The Multinational Monitor



Changing the Nature of Nature
An Interview with Martin Teitel

Martin Teitel is the executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a non-profit organization of concerned scientists, doctors and activists founded in 1983 to foster public debate about the social, ethical, health, economic and environmental implications of genetic technology. Teitel is co-author with Kimberly Wilson of Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature.

Multinational Monitor: The biotech industry argues that genetically engineered (GE) food is the same as traditional food -- i.e. not much different from what they've been doing for some time with hybrids. What is your response?

Martin Teitel: It's revealing that they keep saying that, because it suggests that they know people are wary of genetically engineered food. The reason it's not true is because living organisms engage in reproduction by whatever means with other very similar living organisms. That's one of the way that nature drives evolution. In other words, you don't have a philodendron and a pig crossing with each other because, if you did, the entire eco-system could collapse. The way that living things are kept in check is that species lines can't be crossed and only very similar beings can reproduce together. Someone said to me this morning that if you put a strawberry and a pig in the same room for 1,000 years they still wouldn't mate with each other in the real world. These crosses have never happened in nature, never will happen and can't happen. And furthermore, it's not safe for them to happen.
If you put a strawberry and a pig in the same room for 1,000 years they still wouldn't mate with each other in the real world. These crosses have never happened in nature, never will happen and can't happen. And furthermore, it's not safe for them to

MM: Why is it not safe?

Teitel: Because if you have two dogs, say, that mate with each other and they produce a new hybrid or mutt, if that mutt has qualities that do not function in the larger ecosystem, the larger ecosystem can eliminate them. If you have something that's an entirely new kind of cross, it may be something that the ecosystem can't handle. It's dangerous.

The biggest danger with genetic engineering is that this is a very new and untried science. It may ultimately hold some promise, but what's happening is that it's being rushed to market for financial reasons, not for scientific reasons, before the safety of the entire process can be established.

Because it's so unsure, you can't tell how things are going to come out. If you can't tell how things are going to come out and you then release those unknown creations -- meaning that you don't know what their qualities are -- and they are able to reproduce and combine with other living things in the environment, who knows what you are letting loose? The industry sometimes says that critics like me are scare-mongers. I think that what they are doing is very scary, and it's self-serving and frankly unfair for them to accuse us of being scare-mongers when what we're actually doing is describing what they are doing.

The second danger is that the outcomes of biotech experiments are alive and able to reproduce. So there's a danger that you're letting something loose in the environment which you won't be able to control.

Coming from those first two dangers is a third danger -- which is that combinations could be made that are novel and there would be no way that either the ecosystem or human beings would be able to control or respond to a malevolent or dysfunctional novel combination of genes, because nature has never seen anything like it before. Nature has seen a dog. Nature has seen a strawberry, but nature has never seen some new kind of combination of the two. This is particularly true at the viral or bacterial level. So there's a danger of a created organism getting loose.

These are the large-scale dangers. I'm not aware of any long-term safety testing of genetically engineered food or genetically engineered anything. It's a new science and so therefore there is no long-term environmental testing. Yet it's being let loose into the environment.

MM: We've heard in the news about how lab studies indicate that Bt corn can affect monarch butterflies. What have been some of the problems with genetically engineered products that scientists have discovered so far?

Teitel: Somebody joked the other day that it was lucky it was monarch butterflies and not cockroaches. In fact, Bt corn impacts on an entire class of insects called lepidoptera, which includes monarch butterflies, but also includes other beneficial insects such as lacewings. The industry is trying very hard to rebut the monarch study because monarchs are what is called a charismatic species 'they have a romantic weight with human beings. There are other ecologically important ugly little insects that are also impacted by genetically engineered crops. So you have the large-scale threat to beneficial insects from the large-scale use of Bt in genetically-engineered products.

There are other problems with using Bt. When used in organic agriculture, Bt normally is present for a short period of time, and then it goes away. Bt is now present for a very long period in the environment because it is engineered into plants. We don't know what the effects are, but we know that one effect is that Bt gets mixed up in the soil, and the millions of creatures that you find in a teaspoon of soil are saturated with Bt. We're changing the mesofauna of the soil, which is essentially the basis for life on this planet.

