Dr. Philip Bereano is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and an engaged activist concerning genetically modified (GM) foods. His academic work is within Technology and Public Policy, and over the past 30 years,
Dr. Bereano's work has focused on genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) in foods, crops and animals, as well as human genetic engineering issues. He is currently active in the AGRA Watch Project, which has as its objectives to monitor the Gates Foundation's participation in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and challenge its emphasis on high-tech industrial agriculture, including GMOs. It has been working with African partners since its very beginning—hosting speakers in Seattle, putting on a joint workshop at an international UN event, gathering information and doing research in Africa, and supporting capacity-building in Africa.
Dr. Philip Bereano has spent the last three decades looking into genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) in foods, crops, animals, and humans—both nationally, here in the United States, and internationally. His work led him to participate in the negotiation of two international treaties under the United Nations that dealt with issues relating to GMOs.
He's also participated in the U.N. agency relating to foods, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, including its Task Force on Foods from Modern Biotechnology.
GMOs Have Never Been Proven Safe, Nor Beneficial…
In this interview, he shares his perspective on the safety of GM foods, or rather the lack thereof.
"First of all, we need to understand what we mean by the word safe," he says. "Actually, in terms of the academic literature, "safe" refers to "an acceptable level of risk." It doesn't refer to situations where there is no risk. Most of us drive in cars all the time and consider it to be safe even though we know that people are killed and injured in automobiles frequently. We have to understand that safe equals acceptable risk.
The problem with calling genetically engineered organisms safe is that there are no valid risk assessments being done on them. There is no research, really, being done into the health or environmental effects of a genetically engineered organism. Certainly no work that is published in the open peer-reviewed literature, or that isn't proprietary. Corporations promoting these things claim that they have done research, but you can't get any information on it because it's all claimed to be proprietary.
Under what is known now as the precautionary principle—which is what your grandparents used to teach you about "looking before you leap"—the only prudent course of action is to NOT proceed with something which has potential risks and only potential benefits until you know a little bit more about it."
I couldn't agree more.
Safety Principles are Being Ignored in a Number of Ways
There are in fact international treaties—most notably the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which about 175 countries have signed—that enshrine the precautionary principle.
"It says very clearly that countries may use the precautionary approach before allowing the import of any genetically engineered organisms into their territories," Dr. Bereano explains.
The US is one country, however, that has fully embraced GM foods, on a government level, and does not appear to have any intentions of following the precautionary principle. Another way to ensure safety (or acceptable level of risk), is to conduct the necessary research to evaluate the potential environmental- and human health risks involved prior to condoning the use of GMOs. However, that's NOT being done either. In fact, there are very few peer-reviewed studies available on the effects of GMOs.
"There is quite a bit of research that has indicated that there may be health risks," Dr. Bereano says, "but no funds are available to test this research by replication, for extension, for further studies, and so forth. And very often the scientists who have performed that [independent] research… have become ostracized instead of recognized for opening up an important area of inquiry."
Dr. Bereano also brings up another important point, which is that for all the benefits touted, they're primarily potential benefits, because just like there's a lack of proof of safety, there's a glaring lack of proof of actual benefit.
Who actually benefits from GMO's, and who or what might be harmed by it?
"It's not just a question of what the total risks or benefits might be, but who do they accrue to? They are distributed differentially in society. That makes it also a more political or social set of issues," he says.
Then of course there are the conflicts of interest, which can be found at virtually every level, from the research labs to the regulatory agencies. But there's also the issue of group-think, which is typically more insidious and harder to root out because it's a social mechanism, and few people are immune to its power.
"Conflicts of interest operates very institutionally too, because a lot of scientists are in departments that get funding from the biotech industry. What it evolves into is a set of world views.
If you are immersed in a profession and a culture and all of your colleagues think certain ways about certain things, then you're not very likely to challenge that… The exact same phenomenon happens with geneticists and people who do biotech science. They read the same journals. They get reviewed for promotion… You have to parrot the same views that your older superiors believe or otherwise they're going to think you're crazy and not doing good work and won't promote you.
There are social mechanisms which reinforce this that go well beyond "conflict of interest" in a very simplified sense."
The "Legal Fiction" of GMO Regulation
Dr. Bereano points out that the decision to regulate GMOs based on earlier regulatory statutes is "a kind of legal fiction," because those earlier statutes were created well before the technology of genetic engineering was even developed.
