Supermarkets are flooded with GMO products, but how safe is it to eat them? Tasty and beautiful, they are produced with intervention unprecedented in history. Gene manipulation: how appropriate is it? Does it contribute to solving the food crisis on the planet? Or will humanity have to pay a costly price for meddling with what is not theirs. We talk to Jeffrey M. Smith, GMO researcher from the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Sophie Shevardnadze: If you were explaining to a schoolchild in plain words, how would you explain what’s with genetically modified products?
Jeffrey M. Smith: With genetically modified products you take individual genes from the DNA of one species, and you force it into the DNA of other species, so you can mix and match between humans, animals, viruses, bacteria and plants. This is completely new, this was never done before. It’s a radical new way of creating new organisms that are not the products of billions of years of evolution and not the products of sexual reproduction. What do you need to know is that the process itself is flawed – it creates unpredicted side-effects, so there could be new allergens, new toxins, new anti-nutrients, carcinogens , created from the process itself. Then there is what they put in and it turns out they are putting toxins in our food – the ones that kill insects – and they put other things in the plants that allow the plants to be drenched with more toxins, weed-killers, which we consume. So whether it’s the process of genetic engineering itself or the specific gene that they put in – there’s now considerable evidence that this is not something you’d want to put in your mouth.
RT: SS: We know there’s been a lot of research on pigs, on rats – have there been any proven cases of GMO provoked diseases in humans?
JS: We know in the 1980s there was a food supplement called L-tryptophan, but one company that produced L-tryptophan from Japan genetically engineered bacteria to produce it more economically.And that process of genetic engineering almost certainly introduced contaminants into the tryptophan which killed about 100 Americans, and caused 5,000 to 10,000 people to fall sick. Tragically, the US Food and Drug Administration completely covered up the links to genetic engineering, and did not even report on the fact that it was a genetically engineered brand that caused the problem when they reported on the epidemic to Congress, and hid the evidence from the investigators. This has been typical of the FDA stance of promoting genetically modified food. Now, we don’t have any human feeding studies to look at, but we do have key studies. Thousands of physicians from around the US are proscribing non-GMO diets to their patients. They, and the patients, tell us that they get better from a wide variety of diseases and disorders. So, this gives us support for what we are also seeing with lab animals, with livestock, and with the theoretical characteristics of the toxins that are in the foods that we eat.
SS: Do you disagree with the use of GMOs on purely scientific, medical grounds, or do you also have moral qualms as well?
JS: I have no problem with the technology per se. I think it’s important to have the technology if we can correct a defective gene in a human being with human gene therapy – that’s great. But that’s a risk that one person will take. Right now we can’t predictably and safely manipulate the genes in the way we are doing to protect health and the environment. So, to release the products of this infant science, which is prone to side-effects into the food supply and moreover into the environment where the self-propagating pollution of the gene-pool trough pollen drift and seed movement makes it irreversible – that’s not responsible at this time. Maybe in 50 to 100 years, maybe at some point in the future when we fully understand the DNA enough to make these manipulations – then it would be responsible to introduce GMOs into the outdoors or food.
SS: The advocates of GM crops say that they can help us combat poverty, starvation and diseases in the developing world – is there any truth in these claims?
JS: Not according to the experts, just according to the public relations groups of the biotech industry. The world’s experts at feeding the world and eradicating poverty actually have the report, called “I-Stat” sponsored by the UN and the World Health Organization – and it concludes that GMOs in their current form have nothing to offer in feeding the world or eradicating poverty. There has been a promise to get people to try and promote the technology, accept the technology, but it doesn’t in fact even increase average yield, it reduces yield on average, according to independent science.
SS: But Jeffrey, from your point of view – are there any tangible benefits at all from GMOs?
JS: If you put blinders on – then yes. You see, the most popular genetically modified crop is called “roundup ready.” It’s produced by Monsanto, and they produce roundup herbicides, so the roundup ready crops are able to drink or withstand applications of roundup herbicides, which would normally kill a plant.So from a narrow farmers perspective of weeding – it’s easy, because you can spray over the top of the crops, kill all other plant biodiversity, but not the roundup ready crops. What they don’t look at are health dangers for those who eat the crops that now have the roundup absorbed into the food portion. They don’t look at the damage to the soil, the damage to the ecosystem, the promotion of plant diseases – more than 40 of them in the US are the result of the roundup. If you look at the big picture, the current generation fails. If you narrow yourself down to one particular attribute, you can sing the praises of this flawed technology.
