| Agriculture | Health | Interview |

Genetic roulette

S Usha
12/02/2009

Genetic roulette
Jeffrey M Smith
What is GM crop or food in simple terms?

A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic, hence they are also known as transgenic organisms. This process may be called either Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM); they are one and the same.

How does it differ from what is generally cultivated?

In contrast to the statements of biotech advocates, US government scientists and others affirm that genetic modification is not just an extension of the conventional breeding techniques that have been used by farmers for millennia. Genetic engineering transfers genes across natural species barriers, using imprecise laboratory techniques that bear no resemblance to natural breeding. Furthermore, the technology is based on outdated concepts of how genes and cells work.

Gene insertion is done either by shooting genes from a “gene gun” into a plate of cells or by using bacteria to invade the cell with foreign DNA. The altered cell is then cloned into a plant. These processes create massive collateral damage, causing mutations in hundreds or thousands of locations throughout the plant’s DNA. Natural genes can be deleted or permanently turned on or off, and hundreds may change their levels of expression. In addition: the inserted gene is often rearranged; it may transfer from the food into our body’s cells or into the DNA of bacteria inside us; and the GM protein produced by the gene may have unintended properties or effects.

Proponents of GM claim that genetically engineered crops are not significantly different from those modified by nature or humans in the past. They argue that modified crops are as safe, or even safer, than those created through such time-tested methods. How do you react to this?

The concept that GM crops are not different from natural ones is a political one, not scientific. In 1992, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed that they had no information showing that GM foods were substantially different from conventionally grown foods and therefore were safe to eat. But internal memos made public by a lawsuit reveal that their position was staged by political appointees under orders from the White House to promote GMOs. FDA scientists, on the other hand, warned that GMOs can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long term safety studies, but were ignored. The FDA does not require any safety evaluations for GMOs. Instead, biotech companies, who have been found guilty of hiding toxic effects of their chemical products, are now in charge of determining whether their GM foods are safe. The FDA official in charge of creating this policy was Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney and later their vice president.

Having worked with more than 30 scientists over many years, we identified 65 health risks from GMOs, which provide irrefutable, overwhelming evidence of harm. Those who still maintain that GMOs are safe are ignoring the evidence and may even be consciously distorting the truth.

What are the health hazards and how does it affect the land and environment?

GMOs are linked to toxic and allergic reactions in people, thousands of sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. The biotech industry claims that Bt-toxin is harmless to humans and mammals because the natural bacteria version has been used as a spray by farmers for years. In reality, hundreds of people exposed to Bt spray had allergic-type symptoms, and mice fed Bt had powerful immune responses and damaged intestines. Moreover, Bt in GM crops is designed to be more toxic than the natural spray and is thousands of times more concentrated. Hundreds of laborers in India report allergic reactions from handling Bt cotton. Their symptoms are identical to those exposed to Bt spray.

Unlike safety evaluations for drugs, there are no human clinical trials of GM foods. The only published human feeding experiment verified that genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into the DNA of intestinal bacteria and continues to function. This means that long after we stop eating GM foods, we may still have their GM proteins produced continuously inside us.

In addition, GM crops concentrate corporate control of food, increase herbicide use without increasing average yields, endanger food security, are detrimental to sustainable and organic farming, and trap farmers in a cycle of debt and dependence. They shrink biodiversity, harm beneficial insects, damage soil bacteria, contaminate non-GM varieties, and persist in the environment.

What are the economics and politics involved around GM? To what extend can third world countries afford to indulge in GM crops, assuming for a moment that it is safe?

The US spends $3-5 billion per year to subsidize the GM crops that no one else wants. They are trying to force other countries to take GMOs, to solve their own problems. The US department of Agriculture confirms that GMOs do not increase yields or farmer income, and in many cases reduce both. In developing countries, GM crops are clearly disadvantageous. A study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that GMOs are not appropriate, and that industrial farming practices in general force small farmers and landless peasants are forced off the land.

Those in favour of current genetic techniques argue that the technology may have beneficial results, for example, in the harsh agricultural conditions of Africa. They say that with modifications, existing crops could possibly be able to thrive under the relatively hostile conditions providing much needed food to their people. What is your take?