Another effect of genetically engineered food results from what are called Roundup Ready crops. These are crops developed by Monsanto that are tied to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. There's one peer-reviewed study which shows nutritional changes in Roundup Ready soybeans. This is particularly important for women, especially women who are vegetarians, who tend to eat a lot of soy. It involves a 12 to 14 percent drop in what are called phytoestrogens, which by acting like estrogens in the human body play a role in the prevention of calcium loss, breast cancer and uterine cancer.
It's perfectly fine for people to be emotional about their food supply being tampered with. That simply reflects the reality that people can get very emotional when they find out that they're feeding potentially dangerous substances to their children and eating it themselves

MM: The biotech industry says that the European rejection of genetically engineered crops is based on emotion rather than science.

Teitel: The response is two things. One, it's perfectly fine for people to be emotional about their food supply being tampered with. That simply reflects the reality that people can get very emotional when they find out that they're feeding potentially dangerous substances to their children and eating it themselves. They have every right in the world to get emotional about it. This is particularly true in Europe, where they've had one blow after another, including mad cow disease.

Secondly, the industry loves to cite a lack of scientific evidence criticizing their products. It's not up to the average person pushing a wire basket around the supermarket to conduct scientific studies about the safety of their food. That's supposed to be the responsibility of the government and the government is supposed to use the best science to make those judgements. In fact, the government is abrogating its responsibility and not basing what it's doing on sound science. Bovine growth hormone, for example, which is in our milk supply, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration based upon summaries of studies conducted by the same industry that sells the product. That's not sound science and not sound government. It's greed and inadequate government.

MM: The biotech industry also says that genetically engineered foods are necessary to feed the world's growing population. What's your response to that?

Teitel: Number one, it's based on a false assumption, which is that people starve because there isn't enough food. People starve in our world for three reasons. The first reason is poverty. The second reason is inadequate distribution, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident -- the lack of bringing the food to the people who need it. The third reason is the conversion of farmland into other uses -- the taking of farmland out of production. The productivity of crops -- the yield per acre  is not a major cause of starvation. Anyone who has any experience in feeding people and fighting starvation knows this.

Secondly, these crops don't increase the yield. Even if the premise of their claim was true, the yields of GE crops tend to be the same or lower than conventional crops. So even if starvation really was caused by a yield problem, these crops would not solve the problem.

I worked for a number of years against starvation. I set up and ran programs for people who were starving in places like Biafra and Bangladesh. I have a very strong reaction -- speaking of getting emotional -- to companies that exploit the death of children and other people for their profit. The knowledge about the causes of starvation has been readily available to these companies for some time. The fact that they continue on with this argument constitutes in my mind a commercial exploitation of starvation for their own gain, and it is shameful.

MM: The first generation of genetically engineered products were supposed to benefit farmers. Have those claims turned out to be true?

Teitel: One of them is true. They made the claim, and continue to make the claim, that it's easier to apply Roundup to Roundup Ready crops. I've heard from farmers on various sides of this issue who all say that's true. I think that it's insufficient justification for this technology, but I think that they may very well be correct. That's an easy point to concede, and it's a bad reason to run the risks we're running, and in fact some of the farmers themselves have pointed that out.

Many farmers were sold a bill of goods. They were told by authoritative people that this technology would help them and they had no reason not to believe this. Small farmers in North America work very hard for a very low return. Anything that will help their return is of interest to them. If someone says, "we've done all these studies, we're responsible, this is a safe technology that will increase your yield and give you less work to do," why wouldn't farmers go for it? What they're now discovering is that those promises have not turned out to be the case. It is true that some studies have shown some benefits to some farmers. The majority of studies don't show benefits to farmers.

It's a very different situation for farmers in southern countries. For North American farmers, labor is a major expense. Anything that cuts down on labor particularly interests them. Inputs of chemicals and water are not that big a deal for the North American farmer. In southern countries, there are 1.4 billion small farmers feeding a good part of the world, mostly their own families. And for them, the situation is reversed. Labor is a cheap commodity. They work hard and have family members and kids who work with them in their small plots. So labor is not a big expense. What is a big expense is inputs of water, which has to be pumped. This means you have to pay for petroleum, which in southern countries is very expensive. Then there are all of the chemicals that are required to be purchased to grow these seeds. So this is a devastating technology for southern farmers.
We're down to about 10 companies that control in The productivity of crops is not a major cause of starvation. The knowledge about the causes of starvation has been readily available to these companies for some time. The fact that they continue on with this argument constitutes in my mind a commercial exploitation of starvation for their own gain, and it is shameful.

