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Tuesday, January 18, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES
2000-01-18

Democracy Now! Interviews Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced new regulations aimed at reducing the risks from corn genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide. The decision on Friday, anxiously awaited by farmers, environmentalists and the biotech industry, was seen as an acknowledgment of rising concern over the safety of biotech crops. [includes rush transcript]

The EPA is directing biotech seed companies to ask farmers to voluntarily protect monarch butterflies by planting non-genetically engineered corn around the edges of biotech fields. A recent Cornell University study found that the pollen of biotech corn could kill the butterflies.

However, environmentalists say that the measures are not strong enough, because they only require the companies to voluntarily comply with the EPA’s suggestions, and they say that these very same companies have spent the last few months belittling the risks associated with bioengineered corn pollen.

The measures come in the heels of the Battle in Seattle, where tens of thousands of activists took to the streets in protest of the Word Trade Organization’s secretive proceedings. An issue that united farmers and environmentalists around the world on the streets of Seattle was their concern over the economic, health and environmental effects of biotech crops.

Last week, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and producer Maria Carrion headed to the Waldorf-Astoria, where the New York Academy of Medicine was holding an event honoring the role of genetics in the new millennium. Hosted by Katie Couric of the Today Show, the event specifically honored Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, as well as Henry McKinnell, CEO of Pfizer (one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the US) and Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Institute.

Goodman and Carrion got a chance to meet and speak with Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro outside the event’s cocktail party in one of the hotel’s fancy ballrooms, where he agreed to sit down and talk to Democracy Now! for a few minutes. After its stocks fell sharply due to growing public rejection of genetically modified foods, Monsanto recently announced that it was merging with the drug company Pharmacia. Guests:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced new regulations aimed at reducing the risks from corn genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide. The decision on Friday, anxiously awaited by farmers, environmentalists and the biotech industry, was seen as the acknowledgement of rising concerns over the safety of biotech crops.

The EPA is directing biotech seed companies to ask farmers to voluntarily protect monarch butterflies by planting non-genetically engineered corn around the edges of biotech fields. A recent Cornell University study found that the pollen of the biotech corn known as Bt could kill butterflies. However, environmentalists say the measures are not strong enough, because they only require the companies to voluntarily comply with the EPA suggestions. And they say that these very same companies have spent the last few months belittling the risks associated with bioengineered corn pollen.

The measures come on the heels of the Battle in Seattle, where tens of thousands of activists took to the streets to protest the World Trade Organization’s secret proceedings. An issue that united farmers and environmentalists around the world on the streets of Seattle was their concern over genetically engineered crops.

Well, last week, after getting back from Seattle, Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion and I headed over to the Waldorf-Astoria, where the New York Academy of Medicine was holding an event honoring the role of genetics in the new millennium. It was hosted by Katie Couric who is anchor of The Today Show on NBC. The event specifically honored Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, as well as Henry McKinnell, CEO of Pfizer, one of the largest drug companies in the country, and Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Institute.

I got a chance to interview Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro outside of a cocktail party. They said he had four minutes.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Since you only have a few minutes, I’m going to get right to some tough questions, which I know you have been dealing with.

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Sure.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Number one, the UK cafeteria of Monsanto has banned genetically modified food. What is your response to that?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Yeah. It wasn’t the UK cafeteria; it was the vendor that we used to supply the cafeteria. And in the UK, there has been real concern expressed in the media and reflected, I think, on large parts of the public about the issue of genetically modified food and the question of food safety. Those questions, I believe — and more importantly, the regulatory agencies and scientific bodies of the world who have studied the questions believe — those questions have been adequately resolved with respect to the products that are already being marketed. But there is widespread concern on the question of the safety of food in the UK, and I think that this particular vendor was responding to that concern.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Though a serious irony that the Monsanto cafeteria does not provide genetically modified food, though it — of course, Monsanto is a maker of it.

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Well, I think it’s kind of amusing, in a sense. But I don’t think it has substantive meaning. The fundamental question is — I think there — I guess there are two fundamental questions. One is, is the food safe? That’s a question of scientific fact; it’s not an opinion question. And that question has been looked at by regulatory agencies in the US and in the UK and throughout Europe, and the answer has uniformly been yes. The second question is, are people concerned about it? And the answer to that, to varying degrees, is, yes, they are. And in the UK, in particular, I think that reflects a lack of confidence that the regulatory review process adequately protects consumers, and that probably has something to do with their experience with the mad cow phenomenon.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Monsanto has fought the labeling of foods. Why, if you support any kind of freedom of choice of consumers?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    It’s been widely said that we oppose the labeling of food, and that’s simply untrue. It has never been the case. We have never taken a position on the issue of the labeling of food, and the reason for that is very simple. The question of what ought to be labeled in foods is a societal question. It is a question that ought to be resolved through an appropriate social and political process. In the United States, the FDA has taken the position, not Monsanto, that the origin of food oughtn’t be the subject of labeling; rather the nutritional content of food ought to be labeled. That’s an FDA position, not a Monsanto position.

