Harvest of Fear (home)NOVA

should we grow them?
engineer a crop
what's for dinner?
interview: charles margulis

photo of charles margulis
Why has Greenpeace chosen to make this a signature issue?

We feel that this is a mass genetic experiment that's going on in our environment and in our diets. These genetically engineered foods have never been subject to long-term testing, and yet there are millions of acres of them growing in the United States and pervading the food system here. What we're most concerned about, obviously, is the environmental risk. . . . Nobody knows what the consequences are going to be, and the untoward side effects will be irreversible. . . .

As a campaign, it's been astonishingly successful, first in Europe. What's the state of play over there?

A genetic engineering specialist with Greenpeace, Margulis criticizes U.S. regulatory agencies' performance in monitoring GM foods, explains why GM technology deserves special scrutiny, points out the developing world is not unanimous in accepting biotech food, and outlines why Greenpeace's main concern with GM crops is the environmental risk. (Interview conducted October 2000.)
In Europe five years ago, genetic engineering was virtually unknown. When the first genetically engineered soybeans went from the United States into the European food supply, consumers in Europe first became aware that this new technology was entering their food system, and they had a lot of questions about it. . . . The most interesting thing about Europe is how quickly food companies responded. . . . Today, virtually every major food company in Europe and every major supermarket in Europe has a policy of excluding the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

In terms of planting new GM crops, what's the situation there now?

As of spring of last year, Europe has a moratorium on new approvals of genetically modified crops. There is minor acreage of genetically engineered corn growing in a couple of European countries. But by and large, European farmers have become very wary of this technology. ...[Editor's Note: In February 2001, the European Union voted to end the ban on GM crops. In its place, Europe is setting up a rigorous system to regulate, label and track GMOs.]

What about importing and labeling?

Since September of 1998, Europe has had mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, and that goes for any foods that are produced in Europe or imported into Europe. Since Europe instituted labeling, numerous other countries around the world have also done so--Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Russia, and several other countries. The U.S. is actually becoming one of the few countries left that doesn't require labeling.

Do you think labeling is the death knell of this?

I would say that the biotech industry is scared to death of labeling. In fact, biotech industry representatives have said that putting a label on genetically engineered foods is like putting a skull and crossbones on it. They clearly don't want people to know that their food is genetically modified.

what the u.S. Government really has done is collude with the biotech industry to make sure that the public is kept in the dark about this technology.What about the state of the campaign in the U.S.? This isn't a front-page issue. . . .

Public awareness has increased, and I think the situation in the U.S. now is very similar to the situation in Europe a year ago. We have mass street demonstrations against genetic engineering. In Boston, the biotech industry held its annual meeting, and over 3,000 people protested in the streets of Boston outside that meeting. In Seattle, genetic engineering was a big issue at the WTO protests, where tens of thousands of people were protesting. . . . One of the biggest differences, I think, is that the press really picked up on this in Europe and kept it front-page news. Here, it sort of vacillates in terms of the press coverage.

What's been your strategy here?

It's to push consumers to get in touch with food companies to pressure food companies to take a stand. Last year, we did some product testing. We pulled food products off the shelves and tested to see if they contained genetically engineered material. A Gerber baby food tested positive for genetically engineered corn and soybeans. We sent Gerber a letter and let them know that Greenpeace had concerns about genetic engineering, and we thought consumers would share those concerns. Gerber didn't respond to us, so we decided to go public with our findings.

A few weeks later, Gerber announced that they would stop using genetically engineered ingredients in their products. . . . It doesn't take decades of protests and leaflet writing. What it takes is for these companies to fear that they're going to lose a little bit of their market share, and then they can react very quickly.

What about some other companies you've been involved with. What about Frito-Lay?

Frito-Lay appears to have moved pretty much on its own accord. The Wall Street Journal did a front-page story on genetic engineering a few months back. And they said in the story, "We talked to the top executives of a dozen major food companies, and asked them, 'What can you tell us about your company's policies on genetically engineered food?'" None of the companies would talk to the Wall Street Journal about their policies. It tells you that, behind the scenes, they're scared of this issue.

Many companies deny any downside of this technology, but they still don't want to be identified with it. What does that imply to you?

They know consumers are going to have concerns, and they're afraid they're going to lose market share. Most of the big U.S. food companies are in pretty tight markets, fighting the organic and natural products industry, which is by far the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Organics are growing at about 20 percent a year, while the food industry overall is growing at about one or two percent a year. They see that market share slipping away, and they don't want to be identified as anything that's anti-natural, anti-organic. . . .

In your view, what have been the most significant negative occurrences? . . .

