MAY 2005

 genetically modified foods : commerce triumphs over scientist's experimental proofs and warningsA year later and what has been done about this?
ByMark Dowie

Biotech critics at risk : Economics calls the shots in the debate

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Four biologists from Europe and North America met face to face for the first time on the UC Berkeley campus last month.

Although none of them is particularly famous as a scientist -- not one Nobel among them -- they know each other's names and work as well as if they had been working together for 10 years in the same laboratory. They share a painful experience.

Between 1999 and 2001, unbeknownst to the others, each made a simple but dramatic discovery that challenged the catechism of the same powerful industry -- biotechnology -- that by then had become the handmaiden of industrial agriculture and the darling of venture capitalists, who are still hoping they have invested their most recent billions in "the next big thing."

If any one of the experiments of these four scientists is proved through replication to be valid, the already troubled agricultural arm of biotech will be in truly dire straits. No one knows that better than Monsanto, Sygenta and other biotech firms that have so aggressively attacked the four discoveries in question.

When he was the principal scientific officer of the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, Hungarian citizen Arpad Pusztai fed transgenically modified potatoes to rodents in one of the few experiments that have ever tested the safety of genetically modified food in animals or humans. Almost immediately, the rats displayed tissue and immunological damage.

After he reported his findings, which eventually underwent peer review and were published in the United Kingdom's leading medical journal, Lancet, Pusztai's home was burglarized and his research files taken.

Soon thereafter, he was fired from his job at Rowett, and he has since suffered an orchestrated international campaign of discreditation, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair played an active role.

While Pusztai was fighting for his professional life, Cornell Professor John Losey was patiently dusting milkweed leaves with genetically modified corn pollen. When monarch butterfly larvae that ate the leaves died in significant numbers (while a control group fed nongenetically modified pollen all survived), Losey was not particularly surprised.

The new gene patched into the butterfly's genome was inserted to produce an internal pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), intended to attack and kill the corn borer and some particularly troublesome moth caterpillars.

What did surprise Losey was the vehement attack on his study that followed from Novartis and Monsanto, their open attempts to discredit his work and the extent to which mass media leapt to their support. Losey is still at Cornell, where his future seems secure.

Not true of Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist in the plant sciences department at UC Berkeley. In 2000, Chapela discovered that pollen had drifted several miles from a field of genetically modified corn in Chiapas into the remote mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, landing in the last reserve of biodiverse maize in the world.

If genes from the rogue pollen actually penetrated the DNA of traditional crops, they could potentially eliminate maize biodiversity forever. In his report, Chapela cautiously stated that this indeed might have happened. He expressed that sentiment in a peer-reviewed study published by Nature in November 2001.

After an aggressive public relations campaign mounted for Monsanto by the Bivings Group, a global PR firm that began with a vicious e-mail attack mounted by two "scientists" who turned out to be fictitious, Nature editors did something they had never done in their 133 years of existence. They published a cautious partial retraction of the Chapela report. Largely on the strength of that retraction, Chapela was recently denied tenure at UC Berkeley and informed that he would not be reoffered his teaching assignment in the fall.

When Tyrone Hayes, a UC Berkeley endocrinologist specializing in amphibian development, exposed young frogs in his lab to very small doses of the herbicide Atrazine, they first failed to develop normal larynxes and later displayed serious reproductive problems (males became hermaphrodites), suggesting that Atrazine might be an endocrine disrupter.

Hayes' subsequent experience differed slightly from the other panelists', but was no less troubling to academic scientists. As soon as word of Hayes' findings reached Sygenta Corp. (formerly Novartis) and its contractor, Ecorisk Inc., attempts were made to stall his research. Funding was withheld. It was a critical time, as the EPA was close to making a final ruling on Atrazine. Hermaphroditic frogs would not help Sygenta's cause.

Hayes continued the research with his own funds and found more of the same results, whereupon Sygenta offered him $2 million to continue his research "in a private setting." A committed teacher with a lab full of loyal students, Hayes declined the offer and proceeded with research that he knew had to remain in public domain.

This time he found damaging developmental effects of Atrazine at even lower levels (0.1 parts per billion). When his work appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sygenta attacked the study and claimed that three other labs it contracted had been unable to duplicate Hayes' results.

