Monsanto and the Campaign to Undermine Organics

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Monsanto partially funds the anti-organic Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the right-wing Hudson Institute.[1] It is run by Dennis Avery [2][3] and his son Alex Avery. This article contains information on the Hudson Institute's anti-environmental and pro-biotech spinmeister Michael Fumento, and his secretly taking money (at least $60,000) from Monsanto.[4] It is a breakout of the main article on Monsanto.

Distortion of the Evidence

In 1998, Dennis Avery wrote an article that began, "According to recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and natural foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H7)."

However, according to Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the food borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the CDC, there is no such data on organic food production in existence at their centers and he says Avery's claims are "absolutely not true."[2] Following in his father's steps, Alex Avery distorted a study from the Journal of Food Protection that showed that organic food does not contain more pathogens than conventionally grown, contrary to Avery's claims.

He instead declared that the study showed the opposite. The Cornucopia Institute described the reaction of a scientist who authored the study:

"According to Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, the report's chief author and faculty member at the University of Minnesota, 'I had a very heated discussion with Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute. They were very dissatisfied with our findings and told me that our interpretations were not "correct"'.... Dr. Diez-Gonzalez is not surprised to learn that the Hudson Institute, with its long record and the backing of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and DuPont, is now trying to use the independently funded, University of Minnesota data to discredit organic farming.
"Commenting on the Diez-Gonzalez study, Alex Avery called eating organic food 'a crap shoot' and warned that potential cases of diarrhea, typhoid fever and Reiter's Syndrome await its consumers. 'This statement is total a fabrication and a gross distortion of the Diez-Gonzalez study,' charged [Mark] Kastel [of the Cornucopia Institute]. 'Alex Avery will say anything in his petty little war against organic food and farming.'"[5]

For more, see ORGANIC ATTACK: INTRODUCTION and Trashing organic foods.

GM Crops, Tested for Safety?

Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications, told The New York Times in 1998 that "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job."[6]

Yet the FDA's "Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties" (GMO Policy) states that food producers "have an obligation under the act to ensure that the foods they offer consumers are safe and in compliance with applicable legal requirements" and that "Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety."[7]

The claim that GM food products are regulated for safety, health, and environmental impact has come under criticism.

In a shareholder proposal requesting that Monsanto develop a report on safety testing, a group of Monsanto shareholders stated, "Monsanto repeatedly states that GE products are reviewed by regulatory agencies. Understanding these agencies role is central to understanding the issue of liability. The biggest misperception about GE crops is that the FDA has tested these plants and declared them safe. What the FDA has done is approved GE crop commercialization based on Monsanto's assurance that the products are safe.... The FDA does no inspection or monitoring for GE food after it is commercialized and is not legally or financially liable for these products."[8]

Weak Oversight and Regulation of GM Crops

As described by the Good Jobs First Corporate Research Project, Monsanto has repeatedly exercised political influence to fight regulation and oversight in the US and abroad. Some examples include: "In the late 1990s it got members of the Clinton Administration to lobby against possible European restrictions on GMOs. In Washington it made use of former U.S. Senators Dennis DeConcini and John Chaffee to promote its interests on issues ranging from patents to taxes. And it made frequent use of the revolving door by hiring former federal bureaucrats to joint its army of lobbyists and flacks. Among those were Carol Tucker Foreman, who had served both as assistant secretary of agriculture during the Carter Administration and as executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. Foreman, however, later returned to the CFA and became more critical of Monsanto and other GMO companies."[9]

The New York Times reported in 2001 on Monsanto's influence in Washington, DC.[10] The company "exerted a great deal of control over the federal regulation of its biotech activities, first pushing for greater oversight in the 1980s as a way to reassure the public of the safety of GMOs and later insisting on weaker rules so that it could get its products to market more quickly."[9]

Agroecologist Dr. Don Lotter wrote in a peer-reviewed article for the International Journal of the Sociology of Agriculture and Food, "The main elements of the regulatory framework [for genetically engineered food] are essentially voluntary. Companies that wish to release a genetically engineered food onto the market decide whether or not to consult with the federal agencies, and decide what scientific data to submit. the FDA does not test the products for safety (Mellon and Rissler, 2003). The regulators rely ‘almost exclusively on information provided by the biotech crop developer, and those data are not published in journals or subjected to peer review’ (Friends of the Earth, 2004)." Lotter holds a Ph.D. in agroecology from U.C. Davis.[11] Lotter also writes:

