Altered genes and twisted truth-II
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 17 Oct 2015 6 Comments

There is a disconcerting parallel between what happened in the US back then and what happened in India in 2006. Monsanto was already into Bt cotton and trying to push Bt brinjal through its Indian subsidiary Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company). The former Chief Justice of India, the late Y.K. Sabharwal, said against the background of an on-going PIL on GM crops in the Supreme Court that an “independent, competent and committed expert committee” examine the question of GM crops vis-à-vis Bt brinjal.


An independent expert committee set up under the chairmanship of this writer found several instances where the safety protocol prescribed by the Department of Biotechnology was breached, in field and laboratory trials.  The report of this committee was submitted to the Supreme Court in October 2006.


The forerunner of the biotechnology industry was the molecular biology establishment. James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA structure, was a founding member and, for obvious reasons, a big proponent of genetic engineering. He was extremely vocal, claiming genetic engineering was safe and that earlier concerns had been exaggerated. And the molecular biologists in favour of pushing ahead with genetic engineering without adequate safeguards wielded great power in the US National Academy of Sciences. Druker claims:


“The National Academy of Sciences - because their agenda was so strongly influenced by molecular biologists - were afraid of a full and fair review of the possible ecological problems of releasing genetically engineered organisms.”


Dr. Philip Regal, an eminent biologist and believer in scientific integrity and accountability, became the point man for attempting to get genetic engineering venture aligned with sound science during the first 15 to 20 years of its existence.


Dr. Regal and some collaborators managed to put together two major conferences, and were shocked to learn just how many high-risk projects genetic engineers had in the pipeline. The prime objective of those so engaged was driven by the motto “Come what may, we have to have a product genetically engineered to reach the market”. Dr Regal’s attempts to stall these projects had little success. The media, on the whole, tended to support the adventurers.


“The media tended to present all of the statements about how good these foods were and how safe they were in the mouths of the scientific experts. Anytime concerns were raised, they would put that in the mouth of non-scientists; activists presented as not knowing very much about science.”


That same tactic is used to great effect today. Rarely if ever does a concerned scientist get any kind of airtime in conventional media. Scientists are also crippled by threats of losing grant money, or their career.


It’s not very different in India where the Prime Minister’s Office in UPA-II unrolled the red carpet for vocal votaries of the GM lobby. Ministers affiliated to the ministry of environment and forests, directly responsible for the GM agenda, who expressed an opinion contrary to the PMO were unceremoniously shifted and others who favoured GM were brought in. The classic case involved Jayanthi Natrajan, who voiced strong objections to open field testing of GM crops without a safety protocol in place. She was moved out and replaced by Veerappa Moily who at one stroke cleared several field trials during the fag end of the UPA-II regime.  


The central agenda of the GM lobby was to keep regulations at the barest minimum right from the start. If safety regulations had been stricter, it’s unlikely that the industry would have been able to pull it off.


“If that fraudulent groundwork hadn’t been laid by the mainstream scientific establishment, especially the molecular biology establishment, the FDA could not have done what it did. It wouldn’t have had the aura of scientific respectability, nor could Monsanto and the biotech industry have later been able to do what they’ve done.


“As Dr. Philip Regal mentioned: ‘Within the scientific community, gossip became as good as truth; as good as fact.’ And people just parroted what they heard other people saying.”


In the 1980s, a major GMO disaster took place with the essential amino acid L-tryptophan, produced by genetic engineering. In the US it killed at least 27 people and over 1,500 were sickened. The novel disorder that afflicted these unfortunate people was named eosinophilia–myalgia syndrome (EMS).


In the mid-1980s, one of the main developers of L-tryptophan supplements, Showa Denko Corporation of Japan, decided it could turn out more L-tryptophan in the same time if they endowed the bacteria they were using with extra genes. The bacteria have the genetic components to synthesise L-tryptophan. Showa reasoned that by giving the bacteria an extra copy of those genes more L-tryptophan would be produced more quickly. But in order to achieve maximum production rates, they also had to boost one of those genes with a promoter from a virus, which led to a very unnatural situation.


Druker notes in his book, “They were messing around in very radical, unprecedented ways with the metabolism of bacteria that have been safely used for many, many years.”


There were early reports of the supplement causing trouble, and as production was increased, it appears to have become more toxic. L-tryptophan was prescribed by physicians for patients suffering from depression and sleep disorder. The supplements were manufactured conventionally. Disaster struck only when the GE version came into the market.