    My own view, for whatever it’s worth, is that consumers have a right to know anything consumers want to know. They’re the consumers. It’s their families who are eating the food, and it’s their money that’s buying the food. If consumers want this sort of information, they ought to express that wish through appropriate political and regulatory channels and let society decide how it wants to deal with the issue. I don’t have a position on it one way or the other, other than to support consumer choice.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    But Monsanto has fought companies putting labels on their food that say, for example, “bovine growth hormone-free.”

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Yeah. That’s a different question. In that case, the FDA came out with guidelines for how that labeling ought to work. And the FDA had found that food — excuse me, that milk was produced with the aid of what we call BST, what you’ve called bovine growth hormone, that milk produced that way is identical to and indistinguishable from milk that’s produced without the use of that supplement. The FDA therefore said that any labeling that purported to distinguish between one kind of milk and the other had to also point out that the FDA had found that there was no difference between the kinds of milk. We have gone to court to enforce that FDA guideline.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    But the FDA didn’t find that it is necessarily safe, that genetically modified food. What they say is that it’s equivalent. What about people who have religious concerns, for example, with GMO foods?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    You have two different subjects mixed up in that. With respect to bovine hormone, they did specifically find it was safe. It went through a full regulatory review, and the finding was it is safe.

    With the respect to genetically modified food, which is a different subject, the FDA test is whether or not the food being produced through the use of biotechnology is substantially equivalent to the food that is being consumed today without the use of biotechnology. And that’s based on their view that that isn’t tantamount to a finding of the safety of the food.

    Oh, and you wanted to talk about the religious issue?

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Yeah.

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Yeah. Obviously, anybody who markets food has to be concerned about the preferences of consumers, whether they’re based on religion or taste or any other factor that leads consumers to come to one conclusion rather than another. Certainly anybody who is choosing to market food that violated the fundamental religious beliefs of any community would, first of all, have to deal with an economic consequence to that and, secondly, would have an obligation, in my view, to allow that community to have meaningful choice.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Three last quick questions. One is, do you think there should be limits on life patents, on patenting of life?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    I think it’s a tricky question. And there’s a balancing act that needs to be required, which is generally true in intellectual property. On the one hand, we do want a domain of freedom where people can freely use the developments of science for whatever purposes without them being restricted through patent law. On the other hand, patents are, in my view, a necessary evil, in the sense that the granting of patents does stimulate people to spend a lot of money on research in order to try to invent things that ultimately will prove beneficial. The patent system is designed to strike a balance between those two public needs, and it does it by providing a patent for a limited period of time. My own sense is that on the whole that’s an appropriate balance.

    But the issue of what is patentable, what constitutes an invention and what society’s view of intellectual endeavor ought to be is, I think — it can’t be answered by slogans. One thing is or isn’t patentable. It’s an important subject, because we do want people to spend a lot of money trying to develop new drugs and more nutritious foods. And patents are one way of providing an incentive for people to do that.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Is Monsanto pledging never to use the terminator seed?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Yes, we’ve already said that.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Never anywhere?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    That’s what we’ve said.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Number —

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Let me be very direct about it. It’s not simply the technology that some have called “terminator,” which, incidentally, was never our technology. It never has been and never will be our technology. But what we’ve said broadly is that we will not use technology that renders seeds sterile, not because there are, in my view, valid either scientific or economic objections to it, but simply because the very concept runs up against some very strong instincts and beliefs about the purpose of agriculture and the vital nature of seed, so that we are not going to use technologies that render seeds sterile.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Last two questions. What did you think of the Battle in Seattle, of the battle around the World Trade Organization and particularly companies like Monsanto?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    I wasn’t there, so I don’t have a first-hand reaction to it. I have read some very moving first-hand reactions from all sides of this. I recently read a piece that Paul Hawken wrote on the subject, and it was clear that Paul was deeply moved, both by the courage of some of the demonstrators and also by the insensitivity, in his view, of the way in which some protest was dealt with by the authorities.

