Altered genes and twisted truth-I
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 16 Oct 2015 3 Comments

Genetically manipulated crops and foods, known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) pose as yet unknown risks not only to the environment but to public health as well. GMO research is at the frontline of the future bottom line of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and Cargill. They are the most enthusiastic crusaders for GMOs, which reach millions of dinner tables around the world but for the most part the public is unaware of this fact.


Steven Druker, a Washington attorney, filed a lawsuit in the late Nineties challenging the step the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took in this area: its presumption that GM foods are Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) and can enter the market without safety testing, something similar to what the Indian government is doing covertly.


Druker says he has evidence to show that the GRAS presumption was fraudulent when first announced in 1992 and that it remains fraudulent today. GRAS is central to the market entry of inadequately tested GM foods in the US. The same could happen in Indian markets as well if agribusiness had its way.


Druker’s book Altered Genes and Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, exposes some of the myth surrounding the “GMOs are safe” thesis.


Most people are only peripherally aware of the background that led to FDA’s landmark policy decision of 1992 that granted GRAS status to GM foods. A vigorous academic and scientific discussion lasting almost two decades predated the action that made the commercialisation of GM foods possible.


Druker’s book delves into that in depth, and provides important insights into the behaviour of many eminent scientists and institutions, including the Royal Society, London, and the American Association For the Advancement of Science, in the earlier decades of the genetic engineering revolution. The following quote of Druker is an eye opener:


“It was probably not until about late ‘94 or ‘95 that I became aware of genetic engineering, and that it was being used by that point to reconfigure the genetic core of many of our foods.


“The goal is, ultimately, to reconfigure the genetic core of almost every edible fruit, vegetable, and grain. That’s the grand vision.


“I’ve had a long-term interest in eating healthy nutritious food myself. I was involved back in the late 1980s in the campaign to better regulate food irradiation.


“But I too was behind the curve on understanding what was going on… So you can see why people up to a few years ago didn’t even know that they had been eating genetically engineered food for all these years, and feeding them unknowingly to their kids. It really has blindsided many of us.”


In the mid-Nineties Druker began researching the matter and became aware of the great gap between the claims made by GM proponents and the facts.


One major concern was that while the US had the strictest and the most rigorous food safety laws in the world regarding new additives, the FDA had not enforced those laws in the case of GMOs. Instead, it gave them a free ticket to circumvent the law with the GRAS ruling. This meant GM foods could be marketed without safety testing.


“That is a blatant misrepresentation of US food law, but that was the FDA claim. [They claim] there’s an overwhelming ‘scientific consensus’ they’re safe, so safe that they don’t need to be tested. Therefore, the FDA let these foods into our market without a smidgen of testing.


Moreover, they didn’t even require these foods be labeled, so consumers at least would be informed about the major genetic reconfiguration that had occurred. This struck me as not only being unscientific but irresponsible and unethical. At the time, I had a hunch it was also illegal.”


As he continued researching the matter, that hunch was confirmed. Not only is the policy governing GMOs at odds with the science, it violates US law. At first, Druker did not think he was sufficiently qualified to launch a lawsuit to contest the FDA’s ruling. But as time went on, it became clear that no one else was willing. So he went ahead.


In Druker’s words, “The lawsuit was filed in May 1998, and it quickly accomplished something very major... It forced the FDA, through the discovery process, to hand over more than 44,000 pages of its internal files relevant to the policy that it made on genetically engineered foods.”


It turned out to be a treasure trove. There were memos from FDA scientists assigned to the biotechnology task force, whose job it was to analyse GM foods in terms of both the law and the science, and to do a risk assessment.


Druker says: “The memos… recognised that there were unusual risks in these foods. Genetic engineering had the potential to create unexpected and unpredictable new toxins and allergens. These toxins would be very difficult to detect unless each food was subjected to very rigorous long-term toxicological testing, the likes of which the biotech industry has routinely avoided performing and has been given a pass on by various governments. The surprising thing was not just that they understood these risks, but that they were warning about them in no uncertain terms to their superiors.”


FDA’s avowed policy was to support the biotechnology industry rather than tell the whole truth about GMOs. If Druker had not sued the FDA the warnings of FDA scientists would have remained secret for perpetuity.


“Although the FDA scientists overwhelmingly concluded and warned their superiors that these foods entail unique risks, and that each one of them should be subjected to long-term rigorous toxicological testing, what the public heard from the FDA was that ‘The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods developed by these methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way’.”


So the US public has been consuming these largely experimental, untested foods for almost two decades. A distinguished American scientist, Dr. James Maryanski acknowledges there is no consensus about the safety of GM foods in the scientific community. That admission is in the FDA’s own files.  The result is that despite the US’ stringent food safety laws, the FDA gave it the stamp of safety. Canada followed suit and even Europe relaxed its anti-GM stance.


The Seventies were when the idea of genetic engineering took root. From bacteria to edible plants was a long journey and the initial enthusiasm of scientists who did the ground work was characterised by caution. Biologist and Nobel laureate George Wald characterised it as the “most radical” scientific intervention. Initially, the scientists involved cautioned that one had to be careful and prudent in using the technology lest irrational use be made. But things changed in a short time.


The scientific establishment mounted a huge lobbying campaign in the summer of 1977, orchestrated to convince Congress in Washington that there was no need for legislation. At that time, several bills to regulate genetic engineering had been introduced in Congress. This concerted effort also relied on misinformation, which the author details in his book, including claims of evidence that in reality did not exist.


The lobbying was not backed by the biotechnology industry, because there was no biotechnology industry. This is a key theme of the book, because it’s easy to forget there was a time before the biotechnology industry, and few were aware of the leaders of the genetic engineering establishment or why the technology was invented in the first place. Despite the pervasive cloud of distrust surrounding Monsanto and other agribusiness behemoths for their relentless promotion of GM foods, they could never have implemented their strategy if it weren’t for the efforts of the molecular biologists. Druker certainly thinks so:


“The main guilt l[ie]s at the feet of the mainstream molecular biology establishment, the scientists who were doing the research, getting the grants, and wanting to develop this technology. Most of them thought this was going to be used to cure so many ills in the field of medicine... I think they eventually developed an ‘end justifies the means’ psychology...


“When you have so many highly influential, powerful scientists working together to convince the world that genetic engineering is inherently safe, and that the research they’re pursuing is safe, that can be somewhat dangerous. And it turned out being very dangerous for the world, I think.”


(To be concluded…)

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top