"There was a public policy decision made not to go for special regulation, which would have of course resulted in lots of news articles, congressional hearings and all the rest of it, which would have alerted the public in this country to the existence of this new technology which huge numbers of Americans have no idea exists their food supply, unlike countries where these have all been matters of public debate.
It was a very shrewd decision by the government and by the industry to claim, first in 1986 that this coordinated Federal framework of existing regulatory bodies could handle it, and then in 1992, officially claiming that genetically engineered foods were "substantially equivalent" to their non-engineered counterparts."
This policy was created and announced not by the FDA itself, but rather by the President's Council on Competitiveness—a council composed of, you guessed it: corporate executives.
Interestingly, many FDA scientists actually vigorously objected to this policy! This dissent was only made public, however, after a lawsuit granted access to FDA documents in which FDA scientists expressed concerns that there was, naturally, major differences between genetically engineered and conventional foods.
Perhaps the most ironic part of this whole charade is the fact that ever since then, Monsanto and other biotech companies have filed patents arguing that their GM products are completely unique and different from their conventional counterparts, and therefore must receive patent protection and monopoly!
Are GM Crops the Answer to World Hunger as Claimed?
One of the justifications for the use of genetically engineered crops is that they can eradicate world hunger. Clearly, the production of adequate food supply is a noble goal, but the supposition that we can achieve this goal through the use of GM crops is seriously flawed.
"The largest study in the world that dealt with this issue, which included about 400 scientists, was assembled by the United Nations and the World Bank into something called the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development).
After a long set of studies that were peer-reviewed, the IAASTD found little evidence to support a conclusion that genetic engineering or modern biotech are well suited to meet the needs of small scale and subsistence farmers who are feeding huge numbers of people, especially in the Third World where hunger is so evident."
Bereano also accurately points out that we have hunger right here in the US, despite our grain surpluses and despite the fact that we use genetic engineering more than any other country. Food production and hunger are not necessarily connected in a simple one-to-one equation. There's also the issue of not having enough money to buy the food that is readily available!
Additionally, GM crops sure aren't less expensive than conventional!
On the contrary, GM seeds are getting increasingly expensive, as are the prerequisite pesticides—not to mention the fact that farmers are forced to buy new GM seeds every year, opposed to saving the best seeds for the next planting, as has been done since the beginning of agriculture. The increased expense of farming with GM seeds has already caused more than 180,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide when faced with insurmountable debt, failed crops, and no money to buy new seed.
Not surprisingly, Monsanto and the United States, along with a couple of other countries refused to sign off on the final IAASTD report that was ultimately issued by the UN..
Other studies have repeatedly confirmed that farming methods that promote healthy soils and biodiversity can dramatically increase production and yield. For example, as recently as March 8, the United Nations issued a press release with the headline: Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years.
"Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.
"To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available," says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. "Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live -- especially in unfavorable environments."
Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems that can help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges. It enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects.
"To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects," De Schutter says…
"We won't solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers' knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development."
Best of all, these agro-ecological approaches do not pose any danger to the environment or to human health whatsoever—quite the contrary!
So, wouldn't it make sense to focus on the safest, most beneficial, and most effective methods of food production instead of dabbling around with unproven high-risk technology that may or may not provide any benefit whatsoever to anyone besides the patent holders?
Unfortunately, the fact this isn't happening is a testament to the immense power of the biotech industry, led by Monsanto, whose corporate officials rotate in and out of the White House administration, the FDA and other regulatory agencies.
What Do We Know About the Health Effects of GMOs?
As Dr. Bereano explains in this interview, genetic engineering is based on an extremely oversimplified model that suggests that by taking out or adding one or several genes, you can create a particular effect or result.
However, this reductionist model is nowhere near complete.
"First of all, genomes are so complicated with so many interactions within the genes of the genome that we don't really understand it well," Dr. Bereano says. "Let me give a simple example.
The genome in a cell in your eyeball is identical to the genome of a cell in your pancreas, but your eyeball does not make insulin. The constituents of what's in a genome are not the end of the story as to what that cell is going to produce and do.
There are in the human body maybe about 30,000 genes but there are millions of proteins. These proteins are produced by very subtle and different interactions among the genes in different locations in the body. There are proteins which turn on insulin manufacturing to the cells in the pancreas and don't turn it on in your eyeball
… It's important to understand that the structure of the genome is not determinative of what that cell does.