    My own view on it was that it was one of those moments that make very clear the opposition between two ways of thinking about the world and that the issue for our next decade at least, if not the next century or millennium, is going to be, how do you balance the economic efficiencies that come from a reasonably free market system on a globalized basis, on the one hand, and the aspirations of people not to be controlled by abstract and distant profit-making institutions? That’s a balance that society is going to have to bring some wisdom to. I think either pole of it is likely to lead to bad consequences. But working out the balance, I think, is a task that’s going to engage us for quite a while.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    You talked about the authorities and what they did in Seattle. I wanted to go to the issue that has caused a lot of controversy in farming communities around this country — this is the last question — of Monsanto hiring Pinkerton detectives on farmers.

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    I think that was a foolish thing, and it was, I thought, a bad decision that was made for good purposes. The issue is this: we’ve been asking farmers to pay a fee for the use of the technology that we built into seeds. Most of the farm community has accepted that. No one is eager to pay fees, but have accepted that that’s the price of getting better quality and new traits. What the farm community has been very emphatic on is that they don’t want to have some farmers paying and other farmers cheating by retaining seed and not paying for its use. So there was an effort, and I think it was a good faith effort, to try to make sure that people who weren’t abiding by the terms of their contracts with us were sought out and found. I think the use of Pinkertons to do that is inappropriate, and we’ve stopped doing it.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What do you think has been Monsanto’s biggest mistake?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    I think it’s been a naïve belief that the issue of biotechnology is fundamentally a scientific issue, rather than an issue that has to do with people’s values, beliefs and, in particular, their views of the roles of corporations in making social, technological and economic change occur. My sense of Seattle is that that is a fundamental issue of our age, and it’s one where the balance, in many people’s view, has swung too far in the side of corporate power and unrestricted markets. And there have been ages like that in the past, and there’s going to have to be a new balance struck.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    So are you saying in this country you will not oppose labeling of genetically modified food?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    We’ve never opposed labeling of modified food anywhere, nor have we favored it. I want to be very clear about this. We do not regard this as a decision for companies to be making. We regard this as a decision for society as a whole to be making.

    Now, many institutions have taken the view that the label on foods — and I hope you’ll include this full answer and not just pull a line or two of it out — that the labeling of foods is a more complicated issue than simply a slogan about people’s right to know. The question of what goes on a food label is the subject of legislation. It is the subject of FDA regulation. It’s been the subject of a lot of thought and analysis. And my sense of it is that process works reasonably well, and I think the FDA is looking at that question today and will come to appropriate conclusions.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Doesn’t Monsanto lobby on it?

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    No, Monsanto does not lobby on this subject. If anyone asks me my personal view about it, I think I’ve already said it, which is I believe consumers have a right to know anything they want to know. I think the question of whether the food label is the best place to provide that information is a question that companies like Monsanto, or other companies, ought not have a firm position on. Those are questions that ought to be resolved through a regulatory process.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Thank you, Bob Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto.

    ROBERT SHAPIRO:

    Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back with a critic of genetically engineered food and the role of the corporation in deciding what we eat and what is grown around the world in just a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re now joined by Martin Teitel. He is the co-author of a new book called Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature — What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself, Your Family and Our Planet. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Martin Teitel.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Hi, Amy. It’s nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, it’s good to have you with us. As you could hear, I had this opportunity last week to go to the Waldorf-Astoria, where Robert Shapiro, the CEO of Monsanto, was being honored by the New York Academy of Medicine, which prides itself on serving the urban poor. They were honoring the CEO of Pfizer, as well as the CEO of Monsanto. So you’ve just listened to the interview. What’s your response?

MARTIN TEITEL:

He started out talking about his cafeteria, and it is an embarrassment that the Monsanto cafeteria in the UK doesn’t serve genetically engineered food. And he said, well, the regulatory agencies of the world have resolved this question. No, that’s not true. This question hasn’t been resolved at all. There has been a whole series of mixed rulings from regulatory agencies all around the world. After all, most industrialized countries require labeling. Some states and countries have banned genetically engineered food. What he says is simply a wonderfully inaccurate generalization.

He goes on to say the fundamental question is “Is it safe?” And, you know, the case that Shapiro is trying to make is that people are worried, even though these wonderful, wise people in governments have spoken. He’s right. One of the fundamental questions — I don’t think it’s the only one — is “Is this stuff safe?” Well, there are no long-term studies at all — none, zero — regarding the safety of genetically engineered food, and yet it pervades about 60 percent of the processed food in the United States. We’re all eating it. We’re all feeding it to our kids. There are no long-term safety studies. The number of non-industry-funded, peer-reviewed, reasonably objective studies on safety of this food are way, way, way too small. So he’s right, that’s a good question. Is it safe? And what I would say is, it just hasn’t been demonstrated.

