Frankenstein foods: 'a piece of the action' / FRFI 148 April / May 1999

FRFI 148 April / May 1999

In August 1998, Dr Arpad Pusztai, an expert on genetic modification (GM), gave an interview to World in Action. Pusztai worked for the reputable Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. His experiments, feeding genetically-modified potatoes to rats, had shown alarming changes in the rats' major organs, shrinkage of brains and compromised immune systems. Pusztai suggested that the general public are being used as guinea pigs in a vast experiment with food. Three days later he was suspended and denied access to his research results. Everyone pretended that Pusztai was simply a maverick.

Six months later, with the backing of 20 reputable research scientists, it became clear that Pusztai is not a maverick and his research findings are solid. The experiments involved the transfer of the snowdrop lectin (a natural insecticide) into potatoes, using the cauliflower mosaic virus as a promoter. The promoter is used in most GM foods - it turns the transferred gene on and off. As part of the experiments, Pusztai fed the rats non-GM potatoes, or potatoes and the snowdrop lectin (as a powder), or the GM potatoes. Only the rats fed GM potatoes were affected. This clearly suggested that it is the genetic modifica- tion which produces ill effects, not the mere presence of the snowdrop lectin.

The statements backing Pusztai's research had a dramatic effect.

Labour promotes 'progress'

Enter the Labour Government, anxious to smother another food scandal at birth. Prime Minister Blair pronounced GM foods totally safe and suitable for all his family. As a PR move, this was a mistake, simply calling to mind Tory minister Gummer's young daughter being force-fed beefburgers during the BSE crisis. The call to ban the growing of GM crops in Britain and for clear labelling of GM products, is deeply threatening to Labour, not least because they are hand-in-glove with the GM food producers. During Labour's short period in power, they have offered GM companies, including the giant US multinational Monsanto, millions of pounds as an inducement to expand their UK operations. Representatives of GM companies have met government officials or ministers 81 times since Labour came to power. Critics of GM foods have been labelled Luddites - opposers of progress. Surely, they argue, a new dynamic business which could bring untold rewards to the British economy deserves some leeway. So, under the guise of scientific 'progress', Labour is backing big business.

Enter Lord Sainsbury, Minister of Science, former Chair of Sainsbury's supermarkets. Lord Sainsbury owns two companies, Innotech and Diatech, both directly involved in GM foods. He also owns the cauliflower mosaic virus gene promoter. He also controls a 'charitable' trust, the Gatsby Foundation (yes, it is named after Scott Fitzgerald's millionaire playboy), which has funded research into GM food to the tune of 18 million. Sainsbury, an SDP supporter who switched to the Labour Party when Blair became leader, has also bankrolled the Labour Party, reputedly to the tune of 3 million. It was claimed that Lord Sainsbury does not take part in cabinet discussions on biotechnology, so there is no conflict of interest. Then it was claimed that he may take part, but this does not matter because he has no financial interest in GM foods, having put all his financial interests in a 'blind trust' when he became a minister. The purpose of this trust is to keep us all 'blind' to what is really going on. Is Sainsbury meant to have forgotten that he owns two GM companies, a gene and the Gatsby Foundation? With such very direct connections between the GM industry and government, it is no wonder that Labour is resisting all calls for the banning and control of GM foods.

Enter David Hill, Labour's chief spin doctor until a year ago, when he became adviser to Monsanto on media strategy. Media strategy hasn't been Monsanto's forte. In February the Advertising Standards Authority upheld eight of 13 complaints against Monsanto's 1 million advertising campaign ('biotechnology can feed the world...let the harvest begin') which claimed, among other things, that GM foods had been rigorously tested over 20 years and would solve the world's food shortages. The ASA found the adverts 'wrong, unproven, misleading and confusing'. No tests, rigorous or otherwise, have been carried out on GM foods and biotechnology in their hands is much more likely to deepen world poverty than otherwise.

Monsanto was in further trouble in March when it was fined 17,000 for allowing an experimental crop of Roundup Ready oilseed rape in Lincolnshire to breach field barriers designed to stop its spread or cross pollination with surrounding crops. But the fine was pitiful - a drop in the ocean. No wonder that green protesters have taken matters into their own hands by destroying such crops. Monsanto has lived up to its litigious reputation by invoking a draconian injunction against activists which leaves them legally responsible for any damage to GM crops in the UK at any time. Following the Lincolnshire fines, Monsanto and Zeneca (another GM company) pledged to fight any ban on GM foods in Britain. Under international treaty their position is strong. The arbiter of any disputes about import bans, the World Trade Organisation, is designed to favour 'free trade' and, therefore, the unbridled growth of biotechnology.

By now you have a complete picture of how the GM industry operates. Infiltrate and lobby government; bully, discredit and silence all opposition; lie about the benefits of GM foods. Contrary to the image they promote of consumer-friendliness, progressive science and altruism, Monsanto and other multinationals are dedicated to one thing: making a profit. They are privatising, on a global scale, what have hitherto been products of nature. By transferring genes, which they own, staple crops like maize, wheat, corn, soya etc, and their seed, become the property of private companies which then sell them at a massive profit and protect their property interests with a vengeance. The benefits of such food are few and the dangers are deliberately hidden. This is what the Labour government is protecting. An examination of Monsanto's history in the USA is illuminating.

