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Words from Other Birds

This month we turn to Ronnie Cummins of BioDemocracy Newswho has probed the environs of Genetic Engineering and compiled information on the biotech industry's discovery and handling of StarLink corn's unexpected appearance in our food supply. Ronnie, who has been BioDemocracy's information resource on GMOs, also presents the public's reaction to our government's reluctance to enforce testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Ronnie and Ben Lilliston have co-authored the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
BioDemocracy News
is a publication of the Organic Consumers Association http://www.purefood.org and http://www.organicconsumers.org.

Frankenfoods: Food Safety Crisis Intensifies

By Ronnie Cummins

Corporate agribusiness and the biotech industry had a "bad hair" year in 2000. After promising Wall Street that genetic engineering and American-style factory farming were about to conquer the world and that free trade, monopoly patents on living organisms, and the enforcement powers of the World Trade Organization were going to whip consumers and the world's 2.4 billion farmers and rural villagers into line, Year One of the Biotech Century turned out to be something of a disaster. Behind the bravado of public relations and the reassurances of government bureaucrats, the food industry and the Gene Giants are in serious disarray. For the first time in five years the amount of global acreage devoted to biotech crops has leveled off and appears headed in 2001 for significant decreases.

"Despite untold billions spent in research and advertising, the public en masse has begun to reject this vision of industrial food and all that accompanies it. We have begun to understand that these chemical and biological techno-fixes come with hidden and terrible costs to human health and to the environment. We have seen cancer epidemics, widespread pollution of water and air, exponential loss of topsoil and biodiversity, terrible cruelty to animals and, most directly, tasteless and unhealthy food. Tens of millions of Americans have decided to vote, day after day, with their food dollars. More of us are eating organic than ever before, and organic food production is the fastest-growing segment in US agriculture today." (The Kimbrell quote is from our new book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers by Ronnie Cummins & Ben Lilliston).

Biotech Bytes: FDA Says No Labeling, No Safety-Testing Required

On Jan. 17, the Food and Drug Administration issued its long-awaited proposed federal regulations on genetically engineered foods and crops. As anticipated the FDA refused to call for mandatory labeling or mandatory safety-testing--despite numerous polls showing 80-95% of Americans want labeling and safety-testing, or, better yet, no genetically engineered foods at all. There will now be a 75-day period for the public to comment on the FDA rules, and to demand a moratorium. Stay tuned to http://www.organicconsumers.org or http://www.gefoodalert.org for guidelines on how to send a letter or fax to the feds on this issue. In a Washington, DC press conference on Jan. 17 the Organic Consumers Association's national coalition, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, strongly condemned the FDA for utterly failing to regulate agricultural biotechnology. Unless rigorous, independent, pre-market safety testing can demonstrate that GE foods and crops are safe, these products must not be allowed on the market.

The FDA's proposed regulations simply throw more fuel on the fire of the Frankenfoods debate. But of course the additional controversy that this now official FDA "no labeling, no safety-testing" policy will generate is just part of the growing global food fight. Over the past few months, things have gone from bad to worse for the agbiotech lobby. Among recent developments are the following:

An internal industry study, conducted for Kellogg, ConAgra, Unilever, and Aventis, publicized in the Toronto Star Jan. 9, flatly predicted up to "billions" of dollars in food industry losses in the aftermath of the recent StarLink corn scandal (see BioDemocracy News #30). Dr. Ann Clark, a plant researcher at the University of Guelph (Canada), said StarLink, an illegal and likely allergenic variety of GE corn found in taco shells and over 300 brand-name products this fall, could prove to be "the beginning of the end" for genetically engineered crops if food companies decide the costs outweigh the benefits. "The food companies are not going to bite the bullet on this one for the industry," Clark said. Corn

In related news, two potentially massive class-action lawsuits were filed in December in Illinois and Iowa by farmers against Aventis, the manufacturer of StarLink seeds. According to the plaintiffs in Iowa, they suffered severe financial losses after "Japan cut its US corn purchases by more than 50% and South Korea, the second largest U.S. corn export market, banned the importation of U.S. corn altogether.'' In late-December, Reuters reported that Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon demanded that Aventis post a $25 million bond "to ensure the company had sufficient funds to compensate farmers and grain handlers hit financially by StarLink." Of the 340,908 acres planted with StarLink corn in the US last year, 134,910 acres were in Iowa and 18,702 acres in Missouri. StarLink was also planted on a significant scale in Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Kansas. Last October a group of consumers filed a lawsuit in Chicago, alleging they were poisoned by StarLink-tainted Kraft Taco Bell shells, while recently 44 people filed complaints with the FDA claiming StarLink products caused them to suffer rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, itching and life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

In the wake of the StarLink disaster, Monsanto announced Nov. 27 it would restrict plantings next year of a new herbicide resistant variety of corn and delay commercialization of another Bt-spliced corn variety until 2002. On Dec. 17, ConAgra, America's second largest food processor, announced a recall of 1.5 million pounds of baking ingredients used by restaurants and institutional food buyers. The same week in a letter mailed to farmers giant corn processor A.E. Staley stated, "The only truly safe seed selection [next year] will be seed corn free of any genetic modification."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 20 that Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. "is beginning to air ads on 24 Iowa and Illinois radio stations warning farmers that ADM mills will buy only crops 'that have full feed and food approval world-wide.' "

"We don't want another StarLink," said Larry Cunningham, an ADM spokesman. In a further blow to the industry, Aventis announced in late-November that it found some of the same Cry9C protein--the key component of StarLink corn--in another variety of 1998 corn seed produced by Garst Seed Co. of Iowa. USDA officials admitted that they "didn't understand" how this 1998 contamination could have occurred.

