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No Problem With GMO Contamination – Unless You Want to Grow, Sell or Eat Safe Food

December 14, 2009

[see editor’s note, at end]

Genetically engineered food giant Bayer was hit last week with the first judgment in what is expected to be a series of losses for the 2006 contamination of rice by the company’s unapproved GMO variety. A Missouri jury ordered Bayer to pay $2 million to two farmers who suffered losses when global markets to U.S. rice exports closed following the contamination event. More than 1,000 farmers from every major rice growing state except California have filed similar suits.

The unapproved Bayer rice had been grown only in a few small field trials that were abandoned in 2001. Nevertheless, contamination from the GMO variety persisted and was detected in U.S. rice shipments in Europe, Asia and Africa in 2006. A report by an Ohio independent economic consultant for Greenpeace estimated the total costs to farmers, food companies, the rice industry and other related entities from the Bayer contamination could exceed $1.28 billion. The report estimates Bayer faces a potential additional liability to farmers and food companies that are suing the biotech crop producer of another billion dollars.

In addition to the economic losses, the Bayer rice contamination is significant as it contradicts a key argument by biotech crop proponents, who say that self-pollinating crops like rice will not contaminate neighboring fields, and thus can be safely used as “pharm” crops to produce experimental drugs. Even the usually pro-biotech science journal Nature Biotechnology has chastised GMO pharming companies for using food crops to produce these untested drugs and non-food compunds, comparing the risk to “conventional pharmaceutical or biopharmaceutical manufacturer packaging its pills in candy wrappers….”

In fact, a near-disaster from contamination of the food supply from an untested pig drug grown in GMO corn was narrowly averted in 2002, when a ProdiGene pharm corn contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans destined for the food supply. Prior to the incident, the company’s CEO had stated that such contamination was impossible because the products of the drug crops are so valuable that “we never let it get out of our hands.” Two years after the ProdiGene contamination, a report by six independent experts commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that USDA’s oversight of pharm crop field trials was still inadequate and left the food supply open to potentially disastrous contamination by experimental drugs.

Despite the havoc created by GMO contamination episodes and risks of contamination from pharm crops, a recent Sustainablog post by biotech crop proponent Steve Savage describes contamination from GMO crops as “something that is actually a very old and very manageable.” After my initial response, Savage replied, but my next post in the exchange has yet to be published, even though there are other posts on the site that were sent after I submitted mine. What follows is my (revised and expanded) final contribution to the discussion.

As the StarLink, ProdiGene and hundreds of other contamination incidents show, there is nothing “old” and nothing manageable about contamination of natural food by GMOs. For consumers, GMO contamination means we cannot be sure that the food we buy is free from altered genes, even if we buy only organically grown products. This is a direct assault on consumers’ right to know what is in our food, and our right to food free from genetic experiments.

For farmers, GMO contamination has meant millions of dollars of lost sales and economic losses that hamper the U.S. corn, rice and other crop export industries to this day. For farmers and food companies, GMO contamination means millions of dollars spent in testing costs and verification of non-GMO status, costs for which the companies responsible for the problem, the biotech companies, are not held accountable. Organic growers are especially hard-hit; in a 2003 survey, one-third of organic growers rated the risk of contamination of their crops by GMOs as high or very high. Indeed, in legal judgments that found USDA illegally approved GMO alfalfa and sugar beets, two federal judges described the agency’s failure to account for potential contamination of natural and organic farms as contrary to the real economic threats faced by farmers in areas where GMO varieties would be grown, and threats to consumers who wish to eat safe, natural food. The judgment in the sugar beet case states that the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food” is significant and should have prompted USDA to conduct a full environmental impact statement.

It’s interesting that Steve Savage boasts of his work on natural, biological pesticides while at DuPont and Mycogen. Those companies were among the leaders in bringing GMO “Bt” crops to market, despite concerns raised by scientists, environmentalists and organic growers who noted that the Bt crops threaten to destroy the usefulness of Bt sprays, valued by many as the world’s safest and most important biological pesticide. It’s curious that while Savage was purportedly working on biological pesticides, his colleagues were working to destroy the safest one known.