AMY GOODMAN:

So what are these corporations saying, or what is Robert Shapiro saying when he says it’s been proven that this food is safe? What studies is he talking about?

MARTIN TEITEL:

He says again and again and again in that piece that you just aired, Amy, that the FDA has found that this genetically engineered food is OK. What he doesn’t say is that the FDA has never tested the food. The corporations who make it have tested it, sent the results to the FDA, sometimes only summaries of the results, and the FDA has accepted those summaries. The FDA is a little bit, in my view, delinquent.

If you don’t mind, let me just read you a little quote from a recent clip from the Toronto Globe and Mail, which says that “Monsanto has become a virtual retirement home for members of the Clinton administration." And it goes on to say — to describe the revolving door between Monsanto’s board and the administrative and regulatory bodies in our government. Monsanto scientists go out, work for the FDA, write up the regulations and then go back to Monsanto. This has been well documented, particularly with bovine growth hormone, which is the conversation you had about milk.

AMY GOODMAN:

Explain exactly what you mean by this revolving door.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, the most famous example is, a fellow named Michael Taylor worked for Monsanto, and he prepared a memo for the company about whether it would be constitutional for states to erect labeling laws concerning bovine growth hormone in dairy products. He was the guy who helped Monsanto figure out if the corporation could sue states who were trying to label milk as being bovine growth hormone-free. Coincidentally, this same Michael Taylor ended up working for the FDA at the time that Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone product was undergoing FDA approval. Taylor then developed — this is the former Monsanto employee — developed the Monsanto BGH labeling policy that Shapiro just referred to when you were talking with him. And this fact — Shapiro says that these are equivalent — was determined by Taylor. When Taylor was done doing that, he left the FDA. And where do you think he went to work? Back at Monsanto. So, Shapiro saying that it’s the FDA that has determined the labeling requirements for bovine growth hormone is true. It was his former and then present employee who did so.

He also said that it was only fair, from his point of view, that this be done, because, after all, the FDA had determined that the — I think he said that there was no difference between bovine growth hormone in milk and milk without bovine growth hormone. First of all, that’s a very controversial statement. There’s a fairly good amount of evidence that says that there is a difference. Second of all, can you think of any other label like that? If it says “fat free,” if it says “contains no MSG,” if it says “dolphin safe,” if it says “kosher,” if it says “organic,” is there another statement that says, well, this is just somebody’s belief, it’s not really true? It’s a very special, odd and really unsupported labeling requirement that happens to have been written by a Monsanto person.

AMY GOODMAN:

We are talking to Marty Teitel, who is co-author of Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature. What about the terminator seed and its implications? Was this a total victory of people who were suspicious of genetically modified food? What was it? And are you satisfied that Monsanto will never develop this technology or use it?

MARTIN TEITEL:

I’m actually pretty satisfied on this one. The terminator technology is the technology that causes plants essentially to kill their own seeds. And Shapiro gave a pretty good account of the fact that people around the world have been outraged by this.

He’s also technically accurate when he says that it was never his technology. Here’s what happened. This technology was developed actually mostly by the US government, along with a company called Delta & Pine Land, this company Monsanto tried to buy for many, many years and recently gave up. The patent was owned by that company that wanted to be a Monsanto subsidiary. He’s correct when he says that they never owned the technology, because they technically never owned the company that owned the patent.

But, Amy, I want to point out that there are twenty-nine terminator patents out there. A dozen of them are owned by Novartis, another big biotech company. Two of them are owned by United States publicly financed universities. So this is a technology that we have every reason in the world to be concerned about. In this case, probably we should look at Novartis as the company to be worried about, rather than Monsanto.

AMY GOODMAN:

The issue of the Pinkertons?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, I just love it that he says that “We at Monsanto asked farmers to pay.” Amy, that’s like the IRS asking you to pay. They didn’t ask farmers to pay. They handed them a contract and said, “If you want to do business, if you want to grow this kind of crop, sign here.” And that contract required them to do many things — for example, to buy Monsanto’s products when they bought Monsanto’s seeds. It also required them to permit Monsanto’s Pinkertons onto their land, and he’s quite right that it was a public relations disaster that backfired in many ways, including that the Pinkertons went after people who really hadn’t planted Monsanto seeds but has had Monsanto’s genes attached to pollen drift over from neighboring fields. And it was the Pinkertons who helped those of us who are critics of this technology establish that genes really can drift with pollen.

