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Weekly Edition 072: Saturday 13th July 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food - Part Five

Last week we ended up with the rather dire realization that 'pure' organic food of most types in the near future will no longer exist. This may come as a bit of a shock to those readers who may be seriously concerned with the quality of what they eat, but it is an almost inescapable fact owing to the nature of the 'GM beast'. It may be that genetically modified food is beneficial - or at least harmless - but then one doesn't really know at the moment, in spite of all the positive 'PR' by the biotechnology companies and various governments. One suspects, of course, that much is being kept hidden from the public, a situation which seems to be relatively common in cases where priorities seem to be the making of money rather than long-term concern for humanity. To give readers an indication of the type of shenanigans that can go on in this 'hidden' world one does not have to look far. Most published studies of the potential effects of GM foods have actually been funded by the biotechnology companies themselves, it seems, either directly or indirectly. Those who have read our series about Kava will have seen how certain pharmaceutical companies themselves have helped to fund much of the testing, publication and promotion of their own medicines. The 'GM' world seems to be little different. It may be a bit like asking the nuclear power industry to do the studies on the safety of their installations (which is what actually happened in many cases).

The first independent (i.e. non industry-sponsored) study of effects on mammals of  'GM' or genetically engineered food was only conducted in 1998, by Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. Pusztai's study indicated that rats fed with transgenic potatoes suffered evidence of organ damage, thickening of the small intestine and poor brain development. Rats in the same experiment not fed the 'GM' potatoes showed no ill effects. Pusztai announced the results of his experiments in 'The World in Action' on British TV in August 1998 and created a public furore. The Rowett Institute director, Philip James, then hurriedly denied the existence of the research (he had previously OK'd Pusztai's appearance on the programme), fired Pusztai, disbanded his research team, seized the research data and stopped six other similar research projects. It later turned out that the US biotech giant Monsanto (the world's major producer of 'GM' materials) had given a grant of US$224,000 to the Rowett Institute prior to Pusztai's interview. But Pusztai's research was considered legitimate by the highly respected British medical journal, 'Lancet', which published a peer-reviewed paper co-authored by Pusztai supporting his study.

Many readers will have heard of the Monsanto Company in conjunction with GM foods but some may not realize that it is not a new company dealing only with genetic engineering of possible food crops. The public (and the press) tend to have short memories, but even the relatively recent development of GE food and Monsanto's involvement with it have, for those who read widely, given the name of the company rather ominous connotations. And deservedly so. Monsanto has been around for a long time and for those with clear memories it has a long history of developing and promoting a certain number of chemical 'advances' that have later been found to have a darker side. Who now remembers that it was Monsanto that convinced the US government years ago that PCBs were safe, leaving it to Swedish and Japanese researchersí years later to show the hazards to human health and the environment that they posed (and still do)? Who now remembers that it was Monsanto that convinced the US government that the defoliant 2, 4, 5-T (more commonly known as 'Agent Orange') was safe? Well, tens of thousands of Vietnamese and many US Vietnam war veterans do! It took a lot of fighting to get proper investigations done on 'Agent Orange', but a US government investigator finally found "a clear pattern of fraudulent content" in Monsanto's research which led to the original approval. Some say that a leopard cannot change its spots. Monsanto does seem - unfortunately - to often be involved sending 'heavy legal help' (a bit like the Scientologists) to try and sort out glitches in the smooth road to getting its products out to the public.

In 1997 Fox TV was due to broadcast an investigative series of documentaries done in Florida by journalists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre on alleged links between the Monsanto-produced rBGH (genetically engineered bovine growth hormone) and cancer. Injection by rBGH can make cows produce more than their normal quota of milk. The investigation mentioned that there was some concern, though, that humans drinking this milk might possibly be put at increased risk of colon and breast cancer. Monsanto's lawyers managed to persuade Fox to cancel the series three days before the planned broadcast of its first segment. Fox then tried to get the series watered down and even offered to pay Wilson and Akre to leave the station and keep quiet about its attempts. In 1998 the journalists filed a lawsuit against Fox, which they won in August 2000 and in April 2001 they were both awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for their 'courageous efforts to expose the potential threat to public health from rBGH'. Although BGH had been approved by the FDA, it seems, surprisingly enough, that it had been tested for only 90 days on 30 rats before it got its approval.