Hayes, who keeps his head down on the Berkeley campus, has obtained tenure and continues to teach. But his studies that could affect approval of the most widely used chemical in U.S. agriculture are being stifled at every turn.

In a public conversation attended by 500 people and Webcast to 4,000 more worldwide recently on the Berkeley campus, Pusztai, Losey, Hayes and Chapela shared their experiences and together explored ways to prevent similar fates from ever happening to their peers. Their similar stories provide a unique window into a disturbing trend in modern science.

None of the four complained that his science had been challenged, although in each case it had. All science is and should be challenged. No one knows that better than a practicing scientist, who also knows that if tenure depended on a perfect experimental record, there would be very few tenured scientists anywhere in the world.

These four men were not attacked because of flawed or imperfect experiments but because the findings of their work have a potential economic effect. The sad part is that the academies and other allegedly independent institutions that once defended scientific freedom and protected employees like Hayes, Chapela, Losey and Pusztai are abandoning them to the wolves of commerce, the brands of which are being engraved over the entrances to a disturbing number of university labs.

Mark Dowie lives in Point Reyes and teaches a science writing class at UC Graduate School of Journalism.

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Note: To become more informed of the dangers of GMO foods, to download a letter to food manufacturers, and to learn how to avoid buying and eating GMO foods, see To sign up for an excellent newsletter on Genetically Modified Organisms and their impact, see

Take Action

Here are a few of the many effective actions you can take to help raise awareness of the GMO issue, and to inspire change.

Stay informed

Sign up for the newsletter and stay up-to-date on the issues. The newsletter is produced by the Institute for Responsible Technology, founded by Jeffrey Smith.

Inform and inspire other individuals

Let your friends and family know that you're concerned about GM foods. Help create a buzz about the issue. Understand that to convince someone that GM foods carry serious risks may take a prolonged discussion. An even longer discussion may be needed to inspire someone to actually change his or her lifelong eating habits. That's where the book Seeds of Deception may help. It's a portable long discussion-one that can be passed around. And it is unedited by the media and unsanitized by the industry. Pass around your copy, or buy several at a discount to help get the word out. Knowledge has organizing power.

Inform and inspire Opinion Leaders

Books have power. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle exposed the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry. After Teddy Roosevelt read the book on a long train trip, he pushed a bill through congress creating meat inspection. At a press conference, President Kennedy acknowledged the importance of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which exposed the dangers of pesticides. Kennedy then had his scientific advisor look into the issue. According to PBS, the book was eventually "credited with beginning the American environmental movement, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the 1972 ban on DDT."

If the facts get to the right people, someone might make a big difference. Consider sending a book to influential people you know. Or you can donate books that will be sent or hand-delivered to politicians, food industry executives, reporters, and celebrities.

Write Your County Councils and Politicians and Executives of large Food Industries

The newsletter will have action alerts for organized letter writing and email campaigns. You can also click here (opens in new window) to Co-Sponsor H.R. 2916, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act of 2003.

Inspire Food Manufacturers to Remove GMOs

Executives of large food companies may have a more immediate influence on the GMO marketplace than government. This was exhibited in the UK in 1998, where the head of Iceland Frozen Foods sparked a revolution. After receiving several letters expressing concerns about GM foods, the company's chairman Malcolm Walker decided to find out what all the fuss was about. After learning about the issues, he ordered that GM soy and corn be removed from the company's house brand. Brochures denouncing GM foods were handed out at his chain of stores. Within half a year, the rest of the UK food industry followed suit. Executives from other chains acknowledged the influence of Iceland Frozen Foods on their decisions.

In the U.S., Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe's announced that GMOs would be removed from their store brands. Gerber baby foods, as well as scores of health food products, have similarly changed their ingredients.

When a store or brand removes GM ingredients, it has a ripple effect through the industry. After a supermarket chain commits to eliminate GMOs, they usually send out a letter to their suppliers who in turn contact their suppliers and so on. A store may have hundreds of food items, each with a list of ingredients. Hundreds or thousands of businesses can be affected, right back to the farm level.

