Dying for a Living
Attack of the Killer Potatoes
excerpted from the book
Trust Us, We're Experts!
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper
Dying for a Living
Without Propaganda, Pollution Would Be Impossible
As evidence began to mount in the 1970s about the harmful
effects of chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, vinyl chloride and benzene,
companies- including Mobil Oil, Monsanto, and Union Carbide-launched
multiple massive advertising and public relations campaigns, using
slogans like Monsanto's "without chemicals, life itself would
be impossible." Union Carbide's propaganda efforts alone
involved some 200 company managers, coordinated by the company's
communications department as they pumped out speeches, tapes,
canned editorials, educational films for public schools, and articles
for newspapers and magazines.
The propaganda effort relied heavily on questionable statistics
designed to create the impression that excessive regulation was
stifling American creativity and prosperity. Faced with proof
that vinyl chloride caused a rare form of liver cancer, chemical
manufacturers announced that a proposed federal standard for vinyl
chloride exposure would cost two million jobs and $65 billion.
"The standard is simply beyond compliance capability of the
industry," declared their trade association. After the screaming
was over, the standard was adopted and the industry continued
to flourish, without job losses and at 5 percent of the industry's
Information on occupational health hazards is rarely collected
and even more rarely reported in the news. In the early part of
this century, the concept of industrial safety was a novelty in
the United States when Alice Hamilton, the country's first industrial
physician, began to investigate what she came to call "the
dangerous trades." In her autobiography, Hamilton described
how she became aware of the problem: "It was also my experience
at Hull House that aroused my interest in industrial diseases.
Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers
and their wives, I could not fail to hear talk of the dangers
that working men face, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in
the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of
pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards."
Hamilton went to the library "to read everything I could
find on the dangers to industrial workers, and what could be done
to protect them. But it was all German, or British, Austrian,
Dutch, Swiss, even Italian or Spanish-everything but American.
In those countries, industrial medicine was a recognized branch
of the medical sciences, in my own country it did not exist."
The Chlorine War
... an emerging body of controversial science regarding a
class o~ chlorine-based chemicals-including DDT, dioxin, PCBs,
and many others-that have come to be labeled "hormone mimickers"
or "endocrine disruptors." Prior to the l990s, much
of the debate over these chemicals was shaped by the legacy of
science writer Rachel Carson and her 1962 environmental classic,
Silent Spring. For years, concerns about these chemicals focused
on whether they could cause cancer, and indeed there is a substantial
body of scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.
The focus on cancer, however, has tended to obscure the fact that
these chemicals also interfere with the hormonal messaging systems
that control body development during fetal growth and infancy,
thereby affecting growth, the reproductive and immune systems,
and even personality, intelligence, and behavior. Although the
science surrounding the "endocrine disruptor hypothesis"
is still incomplete, leading researchers and scientific bodies
have called for precautionary action now to avert the threat of
serious harm to the environment and human health.
The role of DDT as a hormone mimic was observed as early as
1950, when researchers noticed that roosters exposed to DDT failed
to develop male characteristics. DES, another chlorine-based chemical,
was synthesized in 1938 by British scientist Edward Charles Dodds.
At the time of its discovery, it was hailed by leading researchers
and gynecologists as a synthetic form of estrogen, the female
sex hormone. Doctors began prescribing DES for women with problem
pregnancies, and eventually 4.8 million pregnant women worldwide
would use the synthetic hormone- a massive and irresponsible experiment,
as it turned out. In 1971, DES was linked to vaginal cancer in
daughters whose mothers had taken the drug during the first three
months of pregnancy. Subsequent research would also link DES with
reproductive problems, including deformities of the genitals.
It was the hormonal effects of yet another chlorine-based
chemical- dioxin-that served as the catalyst for the Chlorine
Chemistry Council's concerns and its decision to hire Jack Mongoven.
Dioxin has been a subject of fierce debate since the 1970s, when
it earned a reputation as one of the most toxic substances known
to humans. Formed as an unintentional by-product of many industrial
processes such as waste incineration, chemical manufacturing,
and pulp and paper bleaching, dioxin tends to bioaccumulate in
fatty tissue, which means that it can be found at elevated concentrations
in foods such as meat and dairy products. Dioxin was a toxic component
of the Vietnam war defoliant Agent Orange, was found at Love Canal
in Niagara Falls, New York, and was the basis for evacuations
at Times Beach, Missouri, and Seveso, Italy. In 1985, an EPA
risk assessment found that dioxin causes cancer in animals and
probably 4, in humans as well.