Savage also says that GMO Bt crops couldn’t present an allergy risk because they contain the same gene found and long-used in Bt sprays. But the version in GMO crops is not the same as in sprays; in crops it is an activated, high-dose (truncated) toxin. Moreover, regulatory agencies have failed to fully assess the allergenic potential of these Bt genes; Savage says the Cry1ac gene is safe, but one scientist’s review found that “There is now evidence that Cry1Ac is a potent, systemic and local immunogen, a strong adjuvant and that it binds to surface (gut) proteins” in animal studies. Also, an Australian GMO pea screw up showed that even genes long found safe in their natural hosts can create potentially hazardous allergens when transferred via genetic engineering, due to unexpected and uncontrollable side-effects of the process.

Savage claims that concerns about the toxic effects of pesticides are “out of date.” Yet today, the pesticide industry is promoting the use of methyl iodide, one of the most toxic carcinogens known, on food crops in California. Use of GMO crops has also hastened development of herbicide resistant superweeds, forcing farmers to return to highly toxic chemicals like 2,4-D and paraquat. GMO crop developers have also created crops engineered to withstand high doses of dicamba, a neurotoxin that has also been linked to reproductive and developmental health problems.

Savage omitted his tenure at DuPont from his Sustainablog bio, yet now says he is proud of his time there (after being outed, he updated his bio and claims he was not hiding anything. Really? Then why didn’t he list the affiliations in the first place?). Confronted with DuPont’s record as one of the worst polluters of the 20th century, he repeats a tired industry line, implying that such problems were a legacy of the past, and claims that during his time there the company was “a very responsible organization.” To another commenter who questioned DuPont’s record, Savage states that “anti-corporate forces” are unfair and have a “dehumanized perspective on corporations.” He also admits that he currently has projects with “agro-chemical companies,” but again fails to disclose which companies he works for.

Whatever one’s “perspective,” the facts about DuPont’s lengthy record of lies, crimes and misdeeds are well known, and the company’s efforts to deceive the public and cover-up risks of its products continue to this day.

Since Savage says that he found DuPont to be “very responsible” during his time there, a look at the company from 1982-89 is enlightening. Just a few of the company’s many misdeeds during this time include:

  • DuPont lied about and covered up risks associated with its Teflon chemicals. For years DuPont knew a chemical in Teflon, a likely carcinogen, was persistent and toxic, yet the company covered up evidence and withheld safety data. In 2005, the EPA fined the company $16.5 million, the largest civil administrative penalty ever won, after DuPont was found guilty on three counts of hiding safety studies throughout the 1980s and beyond.
  • DuPont’s disposal of the chemical in landfills, burn pits and injection wells throughout the 1980s polluted the Ohio River, leaving a legacy of water pollution that threatens community health to this day.
  • Throughout the 1980’s, DuPont was the largest global producer of ozone-destroying CFCs. According to a 1991 EPA study, the ozone damage will create 12 million skin cancers, causing 200,000 deaths through 2040. DuPont denied the hazards of CFCs for decades, then continued to produce and sell the chemical in the developing world after being forced to end production in the US and Europe. DuPont CFC “alternatives” also destroy the ozone and one caused tumors in rat studies.
  • DuPont funded the 1989 founding of the Global Climate Coalition, a phony front-group of gas, oil and chemical companies aligned to spread lies about the “myths” of climate change.
  • Lead, mercury and other toxic pollution from DuPont’s plant in Pompton Lakes, NJ through the mid-1980s was responsible for cancer and other illnesses among residents there, according to a 2002 jury verdict. DuPont also paid $38.5 million to residents of a company-owned town next to the site. Ongoing high cancer rates in the town are raising concerns that clean-up and remediation efforts have failed.
  • In 1989, the company was hit with $1.5 million in punitive damages by a jury who found DuPont guilty of fraudulently concealing health records of workers exposed to asbestos.

This is the record of the company that Savage calls “a very responsible organization”? To paraphrase Professor Harold Hill, “Friend, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of DuPont (and apologists like Steve Savage) in your community.”

[editors note: this will be the last daily post, check back for more corporate crime "occasionally."]

Since Steve Savage sent a lengthy reply, I’ve posted it, in italics, interspersed with my responses, in bold, below.

Really now Charles, why don’t we keep this discussion above the ad homonym [sic] attack level.  At the end of the day this is not about me or you.

There is nothing ad hominem about my post. My responses in regards to your actions are factual. I am not suggesting that your arguments are wrong because you hid your background; but I believe it is relevant for people to know, since (as one other commenter stated), there is much pro-biotech propaganda created by industry front-men who pose as “neutral” observers.

