By Jerry Waxman
Science does have its drawbacks. One of them is how we view scientists themselves. For several generations, because of science fiction stories, comic books and popular movies there is a perception out there of the “Mad Scientist” such as The Invisible Man, or Captain Marvel’s evil Dr. Sivana, or whatever evil scientists is working for Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, or any one of hundreds of misguided souls in fiction. We have to admit it is fun watching good vs. evil play out. One of the best sci-fi movies in the 50’s, Them!, dealt with giant ants that were exposed to atomic radiation as a result of atomic testing in the American Southwest. Since the scientists working on the Manhattan Project were only dealing with the immediate needs of WWII, there was no research dealing with the long term effects of radiation. Let’s face it though, there’s nothing mad about science. To deny that technology as a result of scientific research has benefitted us beyond even our founding fathers’ expectations is willful ignorance beyond belief, or just plain stupid.
Scientists by their very nature are looking for ways to improve our lives by coming up with labor saving devices or life saving medications since Ben Franklin experimented with lightning and Isaac Newton and Galileo explained their theories of gravity and the universe, or Louis Pasteur defying the medical wisdom of his day. Scientists do not start out to do evil. How they end up doing so has more to do with human nature than science. Science is only a tool to be used. Unfortunately it has also been usurped by the greed factor in human nature, and it is the one thing about humans that has not changed in the thousands of years we’ve been on the planet.
When John Francis Queeny founded Monsanto in 1901 doing harm was the farthest thing from his mind. He had been in the pharmaceutical industry for three decades and his father in law, Emmanuel Mendes de Monsanto, was a wealthy investor in the Caribbean sugar industry. The result of his first product was the sugar substitute, saccharine. Over the years Monsanto went through a metamorphosis dealing in industrial chemicals, but also pesticides like DDT, which when introduced was looked at as a miracle for farmers. It took generations for the long term harmful effects of DDT to show up resulting in the pesticide being banned in the USA in 1972.
Over the years Monsanto, as a result of both mergers and acquisitions grew and changed its product lines, again, not with evil in mind, and there were some definite winners- L-dopa, a new process for acetic acid, Astroturf and light emitting diodes. There were also those that did as much damage as they did good, Agent Orange being one such product. The analogy about The Manhattan Project is apropos because Charles Allen Thomas, President of Monsanto from 1951-1960, and Chairman of the Board from 1960-1965 was asked by Gen. Leslie Groves to co-direct the project with Robert Oppenheimer. Thomas refused, however he did conduct research on the project from his Monsanto laboratory and did contribute to the making of the atomic bomb. It took several years before the law of unintended consequences caught up with atomic research and the arguments about its good vs. bad are still going on. So it is with Monsanto.
During the decade of the 80’s the Monsanto started selling off its chemical and pharmaceutical businesses and got into biotech research, which had a different business model developed by Genentech. Under this model the biotech company invests heavily in research and development in order to attain biological patents on its products. The investments are recouped through rigid monitoring and enforcement of those who use the patented product. Monsanto elevated this to an art form, especially when you consider that the company either owns or controls most of the crop seed production in the world, and it has been patenting its GMO seeds now for over twenty years. It also produces the herbicide Roundup, which allows farmers to grow more crops in the same space. This is where the current controversy begins.
As a company that does agricultural R&D it has every right to come up with new products which benefit farmers and by extension, us. We, in fact encourage such endeavor. If that research, however, has not looked at the long term effects of product use then that’s a mistake that has to be corrected. It seems, just as in The Manhattan Project, that too many companies, in order to maximize profits, rush products to market without fully testing or disclosing the harmful effects of their products. There’s a reason why the pharmaceutical industry has to disclose lots of information in their advertising about the risks of taking their drugs. There’s no such restriction on Monsanto or any of the food brands that use their GMO seed products. Why? Because Monsanto lobbies very heavily to keep it that way. Monsanto also has the clout to keep reports detrimental to their claims from being published. It doesn’t make sense that all of these food companies who have to label their ingredients with percentages of fats, salt sugar and other things that consumers need to know aren’t willing to add a statement about GMO content in their labeling. It seems that when you’re playing around with nature and creating in essence Frankenfood we should have some say in the matter of whether we should be buying it or not. It should be our choice. Otherwise it creates suspicion and distrust and we don’t need any more of that than we already have.