SS: Tell me the bigger picture, how did Monsanto get so big?
JS: Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world. Their background is quite controversial – they were continually voted the most hated and most unethical company on Earth for years and years, [even] with stiff competition. They lied about the toxicity of their former products – PCBs, Agent Orange and DDT – and they have unprecedented control around the world over regulatory bodies. This is exemplified by the US Food and Drug Administration, where the policy on GMOs was overseen by Monsanto’s former attorney, Michael Taylor. And the policy falsely claims that the agency wasn’t aware of any information showing that GMOs were significantly different – therefore the FDA requires no safety studies and no labeling. They leave it up to Monsanto to determine if their foods are safe, and Monsanto doesn’t even have to tell the FDA or consumers if it wants to slip a GMO in our food supply. Now, Michael Taylor – after overseeing this policy – became Monsanto’s vice-president and chief lobbyist. Now he’s back at the FDA as US Food Safety czar. By the documents made public from a lawsuit revealed that the overwhelming consensus among the scientists working at the FDA was exactly the opposite of that exposed in the policy. The scientists said GMOs would be dangerous, could create allergies, toxins, and new diseases, and should be tested. Monsanto’s takeover essentially of the FDA has been replicated around the world, I’ve been in 37 countries and I’ve seen how they “capture” regulators, ministries, departments, etc., and once that happens, they discredit and dismiss any adverse findings about GMOs – they don’t even read the dossier. Unfortunately, it’s a rubber stamp situation around the world and if you trace it back, it comes down to them doing it, based on Monsanto’s own research. We’ve caught them red-handed, rigging their research to avoid finding problems, and covering up problems when they persist nonetheless.
SS: I still don’t understand how Monsanto got so big…
JS: They have paid an enormous amount of money for campaign contributions and lobbying – a recent article came out – it was $8.7 million last year. They have a very strategic way of infiltrating and influencing, in fact, what the entire biotech industry and Big Agriculture does. A former FDA official said that Big Ag – basically the regulatory agencies, the FDA, EPA and USDA, have done everything that Big Ag has asked them to do and told them to do. We see influence even in the courts. Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court was Monsanto’s former attorney. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Willsack was the former Biotech Governor of the Year – he was given the award by Monsanto. The chief negotiator for the US is a former crop-life person, basically the trade group for Monsanto and another biotech groups. The person at the USDA used to give out money for the research – another Monsanto person.When they approve bovine growth hormone – Monsanto’s drug injected into the cows to increase milk supply – two former researchers from Monsanto took positions at the FDA at the time when the drug was approved.So they have insinuated themselves through money, revolving-door and other influence methods.
SS: Are there any countries that officially oppose GMOs?
JS: Oh yes. In fact there are many countries that do not allow GMOs to be planted on their soil. Many countries in Europe, such as Switzerland, and Peru and Venezuela in Latin America. There are countries such as Zambia that don’t allow them in the food supply. But by and large, there are about six countries that do most of the growing, and maybe 90 percent of the growing, and they export the food around the world and so a lot of people are exposed. But in Europe, the big ban is not from the governments, but from the food companies. In February 1991 a gag order was lifted on a [UK] scientist, and the scientist was doing research on the GMOs to figure out how to test for safety. He accidentally discovered the GMOs were extremely dangerous, and that within 10 days they caused massive health problems for rats. He went public with his concerns and was a hero for two days at his prestigious institute, but then phone calls from the UK prime minister’s office to the director ended up causing him fired the next day, and silenced with threats of a lawsuit. But in February 1991 the gag order was lifted by the [UK] parliament and there was a firestorm in the media about the health dangers of GMOs. Within 10 weeks, the tipping point of consumer objection was achieved in Europe, so Unilever, followed by Nestle, followed by virtually every other food company committed to not feed Europeans derivatives of GMOs. The same companies feed Americans and Canadians and others derivatives of GMOs, because we haven’t raised a stink, and because the information about the health dangers has not been widely circulated on those continents.