The Monster Multinational

The USA has 50 million acres growing GM crops - mainly soya, corn, cotton and potatoes. Half of all soya products and 75% of processed foods contain GM ingredients. The rate of increase has been enormous and it is predicted that within a decade all major crops in the USA will be genetically modified.

Monsanto, the USA's leading biotechnology corporation, began life as a chemical company, producing some of the most dangerous chemicals in existence:

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). 1.2 million tonnes of PCBs have been released into the environment and the results are deadly for all mammals. Monsanto continued to market PCBs long after the deadly effects were clear.

Monsanto was one of the main companies supplying the defoliant Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam war. Agent Orange contained large doses of dioxins which poison the environment, cause cancer and congenital deformities: up to 500,000 children have been born in Vietnam with dioxin-related deformities since the 1960s.

Consistently, Monsanto avoided legal responsibility for the effects of its chemicals by fraudulently covering up the real effects.

Milking the consumers

From the outset of research into biotechnology Monsanto resisted regulation, doctored research findings, and bought political influence with big donations to both the Republicans and Democrats. The Reagan/Bush administrations refused to introduce special regulations governing such research. The result was that while small biotech companies developed the research, Monsanto and other multinationals positioned themselves to buy up and profit from the results.

In 1993 the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), responsible for licensing all such products in the USA, licensed Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, rBGH (BST), as safe. This hormone increases milk production in treated cattle by 10-20 per cent. It was introduced at a time when the USA had a milk surplus, bought up by the Federal Government for $2.1 billion a year to prevent price slumps. Problems with the use of the hormone soon became clear to users: increased stress on the cows, uterine disorders and common mastitis (then treated with antibiotics). rBGH is also associated with prostate and breast cancers in humans.

Monsanto responded to critics in its usual fashion: legal actions. In 1994 the FDA warned retailers not to label milk rBGH-free, arguing it would be unfair to discriminate. The FDA did not 'require things to be on the label just because a consumer might want to know them'. A senior scientist in the FDA, critical of the relationship between the FDA and Monsanto, was sacked and research findings hidden (remember Dr Pusztai). The official at the FDA responsible for the decision against labelling was previously a lawyer advising Monsanto, who later moved back to working for Monsanto. Monsanto issued law suits against producers who refused to comply with the FDA ruling. These law suits have now been withdrawn in the face of consumer outrage but, although the FDA now allows labelling, most milk is still unlabelled. rBGH is banned in Europe, but Monsanto is continuing with attempts to change this.

Rounding-up the profits

Central to Monsanto's propaganda is the claim that its GM crops will lessen use of pesticides and herbicides. What it downplays is the fact that it is, itself, a major producer of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Its Roundup herbicide is the most commonly used in the USA, and in 1994 was used on 800,000 acres in the UK. Monsanto's solution to the limits of herbicide use - too much kills the crop - has been to develop GM crops described as 'Roundup-Ready', resistant to the toxic effects of the herbicide. It is obvious that crop resistance will lead to more use of chemicals, not less. This means more profits for Monsanto, as more and more agriculture is locked into purchase of Roundup-Ready seed and Roundup herbicide. For the environment the effects could be devastating as the chemical is damaging, not only to plant life, but also to a wide variety of organisms including humans.

Monsanto has gone a step further. When farmers buy Roundup-Ready seed they pay a special 'technology fee' and contract not to use any harvested seed from the crop in the future. Monsanto has used the Pinkerton Detective Agency to spy on its customers and it has taken farmers to court for using harvested seed. This is the complete privatisation of the natural cycle.

Terminating life

Monsanto has now bought and developed what has become known as Terminator Technology. GM crops have been developed with 'self-terminating offspring' - effectively they are sterile. Each year the farmer will be forced back on to the market to buy seed and the side effects on the environment of such genetic suicide are unpredictable. In the Third World 15 to 20 per cent of the food supply is grown by small farmers who save their seed. These farmers feed at least 1.4 billion people. The effects of Terminator Technology could be devastating.

Already the world is feeling the effects of 'free trade' of GM crops and products. The directors of Monsanto have very strong links with the Clinton administration, and as a result the USA has successfully prevented any real control or labelling of GM foods internationally. GM soya has been mixed with natural soya, so that a vast array of processed foods are infected and the consumer is virtually unable to make a choice. Countries do not have any real control over the import of GM crops and any that independently block US imports will face legal action. The privatisation of world food production in the hands of a few multinationals will have its worst effects in the poorest countries.

Monsanto's corporate traditions ought to be familiar to anyone with knowledge of the development of capitalism. The motive is not progress, nor benefits to humanity, but simple raw profit and its maximisation on a global level whatever the consequences. At every turn Monsanto and the other biotechnology giants oppose labelling, oppose controls, resist scientific safety trials, doctor the evidence, subvert the scientists and politicians and avoid any legal responsibility for the consequences of their Frankenstein foods. The GM multinationals are determined to break into the European market, as a prelude to world domination of the agriculture. So when Dr Pusztai gets the sack, when Blair swears to GM safety, when Lord Sainsbury claims financial probity and neutrality, and the Labour government opposes bans in favour of 'progress', remember whose progress they are promoting. It is certainly not ours. Labour simply wants, in traditional capitalist fashion, a piece of the action.

Catherine Gough

More information is available in the excellent edition of The Ecologist which was pulped by printers under threat of legal action last year, now reprinted: The Ecologist, Vol 28 No 5 Sept/Oct 1998 3.50.