ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Date:  31 Ooctober 2000



by Barbara Keeler and Robert Sterling

It took Starlink biocorn to get the mediaís attention on genetically engineered foods.  Dragging their footsteps, our government agencies gradually followed in the mediaís wake.  Starlink only made the news because the form of corn involved had not yet been approved for use in human food.  Not that it had been disapproved.  The EPA had said only that it needed more and better scientific information.

And who discovered the widespread presence of the un-approved corn product?  Not the people we pay to protect us or safeguard the food supply, but a band of under-funded, under-respected, and at times scorned food safety activists.

In spite of its high media profile, Starlink is not the major problem.  Government agencies are tracking it down, and food companies are way ahead of them, recalling their products.  Most significant, everybody knows about Starlink.  The problem lies with the more serious issues and hazards being ignored.
For example, what was the response when Monsanto researchers notified FDA that the most widely used genetically engineered product, Roundup Ready soybeans, contained a surprise package-some unintended and unsuspected gene fragments?  Apparently when Monsanto enabled soybean plants to survive spraying with their weed killer, Roundup, by splicing a gene into the beanís DNA, they tossed in a little extra.

FDAís response: a big yawn.  Media response: UK papers carried the story.  A newswire service reported it in the US.  Maybe some newspapers and news stations picked it up, but we did not see it anywhere except in the July News column of Whole Life Times.

Although this story should have smeared egg on the faces of biotech cheerleaders who claim that genetic engineering is more precise than conventional breeding techniques, scientist to this day publish high-profile opinion pieces making this now-disproved assertion.

What might explain the absence of the spotlight on these genetic hitchhikers in soy that pervades a majority of processed foods on the market?  In soy on the market with FDA blessing?  Possibly apathy.  However, a document posted on GeneWatch UK website:, offers another possible explanation.  In what Genewatch says is a leaked internal document from Monsanto, the writer brags that "The [Monsanto] Scientific Outreach network and the Technology Issues Team averted attacks on recently emerging biotechnology issues.  The team developed rapid responses to avoid over-reaction to claims regarding...the characterization of additional non-functional DNA in Roundup Ready soybeans."

Not to worry, says Monsantoís letter to the UK government.  According to Monsanto spokesman Jeff Bergau the gene fragments were in RR beans when they passed safety assessments by US authorities in 1994.  What else was in the beans when they passed safety assessments?  Well, not Roundup.  Unlike the beans on the market and in the food supply, the beans Monsanto researchers analyzed had not been treated with weed killer.

Monsanto tried valiantly to silence one of the first critics to point out this discrepancy, Dr. Marc Lappe, Formerly head of the State of Californiaís Hazard Evaluation System and a former tenured professor in Health Policy & Ethics at the Univ of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine.  His book, AGAINST THE GRAIN, was the topic of a threatening letter from Monsanto to its original publisher in 1998.  After the first publisher backed down, Common Courage Press published the book.
If not Roundup, what DID the Roundup Ready soybeans contain when they were reviewed by FDA in 1994?  For starters, higher levels of a known allergen.  Apparently, Monsanto managed to keep some troubling information from becoming an issue.  They just didnít report the data in their published study or the report they sent to the EPA.  What information the published study and FDA report did reveal was camouflaged in a place readers were least likely to look for it.  Sandwiched between lists of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, etc.) were levels of trypsin-inhibiter, an allergen which inhibits protein digestion and has been associated with enlarged cells in rat pancreases. Table 9 shows trypsin-inhibiter, levels that are 26.7 percent higher in the untoasted RR soybeans than in the conventional controls.

The authorsí discussion of table 9 did not mention trypsin-inhibiter levels, which meant no mention was made in the online text version, sans tables, available in most libraries.  In fact, we missed it the first few times through the tables, and we were looking for it.

An 1996 article describing Monsantoís research was published in the JOURNAL OF NUTRITION.  Itís title is "The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans," but statistically significant differences were measured in content of ash, fat carbohydrate and some fatty acids.  The brain-boosting vitamin choline was 29% lower in Roundup Ready lecithin.  Go figure.

In the text, the authors acknowledge "higher than expected" levels of trypsin inhibitor in Experiment 1, which was conducted on conventional and RR beans grown in Puerto Rico.  The authors contend that the processing caused the elevated levels, but they noted elsewhere in the study that "processing soybean protein significantly inactivates TI."  Moreover, processing was identical for Roundup ready beans and controls.

They did not report the data about the Puerto Rico beans in their published tables, calculations, or discussion.  Their rationale: the beans were grown in a single Puerto Rico site, and the beans in Experiment 2 and 3, from several US sites, were "more representative of the wide geographical area in which soybeans are grown." They did not explain why they grew the Puerto Rico beans for the study in the first place.  Nor did they explain why a comparison between batches of beans grown at the same site under identical conditions is less valid than comparisons among beans grown in different geographical areas under widely varying conditions.