MM: What does the second generation of GE products look like?

Teitel: First, let's define the first generation. The first generation of GE crops confer no advantages at all to the consumer. They're not cheaper. They don't taste better. They don't look better. They don't smell better. They don't feel better. And they're not more nutritious. From the consumer point of view, they're gratuitous. Few people are going to be willing to take risks for a product that confers no advantages.

The second and third generations are not out, but they're being talked about. The second generation of crops attempt to address this lack of consumer preference by purporting to confer advantages, particularly in the area of nutrition. These are crops that are seen as drug delivery vehicles or which have enhanced vitamin capacity, like rice with vitamin A in it.

I would say that there is greater reason to be cautious about the second generation than the first generation.

What you're talking about then is putting a gene that, let's say, increases the vitamin A content. What if that gene gets loose and you start having vitamin A in all sorts of food products? What about people who are allergic? What about people who get too much of a vitamin? How do you monitor? Vitamins are like medicines, they ought to be given under controlled conditions. What if the vitamin starts crossing and creating new kinds of chemicals?

It seems to be a totally unnecessary product, a product in search of a reason for existing. If there are people with vitamin A deficiencies, we should deliver vitamin A directly to them. Putting it in rice or some other food strikes me not only as unnecessary, but also as dangerous.

I thought we learned this lesson from the Nestle corporation which promoted its infant formulas all over the world and had inadequate labels, for example in the wrong language. People diluted it because it was expensive. Babies died because the water was contaminated.

The infant formula was being sold exactly in the manner that people are talking about the second generation of genetically engineered products. It was sold as a panacea for a problem that should be addressed in other ways. No one has been able to make the case in a way that's convincing for why we would want a second generation of genetically engineered products.

It will be a tougher public relations fight for those of us who are critics, because the industry will say that it will cure starvation and will cure malnutrition and how can we be against vitamins?

Another group of products in the second generation of GE crops will allegedly contain vaccines. Again, if you want to vaccinate people, then properly qualified medical personnel need to do the vaccinations. People have reactions to vaccinations all the time. People need to be able to identify those reactions. You're talking about self-medication here, and you're talking about promulgating something willy-nilly. Once you put it in the food, how do you control that? It strikes me as a public relations-generated form of science.

MM: What is the third generation of genetically-engineered food?

Teital: If it ever comes to fruition, the third generation is genetic engineering that would not introduce genes from outside the living organism. It would involve manipulating the genes at a very tiny level, going into the makeup of genes and making them different, or adding artificial chromosomes. Mostly it would involve manipulating the genes inside a living being so that the objection that you shouldn't introduce foreign genes would be answered. The only thing I can say about third-generation for sure, because so far it doesn't yet exist . it's just talked about. is that it appears to be a tacit acknowledgment on the part of the industry that our criticism of the first two generations of genetic engineering is a valid one, because they're now trying to come up with the technology that addresses that criticism.

Studies are needed to show that the genes that have been inserted into our food won't continue to migrate into us or into other parts of the environment. Until that safety is demonstrated these products shouldn't be in the environment and should certainly not be on the market.
MM: What sort of strategies will we need to address the new products, especially the second-generation products?

Teitel: In the short run, we need labeling. In the slightly longer run we need a functioning government. We rely, appropriately in my opinion, upon certain agencies in the government to carry out on our behalf a safety monitoring function, because the average person for instance doesn't know if the airplanes we ride on are safe, the air-bags in our cars will work or a genetically engineered potato is safe or not. No matter where you want to go with the tedious arguments about how big or small government should be, I think most people would agree that one good function for government is to act on behalf of all citizens to make sure that what's promulgated widely is safe. That certainly includes medicines and foods. So after labeling we need a government that actually does its job, that isn't captive of the revolving door, and that conducts authentic and responsible science-based testing of the foods we're asked to ingest.

MM: What kinds of tests do we need to see in order to be sure that GE foods have been tested for safety?

Teitel: Two kinds of studies need to be done. There need to be studies to determine immediate and short-term safety, and there need to be long-term studies which show that over the long run growing and eating these genetic mixes aren't going to cause problems. Studies are needed to show that the genes that have been inserted into our food won't continue to migrate into us or into other parts of the environment. Until that safety is demonstrated these products shouldn't be in the environment and should certainly not be on the market. There should be a moratorium on this technology until that kind of safety can and has been demonstrated.