Most food companies who remove GMOs are not motivated by food safety. It's usually economics-make a change or lose the customer. Buyers, therefore, are at the top of the food chain. They move the market. When McDonalds, Pringles, and the other major potato buyers decided not to sell Monsanto's GM New Leaf potato, for example, it was soon taken off the market. McDonalds and others doomed Monsanto's potato because they wanted to satisfy consumer demands. We have that power.

When the presence of genetically engineered StarLink corn-not approved for human consumption-was discovered in food products in 2000, companies that spent millions in costly recalls began questioning their support for biotech and even publicly challenged loose government policies. In November 2002, the food industry got another heads up. Grains of corn that had been engineered to produce a vaccine for fighting a diarrhea-causing virus in pigs was accidentally mixed into 500,000 bushels of soybeans in a Nebraska grain facility. The USDA ordered the soy to be destroyed and the corn's maker, Prodigene, to pay the $2.8 million bill. The fact that the contamination was even discovered was based on several coincidences and could easily have been missed. News reports of the incident also revealed that two months earlier, Prodigene had to destroy 155 acres of corn in Iowa, because wind-blown pollen from its drug-producing corn may have contaminated that as well.

Food companies realized that they had narrowly missed another StarLink. They are now clearly concerned. They realize how vulnerable they are to another StarLink-type recall, and they have some idea that the government is not adequately protecting consumers. The time may be perfect to create a U.S. food industry landslide. Even one large company changing its policy could make GM foods unpopular very quickly. That is the thinking behind GE Food Alert, a coalition of seven organizations that have targeted America's largest food manufacturer, Kraft foods. Their campaign, described at, is rallying consumers to contact Kraft, to ask the company to take out GM ingredients.

Please email or write food companies to share your concerns about GM foods. If you have stopped buying a food brand due to GMO issues, definitely let the company know. With your message, please suggest that they read this book; they'll learn about the health risks of GM foods and the significant liability they face by using them. You can download sample letters and emails.

Local Action

One of the easiest ways to motivate the food industry to remove GM foods is to inspire change at the local level. Sometimes all it takes is a simple request.


Download notes to give to restaurant owners that will explain the issue and help them to make a switch. There are also notes you can give to waiters or waitresses to help them accommodate your desire for non-GMO food.

From Jeffrey Smith: "I asked the owner of a local restaurant to take GM foods off his menu, explaining that there were several people in town that avoided them. He invited me into his kitchen to see what that would involve. He then switched from soy oil to olive and sunflower oils, replaced his zucchini with an organic source, and started using organic milk. Since his menu items used almost no packaged foods, the changes were simple and inexpensive. I wrote a short article about it for a local weekly paper, which he posted on his window. He saw an immediate increase in business.

"Not to be outdone, a competing restaurant one block away also removed GM foods. I wrote an article for them as well. Two nearby restaurants then switched to non-GM oil and organic dairy. In fact, they raised the prices on a few entrees by $.50 to cover the increased costs and posted signs explaining what they had done. Customers loved it. Now other restaurants in town are making the switch.

"I never once had to discuss any safety issues about GM foods. It was enough for the restaurant owners to know that their customers preferred not to eat GM foods, or that a competitor was responding to that preference."

Non-GMO School Meals

Of all the local strategies, inspiring schools to make a change may be the most powerful. Schools throughout the UK and parts of Europe banned GM food years ago. In the 1990s, many Parent and Teacher Associations (PTAs) in the U.S. rallied against rbGH and more than a hundred school districts banned milk from rbGH-treated cows. Wisconsin dairy farmer John Kinsman describes the method he used to inspire several schools. "I simply talked to parents of small children. Once mothers heard about this, they didn't rest until their school made the commitment." Children are at greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods. Since there are few forces in nature stronger than a mother protecting her child, Kinsman's strategy is powerful. A Connecticut woman also found that having a member of the school board on her side was important. Download sample letters you can use to make the approach to parents, board members, and others easy and effective. Find your local PTA ( Similarly, there are letters that can be sent to campus food services.

ISIS Press Release 04/04/05

Science versus Democracy?