On Saturday, June 8 the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, sponsored by the Florida School of Holistic Living and the Homegrown Local Food Cooperative and the church’s Green Team hosted a lecture, Genetically Modified Foods: From Frankenfoods to Frankenpeople? The lecturer was given by Dr. Lynn Unruh, PhD, a professor of Health Management and Informatics at UCF. Dr. Unruh is also a registered nurse. Through film and a slide presentation, Dr. Unruh discussed the extent of genetically modified food in the American diet, and what is thought to be a risk to human health and future food production. She also discussed policies to curb the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food, such as legislating mandatory labeling of GMO in the state of Florida as well as elsewhere. After discussing the types of plants that have been genetically modified Dr. Unruh held up supermarket products that contain these plants. She also discussed how all the research that supports Monsanto’s position is funded by groups, such as the Hoover Institute that are sympathetic to them. Opposing research is either blocked or ignored by both regulating agencies and food manufacturers. Dr. Unruh then presented a video that interviewed scientists, doctors and farmers who believe that GMO products are a likely contributor to human or animal illnesses.The far reaching effects of Monsanto’s products are also believed to have contributed to crop failures in certain kinds of cotton which bankrupted many farmers, especially in India, and caused many of them to commit suicide. There is also some evidence with many of the chemicals used in Roundup, which are getting into the food supply and into the ground water. This could cause huge environmental problems in the future, and no official agency appears to be involved in figuring things out. The group was especially interested in the campaign for mandatory labeling One of the groups mentioned was Food and Water Watch Here’s the link to their website.
On the consumer end it’s just not that easy to buy non GMO food at your local supermarket. Here’s a partial list of the brands that are regularly using Monsanto products: Aunt Jemima, Aurora Foods, Banquet, Best Foods, Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Cadbury, Campbells, Capri Sun, Carnation, Chef Boyardee, CocaCola, ConAgra, Delicious Brand Cookies, Duncan Hines, Famous Amos, Frito Lay, General Mills, Green Giant, Healthy Choice, Heinz, Hellman’s Hershey’s Nestle, Holsum, Hormel, Hungry Jack, Hunt’s, Interstate Bakeries, Jiffy, K.C. Masterpiece, Keebler/Flowers Industries, Kellogg’s, Kid Cuisine, Knorr, Kool Aid, Kraft/Phillip Morris, Lean Cuisine, Lipton, Loma Linda, Marie Callender, Minute Maid, Morningstar, Mrs. Butterworth, Nabisco, Nature Valley, Ocean Spray, Ore-Ida, Orville Redenbacher , Pasta-Roni, Pepperidge Farms, Pepsi, Pillsbury, Pop Secret, Post Cereals, Power Bar Brand, Prego, Pringles, Procter & Gamble, Quaker, Ragu, Rice-a-Roni, Smart Ones, Stauffers, Schweppes, Tombstone Pizza, Tostinos, Uncle Ben’s, Unilever, V-8.
It is especially disturbing since Unilever is not an American owned company but it owns iconic Brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Breyer’s, Lipton, Hellman’s, Ragu, Knorr, Klondike, Good Humor and Promise among others. These are just the products that have been in the spotlight. Who knows what other brands are involved. Supermarkets are also selling their own brands, and yet we don’t know who is supplying them. What’s worse is that the cooking oils on the shelves, especially those made from soybeans, are not represented on this list, but the owners of those brands, Con Agra Procter & Gamble and others are. The J.M. Smucker company does not appear on the list yet some of their brands do including Pillsbury and Hungry Jack. Crisco is also a Smucker brand. The bottle of Crisco oil in our pantry says that it was made 100% from soybeans. According to Wikipedia, Smucker was a heavy contributor in 2012 to a $46 million dollar political campaign known as “The Coalition Against The Costly Food Labeling Proposition, sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers”. So, what’s up with that? If it’s Smucker’s isn’t it supposed to be good? How do we know if we don’t know what’s in it?
Are we talking evil here? No, we’re not. We’re talking corporate mindset, which protects overhead, inventory and profits over people. Even if they’re wrong in their thinking they’ll protect their profits first, and let’s face it, they buy the best legislators they can for insurance. The law of unintended consequences will produce adverse results in due time. Remember that scene in The Bridge over the River Kwai where Alec Guinness has his “Oh My God, What Have I Done” moment? Perhaps it will happen in corporate America. After all, Victor Frankenstein didn’t intend to create a killer.