Jeffrey Smith is a leading national expert on the dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their impact on agriculture and our health. He heads The Institute for Responsible Technology and wrote the seminal Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. Smith produced the documentary Genetic Roulette and is author of the book that it is based upon. To get a copy of Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives, just click here. Make a minimum donation of $25 or more to receive a free DVD copy (loaded with bonus material) and support progressive documentaries and Truthout.
Mark Karlin: Let’s start with the basics. What is your definition of GMOs and what other names is the process of creating genetically engineered foods known by.
Jeffrey Smith: Genetically modified organisms, genetically engineered foods, transgenics – these all refer to the process of taking a gene or genes from one species and forcing it into the DNA of other species. You can mix and match between plant, animal, human, insect, bacteria and viruses, creating new organisms that were not part of the billions of years of evolution. The process itself is prone to unpredictable side effects.
MK: In Genetic Roulette, you focus on the perils to our health of GMOs. What are some of the proven and likely health risks GMOs pose?
JS: The American Academy of Environmental Medicine identifies the following categories of diseases and disorders as afflicting the lab animals fed genetically modified soy and corn: problems with the immune, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems, organ damage, accelerated aging and insulin and cholesterol issues. Thousands of doctors now prescribe non-GMO diets to their patients and report dramatic improvements in these same categories. Similarly, livestock that switch from GM feed to non-GM feed also show health improvements in these areas. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that these same disorders and diseases are on the rise in the US population since GMOs were introduced in 1996.
The characteristics of the two main types of GMOs help explain why they might cause health problems in these areas. The “Bt” corn, for example, produces a toxic insecticide (Bt-toxin) that has recently been found to create holes and leakage in human cells. Bt-toxin was also discovered in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses. Other studies show that it provokes immune and allergic-type responses. Taken together, the characteristics of the Bt-toxin alone may explain the rise of digestive disorders, immune system problems, organ damage, and leaky gut—which itself may promote allergies, auto-immune diseases, gluten intolerance, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autism.
Most GMOs are “herbicide tolerant” and therefore have high amounts of herbicides such as Roundup, which is absorbed into the food. Roundup is directly toxic, linked with cancer, birth defects, endocrine disruption, Parkinson’s and other diseases. A study released last month showed that rats fed Roundup in their drinking water at levels considered safe suffered massive tumors, premature death and organ damage. Other lab animals showed severe reproductive failures, such as sterility, smaller and fewer offspring, infertile offspring, huge infant mortality and even hair growing in the mouths of hamsters. Roundup also kills beneficial gut bacteria, and can render trace minerals unusable by our system.
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MK: You accuse the FDA and USDA of giving the GMO industry a free rein. Are they just corporate-oriented, corrupt – or do the agencies really believe that GMOs pose no threat to humans?
JS: FDA scientists wrote numerous memos describing the unique dangers of genetically engineered foods, including allergies, toxins and new diseases. They had urged superiors to require long-term studies before the foods were eaten by the public. These concerns, however, were entirely ignored by the political appointee in charge of policy at the FDA, Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney. His policy falsely claimed that the agency was unaware of any substantial differences in GMOs, and on that fictitious basis, declared that safety tests and labeling was not needed. Taylor than became Monsanto’s vice president, and is now back in the FDA as Food Czar. So we have the dangerous combination of corporate corruption trumping science.
MK: Your organization distributed a documentary, The World According to Monsanto, which was a huge reader hit on Truthout – and earlier on BuzzFlash. Is Monsanto the most pernicious global corporation when it comes to GMOs, or is it just one among many?
JS: Monsanto has been voted the most hated or most evil company on earth for years and years – with stiff competition. Their stated goal is to genetically engineer 100 percent of all commercial seeds with their patented GMOs. They lied to us about the safety of PCB’s, DDT and Agent Orange, and we’ve caught them lying all over the world about GMO safety and performance.
MK: Hasn’t the Obama administration, as the Bush administration before it, basically given Monsanto the keys to unfettered use of GMOs?
JS: This and previous administrations have been marching lockstep with Monsanto. According to WikiLeaks, the US ambassador to France asked Washington to draw up a retaliation list against European countries that resisted GMOs and wanted to “cause some pain” to them. The ambassador to Spain met with Monsanto’s regional director and then asked Washington to pressure Brussels on its GMO policy. That was during the Bush administration. It’s gotten worse under Obama, I’m sorry to say.