“The scientific evidence is very clear: tryptophan supplements were not a problem. To our knowledge, the only tryptophan supplement that ever created a problem was the one created through genetically engineered bacteria.”


Druker continues, “The final version [of this genetically engineered bacteria], which was the most souped-up, cranked out not only a lot of L-tryptophan but some unusual contaminants. The profile of that toxic tryptophan was highly unusual. It contained many more contaminants than most products do. They were very low level, though. It was still pure according to pharmacological standards. It tested pure. Generally, most chemicals are not dangerous at that extremely low concentration, but at least one of those [contaminants] was, and it created a major epidemic.


“This epidemic... was only determined because the symptoms were highly unusual and unique... It was fortuitous in a sense that it was such a strange disease, otherwise, it would not have been even recognized, and those tryptophan supplements would still be marketed and still be killing and maiming people.”


The FDA response was to take all brands of L-tryptophan, conventionally produced and genetically engineered, off the shelves. It used this occasion to attack natural supplements with a pristine safety record. Prior to the release of the GE version of L-tryptophan, the supplement had never led to a problem in anyone.


Most people, including many scientists, do not know that this epidemic was caused by a genetically engineered food supplement. Druker dismisses the stand of the pro-GM side that the toxins originated during the manufacturing process. He suggests that the bacterial enzymes, probably within the bacteria themselves, or in the broth before it was put through the purification system, were responsible, which would place the blame squarely on genetic tampering itself.


In the early ’80s, corporations such as Monsanto saw great commercial opportunity for genetic engineering in agriculture. It is important to remember that had preliminary groundwork by molecular biologists not been laid out, Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and smaller players would not have invested the huge sums they did in GM seeds as they would have never been able to get these products presumed GRAS by the FDA.


So the path forward was open. It is at this point that Michael Taylor, a partner at a major Washington, D.C., law firm that represented Monsanto entered the scene. After serving as Monsanto’s legal counsel, Taylor was installed as Deputy Commissioner on Food Policy at the FDA, a position that did not exist before Taylor got the job. This is a very carefully crafted business strategy to push GM crops globally. Druker gives the following reason:


“It was because, I think, as I looked through the records, there were FDA scientists who were objecting to the drafts of the policy statement, saying, ‘Wait, what’s happening to all the scientific elements in this?’ ... I believe that Michael Taylor was brought in at that critical junction to start getting things moving in the direction that the Bush White House and the people directing the FDA wanted.


“Certainly, we can see within the memos... where the clout was. It was coming from the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. Economic and political considerations were trumping the scientific considerations. And the poor FDA scientists were spending their time trying to do their job as scientists, and it turned out it didn’t come to anything.”


The decisions of the political establishment at the time dovetailed with that of the biotechnology establishment. Two points deserve mention, first, deregulation by President Ronald Reagan to give a push to the American economy and that of his Vice-President Dan Quayle when he announced the FDA policy as a regulatory relief for the industry.


He said “We’re freeing the industry from any new burdens and regulations”. What he did not know at the time was that the industry was also being freed from a very stringent law enacted in 1958, which stipulated that any new additives to the food chain cannot just be “presumed to be safe”, but, “demonstrated to be safe”. This is the law FDA broke, pretending it simply did not exist. This allowed the biotech industry to perpetuate and increase market penetration without ever having to actually prove the safety of any product. Remember, the safety of GE foods is merely presumed. It’s not proven.


Sadly, Druker’s lawsuit against the FDA was stymied partly by the judge’s pro-establishment bias, but mainly by the FDA’s stand that genetically engineered foods are GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe). It happened despite nine scientists with impeccable credentials taking the unprecedented step of signing a complaint, as plaintiffs, to say that genetically engineered foods are unsafe for human consumption. It proves, beyond a shade of doubt, that when the powers-that-be are driven by capitalistic and pecuniary tendencies, human values get short shrift.


What has India to learn from this? The Bhopal gas tragedy destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Indians but the culprits went scot free, showing how far they had reached into the government. Now, with Monsanto relentlessly pushing its GM products with the help of establishment scientists and politicians we have a “gene revolution” at our doorstep.


In 1905, the philosopher George Santayana famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It seems to sum up the case pretty much for those Indians intoxicated by this opportunity for enrichment. They are so carried away by the myth of this half-baked technology that they are willing to put millions of Indian lives in peril. 



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