Again, nobody really knows. It's very difficult to trace, and there could be things happening. In the UK, for example, the nutritional authorities last year reported a severe increase in allergic responses to soybean products. Now, nobody's been able to trace that for certain to genetically engineered soybeans. But it's interesting that that came just a couple of years after the widespread introduction of that product. . . .

A major turning point was a study from Cornell University showing the effects of engineered corn pollen on monarch butterflies. It was the first time, I think, that the public had an image of what could be the consequences of genetic engineering in a sort of a user-friendly, family-friendly butterfly, which most Americans are very familiar with. . . .

Are you optimistic that we may get a change soon?

Absolutely. The U.S. consumer is learning more and more about this, and is showing more and more concern. The recent scandal with Kraft shows that food companies are starting to buckle. Kraft's product turned up contaminated with an illegal variety of genetically engineered corn. Before the FDA ordered anything, Kraft ordered a recall of the product, took it all off the shelves, and went a step farther, putting out a policy statement calling for tighter regulation on genetically engineered foods. That was an extraordinary moment where one food company stepped outside of the united front. . . .

You're not interested in better regulation? You'd like to just eliminate this?

That's absolutely correct. Greenpeace's policy calls for a ban on the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. We absolutely support labeling, strict safety testing, and the right for people to know what's in their food. But those are minimal steps in the right direction. What we really need to do is to stop releasing these organisms into the environment.

So you're against field testing?

Absolutely. A field test is a release into the environment. . . .

How do you escape from the logical conundrum that the technology is untested, yet you're not allowed to test it?

A lot of testing can go on in contained environments. Greenpeace doesn't have an objection to the technology of genetic engineering. There are a lot of appropriate uses of the technology already in contained environments. For example, a genetically engineered drug that's produced in the laboratory goes through years of testing, and is then only prescribed to people who need it, by a doctor who's qualified to prescribe it. That's obviously a very different situation than putting these organisms into the environment, and releasing them without any testing.

Is it impossible in your framework to have this agricultural application of biotech go ahead? . . .

In a contained environment like a lab or a greenhouse, some testing could proceed. The flip side of the question, though, really is, what kind of food do we want? What kind of farming do we want? Survey after survey shows that when people are asked if they'd rather eat food produced with toxic chemicals and pesticides, food produced with genetic engineering, or food produced organically, people choose organic food time after time, in survey after survey. . . . The USDA spends almost $2 billion a year in research and development on agriculture. Less than 1 percent of that money goes for projects for organic farmers. We've got our research and development priorities skewed. If we're going to talk about testing and development, why don't we talk about developing the right kind of foods that people want to eat? . . .

Unlike the rest of the world, we have very good regulatory agencies. Polls show that people trust them. The reason you have less success here is that we trust these agencies and they do a proper job.

The usda has had over 5,000 applications for field trials of gm crops.  They've never denied a single application.  The agency will tell you, 'oh yes, but 13 were withdrawn.' That's their idea of strict regulation.The polls actually show that this is a complete myth. In fact, the American public becomes just as wary about genetic engineering as anybody else, as soon as they know it's going on. What the government really has done in the U.S. is collude with the biotech industry to make sure that the public is kept in the dark about this technology. FDA refused to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, against the advice of its own scientists. In 1992, the majority opinion of the scientists in the agency was that genetic engineering is different and should be regulated differently. But the FDA put out what was a political document, not a scientific document, which said that genetically engineered foods are no different than natural foods, and therefore they don't need to be labeled or regulated any differently. The other agencies pretty much fell in line with that approach.

That is a consensus view among most agricultural scientists. That's not an unusual view, is it?

No, I don't think it is. But I do think that the scientists who point out the inadequacies in that consensus view haven't been answered. When scientists bring up the issues of the difference between genetic engineering and breeding, they're sort of brushed aside by proponents of the technology, who say, "Well, maybe those are issues, but we haven't seen them happen yet." Nobody's really looking for them yet.

There's not really much monitoring of this technology once it's released into the environment or into the food supply. Any epidemiologist will tell you, the first rule of evidence is that evidence lacking is not lack of evidence.

What about the USDA in this issue? Have they been cheerleaders, or have they been protecting our interest?

The USDA has had over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. They've never denied a single application. The agency will tell you, "Oh yes, but 13 were withdrawn." That's their idea of strict regulation. It's a joke. The USDA has virtually no regulation. Field trials go on when a company simply sends them a letter and says, "We're conducting a field trial." And then the approval is granted.

Normally you're on the same side as the EPA in environmental issues. . . . In this case, they stressed the profound environmental benefits of GM crops. What's your relationship to the EPA in this? . . .

