An estimated 85 percent of all food consumed in the United States now contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—from the cereal you feed your children to the milk you put in your coffee to the sweet corn you chomp on in summer. But because there’s no labeling requirement, we don’t know which foods have GMOs and which don’t. We also have no hard facts about the possible health effects. In his new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived The Public, public interest attorney Steve Druker takes the science community, the food industry, and the FDA to task for what he claims are their lax and irresponsible policies.
Talking from a parking lot in Michigan during his book tour, he explains how the debate about GMOs has undermined science and democracy, why the two Bills, Clinton and Gates, have got it wrong, and what advice he would give an African farmer trying to feed his starving child.
In the subtitle of your book, you name three ways that GMOs have undermined society. Talk about the first two.
First, the subversion of science has been much deeper than most people could imagine. There has been a consistent degradation of science and twisting of the truth on the part of numerous eminent scientists and scientific institutions on behalf of genetically engineered foods. The aggregate fraud to promote genetically engineered foods is by far the biggest fraud in the history of science. The corruption of government has also been very deep and multifaceted.
Probably the worst example occurred when the U.S. executive branch became convinced back in the mid 1980s, during the administration of President Reagan, that the biotechnology industry was going to be one of the main ways in which the U.S. economy would come out of its doldrums. A policy was adopted to promote the biotech industry without any new regulations. It was reported to be science-based, but scholars who studied it concluded it was not science based. It was framed and motivated by economic and political considerations. The FDA broke that law and lied about the facts in order to get GMOs on the market.
James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, has called the dangers imputed to GMOs an imaginary monster.” He’s right, isn’t he?
He’s quite wrong, actually, because there have been risks, but from the beginning these risks have been systematically misrepresented by the mainstream scientific establishment in order to avoid regulation by governments and keep control of the research. But the risks have been well recognized, even by the FDA’s own scientists. They did a thorough study back in 1990-92, and the overwhelming conclusion was that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding to a great degree, that the foods it generates entail different risks, and that none can be presumed safe until they have been demonstrated to be safe by rigorous scientific testing. But these tests have never been done.
For proponents, GMOs are a magic bullet to cure world hunger. For opponents, these are ‘frankenfoods’ that will poison us. Is there any middle ground?
I never use the term “frankenfood.” I’d rather not throw around names. The other side throws names around, branding people who have concerns about GMOs as “anti-science” or “Luddites.” Instead of talking about middle ground, I think it’s important to talk about the scientific ground and the evidence-based ground. Too many of the proponents of GMOs are not speaking as scientists, but as spin-doctors.
You repeatedly say how dangerous GMOs are. The only known outbreak of a mass infection occurred in Japan in the late 80s in connection with the health supplement, L-tryptophan. Yet the most you claim is that “genetic engineering cannot be ruled out.” It’s a pretty weak case, isn’t it?
That is not actually what I claim. That’s what the FDA has admitted in private. In public, it claims genetic engineering had nothing to do with the incident. But there is a memo in the FDA files, which I uncovered in a lawsuit, in which the FDA’s biotechnology manager admitted genetic engineering could not be ruled out as the cause of that epidemic. I state that the weight of the evidence points towards genetic engineering as the most likely cause of the epidemic.
The father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel, altered the genetic makeup of peas by crossbreeding. In what way is genetic engineering different from that?
What Mendel was doing was traditional crossbreeding, not altering genes. Nature is set up to encourage genetic diversity and change combinations of genes. But what the genetic engineers are doing is radically restructuring the makeup of genes and DNA. This is something unprecedented. Nobel laureate and biology professor at Harvard, the late George Wald stated that, “Genetic engineering is the biggest break in nature that has occurred in human history.”
A lot of the horror stories are about bizarre interventions like inserting a salmon gene into a tomato. These are extreme cases, aren’t they?
To my knowledge, nothing like that particular product has been commercialized. But any breaking down of the natural species boundaries is a very radical intervention. Foreign genes can’t express themselves unless powerful, viral boosters are inserted. And these foreign genes are now contained in most of the plants on the market. That’s highly unnatural and in itself entails risks.
Monsanto was driven out of England after widespread protests against seed trials. Why are the Europeans so much more critical of GMOs?
