Finding the tipping point

Written by Kiran Yadav | Updated: Oct 26 2009, 05:29am hrs
Jeffrey M Smith has ample evidence on why genetically modified crops may lead to health catastrophes. Smith, the author of Seeds of Deception, and Genetic Roulette shares with Kiran Yadav in an email interview that the greatest problem with GMO is they self-propagate in the environment. The genes released in this generation may outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste.

Is the move towards Bt brinjal the right one

It must be stopped. It could be catastrophic. If Bt brinjal produces allergic or toxic symptoms in the population, it could be years or decades before authorities are able to track the cause. The brinjal is not labelled, so some may get reactions to some meals with brinjal, and not to others. Isolating the cause is difficult. By the time it is discovered, the brinjal will have contaminated many other varieties through cross pollination. Since you wont know which brinjal is GM and which is not, the only recourse may be to abandon Bt brinjal altogether.

How justified are the apprehensions regarding the adverse health effects of GM foods

To prove something is safe requires lots of studies. Even then, you may miss something. With drug approvals, for example, after doing test tube studies and then long-term animal feeding studies, there are four phases of human trials, including monitoring the health of those who use the drug after approval. Even with these precautions, drugs are often withdrawn because the evaluators missed dangerous side-effects. In the case of GM foods, there are no human clinical trials or post market surveillance. The very few animal safety studies are generally short-term, superficial, and often designed by the foods maker to avoid discovering problems.

But is there really a reason for concern

Biotech companies and regulators claim that Bt-toxin has a history of safe use. They therefore allow genetic engineers to insert Bt genes into plant DNA so the plants themselves do the killing. They, however, fail to point out that the Bt-toxin produced in GM plants is thousands of times more concentrated than natural Bt spray; is designed to be more toxic; has properties of an allergen; and unlike the spray, cannot be washed off the plant or biodegrade in the sun. But even the less toxic natural Bt spray is harmful. When dispersed by plane to kill gypsy moths in Washington State and Vancouver, about 500 people reported allergy or flu-like symptoms. Tragically, those exact same symptoms are now being reported by farm workers handling Bt cotton in India. In fact, wherever I travelled in cotton growing regions around India earlier this year, I met people who suffered from itching or rashes from Bt cotton fields.

In addition, when sheep grazed on Bt cotton plants after harvest, thousands died. Post mortems showed severe irritation and black patches in their intestines and livers. Investigators said preliminary evidence strongly suggests that the sheep mortality was due to a toxin. . . . most probably Bt-toxin. In a small follow-up feeding study, 100% of sheep fed Bt cotton died within 30 days, while those grazing on natural cotton plants in the adjoining field had no symptoms.

Late last year, I received a distressing email from someone in Haryana who reported both massive itching among farm workers and sickness and death among buffalo. These buffalo were not eating cotton plants, but rather oilseed cake from Bt cottonseed. The villagers said that most of the buffalo actually refused to eat the Bt variety. (Reports from all over the US show that when given a choice, many animal species refuse GM feed. These include cows, pigs, geese, elk, deer, raccoons, squirrels, chickens, mice and rats. In Haryana, investigators said that most of the buffalo that ate the Bt cottonseed, had reproductive problems. They also had skin problems, lower quality and quantity of milk, and many deaths among both calves and adults. I helped arrange funding for a team of investigators to travel to Haryana last year to videotape interviews with the villagers and to collect data. They confirm the stories I heard by email.

Are there any feeding studies on humans

Yes. There has only been one published human feeding study, conducted at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, and it revealed what many find to be the most disturbing discovery. The genes inserted into GM crops transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside our intestines and continue to function. This means that long after we stop eating GMOs, we may still have potentially harmful GM proteins produced continuously inside of us. Although scientists only tested this on soy, if Bt genes from maize snacks also transferred, they could transform our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories, possibly for the rest of our lives.

While there is a lot of debate about the safety of GM crops, we tend to ignore the safety of the regular (non GM) food that we consume. Isnt that a matter of concern

Foods grown through natural reproduction methods have the advantage of millennia of trial and error and human interaction. Of course there are a few cases where the naturally bred foods can have unexpected toxins, for example, but with genetically engineered foods, the capacity for side effects is staggering. At the US Food and Drug Administration, when the government was creating its policy on GMOs in the early 1990s, the scientists were very concerned. We now know from secret documents that were made public from a lawsuit that the overwhelming consensus within the agency was that GMOs were inherently dangerous, in that that could create hard-to-detect allergens, poisons, new diseases, and nutritional problems. The technical experts at the FDA agreed that GMOs carried unique risks, not shared with naturally produced foods.

Tragically, the White House had ordered the FDA to promote biotechnology, so they recruited Michael Taylor, Monsantos former attorney, to be in charge of policy creation. That policy falsely claimed that the agency was not aware of any information showing that GMOs were significantly different. On the basis of that lie, they ignored their scientists demands for long-term safety studies. Instead, the policy passed then and existing now says that companies like Monsanto which have a long history of concealing the toxicity of their products are in charge of determining if their GM foods are safe. The FDA does not require a single study, and doesnt even have to be informed by the companies that want to put GMOs on the market. After overseeing this Monsanto-friendly policy at the FDA, Michael Taylor worked on GMO issues at the US Department of Agriculture, and then became Monsantos Vice President. The past summer, the Obama administration put him back into the FDA as the nations Food Safety Czar.

Do you see any hope in this entire struggle

I have great hope. If a sufficient number of shoppers in the US avoid GMO foods, consumer pushback will force our major food companies to stop using them, even if the government is still pushing for them. EU reached a consumer driven tipping point against GMOs in April 1999; within a single week, virtually all major manufacturers publicly committed to stop using GM ingredients in their European brands. Sadly, the same companies that carefully avoid adding GMO ingredients to products marketed to concerned consumers in EU are eager to sell GMO foods to unknowing consumers in the US and India. How many shoppers would have to reject brands that contain GMOs to reach this tipping point Even 5% of shoppers, or 15 million Americans, would likely be more than enough.