It's important for folks to realize that most of the genetically engineered crops in the U.S. don't come under the EPA's purview. They have very little to do with regulating them at all. But there is one category of crops that they regulate, and in 1999, we sued the EPA with a coalition of organic farmers, calling on the EPA to cancel their registration of these crops. Organic farmers are very concerned, because these crops are a major threat to organic farming.

The only natural pest control that organic farmers have is a spray called BT. The biochem industry has now genetically engineered plants so that they will produce BT as they grow, throughout the entire growing season, at a very high dose. All the entomologists, all the insect scientists, agree that this will lead to insects rapidly developing resistance to BT. And once insects develop resistance, a farmer who's growing a biotech crop will just move back to a toxic chemical. An organic farmer who can no longer use BT sprays is out of luck.

So the biotech industry is vandalizing a natural resource?

Absolutely. That was the contention of our lawsuit, that the use of BT was a public trust that should be safeguarded in perpetuity, and shouldn't be worn down by the biotech industry in just five or ten years.

So you see this as a threat to organic farming?

Absolutely. The entire biotech industry has clearly put out genetically engineered crops as a direct assault on organic farming, partly because of the BT crops, and also because of the issue of pollen drift. The biotech industry knows that their crops will contaminate neighboring fields. . . .

Farmers have been among the first beneficiaries of BT crops. A cotton farmer uses less pesticides and grows better cotton. He's saving his environment. How do you answer him?

I would say that he's the exception rather than the rule. . . . Even the biotech industry's own study on BT crops showed that, at best, cotton farmers are seeing about a 12 percent decrease in chemical applications. . . . Once those insects that are resistant to BT evolve, you're going to be stuck going back to that biotech company, either for more toxic chemicals, or for the next generation of genetically engineered crops. They're going to be more and more costly, and will keep you more and more dependent.

It's the same kind of treadmill that farmers have seen from the pesticide industry for 50 years. The average lifespan of an agri-chemical is about three to five years. Then nature evolves, the chemical doesn't work anymore, and farmers have to go back to the company for the next greatest thing. We've already seen some of the signs of that same treadmill with genetic engineering.

Some crop pathogens don't have conventional solutions, though. Scientists have genetically modified Hawaiian papaya that's totally resistant to the virus that was destroying all of the crops.

That's somewhat resistant to it, depending on who you talk to.

Take my word, for the sake of argument. . . . Is that an exception? This is a technical fix that is impossible by any other known means.

I would say you're probably right. This fix may be impossible by other technical means. But there are certainly ecological means. What farmers around the world have seen is that, when you plant mixed varieties, even just two varieties instead of one, you'll see the spread of that disease slow down incredibly. The more varieties you plant, you tend to see the disease slow down more and more. What tends to happen in nature is that a virus will infect one variety, maybe two, but certainly not three or more. That's the ecological approach to that problem, which I think could be successful in the long run, as opposed to a genetic fix, which may have a very short life.

In this case, you have farmers who were ready to abandon this crop. They get a fix, but now they're unable to export the GM papaya to Japan. Do you feel guilt about that? . . .

What farmers have said to me, even very confrontational farmers, is that the bottom line is that the customer is always right. Farmers have said this to me again and again. If the customer doesn't want to eat genetically engineered foods, then farmers really need to look for alternative approaches, and can do so hand in hand with consumers.

But they say that you're scaring their customers into not wanting it--that if you left their customers alone, they'd be fine.

If consumers are afraid of biotech foods, it's because the biotech industry put these on our shelves without any notice and without labeling, and tried to slip this into our food supply without any public participation. If those farmers are upset about that, I think they should be pointing the finger at the biotech companies, who decided to expose us to this experiment without our consent.

Regarding the role of biotechnology in the developing world, advocacy groups have accused the industry of cultural imperialism. How do you respond?

I think it's important that voices from the developing world are heard in this debate. We met with the Ethiopian ambassador to the biosafety protocol negotiations, the international negotiations for regulating the trade of genetically engineered foods. He recently wrote a letter saying he believed that it was immoral to use the weakness of one group to sell a technology to another group. Biotech foods are being sold to the American public and to the European public on the backs of the developing world, with this image campaign that we need this technology to feed the world. . . .

Do you think this is a real challenge to anti-GM forces? It's difficult to go up against golden rice without seeming unsympathetic.

Sure. That's why I say it's important to hear from the developing world. At the international negotiations for regulating biotech foods, the developing world was virtually united against the United States. The United States wanted the free flow of genetically engineered foods around the world, and the countries of Africa, of Asia, of Latin America wanted the right to say no to imports of genetically engineered foods. . . .

