Are GMOs Safe?

The answer is clouded by the considerable influence of big corporations

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Two decades into the contentious debate that surrounds genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the promise that genetically engineered crops will help feed the world, so far, for several reasons, has proven to be an empty one. And, at least according to reams of science, these bioengineered crops are as safe as non-transgenic ones.

What the next chapter in the evolution of agriculture has produced, however, is something akin to the pharmaceuticalization of food. Six multinational companies — Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and the Dow Chemical Co. — control the rapidly growing GMO market. And, like their Big Pharma counterparts, these multibillion-dollar companies have been accused of bullying and/or lobbying anyone that gets in the way.

Monsanto, for one, has sued some 100 farmers for patent infringement, winning judgments against farmers found to have made use of the company’s genetically engineered (GE) seed without paying required royalties, according to a 2013 Reuters story.

Some GMO opponents are concerned the Big Six are positioning themselves to monopolize the world’s food supply. They worry that the companies’ vast wealth and power — like that wielded by the pharmaceutical industry — will lead to favoritism and laws designed to protect Big Ag over organic and conventional farmers.

These opponents have legitimate reasons to be concerned. In a political system where important decisions about regulating the food supply are largely made by power players rotating through the revolving door that separates government and the private sector, it’s difficult not to be cynical.

The back-and-forth career of current deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a perfect example. Michael Taylor was an assistant to the FDA commissioner, before leaving the public sector to work for a law firm that helped gain FDA approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone (rGBH). In 1991, he returned to the public sector, as FDA deputy commissioner. He then went back to the private sector, serving from 1998 to 2001 as Monsanto’s vice president for public policy. He was reappointed to the FDA in 2009. He’s also had a few stints at King & Spalding, one of the leading U.S. lobbying practices, and he has spent time at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the administrator of food safety.

Currently, most of the concern about infringement of modern biotechnology lies with what conventional and organic farmers will do should these corporations’ bioengineered seeds be windblown onto their land. The concern isn’t with GMOs tainting those farmers’ crops; it’s if those farmers will use this patented technology without permission.

In June of last year, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dismissed a case brought by farmers and seed companies against Monsanto, a preemptive move to protect themselves from what they claimed was unfair patent enforcement by Monsanto.

The three-judge panel ruled that, “because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not ‘take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes (because, for example, some transgenic seed or pollen blew onto the grower’s land),’ and appellants have not alleged any circumstances placing them beyond the scope of those assurances, we agree that there is no justiciable case or controversy.”

A decade earlier, in 2003, Monsanto introduced GE alfalfa two years before it was deregulated, according to Project Censored. In fact, a 2010 USDA report acknowledges that GMO alfalfa spread its traits to non-GMO alfalfa long before the crop had been approved. The federal agency responded to this fact by deregulating genetically modified alfalfa and ignoring possible environmental concerns.

In defense of GMOs
During a Sept. 15 University of Rhode Island Food Safety Education conference held at the Radisson Hotel in Warwick entitled “What You Need to Know About GMOs: Safety, Labeling and Economic Impact,” guest speakers with impressive academic credentials said GMOs pose no risk to human health or the environment. They said mandatory GMO labeling would be overly burdensome and costly.

Concern about multinationals monopolizing the world’s food supply wasn’t specifically addressed in discussions about the economics of GMOs. Albert Kausch, a URI professor of cell and molecular biology, noted that companies could make a GMO that was “bad,” but said the federal government has a strong regulatory system in place to address biotech.

“Companies are self-policing,” Kausch said. “The last thing these companies want to do is produce something that is dangerous.”

History, however, has proven otherwise. Profits have long taken precedent over public-health and environmental concerns.

In the early 1920s, the dangers of Tetraethyl lead — leaded gasoline — were already known, but major oil companies began using the technology anyway. Despite early warnings, production of leaded gasoline began in 1923. Five decades later, only after environmental hazards became overwhelmingly apparent, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a scheduled phase-out. Twenty-two years after that, in early 1996, the Clean Air Act banned the use of leaded fuel in any on-road vehicle. It took another 12 years, after blood tests of National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing teams revealed elevated blood-lead levels, before NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel.

For those dozen years, it appears engine function — thus profit — trumped human health.

DuPont, a longtime NASCAR sponsor, made a tidy profit selling lead paint before it was eventually banned. The corporation has been accused of misleading consumers about the dangers of lead-based paint. In 2010, DuPont was named a top-20 polluter, dumping 5.3 million pounds of toxic chemicals into New Jersey/Delaware waterways.

