editor of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk.
Watch part 2 of our conversation with Sheldon Krimsky, editor of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. He is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine. Professor Krimsky is also a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Click here to watch part 1 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Seventy-five percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves in the United States—from cracker, to soda, to soup—contain genetically engineered ingredients. Public concern has been steadily intensifying. The Vermont Legislature has passed a GMO labeling law, and now voters in Colorado and Oregon are voting on GMA labeling ballot initiatives.
Sheldon Krimsky is with us today, the editor and author of several contributions in the new book, The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. He is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine. Professor Krimsky is also a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Welcome to Democracy Now! for part two of our conversation. Now, you tell a remarkable story about the scientists who get destroyed as they attempt to look at GMO foods. But before we do, what is the problem with genetically modified foods? Why in the United States are 75 percent of our foods have ingredients that are genetically modified, but in Europe, in state after state, it’s completely outlawed? Why the difference?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: The Europeans operate on the precautionary principle. They say, if you introduce a new product on the market, you should evaluate it before the consumers get a chance to purchase it. In America, we made a decision that genetically modified foods are safe before you even have to test it. So the government never required tests for GMOs in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Who made that decision?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, that decision was made by a commission, first of all, in the United States headed by Dan Quayle, and then it was—
AMY GOODMAN: The vice president under President Bush.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes, yes, that’s correct. And by the 1990s, the decision was made how to divide the regulatory authority over genetically modified organisms—plants, animals, etc. And there were three agencies. The EPA would deal with environmental effects. USDA would be dealing with how it affects agriculture. And the FDA would be addressing the questions of human health.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why are you concerned?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, because we have some evidence that animal studies can produce adverse effects when fed GMOs. There have been many studies. Many of them have said there’s no effects. But a few of them—I found 22 studies.
AMY GOODMAN: Give an example of one of these studies.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, one of these studies was published in one of the most important journals in international journals. It’s called The Lancet. It started publishing—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the British medical journal.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: The British medical journal. It’s among the most prestigious journals in the world. And that was published in 1999 by a scientist who lived in Britain for 50 years—originally he was born in Hungary—Árpád Pusztai. And he was a researcher at the Rowett Institute. And he published a study which showed that his animals were harmed when fed a genetically modified potato.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to this scientist, to the biochemist, the nutritionist, Árpád Pusztai, world authority, as you said, actually on plant lectins, authoring some 270 papers, three books on the topic. In 1998, the scientist published research that showed feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats caused harm to their stomach lining and immune system. This led to a backlash against Dr. Pusztai and his subsequent suspension from his academic home, the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. Let’s turn to a clip of Pusztai explaining the experiment he did using these genetically modified potatoes, the experiment that unleashed such a firestorm of criticism.
ÁRPÁD PUSZTAI: What we did was that, first, we took the genetically modified potatoes and put as much as possible of this into the diet, and we fed rats on it for a short time, 10 days. That’s an appropriate time in most of the nutritional studies as a sort of preliminary, short-term study. And we found that there were some problems. And then we said, "Oh, but it is—is it possible that if we dilute it with a good protein, a non-GM protein, would these problems disappear? Would you dilute them out? So when we did that, we found that, no, it didn’t. The problems persisted, and particularly the problems affecting the gastrointestinal tract of the rats.
The problems were that the genetically modified potatoes induced what we call a proliferative growth in the small intestine. And I shall explain what it means. But before I do that, the most important thing was that we pre-selected the gene that its product should not do that. So, we spent six-and-a-half years of selecting out a gene whose product wouldn’t do the thing which we did see in the genetically modified potatoes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Sheldon Krimsky, that’s Árpád Pusztai.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain further what exactly he’s saying. Now, he was actually not critical of these genetically modified potatoes that he fed to rats, right?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: That’s correct. And his institute had a patent on those potatoes. I mean, after all, if you can produce a potato that would be resistant to insects, then you’d save money on pesticides, and you might be able to, you know, have a product that would be worthy of pesticidal properties. So he took protein from a flower, a snowdrop flower. And that protein—the genetics for that protein was put into the potato. But he honestly believed that he would have a safe outcome. He had already done an experiment with genetically modified peas, which did not show adverse effects on animals. And he felt that—the protein that he used, he fed to the animals when it wasn’t in the potato, so he felt the protein from the plant was going to be safe. And then he put it into the genetically modified potato, and then he fed it to the animals when it was embedded into the potato. And that’s when it caused the effects.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain again the effects.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, the effects he found were effects of the stomach lining of the animals, that there were proliferative growths in the stomach lining and other abnormalities in the intestines of the animals.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain then—so he did this scientific experiment. That’s what he found. It’s published in this very prestigious journal, Lancet.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So what happened to him, Dr. Pusztai?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, first of all, he published in Lancet in 1999. And prior to that, 1995, Scotland had put out a request for scientific studies to evaluate genetically modified food. So he put in one of those requests. At the time, he was the project director of eight projects. He was very well respected and had written a number of books on these lectins, which are insecticidal proteins. The plants themselves have proteins that resist insects. That’s how they survived all those years. So, his project was accepted by the council in Scotland, and then he did the research for it. So it was already reviewed before it was accepted for funding. And he got 1.3 million pounds to do the study. That’s where it began.