US activists delivered a blunt warning to the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 16 in San Francisco. Campaigners from Greenpeace, joined by the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, Ruckus Society, the Ecology Center, and Pesticide Action Network, wearing biohazard suits, dumped two tons of StarLink contaminated corn in front of the EPA headquarters, demanding that the agency deny approval of the gene-altered corn for human consumption and take action regarding the environmental damage already being inflicted by genetically engineered crops. "EPA's own scientific advisors say they don't know if this corn is safe for people," said Simon Harris of the Organic Consumers Association.

"The health of Americans should not be put at risk simply for the convenience of the biotech industry." On November 28, the EPA heard from a Scientific Advisory Panel that StarLink may be already setting off food allergies. For the full testimony of Dr. Michael Hansen from the Consumers Union on StarLink and Bt corn allergenicity see http://www.purefood.org/ge/hansenstarlink.cfm

On Nov. 14, responding to pressure from Greenpeace and others, McDonald's announced that by April 2001 all its restaurants in Germany, Denmark and Sweden will serve only chicken raised on GE-free feed. Five days later McDonald's UK made a similar announcement. According to the European press, other large food chains are likely to follow suit. The move by McDonald's is especially significant since almost all US genetically engineered soybeans exported to Europe are now funneled into animal feeds. McDonald's is the largest buyer of agricultural commodities in Europe.

The safety of genetically engineered foods once again came into question Dec. 15 when the prestigious journal, Science, published an article by two fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The article, by Dr. LaReesa Wolfenbarger and Dr. Paul Phifer, emphasized that there has been almost no peer-reviewed scientific research published which shows that GE crops are safe for the environment. In their study, Wolfenbarger and Phifer state that researching environmental risks is likely to be complicated, with risks varying over time among crops, among strains of a single crop, and between environments. Some risks, they say, may be all but impossible to assess.

In a related story, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, the UK's most well-know critic of biotech, after surveying the world scientific literature on animal feeding studies, found a grand total of only four peer-reviewed articles on genetically engineered foods, despite Monsanto and industry claims that scores of scientific papers have proven their safety. Pusztai's own safety studies in the late 1990s, conducted at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, caused a major stir in Europe, when lab rats fed genetically engineered potatoes spliced with lectin suffered serious damage to their vital organs.

Barbara Keeler and Marc Lappe reported in a potentially explosive story in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 7 that the FDA apparently ignored troubling data which Monsanto published in the Journal of Nutrition in March 1996--data which strongly suggests that Roundup Ready soybeans, the world's most widely cultivated genetically engineered crop, may set off food allergies in humans. According to the authors, data in Monsanto's study "shows that, relative to conventional soy meal, raw Roundup Ready soy meal contained 27% more trypsin inhibitor, a potential allergen that interferes with protein digestion and has been associated with enlarged cells in rat pancreases." According to Keeler and Lappe "This important measurement was camouflaged in a table on unrelated information."

After toasting the GE soy meal several times, the levels of another allergen, called lectin, were nearly double those in conventional soybeans. Scientists have warned for years that conventional soybeans contain low levels of 14 proteins that can potentially set off food allergies in humans and that genetically engineering soybeans could possibly cause the level of one or more of these 14 proteins to significantly increase. However, hiding behind the doctrine of "substantial equivalence," the FDA did not require Monsanto to submit comprehensive data on herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready soybeans before they were brought on the market. In effect, this means that RR soybeans may already be setting off food allergies among large numbers of people, given that 54% of America's soybean crop is genetically engineered, while 60% of all processed foods contain soy or soy derivatives.

In 1999, the York Nutritional Lab in the UK, commenting on a mysterious 50% rise in soy allergies among British consumers, attributed the increase in food allergies to the fact that consumers the previous year had begun ingesting large amount of imported GE soybeans. For the LA Times article see http://www.purefood.org/gefood/fdaignoredata.cfm

On Nov. 11, speaking to a massive crowd at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II urged extreme caution concerning genetically engineered food, stating that the use of biotechnology in agriculture, "cannot be evaluated only on the basis of immediate economic interests. It is necessary to subject it in advance to rigorous scientific and ethical checking to prevent it ending up in disaster for... the future of the earth."

On Nov. 14, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism passed a resolution on labeling of genetically engineered food. The Commission called on the government to "monitor the health, ecological and religious liberty implications of genetic engineering. " Among Protestant denominations the United Methodist Church recently called for mandatory labeling of all GE foods, with pre-market safety testing required. According to Jaydee Hansen of the UMC, "We call for policies that encourage the gradual transition to sustainable and organic agriculture."

By the way, you can still get to the Organic Consumers Association by going to http://www.purefood.org We're now using http://www.organicconsumers.org as our primary internet address simply because our adversaries have set up a counterfeit internet site, filled with lies and industry propaganda, at http://www.purefood.org. Take a look at this site if you want to see what we're up against. Keep in mind, however, that the "Bad Guys" wouldn't be doing this except for the fact that we're winning the battle.

Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association
6101 Cliff Estate Road
Little Maraia, Minnesota 55614
Phone: 218-226-4164
FAX: 218-226-4157
E-mail: ronnie@organicconsumers.org

To subscribe to the free monthly newsletter, Bio-Democracy News,go to the website http://www.organicconsumers.org.

Click here for past Words from Other Birds Articles

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