"Despite the mutation problems with plant transgenics, thorough studies on the toxicology of transgenic foods are few. Domingo surveyed the literature on toxicology studies in a 2007 review article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, and wrote that it is ‘quite amazing to note’ the paucity of toxicology studies on transgenic foods, and asks ‘where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies involved in commercial GM foods?’ (Domingo, 2007)."[11]
"Commenting on the lack of safety data on transgenic foods in the Journal of Medicinal Food, David Schubert, head of the Cellular neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute in California, wrote in 2008: there are, in fact, no data comparing the food safety profiles of GM versus conventional breeding, and the ubiquitous argument that ‘since there is no evidence that GM products make people sick, they are safe’ is both illogical and false. there are, again, simply no data or even valid assays to support this contention. Without proper epidemiological studies, most types of harm will not be detected, and no such studies have been conducted (Schubert, 2008)."[11]

Concurring, a landmark three-year collaborative report that deals with agriculture and development from the [ International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) states, "No regional long-term environmental and health monitoring programs exist to date in the countries with the most concentrated GM crop production ... Hence, long-term data on environmental implications of GM crop production are at best deductive or simply missing and speculative" [12]. The IAASTD is a project of the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

See also Scientist: GM food safety testing is "woefully inadequate" and Monsanto and GM Foods: Health Risks.

Benefits of Organic Food

Numerous studies have demonstrated that rather than being harmful, organic foods may be nutritionally superior to conventionally produced food, as the Soil Association notes.[13] For example, in 2014 Baranski et al. conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 peer-reviewed studies and found "statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods," including higher concentrations of antioxidants in the organic crops. Conventional crops were four times more likely to have pesticide residue.[14] The UK-based Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) study, a major E.U.-funded research project, found nutritional benefits in organically produced food. "Professor Carlo Leifert, the co-ordinator of the €18m four-year project, said: 'We have shown there are more of certain nutritionally desirable compounds and less of the baddies in organic foods, or improved amounts of the fatty acids you want and less of those you don't want.'"[15] See also Lairon 2010, a review by the French Agency for Food Safety.

After a review of 97 studies to date comparing the nutritional differences between conventionally grown and organically grown produce, The Organic Center found that the evidence positively shows organic agriculture is consistently superior in nutritional quality. "Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious in terms of their nutrient density for compounds validated by this study’s rigorous methodology.... The average serving of organic plant-based food contains about 25% more of the nutrients encompassed in this study than a comparable-sized serving of the same food produced by conventional farming methods," according to its 2008 report.[16]

Whether organic foods can feed the growing world population has also been an area of dispute; however, recent studies suggest organic methods could produce more than enough food. According to The New Scientist, a 2007 University of Michigan study[17] "compiled research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems ... Using data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the team then estimated what would happen if farms worldwide were to switch to organic methods today. The world currently produces the equivalent of 2786 calories per person per day. The researchers found that under an organic-only regime, farms could produce between 2641 and 4381 calories per person per day"[18] Additionally, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recently concluded, "These models suggest that organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture is today, but with reduced environmental impact."[19]

On the other hand, research clearly shows that GM and conventionally produced food contain hazardous residues of herbicides and pesticides. See section Herbicide in Your Food.

Chefs Have Their Say

Master Chefs around the world have repeatedly stated their opposition to GM food - examples [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6].

Chefs Rick Bayless, Larry Forgione, Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters joined a campaign in 2000 to require "mandatory FDA labeling and environmental testing of genetically engineered foods." Said Trotter, "I have concerns that this untested technology diminishes the purity and taste of food."[20]

An ironic and embarrassing episode occurred in 1999 when Monsanto's own chefs banned the use of GM food from the company cafeteria at its main offices in Buckinghamshire in the UK.[21] The Guardian wrote of the incident, "It must be the final insult. Having led the way in promoting genetically modified (GM) food, the food technology giant Monsanto has suffered the indignity of having GM products banned in its own staff canteen by the caterers, who say the move is 'in response to concern raised by our customers."[22] Friends of the Earth obtained a copy of a statement about the decision by Mike Batchelor, quality systems director of the catering company that operated the cafeteria. Batchelor stated, "In response to concern raised by our customers over the use of GMFs [genetically-modified foods], and to comply with government legislation, we have taken the decision to remove, as far as is practicable, GM soya and maize from all food products served in our restaurant."[21]

The caterers however later 'clarified' the issue by claiming that no one at Monsanto asked for its removal, now citing only labeling laws that came into force at the time [7].