Monsanto's lawyers have continued this type of tradition with GM crops. It does seem, in spite of biotechnology companiesí protestations to the contrary, that certain genetically modified crops can spread their modifications through natural means - 'genetic pollution' seems to be a fact of life, whether the companies say so or not. In a landmark court case brought by Monsanto against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser and finalized on 29th March 2001, it seems that the 'polluted' has to pay the 'polluter'. Which just shows you how big money can twist the 'justice systemí to serve its own ends. Under Canadian patent law, as in the US and many other 'developed' nations, it is illegal for farmers to use or re-use patented seed or grow Monsanto's genetically engineered seed without having signed a licensing agreement. Pollen from Monsanto's genetically engineered canola seeds blew onto Schmeiser's land from neighbouring farms using it. Monsanto's 'gene police' took samples from his farm (without his permission), found Monsanto GE canola growing there, and brought the court case against him. Although a victim of 'pollution' from GE crops, the court said Schmeiser was to pay Monsanto not only US $10,000 in licensing fees but $75,000 in profits from his crop as well. He has filed a counter-suit. In July 2001 lawyers warned the Roushe family in Indiana that the only way they could avoid being sued by Monsanto was to plant their whole farm with Monsanto GE seeds. In 1999 the Roushes had planted 25% of their farm with Monsanto GE Soya, and marked the area carefully (confirmed by an independent crop scientist). The Monsanto GE Soya seemed to have spread, though, and the biotech giant demanded punitive damages. To try and avoid paying these, the Roushes' lawyer advised them to plant all their fields with Monsanto GE seeds in 2002. This kind of war has been going on all over the agricultural areas of the US and Canada during the last four years or more. No wonder farmers in India have been destroying GE crops, they may seem too dangerous - or potentially expensive - to have around (although many of the Indian protests were sparked off by the prices of the GM seeds plus the fact that they were not permitted to replant with seeds from them but had to buy new seeds each season!)!

The spread of GE /GM crops can threaten biodiversity too. A classic case is that of wild maize in the area of Oaxaca in Mexico, the genetic homeland of this important crop. Mexico had banned plantings of GM maize since 1998 to protect the purity of its many ancient varieties - although it permits the import of GM crops for consumption. The late November 2001 issue of the respected scientific journal 'Nature' contained the results of a detailed study by scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of California, Berkeley on wild maize from the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca Mountains. They compared it with GM varieties from the Monsanto Company in the US and with samples known to be uncontaminated, and were surprised to find that samples of wild maize from isolated areas showed contamination with DNA from GM crops. They did not, however, suggest a 'natural pollination' cause for this, but thought it more likely that it came from 'contamination' from food aid maize sent in from the US. Publication of the report caused a furore, forcing the editor of 'Nature' to state in the early April 2002 issue that "the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper". Shortly after the publication of this statement, however, Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico's National Commission on Biodiversity, in a speech at The Hague, stated that official Mexican government tests had now shown that the level of GM contamination of maize in the area was even higher than that shown in the original study. The Commission was not able to state, however, which variety of GM maize had caused the contamination as the three main GM developers (Monsanto, Aventis and Syngenta) had refused to provide essential chemical/protein data which would enable a conclusion to be made.

One can now see that it is perhaps almost impossible to stop the spread of GM crops. Britain's Prince Charles highlighted this concern in a speech in Germany on 11th June (2002) where he said that GM crops posed an "acute threat to organic farmers and all those consumers who actually wish to exercise a right of choice about what they eat". The recent European parliament decision mentioned in this column last week to introduce strict GM labelling but not to legislate for a 'GM free' label is almost undoubtedly a recognition of the fact that this would eventually be almost impossible or implementation too expensive. Last month the New South Wales (Australia) Agriculture Minister, Richard Amery, rejected proposals for specific GM-free agricultural zones in the state, thereby potentially damning the organic crop industry in the area. The big biotech companies may have won in the end: we will all end up eating GM-tainted foods whether we want to or not. Again, greed for profit and power has brought us to a situation where mankind is eventually faced with a 'non-choice choice'. Even though we may not really know for many years whether GM foods are completely safe for human consumption, the past history of at least one of the major companies involved does tend to make one extremely wary. It reminds me rather obliquely of a situation in Vanuatu in the southwest Pacific late in 1995: rumours were circulating that a 'kleva' (mistakenly called 'sorcerers' by the missionaries, although it really means 'healer, medium', seer', etc - but there are 'bad' klevas, too) was going to 'poison' the Prime Minister of the time who was slightly unpopular amongst certain segments of the population. These rumours reached one of the country's most feared 'bad' klevas (now deceased) in his isolated village and he became rather nervous. I bumped into him in the capital and we squatted down to have a chat - I had not seen him for several years. I asked him what he was doing in the capital: "I have come here to tell the Prime Minister that it's not me who is going to poison him", was the reply. As with GM foods, the 'messenger' (i.e. maybe one of some of the giant companies involved) is enough to make one distrust the 'message', however reassuring that message may be.

Or, to take a phrase from the recent 'corporate fraud' furore in the US, although most of the apples in the barrel may possibly be all right, the barrel itself may be rotten.

Keep smiling.

Kirk W Huffman

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