Is Monsanto Using Us As “Human Guinea Pigs”?

October 21, 2011Sectorby David Smith

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Is Monsanto Using Us As “Human Guinea Pigs”?

Nearly all research into GM (Genetically Modified) foods is funded by Monsanto, or other bio-tech companies, meaning truly independent data is rare. Some scientists claim only GM foods can feed the world’s booming population, but others say we are only using people as “human guinea pigs”.

Professor Terje Traavik is in a rare and privileged position in the world of GM research. As scientific director of Norway’s GenØk Centre for Biosafety, he presides over the only research institution in the field of gene ecology which is completely independent of funding from bio-tech companies like Monsanto.

“I live in a special country, giving me support for my independence from everybody except some colleagues,” said Professor Traavik, whose own research into GM crops was attacked mercilessly by the bio-tech industry. “I feel sorry for some scientists researching this area because of their lack of independence from the corporate giants. During conferences, over a post-meeting beer, they always say I’m lucky because I can say exactly what I want. Poor sods. I hope their salaries make up for their suffering.

Professor Traavik has been claiming for years in speeches given all over the world that 95 percent of scientists working within relevant GM research areas (genetic engineering, molecular biology and genetics, synthetic biology) are directly, or indirectly, working for the bio-tech industry, whereas only 5 percent are independent.  

“Industry representatives and agents dispute most of my conclusions, but never this one,” he said. “This is a far-reaching problem for societies, ecosystems and the Earth. Where do politicians and the public get unbiased scientific advice? These problems are especially grim in third-world countries, where they can’t afford ‘luxury’ research, so the bio-tech industry builds all the labs and pays wages, supplying money and instruments for the ‘right kind of science’ - no strings attached, of course!”

Despite widespread reports of the intimidation of scientists who produce ‘inconvenient’ results, Professor Traavik says intimidation is usually unnecessary.

“The scientific establishment is more than ever just that: an establishment. Monsanto et al do not need to intimidate the majority of scientists, because they are already on board their teams. That is why there is no shortage of techniques, methods and technologies within life sciences, but there is a shortage of critical minds and original hypotheses,” he said.

The sheer weight of industry money, allied to widespread cuts in education funding, makes it hard to resist corporate cash. But companies like Monsanto are far more interested in production-oriented research than research about potential risks, Professor Traavik says. “The ratio of funding is 1000:1 in favour of production,” he said.  

A more complex perspective on scientific objectivity comes from Elson Shields, a Professor of entomology at Cornell University. Professor Shields admits that most university research into GMs is funded by Monsanto, or other bio-techs, but he argues that the science can still be independent.

If there is a legal contract between Monsanto and me that says I can publish anything I want given good results, am I tainted by taking their money? I don’t believe I am because I have my personal and professional integrity, and the results are published in peer review publications,” he said.

Professor Shields, however, agrees with Professor Traavik that independent research is desirable in the field of GM crops, but is hindered by the fact that scientists cannot buy bags of biotech seed and do independent research because of legal restrictions on the use of patented varieties.

As a result of these concerns, Professor Shields, and 23 other leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions, sent a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saying that data on GMs was “unduly limited”.

The statement said: “These (legal) agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions.”

Professor Shields stresses that the public exposure of the issues by the group - which has led to easier access to seeds - did not mean they were opposed to GM foods.

“People think we objected because we are anti-GM and we are not. Our philosophy is that to prevent starvation in the world’s burgeoning population, it will take extraordinary genetic manipulations,” he said.

Professor Shields acknowledges, however, that some of the younger research scientists he works with are concerned that their public views could affect their careers if companies denied them access to patented traits and new varieties.

“One of the things we said as a group was that the established scientists will be in the public eye so that if a GM company wants to attack us, we are already well-established. If you are a young scientist and your assignment is working on insect pests in a corn state and companies decide they won’t work with you, you have a problem,” he said.

Professor Shields says that as a result of the group’s public stand – and the attendant negative publicity for the bio-techs in the New York Times – since 2010 public scientists in research institutions across the US can conduct “a wide range of independent research with minimal restrictions on commercially available GM varieties under broad legal agreements negotiated with their institutions and the GM companies”.   

But these public institutions are still a small minority in the US, and many scientists still fear a corporate backlash if they publish undesirable results. They hear having access to seeds removed, or smear attacks. This has already happened to a significant number of scientists.

Scientists Under Attack

The most famous incident involved Dr Arpad Pusztai, one of the world’s top researchers in his field of lectin proteins and a senior researcher at the prestigious Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. When Dr Pusztai fed supposedly GM potatoes to rats, they developed potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partially atrophied livers, and a damaged immune system.   

Dr Pusztai stated on TV: “If I had the choice I would certainly not eat it”, and that” “I find it’s very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs”.

