October 23, 2017

My fears about GM food crops

In this introduction to “The Monsanto Files”, The Ecologist‘s special issue on Monsanto, Edward Goldsmith engages with the problems of corporate control of the food chain as well as the potential health issues associated with genetic modification.

The 60-page exposé of the world’s major biotech company was the best-selling issue of The Ecologist ever, selling over 400,000 copies in a dozen languages. This was the apparent result of the printer’s decision to pulp the first 14,000-copy printing of the issue, fearing legal action, which was reported around the world.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 28 No. 5, September–October 1998.


The Ecologist is a magazine I founded 29 years ago. We publish tough issues, at times strongly attacking some of the main organizations responsible for the horrible mess the world is in today – organizations like the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and various multinational corporations. In recent years multinationals have become so big that in terms of sales many are now bigger than the average nation state. Thus the sales of the Mitsubishi Corporation are bigger than the total GNP of Indonesia – a country with a population of 200 million people.

Governments, that have become increasingly dependent on these companies, claim that this trend provides more jobs for all. In reality it is the small and medium size companies that provide the jobs. The combined sales of the world’s top multinationals are equal to 28 percent of total world GNP, but they employ only 18.8 million people, less than one third of one percent of the world’s population. In the USA, between 1979 and 1989, big companies actually shed 4 million jobs, whereas small and medium-sized companies created 20 million.

The current issue of The Ecologist is about one such company: Monsanto. It is absolutely huge and is one of the world’s biggest producers of genetically engineered products. Though our current issue has been printed, it will not be available to the British public for the time being, as our printers refuse to deliver it. Indeed, last night we were told that all fourteen thousand copies had been incinerated. The reason is that they are absolutely terrified of being sued by Monsanto – probably quite rightly, as that highly agressive company reacts viciously to any criticism or any action that threatens its immediate interests. In August of this year two women in Devon were sued for £605,000 damages for undertaking direct action at a site where Monsanto was trying out its transgenic rape.

Such a threat of course is usually highly effective. It does not matter too much to Monsanto if it loses its case – it has plenty of money to pay the costs. What matters is that the people sued will be ruined by the legal costs. Some people of course will take the risk of a showdown with Monsanto, as did Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, who made a film on Monsanto’s genetically engineered milk hormone – BST, (or BGH as it is called in the USA) in 1996.

Three days before the film was due to be shown the TV company started receiving letters from Monsanto’s lawyers saying that their employer would suffer “enormous damage” if the film were to be shown. Fox TV was forced to cancel it, and a further letter from Monsanto warned the company of “dire consequences” if it did not do so. Fox TV then offered to pay Wilson and Akre if they would leave the station and say nothing about it all. They refused and instead filed their own law suit against the television company.

BST is a typical Monsanto product. It is designed to increase the amount of milk produced by cows. Dairy cows of course have already been turned into veritable milk factories, with their vast udders scraping the ground, and as a result suffer from a host of stress-related diseases.

The idea of making them produce still more milk is very short-sighted. They are likely to develop even more stress-related diseases such as mastitis, an infection of the udder that requires the use of antibiotics, which end up in the milk along with increased amounts of pus, as the infection is certain to get worse. The milk also contains higher levels of another hormone called IGF-1, which is known to increase human cancer.

In the current, at present unavailable, issue of The Ecologist we provide evidence that consumption of food containing BST causes breast cancer and prostate cancer. Fortunately BST is not yet sold in Europe, where there is a moratorium on its use until December 1999. However, it is probably but a question of time before European governments are bludgeoned by Monsanto in allowing its use over here.

BST, as already noted, is genetically engineered, and genetically engineered products by their very nature are dangerous. They are the product of a complicated process which involves introducing a gene from a particular form of life into the genome – or genetic organization – of another form of life.

Thus human genes – farcical as it may sound – have been introduced into pigs and even into fish to make them grow faster. Scorpion genes have been introduced into maize to make them resistant to certain insects, and fish genes into strawberries to make them frost-resistant. This sounds perfectly reasonable to genetecists reared on old-fashioned genetics, which postulates that there is a gene for every animal or human trait, so if you introduce a new gene into the genome of a living creature it will give rise to a predictable change.

Dr Mae Wan Ho, a biologist at the Open University, has gone to great lengths to show that this is simply not the case. The introduction of the alien gene can seriously disturb the structure of a genome. This is very serious as genomes regulate themselves in order to ensure the maintenance of their basic structure, which is very critical. The alien genes can disrupt this regulation and create terrible instabilities, which is one of the reasons why many of the genetically engineered products produced so far have been such total failures. It explains why the super-pig referred to above, turned out arthritic, ulcerous, blind, and impotent. It explains too why the latest clones of the transgenic sheep Dolly are abnormal and eight times as likely to die at birth compared with ordinary lambs.

One of the dangers is that the increased instability of the genome will favour the transfer of introduced genes to other forms of life. This is called ‘horizontal gene transfer’. Monsanto has marketed a range of genetically engineered crops such as beet, maize, cotton, and now rape, that are resistant to its best-selling herbicide, Roundup. Monsanto maintains that their main preoccupation is to reduce the use of pesticides. However, the whole object of this operation is to make it possible to use Roundup on such crops which previously could not tolerate this herbicide.

With horizontal gene transfer, genes from these transgenic crops are likely to escape and in doing so to transfer their resistance to Roundup to other crops and worse of all to weeds. A number of geneticists are convinced that it is only a question of time before this happens, which means that weeds will also become resistant to Roundup, or whatever other herbicide the crops are made resistant to. This will make farming extremely difficult and could cause food shortages. The only thing that could be said in its favour is that it might provide an incentive for returning to organic farming.

Perhaps one of the most worrying of all Monsanto’s products are those based on the so-called ‘terminator technology’, on which Monsanto has the patent. Its object is to produce plants that will produce ‘self-determining offspring”. Since agriculture first began farmers have always been able to save their seeds for replanting the next year. Monsanto of course has done everything to put an end to this ancient practice, one that seriously reduces its sales. Farmers must be made to buy their seeds every year from Monsanto, and in order to assure that they do that their hybrid seeds are now largely patented – and farmers by contract must only use seeds that they have bought and on which they pay the patent fees.

Until recently, it has been quite difficult to impose this on farmers. Now the problem has been solved as the terminator provides a built-in biological patent which is enforced by the genetically engineered genes themselves. This of course grossly increases costs for small farmers throughout the Third World, who are already struggling to survive. It has been described as “the neutron bomb” of agriculture.

It is extremely difficult to see how Monsanto can justify the use of this disgraceful technology, yet their PR men have actually sought to do so – a difficult task indeed. In the yet not available current issue of The Ecologist we look at these products very carefully. We also show to just what length that company is willing to go to sell its products regardless of their adverse effects on human health and on the natural environment.

Fortunately it appears that Monsanto has little chance of preventing us from printing this issue of The Ecologist. The telephone has not stopped ringing all day, as small printers from all over Britain have offered their services, assuring us that no threats from Monsanto would prevent them from publishing a document that must be read by decision makers and the general public.

As for me, I can only tell the Directors of Monsanto that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have the opportunity to confront them in a Court of Law. If they sued us they would do me the greatest possible favour.In the meantime, those who share our concerns would do well to write to their MPs asking for a 5 year moratorium on the production of all genetically engineered products. Nothing less that our health and that of the natural environment are at stake.

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