AMY GOODMAN:

I mean, this is quite something. They went onto people’s property, tested the crops, said that they were Monsanto crops. The farmers would say, “But we didn’t use the Monsanto seed.” And they didn’t take into consideration wind and drift?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Nope, nope. This is a company that frequently gets called arrogant, and it seems to me that it is arrogant to assume that they have the kinds of rights of surveillance and access that they assumed, and that they would hire the Pinkertons to do these kinds of things, especially with farmers, small business people who value their land as the source of everything they have. It was foolish, and I guess you have to give Shapiro a little credit that he copped to that.

AMY GOODMAN:

He said that “We’ve never opposed labeling,” or rather he said, “We haven’t favored it, either,” and that it’s up to the governments and that Monsanto doesn’t lobby on the issue.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Yeah, sure. Look, what Monsanto does is several things on this. You know, they don’t always do foolish things like the Pinkertons. Monsanto is corporately pretty silent on the question of labeling, especially recently. Instead, what they do is two things. They use surrogates. They have people who they fund outside the company who they get to take this position. I get to debate them on the radio all the time. Second of all, I talked earlier about the revolving door with the FDA, and they just rely on their folks inside the FDA and inside various government agencies to do that work. This is a company that makes huge contributions to both parties, and they expect a good return on their investment. I think labeling is one of those places.

AMY GOODMAN:

Do you think Monsanto was shaken by Seattle? He talked about it being a clash in beliefs, two ways of thinking. And at the New York Academy of Medicine, the actual program, the overall feeling as the CEO spoke was basically categorizing people as those that are pro-science and those that are anti-science.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Yeah, well, there’s two questions here. One is about the WTO. He said he wasn’t in Seattle. I was in Seattle, and I was very glad to hear that he had read the Paul Hawken account, because I think it’s the best that’s been written. It’s really very good, and maybe Shapiro learned something. It’s really grotesquely disingenuous when Shapiro then goes on about a reasonably free market and, you know, in another section he talks about limits on patents. One of the main or significant functions of the WTO is to be Monsanto’s world cop to protect and enforce its patents through the TRIPS agreement, the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Agreement, that forces countries around the world to adopt a uniform system of ownership, just so companies like Monsanto can enforce their ownership over living things all around the world. The WTO is crucial to the biotech and especially the biotech food strategy. The fact that Shapiro kind of dismisses it lightly says that maybe he hasn’t thought it through yet, or maybe he needs to read Paul Hawken’s memo one more time.

AMY GOODMAN:

And where did Paul Hawken’s memo appear?

MARTIN TEITEL:

It’s been floating around the internet. I guess that’s the best thing I can say is people keep sending it to me, and it is one of those documents that has taken on a life of its own, at least in that venue.

AMY GOODMAN:

Marty, how well protected or insulated is Robert Shapiro from the press? How often does he get asked critical questions?

MARTIN TEITEL:

I’ve never heard anyone ask him the questions that you asked him, Amy. Usually, Monsanto sends out specially trained spokespeople. They never let their scientists out in public, and I’ve not heard Shapiro questioned freely the way you questioned him.

AMY GOODMAN:

Is he in the major media? I mean, does he get interviewed, and they just don’t ask him those questions, or is he so well protected, very well insulated, that he never comes out into the public, except for one of these benefits, and then assumes the person who’s asking questions would be supportive and grateful?

MARTIN TEITEL:

I read quotes from Shapiro most often in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the New York Times, and then they’re quotes.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, before we get to what’s coming up and what people can do, I wanted to play for you just a quick comment from Katie Couric, the NBC Today Show anchor, who was actually honoring Robert Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto, at the New York Academy of Medicine event. And just before she went out onto the stage, I had a chance to, well, briefly talk to her, and this is what she had to say.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Can I ask you on this issue of biotechnology, we just interviewed Bob Shapiro of Monsanto, clearly a very controversial issue, the issue of biotechnology and genetically modified foods. One of the questions we asked him is, isn’t it ironic in the cafeteria of Monsanto in UK they have banned genetically modified food, though his company produces it?

    KATIE COURIC: Right.

    AMY GOODMAN: I mean, here you are honoring Bob Shapiro and the others for the New York Academy of Medicine. Will you be doing any kind of coverage of the controversy around biotechnological food on the Today Show?

