Our genetically modified future: an interview with Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Union – Interview
Q. What is a genetically modified food?
A. A common food product or crop into which foreign proteins have been gene-spliced.
Q. What is the difference between a food labeled “natural” and a food labeled “organic?”
A. Organic production prohibits the use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or any type of animal drug.
Q. Have there been any tests to determine whether genetically engineered foods are safe?
A. There have been few tests, but the tests that have been carried out have been very troublesome. For example, some of the products that have been pulled off of the market have been very frightening.
In 1989, L-tryptophan killed 37 Americans and injured 1,500 others. In 1996, a soybean spliced with Brazil nuts by Pioneer Hybrid was pulled from commercialization shortly before it was supposed to be planted. That would have set off life-threatening allergies in people who are allergic to Brazil nuts. In 1995, a soil bacterium that was genetically engineered was pulled from commercialization.
Most recently, there was contamination of food crops by pharmaceutical drugs that were spliced into corn in September and October of 2002. Starlink corn in 2000 (Editor’s Note: see page 8) was pulled off the market after it contaminated the food supply. It had been intended for animal feed, but the problem is that the technology cannot contain this stuff in the environment. Once you grow it in the open environment, it contaminates food crops as well.
Q. Would the modified corn be dangerous to the animals?
A. There’s mounting evidence that it harms the animals as well. These biotech (BT) crops are designed to kill insects that prey on corn, cotton, and potatoes, but there is evidence that the animals are being harmed. The recent incident in Iowa, where the pigs became sterile when BT corn was used, is still under investigation, but this is not a good sign.
The one full-blown human health study, initiated in England in the mid to late 1990’s by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, showed major damage to laboratory animals that had been fed genetically engineered potatoes. The compound that was troublesome–this lecithin compound that was gene-spliced into potatoes–is the same compound family as the BT corn. It is disconcerting that this stuff has gone out there on such a large scale with no real testing.
Q. Is there a danger that pesticides will become useless after a while?
A. Yes, it is already starting to happen. One of the reasons that Monsanto’s stock has fallen so dramatically is the resistance that is developing to Round-Up[R] herbicide. The two most commonly engineered crops are Round-Up[R]-ready crops, which are herbicide-resistant, and the BT-splice. The BT tests are already starting to show resistance by bol worms and blood worms.
Q. Are any pesticides fit for human or animal consumption?
A. Yes, the biological pesticides are natural pesticides that are used by organic farmers. They are harmless to humans, and they decompose quickly; this is why they are allowed in organic Production. I think the consensus is that this 50-year experiment with heavy use of pesticides and herbicides was a bad idea. We need to recover the traditional sustainable organic practices and use only harmless natural pesticides, if we are going to use them at all. An organic farmer uses a bio-pesticide only if it is absolutely necessary and in the smallest dosage possible.
Q. Are there proposals to engineer foods with antibiotics?
A. Yes, all of the genetically engineered food, up until now, contains antibiotic-resistant material. This is because of the haphazard nature of gene splicing. Scientists cannot tell whether they have successfully Spliced a foreign protein into a common food unless they also insert an antibiotic-resistant marker gene. Then they dose what they hope is the gene-spliced product in antibiotics; if the food dies, that means that the gene-splicing did not take.
This is troublesome because scientists are in the very early, crude stages of this new technology and are in a rush to commercialize it. They had to use a production aid that the medical establishment says should not be in there.
The antibiotic-resistant material in genetically engineered foods is getting into the gut of animals and humans and can cause bacterial diseases that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. The British Medical Association and the World Health Organization (WHO) have said that these antibiotic-resistant marker genes should not be in foods and should be phased out as quickly as possible.
Q. With livestock also being injected with antibiotics as a growth hormone, do we run the risk of developing an immunity to antibiotics?
A. We are very close to that, yes. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in America are fed to animals to make them grow faster and to enable them to survive intensive confinement. We are finding in the recent tests of chicken and poultry that are sold in supermarkets–the nonorganic ones–that most of these animals are riddled not only with bacteria but also with bacteria that resist commonly used antibiotics. That is why Europeans have banned the use of putting antibiotics in animal feed, and that is why we should be doing the same thing in the U.S. Our government is still listening more to the drag companies and corporate agribusiness than to public health authorities.
Q. Was the ban on genetically modified foods in the European Union based on health problems or on a fear of American products flooding their, markets?
A. I think that Europe has looked more closely at the environmental and public health hazards of this technology. The standard approach in Europe is called a “precautionary principle.” This is what inspires their legislation. Europeans believe that you should not put food or crops out there until you have proved that they are safe beyond a reasonable doubt. When you have not done that, which is the case with genetically modified foods, then the stuff should not be out there. There are other foods that the European Union is not letting in, like hormone-implanted beef and poultry that have been given antibiotics. Europe allows irradiated food in a very limited manner, such as herbs and spices.