What you never addressed in your comment on my blog or in this post is the central point I made which was that all these “contamination” events you are describing are things that occur through the entirely natural mechanism of outcrossing.  They only get defined as “contamination” because of irrational, zero-tolerances. My point is that related plants exchange genes all the time.  I don’t think there is any argument about that.  This blog essentially says the sky is falling, so we will have to wait and see if you are right.

Outcrossing between related plants is natural; there is nothing “natural” about outcrossing of lab-created genes, genes from non-food sources that have never been part of the human diet, and genes intended to create biologically active, experimental drugs. And there’s nothing irrational about zero-tolerance for such events.

The post doesn’t say the sky is falling; but for thousands of farmers, the sky already fell. You say you want to help farmers, yet you seem completely unconcerned about those who have suffered severe losses from GMO contamination. Whether you think it’s rational or not, it costs farmers when their customers don’t want their product. I’ve talked to thousands of farmers who tell me, the customer is always right. You seem to think that when it comes to GMO food, the customer should shut up and eat whatever Monsanto tells them to eat.

Whether you think it’s rational or not, millions of people object to eating GMOs, for many reasons. Is everyone who wants to protect their right to safe, natural non-GMO food supposed to give this right up because you think that’s not rational? Some “scientists” believe life begins at conception – to them, every woman who believes she has a right to abortion is just being irrational, too. Control over our bodies, and what food we put into them, is not something you get to decide, even if you are a scientist.

As for the Bt.  The most severe case of resistance occurred through over-use of the spray form against the Diamond Back Moth.  You describe Bt in pretty glowing terms.  It actually represents an extremely tiny part of insect control around the world.  I should know, we were in that business when I worked at Mycogen.  Biological control is a cool thing and interesting to me as a biologist, but I know that it will never make a big difference on keeping the world fed.  The sort of Chemicals that are developed by companies like DuPont (another former employer 1982-89) are much more important to keeping us fed and protected from diseases spread by pests.  The biotech traits are another important part of our food security.

The safety and usefulness of Bt is not just my opinion, many farm and gardening experts recommend it. Like any pesticide, it can be overused and harmful if misused (eg, as you can see, one farmer found out the hard way that you shouldn’t get it in your eyes). The idea that we need toxic chemicals and GMOs for food security is convenient for those who sell these products, but evidence suggests otherwise.

I take time away from consulting to write blog posts.  I’m not in the least bit ashamed about working with the companies that help farmers to be successful.  At some point I’ve worked with just about all of them. I think my diverse experience in this over the  past 32 years is something worth sharing in civil conversations about these complex issues.
Steve Savage

Well, thanks for sharing.

[as I suspected he would, Steve Savage gave it another try. Below, his latest and my final response, in the same format as above]

Charles,
I actually don’t think you are right that there is much pro-biotech propaganda on blog sites.

I didn’t say that; I said there is much pro-biotech propaganda written by those who, like you, hide who they really are. Here are some examples, there are too many others to list.

Most of what is said about food and agriculture is written by people with a strong bias and very little knowledge.  That is why I started writing this summer.  The fact that you, a paid activist, even found my post is surprising.  You say “I’m not suggesting your arguments are wrong…” then what were you suggesting?

I think you’re having some basic reading comprehension problems (or you’re intentionally engaging in contextomy, which is almost as fun to say as ad hominem). In response to your claim that I was making ad hominem attacks, I pointed out that I was in fact directly addressing the inaccuracies in your arguments, and was not using the fact that you were misleading people about your background as an argument against your positions. If you need me to clarify: I think your arguments are wrong, and I also think you covered up who you are so people wouldn’t know that you work for the industry who you were purporting to defend as a “neutral” scientist. Get it?

It seems that from your perspective I work for “FOOD Inc.”  From my perspective you work for “FEAR Inc.”

If people are “afraid” of GMO foods, it’s because they are being developed and promoted by the same companies who developed and promoted their toxic pesticides (and dozens of other harmful chemicals) for decades as safe, effective and environmentally friendly – until the truth came out otherwise. Since industry is using the same unsubstantiated arguments about GMOs, and uses third-parties who hide their real identities to promote their message, it tends to breed distrust and fear.

You have been very successful.  Because of your activism there is no biotech wheat meaning that we have less of it grown and it has higher levels of vomitoxin than it could have had.  Because of your work we have no biotech potatoes meaning that far more insecticides are needed to protect the crop from beetles and virus.

You have a knack for making claims without backing them up. The evidence shows biotech crops don’t yield more, and lead to increased use of pesticides. While I’d love to take credit for killing the Bt potato, in fact it didn’t catch on because growers didn’t find it to be profitable.

