by Anna Maria Caldara, March 2012
(Editor's Note: a Genesis Farm 2013 update to this article provided here. PDF format.)
An organism has been transgenically engineered (TE) if the genes of an unrelated species have been forced into its own cells. For example, jellyfish genes introduced to pigs caused the pigs’ noses to glow in the dark. Spider genes were imbedded into goat DNA to produce a spider web protein in goat’s milk so strong it could be used for a fiber in bullet-proof vests. These and other deviant experiments are chronicled by the Institute for Responsible Technology.
The cell, as a living organism, contains natural barriers to prevent foreign DNA from invading it. Therefore, scientists must coerce the alien genes into the species being altered. This is accomplished in several ways.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA, each species’ genetic blueprint) is coated onto miniscule metal pellets, which are then fired, via a special gun, into the cells; DNA is injected into fertilized eggs with an extremely fine needle; viruses or bacteria “infect” animal or plant cells with the foreign DNA; or, sperm is subjected to electric shocks, creating holes in its membrane, through which new DNA is then propelled.
Aside from the fact that the presence of a strange gene can provoke unknown side effects, transgenic engineering (TE) inflicts violence at the cellular level. The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines “cell” as “the ultimate element of organic structures.” The genetic memories of individual species have evolved along with the progression of the universe, over 13.6 billion years. Plants and animals have developed mutually enhancing characteristics in order to sustain earth’s ecosystems, which in turn support them. To deliberately deviate from the path of evolution disregards the inherent wisdom that has brought us to this moment. It also scorns the rights of fauna, flora, and humanity. The encoding of species DNA supplies the identities that enable each genus to flourish, in alliance with millions of years of selection. The result, Earth’s highly diverse gene pool, was the bank from which nature maintained its system of checks and balances; genes were selected over time that gave species the maximum opportunity for survival.
But transgenic engineering has violated cell integrity. Current field trials include corn engineered with hepatitis virus genes…to what end? According to ”Wise Traditions” blogger and Green Pasture Products founder David Wetzel, the United States government field-tested a TE variety of corn circa 1996. This corn allegedly contained genes that regulated the manufacture of antibodies in women with “immune infertility” condition. Birth rates began falling shortly after this corn was marketed. Since 1999, U.S. birth rates have dropped even further. Could eating this corn correspond with the 20% rate of infertility occurring in our population today?
Monsanto and Roundup Ready
The first genetically engineered organisms were bacteria created in 1973. By the 1980s, chemical companies foresaw a future in transgenically engineered agriculture. Monsanto conquered this new frontier with its transgenic plants and seeds. The commercial centerpiece of Monsanto’s strategy is Roundup Ready seeds, which were designed to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, another Monsanto product. The company now dominates the market for transgenically modified seeds and traits. The USDA claims that in 2010, 93% of America’s soybean acreage, 78% of its cotton acreage, and 70% of its corn acreage was planted with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds. Roundup Ready seed is also available for canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup. Farmers are able to increase its use without killing their Roundup Ready (RR) seeds and crops. In theory, any weeds competing with the RR crop are eliminated, but the crop itself would be left standing. Through this method, the ecosystem receives much more glyphosate than without a RR crop. Pesticide Action Network stated that in 2000, the volume of glyphosate almost doubled to 28.1 million pounds, as a result of intensified plantings in RR soybeans.
Yet, as weeds adapt to Roundup, they have become resistant to chemical dousing. In effect, “super weeds” have evolved, which are attacked with higher concentrations of spray and lead to even further damage to the ecosystem. Where, then, is the benefit to herbicide-resistant crops?
Described by Greenpeace as one of the most toxic herbicides to soil microorganisms, glyphosate’s poisonous effects ruin the habitats of birds and mammals. California has labeled it as “known to cause cancer” since 1999; since 2002, the European Commission has documented that the chemical induces birth defects in laboratory animals.
USDA Senior Scientist Don Huber has publicized other consequences of glyphosate use: it promotes soil pathogens, has increased more than 40 plant diseases, destroys plant defenses, and reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed to farm animals.
In February 2011, he wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warning of a new “emergency” that could collapse our agricultural infrastructure. Huber linked high rates of infertility and spontaneous abortions in livestock to a new plant pathogen in Roundup Ready soybeans and corn. This could mean that, via genetic manipulation, a harmful organism unknown to science has been unintentionally brought into being. This pathogen, from all evidence, is infectious and promotes diseases of both plants and mammals.