In 1985 and again in 1988, the EPA conducted risk assessments
of dioxin, concluding in both cases that it should be classified
as a probable human carcinogen. However, scientific data regarding
its effect on humans has been limited, in part because scientists
have not been certain how much dioxin people are exposed to, and
also because of the difficulty in separating dioxin's effects
from the confounding effects of the many other chemicals to which
people are routinely exposed. In 1990, a group of scientists representing
both industry and the public health/environmental communities
met at a conference, held at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratory in New York, which called for a new and more
comprehensive EPA risk assessment. For industry, the hope was
that a new risk assessment would conclude that the risks from
dioxin were lower than previously estimated. The Chlorine Institute
went so far as to have Edelman, its PR firm, issue a news release
which falsely claimed that the Banbury Conference had reached
a "consensus" to the effect that "dioxin is much
less toxic to humans than originally believed." Although
this claim was later retracted following angry complaints by several
conference participants, EPA administrator Bill Reilly stated
publicly that dioxin seemed less dangerous than previously thought.
With industry's blessing, he began a third EPA assessment of dioxin.
Unfortunately for industry, the results of that reassessment ran
contrary to expectations.
EPA's reassessment took almost four years and cost $4 million.
In addition to dioxin, the agency also considered a range of "dioxin-like"
chemicals such as PCBs that are known to produce similar effects.
It commissioned separate scientists from both inside and outside
the agency to draft each chapter of the study, which ultimately
involved the participation of about 100 scientists, including
non-EPA scientists who peer-reviewed each chapter. In 1994, a
six-volume, 2,000-page draft report was released and opened to
public comment. It concluded that in addition to promoting cancer,
dioxin and a number of other similar chemicals can disrupt the
endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems, and that they can
do this to a developing fetus at extremely low levels of exposure.
Owing to pressures from industry, however, the draft report has
become such a hot potato that EPA staff has become reluctant to
talk about it publicly. As of late 2000 (the date of this writing),
the finalized risk assessment remains unpublished.
"EPA's study indicated that there is no safe level of
dioxin exposure and that any dose no matter how low can result
in health damage," admitted the 1994 MBD advisory to the
Chlorine Chemistry Council. "New findings on the mechanism
of dioxin toxicity show that tiny doses of dioxin disrupt the
action of the body's natural hormones and other biochemicals,
leading to complex and severe effects including cancer, feminization
of males and reduced sperm counts, endometriosis and reproductive
impairment in females, birth defects, impaired intellectual development
in children, and impaired immune defense against infectious disease....
Further, dioxin is so persistent that even small releases build
up over time in the environment and in the human body."
Some of the strongest concerns about the effect of endocrine-disrupting
chemicals have come from observations of their effect on wildlife.
In California, ecologists have found an abnormally high ratio
of female to male seagulls. In polluted parts of Florida, panthers
have undescended testicles and endocrinologists have observed
abnormally small or deformed penises in alligators near a former
Superfund pollution cleanup site. In Great Britain, biochemists
have noticed "hermaphroditic" fish with both male and
female genitals breeding in wastewater effluent. Arctic seals
and polar bears have shown declining fertility. In humans, a series
of studies have shown an alarming decrease in male sperm counts
in different parts of the world, which have plummeted to half
the level found 60 years ago.
Researchers have been able to replicate many of these effects
in laboratory experiments with captive animals. At the University
of California at Davis, toxicologist Michael Fry found that injecting
the eggs of seagulls with DDT would cause ferminization of the
testes tissue in baby male gulls and result in sterile adults.
In one study, 79 percent of monkeys exposed to dioxin developed
endometriosis (the development of endometrial tissue in females
in places where it is not normally present).
