They may be more dangerous to our health than Genetically Modified Organisms.
—by John deJong
For 10,000 to 50,000 years (depending on which archeologist you listen to), mankind has been lending Mother Nature a hand by arranging matches and choosing the winners. It’s worked well. Increases in crop yields produced with “conventional” breeding have kept us from a Malthusian crisis (a theory which says our expanding population will some day exceed our food supply) and today we are successfully able to feed some seven billion people, fairly equitably.
Thomas Malthus obviously wasn’t the first person to be troubled about food security. For much longer than we have been breeding plants, agricultural societies have worried over how much wheat, oats, rice and corn could be consumed so they would have enough seed for the next planting season.
Now the Monsanto Corporation, a self-proclaimed “sustainable” agriculture company, has a new answer. All of it! Thanks to the wonders of genetic modification and corporate-friendly intellectual property law, you can eat every last seed because you can’t, legally, plant any of the seeds you’ve saved. (In one notable case, Monsanto successfully sued to prevent Canadian farmer Percy Schmieser from growing conventional crops that had been “inadvertently” fertilized by pollen from Monsanto’s GMO crops in adjoining fields and which enjoyed the genetic advantages of Monsanto’s GMO crop.)
As Monsanto bullies it way into our farmers’ fields and into our food supply, touting their genetically engineered food as the ultimate global food crisis solution, many remain skeptical about GMOs. People’s main concern is safety. That’s a complicated question.
Will GMOs harm my health? Monsanto wouldn’t last long if its crops were making people sick. They work hard to make a product that is difficult to distinguish from a non-GMO product. In all cases of genetic engineering, blatantly unsafe results are kept from the market, as they are with conventionally bred crops, though things have been known to go wrong. In one case, survivors from a test batch of GMO crops that had been terminated and presumably eradicated, were discovered in croplands, much to Monsanto’s disbelief. They had no idea how it happened, even suggesting that some Luddite terrorist had planted the rogue seeds in an act of sabotage.
Every argument for the safety of GMO foods begins with or prominently includes a circular argument: “Foods made from genetically modified plants must be considered safe—otherwise they would not have been authorized.”
Around the world there is a line of bureaucrats pointing back to another bureaucrat, each saying “He said it was safe.” The problem as documented in Steven M. Drucker’s excellent and exhaustive, as well as exhausting Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015: Clear River Press) is that Monsanto has gamed the regulatory system at every run, from playing the EPA and FDA off against each other to writing pro-GMO legislation for Congress to pass. One example is the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” HR933, which was hidden in an appropriations bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2013. This summer the House of Representatives passed the HR 1599, Monsanto’s anti GMO labeling act which would preempt states’ efforts to require labels on foods containing GMOs. The Senate will take up the bill in October.
The GMOs we eat aren’t likely to kill us, quickly. Whether they might make us sick over a long time is an unanswered question. Virtually no long-term “feeding studies” have been done on humans, or rats for that matter. Crop breeders are required only to verify that the new cultivar doesn’t contain increased levels of known allergens and that the nutritional value is in line with traditional breeds. It gets fuzzy after that. There is a growing body of evidence that glyphosate disrupts the delicate balance of the organisms that aid our digestion.
The immediate safety issue comes in where herbicides are concerned. Most GMOs are engineered to withstand huge doses of the herbicides glyphosate (glif-o-sate), marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. If you are consuming GMO foods, you have a good chance of consuming traces of glyphosate.
Glyphosate dosages vary depending on the farmer. Good farmers follow label instructions, use herbicides sparingly, practice other weed suppression techniques such as crop rotation and maintain buffer zones around GMO fields. Bad farmers slather herbicides on like hot sauce, plant the same crop every year and treat buffer zones as more acreage on which to plant the same GMO “Roundup Ready” crop.
Reality is far from the rosy picture Monsanto would have us believe. Whether a farmer is a good one or a bad one is not Monsanto’s problem, it’s society’s problem; Monsanto just sells the poison.
Herbicides like glyphosate, which the European Union and California have declared a probable carcinogen, are what make industrial-scale farming possible. The mechanical and biological aspects of farming were worked out more than 100 years ago. The only thing missing was the ability to economically weed fields measuring miles across.