So far, the industry has done a very good job keeping the government from forcing them to do the tests. There's a revolving door between companies like Monsanto and government. Some scientists have in fact called for responsible testing. But the scientists who work for industry don't. The university scientists who rely on industry contracts don't. And the ones who work for the government who understand that their masters are never going to take on this industry don't. It's a corruption of science based on greed.

There are some terrific people in academia who are speaking out, and who sometimes at the risk of their careers are calling for a careful and responsible vetting of this technology. But there are also millions and millions of dollars flowing from the industry into science departments in universities. A major biotech company essentially purchased the laboratory facilities at the University of California at Berkeley. If you walk over to MIT you'll see that there are Monsanto and Novartis offices on the campus, in the science buildings. There is a close connection between many -- not all -- of the university science departments and the corporations who provide the funding and the career prospects for people in those universities.

MM: What are the concerns of consumers and what can they do if they're opposed to the genetic engineering of their food?

Teitel: People want to know what they're eating. We have a vast system in our country for labeling content. I don't know of any other country that has as many kinds of labels as we do. We have "fat-free," "dolphin-safe," "low-salt," "Kosher," "organic," "contains no MSG" and so forth. And then there are the government-required content and nutrition labels as well. And you. ll see people in supermarkets reading the labels. People use that tool. So here you have a major change in our food supply -- 60 percent of processed food in this country contain genetically-engineered ingredients, yet unique among large western countries, people are unable to find that out. So the number one need is for people to simply have information. There's a tradition of right-to-know in this country. People want to know what's in their water, what's in their air, and certainly what's in their food, and the government is in some peril with its policy of flouting that. So people should continue to demand the labeling.

A second thing people can do is increase their purchase of organic food. That doesn't guarantee that they won't eat genetically engineered food, it just means that they will eat very much less of it.

Supermarkets in this country have about a 1 percent profit margin, sometimes a bit less on average. They are therefore very sensitive to changes in what people buy. Supermarkets know about those changes because they have laser scanners. And therefore even small increments of change register quickly. And the supermarkets are geared up to respond quickly.

If you make your tiny profit margin with perishable substances like dairy products or meat or vegetables, you need to respond very fast to small increments of change or you. ll lose that tiny profit margin. So supermarkets are set up perfectly to respond to changes in consumer preference. For instance, supermarkets have found that people are buying more organic milk because it doesn't contain bovine growth hormone. There's been a skyrocketing in organic milk sales since the introduction of bovine growth hormone 'so they place orders for more organic products. In the short run, buy organic.

Number three, we have to engage in appropriate and constructive work in our society to let our government know that we want it to perform its duties, including protecting our health and safety.
There is a close connection between many -- not all -- of the university science departments and the corporations who provide the funding and the career prospects for people in those universities.

MM: The United States seems to be on the cusp of a massive consumer backlash against genetically engineered foods. What do you see as the industry's strategy in the coming year?

Teitel: Their strategy so far has been to invest a significant amount of money in public relations, which is the classic response of a beleaguered industry. Rather than dealing with the problem head-on, they're trying to spin it. They've hired companies like Burson-Marsteller, who have a long history of spinning unpleasant facts of life in the attempt to make them into something less unpleasant. So they attempt to get people to believe that this technology will feed the starving millions or will be good for them -- by giving them vitamin A in their rice --  they'll try to put a happy face on this technology.

Secondly, they go after the opposition. There are a lot of instances of the biotechnology industry trying to silence people who criticize them. I don't have evidence that they have stopped doing that.

One instance of this kind of industry behavior occurred when the Monsanto Corporation caused the Ecologist magazine to be pulped by its printer. It was the issue devoted to Monsanto. While Monsanto made no direct threats, the printer was so afraid of being sued for libel that they ended up not running it. Eventually the magazine was printed and became the Ecologist's most widely circulated issue.

A second example occurred when Marc Lappé and Brit Bailey lost the publisher of their excellent book, Against the Grain, after a Monsanto threat. They eventually found a braver but smaller outfit to handle their book.

MM: How do you think they'll deal with pressures outside of the scientific community, for instance from people who want labeling?