Yet, the kind of mental model that's being used in all of these discussions of GM food is what I call the Lego model or the tinker toy model. Let's take out a yellow piece or let's put in a green piece… but it's not an issue just of structure—it's a problem of interactions.
These things are not being studied well. How stable is this genome after it is altered? In many instances we don't know. It might change spontaneously. There are lots of questions there.
They have this very simplistic model and then they claim that these results are going to flow from it. But biology is much more complicated than that."
GM Contamination—An Intentional Strategy to Destroy Organic
If you've followed the debate about genetically engineered crops for some time, you may remember that the USDA initially proposed that the organic rules should allow GM foods to be labeled organic. Fortunately, the public outcry squashed this atrocious proposal. In fact, it was the second largest citizen response up until that time for any proposed regulation. After several hearings around the US, the final organic rule did not allow for GM ingredients.
However, we now face another problem, namely contamination—both in the fields and during processing.
It's becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee a food will not contain any kind of GM substance. This is an industry fact that holds true for all organic retailers. Even the Non-GMO project has admitted this. The recent approval of GM alfalfa will only make matters worse, as alfalfa is a powerful pollinator.
"Contamination is an intentional strategy," Dr. Bereano says. "It's an intentional strategy by both the government and the industry. We have statements to that effect… Contamination in the field by pollen flow; contamination in the processing. They use the same railcars for engineered and non-engineered crops and things like that."
Ronnie Cummins with the Organic Consumers Association also discussed this in a recent interview, warning that any alfalfa growing within a five mile radius of GM alfalfa will immediately become contaminated. The ramifications of this contamination are actually far worse than you might think, because alfalfa is a major food source for organic dairy cows. So once organic alfalfa becomes contaminated, organic milk and beef goes out the window too.
Echoing Dr. Bereano's beliefs exactly, Cummins also said:
"I believe that this is an act of premeditated genetic pollution of the gene pool of alfalfa and related plants by Monsanto. They know exactly what they're doing.
They understand is that if you pollute enough alfalfa across the country to where it becomes impossible to grow organic alfalfa that isn't contaminated, perhaps then the organic community will weaken and allow genetically engineered animal feed under the rules of organic production."
In closing, I want to remind you that you and I do have the power to turn this around, but it will require steadfast avoidance of all genetically modified foods, which by and large means avoiding processed foods that contain corn, soy and canola—unless it's USDA Certified 100% Organic. Soon this list will also include non-organic sugar beets, as GM sugar beets have also recently been approved…
It will also require steadfast sharing of information to educate those around you about the problems with GM foods and why it's so essential to vote them off the market with your pocket book. It's quite clear that we cannot win this fight through regulatory action, but we can still force it off our shelves and out of our fields if sufficient amounts of people simply refuse to buy these products.
What You Can Do to Help Bring About the Tipping Point
To help you do this, the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) has created a variety of tools that makes it easier for you to choose non-GM foods and help educate others to do the same:
- Distribute widely the Non-GMO Shopping Guide to help you identify and avoid foods with GMOs. Remember to look for products (including organic products) that feature the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal to be sure that at-risk ingredients have been tested for GMO content.
- Download the free iPhone application that is available in the iTunes store. You can find it by searching for ShopNoGMO in the applications.
- You can also order the Non-GMO Shopping Guide in bulk and give it to your family and friends.
- Join the Non-GMO Tipping Point Network, where you can connect with Local and National Non-GMO Action Groups to learn more and help get the word out about GMOs to others.
- Bring the film Hidden Dangers in Kid's Meals to your local access TV station, or perhaps your child's school, along with some educational material specifically designed for teachers and educators.
- Share Your Milk on Drugs - Just Say No!, and Jeffrey's lecture, Everything You Have to Know About Dangerous Genetically Modified Foods with everyone you know. Post them to your Facebook page, or email the links to your network of friends and family.
- Join the Institute for Responsible Technologies Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter.
Also support the Non-GMO Project by urging your local food retailers to join the Non-GMO Project's Supporting Retailer Program, and food manufacturers to join and become Non-GMO Project Verified. This is currently the best way for manufacturers to get around the fact that there's no GM-labeling system.