Monsanto and other herbicide producers would have us believe that industrial-scale farming is the only answer to the Malthusian dilemma and, therefore, their herbicides are an essential part of the answer. The problem is that a mere 25 years after the introduction of Roundup-ready crops, weeds are beginning to exhibit the same resistance as Roundup-resistant GMO crops.
Monsanto is now in the process of developing crops that are resistant to multiple herbicides. In 2013, Monsanto began planting demonstration plots with “the next generation of herbicide-tolerant crops.” These seeds were genetically engineered for resistance to a new kind of powerful herbicide, dicamba, a compound related to 2, 4-D better known as one half of the recipe for Agent Orange.
Monsanto actually manufactured Agent Orange, billed as a defoliant herbicide, for the United States government in the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, planes sprayed as many as 4.5 million Vietnamese civilians and thousand of our own troops with Agent Orange. The dioxin that contaminated the 2, 4-D was later linked to cases of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other severe health problems.
This past January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the new dicamba-resistent seeds for sale and planting.
Part of the problem is the hubris of scientists working in a completely new field. Although we know how to manipulate genes, we are still at the mud-brick stage with little or no understanding of the complex interplay of genomes, their environments, and the human health costs of the herbicides that GMOs rely on. Literally thousands of edifices collapsed before we understood arches and buttressing.The rapid acquisition of glyphosate tolerance in weeds is just the first consequence of the sorcerer’s apprentice’s misguided sorcery.
The fundamental question is whether accelerating the herbicide arms race is the best path to food security.
Monsanto is an old poison company rebranded as the food savior of the world.
Chemicals are an extremely lucrative business. They may be the closest thing to the ideal capitalist enterprise. The raw material, oil, is a non-renewable commodity, which means enormous windfall profits can be made just by playing the market. The processing equipment is expensive, but it will quickly pay for itself many times over and only a small number of employees are needed to operate the equipment.
The biggest part of the chemical business is finding a lucrative market for the chemicals your chemists cook up.
One of Monsanto’s main scientists built his reputation, or at least the reputation that got him hired by Monsanto, on the theory that small doses of poisons are actually innocuous. Not a bad hire for a poison company.
The old alchemists/doctors appreciated the value of a little poison, even if they didn’t understand why it worked. Folk wisdom says the dose makes the poison, implying that at small enough doses even poisons are not poisonous. Even today the field of chemotherapy dances on the line between just enough poison and too much.
But, it turns out that a particular poison’s effect is determined by many variables, such as a person’s genetics and lifestyle. The problem is that we do not have sufficient information to determine what’s a dangerous dose for each individual.
Prophets of Snooze
One pro-GMO blog trumpets an American Association for the Advancement of Science press release, full of weasel words and clever dodges “… contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.” Considering that GM crops are pretty much the only crops “added” to our food supply since we domesticated wheat, how high are the standards? Certainly not very high in the United States, where a deregulatory tide has swept away common sense when it comes to food safety.
In the same paragraph, they try to counter claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death with “a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.” What does nutritionally equivalency have to do with possible “digestive disorders, sterility, tumors and premature death”?
“The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true,” said Albert Einstein. (Ironically, I found this quote on the side of a federal building in Washington, DC during the second Bush administration.) That’s a pretty high standard. Speaking the truth is not always in one’s best interests, commercial or otherwise. Almost as insideous is the unwillingness to do research at all when you are afraid what that truth might be.
The debate over GMOs has taken on a couple of scary aspects. The internet is saturated by industry-sponsored sites touting the benefits of GMOs and glyphosate. Those who oppose GMOs are represented as well, on the second page of results, after all of the sponsored links. The national media is worse. Aside from an occasional pro-GMO diatribe by some over-the-hill pundit parroting company propaganda, the media is deafeningly silent about GMOs. The House of Representatives passed Monsanto’s anti-GMO labeling law (HR 1599) this summer with virtually no coverage by the mainstream media. No one was challenging incredible assertions by Monsanto and its allies over the hypothetical costs associated with GMO labeling. The cost of $500 per family per year was based on duplicating billions of dollars of food storage facilities, in order to keep GMO and non-GMO crops separate—an assumption that ignores the natural efficiencies of open markets.
