Genetic Engineering: We are the Guinea Pigs

The genetic engineering industry, assisted by the US government, has been making moves that will soon put the fate (and the currency) of the world in their hands. Patented engineered crops have been pushed into the market with no responsible testing on humans as to allergens or long-term effects, and no regard for the consequences to the ecosystem when they escape and spread.

These crops will quickly boost the income of the already money-bloated chemical/ agribusiness/biotech industry by at least 4-5 times. With this much money at stake, the corporate sharks are in a feeding frenzy of such intensity that any thoughts of caution, not to mention ethics, must be quickly suppressed. No expense is being spared to lay the groundwork and to alter the public’s opinion of the biotechnology industry. One of many examples of its influence is the enactment of laws that enable private entities to apply for patents on research that was largely funded by the government.

The World’s Breadbasket: Monsanto?

Chemical giant Monsanto stands as a prime example of this blatant bad behavior. Their executives regularly cycle in and out of top positions in the FDA. Consequently the FDA enacts whatever policies will further Monsanto’s interests. In 1992, over 150 FDA officials owned stock in the drug/biotech companies they regulated.

Monsanto’s biggest cash-cow at $1.5 billion per year has been the widely used herbicide Roundup. The use of Roundup is the third most commonly reported cause of illness among agricultural workers in California; for landscape maintenance workers, it ranks highest. It also destroys soil life and leaves residues that show up in food planted a year after the soil was sprayed.

Use of Roundup was previously limited to killing weeds around the borders of cropland. However, Monsanto is betting the farm on its new line of Roundup Ready crops, which are specifically engineered to withstand massive dousing with Roundup. In fact, a year’s supply of Roundup is sold as a package with the seeds–for which farmers must sign a contract promising not to sell or give away any seeds or save them for next year’s planting. Monsanto inspects its customers’ farms for violations.

Monsanto expects that its sales of Roundup will increase to $4 billion per year in 5 years. By early next century, Monsanto fully expects to be THE source of the world’s food, and is doing whatever it takes to make its dream come true. Other agribiz/biotech corporations are desperately fighting for their share.

Who Will Pay for these Profits?

The Third World countries will pay the highest price, first as the unpaid sources for the genes that are being spliced into the new mega-profitable patented crops, and again as they are made more and more dependent on big agribusiness. Small farmers in all countries can see their extinction on the horizon. It may be that, after cross-pollination occurs and spreads, and after the drifting of ever-increasing clouds of crop-dusted pesticides kill off all non-resistant crops, only patented crops will be able to grow. Only giant agribusiness concerns will be able to afford the patented seeds and accompanying pesticides that allow these crops to flourish, and the only way to get food will be to get in line at the agribusiness foodstand.

The needs of corporate interests do not reflect the needs of people. The alternative to prolonged shelf life and long-distance trade is not the reengineering of fruits and vegetables. The alternative is to reduce ëfood miles’. Cuba, for example, has used the crisis of the US trade embargo to create thousands of urban organic gardens to meet the vegetable needs of each city from within its municipal limits.

Long distance transport for basic food stuffs which could be grown locally serves the interests of global agribusiness, not the small farmer.

–Dr. Vandana Shiva, ecofeminist, physicist and philosopher

So What’s Wrong with Frankenfoods, Anyway?

Because of lack of testing, there will be currently unforeseen consequences on human and animal health. We do know that people with food allergies will soon not be able to tell if the vegetable or the food product they are buying contains genes from something they are allergic to.

One imminent result from a new product already on the market, Maximizer corn, which contains a gene resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin, is the increased spread of antibiotic resistance into animals and humans. (Antibiotic resistance makes these sometimes-crucial drugs ineffective.) Other probable consequences include increased strain on immune systems, more new diseases, and increased cancer rates.

Already infectious diseases are on a global rebound, killing thousands more and evolving into antibiotic-resistant strains. The US death rate from infectious diseases rose 58% between 1980-1992, becoming the third-leading killer of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. European countries have banned most US beef, poultry and dairy products because of detectable levels of drugs.

–Lee Hitchcox, D.C, Strategies for Staying Alive,1996.