Prior to publishing his study in The Lancet, he was asked to appear on television. And he’s not a political—you know, he’s not a politicized scientist. He was naive. He went on television, with the approval of the director of the Rowett Institute. And the Rowett Institute, for one day, was very excited, because they got publicity being on TV with his research. The day after, all of a sudden, all of the phone calls started coming into the Rowett Institute, political phone calls from politicians—Tony Blair’s office, etc. And then, within a day, he was dismissed from his position. Within a day, this man who had been working there for decades and had such a prominent position, all of a sudden, lost his entire position.
AMY GOODMAN: Dismissed on what grounds?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: He did not have tenure, the way we do in universities—dismissed because they felt—they believed his research was not good. At least that’s what they said. What they didn’t say was that there were political pressures on the institute to devalue and diminish and marginalize his study.
AMY GOODMAN: What was Blair’s interest, the prime minister at the time, in negating, in going after the scientist, in genetically modified food?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: The United States had been the primary country that’s promoting biotechnology and trying to transfer it all over the world. So, the Clinton administration was very high on biotechnology. It’s going to rejuvenate American high technology and create many jobs, etc., and be able to spread it throughout the world. Blair was very interested in getting biotechnology into Britain. So, the U.S. government and the British government were both very interested in pushing biotechnology. And, of course, in the background were the corporations who were politicking those two governments to make sure that biotechnology had an easy road to success.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another scientist. In 2012, French scientists carried out a study linking pesticide-treated, genetically modified corn with cancer in lab rats. The journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology initially published the report but later retracted it amidst controversy. The scientists stood by their findings, releasing a statement that read in part, quote, "Censorship of research into the risks of a technology so intertwined with global food safety undermines the value and credibility of science." Their article was republished this year in a different journal, Environmental Sciences Europe. I want to turn for a moment to the lead author on the study, Gilles-Éric Séralini. He recently told ME-TV what happened to the rats that were fed genetically modified corn and Roundup weed killer.
GILLES-ÉRIC SÉRALINI: Abnormalities in livers and kidneys, inflammations and pathologies, and we had also inversion of sexual hormones and also breast tumors.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the scientist, Gilles-Éric Séralini. If you can, Professor Krimsky, explain further what he found.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, he found organ failure. First of all, he did one of the first long-term experiments. So, in other words, he did an experiment on the rats that lasted for a couple of years. Usually they would do a 90-day experiment on the animals. So this was a long-term experiment, which really was needed, because some of these effects you won’t see right away. And his results showed damage to organs, kidneys, and also proliferation of tumors at a much higher rate than the controls. And after his results came out, there was another surge of vilification of his work and his research and his reputation, on and on and on.
A few very unusual things happened. The first you mentioned, that his journal first supported him and said, "We have a very good refereed system, and he passed the referees," to get into this peer-reviewed journal. Within a year, however, they changed their mind, because of the political pressure that there was a solid journal, American U.S. journal, that said there were problems with one of the genetically modified products. So, the journal went ahead and retracted his article, without his permission.
And then they gave the reason for the retraction. And this is where a hundred scientists had signed a petition saying that the reasons they gave were not only unorthodox, they violated international standards. The reason they gave was very explicit. They said, "There is no fraud. There is no clear mistakes in this paper. The results were not definitive, and that’s why we’re retracting it." Now, if you use that criteria, you would have to retract 95 percent of all published work.
AMY GOODMAN: What does "definitive" mean?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, "definitive" means that it hasn’t resolved the controversy, that some people still believe that maybe he didn’t have enough rats. Maybe they would have changed the methodology slightly differently. There isn’t an experiment in toxicology that can be done which doesn’t have some shortcomings. Everybody knows that.
