The Frankenfood Tale

June 25, 1999

By Michael Jessen

It’s a story with so many angles one could get lost in the maze. Its main characters include a respected researcher forced into retirement, a prince, a Prime Minister, and a pop star.

There’s also a villain in the piece: a chemical and agribusiness multinational and a concept called sustainable development.

This story is about food, something near and dear to all our stomachs and a controversy that spans genetic engineering, political payoffs, media responsibility, and business ethics. It’s all the rage in Europe and may soon reach front burner status in North America.

Genetically modified (GM) food has become a major health and environmental issue in the United Kingdom, where the public is leery about any government pronouncement on food safety in the wake of the mad-cow disease controversy.

Our story begins in 1995 when Robert Shapiro becomes the chief executive officer of Monsanto, a St. Louis-based agrochemical business with a cash cow – a highly successful weed killer called Round-up. Unfortunately, the patent on the herbicide was soon to expire.

Shapiro has a brilliant solution. His company now sells seeds that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Round-up, allowing farmers to get a better yield for the same dose of herbicide. And just to make sure farmers don’t buy some cheap generic version of the herbicide, the seeds come with a contract obliging them to buy Round-up from Monsanto. One profit centre becomes two and the business world marvels at Shapiro’s acumen.

He further startles the business community by announcing that Monsanto will become the first U.S. company to formally commit to sustainable development as its core business strategy and promises to go beyond compliance with environmental regulations. Monsanto also goes on a buying spree, gobbling up companies with patents on genetic engineering of corn and cotton and others that sell seeds. Soon it is a $35 billion company with power and influence that reaches to the White House, via major campaign contributions.

Genetically engineered foods – made when a gene from one organism is spliced into the genome of another – are a huge business and now include soybeans, corn, canola, papaya, potatoes, radii, squash and tomatoes. Soybeans are the most common example of this phenomenon since they or their products are added to 60 percent of the 10,000-plus varieties of processed food made today, from corn chips to milk shakes, according to Monsanto, which developed biotechnology for genetically engineered soybeans.

Flash ahead to August 10, 1998 and Dr. Arpad Pusztai – a researcher with 35 years of experience at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland and 276 scientific papers to his name - enters from stage left on the set of a British television show. He shocks Britain when he says his research into rats fed genetically modified potatoes reveals damage to their immune systems and stunted growth. He says he regrets that humans are being used as guinea pigs for the safety of GM foods.

Pusztai is twice supported in press releases by Rowett’s director Phillip James, then – allegedly after a visit to James from a Monsanto representative – suspended and forced to retire.

Events spiral with strange twists and turns. In September, a 14,000 print run of The Ecologist magazine is mysteriously pulped by its printer without reason. The edition focuses on biotechnology and accuses Monsanto of working against sustainable agriculture. On the other side of the Atlantic, Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey are about to publish their book Against the Grain which concludes that the quest for corporate profits has ridden roughshod over questions of public health, freedom of choice and ecological stability in the biotechnology debate.

Monsanto threatens to sue them for libel over references to the company, their original publisher reneges on its publishing commitment, and the authors are forced to find a new publisher – Common Courage Press of Maine. No lawsuit has yet been launched despite the book’s contention Monsanto is less concerned about human health and more about engineering crops compatible with its chemicals.

On February 12, 1999, a group of 23 scientists from around the world announce they have reviewed Pusztai’s work and call for his vindication. Just before the prestigious Royal Society, after its own investigation, dismisses Pusztai’s research as irrelevant and inconclusive, the British Medical Association – representing 150,000 doctors – calls for an open-ended ban on GM crops. The British press is in an uproar with headlines about Frankenfoods and Monster Mash and some think tanks begin to mutter about controls on the media.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair – whose government also benefited from Monsanto political donations and met with Monsanto representatives on more than 50 occasions – refuses calls for a ban on GM foods. Prince Charles posts his anti-GM food thoughts on his Internet website, much to Blair’s chagrin. Sir Paul McCartney says Blair is wrong to support genetically modified food and announces he is spending £3 million ensuring the vegetarian meal range created by his late wife Linda will be completely GM-free.

British and other European food producers are going GM-free, slashing their imports of soybeans, corn, and canola from the U.S. and Canada. Supermarkets in Britain announce they will phase out GM ingredients and derivatives from their own brand products. Even British restaurants, including the UK's largest fast food outlet McDonald's, are responding to consumer concern and removing GM ingredients from their food.

The term genetic pollution officially entered the public lexicon on May 20, when scientists at Cornell University reported in the journal Nature that pollen from genetically engineered corn containing a toxin gene called Bt killed 44 percent of the monarch butterfly caterpillars who fed on milkweed leaves dusted with it. This is the kind of occurrence many scientists have been warning may be one of the cruel side effects of GM crops.

The debate isn’t over. Petitions protesting GM foods are circulating in the U.S. and Canada. The International Center for Technology Assessment and the Alliance for Bio-Integrity have a lawsuit before U.S. courts demanding mandatory labeling and safety-testing of GE foods and crops. Under intense public pressure, Monsanto announces it will stop marketing Terminator seeds until studies examining their environmental, economic and social effects are completed. (The genetically engineered terminator gene, when inserted into plants, results in crops that produce sterile seeds, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year.)

Like many in the public, I merely want to be fed the truth, not have a questionable technology shoved down my throat by a conglomerate that is only sustaining its own profits.

ONE SMALL STEP - Eat a local diet. Grow your own food and support local farmers, natural food stores, and food co-ops. You’ll save money, eat quality foods, create jobs, increase farmlands, and strengthen your community. You also reduce transportation and energy costs from shipping food.

Some suggested reading about biotechnology: Against the Grain (mentioned in above article); Framageddon by Brewster Kneen, New Society Publishers, 1999; and Biopiracy by Vandana Shiva, Between the Lines, 1997. Suggested internet sites: www.foodbiotech.org/, www.purefood.org/, www.monsanto.com/, www.oneworld.org/guides/biotech/, www.safe-food.org/, and www.freenetpages.co.uk/hp/a.pusztai/


All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.