Drought and salt tolerance involves many genes in complex interactions—well beyond the current capabilities of GMO technology. In fact, traditional breeding is far more effective at generating crops with these needed traits. When GMOs are introduced, the multinationals tend to eliminate much of the traditional diverse seeds in an area. By eliminating this biodiversity, the potential source for these naturally tolerant crops is threatened.

Many proponents of genetic engineering techniques claim that it will lower pesticide usage and has brought higher yields and profitability to many farmers, including those in developing nations. Do you have a different opinion?

Based on the deceptions we have seen by the multinationals, we must ignore their figures and use only independently obtained data. Monsanto, for example, commissioned studies of Indian Bt cotton to be done by market research agencies, not scientists. One, for example, claimed four times the actual reduction in pesticide use, twelve times the actual yield, and 100 times the actual profit.

According to US Department of Agriculture Data, herbicide tolerant crops increased the use of herbicides in the US by about 250 million pounds, during the first 11 years, and the rate of increase is skyrocketing. Indian experts tell me that Bt cotton does require slightly less sprays, but also opens the door for new pests, diseases, soil infertility, and other problems. We have disastrous side effects hit Bt cotton in China, Indonesia, the US, Australia and throughout India.

Future envisaged applications of GMOs are diverse and include drugs in food, bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases, metabolically engineered fish that mature more quickly, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier…All these are apparently beneficial to humankind. Are you not hindering the welfare of the human race by taking a stand against all kinds of modification?

I wouldn’t want to be hired by a company to try to undertake a recall of GM fish from the ocean. The self-propagating genetic pollution from GM crops released today can outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The drugs, vaccines, and altered fish properties can have irreversible and unpredictable effects on the environment. Therefore, in this infant stage in the understanding of DNA and GM technology, we must keep it in the lab.

Where does India stand vis-a- vis GM?

My new book verifies Dr. PM Bhargava’s official assessment: Current GMOs are dangerous and are not adequately evaluated for health or environmental safety by the apex Regulator the GEAC. Their approvals are unsafe & unjustified. Dr Bhargava made his recommendations in letters to the Prime Minister and Health Minister after having been assigned by a Supreme Court Order in Feb 2008 as an “invitee” to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). The Court Order was in response to the “Prayers” in the Public Interest Writ Petition filed by Aruna Rodigues, P V Satheesh and others, asking for independent experts to be appointed to the GEAC. Citing opinions and Supreme Court submissions by world renowned scientists, the writ charged that 1) GM crops are intrinsically hazardous; (2) the GEAC’s evaluation procedures are wholly inadequate to protect the health of Indian citizens and the environment; and 3) an immediate 5-year moratorium on the environmental release of any GMO is required.

Based on his 10-month review, Dr Bhargava confirms the charges. Furthermore, he has drawn up a comprehensive list of tests which must be conducted before GM crops can be properly evaluated and approved. But, he says, only 10% of these are actually done; and they are designed and performed so poorly by the biotech companies that findings are essentially worthless. With virtually no safeguards, trained personnel, or proper biosafety testing guidelines and procedures, the release of these GM crops has potentially catastrophic effects in India.

Are you aware of the GM bill, the Food Standards & Safety Bill proposed by the Government of India and what are your impressions?

The proposed biotechnology law in India has obviously been drafted with the assistance of the biotech industry. In short, it gives the authority for GMO approvals to just four individuals, and disallows any appeal by any ministry or even the courts. It is another example of draconian laws that have been introduced worldwide designed to force GMOs onto the market, in spite of valid objections based on scientific, economic, social, medical, and environmental objections and concerns. If implemented, the law may prove to have the worst legacy of any in India’s history.

Tell us a little about your book. Why Genetic Roulette?

I believe that GMOs being released into the environment is a great gamble because one there has been no assessment on the health effects and two there is a lot of misinformation. We are playing with fire but it is more than fire because it self reproduces. This is why I named the book Genetic Roulette. For those of you who don’t know, Roulette is a game of chance. You take a marble and you put it on device. On the cover of my US book I have a wheel and it could land on allergies, death, sterility, toxins all of which have been identified in the book, but the cover was changed for the Indian edition because most Indians don’t play Roulette, but I understand that you play snakes and ladders, another game of chance.