    KATIE COURIC: I’m sure that that will come up in the future. I mean, I think it’s a relatively new field, but I think it’s something that obviously a lot of people are concerned about, particularly in Europe. And I think it’s such — biotechnology is such a new field in general that people haven’t really explored that area, but I think they will. And I think certainly that’s something that I’m interested in doing more on, and I’ve even talked to our producers about it, in terms of some of the things that are in the food products we’re eating, the milk we’re drinking. And I think that it’s something that’s definitely worth exploring.

AMY GOODMAN:

Do you think, Martin Teitel, that Katie Couric should have been honoring the CEO of Monsanto?

MARTIN TEITEL:

I think that there’s a very long list of people who would have been above Bob Shapiro if you want to honor someone who has done work that is unequivocally in the public interest and for the public good. I sure wish they’d picked, to pick a random example, somebody like Ralph Nader. You know, if you create gargantuan structures of power, whether they own life, as in the case of Monsanto and Novartis, or if they own the public airwaves and the dissemination of ideas, in other words the kind of media that Katie Couric works for, you get the same problems of those huge structures serving their own interests rather than the interests of the public. And so, I hope that she does pay attention to the controversy.

I have noticed I get called from the relatively established media all the time, Amy, and their questions are getting a little bit better. But basically, including public television and public radio and excepting Pacifica, they look at who pays their bills. And the biotech companies are very, very big donors and are very influential in the media. And so, the media cover things like Seattle because they can’t avoid it. I don’t know if they ever make the connections to the kinds of things you and I are talking about.

AMY GOODMAN:

Marty Teitel is executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics and co-author of Changing the Nature of Nature. When we come back, a tour of the party at the Waldorf-Astoria and more from Martin Teitel.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

This is Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. I’m Amy Goodman. And we are now going to continue with our conversation with Marty Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics based in Cambridge.

I wanted to ask you about the relationship between schools of public health, which certainly should be addressing these issues and these corporations, because you mention that a lot of times these spokespeople, what end up being spokespeople for companies like Monsanto, end up coming from schools for public health. So, at the event last Wednesday night at the New York Academy of Medicine, I looked up the Columbia School of Public Health table — this was a $500-a-plate dinner that was honoring Monsanto and Pfizer — and I just went up to some students, and I asked — and teachers — you know, what they thought about all these issues. And I just wanted you to hear a little of their responses and then comment.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What is your name?

    JO PHELAN:

    Jo Phelan.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Uh-huh, and what do you do at the school?

    JO PHELAN:

    I teach and do research.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    On biotechnology?

    JO PHELAN:

    Indirectly on the impact of biotechnology on people’s attitudes and beliefs and orientations towards people who have illnesses. So kind of like how the new biotechnology impacts on the lives of people who have illnesses.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What do you think about the whole controversy, specifically around Monsanto, because tonight Bob Shapiro is being honored, but the whole issue of public accountability and labeling, knowing what’s in the foods that we eat?

    JO PHELAN:

    I mean, I don’t know. To me, the idea of genetically altering food seems like a perfectly fine idea, but it’s not something that I, you know, have very informed opinions about.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What do you think of the whole, you know, the public sort of furor over it, even more so in Britain and Europe than here?

    JO PHELAN:

    It’s not really our area, kind of, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Right, but I mean I think probably anyone on the street would have something to say.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Excuse me, ma’am.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Yes.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Hi, I’m Lorraine LaHuta. I’m the Director of Development here at the Academy.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Yes.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: You were invited to come for the cocktail hour and the program, but now I have to ask you to leave.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Why? Why?

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Because this is a private invitation event, and now it’s time for the medical people of New York City to just enjoy one another’s company and to celebrate with the Academy. And I just don’t want them to have to be distracted from our event.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Well, I was just asking questions about biotechnology.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Well, I appreciate that, and we gave you an opportunity to do that, but now it’s time for us to just —

    AMY GOODMAN:

    So should we just wait here to talk to the people as they come out then?

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: I really rather that you go now. My agreement with the Director of Communications as the Director of Development was that press could be here for the cocktail reception and the program, and that was all.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Right, but we couldn’t go into the cocktail reception. We sat on the outside.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Well, press who were attired did go into the cocktail reception.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we were definitely tired, but then I realized she had said “attired.”

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What do you mean press? We’re dressed.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Well, no. I mean, I don’t know why you didn’t go into the cocktail reception.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Uh-huh.

    LORRAINE LaHUTA: Were you told not to?

AMY GOODMAN:

Anyway, you get the idea. With that, the Director of Development pushed us out of the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom, and they had a security guard come out to make sure that we didn’t go back in.