Chlorine Plus Carbon
What DDT, DES, dioxin, and PCBs all have in common, along
with many other endocrine-disrupting solvents and pesticides,
is that they belong to a class of chemicals called organochlorines-organic
compounds containing chlorine bonded to carbon. In nature, chlorine
makes up less than 0.2 percent of all chemicals, but some 15,000
organochlorines are now commercially manufactured and marketed,
and approximately half of the endocrine disruptors identified
to date have been organochlorines. "This doesn't mean that
all chlorine compounds behave the same way, but virtually every
organochlorine that's ever been tested has been found to cause
at least one significant adverse effect," says biologist
Joe Thornton, the author of Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health
and a New Environmental Strategy. Although organochlorines are
rare in nature, they are produced in the manufacture of pesticides,
herbicides, petrochemicals, plastics, and paper. They wind up
in such common products as household cleaners, plastic wraps,
food containers, children's toys, compact disks, car doors, tennis
shoes, and TV sets. Chlorinated chemicals are also introduced
into water as a result of pulp and paper bleaching and through
the use of chlorine to treat sewage and disinfect drinking water.
Chlorine-based chemicals are valued in the commercial world
because they retain their potency for long periods of time. This
very durability, however, also means that they remain in the environment
for a long time after they have been released. DDT, for example,
continues to accumulate to alarming levels in the fatty tissues
of Great Lakes fish nearly a generation after its use was banned
in the United States. Likewise, PCBs are still ubiquitous in the
environment despite having been banned in 1976 because of links
to human cancer.
Given the expense and difficulty involved in individually
testing each of the 15,000 organochlorines currently in use, many
environmental groups believe that this is a case where the precautionary
principle should apply. Rather than assuming that each chemical
is safe until it is proven | otherwise, they believe that industry
should bear the burden of proving a chemical's safety or else
find a safer alternative. Greenpeace has called for a 30-year
phaseout of organochlorines.
Attack of the Killer Potatoes
The world leader in the biotech industry has been Monsanto,
whose 1997 sales of $10.7 billion and market capitalization of
$22 billion easily dwarfs the many tiny start-up companies also
clamoring for a share of the emerging biotech market. Although
Monsanto today calls itself a "life sciences" company,
most of its history has been devoted to chemical manufacturing.
Founded in 1901 to manufacture saccharine, the first artificial
sweetener, Monsanto quickly branched out into the production of
industrial chemicals. During World War II, it participated in
the development of plastics and synthetic fabrics and also played
a significant role during the Manhattan Project in developing
the atom bomb. In the decades following the war, it was one of
the agrochemical companies that relentlessly promoted the use
of chemical pesticides in agriculture. By the 1960s, it had become
the primary producer of PCBs-the widely used chemical compound
that causes cancer and birth defects. Monsanto was also the largest
producer of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange herbicide, used by
U.S. troops to defoliate the rain forests of southeast Asia during
the Vietnam War and a known cause of skin rashes, joint pains,
muscle weakness, neurological disorders, and birth defects. By
the late 1960s, the company's association with some of the world's
worst poisons had begun to threaten not only its reputation but
its future corporate viability. "We were despised by our
customers," admitted former Monsanto vice president Will
Carpenter. Its interest in genetic engineering was driven as much
by the need to escape this past as by an interest in the future.
By the 1980s, it had begun to divest its chemical interests and
invest in biotechnology with an eye to positioning itself as a
savior and solution to many of the pressing environmental problems
that it had created in the first place. As recently as 1996, Monsanto
was still the fourth-largest chemical company in the United States,
but in 1997 it spun off its industrial chemicals business as a
separate company and devoted itself fully to biotech.
Many of the battle lines in the biotech food debate were drawn
during Monsanto's PR and lobbying campaign to win approval for
recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a controversial product
that, when injected into dairy cows, can induce them to produce
more milk. In 1986, Wisconsin dairy farmers led by fifth-generation
milker John Kinsman formed an alliance with biotechnology critic
Jeremy Rifkin to oppose rBGH, and by 1988, the anti-rBGH coalition
had come to include family farm organizations, consumer groups,
and animal welfare activists. One thing that these groups easily
agreed upon was the need for safety testing and mandatory consumer
labeling so that individual consumers could decide for themselves
whether or not to purchase rBGH-treated milk. As early as 1986,
however, industry surveys showed that labeling milk from cows
treated with the drug would lead to consumer rejection. Not content
with escaping from mandatory labeling, Monsanto tried to make
it impossible for anyone to voluntarily put labels on milk from
cows that had not been injected with rBGH. When some states and
several dairies tried to t label their products as rBGH-free,
Monsanto threatened to take the dairies to court and backed up
the threat by actually filing suit against two of them.