Why does the American government not bring in mandatory labeling of the GM crops? Is the public not aware enough of the issue as to oppose it and force the government for labeling?

First of all the public is ignorant of the fact that they eat GMOs. Including Monsanto there are five agricultural biotech companies that make GMOs, but Monsanto is by far the biggest and the most influential. Now their public relations and lobbying effort is legendary and the public opinion can be suited to their lobbying.

You talk about educating the consumers on all the issues. Do you realize that people are so alienated from science that they cannot understand the research that is going on, and also what they are putting on their plates? If the consumer is not informed how can (s)he make an informed decision?

When I give a talk in the US; I survey the audience before and after, as to their motivation and vigilance to avoid GMOs. Every audience, from housewives to medical doctors, undergoes an immediate and dramatic transformation when they hear the evidence. So we are absolutely sure that the average person will be highly motivated to avoid GMOs, when they realize the risks they are taking.

Today the government in the US will change. What change in the policies do you expect in the policies of the Obama government in the matter of Genetic modification, labeling etc?

You know I get kind of emotional, when I think of today. I feel like giving a round of applause to Barrack Obama.(laughs) Barack Obama is in favour of mandatory labeling of GMOs.. So we hope that Obama makes good not only on his promise but also uses comprehensive labeling, because nine out of 10 Americans want GMOs labeled, 63% say that they would avoid GMOs if they were labeled. So labeling alone would likely eliminate GMOs from the food supply. However, Obama has also put together a team that includes very pro-GM individuals, which is of great concern to us. The minister or secretary of agriculture is the former governor of Iowa the state that I live in and he is the biotech governor of the year. The person on the transition team for Obama was Michael Taylor, former attorney of Monsanto, was in charge of the FDA quality that said that no testing was necessary. So I think that he has been insulated from the truth about GMOs and we intend to inform him of the truth. But I really believe that he is more suitable for the job than his predecessor had been.

Are there alternatives to increase food production?

There are effective, appropriate alternatives. A study in 2006 looked at 286 projects to introduce sustainable techniques on more than 12 million farms in 57 countries, mostly in Africa. The research evaluated yield effects when farmers used approaches such as less tilling to conserve soil, integrated pest management—which favors ecological pest control over pesticide spraying—and improved management of soil nutrients. According to the study, adopting such approaches meant yields increased by an average of 79% and harvests of some crops such as maize, potatoes and beans doubled. These sustainable solutions help people reclaim the ability to feed themselves by applying scientific rigor to make old-fashioned crop improvement methods more systematic and efficient using seed varieties that are well-suited to local conditions. The model for GM crops, however, concentrates ownership of agriculture into the hands of a few multinational corporations, forces farmers to buy seeds each year and reduces the diversity of seed genetics. In addition, in developing nations, people gain valuable nutrients by harvesting a diversity of wild plants that grow in the field with the crops. The stated goal of Monsanto and the biotech companies is to convert 100% of all seeds into genetically modified and patented seeds. This unprecedented replacement of nature would reap them billions of dollars. They continue to promise altruistic benefits from their technology, but this remains only in the realm of PR.

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GM crops concentrate corporate control of food, increase herbicide use without increasing average yields, endanger food security, are detrimental to sustainable and organic farming, and trap farmers in a cycle of debt and dependence. They shrink biodiversity, harm beneficial insects, damage soil bacteria, contaminate non-GM varieties, and persist in the environment.


The proposed biotechnology law in India has obviously been drafted with the assistance of the biotech industry. In short, it gives the authority for GMO approvals to just four individuals, and disallows any appeal by any ministry or even the courts. It is another example of draconian laws that have been introduced worldwide designed to force GMOs onto the market, in spite of valid objections based on scientific, economic, social, medical, and environmental objections and concerns. If implemented, the law may prove to have the worst legacy of any in India’s history.


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