Q. Are any foods engineered with vaccines?
A. There is no commercialization of such foods yet, but some of these foods are being tested in the open environment. Earlier this year, the government admitted that there were 300 secret test plots around the country where pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals were being spliced into common farm crops. Unfortunately, 200 of these 300 secret test plots involved corn, which is notorious for spreading its pollen in the environment. This is another case in which technology was being rushed ahead [for] commercialization without any proper testing.
The technique is now in serious trouble because several of these crops have contaminated the food crops. For example, in Nebraska a powerful and controversial AIDS drug was spliced into corn, and in Iowa a pig vaccine was spliced into corn. Neither of these was properly monitored or contained. These are just two of the 200 corn tests; who knows what happened at the other 198 places?
Q. What is the theory behind vaccinating foods?
A. I think the bottom line is money, but the idea is that a food-delivery system would be superior to getting a vaccine shot. That is really questionable from a medical standpoint, because you have to regulate the dosage of a vaccine or else it becomes dangerous. This is another insane notion that may seem like a good idea to an investor for a short period of time, but it is very unlikely to ever reach the stage of commercialization. When you produce a vaccine in a plant, it is not the same as when you produce it in a test tube. When you produce a vaccine in an animal, using an animal as a biological reactor, you get all sorts of impurities and problems. I do not think that vaccine-spliced foods are going to ever be commercialized on any scale.
Q. What would happen if somebody ate a giant bag of vaccinated peanuts?
A. It depends on what the vaccine was, but it is certainly something you would never want to happen.
Q. Which vaccines are used or proposed?
A. Recently, a pig vaccine got into the food supply via soybeans and corn. Scientists are apparently experimenting with a wide range of vaccines against hepatitis, diarrhea, and so on. They need to clean up their act with the vaccines they are already using before they move into this new area.
Supposedly the vaccines are being tested in the environment first to see whether they work and so on. Before the vaccines ever became commercialized, they would have to be approved by the FDA; this looks as if it is going to be a little more difficult, now that we have had these accidents.
Q. Is there a danger of accidentally buying a vaccinated food in a supermarket?
A. Well, we don’t know. As for these 300 secret test sites that have been acknowledged, no one will tell us where they are. When you try to find out specifically what was being tested in this particular spot–assuming you can find out where it was–they say, “no, we can’t tell you that; that’s commercial. It’s commercial information protected.”
Even with the contamination in Nebraska and in Iowa, at first the FDA and the government would not say what it was. Then, apparently, they realized that one of them was an AIDS drag, which is pretty chilling. The FDA is conveniently forgetting about a memo in which it had stated that it was a human drug. Now the media are reporting that both of these incidents involved pig vaccines. A pig vaccine getting into the food chain is scary, but an AIDS drag, which many scientists believe should not be put out in any form, is even scarier.
Q. Are any regulations proposed to control this?
A. There are almost no regulations in place right now, other than informal consultation and the supposed publishing of data. The type of process should obviously fall under the regulations that apply to new food additives. The government has tried to get around this by saying that these are not actually food additives. They are granting patents, but they are lamely trying to deny that these are food additives.
The Europeans and the rest of the world are not going along with this. Eventually, testing is going to be required as if these were food additives, but most of these products will never see the light of day–even different batches of genetically modified foods are compositionally different from one another. If scientists had to test these new genetically engineered foods in the way they have to test new pharmaceutical drags, none of them would be on the market.
Q. What is the status of labeling laws that require a genetically modified label?
A. Most industrialized nations in the world are moving toward mandatory labeling. The U.S., Australia, Argentina, and Canada are trying to hold back on labeling, but they are fighting a losing battle. The U.S. may attempt to bring a challenge before the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Europe, but its very likely to backfire. I think that they are in a bind now because they cannot move forward if they allow labeling and testing, yet they cannot hold back the demand for this much longer.
Q. If you wanted to get your own nongenetically modified seeds, would you be able to tell the difference?
A. More companies are now offering certified non-engineered seeds. The Council on Responsible Genetics has done a survey with seed companies across the U.S., and at least a hundred smaller seed companies are now offering non-genetically engineered seeds. In general, organic farmers must move in that direction to make sure that what they are purchasing are seeds tested to be non-genetically modified, and when they harvest, they also have to test their crop. I think that this is going to become more or less standard in the world. Until the technology is removed from the open environment, gardeners and organic farmers are going to have to be more careful about which seeds they plant.
