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BRAVE NEW NATURE

Spinning Science into GOLD

In the pursuit of profit, the biotech industry is manipulating more than genes

By Karen Charman

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 theonly 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. Biotech researchers were interested in lectins because of their pesticidal properties and the possibility of inserting genes from the compounds into food crops. 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.”

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 sentiment.

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 Web site (www.plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark) 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 budget.

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.”

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 it.

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 certification--and probably their markets.

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 crops.”

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 thepublic 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 experienced.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization has nearly 1,000 members, including large and small medical and agricultural biotech companies as well as dozens of universities; several law firms; a number of foreign organizations, including the German Pharmaceutical Association and the Israel Export Institute; financial brokerage houses like PaineWebber and Lehman Brothers; the global accounting and financial consulting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG Peat Marwick; Procter & Gamble; and even government entities such as the Canadian province of Ontario, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Membership costs are based on the number of employees as well as revenues. In some cases, annual dues run as high as $230,000.

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 agriculture.

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 everything.”

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 biotechnology.

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.


Karen Charman is an investigative journalist specializing in environmental, health, and agricultural reporting.

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