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Winter 2001

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Debating genetically modified foods

by Steve Gilman

     As a longtime organic farmer in the Town of Saratoga, I pricked up my ears at the news that Skidmore was conducting a lecture series on industrialized agriculture and genetically engineered foods this fall. I had already heard about researchers Dennis Avery and Arpad Pusztai through my farm news publications and e-mail lists as well as the mainstream media. As two of the Skidmore guest lecturers, they couldn’t have provided a greater study in contrast.

     Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, has prospered considerably in his role as proponent of agribusiness and biotechnology. He has also gained a reputation as their hatchet man against organic agriculture. The Hudson Institute, located in Indianapolis, has been described as a right-wing think tank, boasting Dan Quayle on its board of directors and a well-heeled donor list including most of the world’s largest agricultural corporations like Dow AgroSciences, Novartis, and Monsanto.

     In John Stossel’s investigative report “How Good Is Organic Food?” on ABC’s 20/20 televised last February and July, Avery was the featured expert who claimed that organic food has higher levels of pathogenic E. coli bacteria. Stossel had to publicly apologize in August, however, when it was revealed that ABC never performed the tests cited on the program. Avery was also rebuked in 1999 in the New York Times for misstatements citing similar nonexistent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has long attracted the organic community’s attention with screeds on “The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food” and Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic.

     For me, it was as if the devil himself was coming to town. When I introduced myself to him prior to his talk on campus I jokingly remarked that I was amazed to see he didn’t have horns. He very genially replied that he could see why I would think that way.

     In contrast to Avery’s “high-yield farming” advocacy, Hungarian-born biochemist Arpad Pusztai had a different tale to tell. He recently had his $3 million research project in Scotland “prematurely terminated” when his results brought into question the safety of genetically modified (GM) potatoes. Although his work was later verified by further studies from other labs, the defamation and vilification of his research by a threatened biotech industry has cost him his career.

     At one point in his talk “Raising Doubts About the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods: Scientific Research, the Biotechnology Industry, and Government Policy,” Pusztai likened the biotech industry to religious crusaders, deeply believing their work will effect salvation of mankind. If so, he is a true heretic—gagged, cast out, and maligned—a victim, in his words, of “the intolerance of a profit-driven establishment.”

     Pusztai’s sin was to conduct a simple study comparing GM potatoes with unaltered potatoes by feeding them side by side to lab rats. Incredibly, the biotech companies themselves never did these studies. They don’t have to under the Food and Drug Administration’s criterion of “substantial equivalence”—both ultimately are potatoes, after all, which gets around the much more stringent rulings that regulate the testing of new drugs, for instance. Yet the biotech companies do claim product novelty when it comes to the patent office—the addition of the new gene gives them ownership rights for GM crops.

     While Pusztai’s rats showed no adverse effects when fed megadoses of Bacillus thuringiensus, a natural pest-killing bacterium commonly used on organically grown potatoes, they exhibited definite negative metabolic effects when fed GM potatoes containing an altered Bt toxin. Pusztai explained that the modified gene is accompanied by a number of other marker and promoter genes and is expressed full time throughout all parts of the plant—stems, leaves, roots, and tubers. Further, the “gene gun” technology used to blast the extra genetic material into the target organism is far from precise or predictable and can’t determine where the new gene will end up or how it will be expressed. GM foods now contain new proteins and DNA that have never existed or been eaten before, and their true value and safety have not been determined.

     Pusztai said the “half-truths” used by the industry are particularly difficult to combat. To claims that GM crops are the “most tested food,” he countered that the biotech companies’ admittedly huge research budgets are directed at creating the technologies to produce more GM foods and that research decisions are driven by their bottom-line results for shareholders. He said that independent verification of GM is essential but very expensive, and he urged a moratorium on the technology until proper public studies are completed. In addition to food safety concerns, a wider environmental danger is that GM crops can self-replicate and take on a life of their own in nature, spreading by airborne pollen and root exudates, for example.

     In his pro-industry presentation, “Saving Kids and Wildlands with Biotechnology and High-Yield Farming,” Dennis Avery adeptly used many half-truths of his own. His glorification of high-yield farming made no mention of the considerable petroleum-based inputs—chemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides—necessary to produce the crops, and their toxicity to beneficial insects, soil microorganism ecosystems, and human health. Avery’s claims that nitrogen fertilizer is “taken from the air” failed to mention that it is produced with huge quantities of natural gas, whereas organic farming really does take nitrogen from the air by planting legumes—peas, beans, clovers—that naturally gather and fix atmospheric nitrogen in their root systems.

     Much of Avery’s deceptive barrage of facts and figures was designed to justify the need for high-yield agriculture and biotechnology. Setting up the specter of imminent world starvation, he laid blame at the door of “low-yield organic agriculture” working in conjunction with environmentalists and “chemo-phobic yuppies.” He argued that we’d have to “plow the forests” to grow enough food unless we wholeheartedly embrace industrial agriculture. He neglected to mention, however, that U.S. farmers are going broke because of low prices from overproduction, while the world’s poor, displaced by agribusiness and food imports in their own countries, can’t afford to buy the food they once grew for themselves.

     All in all, lecture goers were treated to a contrast that amounted to more than the points of view expressed. The concentration of power in a handful of agribusiness corporations underscores the broader question of the unproven and unsafe technologies being put forward in all our names for the immense profit of a very few.

Steve Gilman owns Ruckytucks Farm near Stillwater, N.Y. He is past president of the Saratoga Farmers’ Market and the Northeast Organic Farming Association. He is currently writing a book, Holistic Organics, due to be published in late 2001.

Editor's note: These lectures are part of a federally funded initiative to enhance and integrate Skidmore’s international affairs and environmental studies curricula. With a U.S. Department of Education grant of $150,000, seventeen faculty members have been developing and redesigning a range of courses to better prepare students for the “century of the environment.”


© 2001 Skidmore College