From: cyberdude <cyberdude@jps.net>

The big corporations are interested in health - their FINANCIAL
HEALTH, that is - and NOT our physical health... read on!


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Sierra, the
national magazine of the Sierra Club.

When research scientist Arpad Pusztai appeared on British television
in August 1998 to talk about his studies of genetically engineered
potatoes, he was suspended and later fired from his job at the Rowett
Research Institute in Scotland. After a distinguished 36-year career
there, his research was terminated, his data seized, and a contract
clause was invoked that put his pension in jeopardy. At that point,
the contract became a gag order forbidding him to discuss his work or
defend himself in the ensuing six months -- during which his
scientific reputation was trashed by a fierce cadre of pro-biotech
scientists in Britain and around the globe.

What had Pusztai done? With the prior approval of his boss, this
world authority on a class of plant compounds called lectins had made
the case for food safety testing for all genetically engineered
crops. At the time, Pusztai's team was conducting the only
independent scientific research in the world designed to test the
safety of genetically engineered foods. Originally an enthusiastic
supporter of genetic engineering, Pusztai had not expected to find
any negative results. So Pusztai was both surprised and alarmed to
find that rats fed potatoes genetically engineered with a specific
lectin developed disturbing changes in the size and weight of some of
their vital organs. He also found evidence of weakened immune
systems. A control group of rats fed ordinary potatoes and another
fed spuds with the lectin added but not genetically spliced in showed
no such results.

When the interviewer asked if the lack of safety testing for
genetically engineered foods concerned Pusztai, he said it did. When
asked if he would eat his own genetically engineered potatoes,
Pusztai said he would not, and that he didn't think it was fair to
use people as guinea pigs for an untested new technology.

Pusztai's remarks helped galvanize a growing consumer revolt in
Europe that has cost the biotech industry dearly. Opposition to
genetically engineered foods is now strong there and in many other
parts of the world as well. In response, a well-funded and -organized
biotech hype machine has emerged to promote biotech food as the
solution to world hunger and squelch concerns about its safety.
Groups like the U.S.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO),
the industry's main trade and lobbying group, are desperately trying
to prevent a similar consumer revolt from happening in the United
States. Through sponsorship of scientific research in the nation's
universities as well as high-powered lobbying on Capitol Hill, the
biotech promoters are doing their best to neutralize critics. Their
academic sponsorships channel research away from biotech's potential
negative effects, while their closed-door meetings in Washington
ensure that consumers don't get adequate food testing or labeling,
and organic farmers won't get the regulations they need to keep their
crops free of genetic contamination.

Few academics are willing to openly criticize biotechnology for fear
of retribution from the biotech boosters, say biotech skeptics like
John Ikerd, a retired agricultural economist from the University of
Missouri. In his view, the enormous public resources devoted to
biotechnology programs are corporate giveaways that come at the
expense of other kinds of research. His own work focused on
sustainable agriculture systems for smaller-scale family farms rather
than serving the big agribusiness models land-grant universities have
been promoting for more than 50 years. Ikerd's type of research is
viewed as a threat to corporate agriculture, he says, because it
enables farmers to reduce their reliance on the fertilizers,
pesticides, and other products that agribusiness companies sell.

Ikerd's candor was not well received at his university. "You become
labeled as not a team player, as not one of the trusted members of
the faculty," he says. "You are not on committees you used to be on,
you're not involved in the leadership of the department, and you
don't get write-ups in the university publications. You have to
decide before you speak out that you don't care about these
repercussions. It's like being a whistleblower."

Corporate funding of university research increased fivefold -- from
$850 million to $4.25 billion -- between 1985 and 1995.
A survey measuring attitudes toward biotechnology among Cornell
University agricultural and nutrition-science faculty and extension
staff (who advise farmers) found that nearly half have reservations
about the health, safety, and environmental impacts of genetically
engineered food crops and doubt they are the answer to global hunger.
Strong biotech supporters numbered 37 percent, while 8 percent
thought agricultural biotech might have useful applications and help
with global hunger but expressed concerns about food safety issues in
light of inadequate testing. Though their numbers were fewer, the
biotech promoters said they felt very comfortable publicly voicing
their views, while the concerned majority did not express that

Ann Clark, a pasture scientist at the University of Guelph in Canada,
is among those who have been chastised for expressing reservations. A
little over a year ago, she publicly criticized the lack of food
safety testing for transgenic crops. "Within two hours of the press
conference releasing the report, my dean had called me unethical,"
Clark said. "He said I was paid to be a pasture scientist and that I
should stick with that. It became quite ugly, because the national
media picked it up, and people whose views aren't parallel to mine
have used [the dean's remarks] extensively."

