immediately.

We have seen a tipping point against bovine growth hormone in the United States, as we educate consumers about the links to cancer3, and we believe that as little as five percent of U.S. shoppers avoiding GM ingredients would demonstrate a drop in market share that the food companies would be able to link directly to anti-GMO sentiment rising in the U.S. And that, we believe, will be the food industry “sell signal” that will force companies to eliminate GMOs to protect their market share. This is particularly easy because GMOs offer no consumer benefit. No one wakes up in the morning clamoring for their dose of Roundup (the herbicide) in their Roundup-ready crops or the pesticide Bt-toxin in their corn.

Right to Know Referendum

Tell us about the current GMO referendum campaign in California.

Nearly a million signatures were just submitted to the government in California, which will pave the way for the Right to Know measure being placed on the November ballot. This will require companies to label their products sold in grocery stores that contain GMOs starting in July 2014. For companies that use GMOs, the cost will be virtually nonexistent, because it simply requires the addition of a sentence on packaging, and companies change their packaging all the time.

The biotech industry’s representatives, however, are trying to confuse consumers and are saying that it will cost families hundreds of dollars per year. This is nonsense. The companies that chose to remove GMOs in Europe—including Kraft, Nestlé’s, Hershey’s and Unilever—did not raise their prices at all in Europe. These same companies continue to sell GMOs to consumers in the U.S., where people are largely unaware.

What are the most frequent claims of benefit from GMO foods that the food and biotech industries assert in support of their use?

There was a huge disinformation campaign thrust upon U.S. consumers, trying to convince us that GMOs are needed to feed the growing population. In fact, the most comprehensive evaluation of feeding the world, sponsored by several United Nations organizations and co-signed by 58 countries4 concluded that the current GMOs have nothing to offer in this regard. The Union of Concerned Scientists report, Failure to Yield,5 demonstrates that GMOs not only fail to increase agricultural yields, but on average lower them.

The biotech industry also claims that GMOs will reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. In fact, it has promoted an increase in herbicide use in the United States by nearly 400 million pounds.6 **

And abroad as well.

And abroad. They also claim that GMOs have been proven safe, while they have been shown to be highly dangerous and have likely contributed to the rise of many diseases and disorders in the U.S. since their introduction in 1996.7 They also claim that GMOs will increase farmer profits and countries’ exports, both of which have proven to be false. There are independent studies showing no average economic gain with the use of GMOs.8 Instead, in many cases, countries’ exports have been cut off or their prices reduced when GMOs are introduced, because so many consumers around the world seek non-GMO, healthier products.

When you are citing these various studies, are these referenced on your website so that readers can find them there?

Yes, we have an enormous amount of research on www.responsibletechnology.org. We have summaries for those who want a quick read, we have detailed texts, we have scripted PowerPoints for those that want to give presentations, we have free audios and free videos, and a free newsletter. For the most comprehensive treatment of the health dangers, we have a book, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Food, with over 1100 endnotes, and designed in such a way that even a non-scientist can do a casual scan and identify numerous risks associated with the foods that they may be eating every day.

How do genetically modified seeds and plants interact with non-GMO plants when they are grown close to one another? And how does this affect organic farms, which are legally defined in the U.S. as non-GMO?

Pollen does not read the signs. Airborne pollen, airborne seeds, these are issues that have plagued non-GMO farmers in general, and organic farmers in particular, since GMOs were introduced. There has been no way for humans to block the transfer and spread of GMOs through natural processes. In fact, one of the main ways that GMOs get spread is through human error. As a result, the integrity of non-GMO products is being eroded. In Canada, for example, out of 33 bags of non-GMO canola seeds, 32 of them were found to be contaminated with at least a small amount of GM canola.

Organic growers are not allowed to intentionally use GMOs, but sometimes contamination can take place. We support organic agriculture and refer to that as one of the ways that people can avoid GMOs, but we also encourage organic and non-organic non-GMO producers to enroll in The Non-GMO Project,9 which is a third party verification system that, unlike organics, does require testing of at-risk ingredients, to make sure that contamination is identified and below threshold levels.

Do organic farmers have some legal right of redress, to be made whole in response to the damage that has been caused to their organic crops by these GMOs? That is, they stand to lose their organic certification over this GMO contamination of their organic fields.

In theory, organic farmers should have legal precedent, because they have a precedent when there is accidental spraying by neighbors that causes either decertification or death of their crops. There is an organic farmer in Australia that has sued a neighbor; we haven’t seen these lawsuits take place in the United States because it usually involves a small farmer going against a transnational corporation with virtually unlimited funds.

This is a major flaw in our system of justice.

We have seen the opposite, where companies like Monsanto will sue farmers who have been accidentally contaminated with GMOs. It seems counterintuitive, but it is nevertheless the case that they will claim that when their intellectual property, their patented GM seeds, end up on a farmer’s field, even accidentally, and they are harvested and replanted by a farmer who saves and replants seeds, the companies like Monsanto claim that the farmers are violating the law. And in the case of the Canadian Supreme Court, they agreed with Monsanto in Monsanto v. Percy Schmeiser. So the tables are, in many cases, turned against those farmers who are trying to protect the integrity of their non-GM crops.

Is there a legal precedent in the U.S. comparable to that one you just cited from Canada?

There is not a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but there are numerous precedents set, where Monsanto will claim that the farmers have illegally saved seeds. That’s another interesting aspect of this whole debate. When you buy a genetically engineered seed, you pay extra and sign a contract that you will not save and replant those seeds. Monsanto has made, I think, around $300 million through lawsuits and settlements, not only with farmers that may, in fact, have saved seeds, but also those who have been contaminated inadvertently but are unwilling to try to fight Monsanto in court.