AMY GOODMAN: Or you reach a kind of critical mass in your studies indicating a trend; no one study actually proves it.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Exactly. There’s no single study that can absolutely definitively prove it, so you need follow-up studies to account for criticisms or larger numbers of animals, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Krimsky, can you explain what "the funding effect" is, a term you’ve coined with your colleagues?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Many years ago, we began looking at what happens to scientific research when it’s heavily funded by corporate interests. And we started by looking at drug research. And as a result of publishing a few papers, other people started doing these studies, and there is now a body of research in the drug industry which shows that corporate funding of research tends to produce the outcomes favorable to the financial interests of the corporation. That’s what we mean by "the funding effect." You have to show that the effect exists for any particular area. You can’t just assume it exists. So there are methods for showing that there is a funding effect. We’ve shown it in tobacco, we’ve shown it for drug research, in the best journals that we have, that have accepted these studies. And now people are beginning to look at it in other fields, like chemical toxins and GMOs.
AMY GOODMAN: How are other countries dealing with genetically modified foods?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, it’s interesting, because when you look at the studies that have been done that have negative outcomes—and I say I found 22 of them in the literature—they’re almost all done by European scientists. In order to do a study of a genetically modified plant seed in the United States, you have to have funding. Funding doesn’t come from the federal government, because the federal government has said, "We don’t need information about this." So the only funding that can produce these results is funding from corporations.
Secondly, you have to have permission from the company that manufactures the seeds to do this kind of research, to get the seeds, the special seeds that you need from the company. And they won’t release the seeds. So, people like Pusztai and Professor Séralini—well, Pusztai produced his own potato. Séralini had to get the seeds from some other source, not from the company. Pusztai could not get seeds from Monsanto. Monsanto signs—everyone who purchases seeds from Monsanto has to sign a contract with them. And one of the provisions of that contract is they cannot save their seeds, and they cannot deliver their seeds to some institute for study. In other words, Monsanto has complete control over the seeds, as well as other companies, so that it’s not even possible for researchers to do the work they need to do, unless they get permission from the companies.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond to the claim that GMOs will feed the world? Explain also the difference between genetically modified vegetables, plants—wait, can you respond to the claim that GMOs will feed the world, genetically modified organisms?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, this claim has been made by a number of people, but there’s no evidence for it. It may very well be that for a certain farm in a certain region, that a particular GMO might give them higher productivity in that particular area. But the world is filled with different regions of, you know, ecological regions, and seeds that work in one region do not necessarily work in another region. That’s what we call agroecology. We have to understand that you have to match the seed to the region, and not match the region to the seed. That’s why you don’t necessarily have high productivity in every region of the world. Some of the Indian farmers did not get high productivity with GMOs. And unfortunately, some of them committed suicide.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: The Indian farmers had a high rate of suicide in the last few years, and that’s because many of them got into intense debt, and they couldn’t pay their debt. And in their mental capacity, they felt the only way to deal with this was to take their lives, unfortunately. Part of that debt was due to the fact that they were purchasing GMO seeds, which were at a higher rate than the seeds that they were originally purchasing.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! just traveled to Austria, and I was speaking to an Austrian farmer who was saying, "We recognized in our country, which is why we made it GMO-free," he said, "that you can’t have an organic farm next to a farm that’s growing genetically modified plants, because there is drift, and you can’t honestly have—say something is organic if you’re right nearby something that isn’t."
SHELDON KRIMSKY: That’s correct. And the pollen flows can flow quite a distance, a number of kilometers, so that in the United States, if you have an organic farm, there’s no protections for that organic farmer from the drift of pollen from another farm.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, hasn’t Monsanto famously sued farmers, saying that they stole their genetically modified seeds, when in fact they drifted onto their property?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: As far as we know, the evidence suggests that the Canadian farmer that had the genetically modified plants didn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: This is Percy Schmeiser?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes, Schmeiser. As far as we know, evidence that I have is that he did not plant those seeds, that those seeds had drifted into his farm. And Monsanto sued him for intellectual property theft. And in some bizarre ruling of the Canadian court, Monsanto won. But the penalty was very, very low, like a dollar or something like that. So, Monsanto won, but Schmeiser didn’t have to pay a severe penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state to approve GMO labeling with the passage of HB 112. The legality of the decision is now being challenged by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other national organizations, which have come together to file a lawsuit in federal court. The Grocery Manufacturers Association put out a statement that read in part, quote, "Consumers who prefer to avoid GM ingredients have the option to choose from an array of products already in the marketplace labeled 'certified organic.' The government therefore has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients, making HB 112’s legality suspect at best." Your response to this, Professor Krimsky?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Well, it is true that right now, under government standards, if a product is classified as organic—and there are criteria for that, including non-GMO—that there is some level of confidence that they won’t contain GMO products. But organic costs a lot of money. So there might be food companies that want to put out food that wouldn’t be classified as organic, but would be classified as non-GMO. Just like there are plastic companies that want to put out their plastics and say, "We don’t contain bisphenol A in our plastics," because there’s been a lot of evidence that it might be harmful, and therefore consumers have the right to buy something that says, "No bisphenol A in this substance," they should have the right to buy some food products that say, you know, "No GMOs," even though they’re not classified as organic, because the prices might be quite different.