Teitel: I think they do a careful analysis of who they have to deal with and ignore everybody else. I wouldn't be surprised, for instance, if the industry decides to ignore vegetarians who may want labeling, because they might decide that these are not politically important people. I could be wrong. I could imagine that the industry might find sympathetic religious leaders and make them into spokespeople. They will do what people do when they have a public relations response to an authentic question, which is to try to deal with it on the level of appearance rather than on the level of reality.

These are the same people who are calling for sound science. Yet the public relations kind of response subverts good science, and subverts democracy and it harms both the environment and people's health, because it's not dealing with the real problem, but with an invented problem. For example, I've spoken with people in the industry who like to use the word hysteria; they like to label people in England as hysterical and then say that they are concerned about that hysteria spreading to people here as if it's a microbe. They would rather have that conversation than talk about whether in fact is the product safe and in fact is there any reason that any rational person would want to eat genetically altered food other than to make a few companies rich?
Many of us, including many people in the religious community, feel that natural substances in the world should not be reduced to commodities, but should remain as part of the natural world.

MM: What is developing on the life-patent front?

Teitel: It is a race, and the race is for ownership. Starting in 1980 with the United States Supreme Court's Chackrabarty decision, it's now permissible in this country for life to be patented. That being the case, corporations are in a land rush to grab ownership of as much life as possible. It casts life as a resource like coal or oil or timber. And you strip mine it . you explore and you exploit and you get rich. It's a classic pattern. They are trying to repeat in biology the pattern that has occurred over the last 400 or 500 years in the inorganic world. It turns life into a commodity that is fungible. Life can then be converted from one thing into another for the profit of corporations.

The race to patent genes is the race to patent the basis for products for which a great deal of money can be charged. We see evidence of it already. Tay-sachs disease is a genetic condition, but the test for tay-sachs is not genetically engineered. It is publicly available and it costs about $100. The tests for cancer that's related to two genes -- BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, which are two owned genes -- that test costs about $2,400. The Council for Responsible Genetics will soon publish a study which looks at medical tests and other medical processes that are based on patents versus the ones that are not based on patented life. What we see is a vast leap in the cost to a consumer of those medical processes that's not at all justified by the costs of genetic engineering itself.

Genetic engineering is based on owning life, whether you own a species or a part of a species, or whether you own part of a human being, or a cell line or protein that derives from a human being. Many of us, including many people in the religious community, feel that natural substances in the world should not be reduced to commodities, but should remain as part of the natural world.

One of the things that happens in this debate is that we are subject to an endless barrage of silly science stories. In the 1950s, when nuclear technology was just getting going, we were told that someday electricity would be 'too cheap to meter. if we bought into nuclear power. The life sciences industry keeps saying they want "sound science," but let's have a conversation not based on hype and public relations, but rather one that is based on what's real. What's real is that those corporations are patenting these genes as fast as they can possibly describe them and file the papers.

Companies such as Celera Genomics, which is filing for patents on the human genome, talk about how they will be offering this technology for public benefit. But any company that has $400 million in investments must have a plan to pay back their investors. When biotech companies talk to investors, they say, "This is the neatest, newest and most innovative thing to come along, so give us money." When they talk to critics, or the public or the press they say the reverse, that "oh, we're just scientists in our white coats trying to benefit humanity, so don't bother us." They talk out of both sides of their mouth depending on their perception of benefit to themselves.

I. m not a person who's opposed to responsible medical science. My father was an organic chemist who holds some of the basic patents on the processing of penicillin. He's a person who devoted his life to doing good science to benefit other people, and I. m proud of him. That kind of science should continue. It's very different from a land rush to grab ownership over parts of the living world to make vast profits for a small number of people at the expense of the rest of us.

Patenting in general is provided for in the United States Constitution. There's obviously no mention there of the patenting of life. There are a number of lawsuits on life ownership underway right now. Between the courts and the Congress, the courts are probably more hopeful in the short run. The patent office more or less does what it wants to do until a court makes it stop. So I. m looking towards the combination of some good court decisions and enough public outcry to cause the Congress to pay attention to this issue.

There's a No Patents on Life campaign running around the world. The Council for Responsible Genetics has a petition in English, French and Spanish which has been signed by people in dozens of countries around the world. It is a small part of a larger movement to rein in life patenting because people do understand that life patenting is in many respects the cornerstone of the exploitative aspect of genetic engineering. If life patenting ended, an awful lot of the most dangerous genetic engineering would end along with it.