The presence of this pathogen is an obvious threat to U.S. soy and corn export profits. Supplies of domestic food and animal feed are also at stake. But what of the health of the plants, animals, and humans that have already been significantly impacted?
Other Environmental and Economic Effects
While TE can make plants resistant to herbicides like glyphosate, it can also force a plant to produce its own pesticide. Bt (Bacillus thuriengensis) is a bacterial organism naturally present in soil. It is fatal to many types of caterpillars that eat the leaves of crops. Organic farmers and proponents of Integrated Pest Management (low use of pesticides combined with non-chemical methods of insect control) have relied on Bt as a last resort. Sprinkled on crops occasionally, it does not collect in high concentrations. Also, because it degrades in sunlight, it is never on plants for very long. Therefore, insects had not developed a resistance to it.
But Monsanto and Dow Chemical have engineered Bt into cotton, corn, and potatoes. Bt cotton, for example, has been engineered to contain the Bt bacteria in every one of its cells. However, the entire cotton plant is now toxic to other species besides insects. Sheep that grazed on Bt cotton fields in India died by the thousands.
The only insects that will survive after eating Bt crops are those that are resistant to the toxin, or those that change their diet to other plants. As insects alter their traditional choices of food, local ecosystems suffer disruption.
Studies show that pesticide-producing crops contaminate nearby streams and rivers, further jeopardizing aquatic life and beneficial insects.
A Cornell University researcher discovered that pollen from Bt corn on milkweed plants killed Monarch butterfly larvae. Monarch caterpillars that ingested Bt pollen ate less, grew slower, and succumbed faster than butterflies eating non-TE leaves.
Contamination of non-TE fields is one of the most dangerous aspects of this technology. Although soy does not cross-pollinate, corn, canola, and cotton do. Therefore, seed drift or scatter can infect non-TE seeded farms. Equipment that is TE-tainted can be transferred during harvest or post-harvest activities. The processing, storage, and transportation of TE plants allows for adulteration of healthy specimens at every stage.
The constant menace of contamination is aggravated by the fact that it cannot be detected by visual examination of a seed or plant. Crops suspected of taint must undergo expensive testing procedures. If seeds have been marred by TE, they must be obliterated and the fields cannot be re-planted for several years, resulting in monetary damage to farmers.
In the case of Liberty Link rice, TE contamination was the direct cause for economic disaster. Genetically modified to tolerate Liberty herbicide, this rice (“LL601”) was field-tested between 1999 and 2001 by German manufacturer Bayer AG. Unapproved for human consumption, it was nevertheless discovered in the commercial rice supply in 2006. The world market responded by banning the importation of U.S. rice, requiring strict testing, and removing entire rice varieties from sale. Economic loss for the 2006/2007 crop was an estimated $254 million. Worldwide economic loss due to the Liberty Link contamination was $741 million to $1.285 billion.
In October 2011, Senators Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) from Alaska introduced two amendments to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill regarding transgenic salmon. One sought to ban TE salmon from interstate commerce; the other would have prohibited the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from spending federal resources on the salmon’s approval.
The fish, known as AquAdvantage, is an Atlantic salmon inserted with a growth gene from Chinook salmon, and an antifreeze agent from an ocean pout. It grows twice as fast as an Atlantic salmon, and requires 10% less feed to achieve the same weight.
The House voted to stop funding of the fish, but the Senate has not included the same language in its own appropriations bill. While the FDA is still reviewing the GE salmon, in September the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) bestowed a large grant--nearly half a million taxpayer dollars—on the developers of the fish, AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts. This grant enables AquaBounty to study sterilization methods. Currently, species interbreeding with non-GE salmon is possible.
Because the USDA supplied massive funding to promote this fish, especially when AquaBounty showed a loss of $2.8 million in the first half of 2011 alone, watchdogs feel that the FDA will probably approve AquAdvantage for human consumption.
Human Health Effects
Because most TE plant-derived foods contain fully functioning antibiotic-resistant genes, ingestion of these products could render antibiotics useless. Someone fighting an infection may experience no relief over the course of the drug.
Mike Adams, editor of Natural News.com, reported on June 6, 2011
that an e.coli outbreak had been traced to a sprout farm in Germany. As of that date, 22 fatalities had occurred, and 2,153 people sickened.
However, the mainstream media left the following details unreported. This particular strain of e.coli was resistant to over a dozen antibiotics in eight different drug classes, and featured two deadly gene mutations that cause swift organ failure.
Adams maintains that a bacterial strain with these super-resistant qualities could not have evolved in Nature. It defied the laws of genetic permutation and combination to which Nature adheres. The e.coli would have had to be genetically selected again and again after its exposure to each series of antibiotics. These characteristics imply that it was purposely engineered in a lab, using the same methods as bioweapons, then released.
Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a synthetic version of cows’ natural pituitary hormone, was formulated to extend lactation periods. Treated herds provide more milk, even though the U.S. government spends $200 million annually to purchase surplus quantities. Injected cows deliver milk with increased amounts of the IGF-1 hormone. This “insulin-like growth hormone” passes into the blood of dairy consumers. It is one of the highest risk factors identified for breast and prostate cancers.
In the 1980s, TE L-tryptophan, a food supplement, killed at least 100 Americans. Sickness or disability was attributed to 5,000-10,000 others. The epidemic was known as “EMS.”
Because TE organisms are persistent, their presence in the intestines may trigger long-term chronic exposure. In other words, even if the TE food is no longer swallowed, its TE protein may continue to form inside intestinal tracts.
Children, who are more susceptible to allergies than adults, face the greatest risks associated with TE. But because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling of TE ingredients, its human health impacts remain unmonitored. Years could conceivably pass before illness is linked with altered genes.
Impact on Organic Farms
Food free of genetic modification, irradiation, or exposure to synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, and fertilizers, is called “organic.” Farmers whose produce is certified organic, or farmers who simply choose to grow crops without TE seed, are heeding the public’s preference for a nourishing diet. As people become more aware of the dangers of TE, many seek to protect their health by supporting local organic farms. But agribusiness, as practiced through Monsanto’s TE technology, impinges on the rights of all farmers.
Monsanto’s seed patents prevent any third party from performing research on its TE seeds without the corporation’s permission. This prohibits independent scientific research on behalf of public safety. Monsanto has exempted itself from the trust between consumer and farmer. How can farming be safeguarded as a way of life for future generations if the farmer’s obligation to provide a healthy crop does not apply to Monsanto? Its tactics inch towards complete corporate control of food.
Monsanto’s Terminator genes can be spliced into any plant, sterilizing its seeds. Plants will produce one crop only. Farmers who formerly saved and shared seeds will be required to buy TE replacements from biotech conglomerates. In 1999, when the technology was introduced, the New York Times stated, “The Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of the last great commons in Nature—the genetics of the crop plants that civilization has developed over the last 10,000 years.”
Although Monsanto promised not to commercialize these “suicide seeds,” The Organic Consumers Association disclosed
in 2006 that Monsanto suggested it would use Terminator in non-food crops, and in other applications. In 2009, empty seedpods were recovered in India, empty bean pods in Afghanistan, and eyeless potatoes in Ecuador. In Africa, huge harvests of three varieties of corn failed when all were found to be seedless.
The patenting of TE plants and animals by Monsanto foreshadows a feudal system. Farmers will lease their crops and herds, paying royalties on seeds and offspring to the corporation.
If this “bullying” approach to agriculture continues, small family and indigenous farmers will be locked out of the market. Non-TE crops will be contaminated, and rural communities will lose their identities. Food choices will vanish, and a handful of chemical companies will dictate everything we eat.
Public Patent Foundation Lawsuit
Flexing its stranglehold on American agriculture, Monsanto has brought suit against hundreds of farmers for “patent infringement.” Patent infringement occurs, according to Monsanto, when its TE seed inadvertently blows onto neighboring fields. While the non-TE farmer may view this as contamination, Monsanto sees it as a violation of use of its patented life forms.In the meantime, cross-pollination has made it impossible for Canadian canola farmers to grow organic, non TE canola.
The initial lawsuit, signed by 60 plaintiffs, including Genesis Farm and filed in March, 2011, was re-filed on June 1, 2011 with 83 plaintiffs. They comprise 36 organizations, 14 seed companies, and 33 farms and farmers. This large, diverse group reflected an “across-the-board” opposition to Monsanto and the federal government’s endorsement of TE food.
Shortly after the March filing of the lawsuit, Monsanto issued a statement assuring farmers it would not hold patent rights against them, if “trace” amounts of TE seed transgressed into their fields. PUBPAT wrote to Monsanto’s attorneys, requesting that this promise be made legally binding. Instead of complying with this out-of-court suggestion, Monsanto hired former U.S. Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman. He verified that Monsanto may indeed bring claims of patent infringement against farmers who find their crops contaminated by TE seed.
In January, 2012, parties in the case appeared in a New York City federal district court to listen to oral argument on Monsanto’s motion to dismiss the case, while outside the courthouse, a peaceful demonstration ensued
. Disappointingly, on February 24, 2012, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald granted Monsanto’s motion to dismiss the case. Nevertheless, if one considers the organic network woven by the 83 plaintiffs (about 300,000 people buy from their organic gardens and related services), the lawsuit stands as a united effort for food security against Monsanto. The plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal.
The lawsuit rested on four points. Point One asserted that “Monsanto’s Transgenic Seed Patents Are Invalid.” This was based on a tenet of the Patent Act, which states that an invention or discovery must be a “useful improvement.” Inventions that are “injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society” are unpatentable.
Point Two asserted that “Monsanto’s Transgenic Seed Patents Can Not Be Infringed.” This means that contamination of the plaintiffs’ farms was “reasonably foreseeable,” due to the nature of GE seed. Therefore, patent rights are exhausted upon sale of the seed to Monsanto’s customers.
Point Three asserted that “Monsanto’s Transgenic Seed Patents Are Unenforceable.” Here, the methods by which Monsanto had gained control over the seed market were revealed. Between 2005 and 2010, for example, Monsanto acquired over 30 independent seed companies. This diminished competition and concentrated power in Monsanto’s favor.
Accordingly, cost of seed has risen. The royalty paid to Monsanto for the same RR trait in soybeans has spiraled from $6.50 a bag to over $15.00 today. Since the farmer is bound to buy his or her seed from Monsanto, corporate profit is the bottom line.
Also, Monsanto has intimidated farmers, consistently suing them for patent infringement, causing “widespread fear and intimidation” in the industry. Monsanto has “wrongfully interfered with Plaintiffs’ rights to possess, enjoy and exploit their property.”
Point Four asserted that “Monsanto Would Not Be Entitled to Any Remedy against Plaintiffs.” The company suffers no lost profits when its transgenic seed contaminates a non-GE plot. In fact, the balance of hardships resulting from such contamination would fall to the plaintiffs. They would be caused “substantial economic harm.”
Genesis Farm, just one of the plaintiffs, hosts a biodynamic Community Supported Garden on 30 acres. Now in its 25th year, over 300 families are committed to buying herbs, fruit, honey, grains, and vegetables every season. The CSG insures that the health of children and adults is being sustained, and that the integrity of the cell is being honored. In an economy where agriculture is ruled by GE, the impact of this is immeasurable.
Our choice to protect Nature and future generations of all species begins with the right to be healthy. How can we be healthy if Monsanto’s GE seeds desecrate our food? Health is fundamental to the ongoing unfolding of Life. Every life form on Earth is ultimately at risk if powerful GE interests overrule Mother Nature.
Corn, a staple of the world for millennia, originated in Mexico. Now virtually all of that country’s heirloom varieties are genetically contaminated. The craftsmanship of centuries has been ruined, in an attempt to master the essence of Life itself: the seed.
Vandana Shiva said, “The gift of seed is the ultimate gift--it is the gift of life, of heritage, of knowledge and of continuity. Saving seeds is saving biodiversity, saving knowledge of the seed and its uses, saving cultures and conserving life.”
The seed in its wholeness embodies ongoing energy. To preserve its integrity is to preserve the Universal forces which fostered its inception. If, as Thomas Berry stated, "To plant a seed is to activate the deepest mysteries of the Universe," then a TE-violated seed impugns the Creative force governing the functions of Life.
Organizations working on transgenic food and seed:
We encourage you to explore these groups and subscribe to their ongoing alerts and other advocacy efforts. We are doing the same.