MK: One of the things that you respond to in Genetic Roulette is the claim by the agrichemical industry that GMOs increase crop yield. Is this true?
JS: According to a Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, Failure to Yield, GMOs do not increase yield. In fact on average they reduce yield. This is one of the many myths perpetrated by the biotech industry. GMOs work against feeding the hungry world; they increase the use of agricultural chemicals; they do not increase farmer income; and they are not safe.
MK: Can you expand on the relationship between GMO seeds and herbicides (e.g., Monsanto’s Roundup) in terms of creating a cycle of profit for the agrichemical industry?
JS: The patent on Monsanto’s bestseller herbicide Roundup was to expire in 2000, so they created Roundup Ready seeds, engineered to tolerate doses of the weed killer. They sell the seeds and Roundup as a package, thereby extending their dominance in this market. Roundup Ready and other herbicide-tolerant seeds have dramatically increased the use of herbicides by approximately 527,000,000 pounds over the first 16 years of GMOs. Roundup is now found in 60 percent to 100 percent of the air samples and rain samples in the Midwest. It is found in the water supply, in the urine of city dwellers in Germany, in the blood of pregnant women in Canada and in their unborn fetuses. It is creating a disaster on earth.
Roundup binds or chelates with minerals making them unavailable to plants, which become weak and sick. The livestock that consume the Roundup Ready crops also become nutrient deficient. We eat the weak and sick plants and animals, as well as residues of the Roundup in the food, which further binds with nutrients in our system.
Roundup does not biodegrade. In fact the longest recorded half-life in soil was 22 years. It promotes soil borne pathogens and has been blamed for promoting more than 40 plant diseases that are on the rise in the US. Its persistence in the soil also negatively influences the health of future crops.
MK: France has a ban – for the time being – on the cultivation of GMO crops. How did the French government come to take such an action?
JS: In Europe, people are far more aware of the risks of genetically engineered foods and crops. In fact in 1999, after a gag order was lifted on a scientist who had been working on safety studies concerning GMOs, more than 700 articles were written in the UK press alone on the issue alone – within a single month. This high-profile scandal resulted in a tipping point of consumer rejection against GMOs. They had become a marketing liability. These same companies continue to sell GMOs to unsuspecting consumers in the United States.
Now that certain genetically modified seeds have been approved for planting in Europe, the French government is properly responding to the evidence showing dangers to the environment and agriculture by banning their cultivation. Several other countries are doing the same. (And San Juan County, Washington, just succeeded on November 6th to win an initiative, making them the latest county in the US to ban GMOs as well.)
MK: How are some scientists and scientific “think tanks” influenced to support GMOs?
JS: Scientists who wish to do research on GMOs are typically denied access to the companies’ patented seeds. If they obtain the seeds through other means, they find it difficult to get financial support. Once they complete the research it’s difficult to publish. If they do publish, then they’re really in trouble. There is an immediate coordinated personal and professional attack on the scientists, in which they are often censured, threatened, gagged, denied tenure or fired. This has resulted in suppressing even criticism of genetic engineering among the scientific community for fear of the backlash.
MK: How can concerned consumers avoid GMO foods?
JS: Go to www.nonGMOShoppingGuide.com for a list of more than 4000 third-party verified non-GMO products. This is also available as a free iPhone application called shopnoGMO. Four tips for avoiding GMOs are:
1. Buy organic. 2. Buy products that say non-GMO. The best label is “Non-GMO Project verified.” 3. Buy products listed in our shopping guide. 4. Avoid the at-risk ingredients which include non-organic soy and corn derivatives, cottonseed oil, canola oil, sugar from sugar beets, papaya from Hawaii or China, zucchini, crookneck squash, and alfalfa used as animal feed.
Also, to engage in outreach and education on GMOs, visit www.ResponsibleTechnology.org for a free newsletter, free online resources, enrollment in our activists’ “Tipping Point Network,” GMO speaker training, etc.
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Jeffrey Smith is the spokesperson for The Institute for Responsible Technology. He has lectured in 30 countries and has been quoted by world leaders and hundreds of media outlets including, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC World Service, Nature, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, New Scientist, The Times (London), Associated Press, Reuters News Service, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and Genetic Engineering News. Smith is also a popular guest on influential radio shows and television programs, such as the BBC, NPR, Fox News, Democracy Now! and the Dr. Oz Show.