Director, Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety
August 23 2007
GMO's again! Since the publication of my book “Balada Transgénica” in 2005 I have published various articles and essays following up on the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in our food and agriculture, especially with regards to their effects on human health. I keep hammering away at the subject for two reasons. First, in Puerto Rico the biotech industry's apologists and mouthpieces keep uttering plain nonsense and turning to senseless and unfounded arguments in their defense of GMO's. Second, every year new worrying information surfaces about the risks of this technology, information which for mysterious reasons is not covered by the local press.
This time I'm motivated to respond to an article about GMO foods by Aurora Rivera-Arguinzoni published in the local daily El Nuevo Día, titled “Ojo a lo Alterado” (June 4 2007). I'm thankful to the reporter for interviewing me for the article and providing me the opportunity to expose readers to an alternative viewpoint and to counter the industry's disinformation. But both Rivera-Arguinzoni and her other interviewees made questionable statements that deserve a response.
After affirming as a fact that we've been consuming GMO foods for “decades”, the reporter states the following: “The scientific community assures that GMO's (transgénicos) are safe and that their effect on health and the environment has been followed closely as well as the production processes. However, when it comes to mentioning specific studies the data are uncertain and they fall back on the argument that they have been consumed for decades and 'nothing has happened'.”
When interviewed for the article agronomist Lucy Cruz, research manager for Monsanto Caribbean, said the following: “So far these crops have not been found to harm health. I won't tell you that it cannot happen because so many things happen in life”. Cruz is also president of the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association, which represents the main seed companies, which in recent years have become subsidiaries of agricultural biotech corporate giants, like Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Agroscience.
Cruz told El Nuevo Día that she is not concerned because GMO's are rigurously tested by three US agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Agriculture Department (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and locally by the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture.
She said: “There are scientists that carry out studies on their own and to this moment nothing that indicates that these plants could affect our health has been found... I do not believe that people should feel fear of consuming them or that they are being lied to or something like that, because really until today they have not been found to cause harm to the environment or to the food that reaches your dinner table.”
Not surprisingly, the article also included the words of John Fernández Van Cleve, dean of the Agricultural Sciences Faculty of the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), an unconditional, uncritical defender of all things biotech. He declared, with his usual condescension: “I understand there is a series of myths that people do not understand (about GMO's) and they dismiss them immediately... There are people who become afraid of this technology.”
The reporter also interviewed Glorisel Negrón, of the Agricultural Extension Service, who frequently visits communities and schools to do “educational” work. She says in her presentations that modified foods have always been eaten, because of the selection farmers have always done in order to obtain better fruits and seeds.
Let's begin the response. In the first place, we have not been eating GMO's for decades. In the United States the approval process for these products began during the administration of George Bush senior (1989-1993) and it was not until 1992 that the FDA deemed them safe and authorized their production and consumption. The process reached its final stages during the first two years of the Clinton administration (1993-1995) and it was in the Fall season of 1996 that American (and Puerto Rican) consumers began eating GMO's in any significant quantity- mostly in the form of corn and soy, as well as meat, eggs and dairy from farm animals that had been fed these crops. Whoever told the reporter that we have been eating GMO's for decades simply lacks the most basic knowledge about biology and probably does not even understand what a GMO is.
Negrón gives us the tired old little lie: that genetic engineering is no more than a continuation of the selection and improvement of plants and animals practiced for millenia. In reality, genetic engineering bears no resemblance or relationship with the breeding and selection practiced by farmers, agronomists and cattle breeders since the dawn of history. What they do is develop strains and breeds of plants and animals and improve existing ones by using natural sexual reproduction to combine genes of the same species. For example, corn pollen can only fertilize corn, and an animal- domesticated or wild- can only breed with a member of its own species (unless you're watching South Park). With certain frequency I run into some defender of GMO's point to the chironja (orange + grapefruit) and the mule as examples that show that genetic material can cross the species barrier without genetic engineering. I respond that both organisms are the product of parents that are so closely related genetically that they really have no comparison to the products of genetic engineering, in which genes from viruses, bacteria and even animals are routinely introduced into plant genomes.
Some of my critics and detractors- especially an ill-tempered professor from UPR Ponce- say that interspecies gene transfers do happen regularly in nature and cite examples such as the horizontal gene transfer done by viruses and other microorganisms. However, one should not infer that genetic engineering has any equivalence at all with these natural gene transfers- let alone use that as an argument in favor of the safety of GMO foods. That's like saying that the pesticides produced by agrochemical corporations are safe because in nature there are plants and microorganisms that produce toxins.