Because of your work the poor people of Thailand can’t grow virus resistant Papaya as a good source of local vitamin C.

Perhaps they don’t want the GMO papaya because they want to protect their important export markets (unlike Hawaii, which loses money on GMO papaya exports, since they have to sell the GMO variety at a lower price).

Because of your work African elites have rejected food shipments even when their people are starving and rejected free virus resistant cassava that could have allowed their people to feed themselves.

Are they “elites” because they disagree with you? (the biotech industry seems happy to work with African “elites” when they help promote biotech). A group of African scientists at a UN plant science conference were found to be quite capable of speaking for themselves on this.

Because of your work Europe produces far less food than it could so that it is a more of a rich competitor with the poor in international grain markets than it could have been.

This strikes me as internally inconsistent, but whatever you mean, see reply above re: yields and pesticide use.

Because of your work, Bt sweet corn that does not require multiple insecticide sprays has been quietly rejected by food processing companies and retailers – not because there is anything dangerous about it but because you have so effectively exploited brand protectionism instincts of large companies.

Industry says GMO corn is grown on more than 70% of all corn acreage. I must be slipping.

You have been amazingly effective.

Well, thanks for that. As I’m certain this back-and-forth is getting tiresome to readers (not to mention to me), I’m going to leave it be here. If you’d like to continue with more unsubstantiated attacks on me, feel free to do so elsewhere (I promise not to respond).

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 5:15 pm

    Although Steve will likely provide you with an explanation for your comment being held up, perhaps you might consider that the blog automatically retained it to make sure it wasn’t spam. If your comment was as link-heavy as your post above, that would seem to be the case. Maybe you should ask before implying that something is amiss? Most people familiar with blogging know about the risks of comment spam.

    It doesn’t look like Steve Savage was trying to ‘hide’ his previous employment with Mycogen and DuPont, rather, it may not have occurred to him that working for them so many years ago would be important. According to this post on his blog, http://sustainablog.org/2009/10/02/food-supply-worries-of-an-agricultural-scientist-part-4-aflatoxin/ , he worked for Mycogen in 1992/93.

    I find it curious that you are suggesting that Steve was “hiding” his prior employers, when I notice that your blogging profile at Squidoo (to where you linked in your comment at sustainablog) that you are also leaving out relevant employment information. Here is your current profile:

    “I work at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a non-profit dedicated to ending toxic health threats to children and families. At CEH, I coordinate our efforts to promote sustainable and organic food, especially working on changing hospital food buying. Prior to joining CEH, I was the lead campaigner for Greenpeace USA’s Genetic Engineering Campaign. I have served as CEH’s representative on the Steering Committee of Californians for GE Free Agriculture, and on the board of the Sunshine Project, an international nonprofit that works to expose the hostile use of biotechnology in weapons development and to strengthen the global consensus against biological warfare. I’m a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley in Peace and Conflict Studies, and of the California Culinary Academy (I still identify primarily as a baker).”

    Yet, a simple search for your name turns up in several other places. According to Sourcewatch, you were the CA Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Food Safety:
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Food_Safety

    And this conference profile confirms that you were working for them:
    “Charles Margulis is a researcher, policy analyst, and media relations coordinator for the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit challenging harmful food production technologies and promoting sustainable alternatives.”
    http://www.sejarchive.org/confer/stanf/speakers.htm#Margulis

    And the Organic Consumer’s Association has also listed you as a Policy Board Member. It also mentions Greenpeace at the same time, so perhaps you were just on the board as a representative of Greenpeace.

    Now I’m not accusing you of hiding who you’ve worked for, but I find it interesting that although your blogging profile does not mention at least the CFS connection, that you are making such a big deal out of an omission of employment on Steve’s part that is older than 15 years.

    We could go around in circles with talking about who worked for who, or the fact that you were getting paid to do PR for Greenpeace – all such discussions draw us away from the actual arguments being considered. I hope you will agree with me that that is the case, and feel free to join the discussion of genetic engineering at the independent Biofortified blog in the future.

  2. cmargulis permalink*
    December 15, 2009 8:09 am

    Karl-

    Steve listed his former employers on his own site, but on “Sustainablog,” a site where people would certainly find that info relevant, he said only that he worked in ag science. That suggests something different then not listing an old employer; it suggests leaving out relevant info because one knows the audience may find that info damning.

    Full disclosure: I also once had lunch with Jeremy Rifkin.

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