But, Martin Teitel, I wanted to ask you about this relationship between the schools of public health and the corporations like Monsanto, and in this case the New York Academy of Medicine, which supposedly serves the urban poor.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, I don’t know the relationships specifically in New York, Amy. And so, it’s — I don’t want to generalize too much, but I can tell you what I’ve — what my experience has been, which is a tremendous increase in the amount of money that’s coming from the biotechnology industry into colleges and universities, and they’re focusing heavily on the schools of public health, although by no means exclusively on schools of public health. And young people going into these fields are being told, not inaccurately, there’s a lot of money out there for them. This is where the jobs are. So, are they going to bite the hand that feeds them?

It’s so interesting that the person who was working to chuck you out was the Director of Development. That’s the euphemism for the fundraiser. The person who handles their fundraising was the one who didn’t want to have, evidently, a free and open discussion of the impacts and significance of biotechnology during her event. Why not? There’s been a pattern very, very clearly all along of the biotechnology industry putting huge amounts of money into glossy public relations, something that they’ve announced that they are going to increase doing, while at the same time stepping real hard on critics. They don’t act like an industry that wants a free and open discussion of what it is that they’re doing. They want to manage the information. They want to manage the news. They want to manage the critics.

AMY GOODMAN:

I also thought it was just interesting that here you have someone who’s teaching at the school of public health, and her just instinct, though she said she wasn’t an expert in this field, was to say, “No, I don’t care about genetically modified food.”

MARTIN TEITEL:

Sure, it would be her instinct. And she also said to you a bit before she said that that she was interested in public perceptions. Something that the biotech industry — it’s not unique to them — but something that they do frequently is to try to reduce their critics in the public to a question of perceptions, that the public doesn’t really have a good feeling about what we’re doing. They don’t want to talk about the substance of what they’re doing, of what effect this might have on health, on the environment, on corporate control of fundamental resources like food. That’s not a conversation they want to have. They want to talk about how people feel about what they’re doing or what people perceive about their food. It basically trivializes the democratic process and turns it into a kind of sideshow for the corporatization of biology.

AMY GOODMAN:

In the introduction to your book, Ralph Nader quotes Michael Crichton, who warned about the commercialization of molecular biology without federal regulation, without a coherent government policy and without watchdogs among scientists themselves. He said it’s remarkable that nearly every scientist in genetic research is also engaged in the commerce of biotechnology. There are no detached observers.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, in science there are very few. You know, Michael Crichton is the guy who wrote Jurassic Park, which is about genetic engineering run amuck. It’s a really good allegory for what happens when greed and science hook up and take biotechnology and turn it into, in the case of Jurassic Park, a trivialized corporate product.

AMY GOODMAN:

This is something else that Robert Shapiro addressed in the interview, and that was the issue of these product defamation lawsuits and the kind of impact they’ve had on public discourse. Can you explain what they are?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Sure. There are thirteen states in the United States that have what are commonly called “veggie-libel” laws. It means that if a person disparages a certain class of agricultural product —

AMY GOODMAN:

Veggie-libel laws?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Veggie-libel laws, that you defame vegetables. You diss your broccoli. You say things that causes — I guess the rationale is you say things that cause a group of agricultural people to run the risk of having their livelihood impinged on by your opinions or your views or your facts. And so, it gives them standing to be able to sue you. The most famous example is when Oprah Winfrey made some remarks about hamburgers, and she spent a million dollars out of her own pocket, which I guess she can afford, to defend herself in Texas against this veggie-libel suit.

Now, you should understand that these laws are preposterous. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but the lawyers I’ve spoken with say, well, you know, sure, it’s ridiculous. You can’t pass laws that take away people’s right to express their opinions about agricultural products. That’s not the purpose of the laws. The purpose of the laws is to frighten people, to chill people, literally, from expressing their views, to suppress dissent. It costs, whether you’re right or wrong, a tremendous amount of money to defend yourself if you get in trouble with one of these veggie-libel suits.

When I wrote this book on genetic engineering of food, the publisher spent thousands and thousands of dollars on lawyers while we were doing the manuscript, largely to protect us from these suits. I have to confess to you in all honesty that there have been a number of times when I’ve spoken in situations publicly where I’ve found myself up against a certain line and unsure if I should cross that line for fear of putting myself in some kind of legal jeopardy.

AMY GOODMAN:

Even if what you were saying you knew to be true?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Yeah, well, you know what? The truth is not always what sets you free in the American judicial system. Maybe eventually you win, but unlike Oprah Winfrey, I don’t have a million dollars to spend on legal bills.