Both Monsanto and Dow formerly manufactured Agent Orange. Both Monsanto and Syngenta used to manufacture DDT. Each of the GMO Big Six has some sort of tie to Big Tobacco. In fact, in 2012 when the state of California had an voter initiative to require GMO labeling, some Big Tobacco lobbyists fought against it. The measure failed.

Earlier this month, a U.S. appeals court ruled that BASF and its former law firm had a case to answer in a class action alleging they conspired to prevent thousands of asbestos-injury victims from obtaining justice by destroying or hiding evidence. BASF, through a subsidiary, owned a talc mine in Vermont from 1967 to 1983 that tests revealed contained asbestos fiber. A BASF executive has testified that the company was aware the mine contained asbestos.

Few technologies, neither the automobile nor computer, have been adopted as quickly and widely as the inventions of agricultural biotechnology — and the familiar corporations leading this charge are reaping huge profits.

Last year, some 430 million acres of genetically engineered crops were cultivated worldwide by 18 million farmers, according to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). Since 1996, when genetically engineered crops were first planted, the area they cover has increased a hundredfold.

The global value of GMO seed alone was $13.2 billion in 2011, with GE maize, soybean and cotton valued at some $160 billion annually, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

In the first quarter of 2012, for example, Monsanto’s revenue increased 33 percent from a year earlier, to $2.44 billion. That surge, which saw shares grow by more than 5 percent, was largely driven by the strength of the company’s GMO seed business.

Birth of an industry
In 1994, a bioengineered tomato with the unfortunate name Flavr Savr, was the first commercially grown GE food to be granted a license for human consumption. But the world’s first "frankenfood" was only available for a few years before production ceased, in 1997. The California-based company Calgene made history, but mounting costs prevented it from becoming profitable. It was eventually acquired by Monsanto.

Twenty years later, nearly half of the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology, and humans have consumed trillions of servings of GMO-containing foods.

In that time, not a single documented case of anyone becoming ill has been reported worldwide, according to such agencies as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the World Health Organization. The AAAS has even said GE crops are “the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.”

Kausch, the URI professor, said gene transfer is just another resource, like cross-section breeding and chemical use, in humanity’s 10,000-year-old agricultural toolbox. Humans, he said, invented agriculture. Nearly all of the world’s fruits, vegetables and grains have been modified by man. Plants, like animals, have been domesticated. He noted that broccoli first came to the United States in 1927.

“All those plants in the grocery store are human inventions. If humans go extinct, all those plants will likely disappear, too,” Kausch said. “Most of the plants we depend on for food don’t live in the wild. When was the last time you saw a summer squash growing in the wild? Seedless yellow watermelons couldn’t happen in nature. We have seedless bananas.”

New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard, according to Kausch. The microwave oven, for one, did. When the invention first hit the home-use market in the mid-1950s, rumors quickly spread about people becoming sterile. It’s now estimated that about 90 percent of American households have at least one microwave.

Apple seeds are exposed to radiation in order to generate mutants with desirable traits. That’s how gala and Fuji apples were invented. Meat and poultry have long been irradiated — exposed to radiation on purpose, to preserve food and reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Milk and orange juice are pasteurized. Rumors about those technological advances quickly spread. Science proved those concerns wrong.

Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist of animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), also spoke at the recent URI conference. The self-described “militant scientist” said GE technology is used routinely in medicine.

GE microorganisms, and products derived from them, have found widespread use in the pharmaceutical industry (insulin used by type 1 diabetics) and food (rennin used to produce cheese) with no documented reports of adverse impacts, according to a 2014 issue paper Van Eenennaam co-authored.

According to the CAST report entitled “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States,” 165 GE crop events in 19 plant species, such as alfalfa, canola, corn, flax, potato, soybean and sugar beet, have been approved in the United States — although not all of these events are being grown commercially.

In addressing possible long-term health effects of food from GE plants, the FDA says such foods don’t go on the market until any questions about their safety have been resolved. And as for concerns that GMOs could cause allergies, the federal agency says these foods are no more likely than traditionally bred plants to cause such reactions.

Both Kausch and Van Eenennaam mentioned the mountains of scientific research done on GMOs and food safety — more than 600 peer-reviewed studies in all.

“There’s always been pushback against technology,” Van Eenennaam said. “There’s concern about the use of technology in food systems. We want to help inform the debate about this.”

Kausch said he was curious as to why people are apprehensive about agricultural biotechnology. “Why do people think (GMOs) are not safe?” he said. “Where is that information?”

GMO skeptics claim that information is lacking because most of those 600 or so studies were likely funded by the Big Six directly or indirectly, to herald the industry’s inventions. Their concerns have merit. There is a history of multinational corporations using their power and wealth to suppress public-health dangers and environmental concerns.