Because Europeans have been better informed of the facts. The media in Europe, up to a few years ago, reported this scientific controversy fairly. People knew many well-credentialed scientists did not agree with the claim that these foods were safe. Adverse research showing harm to lab animals got publicized. As a result, European citizens made it clear they didn’t want these foods. Here, the media has not reported the controversy fairly. They’ve almost always presented the pro-GMO side. As a result, the American public has been systematically deceived.
According to the UN, GM technology enhanced farm income in South Africa by $156 million between 1998 and 2006. But isn’t it true there are few proven cases of potential health effects or economic drawbacks?
Even if we grant there have been some economic benefits, according to U.S. law, it is illegal to offset risks by benefits. Foods have to be demonstrated safe to a reasonable certainty of no harm. And none of them has been. In fact, several well-conducted studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals have demonstrated even severe harm to laboratory animals forced to dine on genetically engineered foods. So there is no reason to think that the risks for us are minimal.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a GMO banana in Uganda that didn’t get banana wilt, a disease that was decimating crops. Surely, that’s a good thing.
Only if there were not risks that might impact health in ways we don’t yet know. As I said, when it comes to food safety, benefits should not be considered in offsetting risks. Everybody has to eat food and changes to food should not entail new risks, no matter what the purported benefits. Several studies by the UN and World Bank also concluded that genetic engineering is not needed to meet the world’s food needs. One of the directors of these studies was asked, “What role do you see for GMOs in the future of food?” He said, “Actually none. They aren’t needed. They haven’t been boosting yields. Small scale, agro-ecological methods are what’s needed in the Third World.”
For opponents of GMOs, Monsanto is the villain. Yet you say scientists themselves are the main “propagandists.” Why would they do this – if they didn’t believe they are right?
[Laughs] Oh, I do think that most of them believe that they’re right. That’s not the issue. A large percentage of “life scientists” have financial interests, one way or another, in genetic engineering. Either they have helped found biotech firms, or they have consulting contracts with biotech firms. Even those scientists and foundations that don’t have such conflicts of interest, have overlooked many of the risks. Contrary evidence has been suppressed, research showing risks is attacked unfairly, the scientists who did the research have had their reputations destroyed. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement calculated to defeat a labeling initiative in California, which had several significant misrepresentations in it. When those misrepresentations were called to their attention, they would not retract them. That helped swing the election and defeated the labeling initiative, by misleading many Californians.
Recently, the tide seems to have turned towards an acceptance of GMOs. The UN, Bill Gates, and President Clinton have all come out in support. Even writer Michael Pollan, a well-known opponent, now believes there is no threat to human health. Surely, these people can’t all be wrong, can they?
They can be misled, yes. Based on the misrepresentations that continue to come from scientists, whom people like Michael Pollan and Bill Gates have a right to trust, I can understand why they think what they think. If you have the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science consistently stating that these foods are safe why not believe them? But the National Academy of Sciences’ supposedly “gold standard” risk assessment is a joke. It’s internally self-contradictory, the logic is weak, and it overlooks several key facts. By contrast, a risk-assessment study released by the Royal Society of Canada in 2001, a few years before the National Academy of Science, came out with an opposite conclusion. It said that genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding, that you can’t assume the products are safe, and that the current regulatory system is extremely flawed. The scientific establishment here never refuted it. They’ve just ignored it. I challenge any fair thinking, good-willed scientist, or intelligent man or women, to read this book and decide for him or herself where the evidence lies—who has been telling the truth and has not been telling the truth.
What would you say to an African farmer who wants to use GMOs to feed his starving child today rather than worry about an imaginary threat tomorrow?
First I would say: Read what the UN and World Bank-sponsored reports have said. You don’t need GMOs. Many organizations are trying to educate farmers in Africa and the Third World on the best, agro-ecological methods. The problem is not that organic methods can’t work, but that farmers often haven’t had the knowledge they need. But there are solutions that do not rely on GMOs, which have been proven to work in Africa. So I would say: Get with the sound science, spend less money, and solve your food problem in a way that will create healthy soil, a healthy family and a healthy Africa.
This interview has been edited and condensed.