AMY GOODMAN:

We are talking to Martin Teitel, co-author of Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature — What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself, Your Family and Our Planet. Let’s talk about, first of all, how genetic engineering works, what it is, so that people can really get a grasp on it.

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, what the companies say when they’re talking to the likes of us — this isn’t how they talk when they’re charming investors — but when they’re talking to us, they say, “Hey, look, this is just science as usual. This is just ordinary plant breeding that’s been going on for millennia.” It’s not actually the case.

Genes — usually one, sometimes two, and as many as three — that come from entirely different living things, different species, different kinds of living things, anything from a pig to a virus, are inserted, sometimes blasted, into the genes of plants. And, you know, plants have — any living thing has evolved over a very long period of time mechanisms for defending itself or taking care of genetic combinations that are not functional, that are hazardous or that don’t promote a life and health for that living thing. When you do genetic engineering, what you’re doing is going outside the boundaries of those evolutionarily validated protective mechanisms. You’re going outside of the mechanisms of evolution, at least to some extent. And that’s kind of the core of the concern.

I think the second core of the concern is that, without any exception that I know of, all of the corporations doing genetically engineered work do that under patents. It’s a way of getting ownership over a living thing. If you change the living thing, even in a trivial way, in a way that seems to have no effect, you can then file a patent on it that will be accepted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and then you own it. It’s a way of turning living things into corporate products. And I wouldn’t minimize the importance of the patent system in biotechnology. Biotechnology works partly by recombining genes and partly by creating regimes of ownership.

AMY GOODMAN:

You say that the genetic engineering of our food is the most radical transformation in our diet since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago.

MARTIN TEITEL:

You bet. You know, for most of human history, for however long you think humans have been around, something like a million years, for the vast majority of that time, people got food by going out and finding it. Relatively recently, about 10,000 years ago, people — mostly women, by the way — began shaping those plants very gradually according to the values in those communities, making something a little bigger, a little sweeter, whatever desired outcome that they wanted by normal plant breeding. And the food, until very recently, has reflected the needs and the values of the communities that created the food and grew the food. It’s a wonderful partnership, because we live because of those domesticated plants, and the domesticated plants live because of us. If either one of us messes up, we both die. It’s a real close symbiotic relationship.

This is a radical transformation by genetically engineering the crops, because the crops now are wholly owned corporate products. They are not tested adequately for short- and long-term safety. They have serious environmental questions that come out of their use. They take communities and farmers out of the equation, and they promote vast monoculture. They also present very, very difficult problems for small farmers outside of the United States. Genetically engineered crops make a certain kind of sense, at least to the folks at companies like Monsanto — make a certain amount of sense in the United States, in a northern country and an industrialized country kind of setting, because what they really do is enable farmers to cut labor costs, and labor costs are great. They require more water and more chemicals. Those are considered good trade-offs.

In southern countries, there are 1.4 billion small farmers in southern countries, Amy. In southern countries, labor is what’s cheap, chemicals and water are what’s expensive, and monoculture is what is life-threatening. And genetically engineered crops push southern countries, small farmers, subsistence farmers in countries like India, much of Africa, much of China, towards a dangerous monoculture and towards having to use huge amounts of water and chemical inputs.

AMY GOODMAN:

Marty Teitel, what are the risks of eating what you call “genfood”?

MARTIN TEITEL:

Well, probably the biggest risk is that you’re putting money into the pocket of a corporation that then is taking over the world’s food supply, quite literally. It sounds a little paranoid, but it’s true. They are taking over the world’s food supply. It is handing over the substance that sustains humanity to the board of directors of a company like Monsanto.

The immediate hazards to an individual have to do with several different levels of concern. One is allergies to introduced genes, both genes that have been introduced and to novel protein combinations that are created. I have to just — I don’t want to get into science, and there’s probably someone else who can teach science better than I can, but let me just say, Amy, that all genes code for proteins. Genes make proteins. That’s all they do. Each gene just creates a protein. When you insert novel genes, genes from fish into plants, for example, you’re then creating protein combinations that your body has never experienced before. And allergists I’ve spoken with are actually more concerned about novel protein combinations than they are about specific allergies to specific inserted genes.

AMY GOODMAN:

We have to break away, but you’ll be hearing more from Martin Teitel in the days to come. He is co-author of the book Changing the Nature of Nature: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself, Your Family and Our Planet. He’s also executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its phone number is (617) 868-0870. That’s (617) 868-0870. And the organization’s website is www.gene-watch.org.

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