I quote biologist David Schubert, who holds that pro-GMO arguments are “not only scientifically incorrect but exceptionally deceptive... The biotech industry misuses language to redefine scientific terms in order to make the (genetic engineering) process sound similar to conventional plant breeding.” (Quoted in Smith)
According to English zoologist Colin Tudge, “Genetic engineering, even at its simplest, implies the ad hoc introduction of exotic genes into the genome of established organisms; and this, in principle immediately suggests a hierarchy of possible problems. Most obviously, the newly introduced gene could disrupt the host genome in undesirable and quite unpredictable ways.” (Quoted in McDonagh)
Defenders of GMO's assure us that the FDA watches over our health and safety, and the agency claims that biotech foods present no problem. In 1992 the FDA declared GMO foods safe, and industry has considered the matter closed since then.
But today we know that the overwhelming consesus among the agency's experts was the complete opposite. They were warning that GMO's are different from their normal counterparts, that they embody novel human health risks and repeatedly advised their higher-ups that there can be unpredictable and difficult to detect hazards. But the highly politicized FDA top brass overruled them and falsely declared that its scientists had not found anything wrong with GMO's. We know all of this thanks to a citizen lawsuit that forced the agency to declassify some 44,000 pages of internal documents related to this matter. You can look at this information in the Alliance for Bio-Integrity web page. Author Jeffrey Smith also takes a close look at these documents in “Seeds of Deception” and in his latest book, the highly-recommended “Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods”.
The declassified documents are revealing and extremely interesting. In one of them, dated March 6 1992, microbiologist Louis Pribyl says that “The unintended effects cannot be written off so easily by just implying that they too occur in traditional breeding. There is a profound difference between the types of unintended effects of traditional breeding and genetic engineering.” Compliance officer Linda Kahl warned in a memo dated January 8 1992 that by “trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices” the FDA was “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole... The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”
These documents also show that the White House had ordered the agency to favor GMO's. That's why they put former Monsanto attorney Michael Taylor in the FDA, to make sure that the Bush administration's directives regarding biotechnology were followed to the letter. Taylor later returned to the private sector and became Monsanto's vicepresident.
As a result of these corrupt dealings, consulting with the FDA is a completely voluntary process for biotech companies. According to Jeffrey Smith: “the agency receives summaries without data and conclusions without foundation. If the company claims that its foods are safe, the FDA has no further questions. Thus, GM varieties that have never been fed to animals in rigorous safety studies and probably never fed to humans at all are approved for sale in grocery stores.”
In 2003 researchers I. F. Pryme and R. Lembcke went through the peer reviewed scientific literature in search of GMO safety studies done on lab animals. There were only ten! Five of those, done in collaboration with biotech companies, found no adverse effects. On the other hand, three of the studies, which were independent and had no corporate funding, did find adverse effects. It is noteworthy that the adverse effects on the lab animals were observed within 10 to 14 days. This study, which was published in the Nutrition and Health journal, and many others to the same effect, are featured in Smith's “Genetic Roulette”.
We in the Project on Biosafety will continue our educational work, countering biotechnology nonsense wherever and whenever we encounter it (nonsense that is uncritically accepted even by some progressive university professors in Puerto Rico), and we'll keep on presenting agroecological alternatives whose effectiveness in addressing the problems of agriculture is well proven.
McDonagh, Sean, SSC, MA, Ph.D. “A criticism of the World Bank document on Biotechnology and Biodiversity”. http://www.columban.com/criticism_wb.html
Smith, Jeffrey. “Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods”. Yes! Books, 2007.
FOR MORE INFO:
GRAIN. “Blinded by the Gene”. Seedling magazine, July 2003. http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=239
Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety. http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/
Ruiz-Marrero, Carmelo. “Balada Transgénica: Biotecnología, Globalización y el Choque de Paradigmas”. Proyecto de Bioseguridad, 2005.
Ruiz-Marrero, Carmelo. “Biotech Crops and Foods: The Risks and Alternatives”. Oakland Institute, 2006. http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/336
Ruiz-Marrero, Carmelo. "Puerto Rico: Biotecnología y la Economía del Conocimiento". Biodiversidad, Sustento y Culturas, julio de 2007. http://www.grain.org/biodiversidad/?id=363