After combing through nearly 50 million pages of internal tobacco-industry documents, UC Davis and UC San Francisco researchers produced a 2007 study that documented how Big Tobacco funded and used scientific studies to undermine evidence linking secondhand smoke to cardiovascular disease.

Kausch told the Sept. 15 conference his work is not funded by Monsanto or any other biotechnology company. On a URI webpage devoted to his professional history and funding sources, both Bayer and Monsanto are cited, along with Big Pharma’s Pfizer.

Van Eenennaam also said she receives no funding from the biotechnology industry. She worked for Monsanto from 1998-2002, and UC Davis has received tens of thousands in donations from the company.

Both of these respected academics defend the use of GMOs, and believe this technology is needed to feed a growing world population. Kausch quoted former President Jimmy Carter who once said, “Biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.” He also has noted that Isaac Asimov wrote that “science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

But others with equally impressive resumés have concerns about the inventions produced by this relatively new technology. Many of them also question the need for GMOs to feed the world, saying the problem is an issue of inequity and poor crop management, such as growing large quantities of corn and grain purely for livestock consumption, which yields a diminished and resource-intensive food return.

Ramon Seidler, a professor of microbiology and a retired senior scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency’s biosafety program, recently published a paper titled “Pesticide Use on Genetically Engineered Crops.”

According to his article, 99 percent of GMO acreage is engineered by chemical companies to tolerate heavy herbicide (glyphosate) use and/or produce insecticide (Bt) in every cell of every plant over the entire growing season. He says the result is massive selection pressure that has rapidly created pest resistance.

For example, he said the use of systemic insecticides, which coat GMO corn and soy seeds and are incorporated and expressed inside the entire plant, has skyrocketed in the past decade. This use of systemic insecticides includes neonicotinoids — powerful neurotoxins that can kill non-targeted pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies.

Seidler also has noted that the patenting system that supports the development of GE technology stifles research and contradicts industry claims that patents are necessary to conduct research and promote innovation. Basically, he believes agrochemical companies — the world’s top 10 pesticide manufacturers include the GMO’s Big Six — are using patents to block research on public health, environmental risks and productivity.

He is listed as a supporter on the GMO Free Josephine County website.

The Sierra Club is concerned that GE foods may produce new allergens and toxins and create herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that will contribute to more herbicide use.

The answer to the “Are GMOs safe?” question largely depends on whom you trust.

Do labels matter?
Some 25 states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, have considered legislation to require GMO labeling. Most of these bills were held, dropped or defeated, and a few were passed with trigger mechanisms. Three statewide voter initiatives requiring GMO labeling — Oregon (2002), California (2012) and Washington (2013) — were defeated at the ballot box.

In May, Vermont’s governor signed into law a measure that could make the Green Mountain State the first to require labeling of foods containing GMOs. Within a month of the bill's signing, four national organizations whose members would be affected by Vermont's new labeling law filed a lawsuit.

In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said, “Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers.”

About 80 percent of packaged food on sale in grocery stores contain GMO ingredients, according to Van Eenennaam. And, according to her CAST study, food typically produced using GMO processing aids or enzymes, and the meat, milk and egg products derived from animals that have consumed GE feed or been treated with GM therapeutics or vaccines, haven’t been considered to be GE foods.

Van Eenennaam noted that 70 percent to 90 percent of harvested GE biomass is fed to food-producing animals. Despite the fact the European Union has banned GMOs, she noted that EU animals are eating GE feed.

“In the United States there is a high prevalence of this tech in the food supply,” Van Eenennaam said. “Labeling is a fear tactic and it removes choice. It would scare people away from GMO products.”

She also said mandatory labeling practices would in essence be the labeling of processes and not ingredients. She used a voluntary label that says humanely raised chickens as a comparable example, because it labels the process, not the ingredients.

Van Eenennaam and other opponents of GMO labeling note that the FDA says production methods or processes that create no material difference in products require no special labeling. The FDA, for its part, supports voluntary labeling.

“GMO labeling is a potential headache to put it mildly,” she said.

GMO opponents, however, believe otherwise. Ed Stockman, an organic farmer from Plainfield, Mass., and a biologist, co-founded the Massachusetts Right To Know GMOs, to raise awareness about the health and environmental risks associated with GE foods.

John Wood, owner of The Green Grocer in Portsmouth, doesn’t buy the argument that mandatory GMO labeling would be cost prohibitive and hurt businesses.

“If the cost of labeling is such a barrier, than why is the organic side of the grocery business showing such excellent growth and demand?” Wood asked.