The Empire Strikes Back
... Biotech advocates claim that genetically engineered crops
will be good for the environment by reducing the need to use environmentally
toxic pesticides and fertilizers. So far, however, the opposite
may be true. The vast majority of genetically modified crops currently
on the market have been modified to either withstand herbicide
(so that more can be sprayed) or produce their own insecticide.
For Monsanto, of course, herbicide-tolerant crops create the perfect
opportunity for marketing tie-ins. Not only do they get to charge
farmers premium prices for their patented, genetically modified
seeds, they also get to sell more weed-killing chemicals. In 1999,
more than half of the U.S. soybean crop was "Roundup Ready"-genetically
engineered to survive spraying with Monsanto's best-selling weed-killer,
Roundup. However, an independent analysis of 8,200 university
research trials by Dr. Charles Benbrook found that contrary to
Monsanto's promised advantages, yields of herbicide-resistant
GM soybeans were 5 to 10 percent lower than comparable conventional
varieties. Benbrook, a former executive director of the National
Academy of Sciences Council's Board on Agriculture who now works
as an independent consultant, reported that lost production due
to this yield drag amounted to an estimated 80 to 100 million
bushels in 1999. Benbrook also noted that nobody is testing the
crops for increased pesticide residues.
The EPA, moreover, has raised the allowable residue limits
for Roundup on soybeans and cotton.
Some genetically modified crops do require fewer chemical
pesticides-at least in the short term. The most common way to
accomplish this is through the insertion of a gene that causes
the plant to produce bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which has
been used for decades by organic farmers as a natural pesticide
like Pusztai's snowdrop lectin) the Bt toxin has been tested and
used for a long time with no reported harmful effects to humans,
but it destroys the digestive tracts of certain very pesky insects.
Biotech companies have successfully spliced the Bt gene into corn,
cotton, canola, potatoes, and rice. Monsanto's New Leaf potato,
for example, is legally registered as a pesticide with the U.S.
Environmental Projection Agency because it contains the Bt gene,
making it toxic to Colorado potato beetles. The Novartis company's
Bt corn is similarly deadly to European and Southwestern corn
borers, caterpillars that mine into cornstalks and cause up to
$1 billion worth of crop losses annually.
Enabling a plant to make its own insecticide may seem like
a good idea, but it poses problems of its own. Organic farmers
have applied Bt sparingly to their crops as a natural pesticide
of last resort, but insect exposure was short-lived, and far fewer
acres were sprayed than currently are planted with Bt crops, which
are now planted on about 20 million acres in the United States
alone. Moreover, Bt crops typically express the toxin in every
cell of the plant. The widespread use of conventional pesticides
has led to the emergence of more than 500 types of pesticide-resistant
insect since 1945, and biologists who study bugs expect that the
widespread introduction of Bt into the environment will create
similar selection pressures that speed the emergence of Bt-resistant
pests. If Bt-resistant pests emerge, organic agriculture will
lose one of its most effective, time-honored tools, making it
harder and more expensive to control insects without the use of
synthetic chemical sprays.
Plant biologists also worry that pollen from genetically modified
crops is spreading the genetically inserted traits to closely
related weeds. Rice with the Bt gene, for example, might pollinate
wild grasses that are close relatives. This could make the weeds
pest-resistant and help them multiply. Similarly, the use of Roundup
Ready crops might create herbicide-resistant "superweeds."
Even commercial crops can become weeds if they turn up in unwanted
places, which is what happened to Charles Boser, a Canadian farmer
who found to his dismay that some of Monsanto's Roundup Ready
canola had drifted from a neighbor's farm into a field that he
was trying to fallow. Boser, who was not trying to grow canola,
tried unsuccessfully to kill the plants with two applications
of herbicide before finally calling Monsanto in frustration. "Take
your product and get it the hell off of my land is exactly what
I told them," Boser said. "I don't want the stuff."
Monsanto dutifully complied, hiring workers to pick the plants
out of Boser's field by hand and compensating him for the additional
costs of spraying that he had incurred.