Some people in the developing world, scientists, are for it. The Rockefeller Foundation is actively promoting this. It's not a fringe view. You have to deal with this constituency, which is more sympathetic than Monsanto.

Monsanto and the biotech industry have used this as a public relations tool. There are certainly voices from everywhere in the world who will be supportive of biotechnology. But by and large, when it came down to their governments' representatives, the developing world was united in saying, "We want the right to say no to this technology."

. . .

What people who are concerned about this technology point out is that the biggest barrier to bringing abundant food with any kind of new technology isn't activists. It's the companies who want to profit from making food for rich people. They don't make a big profit from selling food or giving food away. . . .

We live in a world today where 800 million people a year are going hungry, in a world that produces enough food for almost 9 billion people, yet we only have 6 billion people on the planet. Why isn't that food being distributed more equitably? It's because people who can't afford to buy food simply aren't being given it. . . .

But people in these countries don't want to be just fed food. They want to grow their own.

In almost every country in the world, there is enough productive growth right now to feed the population of that country. But many countries where people are going hungry are exporting food. That's because food gets sold for a profit. It doesn't get given away. And if people in that country can't afford to buy it, it's going to be grown and exported.

Greenpeace's campaign is against the seed companies, regulatory agencies, NAS, and a large proportion of agricultural scientists. How is it possible to get as far as you do in your campaign without a scientific consensus behind you?

. . . I think it's because of the track record of the biotech industry. People have heard for 50 years about chemical pollution, about toxins in our food, about food scares. They know instinctively . . . that the industrial food system is not the right way to produce food. That's why the organic sector is the fastest growing sector of the food industry. It's not because organic is cheap and abundant. . . . More and more people in every income group want to be eating organic food. We really think that's where the food industry is going to have to go in the next few decades.

Do you think really it will go that way? At the moment, it's practically impossible to avoid GM food. China supports it. Isn't it already too late?

It can be stopped, and it will be stopped, because people want to eat natural food. China's an interesting case, because Hong Kong recently called for mandatory labeling. The largest consumer group in China recently called for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. So I think it's a country that's actually very conflicted on this issue right now.

As people become aware of it around the world, they will push for food that's safe, that's produced organically, that's produced by farmers who they can trust--food that's produced regionally and seasonally and in tune with nature, rather than in this battle with nature.

What would you label?

Any food product that's produced with a crop developed through genetic engineering.

Would you include genetically engineered enzymes, which are in all cheeses, bread, sodas, beers?

For Greenpeace, enzymes get into a different area. . . . It's not the same as a crop that's released into the environment. Yes, it should probably say somewhere on the label that the product was produced using genetically engineered enzymes. We basically have called for a sort of a two-tiered approach to labeling. An enzyme could be labeled as part of the ingredient list. But something that's produced from a genetically engineered crop should be clearly and prominently displayed on the front of the label. . . .

Would an animal that had fed on genetically modified soybeans be labeled?

Yes, I think that should be labeled as well.

That doesn't seem to me to make sense from a food safety point of view.

Our main concern is the environmental risk of the technology. In the U.S., consumer polls have shown that one of the main concerns people have when they buy any product is the environmental stewardship behind that product. That's something that consumers have a right to know, just as they have a right to know about food safety. And there are lots of labels on food now that have nothing to do with food safety. "No salt" is not a safety claim, but you see that on dozens of products. Orange juice "from concentrate." The label "from concentrate" is required by the FDA. That has nothing to do with safety. That's simply a process label. This would be another process label. . . .

Is there no risk to Greenpeace on taking an issue like this? It's frivolous, not science-based. Might this backfire? It drums up membership, but it doesn't go to the heart of the organization.

I would say this does go to the heart of the organization. Is this a risk for Greenpeace? Yes, absolutely it is. When Greenpeace started a campaign in the early days against whaling, that was a big risk for the organization. The international community, the American public, didn't have a consciousness about stopping whaling. But Greenpeace took that issue on, and today, almost 30 years later, virtually the entire international community has united, calling for a ban on commercial whaling.

That's been the history of Greenpeace since the beginning, and I think that's been the history of activism in this country since the days of the American Revolution. Activists who call for social change are a small minority opinion, usually, at the beginning. But pushing for change, taking risks for change, can move public opinion until it becomes the majority.

home + should we grow them? + engineer a crop + what's for dinner? + viewpoints
links + interviews + what about this fish? + discussion
synopsis + tapes & transcripts + press + credits
frontline + nova + wgbh + pbs online

wheat photograph ©h. david sewell/corbis
new content copyright ©2001 pbs online and wgbh/frontline/nova

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site