Professor Peter Saunders uncovers some uncomfortable truths about those who oppose democracy in science

Earlier this year, ISIS was sent some free tickets to a "Westminster Fringe Debate", sponsored by the Stockholm Network and the Economist magazine. The motion for debate was "Democratisation of science would not be in the public interest", and a note on the invitations explained what the organisers had in mind:

"Science is driven by curiosity. Would any attempt to put that under greater public scrutiny deaden scientific inquiry or must scientists now come to terms with the fears and priorities of society at large? And is public accountability a meaningful concept in science? Scientists may not know what they are going to discover when they start experimenting or to what use it may ultimately be put. Are the public qualified to determine the priorities of scientific research? Is that untrammelled freedom for science out of date and dangerous?"

That made us more than a bit suspicious as it sounded like someone setting up a straw man so it could be knocked down. Scientists are driven by curiosity, but they are also driven by ambition, profit, by a burning desire to benefit humankind, and other motives good and bad. Above all, doing science costs money, which means that the priorities are inevitably influenced, and in far too many cases actually set, by whoever controls the funding.

So when we speak about the democratisation of science, we do not mean allowing influences from outside science to determine research priorities. That already happens. The question is who does the influencing. Should it be just business, industry and the large foundations, or can the rest of us ordinary citizens have a say as well?

We were not surprised to find Lord Taverne opposing democracy in science (see Box) but we were dismayed to find the Chief Executive of the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), Colin Blakemore, on the same side.

Lord Dick Taverne and Sense About Science (

Lord Dick Taverne chairs the pro-GM lobby group the Association of Sense about Science, and is author of The March of Unreason (2005), a book attacking the environmental movement for being anti-GM and anti-science. He himself has no background in science, which may be why he has been championing biotechnology as though that’s all there is to science.

Sense about Science, set up in 2002 ahead of the UK’s public debate on the commercial growing of GM crop, promotes its pro-GM views to peers, MPs and the media; its numerous funders include corporations, institutes and individuals with interests in biotech.

Does Blakemore believe there are no important influences from outside science that determine the priorities for research? The very existence of a separate funding agency with money earmarked for medical research is proof of that. Or does he believe only that the public should be excluded? We put those questions to him during the discussion but were left unclear as to exactly where he stands.

Blakemore argued that Crick and Watson would not have been able to do their work if the public had been able to direct their research. He had to be reminded that while this was hypothetical, history tells us that they certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to do it if the MRC, the body he now heads, had known what they were up to. Fortunately, the MRC didn’t find out until it was too late.

Against the motion were Ian Gibson MP, the chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, and Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist at University College London and Scientist in Residence at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. They put the case for democracy well, but to our astonishment, the motion was carried; possibly because the audience was not exactly a random sample of the population. So we decided to look into it.

It turns out that the Stockholm Network, which co-sponsored the debate, describes itself as "a network of 120 market-oriented think tanks in Europe and further afield." It is listed on the home page of a larger network, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, an American organisation based near Washington. Atlas "brings freedom to the world by helping develop and strengthen a network of market-oriented think tanks that spans the globe," and its vision is, "To achieve a society of free and responsible individuals, based on property rights, limited government under the rule of law, and the market order."

One of Atlas’ major activities is its Templeton Freedom Awards Program, which aims to promote the advance of economic freedom and "the virtues that support successful capitalist economies". The awards are funded by the John Templeton Foundation that also spends a lot of money supporting research into connections between religion and science. You may have seen the recent announcement of a $2 million initial grant for a centre at Oxford, headed by Susan Greenfield, to explore the physiological basis of beliefs; one of its first projects will be an investigation into whether people cope with pain differently depending on their faith.

I don’t doubt that some scientists are genuinely interested in such questions; different scientists are interested in many different things. But the reason this research is going ahead when other projects are not is that the directors of a wealthy foundation want it done. Are people who happen to have a lot of money qualified to determine the priorities of scientific research? Even if you think they are, does that count as untrammelled freedom for the scientist?

Science can’t help but be influenced by the society in which it is done. This influence can be democratic, with public participation in setting priorities, or it can be the preserve of small, powerful groups. It is perhaps not surprising that those who want society to be based on property rights and the market should be opposed to democracy in science as well.

To help democratise science, please endorse the Independent Science Panel’s Comment to the European Commission. http://www.i-