An open market is exactly what Monsanto doesn’t want. In an open market, consumers have the information they need to make wise choices, as well as real choices in what to buy. Monsanto’s near monopoly on seeds for corn and soybeans has led to a shortage of seeds available to farmers who want to plant non-GMO crops.
Monsanto has copied the truth denial playbook from big tobacco and the fossil fuel industry. They have gone to great lengths to demonize those opposed to GMOs, even citing the global warming “debate” as an example of how a few deniers can obstruct the search for truth.
Monsanto’s Side of the Story
While researching this month’s feature, I Googled Monsanto to hear their side of the story and soon got to their “Background” page. On it were Monsanto’s takes on many of the serious issues surrounding GMOs and the ubiquitous use of herbicides such as Roundup.
Monsanto would have us believe that hundreds of studies have been done proving the safety of GMOs and glyphosate. Instead, the proof that GMOs are safe is a carefully constructed house of cards. Most of the posts were 10 or 15 years old, in keeping with Monsanto’s philosophy of the first science is the only science.
One backgrounder of interest addressed the reproductive health of farm workers and their families’ exposure to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. The three papers Monsanto cited were based on a 1994 self-report study of farm families in Ontario, Canada. Since the study and all three papers hinted at serious problems, Monsanto attempts to discredit them all. Monsanto would have us believe that glyphosate is safe—based on one discredited study.
There are no well-designed studies of the reproductive health of farmers and their families. There are no large, long term feeding studies of the effects of diets that contain traces of glyphosate, or GMOs, for that matter. Twenty-one years later there is no further research on the safety of exposure to glyphosate that Monsanto is willing to publicize. Apparently Monsanto doesn’t have the time or money to do a real study.
But that’s not science. It’s the epitome of anti-science. Monsanto’s assumption, at every turn, is that if a study is inconclusive or even just mildly damning, it proves the safety of GMOs and glyphosate.
Remember the old toy, the Magic Eight Ball? It would mysteriously provide an answer to whatever question you put to it. One answer was Reply hazy, ask again later. It would seem that the results of Monsanto’s “science” supporting the safety and efficacy of glyphosate and GMOs always come up with a similar answer, Reply hazy, don’t ask again.
But this is not so funny, considering that 200 million pounds of glyphosate were used in the United States in 2007, about half a pound per person.
Looking further on the Backgrounder page, I click “Testing fraud: IBT and Craven Laboratories.” It’s a short summary of two testing lab-for-hire fraud cases. Monsanto portrays itself as the victim of the frauds and bewails the $6.5 million it spent doing the same tests again.
This is getting interesting. I go to copy the Backgrounder, so I can think about it off-line, but my mousepad won’t let me copy and paste. That’s funny, I’ve never had this problem before. I try downloading the PDF file. Still no dice. I do get the clue that “Without the proper password you/I do not have permission to copy portions of this document.” Well, shit. I forgot my Monsanto-issued double-secret password. Just a minute while I go look for it on the bottom of the Roundup bottle in my neighbor’s shed.
Shhh-ittt! The number is smudged and he didn’t screw the top on tight. I’m going to have to type “Testing fraud: IBT and Craven Laboratories” into my browser, without copy and paste.
Information that is probably most damning of Monsanto isn’t accessible.
Anyway, the IBT and Craven scandals involved two labs that did contract safety tests for Monsanto. In 1976 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered that 71% of the studies done by Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories had “numerous discrepencies, between the study conduct and data.” IBT was changing the results of its testing to benefit its clients. While IBT officals were criminally implicated, Monsanto and the beneficiaries of this testing fraud got off without as much as a slap on the wrist.
“In 1990, the pesticide industry (and Monsanto) was once again the victim of testing fraud,” according to Monsanto’s backgrounder. Victim schmictim, do you really think that Monsanto had the bad luck of finding evil labs that falsified safety tests twice?
John deJong is an industrial engineer by training and the associate publisher of CATALYST by trade.