The issue of allergenicity is another health concern with
GM crops. In 1995, the Pioneer Hybrid seed company added a Brazil
nut gene to soybeans in hopes of achieving a more nutritional
balance of proteins. Pioneer Hybrid abandoned the project after
tests on the transgenic soybeans revealed that they could induce
potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts.
We can feel thankful that Brazil nuts contain a known allergen,
so researchers knew what to look for. However, many of the other
foreign genes now being inserted into foods are taken from viruses,
bacteria, and insects, and they produce proteins that have never
before been part of the human food supply. Are they toxic? The
only way to find out would be to test them rigorously, first on
animals and then on volunteer human subjects. By deciding that
GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to normal foods,
the FDA has left it up to industry to decide when and if such
testing will ever be done, an approach that "would appear
to favor industry over consumer protection," according to
the New England Journal of Medicine.
The risk of introducing unpredictable hazards into foods is
inherent in the use of recombinant DNA technology. Genetic manipulations
are frequently described as "gene splicing," a term
that obscures much of the uncertainty and imprecision of the process.
It evokes the idea that gene manipulators are doing something
akin to splicing a movie-an exacting process in which film is
secured firmly on a cutting board, giving the editor complete
control over which frames of the film are removed or added and
in which order. By contrast, one common gene-splicing technique
uses a patented "gene gun" that shoots little metal
slivers that have been coated with DNA taken from one organism
into the cell of another organism. If all goes well, the genes
slip off the metal "transports" and are incorporated
into the DNA in the cell of that organism, but no one can predict
where the new gene is going to land within the genome of the targeted
organism. It may attach to the site of any chromosome, or may
attach in the middle of another gene and interfere with the normal
functioning of the cell.
"Although most U.S. consumers aren't aware of it, ingredients
made from genetically modified crops are present in various products
made by CocaCola Co., Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc., H.J. Heinz
Co., Hershey Foods Corp., Quaker Oats Co., McDonald's Corp.-and
on and on," the Wall Street Journal reported on October 7,
1999. "Nothing would please these companies more than for
Americans to remain oblivious or indifferent to this fact. But
that's hardly likely." Pointing to the situation in Europe,
the Journal noted that "regulators in Australia, New Zealand,
Japan and Canada are devising strategies for labeling such foods,
and many other countries are considering similar actions. Increasing
the likelihood that such concerns will spread to the U.S., the
same organizations that incited the GMO consternation in Europe-among
them Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth-are considering ways
to awaken Americans to the issue.... If pressure builds in the
U.S. to label all genetically modified foods, the impact on sales
could be chilling.... Such a backlash would also be a devastating
blow to U.S. biotechnology pioneers Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co.
The premium prices they are charging farmers for genetically modified
seed is only now beginning to help them recoup the billions of
dollars they invested in biotechnology research and acquisitions."
U.S. farmers have already felt the consequences of the growing
international rebellion against biotech crops. Between 1997 and
1998, European purchases of U.S. corn fell from nearly 70 million
bushels to less than 3 million-a 96 percent drop in a single year.
In June 1998, U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher
said American farmers were losing $200 million a year from French
refusal to import genetically modified corn and soybeans. Farmers
who initially responded favorably to industry's intense pro-biotech
sales pitch have begun rebelling. The American Corn Growers Association,
a commodity group that represents thousands of corn growers in
28 states, is encouraging its members to plant non-GMO varieties.
"American farmers planted [gene-altered crops] in good faith,
with the belief that the product is safe and that they would be
rewarded for their efforts," the American Corn Growers Association
complained in a September 1999 statement. "Instead they find
themselves misled by multinational seed and chemical companies
and other commodity associations who only encouraged them to plant
increased acres of [these crops] without any warning to farmers
of the dangers associated with planting a crop that didn't have
consumer acceptance." Even the pro-biotech National Corn
Growers Association (NCGA), the "official" corn commodity
group that represents larger growers, can't argue with market
reality. At a U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee hearing, NCGA
board member Tim Hume called on biotech seed companies to make
sure they offered their best hybrid varieties in conventional
As the biotech controversy grows, the food industry appears
to be realizing the consequences of ramming through market approvals
without full public debate. "Consumers' faith in the government
and retailers as watchdogs over food safety could be broken, undermining
one of the pillars upon which the modern supermarket was built,"
observed an October 1999 issue of the trade publication Supermarket
Us, We're Experts!