. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #622 .
. ---October 29, 1998--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. SEEDS OF DESTRUCTION .
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SEEDS OF DESTRUCTION
Every once in a while the NEW YORK TIMES knocks your socks off
showing how the world got the way it is. This past Sunday the
TIMES ran "Playing God in the Garden" by Michael Pollan --the
cover story in the magazine section. It explains why many of
us are already eating genetically engineered foods like corn and
potatoes without knowing it, and why there is a lot more
genetically engineered food in our future whether we like it or
not. It's the story of a powerful corporation on a dangerous
mission and a huge government too feeble to intercede. The TIMES
story makes these points:
** Genetically engineered food crops have been on the market in
the U.S. for four years now. Some brands of corn, potatoes and
soybeans are now genetically engineered.
** The nation's food safety authority --the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) --does not require genetically engineered
food crops to be labeled as such, so none of us can know whether
the food we are eating is genetically engineered or not. Chances
are pretty good that if you eat french fries at McDonald's, or if
you eat Frito-Lay potato chips, you've eaten a
genetically-engineered potato patented by Monsanto, the St. Louis
chemical giant. The TIMES story focuses on Monsanto's New Leaf
Superior potato, a thin-skinned white spud found fresh in your
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato is, itself, legally
registered as a pesticide with U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency [EPA] because it has been genetically engineered to poison
any Colorado potato beetle that might eat even a tiny portion of
it. Every cell of Monsanto's New Leaf Superior contains a gene
snipped from a bacteria called BACILLUS THURIENGENSIS, or Bt for
short, which produces a protein that is highly toxic to Colorado
potato beetles. The Bt gene is present in every cell of a
Monsanto New Leaf Superior, which is why the potato itself is
registered as a pesticide.
** U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has responsibility
for licensing new pesticides. EPA pesticide officials believe
that the New Leaf Superior potato is reasonably safe for humans.
As a test, EPA fed pure Bt to mice without harming them. Because
humans have eaten old-style New Leaf potatoes for a long time,
and because mice are not visibly harmed by eating pure Bt,
potatoes containing Bt genes must be safe for humans, EPA
reasoned. The TIMES reported, "Some geneticists believe this
reasoning is flawed" because inserting foreign genes into plants
may cause subtle changes that are difficult to recognize. Only
time will tell.
** The label on a bag of Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes in the
supermarket lists all of the nutrients and micronutrients in the
potato, but fails to mention that the potatoes have been
genetically engineered or that they are legally a pesticide.
Food labeling is ordinarily the responsibility of FDA.
** An FDA official told the NEW YORK TIMES that FDA does not
regulate Monsanto's potato because FDA does not have the
authority to regulate pesticides. That is EPA's job.
** EPA-approved pesticides normally carry an EPA-approved warning
label. For example, a bottle of Bt bears a label that warns
people to avoid inhaling Bt and to avoid getting Bt in an open
wound. However, in the case of Monsanto's pesticidal potato, EPA
says FDA has responsibility for requiring a label because the
potato is a food. However, FDA told the TIMES that it only
requires genetically-engineered foods to be labeled if they
contain allergens or have been "materially changed" and FDA has
determined that Monsanto did not "materially change" the New Leaf
potato by turning it into a pesticide. Therefore no FDA label is
required. Furthermore, the law that empowers the FDA (the Food,
Drug and Cosmetic Act) forbids FDA from including any information
about pesticides on food labels. Pesticide labels are EPA's
responsibility, says FDA, and we come full circle.
** Some genetically-engineered food crops are NOT registered as
pesticides, and FDA DOES have the authority to regulate those.
However, according to the TIMES, FDA maintains a list of foods
that need no regulation because they are "generally recognized as
safe" (or "GRAS"). Since 1992 FDA has allowed companies like
Monsanto to decide for themselves whether their new
genetically-engineered foods should be added to the GRAS list and
thus escape regulation. In other words, FDA regulation of
genetically engineered foods is voluntary, not mandatory.
** A Monsanto official told the NEW YORK TIMES that the
corporation should not have to take responsibility for the safety
of its food products. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the
safety of biotech food," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of
corporate communications. "Our interest is in selling as much of
it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job," Angell
In sum, biotech is an industry in the grip of a frontier
mentality. Anything goes. Government is a willing and servile
participant. If it turns out worse than the chemical debacles of
the last 50 years, will anyone be surprised?
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potatoes will have major effects
on U.S. agriculture, regardless of their human health
consequences (if any).
** Organic farmers --those who try to avoid synthetic chemical
pesticides and fertilizers to the extent possible --apply
powdered Bt sparingly to their crops from time to time, a natural
pesticide of last resort. In this powdered form, Bt is neither
present in high concentrations nor for very long because it
degrades in sunlight. Therefore, insects have not developed
"resistance" to Bt.