Two days later, his 35-year career at the Institute was ended amid persistent rumours of phone calls to the director from Downing Street. Dr Pusztai was silenced with threats of a lawsuit, but eventually, he was invited to speak before Parliament, his gag order lifted, and his research published in the prestigious Lancet.   

In Latin America, the research by the embryologist Andrés Carrasco, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Embryology, at the University of Buenos Aires, caused a similar rumpus. In 2010, he showed that Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide sold in conjunction with most GM crops, could cause defects in the brain, intestines, and hearts of amphibian fetuses. His research confirmed reports from peasants that they had suffered adverse health consequences. Later, a violent gang prevented him from giving a speech on his findings.

In an interview with GM Watch, Professor Carrasco said: “The findings in the lab are compatible with malformations observed in humans exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy. In spite of the evidence, they still tried to run down 30 years of my reputation as a scientist.

"They are hypocrites, lackeys of the big corporations, but they are afraid. They know they can’t cover up the sun with one hand. There is scientific proof and, above all, there are hundreds of affected towns which are living proof of this public health emergency... I have confirmed that glyphosate is devastating for amphibian embryos, even at doses far below those used in agriculture. This chemical causes many and varied types of malformations.”

Ohio State University plant ecologist Allison Snow was one many scientists to have their supply of seeds terminated. After she discovered problematic side effects in GM sunflowers, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow AgroSciences blocked further research by withholding GM seeds and genes.

Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey suffered the same fate after they found significant reductions in cancer-fighting isoflavones in Monsanto’s GM soybeans. After publication, the seed seller, Hartz, told them they would no longer provide samples.

And when Hungarian Professor Bela Darvas discovered that Monsanto’s GM corn hurt endangered species in his country, Monsanto shut off his supplies. Dr Darvas later gave a speech on his preliminary findings and discovered that a false and incriminating report about his research was circulating. He traced it to a Monsanto public relations employee, who claimed it mysteriously appeared on her desk, so she faxed it out.

University of California Berkeley professor Ignacio Chapela was also the victim of a calculated attack. After his discovery that GM corn had contaminated crops in Mexico, he found himself denigrated all over the web. An investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian traced the viral abuse to two fictitious characters fabricated by Monsanto’s PR firm, who had posted inflammatory remarks on a listserv of scientists.

Professor Chapela, has claimed there is a de facto ban on scientists “asking certain questions and finding certain results”. He said: “It’s very hard for us to publish in this field. People are scared.”

A Global Experiment With The World’s Food Supply

The attacks can also come from scientists whose opinions may not be entirely objective. An article in the prestigious journal Nature, in September, 2009, describes this tactic.

“A large block of scientists who denigrate research by other legitimate scientists in a knee-jerk, partisan, emotional way that is not helpful in advancing knowledge and is outside the ideals of scientific inquiry, Nature said. “These strikes are launched from within the scientific community” and are sometimes “emotional and personal,” and can even “accuse scientists of misconduct”.  

A further problem in the industry is conflict of interest. Many individuals have switched between jobs with responsibility for regulating the biotech industry, and working for Monsanto. Here are a few examples:

Dr Michael A. Friedman, formerly the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deputy commissioner for operations, joined Monsanto in 1999 as a senior vice president. When Linda J. Fisher left her role as an assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she became a vice president of Monsanto, from 1995 to 2000, only to return to the EPA as deputy administrator the next year. William D. Ruckelshaus, former EPA administrator, and Mickey Kantor, former US trade representative, each served on Monsanto’s board after leaving government. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney in Monsanto’s corporate-law department in the 1970s. He wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a crucial G.M-seed patent-rights case in 2001 that benefited Monsanto and other seed companies. 

“These sorts of conflicts of interest are a reality. We don’t like it but I’m not sure we can do anything about it,” said Professor Shields.

For all the reasons cited above, Professor Traavik says that 15 years after the first GM foods came on the market, most scientifically based hypotheses about the unintended effects of GM foods have not yet been tested in “robust experiments by independent researchers”. Some scientists consider the globalization of GM food “a global experiment with the world’s food supply”, he said.

Professor Traavik said he, and like-minded scientists, were not against GM foods per se, but felt more independent research was required before they went on the market.

“But we are doubtful whether the GM organisms created by present transgenic technology can ever meet the general precautionary principle (PP) safety requirements, which means they are as safe as non-GM foods. However, we can see on the horizon less invasive genetic modification techniques that may well bring real benefits without unpredictable hazards. The same applies for some of the approaches now termed Synthetic Biology,” he said.

Professor Taarvik said the regulatory organisations will face a flood of applications for the next generations of GE plants (multi-transgenic, nutritionally enhanced, plastic-producing, enhanced for farm fish favourable oils, vaccine-producing, etc). Furthermore, techniques from nanobiotechnology and synthetic biology will converge with recombinant DNA methods into new technologies.

“Ironically speaking, they promise to solve virtually all the environmental and health problems we can ever dream of. But they may potentially also create bio-safety problems we have never dreamt of!”