AMY GOODMAN: Backers of GMOs cite the success of genetically modified papaya in Hawaii. It was designed to resist a virus that was killing off the fruit crop. It’s the only commercially grown GMO fruit in the United States. According to The New York Times, "after an outbreak of Papaya ringspot virus in the mid-’90s, only the Rainbow, endowed with a gene from the virus itself that effectively gave it immunity, had saved the crop." Your response to that, Professor Krimsky?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: You know, one of the issues about biotechnology is that they try to put into the crop a pesticidal property. And in theory, you know, one might think that this would be terrific. You include the pesticide or the herbicide-resistant/tolerant into the crop. But nature has its own way of adapting. So if you put in herbicide-resistant into the crop, eventually the weeds will get resistant to the herbicide that you use. And that’s in fact what’s happening with glyphosate, which is the most widely used herbicide now in the United States. So, they have plants which are glyphosate-resistant, so you can spray all the herbicide on your plant; it’ll kill everything else. But the weeds have adapted to it. So now they need a next generation of herbicide in the plant. So, the whole theory that you can introduce into the plants some magical protein that is going to be sustainable is just not a viable theory.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you referring to the superweeds that are growing throughout the West?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: The superweeds, exactly. And now the farmers are saying, "Hey, we bought into this glyphosate resistance, and now we’re getting these weeds that are in fact resistant to the glyphosate." And now they’re introducing a second generation. And one of the products that they’re trying to introduce is 2,4-D, which was used in the Vietnam War as part of the herbicides, defoliants.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Agent Orange. So—
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes, it was part of the Agent Orange mix. And I have to say, Rachel Carson cited 2,4-D as a suspect chemical in her 1962 classic book, Silent Spring.
AMY GOODMAN: Considered the mother of the modern environmental movement, she would later die of cancer herself.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the significance of the ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon? In California and Washington state, genetically modified labeling bills failed.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything different about Colorado and Oregon right now?
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Colorado is always different. It’s a very single-minded, independent state that pushed the boundaries beyond belief in terms of, you know, legislation on marijuana, etc. If any state can do it, they have a very high consciousness for environmental issues. And if they do do it, I think it’ll cascade to other states, because I think the fear that the prices will skyrocket is just a scare tactic, it’s not real. We have companies that issue milk that say, "No bovine growth hormone used to make this milk," and it hasn’t skyrocketed the price of milk. So—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Ben & Jerry’s and the Denver-based Chipotle company, the chain, food chain Chipotle—
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —have actually come out in support of GMO labeling, whereas you’ve got Pepsi and Kraft Foods and, well, most importantly, Monsanto pouring millions into the anti-labeling movement.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: Yeah. You know, the corporations don’t want a patchwork of regulations. I could understand that. They always would rather have one regulation that applies to everyone. And so, from their standpoint, they don’t want to have to make an adjustment to Colorado and an adjustment to this other state. But that doesn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, they wouldn’t have to make an adjustment. If it was passed in Colorado and Oregon, they could just identify genetically modified foods all over the country.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: That’s correct. That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, so goes Oregon and Colorado, so goes the nation.
SHELDON KRIMSKY: And that’s exactly what happens when California passes as an initiative on a toxic chemical. The companies just list it on the product, and every state, every community, has access to that information. It’s just a question of open information, which is really supposed to be at the groundwork of American capitalism. Keep the information open.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Professor Sheldon Krimsky, editor and author of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know About the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. You can read an introduction on our website at democracynow.org. Professor Krimsky teaches urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, as well, adjunct professor at the Tufts School of Medicine. Krimsky is also a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.