A footnote in the journal said that supplementary information on the Puerto Rico beans had been deposited with American Society for Information Science, National Auxiliary Publication Service under Doc.  04949.  For a price, the data could be ordered.

Contrary to the authorsí statement, the data filed under Doc. 04949 pertains to an unrelated study by a different author.  The National Auxiliary Publication Service confirmed that the data was never deposited.

The JOURNAL OF NUTRITION supplied the missing information.  What did it reveal?  It does indeed show higher levels of the allergen trypsin inhibitor in toasted RR soy meal thaN in the controls.  In fact, by one measure the levels of trypsin inhibitor in toasted   Roundup Ready meal were over the top of the literature rangeóthe highest and lowest levels measured for soybeans by other researchers.

Roundup Ready beans were also significantly lower in protein and the aromatic amino acid phenylalanine.  Drops in aromatic amino acid levels are of particular importance, because Roundup kills weeds by inhibiting an enzyme that helps the body make the aromatic amino acids.  There were also significantly different levels of the amino acid cysteine and one fatty acid.

Data omitted from the published study also show that after a second toasting, the levels of an allergen called lectin in Roundup Ready meal nearly doubled the levels of the conventional control beans.

Besides possible allergic reactions, what might be expected from  higher levels of trypsin-inhibitor and lectin?  Well, animals would be expected to grow more slowly and gain less weight, and that is exactly what happened to male rats fed unprocessed meal from Roundup Ready soybeans.

Cows fed the RR soya meal showed higher levels of fat in their milk.  Yet the title of the study is "The feeding value of soybeans fed to rats, chickens, catfish and dairy cattle is not altered by genetic incorporation of glyphosate tolerance," and the abstract makes no mention of the data that challenges their conclusion.
Donít research findings such as these point to the need for more testing, rather than immediate FDA blessing?  EPA busted the suppliers of Starlink for similar shoddy research, and that is the reason Starlink is not approved for human consumption.  EPA said, essentially, that the data in these studies did not support the authors conclusion and invited them to submit better studies.  Ironically, the safety studies for foods now ubiquitous in the food supply also fail to support the authorsí conclusions, according to Dr. Lappe and Dr. Joe Cummins.  As Dr. Cummins puts it, "The concept of substantial equivalence has been introduced to commercialize genetically modified (GM) crops without extensive testing or labeling in the marketplace.  The concept assumes that GM crops are equivalent seems to be being used as a license to distribute GM crops which are unsubstantially equivalent."

The leaked Monsanto document also credits its response team for developing "rapid responses to avoid over-reaction to claims regarding...gene transfer by honey bees" referring to gene transfer from genetically engineered rapeseed to bacteria and fungi in the gut of honey bees detected by Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz from the Institut für Bienenkunde (Institute for bee research) at the University of Jena.   The story made its way into the Whole Life Times news column, but for the most part, the suppression was successful in the US.  The document brags "Two op-eds on the honeybee issue by notable scientists were triggered to help avoid additional high profile press coverage."

Monsanto and other producers of GE seeds fund plenty of research at universities around the world, making it easy to recruit "notable scientists" as mouthpieces. They also fund think tanks and similar organizations to spread their misleading messages.

An example of a widely published mouthpiece for big agribusiness is Dennis Avery, the author of SAVING THE PLANET WITH PESTICIDES AND PLASTICS, and currently is director of the Center for Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute, a pro-corporate think tank with major funders such as Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, Dow, and ConAgra.  The biotech industryís PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, allegedly involved in a massive PR campaign to counteract the escalating global anti-GE movement in the US and abroad, is represented on Hudson Instituteís board.

Herb London, President of the Hudson Institute, is a John M. Olin, Professor of Humanities at New York University, a position funded by the John M. Olin Foundation.  The Olin Foundation was created and is still controlled by the Olin Corporation, a leading North American chemical giant and top producer of agricultural chemicals, including sulfuric acid, fertilizers and pesticides.

Herb London also sits on the Board of Associates for the Palmer R.  Chitester Fundóa right-wing foundation which sells educational materials based on John Stosselís 20/20 reports on ABC, giving ABC a cut of the profits.  Remember Stosselís 20/20 hatchet job on organic foods?  Another major contributor to the Palmer R. Chitester Fund is the Olin Foundation.  Is a picture beginning to emerge?

The corruptive inbreeding of interests does not end with the connections between agribusiness, a conservative foundation, a conservative think tank, a widely published media mouthpiece for agrigusniees, and a supposed independent journalist.  We wonít even start in on the well-documented revolving door between Monsanto and FDA, or other US agencies that develop and implement biotech policy.

Is it any wonder that the American public does not hear about the real troubling issues in genetic engineering of foods, or that the pervasiveness of Starlink would be unsuspected but for the persistence of GE activists?

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