** But now that Bt is continuously present in whole fields of
Monsanto potatoes, the insects in those field will be
continuously exposed to Bt. Therefore it is only a matter of
time before they develop "resistance" and become immune to Bt's
The mechanism of resistance is well understood because over 500
insects have become resistant to one pesticide or another since
1945. Not every potato beetle will be killed by eating
Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes. A few hardy beetles will
survive. When those few resistant beetles mate with other
resistant beetles, a new variety of potato beetle will spring
into being and it will thrive by eating Monsanto's potatoes. At
that point, Bt will have lost its effectiveness as a pesticide.
Then Monsanto will start marketing some new "silver bullet" to
control the Colorado potato beetle. But what will the nation's
organic farmers do? For private gain, Monsanto will have
destroyed a public good --the natural pesticidal properties of
Bt. Monsanto scientists acknowledged to the NEW YORK TIMES that
the Bt-containing potato will create Bt-resistant potato beetles.
They know exactly what they are trying to do. They are hoping
to make a mint selling Bt-laced potatoes and, in the process,
depriving their competitors (organic farmers) of an essential,
time-honored tool. The strategy is brilliant, and utterly
** For decades, Monsanto and other agrichemical companies have
relentlessly promoted farming systems aimed at making farmers
dependent on synthetic chemicals. With the enthusiastic support
and complicity of USDA, the plan worked beautifully. In the
U.S., the use of chemical pesticides grew 33-fold from 1945,
peaking at 1.1 billion pounds (about 4.4 pounds per year for each
man, woman and child) in 1995.1 Now with growing numbers of
pesticide-resistant insects, and consumers better-informed about
the dangers of pesticide residues on food, Monsanto acknowledges
that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable," as
their most recent annual report puts it. Now Monsanto is
planning to shift American farmers from the pesticide treadmill
to a biotech treadmill.
** For thousands of years, farmers have saved a portion of this
year's crop to provide seeds for next year's crop. Monsanto
intends to end that age-old practice by requiring farmers to come
back to them each year to purchase new seeds. Potatoes are not
grown from seeds --they are grown by planting "eyes" of other
potatoes. Before you buy a bag of Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes
you must sign a contract promising that you will not retain any
of your potatoes toward next year's crop. This will force you to
purchase more potatoes from Monsanto next year. According to the
TIMES, Monsanto is using informants and Pinkertons, and has
brought legal action against hundreds of farmers, to enforce its
To tighten the noose on farmers, Monsanto has a new technology in
the pipeline, called "the Terminator." Terminator technology
was developed with public funds by U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) and a seed company that Monsanto is in the process of
buying. The Terminator is a group of genes that can be spliced
into any crop plant, sterilizing all of the plant's seeds. Once
Terminator technology has been widely adopted, control of seed
production will move from the farmer's field to corporate
headquarters and farmers will become wholly dependent upon
corporations for seeds. As the TIMES summarized it, "The
Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of
the last great commons in nature --the genetics of the crop
plants that civilization has developed over the past 10,000
years." Brilliant and ruthless.
** In a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign in Europe,
Africa and the United States, Monsanto claims that its new
emphasis on genetic engineering is aimed at feeding the world's
hungry and saving the environment from pesticides of the kind it
has produced in megaton quantities for the past 40 years.
However, the TIMES offered insights into genetic engineering that
make Monsanto's new path seem at least as destructive as its old
path, and perhaps considerably worse.
** Monsanto says that its genetic manipulations are providing the
"operating system" for running a new generation of plants. But
the analogy breaks down quickly. A computer operating system,
like DOS or Windows or Unix, is fully understandable by the
programmers who wrote the code. On the other hand, the genetic
code was written by the Creator and no human --or group of humans
--understands even a small fraction of it. Putting
genetically-engineered plants and animals into the natural
environment is nothing more than a crap shoot --one with
potential consequences far greater than Monsanto's previous
calamitous experiments, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and
** The TIMES says that, to create its New Leaf Superior
pesticidal potatoes, Monsanto has had to introduce the Bt gene
into thousands of potatoes to get it right because often the
introduced gene ends up in an unexpected place in the potato's
DNA, creating a plant that doesn't have the right pesticidal
properties, or one that is an outright freak. "There's still a
lot we don't understand about gene expression," says David Stark,
co-director of Naturemark, Monsanto's potato subsidiary, in a
** Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, told the NEW YORK
TIMES that Monsanto's comparison of genetically engineered plants
to an "operating system" isn't the right comparison. Instead,
Lewontin said, the genetic code is more like an ecosystem. "You
can always intervene and change something in it, but there's no
way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it
might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor
understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I
would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another,"
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Michael Pollan, "Playing God in the Garden," NEW YORK TIMES
October 25, 1998, pgs. 44-51, 62-63, 82, 92-93.
 David Pimentel and others, "Ecology of Increasing Disease,"
BIOSCIENCE Vol. 48, No. 10 (October 1998), pgs. 817-826.
 THE ECOLOGIST magazine devoted its most recent issue to
Monsanto; see "The Monsanto Files; Can We Survive Genetic
Engineering?" THE ECOLOGIST Vol. 28, No. 5 (Sept./Oct., 1998),
pgs. 249-324. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Descriptor terms: genetic engineering; biotechnology;
agriculture; farming; potatoes; corn; potatoes; pesticides; bt;
organic farming; fda; epa; terminator technology;
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