To add to the irony, in 2001 Monsanto became a sponsor of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's International Food Safety Council, whose stated goal is "heightening the awareness of the importance of food safety education to the restaurant and food service industry." [8]

Big Ag's Organic Panic

In an incident strangely reminiscent of television talk show host Oprah Winfrey's now infamous cattle debacle[23] in 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama drew a reaction from industry groups when she revealed a plan to plant an organic garden at the White House with the help of local school children. The Mid America CropLife Association (MACA), a PR house which represented Monsanto, among other industrial agriculture giants,[24], sent Obama a letter touting the benefits of Big Ag, including the use of pesticides and Genetic Modification. According to La Vida Locavore, they also forwarded the letter to others with the following message:

"Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an 'organic' garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama's and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products [i.e. pesticides and herbicides] and to recognize the importance of agriculture to the entire U.S. economy".[25] The Daily Show produced a segment on the issue called Little Crop of Horrors.

The Inexorable Demise of Organics?

Genetic contamination of genetically modified genes in non-GM crops (see Monsanto and Genetic Pollution), or "unavoidable" "adventitious presence" as Monsanto calls it,[26] is becoming a big issue for organic producers, which are increasingly finding that their food has been contaminated via cross-pollination, thus ruining their businesses [27][28] "In 2002, Ontario farmer Alex Nurnberg had tests conducted on his 100-ton harvest of organic corn. Twenty tons were found to be contaminated by GMOs, which Nurnberg believes were blown by the wind from the corn on a neighboring farm. 'I was not ready for it. I feel such a wrath about it,' says Nurnberg" [9]. "'Coexistence' is a nice term, but it turns out that coexistence (means) we put up with their contamination" says George Siemon, head of the Wisconsin-based CROPP Cooperative, which includes about 670 dairy farms around the country whose milk is sold under the Organic Valley label.[29]

Some farmers may be reluctant to test for GMOs on organic farms because of a fear of what they may find, as reported by the Organic and Non-GMO Report, which writes:"No one knows the extent of GMO contamination of organics. 'As long as we don't do genetic testing, we won't know,' says Hunter", an Iowa-based organic inspector who conducts organic inspections for certifiers such as Quality Assurance International and Oregon Tilth, as well as audits for a non-GMO certification firm. "'Having our heads in the sand doesn't solve the problem. We are selling foodstuffs to the market that have GMO contamination'". Producers will "be penalized in the marketplace, regardless of how the contamination occurred" says the group. "Former National Organic Standards Board chairman Jim Riddle says a GMO threshold in organics is needed to help organic farmers seek legal remedies for losses suffered due to GMO contamination". "Ultimately", says Hunter, "consumer demand could dictate the need for testing. 'If consumers started demanding no GMOs, we would test no matter the inconvenience."[30]

Yet another area of alarm is the discovery that agri-business giants are quietly acquiring organic and health food businesses through "unfriendly takeovers."[31][32]

Monsanto Links to Consumer Alert

Monsanto is also a supporter of anti-environmental groups such as Consumer Alert[1]. According to E Magazine,

"Another group that represents itself as crusading for scientific truth is the Washington-based Consumer Alert, founded in 1977. Although it describes its work as nonpartisan, Consumer Alert takes a pro-business, anti-environmental position on almost every issue. It denounces global warming as a myth, attacks the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, and denies the dangers of second-hand smoke. Most of its policy papers and editorials were written by Michael Fumento, a columnist who now serves as a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Consumer Alert endorses the Cato Institute's "Principles for Environmental Policy." This proclamation, signed by a who's who of "wise use" proponents, think-tank conservatives and "new consumerists" (including Whelan) calls for regulations to be wholly subordinate to private sector priorities. No environmental law could survive its seven principles."[33]

Notable Quotes

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job" - Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. "Playing God in the Garden" New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998.

"Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety" — FDA, "Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties" (GMO Policy), Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 104 (1992), p. 229

"It is not foreseen that EFSA carry out such [safety] studies as the onus is on the applicant to demonstrate the safety of the GM product in question". [10]. Comments from the European Food Safety Authority

"Genetically engineered food constitutes a massive experiment on the planet, with potentially devastating effects on human health and the global environment" Adam Kapp, Columnist for the Penn State Digital Collegian, Nov. 7, 2002.

"If Monsanto hid what it knew about its toxic pollution for decades, what is the company hiding from the public now? This question seems particularly important to us as this powerful company asks the world to trust it with a worldwide, high-stakes gamble with the environmental and human health consequences of its genetically modified foods" [11].

Resources and References

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