Clark has tenure, so she isn't worried about losing her job. But she
says her treatment has had a chilling effect on the debate about
biotechnology within Canadian universities. "There aren't many
academics who will say something if they know their administrators --
the people who sit in judgment on their performance -- are going to
publicly lambaste them," she said. That initial incident has made
Clark more determined than ever to raise questions about
biotechnology. Besides continuing to speak openly, she has a number
of papers on her website that discuss the growing dominance of
biotech in publicly funded universities and question the quality of
the science driving biotech's advancement.

Whether they work directly for biotech companies or receive corporate
grants for their work in universities or government research
institutes, scientists are generally forbidden to disclose their
results because of secrecy clauses in their contracts. Such clauses
are likely to proliferate as public support for research and
education is replaced by corporate money -- a shift that is already
well under way. Writing in the March 2000 issue of the Atlantic
Monthly, Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn report that corporate
funding of university research increased fivefold -- from $850
million to $4.25 billion -- between 1985 and 1995. By 1997, corporate
contributions constituted 40 percent of the overall academic research

Sarah Bantz, a graduate student in agricultural economics at the
University of Missouri, is researching private money coming into her
university over a 30-year period. To get access to corporate
contracts, she had to promise not to reveal any specifics about them.
She says that of all the biotech research undertaken at the
University of Missouri, only one study is assessing health, safety,
or environmental impacts. "Virtually all the research is for product
development, one way or another," she says.

Traditionally, universities have been reservoirs of independent
thinking where tenured faculty had the academic freedom to analyze
and interpret science and its implications for society without
pressure from financially interested parties. But as funding ties
between private industry and universities grow, the pool of
independent research is shrinking. "It would be as if we had to draw
our scientists from corporations every time we wanted to convene a
body of experts to help us resolve a technical, scientific problem
with public-policy implications in society," says Tufts University
professor Sheldon Krimsky, an authority on the social implications of
science and technology. "Corporations will have much more direction
and control over what technologies get introduced and what are
considered to be safe and unsafe."

Organic farmer David Vetter is facing off with the biotech boosters,
too, but they act as if he doesn't exist. Vetter's 280-acre Nebraska
farm is a patchwork of sweet corn, popcorn, soybeans, barley, a
variety of grasses, legumes, and grazing paddocks for cattle.
Visitors, including Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center
for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, come away
impressed by the care that goes into the operation. "It strikes you
when you step out on that farm," says Kirschenmann. "You can see it
in the fields. It's just good stewardship."

"As an organic grower, I can no longer guarantee that my crops are GE-
Vetter may be a good caretaker, but he can't control the wind. Cross-
fertilization between corn plants occurs regularly in the Corn Belt
as winds carry pollen from field to field. Prior to the first large-
scale commercial plantings of genetically engineered crops in 1996,
wind pollination did not pose particular problems for organic
farmers. Their biggest challenge was trying to keep pesticides from
blowing onto their fields. But with the advent of transgenic crops --
and growing public disquiet, bolstered by some alarming preliminary
data on the health and environmental effects of such crops -- farmers
like Vetter face a real threat to their livelihood. Vetter has been
testing for transgenic contamination since 1998. Last year, he found

Transgenic contamination is already widespread: 100 percent of the
organic corn samples sent in to be tested from the Midwest this year
showed some degree of genetic contamination, which could result in
organic corn growers losing their certification -- and probably their

So far, Vetter's customers say they will reluctantly accept a certain
amount of transgenic contamination, as long as it stays at very low
levels. But Vetter is worried. The loss of the organic market for his
corn would hit him hard -- its revenue equals the net profit his farm
generates. In the meantime, he's saddled with a hefty bill: It cost
him $1,500 to test one $4,000 load of corn for contamination. "It's
extremely frustrating when you have to pay those kinds of costs,
through no fault of your own, because somebody's introduced
technology they can't manage," Vetter says.

Years ago, Vetter began planting double rows of pines, with 60 feet
of untilled sod in between, creating a buffer zone to protect his
crops from pesticides drifting over from neighboring farms. The
buffer hasn't prevented transgenic pollution, though, and this time
he's adamant that responsibility for his genetically contaminated
crop should fall squarely on both those who have introduced
bioengineered corn into agriculture and the government agencies that
have allowed the widespread use of essentially unregulated
genetically engineered crops. "It's now clear that we won't be able
to have both genetically engineered and non-GE crops," Vetter
says. "As an organic grower, I can no longer guarantee that my crops
are GE-free. The only resolution I can see is a ban on biotech