Q. Is there any way to protect crops from cross-pollination?
A. With crops like corn and canola, and even tobacco, there does not seem to be any alternative, other than moving these experimental crops into the laboratory under biosecurity conditions. If the scientists want to tinker around in the laboratory under strict confinement, that’s one thing; unfortunately, what they have done is move right out into the open environment as quickly as possible, with little or no oversight, and have probably created pollution that is going to be with us for a very long time, at least at background levels.
Q. What are the major dangers of manipulating foods overall?
A. We have already seen a risk of increasing cancer hazards with bovine growth hormone, the allerginicity issue with genetically engineered corn products, and the issues of spreading the pollen in the environment. Allerginicity, cancer, and damage to the human gut are the ones that look the most important right now.
I think that these crops do not have much of a future here. This industry is in trouble. I think that it will wind down over the next four or five years. Our concern is that this is just one of the problems with industrial agriculture. Even as global pressure solves this problem, we must deal with the bigger problem–industrial agriculture and the chemicals, the pesticides, and the impact that we are having on the global climate.
Q. Are there any benefits?
A. I think the industry is now starting to look at genetically engineered foods as an experiment that has failed. Companies are trying to salvage the possibility of producing pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals through agriculture because there is a lot more money to be made on this. I think that they will run into the same problem–that this is a modern society in which people are not willing to be guinea pigs. I think that this whole technology is going to have to be brought back into the laboratory, to be treated like a long-range scientific experiment, not something that Can be commercialized right away. There are a hundred genetically engineered medical drugs already, some of which are causing problems, but the applicability of this technology is limited right now.
The genetic mapping of plants is the type of knowledge that can be used with traditional cross-breeding or organic agriculture. As long as you stay away from the gene-splicing itself, there is some useful knowledge. That type of knowledge, however, is not useful to these companies unless you can patent it and make money from it.
Q. What would be the danger of reducing natural biodiversity?
A. I think the big danger now is that we have not seen a destruction of species like this in 65 million years. We are reducing the medicine cabinet for all of humanity. We will reach in there one day for something, whether it’s a blight-resistant corn plant or a new cancer drug, and it is not going to be there because we destroyed its habitat. We know very little about the rich storehouse of biological species. It’s a shame that we are probably never going to know because they are being lost.
There is increasing evidence that the more you reduce biodiversity, the harder it is for the remaining species to survive. You start thinking about pollinators, such as bees, that are absolutely key to having plants grow. If you create a situation in which bees cannot survive, which is happening now, how are you going to pollinate? It seems abstract, but the more you look at it, this wholesale assault on creation is unfortunate indeed.
Q. The next logical step would be to manipulate human genes. If people began to select their offspring’s traits, what would that mean for the future of human evolution, hundreds of thousands of years down the line?
A. I think that this is going to be a major debate. A lot of money is potentially involved in this, and some scientists and corporations are itching to move ahead fight now–and perhaps may have already taken the plunge. I think that when you start messing with germ-line therapy or germ-line reproduction, you are talking about making irreversible changes in human genetics, and we have no idea what could happen. Despite this fear, there are powerful profit interests here and we are going to have to have this big fight. I think at some point there will be a global ban on germ-line or genetic manipulation.
Q. It seems that the whole genetic field is moving ahead with experiments “just because we can,” without investigating any possible dangers.
A. I think (1) they are jumping ahead because they can and (2) a lot of money is involved in this. Also, science has become so extremely specialized and compartmentalized that many of these scientists have no idea of the potential impact of their work. If you are being taught only the mechanics and never the ethics, you are not going to be sensitized. If you enjoy your scientific work and there is plenty of money available for research, there will be a lot of pressure to continue that. Beyond that, there’s such a stranglehold exercised now over academic institutions and corporate special interests that you risk your career if you raise some of these philosophical, ethical, and scientific criticisms. There is an increasing climate of intimidation, which is scary.
Dr. Pusztai, the first person to test a genetically engineered food, was fired from his job and threatened with treason after a lifetime of scientific endeavor and 300 peer-reviewed articles. Other scientists see this and realize that if they speak out, they could lose their career. His work in Scotland was the first fully funded, full-blown attempt to look at whether a genetically engineered food is actually substantially equivalent to non-genetically engineered food. Dr. Pusztai and his team, who were tree believers in biotech, ended up concerned three years later.
We always say that Dr. Pusztai will go down in history as the Rachel Carson of genetic engineering because he spoke out about what he found, regardless of the consequences to his career. He is now, thank goodness, with the government of Norway, continuing his work.
Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), .a nonprofit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthful, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the U.S. and worldwide. He is the author of Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
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