Silent Spring II: Health & GM crops
Foreign Policy in Focus
This is a tale about pelicans and people, a feel good story, replete with heroic prophets, rapacious villains, and a happy ending. But it is also a warning that happy endings don’t last, and that the wicked never sleep.
The year was 1962. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, the Cuban missile crisis traumatized the nation, and brown pelicans were vanishing. Lots of other birds were disappearing, but when pelicans, with all their ungainly, prehistoric grace evaporate, people take notice.
Rachel Carson, a marine biologist from Springdale, Pa. noticed, and wrote a powerful series in the New Yorker called “The Silent Spring” that laid the carnage at the feet of the chemical industry and one of its most powerful creations, the pesticide DDT.
Like all good stories, it had a dogged heroine who fought for 17 years to publish her findings. It had bad guys, like the American Cyanamid Company, and Monsanto, who spun and obscured and lied but in the end were vanquished, and the DDT dragon was destroyed. And sure enough, the brown pelicans (and ospreys, eagles, hawks and falcons) made a comeback. Sweet ending.
But as the line from the horror movie goes, “They’re baaack.” Only this time the threat isn’t from poisonous chemicals, but from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and the very mainsprings of creation: genes. And if we don’t challenge the new Golem, one day there may be no spring at all.
In 1970 a corn blight wiped out 15 percent of the U.S. crop, in large part because the corn lacked the genetic diversity to resist the pathogen. But when something like that happens, we could ordinarily re-enrich our stock from places like Oaxaca, Mexico, which features 60 different varieties of corn. Except that Oaxaca corn has been contaminated with U.S. genetically modified corn (as has corn in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador).
Genetic diversity is life’s firewall against diseases that can wipe out an entire species. As long as the pool is rich and varied, there will always be a part of the besieged population that survives to rebuild the stock.
The greatest reservoir of genetic diversity on the planet is the Amazon basin, except that under increasing pressure by the U.S. government and biotechnology companies to use GMOs, that diversity is threatened. “We are concerned about the risk of genetic transferal,” Joao Paulo Capobianco, secretary of biodiversity in the Environment Ministry,” told the Financial Times, “imagine the impact in the Amazon rainforest.”
According to the Bush Administration (and the Clinton Administration before it), GMOs pose no danger to human health. But, on July 21, the United Kingdom’s Science Review Panel concluded, “History tells us that sometimes we have rushed forward incautiously to exploit new technologies only subsequently to appreciate the medical, social, environmental or other costs.”
While the International Council for Science, representing 100 science academies throughout the world, says GMOs are “safe,” they have only been tested since 1995. In any case, the Council quietly added a caveat: “This does not guarantee that no risk will be encountered as more foods are developed with novel characteristics.”
One thing that’s certain is that GMO crops are contaminating non-GMO crops. Biotech giants like ProdiGene, Monsanto and Dow Chemical have more than 300 open-air testing sites.
It is not just the doomsayers who point this out. Nature Biotechnology, the official magazine of the biotech industry, notes that “Current gene-containing strategies cannot work reliably in the field. Seed companies will continue to confuse batches, and mills will continue to mix varieties—gene flow (like mixing) could result in GM material unintended for human consumption ending up in the food chain.”
Sometimes “mixing” may be the result of carelessness. Sometimes guile.
Joe Jilka of ProdiGene, quoted in Gene Watch, the publication of the Council for Responsible Genetics, says you can “secure” GM crops by hiding them. Speaking about a GM corn that was engineered to produce a pig vaccine, he said, “The best way to secure it is to grow it just like any other corn. In other words, the anonymity of it just completely hides it.”
Corn pollen can easily travel up to six miles. As a result, GMO crops not approved for human consumption, like Starlink corn, have shown up in Taco Bell tortillas and corn chips.
Sometimes “mixing” occurs because funny things happen when you move from the drawing board to the real world. When German scientists engineered aspens, they took precautions to make sure the GM aspen pollen wasn’t released into the environment. Aspens flower after seven years, so the plan was to cut them down in five years, Except the aspens flowered in three years.
Biotech firms are presently planting GM pine trees loaded with pesticides. The trees are engineered to be sterile, but as the aspen experiment demonstrated, genes can be unpredictable.
The old view of the immutable gene, armored against everything but random mutation, is no longer gospel in genetics. “Genes are defined by context,” says Brian Goodwin, author of How the Leopard Changed its Spots, “if you don’t understand the context, you don’t understand the function of a gene.”
As we have discovered, diseases can jump species, even genera. HIV almost certainly came from a primate, probably a chimpanzee. SARS likely came from a civet, an animal from a completely different Order than ourselves.
When GM crops appeared in the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration successfully pushed for handling them with existing regulations, rather than developing legislative guidelines as the Europeans did.
The regulations were drawn up by the Council on Competitiveness during the Clinton Administration, which simply ignored Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists who has serious reservations about GMOs.
Unlike food additives or new drugs, which are tested over a two-year period, the FDA “recommends” that GM products be tested for only 90 days. Most are released in half that time.
In theory manufacturers are supposed to report adverse reactions, such as allergies, but if that information might reveal “confidential business information,” the company can keep quiet. Who determines what a “confidential” is? The companies.
“I don’t think most Americans have any idea of the extent to which things have been pushed forward without the kind of research and precautions that ordinary common sense would demand,” John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union told The Nation.
In a CBS documentary shortly before her death in 1964, Carson said that “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because now we have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
The naturalist John Muir once noted that when we pry up something in nature, we find it is connected to the world. That connection can give us enormous insight, or it can kill pelicans—and us.