As for reports that bioengineered crops will be able to use less pesticide or less-toxic pesticides and herbicides, such reports have been greatly exaggerated by PR firms receiving mega-bucks from agribusiness. It’s notable that many times more research is being done on ways to use greater quantities of highly toxic chemicals than on less-toxic methods.

Boo-boos and Surprises

What has reached the market so far is only the start of an onslaught of products, as biotech companies rush to cash in on their patented products and to develop more. In April, one mistake that supposedly could never happen because of tight quality control and regulations came to light: Monsanto had to recall some seed that contained an incorrect gene which had been inserted by accident. Research done in Denmark has shown that genetically-manipulated genes in crops can make their way into nearby weeds under field conditions. In this way, genetic errors can propagate into the environment and permanently alter the natural world in ways that no one is prepared to understand (Peter Montague, Rachel‚s Environment and Health Weekly, #549).

Another surprise is the speed with which insects are meeting the challenge of bio-engineering through their capacity to mutate. It had been hoped that bio-engineering toxins into crops would repel insects without need for external application of pesticides, but the insects turn out to be more than equal to the threat, adapting in one generation to toxins that were supposed to fend them off for four generations.

There are effective non-toxic ways to deal with weeds and insects, but since the industry can’t get rich off them, they are not likely to get much respect from agribusiness.

Other Countries Fight US Agribusiness

Meeting at its World Congress in Geneva on April 15-18, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) threw the weight of its 320 affiliated unions in 112 countries behind a call for a ban on gene-altered foods.

Egypt is proposing an import ban on transgenic (genetically-altered) foods, but because of US pressure has agreed to suspend it for three months.

European Union (EU) members have stated for years that they do not want bio-engineered food. Since their protests were ignored by US agribusiness, their next demand was that bio-engineered food must be labeled. However, they are finding that the US does not intend to comply, because separating the sources of crops is not economically feasible.

In June, major US agribiz companies signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to threaten the European Union with sanctio
ns in order to force genetically modified crops on the European market. The letter instructs the President that the EU’s objections are based on emotions, not science, and clearly states that segregation of bulk commodities is not scientifically justified and is economically unrealistic.

Regulatory authorities in European countries such as the UK, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark objected to the approval of transgenic maize (corn) because of the possible spread of antibiotic resistance. However they were overruled by the EU Commission under massive pressure from the USA.

The Clinton administration is guilty of collusion in this money-grabbing scheme, force-feeding bio-engineering to the world by promoting it as another end to world hunger, while in fact it is one of the biggest scams going today–a scam to steal the resources, control, and most probably the health of the peoples of the world.

Greenpeace activists from across Europe launched a major protest June 26, 1997, after receiving a leaked copy of a document outlining a multi-million dollar public relations campaign (led by the PR company Burson Marsteller, best known for its work for US chemical company Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical explosion in India) to overturn public opposition to genetically manipulated crops and the food made from them. The same companies who brought us dioxins, PCBs, DDT, CFC’s and dozens of other dangerous chemicals, which have long since been banned, are now telling us genetically manipulated organisms are safe and even environmentally beneficial, Greenpeace spokesperson Marie-Jeanne Schiffelers said.

Patent laws in Brazil, India, and Argentina forbid the patenting of pharmaceuticals on the grounds that drugs are of such great importance that no one should have the right to monopolize them. Colombian researcher Dr. Manuel Patarroyo recently gave the World Health Organization exclusive royalty-free rights on an antimalaria vaccine he developed. We wanted to do this for the benefit of humanity, he explained.

Ironically, the European attitude toward bioengineering is influenced by their history of colonialism and the taking of many resources from the new world without payment. They say that to now claim that such things can be patented and to require payment for their use would be contrary to their historical actions.

According to a Dutch Green Party member of the European Parliament, Ninety percent of the genetic resources which are used in our agricultural production come from the Third World. We have never asked if we ought to pay anything for them. And now for the biotechnology industry to demand monopoly property rights over them is utterly unjustifiable. Whether wild species or crop plants, genetic resources are the common heritage of humankind. All farmers must be guaranteed free access to them.

To take part in nation-wide October actions against genetic engineering, contact the Pure Food Campaign, 860 Highway 61, Little Marais, Minnesota 55614, (202) 775-1132 or (218) 226-4164. E-mail: