Sunday, September 23, 2012

Genetic Roulette (Institute for Responsible Technology, 2012)


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The film was called Genetic Roulette and was based on a book of the same title by Jeffrey M. Smith, a long-term activist who’s written other books on the subject and set up a Web site called the Institute for Responsible Technology ( Charles and I had a close association with the issue of genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s) when we were heavily involved in the protests against the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)’s 2001 convention in San Diego, and the biggest difference between the information as it was presented in 2001 and the information as it’s presented in 2012 is that the dangers we were warning about then — notably the cross-contamination of GMO and non-GMO genes in the environment, the possible evolution of new, previously unknown organisms with potentially destructive properties, and the direct health hazards of eating GMO foods (both for livestock and for humans who consume GMO’s both directly, through products like corn and soybeans that are almost universally genetically modified in the U.S. today — 88 percent of all U.S.-produced corn is GMO, along with 94 percent of soy, 90 percent of canola, 90 percent of cotton, 95 percent of sugar beets and more than 50 percent of Hawai’ian papaya — as well as eating meat from cows, pigs and chickens fed GMO feed) — are now coming true.

The film is a good review of the case against GMO’s, both the intrinsic case and the corruption of the process used to allow them to be marketed; in 1992 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GMO food did not have to go through any special health or safety testing whatsoever because it was “chemically identical” to food produced with conventional methods. The villain in the piece, at least according to Genetic Roulette, is one Michael Taylor, who has turned the “revolving door” between private industry and public service into a warp drive: he has easily shuttled back forth between the U.S. government and Monsanto, which according to the film is the number two marketer of genetically modified seeds and products designed to work with them (which rather begs the question of who’s number one) but has become the symbol of GMO evil for the opposition. According to Genetic Roulette, there are 65 documented health hazards in eating GMO food, including inflammation, immune disorders (since the human immune system frequently recognizes GMO genes as “foreign” or “non-self” and mounts an attack on them), nutrition deficiencies because GMO foods don’t contain as much protein or important trace minerals as their non-GMO counterparts, allergies (including increasing levels of food allergies as people who get allergic to GMO foods end up also allergic to their non-GMO counterparts), reproductive problems (noticed both in humans and in livestock, to the point where animal raisers have lost 90 percent or more of their herds when switching from non-GMO to GMO feed), infant mortality, sterility, disease and death. Those last items are particularly a problem for Bt, which is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium originally discovered in Thuringia, a German state, which in the early 1960’s was promoted as a non-toxic alternative to DDT as a pesticide. Bt became a standard technique for organic farmers since it poisoned insects while leaving plants healthy and unscathed — but that wasn’t good enough for the biochemical industry in general or Monsanto in particular, who sought to isolate the gene in Bt that generates the toxin and insert it right into corn.

The parts of the film that resonated with me particularly were the evolution of an entirely new microbial pathogen that’s been discovered in the guts of farm animals fed GMO food — it’s not a bacterium (the people in the movie have the annoying and all too common habit of using the word “bacteria” as singular as well as plural), a virus, a viroid, a rickettsia or a macrophage, but it’s been proven according to Koch’s Postulates to cause disease — and the relentless attacks from the biotech industry and its captive politicians on scientists who try to expose the flaws in the studies by industry scientists supporting GMO’s and do their own studies that show they’re not safe. The stories of Dr. Arpad Pusztai and others who have lost jobs and grants because they dared to perform and publish studies challenging the safety of GMO’s are all too similar to those of other scientists who have found their careers, and sometimes their livelihoods, destroyed because they dared do work that challenged an industry — like John Gofman, a nuclear physicist who challenged the safety of nuclear power; or Peter Duesberg, who shredded his scientific career by questioning the dogma that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS. It reveals an all too familiar pattern that, whereas in the past scientific research had to contend with interference from religious authorities (does the name “Galileo” mean anything to you?) and from political dictatorships with their own agendas (like the way Stalin elevated Trofim Lysenko’s ideas about genetics to official dogma and punished any scientists who clung to the established Mendelian ideas about heredity), right now the biggest single threat to scientific integrity is the same as the biggest single threat to economic well-being and political liberty: the awesome power of the giant corporations and the unscrupulousness with which it is yielded by these amoral organizations that exist for no other purpose than to maximize their own profits. In a very real sense, the message of Genetic Roulette is that scientific truth has ceased to exist: in science, as in economics and politics, the “truth” is whatever the big corporations say it is.

There’s an attempt at the end of the movie to portray the situation as not entirely hopeless — including a list of previous attempts to market GMO’s that failed due to organized campaigns of consumer resistance (from the “FlavrSavr” tomato, which was a GMO with a flounder gene inserted — yes, that’s from a fish — to make the tomato flatter and therefore easier to ship — to the madness of using recombinant bovine growth hormone to boost cows’ milk production at a time when there were already milk surpluses; ironically Walmart, the evil empire on so many issues, emerged in Genetic Roulette on the side of good on this one as the first major supermarket chain to realize that rBGH milk was going to be a money-loser for them because people didn’t want it) and a major push for Proposition 37 on the California ballot, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. It’s not surprising that Monsanto and the other GMO companies have fought labeling requirements tooth and nail — just as the political Right has fought against disclosure requirements that, if they wouldn’t stop corporations and wealthy individuals from buying elections, would at least let us know who was hijacking our democratic-republican process with big money — because, as one of the activists shown in the movie says, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I can hardly wait to go to the supermarket today to buy some of that yummy genetically modified food!” Given a choice, most people will prefer to buy food without genetically modified ingredients — which is why the industry has fought so hard not only to get their crummy GMO food to the marketplace but not to let us know that GMO food even exists. (Indeed, at the height of the rBGH controversy the Alta-Dena dairy had to go to court to win the right to advertise that their milk didn’t contain it; the dairies who were using it claimed that Alta-Dena was libeling them by implying some doubt about the safety and health of rBGH milk, even though all Alta-Dena was saying in their ads was, “If you want to avoid rBGH in your milk, buy from us.”)

It’s fascinating that the people who scream the loudest against government regulation and in favor of the “free market” are also the ones who scream the loudest against being made to level with the public as to just what’s in the products they sell or under what circumstances they’re manufactured; Adam Smith himself, the founder of capitalist theory, said a free market wouldn’t work unless people knew what they were buying and could trust the sellers to be honest with them — but then what passes for “capitalism” in the U.S. (and most of the world) today has little or nothing to do with Adam Smith; indeed, by allowing corporations to merge and become fewer in number and larger in size, the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the European Union are reproducing the era of mercantilism, a corrupt economic system to which Smith was promoting free-market capitalism as a superior alternative. Under mercantilism, the government designated one company to have a monopoly over a certain industry — and in many industries we’ve seen a sort of neo-mercantilism emerge from the ashes of the “free market.” (This was the real significance of that bizarre antitrust suit the feds filed against Apple and three book publishers that alleged price-fixing in the price of Internet books — a suit that helped because the deal between Apple and the publishers had been aimed at breaking Amazon’s monopoly power over the pricing of e-books. The feds had essentially designated Amazon as a state-sanctioned monopoly by punishing other corporations that tried to challenge them.)

Smith’s film is an eye-opener and yet more evidence that the real threat to liberty in this country is Big Business, and to the extent Big Government is a threat to liberty it’s not from overly restricting the private sector but, quite the contrary, by enabling and protecting it, allowing it to market its poisonous products and to drive down wages so much that the economy will remain in a state of permanent decline because American business will still have the capability to produce lots of stuff (even though they send the actual jobs of manufacturing it to China and other countries where dictatorial governments enforce sweatshop conditions and arrest or assassinate people who try to organize unions) but they won’t be able to sell it because they’ve done such a good job driving down wages that no one has the money to buy it. It’s nice that the anti-GMO activists were able to get Proposition 37 on the ballot, but barring the intervention of a billionaire do-gooder like (do I dare say the name?) George Soros on the anti-GMO side, they’re likely simply to get crushed by the advertising blitz Monsanto and other GMO companies are going to unleash on them to make California voters think GMO’s are the greatest thing since sliced bread and that enforcing labeling requirements on them will drive up the price of food and starve the Third World (a favorite argument of Monsanto’s PR people, official and unofficial, expertly debunked in this film).