Michael Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, is trying to make sure that
Vetter and farmers like him don't get their way. Phillips and his
staff see their task as creating a barrier between biotech critics
and Washington legislators, while also working to educate decision-
makers on what they claim to be biotech's benefits. So far, BIO has
been extremely successful in its mission. Consumer-oriented biotech
legislation -- mandatory labeling of genetically engineered
ingredients on food packages, which independent consumer polls
consistently indicate the public wants, and a pre-market safety
approval process for biotech foods -- has not gotten far on Capitol
Hill. Phillips has said that pre-market approval is "something the
industry would never support." He and his colleagues at BIO have also
worked to defeat the establishment of any tracking system that could
require transgenic seed purchases to be registered. Such registration
could establish liability for the kind of contamination that Vetter

Prior to joining BIO in 1999, Phillips was director of the National
Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. When
Phillips left the academy for BIO, he was in the middle of directing
a study to assess the health and environmental safety of crops
genetically engineered to contain pesticides. The revolving door took
him swiftly from a group that provides policy-makers with independent
scientific advice to one that lobbies on behalf of chemical-intensive

"Come on in BIO, here's everybody you need to lobby."
Because of the success of such advocacy, Congress has been reluctant
to regulate pesticides or promote organic farming and other
alternatives to chemical-intensive agriculture. But it does
generously fund biotechnology. The 2001 budget allocates $310 million
for biotech in agriculture and rural-development programs. Federal
support for organic farming is less than $5 million.

In agriculture and beyond, biotech has huge moneymaking potential.
Harvard Business School professor Ray A. Goldberg predicts the new
genetic technologies will revolutionize the global economy by turning
traditionally distinct industry sectors -- agriculture, health care,
energy, and computing -- into one gargantuan life-science industry
with "virtually unlimited commercial [patent and ownership]
possibilities." Asked to quantify the value of future biotech
markets, Goldberg says he had been thinking it could reach $16
trillion. But then he changed his mind, saying that there really
isn't any way to put a number on future markets for "virtually

In autumn 1999, Phillips's organization held "Biotechnology School,"
weekly or bi-weekly meetings between BIO staff and members of the
House Committee on Agriculture and their staffs. At these sessions,
BIO taught its congressional pupils what biotechnology is, how it's
being used in food and agriculture, and where the science is leading.
According to one congressional source who requested anonymity, BIO's
school exemplified "typical industry access" to Congress that citizen
groups simply don't have. "The agriculture committee is going to
control the biotech debate in Congress, and they basically
said, 'Come on in BIO, here's everybody you need to lobby. And you
can do it every week or as much as you want,'" the source said. "This
offer is not extended to environmental or food-safety groups -- no
way, no how."

BIO has also set up congressional biotechnology caucuses -- one in
the House and one in the Senate -- that work with the industry to
advance its issues. Adam Kovacevich, a spokesperson for Cal Dooley, D-
Calif., one of the four co-chairs of the House Biotech Caucus,
describes the 65-member group as a "forum for advocacy"
that "educates fellow members of Congress on the positive
implications of biotechnology." Two of the co-chairs, one Republican
and one Democrat, sit on the House Agriculture Committee, and the two
others, also one from each party, are on the House Commerce
Committee, which has jurisdiction over medical applications of

Though the caucus is not promoting any particular bill, it alerts
caucus members to any legislative or regulatory activity that could
affect biotechnology. This activity clearly helps keep legislators in
the biotech camp. In the last session of Congress, a bill requiring
labels on genetically engineered foods was introduced by
Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. Only one member of the
biotech caucus, Mark Udall, D-Colo., supported the ill-fated bill.
Udall's district includes the environmentally aware community of
Boulder as well as an area with a lot of biotech companies, says
Jennifer Barrett, a legislative assistant in his office. "He
cosponsored the labeling bill because he's concerned that consumers
should have all the information they need about the food they are
eating," she says.

The caucus also organizes forums where invited experts brief members
on various biotech issues. Richard Caplan, who works on biotech
issues for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, contacted
Dooley's office, offering to present his perspective on biotech food
issues. His offer was ignored.

An aid to one of the leaders of the biotech caucus defended the
group's orientation. "We're primarily interested in getting out the
facts and the science," he said. "We're trying to make this a debate
that's based not so much on passion and assumptions but on the actual
science." But without the voices of researchers like Arpad Pusztai,
farmers like David Vetter, and public-interest advocates like Richard
Caplan, one wonders whether it's a debate at all or just nonstop
communiqués from the biotech hype machine.

Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2001 issue of Sierra.
This story is protected by copyright and cannot be reprinted without
the permission of the author.

© 1999-2001 The Florence Fund