SS: Is the GM genome reversible and can Monsanto be a force for good? We’re talking about Europe – so the problem there is that the EU requires GM products to be labeled as such, but there is a loophole there, when the imported products don’t need to be labeled. How did that happen and do you think we’ll see more and more GM crops being grown in Europe?
JS: To clarify, imported products that contain GMOs in Europe do have to be labeled, but the imported animal feed, once its fed to the animals, the milk and meat in Europe do not have to be labeled as genetically modified. That loophole has allowed millions of tons of genetically modified feed to enter the food supply in Europe. This has resulted, we believe, in some of the health problems. In the US we see a lot of the health problems that are associated with GMOs on the rise. We see gastro-intestinal disorders, immune system problems such as allergies and asthma, and autoimmune disease, leaky gut, diabetes, inflammatory-based diseases and reproductive disorders such as infertility. And we see a lot of these reversing in humans and livestock and lab animals when they are switching from GM to non-GM feed. However, in Europe its harder to evaluate, because people are getting exposed to GMOs as animal feed, and it may influence… it certainly does influence the health of the animals.We’ve seen damage to virtually every organ and every system in animals, potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, smaller brains, livers and testicles, inflamed immune system organs, damage to the liver and kidney, et cetera. So we don’t know the impacts of eating sick animals. And also the animals are nutrient-deficient, because roundup binds with nutrients making them unavailable to plants… for animals, their most popular dish is roundup ready soy, corn, cotton seed, canola meal, sugar beet pulp and alfalfa – so they are eating nutrient-deficient food. There is a universal deficiency among the livestock, certainly in the US, that creates more sickness in the animals. So, European consumers are largely unaware that they are still being exposed to GMOs, which may be negatively influencing their health.
SS: But if everything is as dangerous as you say it is – because I guess in America people are much more aware of what you’re saying than people here in Russia or Europe – why are the sales going up?
JS: Well, actually the sales of non-GMO labeled products are growing faster than any other category. It was the fastest growing category of food sales in 2012, we have the Non-GMO Shopping Guide (nongmoshoppingguide.com) and a free iPhone application called Shop No GMO, with over 10,000 products that are verified as non-GMO. The president of Whole Foods Market told USA Today that when a product becomes third-party verified as non-GMO, sales increase by 15 percent to 30 percent. Hundreds more companies are enrolling, and this is creating the tipping point. We saw the tipping point happen in Europe, and we’re seeing stage after stage of the tipping point unfolding in the US. The desire for non-GMO products, because of the concerns about health, especially for children who are most at risk, have driven a movement for labeling, so labeling laws have passed in Connecticut and Maine and are expected to pass in Washington State in the fall. More than two dozen other states have introduced labeling bills as legislation, they have not yet passed, but many expect them to pass next year as well. So we are seeing a movement against GMOs and we think this will result in their elimination from the food supply, by the food companies, who will see it as a marketing liability.
SS: That’s good to hear, that’s for sure. But, these companies like Monsanto, who produce the GMOs, they are certainly aware of all the repercussions and dangers – what do you think are the motives for them? Is it any more than just a simple case of corporate greed?
JS: First, I want to confirm what you’ve said – I spoke to a former Monsanto scientist, and he confirmed what we already knew, that when rats were damaged by Monsanto’s corn in the industry study, instead of withdrawing the corn, they rewrote the study to hide the evidence. Similarly, he told me that three of Monsanto’s safety study testers for Bovine growth hormone, which is injected in the cows to increase milk supply – they tested the milk and found so much IGF-1, a cancer-promoting hormone in the milk, that the three Monsanto scientists refused to drink milk after that, unless it was organic, and one bought his own cow. Now, we know from experience that [Monsanto] has this agenda to push it out. I talked to someone who was in a San Francisco conference in 1999, and he heard a Monsanto consultant [with] Arthur Andersen describe how he had worked with Monsanto’s executives by asking them first, “What’s your ideal future in 15 to 20 years?” The executives described the world in which 100 percent of all commercial seeds were genetically engineered and patented. This would give Monsanto and a few biotech industry colleagues’ control of the world’s seed supply. When you control the seeds, you control the food. The food is the largest traded commodity, and if you have control of the food and control of the farmers, it’s an enormous control and profit motive. In addition, they want to introduce terminator technology that makes the seeds sterile. It’s not yet commercialized, but it’s targeted, if introduced, to the 1.4 billion farmers in the world that save their seed – that doesn’t pay Monsanto anything. So they want all the farmers in the world to be going to the catalogues of Monsanto for its genetically modified, patented seeds. This is an effort to replace the products of the billions of years of evolution with designer genes and designer organisms, designed for greater profit and control.
SS: So, the situation is pretty similar to how it was back in the 1970s with tobacco – the dangers of tobacco were publicly acknowledged, but people were solemnly working for profit, even though they knew it was damaging public health.
JS: The tobacco analogy is a good one, but the influence of tobacco will pale in comparison to that which GMOs can and are creating right now. You see, GMOs are in the food supply, so they affect everyone who eats, they are also released outdoors with the genes that can outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste as a permanent feature in the gene pool. So, it becomes an irreversible technology that can influence every human being, all living beings and all future generations. But, similarly to the tobacco industry, they use “tobacco science” with the biotech industry. They use the wrong detection methods, the wrong controls, the wrong statistics, and when they do find problems, they try to cover it up. This we have shown time and time again, for example in my book, “Genetic Roulette,” or in the movie by the same name.
SS: Talking about the soil, is the penetration of the GM genome in the agricultural ecosystem reversible? Or is it too late?
JS: We do know from laboratory studies that genes can transfer from the genetically modified crops into the micro-organisms in the soil, so that’s one way. We also know it can get into the little critters in the soil; we found genes there. In addition, the roundup, which is sprayed on tremendous millions of acres, more than half a million pounds more herbicides is used on GMOs because of the herbicide-tolerant crops. This roundup destroys beneficial bacteria in the soil, which provide nutrients to the plant, and it promotes the pathogens in the soil, so there are more than 40 plant diseases on the rise in the US agriculture. And the roundup – unlike what’s Monsanto been advertising – got caught out as false advertising by courts in the US and France. The roundup can persist in the soil for years and even decades. This is a huge problem – we haven’t solved the problem of fixing it, but there is the BT toxin. The BT toxin is produced in corn and cotton. It’s designed to break little holes in the cell walls of insect stomachs to kill them, and it’s now found to break holes in human cells, possibly causing leaky gut. It gets through the cell walls and somehow gets into the bloodstream. It was found in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women tested, and 80 percent of unborn fetuses, so now we have hole-poking toxin in the blood of our fetuses, which gets in their brain, because there’s no blood-brain barrier developed at that stage, so this is a nightmare, but the BT toxin also binds with clay and the soil and can wash into rivers,and affect the marine ecosystem, which it does, and so we’re sending this toxin on the millions of acres and ecosystems and possibly even colonizing our own gut bacteria with this gene, turning our gut bacteria into living pesticide factories. We can say this because the only human feeding study conducted on soy found that part of the gene inserted into soy-beans transfers into gut bacteria and may continue functioning. They shut down the experiment as soon as they found that, because it was a very scary thing to think that the genetically modified genes may be producing proteins, inside our digestive tract long after we stop eating GMOs. They never tested to see if eating a corn chip that produces a BT toxin might transfer the gene to the gut bacteria turning it into a living pesticide factories causing toxic and immune responses inside of us. So whether it is the bacteria in the soil, or the bacteria in our gut, this stuff is pervasive. Furthermore, roundup kills beneficial gut bacteria and it doesn’t kill the nasty stuff, like salmonella or botulism. We know that gut bacteria is extremely important for health, for the digestive tract, digestive system, for the immune system. When you kill the beneficial gut bacteria, that problem is linked with the whole host of diseases, which have been on the rise in the US population since roundup has been used in such high quantities.
SS: Well, that’s really scary.I know there were huge anti-Monsanto protests across the US and Canada back in May – who were the organizers, who turned out in support of it?
JS: The Facebook post came in March about Monsanto, they expected a few thousand – they got more than 2 million protesters in 52 countries. This shows just how concerned and how motivated people are around the world to protect their food supply and their agriculture and their environment from Monsanto and GMOs.
SS: Thank you so much for this really interesting insight. We hope we can get to this again, and I had plenty of other questions that I didn’t have time to ask you, so I’m looking forward to the next time. Jeffrey Smith, author and publisher from the Institute for Responsible Technology, thank you.